IT MAY BE the Elmer Fudd of poultry, but the turkey can be a downright terrifying bird. As Thanksgiving bears down on home chefs everywhere, mocking images of Norman Rockwell perfection are enough to give even a confident cook a case of the jitters. There's just so much expectation stuffed into that bird, not to mention a table full of armchair quarterbacks eager to critique this most American of repasts.
Thankfully, there are turkey-day experts to come to the rescue. We huddled with folks schooled in all things Thanksgiving, wise in the ways of roasting, pie making and sides. And while they can't help you deal with your Uncle Nunzio's penchant for picking his teeth between courses, they can help you get dinner on the table with less agita. Take a deep breath. Our experts are here to help!
The cranberry sauce on the Haines family Thanksgiving table isn't just fresh. Bill Haines Jr., a fourth-generation cranberry grower and CEO of Pine Island Cranberry in Chatsworth, N.J., harvests the shiny red fruit the old-fashioned way.
"I hand-scoop the fruit, the way it used to be harvested," said Haines, whose great-grandfather started the farm in 1890. "I do that just for friends and family."
After narrowly dodging Hurricane Sandy with a full-throttle harvest effort the weekend before the storm, this Thanksgiving is especially apropos. "The Ocean Spray receiving station stayed open for us that weekend," Haines said.
Pine Barren cranberry bogs cover about 3,400 acres of New Jersey land and yield 550,000 barrels of fruit. Pine Island Cranberry grows eight varieties, used for juice as well as dried craisins. "New Jersey's climate makes our fruit large and sweet," he explained. "Perfect for drying."
Haines is jazzed about the new Crimson Queen, developed out of Rutgers University. It tastes "like a Granny Smith apple."
The Haines family takes a purist approach to cranberry sauce, leaving out frippery such as orange peel or cloves. It's fruit-forward, plain and simple. Bill's wife, Nadine, makes it a week ahead to avoid last-minute fussing.
HOMEMADE WHOLE BERRY CRANBERRY SAUCE
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
One 12-ounce package fresh cranberries, rinsed and drained
Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, add cranberries, and return to a boil. Reduce heat and boil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until serving.
Note: To make your sauce into an old-school mold, double the recipe and cook 10 minutes longer or until a drop of sauce gels on a plate. Pour into mold and chill.
It was a stroke of savory genius.
Tom Ivory co-founded Baker Street Bread Company, on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, in 1992 to recapture the essence of artisan baking. He remembers sitting with his head baker, brainstorming ideas, when the aha moment occurred.
People use bread for stuffing, right? Why not make bread that tastes like stuffing to begin with?
Thus was born the bakery's most popular holiday product: Stuffing Bread. Flavored with sage, poultry seasoning, parsley, celery seed, onion and garlic powder with just a hint of sourdough starter, this inspired loaf is worth every bit of its $5.75 price.
Ivory sells about 3,000 loaves the week before the holiday, with most customers buying a second for leftover turkey sandwiches.
For a slightly more complex stuffing, Ivory recommends the Artisan Raisin Walnut Bread his wife, Mary, uses in their Narberth kitchen. Ivory has worked the past 20 Thanksgivings, helping last-minute shoppers in search of pumpkin-cranberry and pistachio-apricot loaves for their holiday tables.
SAVORY RAISIN WALNUT STUFFING
1 loaf Artisan Raisin Walnut Bread, cut into cubes and dried overnight
4 cups chicken stock (if canned, low salt)
1 apple, peeled, cored, sliced
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
12 ounces bulk pork sausage
One large yellow onion
6 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
3 sticks unsalted butter
3 tablespoons fresh parsley
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Melt 3/4-cup of the butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add onions and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
Transfer into a large mixing bowl and toss with bread cubes. In the same pan, cook the sausages, crumbling meat with fork or back of spoon, over medium heat until meat is no longer pink. Drain well.
Add meat to bread mixture. Stir to combine. Add apple, thyme and parsley. Heat remaining butter with chicken stock in a saucepan over medium until butter has melted. Pour stock mixture over bread mixture. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes enough to stuff a 24-pound turkey.
Speaking of turkey
By the time Thanksgiving comes around, Torrie Bolton-Christy is turkeyed out. She's the third generation of turkey farmers in her family, and Bolton Turkey Farm raises and processes an average of 5,000 birds for Thanksgiving on her grandfather's original 30-acre farm in Bucks County.
It's a year-round enterprise producing a wide range of products such as turkey scrapple, sausage and pot pies. "People eat quite a bit of turkey," she said.
Bolton raises its own proprietary breed of broad-breasted birds, free range in large, open pens inside clean, climate-controlled barns. Bolton's isn't an organic farm; like many small family farms, Bolton is skeptical about that designation.
"We buy our grain from local farmers we know and trust," Bolton-Christy explained. "I'll take that over 'organic' feed that comes from China any day."
As you might expect, Bolton knows a thing or two about roasting a turkey.
"Ours are broad across the breast and thick in the thigh, so we recommend cooking them breast side down, with the thickest part closest to the heat so they don't dry out."
For crispy skin, turn the breast up about 30 minutes before it's done cooking. Since a dried-out bird is the last thing you want to serve, as soon as your meat thermometer says 165, take that baby out and let it rest.
