Time marches on faster every year. It is already November, and I am still trying to figure out what happened to summer. Yes, summer is my favorite season, but there are some special things about the upcoming holiday. I never thought I was really a traditional person, but sometimes I surprise myself with traditions that I have grown to love over the years.
Thanksgiving was not my favorite. It came at the end of a working week, and required a lot of preparation. I was pretty clever back in the day. My sister, Judy, was an excellent cook. Nothing was ever ordinary on her menus. She cooked and served with the flair of a Martha Stewart. For more than a decade she and I were the only immediate family in St. Louis. Our mom had been gone for years, our dad relocated to warm Arizona, and our other sister, Marilyn, lived near Washington D.C. Thanksgiving and Christmas became the holidays we did together, adding our children and their expanding families to the mix. I convinced Judy that she needed to do Thanksgiving every year. She had the time to do all the prep work that I did not. I could do Christmas, because the company where I was employed shut down between Christmas Eve and New Years. I had plenty of time to prepare on Christmas Eve, and clean up during the long stretch off work.
That all changed in 2012. My sister, Judy, passed away after a very short and difficult battle with cancer. It was a super hard year. Watching my sister who had been healthy all her life slip away from us in her 68th year was heartbreaking. My holidays changed forever. Later that same year I met my husband. So not only did my holidays change without her, my new life the following year in a new community in the country, changed my holidays even more. Tradition is wonderful, but we have to be prepared for changes, and how to shift and adjust to these changes.
Now I was in charge of all my holidays. I like my life to be stress free, so I look for ways to do that even during the holiday season. I never liked cooking turkey. I thought it as a big super dry chicken! Ha! I started watching the Food Network and going online to find the best way to cook a turkey. I found that the secret was brining the turkey before roasting. The first year I tried a brine that Alton Brown had on one of his cooking segments. He always gave the science behind what happens to the molecules while cooking, so I understood the brining process, but I wanted a brine that would be more my taste and style. I discovered a sweet and citrusy brine that worked to perfection. It is made with apple juice, brown sugar, kosher salt, orange peels, and a few spices. I will post the recipe below. The first thing I had to do was get a brining container. I went to the local Home Depot and purchased an empty 5 gallon plastic paint bucket. It cannot be one that ever had paint in it. I cooked up my brine days in advance, and when cooled, returned it to the apple juice bottles, including the peels and all, and refrigerated it until the night before Thanksgiving.
The night before Thanksgiving, I remove my thawed turkey from the refrigerator. (Remember to take out all the stuff on the inside—you know that little bag containing the neck, heart, giblets, and liver). I got my paint bucket and poured in all the brine ingredients. (Another reminder: don’t forget to wash the bucket well with warm sudsy dishwater, and rinse well). I put Tom Turkey down into the brine. If the turkey isn’t covered, I add water and ice to bring the solution above the turkey. I cover the bucket with one of my very large Tupperware seals and place a pot on top to keep the lid on. If the weather is not freezing outside, I set the bucket out on the screened-in porch for the night. In my other home, I put in on my patio, which is why I needed a heavy pot on top, so the critters wouldn’t try to get in the bucket. If it was a freezing cold Thanksgiving, I put the bucket in the garage which gives it enough protection from the cold, because the last thing I need to happen is the turkey refreezing.
Another preparation I did in advance is all the chopping of everything fresh for the stuffing, and yes, I stuff the bird. My mother stuffed the bird, my sister stuffed the bird, I stuffed the bird—and, no one has died yet! The celery, onion, and any other fresh ingredients used in a stuffing recipe is chopped and in containers in the refrigerator. I don’t like stress. I don’t want to be working like a crazy person on the day everyone is arriving. I want to relax and enjoy my guests, and not spend my time in the kitchen while everyone else is enjoying each other’s company.
