Thanksgiving upgrade

Uh-oh, savvy company's coming: Time to think outside the can and take this dinner upper-crust.

Posted: November 15, 2007

I like to think I'm not alone in my Thanksgiving anxiety. So many dishes to serve, so much emotional baggage to ignore.

In recent years, my anxiety centered on the inevitably uneven number of guests vs. chairs. This year brings a new wrinkle:

My daughter is bringing home a friend - a special friend who just happens to be a top editor at a well-known magazine for gourmands.

In its Thanksgiving issue, which features a sumptuous cover photograph of Crisp Apple-Scented Roast Turkey with Cider-Calvados Gravy, my Dinner Guest casually mentions her favorite appetizers for the holiday: "armagnac-marinated bacon-wrapped prunes, duck foie gras topped with gewurztraminer jelly, and oyster-aquavit shooters."

I read that as a challenge.

At my house, Thanksgiving dinner is what I like to think of as traditional: free frozen turkey from Acme, served with Stove Top stuffing, canned sweet-potato casserole topped with marshmallows left over from the Fourth of July.

But this year would be different, no short cuts. This year I'd make my family's favorites but in an enhanced fashion.

I'd get an organic, heritage turkey - one with ancestors in the American Revolution. I'd need a turkey that enjoyed a full and happy life roaming the free range until somebody slaughtered it in the spirit of loving-kindness.

I'd serve genuine yams, fresh asparagus, gravy from homemade stock, and a pie with crust I'd kneaded myself.

Of course, the anticipation of an overnight guest is as good an excuse as any to do a few upgrades. I started with some new pot holders and then I went wild: I converted the heating system from oil to gas and bought a Bosch range with gas burners and an electric oven with optional convection cooking. (Not to mention the custom-made window curtains, a plush rug for the living room, antique walnut cane chairs in the dining room, and paint in the powder room. I had to be talked out of adding another bathroom before the holiday.)

I may not be much of a cook, but I have mastered Home Entertaining Rule No. 1: Never try a recipe (or an oven) for the first time when company's coming. I have learned this the hard way.

So if on Nov. 22 I wanted to serve my guests a heritage turkey - one with less white meat but more flavor than the broad-breasted birds sold in 99 percent of markets - along with upgraded fixings, I'd have to buy the stuff early and give the meal a test drive. Of course, I'd need some help.

I persuaded Inquirer food editor Maureen Fitzgerald to go along for the ride.

Together we flipped through her stack of seasonal cookbooks and developed a menu that included respectable basics and first-ever efforts: fresh, locally raised roasted turkey; Martha Stewart's classic stuffing with pecans, dried cranberries and fresh sage; traditional gravy from pan drippings and homemade stock; roasted sweet potato wedges with smoked paprika and sea salt; grilled asparagus with bread crumbs and lemon zest; fresh cranberry-orange relish; and a fabulous pecan pie with a layer of bittersweet chocolate and a dash of espresso powder.

By the time Maureen arrived at my house with her food processor, platters, and casserole dishes (all the essentials I was lacking), I was psyched for success.

Tom, the Bourbon Red turkey I'd driven nearly a hundred miles to buy at Griggstown Quail Farm in Princeton, was cleaned and trussed by 10:30 a.m. I'd picked the last stray feathers from his bony body and stuffed his belly with an onion, an apple and a bouquet of fresh thyme, tarragon and sage. A few pats of butter under his skin, some sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil on top was all it would take, Matthew Systema, the chef at Griggstown, told me.

Instead of brining the bird, he said, enjoy the natural moistness and flavor you're paying roughly $7 a pound for. Tom would brown beautifully in less time than typical organic, free-range, all-natural and far less expensive turkeys, he said. (Tom was not the best-looking bird, however. The supermarket variety is bred to look pretty on the table. I was hoping this guy had great personality.)

Tom the Bourbon Red turned out to be the least of my problems.

First, I burned the pecan halves that were meant to go into the casserole of bread stuffing and had to send out for more. I blame the second burned batch on Maureen, who should have known by then that I'd forget to watch the time. On the third try, we managed to get the pecans toasted instead of incinerated and the stuffing was all the better for it. Chalk up two in the success column.

