As a young reporter, I was fascinated by a news service item dispatched every day. It was a budget or list of what would be on the front page of The New York Times the next morning. The theory was that editors at newspapers large and small across the country would see what the Times thought was important and would adjust their own news judgment accordingly. You know, many did -- and do.
That sense of almost magisterial authority runs through Sam Sifton's useful new book, Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well (Random House, $18). Once the Times' restaurant critic, where he would spend T-Day answering calls from panicked readers, and now national editor, Sifton is not shy when it comes to telling you how to observe the holiday -- and use his book.
"You are going to page through this book -- read and digest, argue and discuss, make plans and write lists -- and then you are going to cook and serve a meal that will bring praise down upon you like showers of rose petals," he writes.
Sifton laudably warns readers early that Thanksgiving "is not a book for everyone." He's right. The feast he outlines is a traditional, turkey-centric one. The foods and recipes are familiar ones rather than new or trendy. Sifton's Thanksgiving does not entertain compromise or can-opener cooking or balancing dinner plates on one's knees in the living room.
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"Put it plainly, we are going to cook Thanksgiving correctly," he declares.
Sifton does cook Thanksgiving correctly. He's there, ready with ladles of practical advice, humor and reassuring words, to get you through the holiday successfully. Nothing is missed as he moves from taking a quick kitchen inventory before the holiday through the meal preparation and service to the cleanup and what to do with the leftovers. The sometimes brisk, Timesian tone works, I think, because there comes a time when you must stop dillydallying and simply get on with it.
And Sifton does just that with the goal of reassuring you, the host, that "everything really will be all right."
Turkey stock may be to the Thanksgiving feast what Windex was to the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding: a miracle cure-all elixir. So useful is it that Sifton calls it "a Thanksgiving secret weapon" that can carry you from pre-feast prep to the inevitable question of what to do with the leftover carcass days after the holiday.
"Having a lot of turkey stock on hand is crucial to the preparation of a good Thanksgiving meal," he writes. "It ought to be the first thing you prepare, in fact, on Thursday morning, if not before."
Sifton uses stock to pump up the gravy's flavor, keep the dressing (aka stuffing) moist while baking and warm the turkey slices on their way to the dining table. He even, on one occasion, has used it to make a tasty risotto for a kid who didn't like potatoes.
"It's a cheat, but a good one," Sifton said of stock's use as a "meat heater." While he urges readers to warm their plates and platters before serving, he knows getting everyone to sit down at the right time is like "herding cats"; food temperatures can and will drop during the wait. A couple of spoonfuls of hot stock gives the meat a little heat and keeps it from drying out.
"If you cook the bird the way I tell you to cook it, you shouldn't have a dry turkey," Sifton said. "Even if the turkey is super moist, you can still put some on. Just don't drown the bird. Use, at most, 1/2 cup."
Luckily, making that basic all-purpose turkey stock is a no-brainer. Drop the turkey neck in a pot with some onions, carrots and celery, add water and let it simmer away on a back burner all day.
"It gets better over the course of the day," he says.
While this basic stock is simple and quick to prepare, Sifton also offers a more luxe or "serious" version that can be made in advance using turkey drumsticks and wings. It's a recipe that, ideally, should cook overnight and is aimed at those Type A's who have to make everything as perfect as possible.
Quick turkey stock
1 turkey neck
1 Spanish onion, peeled, cut in half
1 large carrot, peeled, cut into large pieces
1 rib celery, cleaned, cut into large pieces
Put neck, onion, carrot and celery in a medium saucepan; cover with cold water. Place the pot over high heat; heat to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer all day.
Serious turkey stock
2 turkey drumsticks
2 turkey wings
2 large Spanish onions, peeled, cut in half
2 large carrots, peeled, cut into large pieces
2 ribs celery, cut into large pieces
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
1. Place turkey parts in a large baking dish; cook in a 400-degree oven until they are golden, with the skin beginning to separate from the end of the drumsticks, about 30 minutes.
2. Transfer turkey parts and all accumulated fat and juices to a large stockpot. Cover turkey with water; heat to a boil over high heat; reduce heat, cover and simmer for as long as you can manage, even overnight.
3. Add the vegetables, bay leaves, thyme and pepper; cook 1 hour; strain stock into a clean container. Cover and place in refrigerator. When cool, pull off the layer of fat on top; discard. Keeps three to four days refrigerated, or freeze and thaw before using. Reheat on Thanksgiving morning and use all day.
4. Take what remains of your bird and break it up so that it can fit into a large stockpot. Add 3 ribs roughly chopped celery and a large Spanish onion, cut into quarters. Cover with water. Heat to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to a bare simmer. Cook, barely stirring, at least 4 hours, or overnight. In time the bones will release their marrow and roasted flavor, imparting to the stock a dark and incomparable heartiness.