Cooking for Thanksgiving 2023

I’ve been writing about cooking for Thanksgiving for years. I used to include what I thought to be fun new recipes in my Thanksgiving posts. But, I learned over the years that the truth is, people don’t want “new” at Thanksgiving.

This is a holiday about family food traditions. And that means, celebrating with the holiday foods each of us grew up with. It’s what I love about traditions, there is no new. It’s the same old-same old and on this day, we love it that way.

With those traditions in mind, in this post I’m sharing all of my favorites. Plus, tips for turkey and all the trimmings, with love and peace to you all from my family’s holiday table to yours.

The follow post is all about the Turkey and trimmings and is all the savory. For teh sweeter side of things, click here, for some of my favorite holiday desserts including this NC Sweet Potato Pumpkin Poundcake.

First Rule: Don’t Panic

Don’t panic. Panicking never helps anything.  Take a deep breathe and take it one thing, one day at a time.

Don’t worry, you are not alone.  To help ease the tension about the “what-to-buy” and the  “how-to-cook-it” part of this holiday season,  I’m sharing  some of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes and turkey tips.

If you are feeling down to the wire – delegate. When friends and family ask what they can do or bring, give them a job. Everyone wants to feel needed and a part of all the prep.

Thankful for Farmers this Holiday Season

At local holiday farmers markets and local farm stores this week of the big day, you can pick up cheeses and veggies, fresh baked breads and pies ( if you don’t want to bake your own), local greens for salads, sweet potatoes for baking, beets and turnips for roasting and fresh local carrots & sugar snap peas that you can butter poach.

If you didn’t order a locally raised turkey, its honestly probably too late to buy a locally raised bird. But, no worries, if you want to eat local from a local farmer, think about local duck, chicken, beef or pork as you plan your feasting with friends and family. Or visit your favorite grocer. Many will have pasture raised fresh birds and certainly there will be lots of frozen birds available.

Still plenty of time to shop local and get all you need for your big feast and most certainly there is still time to order in.  Lots of area chefs and restaurants are offering holiday dinner packages – just call your favorite restaurant and ask for the details.

If you do decide to cook, then your biggest concern this week, will most certainly be about the turkey.  Here’s what you need to know.

Cooking for Thanksgiving Turkey Tips

Most turkeys you’ll find in the Charlotte market, either fresh of frozen, will weigh in between 12 – 16 pounds.   For turkeys under 12 pounds, allow three-quarters of a pound to one pound of uncooked turkey per person; for a turkey over 12 pounds, allow a half pound to three-quarters of a pound uncooked weight per person.

Safest way to defrost a turkey? 

If you are buying a fresh turkey from a local farmer, then you can skip this section all together, but if your bird is frozen, know that the experts recommend refrigerator thawing.

Thaw the bird still in its original wrapper, breast side up on a tray in the refrigerator. Allow at least one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey. Thawing turkeys or any other poultry, out on your kitchen counter isn’t a great idea. The change in temperatures  may result in unwanted bacterial growth and is not the recommended way to go.

OMG – I forgot to defrost, now what???

If you are short on time and need a quicker defrosting method, submerge the frozen bird in a big bucket or large cooler of cold water. If you can spare the space, your kitchen sink will also work well. Or, in a pinch, if you don’t have out-of-town guests, perhaps the guest room bath tub, seriously, it works like a charm.

Thaw the bird breast side down in its unopened wrapper in enough cold water to cover. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep the surface of the bird cold. Estimate minimum thawing time to be 30 minutes per pound.

My recipe for roast turkey follows. Once its cooked let it rest for 15-20 minutes and then carve to serve. This is such an important step. You’ve waited a year for Thanksgiving to come around, don’t rush these critical 20 minutes.

If you’ve set up a buffet, carve the bird in advance. Don’t try to do it at the table or let guests carve their own – things just gets messy.

How to carve a Thanksgiving turkey like a real pilgrim:

Allow the hot roasted, fried or smoked bird to rest 15-20 minutes before carving. Then, begin by cutting the band of skin holding the drumsticks. Grasp the end of each drumstick, one a time, Place the knife between the leg quarter (drumstick and thigh) and the body of the bird and cut through the skin to the joint. Remove the entire leg by pulling out and back, using the point of the knife to cut through the joint cartilage. Separate the drumstick and thigh joint in the same way, remembering that a carving knife cannot cut through bones but will easily cut through the cartilage which connects the bones. Slice the dark meat off of the thigh and drumstick bones.

To slice the breast meat, insert a fork in the upper wind to steady the turkey. Make long horizontal cut above the wing joint through to the body frame. The wing may be removed from the body if it makes it easier for you to slice.

Slice straight down with an even stroke, beginning halfway up the breast, When the knife reaches the cut above the wing joint, the slice will fall free.

Continue to slice breast meat starting the cut at a higher point each time. To help make carving easier, use a straight and sharpened knife.