Thanks to the invention of the food processor, I found that making cranberry relish from actual cranberries was almost as easy doctoring the canned stuff. Must get that gadget.

My failures were few: oversalted sweet potatoes, greasy gravy. And I'm glad I didn't wait until Thanksgiving Day to learn that those recipes didn't work. (That's right, always blame it on the recipe - not the cook.) And what a fright I had when the temperature-probe feature on my new stove beeped demandingly - insisting the 14-pound turkey was cooked to perfection after only 30 minutes. Note to self: Don't panic, just read the instructions (and in this case, insert the probe all the way into the thigh).

I learned much under Maureen's tutelage: I learned that actual measuring spoons are preferable to the tea-and-tablespoons in my flatware; that it is wise to make two pie shells in case the first won't cooperate with the rolling pin; that what I thought was a pie server is in truth a cake server; and that if I ever expect her to cook in my house again, I'd be wise to buy some decent knives - preferably sharp knives.

It was a productive if exhausting venture, but at least now I know how to work the stove's self-cleaning feature. And I was confident of the turkey, the most incredibly moist and flavorful bird I'd ever tasted. The stuffing and the pie were impressive, but doable. The gravy and sweet potatoes would just require minor tweaks.

And then, with T minus nine days to go, I got a call from my daughter. Don't worry, she said, the Dinner Guest is still coming.

"But we were thinking it would be nice to have something different this year," she said - "something other than turkey."


Not inclined to cook on Thanksgiving? For restaurants open Nov. 22, check out our online "Thanksgiving Dinner Finder" at .


Where to Find a Heritage Turkey

Heritage birds are domesticated descendants of turkeys indigenous to North and South America. They are generally smaller (15 to 17 pounds) than the broad-breasted varieties.

Breeds include Black, Bronze, Narragansett, and Bourbon Red.

Here are a few of the local outlets for heritage turkeys. The birds must be ordered in advance.

Bourbon Red heritage turkeys from Griggstown Quail Farm in Princeton are priced at $7.09 per pound. They can be ordered from the farm and picked up locally at the Headhouse Farmers' Market, Second and Lombard Streets (which is open Wednesday, Nov. 21). Call 908-359-5218 or go to www.griggstownquailfarm.com

American Bronze heritage turkeys are available from the Swarthmore Coop for $8.95 per pound. Call 610-543-9805.

Narragansett birds from Springfield Farms in Spark, Md., are available at the Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market for $5.85 per pound. To order, call 215-627-2029 or go to www. whitedogcafefoundation.org.


Pecan Pie With Chocolate and Espresso

Makes 8 servings

1 9-inch single crust, partially baked and cooled

3/4 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

3 large eggs at room temperature

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (about 7 ounces) pecan halves or pieces

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Set the pie plate with the crust on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat.

3. In a large bowl, whisk the corn syrup and brown sugar together until smooth. Whisk in the melted butter, then the eggs - one at a time, beating until you have a smooth foamy mixture. Add the espresso powder, vanilla, cinnamon and salt and give the filling a good mix. Rap the bowl against the counter a couple of times to pop any bubbles that might have formed, then stir in the pecans and chocolate. Turn the filling into the crust.

4. Bake the pie for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, make a foil shield for the crust by cutting a 9-inch circle out of the center of an 11- or 12-inch square of aluminum foil.

5. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Place the foil shield on top of the pie crust - the filling will be exposed, the crust covered by the foil. Bake the pie for 15 to 20 minutes more (total baking time is 30 to 35 minutes) or until it has puffed (the middle and the edges should be fairly evenly puffed). The pie should be browned and it should no longer jiggle when tapped.

