November 22, 2006

A feast remains feasible – even at the last minute!

By Caroline E. Ruse

For those who caught Thanksgiving fever a little late —say, the morning of the big day— it’s not too late to prepare a (nearly) homemade feast. Experts in entertaining offer tips to tweak tradition and cut corners, so that even turkey procrastinators can rest easy.

Turkey

Avoid the hassle of a frozen turkey and spring for fresh meat. You could still cook a partially frozen bird, but you’ll need a meat thermometer, and it could increase cooking time by up to two hours.

“If you have a small turkey, you may be able to thaw it out,” said Mary Clingman, director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. “It takes half an hour per pound, so if you have a 10 pound bird, it’d take you five hours to thaw.”

Clingman, who has answer-ed calls at the talk-line for 22 years, recommends placing a frozen turkey in cold water, which speeds the thawing process, as soon as possible.

Creative substitute

Choose two smaller turkeys to cut cooking time. “If instead of a 20 pound turkey, you’re going to have two 10 pound turkeys, then ... you’re going to treat the time as if you only had one 10 pound turkey in there,” Clingman said.

Time cruncher tips

Clingman suggests wrapping the bird in heavy duty aluminum foil and increasing oven temperature from 325 to 450 degrees to trim an hour.

“Butterfly” the bird to cook it twice as fast. “Cut along the backbone and flatten the turkey out, so that the opened part is flat on a grill pan and the skin side is up,” said Sam Gugino, editor and publisher of “Sam Cooks,” a free e-mail food and wine newsletter.

Don’t stuff it. Stuffed turkeys cook slower.

Gravy and cranberry sauce

These two add-ons are all-important, but they don’t have to be all-consuming. Gugino said it’s all gravy to make the savory sauce at the last minute.

“While the turkey is cooking, take the giblets, but not the liver, and cook them in either water with some vegetables, like carrots, celery and onion, or ... in chicken stock,” he said.

Between a half hour and an hour later, mix flour and butter over heat and add the stock minus the vegetables. The flour and butter mixture will thicken the gravy.

Time cruncher tip

Gugino suggests sprucing up canned cranberry sauce by mixing in pecans, almonds or walnuts; a few tablespoons of bourbon, brandy or cognac; grated orange rind or marmalade; or, for a Southwestern twist, a bit of jalapeño.

Stuffing and sides

You can ditch the candied carrots in a time crunch, but guests will notice if you nix the stuffing. Luckily, you don’t have to dry bread in the oven to make it from scratch.

Gugino’s secret is to briefly dampen bread with water and squeeze out the moisture before frying it with butter, sage and sautéed vegetables, such as celery and onions. Just before serving, add chicken stock to moisten and heat in the microwave.

Time cruncher tip

Improve a prepackaged stuffing mix by adding fresh celery, onion, apple or mushrooms. “Adding a little more fat than is called for, a little more butter, can also add a surprising amount of flavor,” Kissell said.

Creative substitute

Spice up mashed potatoes by substituting buttermilk for milk or adding cooked, pureed garlic or cream cheese.

Dessert

On turkey day, the bird gets all the attention, but you can still throw together a nearly homemade treat. Gugino recommends a low-maintenance pumpkin soufflé. Mix three egg yolks into a canned pumpkin pie filling. Whip the whites until they’re fluffy and gently fold them in. Pour mix into purchased pie crust and bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

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