And now, on to recipes for a fabulous Thanksgiving feast with your family and friends…

Perfect Holiday Roast Thanksgiving Turkey

Once the turkey is defrosted, remove the giblets and neck from inside the neck and body cavities of the bird. Rinse the turkey well with cold water and pat dry inside and out. If you are not baking your stuffing inside of your bird, you can add one to two quartered oranges, apples or onions to the inside of the bird along with several sprigs of fresh thyme and/or sage or rosemary leaves to add more flavor.

Season the bird inside and out. I like using a North Carolina sea salt and a black pepper mix I like to call Heidi’s Hot Pepper. If you’ve ever taken a cooking class from me, then you’ve seen me grind my own. Its a blend I developed with product from the Savory Spice Shop  in Charlotte. You’ll find my recipe here. (and, I think you’ll find the Cacio e Pepe recipe in the post with the pepper how to, to be a great after Thanksgiving go-to!)

Grind your own to Spice Up Thanksgiving

In addition to my homemade pepper blend, I also like adding some za’atar seasoning or ground sumac as a dry rub on your naked bird along  with the sea salt, some minced sage and thyme. The result will note only be a burst of citrus spice infused into the meat of the turkey, but the turkey skin will take on a note of citrus as well, as it crisps in the final minutes of roasting. And, if you’d like to take the citrus notes a bit further, you can also slice an orange and slide the slices between the skin and breast meat. The flavor will infuse the breast meat as the turkey cooks.

Once the bird is stuffed (see several options below), cross the legs of the bird and tie them with a bit of Butcher’s Twine, cotton string or, in a pinch, unflavored dental floss. I know, its a hack, but in a pinch it does work! UNFLAVORED is the key word here.

Fold the wings back behind the next of the bird. This tying and tucking keeps the bird from looking as if its all spread out and trying to fly away once the roasting has begun.

Cooking for Thanksgiving: Pans and Racks

Even if only for the once-a-year roasting-of-the -turkey, I think its  worth investing in a heavy duty, large roasting pan. Once you have it as a part of your culinary collection, you’ll use it more than you think – for large batches of lasagna or chicken Parmesan, for a hefty helping of scalloped potatoes or for holding a dozen or so small ramekins of chocolate or cheese souffle.

And if there is not enough time to buy a large heavy duty roasting pan, a large foil pan – available in nearly every grocery store will work just fine.

Cooking for Thanksgiving Pro Tip: Rack ’em Up

As much as I love a great roasting  pan, I could honestly do without the roasting rack, and I suggest you do, too. Instead, I like slicing 4-5 whole local or organically grown onions into thick slices and line the bottom of  the pan with them.  Drizzle the onions with your favorite extra virgin olive oil and perhaps add a few springs of fresh rosemary, thyme or bay leaf. It’s as simple as that!

Place your seasoned (and possibly stuffed) tucked and tied bird, breast side up on the “rack” of thick sliced onions. Cover the pan with heavy duty aluminum foil and roast in a preheated 325 degree oven. Here’s a handy dandy chart to help figure out roasting times.

Cooking for Thanksgiving: Turkey TimeTable

Please note that times are for an unstuffed turkey, for stuffed turkeys of the same weight, add to the total cooking time by 15 to 30 minutes.

8-12 lbs –  2 3/4 to 3 hours of roasting time

12-14 lbs –  3 to 3 1/2 hours of roasting time

18-20 lbs –  4 to 4 1/4 hours of roasting time

20 and up –  4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours of roasting time

During the last 15-20 minutes or so of roasting time, uncover the turkey and allow it to brown nicely on the top. To insure that the meat is done, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh away from the bone. The thermometer should register 160 degrees. As you let it stand, the bird will continue to “cook” and will come up to around 165 before you start to slice.

What’s the turkey without Thanksgiving sides and stuffings?

I’ll start the recipes for holiday sides with the stuffing, which can be baked in or out of the turkey. If you are baking the stuffing inside of your turkey, know that the roasting time will be slightly longer.

Baking the stuffing, or dressing, inside the turkey yields a soft moist stuffing, while baking it in a pan apart from the turkey gives you a drier stuffing with a crisper crust.

No matter which type of stuffing you decide to make for this year’s holiday, remember not to stuff hot, just cooked dressing into a cold turkey.

First, let the stuffing cool. The temperature difference between the hot stuffing and the cold bird makes a breeding ground for bacteria. I know, but the truth must be told.

I’ve found it to  always be a good rule of thumb not to give your family and friends salmonella poisoning for the holidays.

Also, don’t keep cooked stuffing in the cavity of a cooked turkey. As soon as the meal is over, remove the stuffing from the turkey and refrigerate it in a separate container from the carcass and the rest of the uncarved bird.

HEIDI’S SAUSAGE AND PEAR  STUFFING For Turkey, pork chops and more

This is really my Aunt Lore’s recipe which originally came from Julia Child. Over the years I’ve adapted it to suit what’s available locally. I encourage you to tweak it as well to make it your own.

