Simplicity and store-bought items are blessing for Thanksgiving cook

November 16, 1994|By Teresa Gubbins | Teresa Gubbins,Universal Press Syndicate

In the ideal Thanksgiving dinner, the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner, we start weeks ahead of time, polishing silver, chopping cranberries and making corn bread for homemade stuffing.

The days leading up to the holiday meal are a glorious countdown of pureeing pumpkin and rolling pie crusts, of roasting chestnuts and mulling cider.

Welcome to the real world, where folks work or simply don't have the time to give Thursday's Thanksgiving dinner a thought until Wednesday. That reality sends many panic-stricken people to the supermarket to buy turkey, precooked, and all the trimmings.

That'll work. But you can retain the tradition of cooking your own Thanksgiving dinner, without investing weeks of time.

The secret is to keep the menu simple and take shortcuts where you can.

Use store-bought bread crumbs for the stuffing. Start with canned sweet potatoes instead of baking your own. And don't forget refrigerated pie crust and bread or rolls from the freezer section or bakery.

Some things, however, can't be rushed.

"The most important element is the turkey," says Celia McClelland, a home economist.

"A fresh turkey is the best choice for a last-minute dinner; then you don't have to worry about thawing," she says.

As long as you keep the turkey cold -- 35 degrees or colder -- it'll keep a good three days.

But many meat markets require ordering in advance, a tactic last-minute cooks might overlook. By Wednesday night, a frozen bird might be the only option.

The safest method of thawing the turkey is in the refrigerator, says Ms. McClelland. But again, you have to plan. Butterball recommends five hours of thawing for every pound of turkey. At that rate, a 15-pound turkey would take about three days to thaw in the refrigerator.

Enter the rapid thaw method. "If you need to thaw out a turkey quickly, you can do it in cold water," Ms. McClelland says.

First check the turkey bag to be sure there are no tears. Put the turkey in the sink or a large pan filled with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes or so. It's tempting to want to use warm water, but the water must remain cold. That's the key to preventing bacterial growth. The general rule for cold-water quick-thawing is 30 minutes defrosting time per pound.

The microwave oven is a good quick-thaw tool, suggests Anita Frank, a Dallas cooking consultant who teaches a quick-meals class. However, she offers one proviso.

"You have to be ready to cook it immediately once it's thawed out," she says. "That's the thing with the microwave: You can't thaw anything unless you finish cooking immediately. Sometimes the edges start cooking and once it starts, you can't stop it. If you rotate it frequently, it thaws more evenly."

Butterball suggests limiting the microwave thawing process to turkeys 12 pounds or under.

When it comes to cooking a turkey, there aren't many shortcuts. Reynolds Oven Bags, introduced 23 years ago as the Brown-In Bag, make the process convenient for cleanup but shave precious few minutes from the cooking time.

Ocean Spray, the cranberry company, suggests cooking two smaller turkeys at the same time instead of one larger turkey. ("It will cut cooking time by 2 1/2 to 3 hours," says the company's cheery little brochure.) But smaller turkeys are often the first to go at supermarkets.

About one point there is no dispute: The internal temperature of a turkey must reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to ensure the destruction of salmonella bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to check.

Cooking charts show a stuffed, thawed turkey takes 18 to 24 minutes per pound to cook, while an unstuffed turkey takes only 15 to 18 minutes per pound.

Ms. Frank cooks her dressing separately. "If you're worried about

taste, then baste the dressing with your turkey drippings, which gives nice flavor," she says. Or add plenty of chicken broth for moisture.

Many from-scratch fans have abandoned the old-fashioned way of making dressing and turn instead to seasoned bread crumbs or corn bread stuffing mixes.

"Those seasoned stuffing mixes are surprisingly good," says Ms. Frank. "I start with those and add things such as chopped onions or celery or pecans or sausage.

"A good variation if I'm really rushed is to use Pepperidge Farm's sage mix with a packet of wild rice," she says. "I boil the rice in chicken broth until the rice is tender. When it's chewable, I scoop it out and mix it into the stuffing mix. I save the broth and use it to moisten the dressing. The rice makes it look nicer and it tastes richer."

For chestnut dressing, Ms. Frank recommends buying chestnuts that are pre-shelled and cooked. Some supermarkets sell small bags in the freezer case.

Other side dishes such as vegetables are easy to make while the turkey is cooking. You can use frozen vegetables or some of the new precut packaged vegetables on the fresh produce aisle to save time. You can also find frozen or refrigerated mashed potatoes.

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