I love cooking on Thanksgiving – and it’s often a 2 day affair. We of course have our traditional dishes, but I think the greater tradition in our house is to simply have an outrageous number of dishes. And it’s especially fun because of the challenge to get everything to the table while it’s hot – often a real problem with a four burner stove, and six to eight dishes!
That’s my Thanksgiving challenge, but for most cooks, I suspect that one classic Thanksgiving staple creates as much fear as all other dishes put together – the gravy! But it doesn’t have to be that way if you do a little planning and you know when you need to do what. It’s really only three steps – let me walk you through it – First, a little story.
While I was in college in Westchester County, NY, I was lucky enough to work at the IBM Research Center in Yorktown Heights, washing dishes in the kitchen of what still is, for me, the best cafeteria I’ve ever seen. If you know anything about IBM, you know they treat their employees very well, and this particular cafeteria not only employed a Swiss baker, but an Italian chef as well. And the chef never seemed to mind the dummy dishwashers asking silly questions, like, “What’s in that giant pot at the back of the stove?”
Chef was very proud of that pot – he said it was the secret to his success – of course, it was his stock pot, and into it went every scrap of what most cooks would either throw away, or slip into a compost bin. But Chef would never consider doing something like that. His pot was always on the simmer, 24/7, and each morning he’d put in more water so it could keep working. And whenever a sauce, or a flavor boost to anything, was needed, he’d dip into the pot with a big ladle and get some of his magic juice.
If Chef was with us for Thanksgiving, here’s what he’d have us do to make gravy:
* Make Your Stock – Early on Thanksgiving morning, get out a medium stock pot and fill it half full of water. Pull any saved chicken parts out of the freezer and drop them in there. Add one, maybe two, large whole chopped onion s(everything included!), an entire head of garlic, cut crosswise, 2 large or 3 med chopped carrots (don’t peel), and 5 stalks of chopped celery, as well as the leaves from the top, and the base of the stalks too – all chopped. Add some chopped parsley and 3 large bay leaves, plus a Tbs of whole peppercorns. Chop two medium whole apples for the pot too. Bring this all to a boil, skim the foam off, and turn down to a very low simmer. No salt yet!
Now, as the rest of your meal prep continues, each time you have some peelings/trimmings (potatoes, rutabaga, carrots, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, onions, etc), add them to the stock pot – As you begin to cook those vegetables that will be the side dishes for your feast, instead of throwing the cooking water away, add it to the stock pot. And as your stock continues to simmer, stir it every hour or so – and when it gets down to about 1/3rd full, add some additional water or vegetable cooking liquid up to about 3/4s full.
As soon as your turkey is thawed enough to get the innards out, give them a quick chop into smaller pieces and add them too to the stock pot. I don’t use the turkey liver in the stock pot due to it’s intense flavor, but you may feel differently. Once your stock has been cooking for 5 or 6 hours, begin tasting it – initially, it will be pretty weak – but eventually, it should gain some taste – don’t add salt until the very end, because the continuing concentration of flavors will be making the stock saltier as it cooks. If you have very little meat for flavoring, you may want to add a Tbs or two of broth concentrate such as “Better Than Bouillon” to bring the taste up, but be careful ’cause this stuff is salty – so don’t add any salt until you know if you’ll be adding anything else at the end. Too much salt will kill your gravy.
When your taste tells you that the stock is in good shape, strain it from the cooked veggies/meat, and set it aside – you’ll really only need 2 or 3 cups of stock to finish the gravy. Remember, there’s no reason why you can’t continue cooking down your stock until all you have left is 2-3 cups – if you go that route, don’t consider adding any broth concentrates until the very end.
* Make Your Pan Juices – The fat, juices, and bits that accumulate in the bottom of the roasting pan are the second leg of your gravy – they will bring the meaty sophistication that a gravy needs. Remove the turkey from the roasting pan, and place it where the juices can continue to drip, because they will – later, don’t forget to add these juices to the pan drippings as you put the gravy together. Now add a cup of hot water to the pan drippings, and using a sturdy spatula, scrape the roasted-on bits and pieces off the bottom of the pan. Now, step back for a moment, because you have a decision to make.
Your decision is whether you want to leave the turkey fat in the gravy, or to skim it out before finishing the gravy. One consideration is that leaving the fat in will result in a more full flavored gravy (fat = flavor), and will make the construction job a little easier. If you don’t want the fat in your gravy, you’ll either need one of those fat separator cups (they’re the ones with the spout coming out of the bottom of the cup), or you’ll have to skim the fat off the pan juices – and that is best done with a large metal spoon and a tilted roasting pan.
* Putting Your Gravy Together – I’m a “leave the fat in the gravy” guy! And so for me, the remaining tasks are just this easy – Add 1 Tbs of flour for each cup of liquid (stock/water) you are going to add to your gravy, and with your whisk, stir the flour into the drippings – when they are well mixed, move the roasting pan over the largest burner on your stove and begin to heat – as it heats, slowly add the stock, whisking well all the time as it thickens. BTW, this method works because the dry flour combines with the fats in the pan – if you skim the fats out, don’t try this – read on.
Now, if you decided not to leave the fat in your gravy, you’ll have to use an alternate way to thicken it. After either separating the fat out of the drippings with the fat separator, or just skimming the fat off, determine the amount of liquid in your gravy, and for each cup, put 1 rounded Tbs of flour into a small bowl and add a half cup of milk or white wine – using a fork, stir the flour mixture until it is smooth and free of any lumps (use your fingers to see for sure). Heat the remaining drippings in the roasting pan until you see bubbles – using a large whisk, begin stirring the drippings while you add the flour/milk or wine mixture – it will thicken quickly – now add the stock slowly, stirring well with the whisk all the while the gravy thickens.
Either way you’ve chosen to make your gravy, you may find that it needs a little thinning down – consider doing that by adding some sherry or port, or even a spirit such as brandy or bourbon. For many, including myself, the gravy isn’t really finished until thusly anointed.
If Thanksgiving is a cooking adventure for you too, I hope it includes making your gravy by way of your stock pot – if you have always been a short-cut canned chicken broth gravy maker, I hope you’ll give the rich and deep gravies of a stock base a try this year, to see what a difference they can make.
But regardless of which way you go, here’s wishing you a delicious, but not over-filling Thanksgiving.