Here is what you need:

4 1/2 Tbsp. butter

5 ribs of  organic celery, chopped

3  local onions, chopped

1 1/2 pounds of local hot or mild Italian pork or chicken sausage,  packed in bulk or squeezed out of the casings

10 cups crumbled french bread (or try substituting fresh baked corn bread or corn muffins)

10 oz. dried apricots or dried prunes, diced. Or use a cup or so of your favorite local jam.

5 Bosc or local pears (or local Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, or McIntosh apples), peeled, cored and chopped

2 Tbsp. minced fresh sage leaves (or an equivalent amount of Bell’s Turkey Seasoning)

salt and pepper to taste

4  local or organic eggs

1 1/2 cups organic or homemade vegetable, chicken or turkey broth

And here is what to do:

Saute the chopped celery and onions in the melted butter. When the vegetables are limp, add the sausage and continue to cook until the sausage has browned. Blend the cooked sausage mixture in a large bowl with the other stuffing ingredients. Blend well. Bake in the turkey or in two 13- by 9-inch buttered baking pans. Cover the pans with foil and bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for 20 minutes, uncover and bake 10 minutes more to brown.

This next recipe takes the same taste of the sausage stuffing and recreates it in a fun holiday season slider – a perfect addition to your Thanksgiving leftover spread or as an hors d’oeuvre at any of this year’s holiday parties.

The Day After the Cooking for Thanksgiving…Heidi’s Holiday Sausage Sliders 

Makes 25 bite-sized sliders

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1 Tbsp. dried sage leaves
1 lb. local ground local sausage (hot or mild)
25 small molasses rolls (recipe follows) or fresh baked biscuits or try these delicious sweet potato biscuits.

Heat olive oil in a small saucepan until aromatic. Add celery onions and sage. Sauté until onions are slightly browned. Remove from pan and place in a bowl. Add uncooked local ground sausage  and blend well to mix. Divide the pork into 20-25 small patties, pan fry in a nonstick saucepan or grill in a grill pan until nicely browned on both sides. Transfer to a bun or biscuit and serve hot.

Brenda’s Oatmeal Molasses Rolls

This recipe came to me from my cousin, Brenda Topol. It’s one of my favorite roll recipes and I love that it calls for molasses. Buy Local North Carolina sorghum syrup molasses at the farmers market – it makes all the difference. And, hang on to the recipe, you’ll want to use it all year round.

2 cups rolled oats, I use the organic steel cut variety

4 cups boiling water

2 Tbsp. yeast

1 cup warm water

1 cup local sorghum syrup molasses

6 Tbsp. butter

1 tsp. salt

11-12 cups organic all Purpose flour

Combine oats and boiling water in a large bowl. Let stand 20 minutes. Proof yeast in warm water. Add to oat mixture.

Add sorghum molasses, salt, butter and flour. Knead until smooth. Let rise until doubled,1 to 1 1/2 hours. Pat dough down, roll out 1 1/2-2 inches thick. Cut into rounds. Place side by side in a 9×13-inch baking pan. Let rise 30 minutes. Bake 20 minutes in a preheated 400-degree oven. For loaves of bread, bake 50 minutes at 350 degrees.

Cooking for Thanksgiving: It’s All Gravy

4 cups chicken or turkey broth

1 carrot, diced

1 onion, quartered

The turkey neck bone if you have it

3 Tbsp. butter

3 Tbsp. flour

pan drippings from roasted turkey

optional – turkey heart and giblets (also found inside the cavity of the raw bird), sautéed till brown in butter or extra virgin olive oil with salt, pepper and garlic salt, then chopped

Combine the chicken or turkey broth in a saucepan with the carrot, onion and turkey neck bone. Bring the mix to  a boil and then simmer for an hour or so. Strain the vegetables from the broth. Discard the vegetables. Remove the turkey neck from the broth and pick the meat off the neck bone.

Add the meat to the broth. In another saucepan, heat the butter until melted, add the flour and stir a minute or two to cook the flour into the melted butter and form a roux.  You can most easily blend the roux using a flat pan whisk.  As soon as the flour has dissolved in the butter and has started to brown, pour the cooked chicken or turkey broth into the pan with the roux and stir until slightly thickened.

Add pan drippings and cooked giblets and neck meat, if desired. Adjust the seasonings to suit your taste.

Seasonal Local Veggies to serve with your Thanksgiving Turkey

Potatoes are a standard on nearly every Thanksgiving table. Bake them, boil them, mash or whip them to your desired doneness.

Other root vegetables such as carrots, radishes and turnips may be butter poached. Simple wash and trim the veggies, then place them in a shallow saute pan. Add equal parts of water and butter – say a half cup of each. Cover the pan and let the water come to a boil as the butter melts. Remove the lid and let the liquid in the pan continue to simmer until it has all but evaporated. The liquid left in the pan is the cooked down butter. Roll the veggies over and around to coat and then season them to taste with just a little salt and pepper.

One comment

  1. Wonderful, Heidi. And let us always be thankful for the farmers who grow/raise our food (I know did here and always do, Heidi), the countless hard-working people who get that food to us and the loving people who so caringly prepare it for our tables…and not only on Thanksgiving Day.

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