Thanksgiving dinner gives even seasoned cooks the jitters. And it's no wonder. The traditional feast is the most trumped-up meal of the year, yet it's one we never practice. How often do you make turkey, gravy and trimmings for 12?
Not to despair.
When the burden of Thanksgiving dinner rests solely with you, it's still possible to create a fine traditional meal without burning out before the guests arrive.
With careful menu selection, planning and a few turkey pointers, you can roll out a feast that would make Grandma proud.
And you can even dare to deviate.
Cooking instructor Tina Wasserman has developed a streamlined turkey dinner: Her turkey emerges from the oven atop table-ready vegetables and sauce.
Dishes that can be made ahead and baked (or microwaved) in casseroles make good accompaniments to the turkey.
And dishes don't have to be complicated to be good. A simple but sophisticated salad of Bibb lettuce, pears, walnuts and blue cheese is quick and easy. Blanched broccoli with a squeeze of lemon juice is a refreshing addition to a menu heavy with rich holiday food.
Instead of baking two pumpkin pies to serve a crowd, save time by making pumpkin pie squares. Baked in a 9-by-13-inch pan, the recipe serves 12.
Most cooks consider the turkey the biggest challenge of the Thanksgiving menu.
"The No. 1 question we've been asked, for 14 years, is how to make a picture-perfect turkey," says Jean Schnelle, director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, a toll-free hot line for cooks with turkey phobia.
"The most difficult part of our job is convincing people how simple it is to roast a turkey," she says.
Ms. Wasserman, who teaches a class on how to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, says her turkey is almost foolproof and always comes out moist.
She roasts the bird on a bed of tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, celery and onions. The turkey and vegetable juices combine to make a light "gravy" that needs no embellishment.
Ms. Wasserman also uses a secret ingredient: "The chicken liver really enhances the sauce. But people can't distinguish the liver flavor."
Whether you use Ms. Wasserman's recipe or go the traditional route, roasting the turkey is remarkably easy, Ms. Schnelle says. The only equipment she recommends: a meat thermometer, a 4-inch-deep roasting pan and a low rack that fits inside the pan so the heat can circulate around the turkey.
Pan depth is important, Ms. Schnelle says. "Too deep of a pan shields the sides of the turkey, preventing it from browning uniformly; too shallow a pan won't contain all the juice from a large turkey, which could lead to an oven fire."
Here, for the record, is Butterball's recommended technique:
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a flat rack in the roasting pan. Next, insert a meat thermometer deep into the thickest part of the thigh next to the body, not touching the bone. To prevent the turkey skin from drying out, rub it with butter or vegetable oil before roasting.
Once the turkey is in the oven, she says, leave it alone until it's about two-thirds done.
That's right -- no basting, no chronic opening and closing of the oven door, no worrying. She says frequent opening of the oven actually lengthens the cooking time.
Once the turkey is light golden brown (about two-thirds through the estimated cooking time), shield the breast loosely with lightweight aluminum foil to prevent overbrowning.
Put the shiny side out, because it reflects heat. "The turkey can dry out if the dull side faces out, Ms. Wasserman says. "The dull side absorbs heat."
About a half hour before the turkey is expected to be done, it's time to start checking the bird's internal temperature.
Although some experts discourage stuffing the turkey out of concern for food safety, Ms. Schnelle says a stuffed turkey can be perfectly safe -- with proper handling and preparation.
Warm bread is a no-no. Stuffed into a turkey ahead of time, it may create a breeding ground for bacteria, even if the turkey is refrigerated overnight.
"There isn't a problem if you stuff the turkey just before baking," says Ms. Schnelle. She adds that it is essential to check the internal temperature of the stuffing at the same time you're checking to see if the turkey is done.
The turkey is fully cooked when the thigh reaches 180 degrees to 185 degrees and the thickest part of the breast is 170 degrees. If the turkey is stuffed, the center of the stuffing should be 160 degrees to 165 degrees.
Once the turkey is cooked, let it sit out for 15 to 30 minutes before carving. "It slices better after it reabsorbs some of its own juices," Ms. Schnelle says.
Roasted turkey with vegetables
1 10- to 18-pound turkey
1 1-pound bag baby carrots, halved on the diagonal
3 to 4 large onions, roughly chopped
3 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
1 pound mushrooms, halved (sliced if large)
1/2 pound chicken livers, finely minced
1 28-ounce can crushed peeled tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
pepper and paprika to taste
garlic powder (optional)