My stuffing recipe is a pretty basic one, which is actually pretty much the one my mom made. There is something about eating food that tastes like my childhood to bring back warm fond memories of my mom and our family feasts. Once I am ready to stuff the bird, I retrieve it from it’s hiding place—the bucket. Hint: I put a couple bath towels on the floor around the sink because I have not found an easy and clean method to pull a big (18-22 lbs) bird out of the bucket and lift it to the sink. There will be a brine mess on the floor. My sink had been washed out so I can lay the bird in it, and I start rinsing it off. One of the secrets about brine is that through osmosis, the salt gets absorbed into the meat. Having too much salt on the skin surface is not what I want. I rinse and rinse and rinse. I make sure the crevices and interior of the bird is well rinsed. It will not take the salt or added moisture out of the meat. I pat the bird dry, set it in it’s rack. Side note: I have the best turkey rack in the world. I bought it years ago from QVC. This rack comes in three pieces — the two sides and a long pin that forms a hinge that holds them together. When I lift the rack with the turkey in it to the cutting board, the rack will wrap tightly around the bird so I have a stable grip. Once on the cutting board, I pull the pin out, and the sides of the rack slip off, and the bird is safely, without fuss ready to set and be sliced. Roasted meat should set for 20-30 minutes for the juices to settle in place before slicing. I cover the bird with aluminum foil to keep it warm during the setting time.
What is amazing about the brine, is that the turkey is moist, like no turkey I have ever eaten, and it has just the right amount of salt—no one has to salt their meat. I cannot describe what is like, but if you don’t like turkey because it is dry, worry no more, brining is the answer. My 99 year old mother-in-law does not like turkey. When she came to my first Thanksgiving four years ago, she politely took a small serving of turkey, and then proceeded to ask for more. She said it was the most moist turkey, and the most flavorful turkey she had ever had! Now that’s saying something since she at that time had 95 years turkey experience!
I have grown to love making Thanksgiving dinner. I do as much prep as possible ahead of time. Last year I had 30 guests for Thanksgiving. I made the turkey, stuffing, and pies. I actually made two turkeys, because it is all about the leftovers! Everyone brought sides and more dessert, because you can never have too much dessert! My pies were even prepped ahead of time, so that the evening before, they assembled and baked. All my side dishes are prepped in advance, and the table is set the day before (except when having 30)! Some tables have to wait!
This year I am making Thanksgiving dinner, but I am not serving it at home. I will roast my turkey a few days in advance, and prepare the sides. We will drive to St. Louis on Thanksgiving morning and stick the sliced turkey and side dishes in my son and daughter-in-law’s oven to warm up. We are leaving the next day for a long trip out west. I don’t want the mess or all the leftovers. It all stays with them!
I miss my sister and would much rather be celebrating the holidays with her, but I have learned to enjoy entertaining on this special holiday. I have so much for which to be thankful. My cup overflows, and I could not ask for more for which I have been blessed.
Everyone, wrangle up your family and your friends, and have them come to your place for a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. The most important ingredient for the dinner is gratitude! We should take time on that day, like the Pilgrims did in early America sharing their harvest with the Indians who taught them to farm, and be thankful for all the blessing our God has given us. Don’t forget why we have this holiday—it’s not about gorging yourself and watching football. It’s about being with those you love and being grateful for them and the life you have, even in its challenges. Happy Thanksgiving!
Ultimate Brine For Turkey
Brining a turkey results in an incredibly moist and juicy (not “watery”) bird every time.
- 1 1/2 cups, KOSHER salt (not regular, use Kosher)
- 1 1/4 cups, brown sugar
- 10 whole cloves
- 3 teaspoons, black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 gallons (6 quarts) apple juice or cider (non-alcoholic)
- The peel 3 oranges (colored part only – not white pith)
- Optional: 3 teaspoons, dried thyme and/or 3 teaspoons, dried sage
Note: I don’t always put all the spices in if I don’t have them. It’s really the apple juice, brown sugar, kosher salt, and oranges that make the brine so good.
Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes (partly covered). Allow brine to cool completely.
Rinse turkey under cool running water, inside and out (remove giblets from body cavity – but reserve them, if desired, for giblet gravy).
Pat turkey dry with paper towels, then immerse turkey in cooled brine.* Turkey should be COMPLETELY submerged in liquid (place a plate on top of the bird if necessary to keep it covered with the liquid).
Cover the pot and refrigerate for at least 8-10 hours, up to 24 hours.
Remove turkey, rinse, pat dry, and roast as usual.
Let the roast sit at room temperature for at least 1/2 an hour prior to carving.
Note: *Be sure that the container for the turkey in brine is non-reactive: use enamel, glass, crockery, stainless steel, even a plastic bucket – never cast iron or aluminum. The pot should be just large enough to contain the turkey (so the brine will be sufficient to cover the bird).