6. Transfer the pie plate to a rack, remove the shield, and cool to room temperature before serving.

- From Baking, From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).Per serving: 512 calories, 6 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams sugar, 33 grams fat, 91 milligrams cholesterol, 250 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Good for Almost Everything Pie Dough

Makes one 9-inch single crust

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) very cold (frozen is fine) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces

2 1/2 tablespoons very cold (frozen is even better) vegetable shortening, cut into 2 pieces

About 1/4 cup ice water

1. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor fitted with a metal blade; pulse just to combine the ingredients. Drop in the butter and shortening and pulse only until the butter and shortening are cut into the flour. Don't overdo the mixing - some pieces should be the size of fat green peas and others the size of barley.

2. Pulsing the machine on and off, gradually add about 3 tablespoons of the water. Then use a few long pulses to get the water into the flour, If, after a dozen or so pulses, the dough does not look evenly moistened or form soft curds, pulse in as much of the remaining water as necessary, or even a few drops more, to get a dough that will stick together when pinched. Big pieces of butter are fine. Scrape the dough out of the work bowl and onto a work surface.

3. Shape the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour before rolling.

To roll out the dough:

1. Have a buttered 9-inch pie plate on hand. You can roll the dough out on a floured surface or between sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap. If you are working on a counter, turn the dough over frequently and keep the counter floured. If you are rolling between paper or plastic, make sure to turn the dough over often and to lift the paper or plastic frequently so that it does not roll into the dough and form creases. Slide the rolled-out dough into the fridge for about 20 minutes to rest and firm up.

2. Fit the dough into the pie plate and, using a pair of scissors, cut the excess dough to a 1/4- to 1/2-inch overhang. Fold the dough under itself, so that it hangs over the edge just a tad, and flute or pinch the crust to make a decorative edge. Alternatively, you can finish the crust by pressing it with the tines of a fork.

To partially bake a single crust:

1. Refrigerate the crust while you preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil. Fit the foil, buttered side down, tightly against the crust and fill with dried beans or rice or pie weights. Put the pie plate on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 25 minutes.

3. Carefully remove the foil and weights, and, if the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Return the pie to the oven and bake about 8 minutes more, or until the crust is very lightly colored.

(To fully bake the crust, bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes more.)

4. Transfer the pie plate to a rack and cool to room temperature before filling.

- From Baking, From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton-Mifflin, 2006)Per serving: 265 calories, 3 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 221 milligrams sodium, 0.6 gram dietary fiber.


Sweet Potato Wedges With Paprika

Makes 6 servings

4 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, washed and gently scrubbed if necessary, but not peeled

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

3 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt

Sour cream (optional) for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Cut the sweet potatoes in half widthwise and then cut in half again, and then into wedges. The size of the spuds varies enormously, but you're aiming for finger-length wedges about 11/4 inches high on the skin side. Put them in a big mixing bowl.

3. Pour the olive oil over them, then mix the smoked paprika and the salt and coat the wedges entirely.

4. Lay the wedges with ample space on one or two baking pans and put them into the oven for an initial 20 minutes. Then turn the potato wedges over and cook 10 minutes more. Eat hot, perhaps with sour cream.

- From Coloring the Seasons, Cook's Guide by Allegra McEvedy (Kyle Books, 2007)Per serving: 366 calories, 7 grams protein, 70 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 1,087 milligrams sodium, 11 grams dietary fiber.


Classic Thanksgiving Dressing

Makes 24 servings

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

4 onions (2 pounds) cut into 1/4-inch dice

16 celery stalks, strings removed, cut into 1/4-inch dice

10 large fresh sage leaves, chopped, or 2 teaspoons crushed dried sage

1 1/2 quarts chicken or turkey stock, homemade or low-sodium store- bought

2 loaves stale white bread (about 36 slices), crusts on, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 cups coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (about 2 bunches)

2 cups pecans, toasted, chopped, optional

2 cups dried cherries or cranberries, optional

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the onions and celery and cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the sage, stir to combine, and cook 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup stock and stir well. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by half.

3. Transfer the onion mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add the bread, salt, pepper, parsley, pecans and dried fruit, if using. Add the remaining stock and mix to combine.

4. Turn the dressing into one or two wide, flat casserole dishes and bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, until top is crusty and golden.

- Adapted from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook

of Original Classics (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2007)

Per serving: 255 calories, 6 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 531 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Reach staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http:// go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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