As far as I'm concerned, side dishes are what make a Thanksgiving dinner great. Sure, I like turkey, but I truly love stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes. For me, carbs topped with gravy make this holiday meal delicious. The problem is that most of us don't make these three dishes very often, so preparing them once a year -- for a table full of family and friends no less -- can seem intimidating and make you feel a bit like Dorothy walking into the dark unknown forest with the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. (Some of you may be able to tell that my daughters have just discovered the joys of watching - and rewatching and rewatching and rewatching -- the Wizard of Oz).
I made my first solo Thanksgiving dinner when I was 22 years old. My mom was sick and so I jumped in at the last minute. I had never made a chicken, let alone a turkey, but was excited to help out my mom and cook the meal. I muddled through the day, making boxed stuffing, lumpy mashed potatoes with the skins mixed in, and watery gravy. It was the worst Thanksgiving meal my family had ever eaten, but nobody seemed to care. Everyone just seemed thankful that they didn’t have to cook all day, and, of course, we were together.
Since then, I have cooked numerous Thanksgiving meals, some with help and some by myself. Each year I learn something new, try something different, and gain a little more confidence. My stuffing is now always made from Ciabatta and oven-roasted chestnuts, my mashed potatoes are creamy, and my gravy is (thankfully) thick. So, if you’re in need of a little Thanksgiving advice, here are a few things I’ve learned throughout the years about my three favorite parts of the Thanksgiving meal.
Moist Flavorful Stuffing
To stuff or not to stuff, that is the question. Although many recipes call for placing the stuffing in a baking dish and cooking it separately from the turkey to avoid bacterial contamination, I think this makes it dry. I therefore bake my stuffing in the turkey so all the lovely juices drip into the dressing, making it moist and flavorful. Without those, the stuffing is really just a mix of bread and other stuff. I then scoop it out when I take my turkey out of the oven, place it in a dish, and stick that back in the oven so it can heat up to the proper temperature while the meat rests. This allows you to get all the flavor of a stuffed dressing, while making sure it won't kill anyone.
Note: I won't recommend a specific stuffing recipe as there are tons of recipes out there.
Here's what I do:
1. Make your favorite type of stuffing, place it inside the turkey, and bake according to your turkey baking instructions.
2. When your turkey is resting, take the stuffing out of the turkey and scoop it into a buttered baking dish.
3. Drizzle about 1/4 cup of turkey broth on top.
4. Cover your dish and set it in the already heated oven for about 15 or 20 minutes while you make your gravy. The cover on the dish helps keep the moisture in, but baking it longer gets it up to the right temperature to be safe.
5. Bake until the stuffing is 170 degrees.
6. If you want a crisp topping, take the cover off for the last five minutes.
There are so many gravy recipes out there, but as far as I'm concerned, there's only one proper way to make it. Yes, I'm sure many of the results from those recipes are delicious, but the simple fact that gravy has to be made at the very end of the cooking process means it should be quick and easy. I don’t have time to chop up giblets or add special ingredients.
Here's my basic recipe:
1. Make a stock out of the turkey neck, giblets, onions, celery, carrots and whatever herbs you’re using for your turkey earlier in the day.
2. Warm the stock right before you take the turkey out of the oven.
3. When the bird comes out, set it on a serving dish to rest and then drain all the juices from the pan into a fat separator.
4. While the fat separates from the juices, put your turkey baking dish on the stove, mix in 2-3 tablespoons of flour. If you don’t have much fat in the pan, add in a couple of tablespoons of butter and create a roux.
5. Slowly start to deglaze the pan with the turkey stock. Don’t add any black crispy burnt pieces, however, as they’ll taste bitter.
6. Pour the deglazed juices into a pot, add the defatted juices, and then add more turkey stock until you have a smooth and rich gravy. If you have lumps, just whisk it or put a blending stick in and pulse until the lumps are gone.
7. Add in any chopped herbs you would like to accent the gravy. I like to use about a teaspoon of fresh thyme.
8. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Velvety Mashed Potatoes
I like my mashed potatoes creamy and so put them through a ricer to get a smooth consistency. If you don't have one, you can also mash the potatoes with a fork to get the same fine texture. It just takes a little longer.
Here are some tips to making velvety potatoes:
1. Use Yukon Gold potatoes as they have an innate creamy texture. I usually use about 2 - 2 1/2 pounds.
2. Peel the potatoes before boiling them and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Make sure the potato pieces are all about the same size so they cook equally.
3. Salt your boiling water to help season your potatoes.
4. When you can easily poke the potatoes with a knife, drain them, and then stick the potatoes back into the now dry pot and heat on medium for about a minute while stirring. This will dry any excess moisture from the boiling process so the potatoes can soak up your milk, butter and cream.
5. Place the potatoes in a ricer and press them into a large bowl.
6. Heat 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup cream and 1/4 cup of butter in a pot.
7. Add the heated milk mixture to the potatoes and stir. Stop adding when the potatoes are the consistency you like.
8. Add salt and pepper to taste.
9. Fluff the potatoes a bit with a fork to aerate.
10. Set the potatoes in a buttered casserole dish, top with small cubes of butter, and bake until the top is slightly crispy.