Our sincerest Thanksgiving wishes to all.
I’m in hog heaven at this moment – and have been for the past day – and will be for the next as well. And what’s responsible for this? Well, each Thanksgiving, it’s my province to take over the kitchen, plan a meal of at least 5 courses, and perhaps 6 or 7 side dishes, and do this all within the confines of maybe ten hours, including a dressed turkey, of course. I love doing this, and it brings back heady memories of my “restaurant” days, and gives me an opportunity to practice those restaurant skills again – great memories.
Now we are only two – and in the eyes of most, this behavior would be excess to a fault, however very little goes to waste – and we do not have to resort to stuffing ourselves for the ten days past Thanksgiving, we simply plan all our lunches and dinners – some breakfasts too – around those leftovers. Hey, why not – they are perhaps the highest quality leftovers of the year!
We’re not alone in this behavior, I know that – and I know well from whence the behavior springs. All my professional life, I had no time at the end of each day to cook dinner – so I became a weekend chef, making 2 or 3 entrees, and a few sides to match, on which we’d pick the following 5 days. And as I say, we’re not alone in this behavior – millions join us.
But this year I get to cook for guests, so there is a little more seriousness involved – and so the need to start early, or on the big day, I’m spending all my time in the kitchen and none with my guests – I’m not much of a kitchen host.
I know well what separates our Thanksgivings from those of others – the stock pot. In my mind, it would be absurd to attempt a Thanksgiving dinner, where the gravy is almost as much a star as is the turkey, and not have the assistance of a stock pot – In my kitchen, Thanksgiving is a day that requires ”fresh”, and whenever you do fresh, you have peels and cores, and god knows what – compost pile? Not while the gravy suffers. In my house, the stock pot raises the level of culinary enjoyment – and isn’t that the bottom line?
I never saw a stock pot in my early restaurant days – those were my fast-food employments – but as I migrated up the chain, the quality of the food, and the cooking began to improve, and the stock pot appeared on the back of the stove. It was never a sometimes thing – it was always there! And very little vegetable or animal trimmings found the trash can, they went straight into the stock pot. I’m quite sure that as the chef planned the next week’s menu, there were times when the stock pot drove the selection of at least an item or two, even if they were only vegetable sides, they were all the better for having been cooked in that stock. But the real reason to have the stock pot at all was for sauces – and in the most serious of restaurants, the output of the stock pot is a treasured commodity, and it is doled out with care – and delicious intent.
Among my friends who cook, I think there is an almost universal fear of Thanksgiving – gravy! This is interesting, isn’t it? It’s not the turkey that worries cooks, or any of the minor elements – it’s the gravy that stresses. Why?
I think there are two mine fields associated with gravy; making it smooth, and making it flavorful. Most cooks soon learn what not to do to avoid lumpy or course gravy, but I think most struggle long with the flavor element – the secret? Ah, you know what I’m going to tell you, don’t you! The stock pot.
Yes, I truly believe this – without the assistance of a stock pot, most Thanksgiving cooks resort to using canned broth, which is little more than water, or they use water, or milk, or … god knows what, to make their gravy. It’s no wonder the gravy has flavor problems.
Let me walk you through my annual Thanksgiving stock pot process, so you can see this isn’t any big deal – but it can make quite a big difference in your Thanksgiving meal.
- Put one of your big pots on the stove – fill it with about 12-15 cups of water (yes, a big pot!)
- Turn the heat on “very low” – the idea here is that you want to have a simmer that is barely visible – this will be on for as long as you wish, night and day – so you don’t want to run the risk of drying out your pot – occasionally add more water as your level drops – stir every few hours or so. If you only have 6-8 hours to make stock, turn your heat higher, and the simmer more aggressive!
- If you think you may not have enough scraps, peels, and cores, etc., you can start off by chopping up an onion, a few carrots, some celery, etc., -no peeling necessary please- and tossing them in to get you started, but actually, I think you’ll have more than you think – for example, here’s what went into mine this year:
- Some apples, chopped (I have 5 apple trees and need ways to use them up – apples add a wonderful sweetness to the stock that translates well into the finished gravy.)
- Apple peels/cores (of the apples I added to the stuffing)
- Leek tops, chopped
- Onion trimmings, dry skin included
- Rutabaga trimmings (plus the water used to cook them in later – important!)