"Our birds are so juicy you don't need to brine them, although some people do anyway," said Bolton-Christy. Figure about 12 minutes cooking time per pound unstuffed, 15 stuffed.
Not that the Boltons roast their turkeys, she added. "My dad Charles is in charge, and he always cooks the turkey on a charcoal grill over hickory chips. It's delicious."
On the lighter, greener side
Chef Rich Landau's wish for his Thanksgiving guests is that they leave his table feeling better than when they first sat down. Landau, who with his wife, Kate Jacoby, owns Vedge vegan restaurant in Center City, typically uses a showstopping vegetable for his main course: large Italian eggplant, stuffed squash, earthy portobellos. But even for turkey eaters, vegetables deserve a place on the holiday china.
"The traditional Thanksgiving meal is very heavy," Landau said. "Give your family a break from all that brown and tan food" with some bright, healthy veggies.
He loves blanched dark greens like broccoli rabe, kale or spinach, sautéed simply with garlic and olive oil, with a little lemon to finish.
As for winter squash, cook what you like and what's in season without glopping it up with butter, cream and brown sugar. Landau would introduce ethnic flavors to the meal - perhaps cumin, coriander and cilantro with roasted acorn squash.
"Vegetables add much needed color, texture and lightness to the Thanksgiving table," he said. Try this Japanese-inspired dish.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH IN SHIITAKE DASHI
2 quarts water
2 large pieces kombu seaweed
12 whole, dried shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons tamari
4 cups butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced
1/2 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon pepper
Preheat oven to 400. Bring kombu, shiitake, tamari and water to a boil, then simmer to reduce liquid by one-quarter to create the dashi. Strain and set aside.
Toss the squash with the onion, olive oil, salt and pepper and the spread out on a large roasting tray (do not layer).
Bake for 12- 15 minutes or until the squash is tender and lightly caramelized. Remove from the oven and pour some of the dashi on the sheet pan to deglaze.
Serve the squash in a large bowl with the dashi (both the reserved and from the tray). Serves 4-6.
Pie wasn't a special dessert when Holly Ricciardi was growing up in Carlisle, Pa. "My mother made pie constantly. It was normal in our family to eat pie made from scratch."
Ricciardi, who now lives in Drexel Hill, went to school for graphic design and met her husband, Greg, a Philly native. The pair opened an agency, 20nine, and grew it together for a decade.
That's when Ricciardi started feeling burned out. With her husband's encouragement, she enrolled in the Art Institute of Philadelphia's yearlong baking and pastry program. After graduation, Ricciardi found herself at a crossroads.
"I knew I didn't want to decorate cakes or make cupcakes," she said. "Nobody was making pies in Philadelphia," so she opened Magpie Artisan Pie Bakery & Boutique on Sept. 2. Business has boomed, thanks to Ricciardi's innovative takes on the classics. (Thanksgiving orders are already sold out.)
Ricciardi knows pie dough intimidates. "A good pie dough comes together in 10 minutes. The biggest mistake people make is overworking the dough. Kneading it too much or adding too much water makes it tough and difficult to roll out. With pie dough, less is definitely more."
Here's more wisdom from this pie master:
Cold, cold, cold: This crucial step helps ensure a flaky texture. Cut butter into 1/4-inch pieces and freeze for 15 minutes. Cut veggie into pieces and chill also. Use ice water.
The quicker the better: A food processor cuts the fat into the dry ingredients quicker to prevent the fat from melting and coating the flour too much. If you don't have a food processor, grate frozen butter on the large holes of a box grater into the flour.
Give it a rest: Wrap the dough in plastic and rest in the refrigerator for an hour so the gluten can relax (for a more tender crust), the fat can firm up (to stay flaky) and the water can be absorbed.
Be firm, but gentle: Well-made pie dough will roll out beautifully with a firm, gentle movement. Always roll in one direction from the center. Turn the dough a quarter turn every time you roll to keep round shape and even thickness. Don't allow dough to get soft. Put it back in the fridge to chill, then roll some more.
Take a break before you bake: After pressing dough into pie plate, wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes before adding filling and baking.
MAGPIE'S FLAKY DOUBLE-CRUST PIE DOUGH
2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces and chilled
6 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut in ½-inch pieces and chilled
8-10 tablespoons ice water
Place flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to combined.
Scatter frozen butter cubes over flour mixture. Pulse 5 one-second pulses until mixture looks like corn meal with pea-size pieces. Scatter shortening in flour mixture and pulse 4 one-second pulses.
Place flour mixture in a large bowl and pour half the ice water on top. Using scraper, mix together until medium-size clumps form. Add the rest of the water and mixes until just combined. Use palm of hand to fold and press down on the dough until it forms a large mass.
Portion dough in to two equal portion discs, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling.
Baker Street Bread Co., 8009 Germantown Ave., 215-248-2500, bakerstreetbread.com
Bolton Farm Market, 1005 Main St. (Route 113), Silverdale, Pa., 215-257-6047, home.comcast.net/~torriechristy/index.html
Magpie Artisan Pie Boutique, 1622 South St., 267-519-2904, iluvmagpie.com
Pine Island Cranberries, 3353A Route 563, Chatsworth, N.J., 609-726-1330, picranberry.com
Vedge Restaurant, 1221 Locust St., 215-320-7500, vedgerestaurant.com