- Brussels Sprout trimmings
- Potato peels (plus the water used to cook them in)
- Any other contributions from the garden, such as parsley, herbs, greens, whatever
- Two or three bay leaves would be nice
- Neck, gizzard, and heart of the turkey (I don’t use the liver because of its strong flavor)
- Any juice remaining in turkey bag after thawing
- Any “saved” chicken parts (necks, backbones, etc.) in freezer
- Sweet potato trimmings
- A quart of vegetarian broth for good measure
- At the very end, depending on the taste of the stock, I may add some weak low sodium chicken broth – or not!
- Only think about salt at the very end – add now if necessary, or wait until you’re making the gravy (If you add salt, or salted things, too early, you risk concentrating the salt down and ruining your stock, since you can’t then correct by adding more water without weakening your flavor.).
- OK, on to the gravy – if your turkey is now done and sitting nicely on the counter, you can begin to put the gravy together. You’ll want to get at those pan drippings -the major source of the gravy’s flavor- but that means you have to get the turkey up and out of the roasting pan, always a fun part of the project. I have a nice big cutting board just made for this, as it has several nails in the center to spike and hold the turkey while carving, and a moat around the outside edge to catch escaping juices (if you don’t have any juices at this point, you’re in trouble!). Hopefully, you’re within 30 minutes or so of serving, so this baby doesn’t get cold – so hoist him up and let’s get back to your pan.
- If you have one of those large cup thingies that are used to separate fat from pan juices, that’ll be very useful here – yes, turkey fat has lots of flavor, but probably a little too much cholesterol for most, so tilt your pan and pour off the liquid contents into that separator cup thingy – let it rest for 5-10 minutes.
- Put the pan on your stove top – my roasting pan is big enough that it covers two burners – that’s good. Turn the burners on to medium heat. Take 2 or 3 Tbs of the turkey fat from your separator and add it back into your roasting pan – scrape the bottom to loosen any brown bits that are sticking to the pan – if you have one of those wooden spoons with a flat bottom, use that, that’s what they’re made for!
- Strain your cooled stock, if you haven’t already (we assume that your stock is ready to be used). Measure the amount of stock you’ll be adding to your pan juices – how much total liquid (stock and pan juices) do you have? For each cup of total liquid, you’ll need about two tablespoons of flour to thicken your gravy.
- Add the measured flour from the step above into your heated roasting pan – let it mix with the fat and brown bits in the pan. Cook the flour and fat for several minutes, so the gravy does not have a starchy taste – keep stirring all the time – if the flour is lumped into a doughy mass, add another tablespoon of fat – you want it to thin out some.
- Now take your stock and pan juices mixture, and slowly add it to your pan – a whisk helps here, but you can do this with the wooden spoon too – stir aggressively as you add the liquid – it will thicken rapidly – turn your heat down if necessary. Keep adding slowly until your gravy is at your desired thickness.
- Taste! Does it need anything? Salt? This is the best place to add salt, if it needs it. This is also the place to add any spirits, if you wish. I always add brandy, sherry, or madeira at this point. Don’t forget to let the gravy simmer for 5 or 10 minutes after adding spirits to mellow out and meld flavors.
- And for those of you who want a thicker gravy, or you messed up on your measurements, how to do so at this late stage? Easiest way is to mix a small amount of flour (1 or 2 Tbs.) with a small amount of stock (¼ – ½ cup) in a separate bowl or cup, and mix very well, until there are no lumps in your mix – then add a Tbs at a time to your simmering gravy until it reaches your desired consistency.
- What if it’s too thick? Just add some stock, if you have any left, until it thins down some.
- Believe it or not, there may be times when you’ve done too good a job of cooking down your stock, and the final product is simply too intense – no problem – just add water until it tastes right. If you are tasting as you cook -all good cooks do this- you’ll never have this problem!
For those of you with gravy anxiety, the stock pot is the path to recovery. For those of you with stock pot anxiety, I have no suggestions, … save maybe sending out for one of your local grocery’s Thanksgiving big box specials – gravy included. Ummm!
Whatever! I’m hoping that your Thanksgiving is extra special good for you, and that your pumpkin pie is especially delicious.