How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Timing Your Thanksgiving Dinner (a Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

Timing your Thanksgiving DinnerWelcome back to my special series on how to cook a delicious Thanksgiving Dinner even if you’ve never done it before. In this second-to-last installment, we’re covering not only timing your Thanksgiving Dinner, but how to get everything into your fridge in these critical days leading up to the big event. The series starts with Getting Organized, and you can find the links to The Gravy Tutorial, how to cook the turkey, and several of the side dishes at the bottom of the first post.

Timing is everything they say, and that’s certainly true when it comes to getting a bunch of different dishes cooked and all on the table at the right time. But fear not, I’ll walk you through the process below. But first, we have another job to do. Not one I want to be doing, nor does anyone else I know. But if you don’t, you’ll be making yourself a little crazier than you need to be come T-Day.

I’m talking about Cleaning the Fridge. Yes, I’m talking about going through your refrigerator and throwing out those little jars of pesto that you’re never going to use, all the science experiments, all the containers of something that’s probably still good but you have no idea what it is. Do the same with your freezer. I am willing to bet you’re going to free up a good 10 to 20 percent of space in each compartment. Why? Because we don’t like waste. So when there are leftovers, we tend to hang onto them. But then they don’t look so appealing, but we don’t want to waste, so we still hang onto them. And then they grow fur and we toss them with a cleaner conscience because we have spared ourselves some scary disease by doing so.

This is not the time to wait. You need that space for cut veggies, a turkey, Aunt Martha’s cranberry compote, turkey broth and all the other other ingredients of your feast.

However, keep in mind a couple things. You can pile stuff that’s packaged on top of that turkey. You’d also be surprised how many foods do just fine outside the fridge. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and many other veggies actually do better outside the fridge than in it. Anything you really need to keep crispy, like salad greens, carrots, celery, radishes, those do better in the fridge. Cheese, unless it’s processed cheese-like stuff, keeps perfectly well outside the fridge. In fact, that’s the whole point of cheese – it’s a way of preserving milk. Anything that is going to grow nasty critters if you don’t keep it below 40 degrees, such as meats, needs to go in the fridge. Bread does better outside the fridge. You can keep your sodas outside the fridge and pour them over ice when it’s time to serve. You can keep your butter outside the fridge. It’ll be a little soft, but then most folks prefer it that way.

Now to getting all the stuff in and out of the fridge and into the oven/onto the stove and onto the table to applause and acclaim. You just have to do some planning. If you don’t plan, you will be running around your kitchen, frazzled and crazed, and then when something goes wrong, well, they’ll be pulling you out from underneath the dining room table to get the vodka bottle you’re hugging to your chest. Even if everything doesn’t go according to plan, if you have one, it’s a hell of a lot easier to adjust to your actual circumstances.

So, get a nice glass of wine, a few bits of cheese to nibble on, a couple notepads or a pile of scrap paper, a pencil or pen or whatever you like to write with, and let’s lay everything out. Now, I am a gadget fan, but this is one of those instances where I prefer paper. When I’m using my tablet, the screen always goes dark right before I need to check something or when my hands are wet or gloppy. I suppose I could adjust the time before it goes to sleep, but then I have to remember to adjust it back. Not to mention, I’m always worried that the darned thing is going to fall into the sink or get melted by the toaster oven. Paper, on the other hand, is always on and will survive most kitchen mishaps. You can also tape paper to your cabinets. Can’t do that with a tablet. Your mileage may vary.

There are two tricks to timing. First up, write everything done. Go through your menu, item by item, and write down the steps you will take to make or reheat that item and in what pan, and in which dish you’ll serve it.  Add setting the table and pre-dinner clean up. Secondly, assume everything is going to take two to three times longer to do than normal. So what if the turkey is buttered and ready to go in the oven a full hour before it should? You put it back in the fridge and do something else on  your list.

If it helps, set alarms and write down what time something is supposed to happen, such as check the sweet potatoes at 4 p.m., instead of 20 minutes. Because you know you’re not going to remember when you put the sweet potatoes in the oven.

After you’ve got your list of menu items and the steps you need to take, get a second notepad or pull those sheets off the one you’ve been working with (or download my handy dandy checklist), and start a new list. What you’re going to do is work backwards from the time you’re hoping to serve the turkey and main course. So, say it’s going to take four hours to cook the turkey and you want to have dinner at 3 p.m. It’s going to take 20 to 30 minutes of rest time once the turkey is out of the oven, so it comes out around 2:30 p.m. and four hours before that is 10:30 a.m. It takes 20 minutes to cook the potatoes, and it’s going to take 30 minutes to eat the soup and salad courses, so the potatoes need to be in the water, ready for the heat just before 2:30, and the heat gets turned on at 2:40.

Yeah, it’s a little like battlefield maneuvers, but it will get your specific dinner on the table at roughly the right times. And if the turkey takes too long to cook, then spread out the hors d’oeuvres, soup and salad. If it’s cooking too fast, slow the heat, then skip the hors d’oeuvres and eat the soup and salad together. In short, just because you have everything set up to happen at this time or that, you may have to readjust. But because it’s all written down, no sweat. Just re-write as you go.

And after dinner, cram all that food back into the fridge and we’ll worry about the leftovers later.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Green Beans Amandine (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

Welcome back to my series on how to make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner, even if you’ve never done it before. If you’re just joining us, you can check out the first post, Getting Organized, which has all the links to the other posts, including how to roast your turkey and how to make gravy. This post is on a basic side dish that will get you lots of applause for minimal effort: Green Beans Amandine. Don’t be afraid of the fancy title. It’s just green beans sauteed with almonds.

Let’s be real. Thanksgiving Dinner is not about healthy eating. That being said, one does want to at least nod at healthier options and a green veggie side will go a long ways toward that nod. It’s all about balance, right?

The thing with Green Beans Amandine is that they sound fancy, but they’re really pretty basic. You can do the first step (the blanching) well ahead of T-day, then flip them in the pan with the butter while the turkey is resting from its bout with the oven. Try and get someone else to mash the potatoes. Or do the beans first, then mash the potatoes. Your call.

You need only three ingredients: Green beans (figure about five or six beans per person), almonds ( about a tablespoon for four people) and butter (not more than a tablespoon for four people). Oh, and water and salt.


The first part is easy (sort of), and this is the part you can do any time before Thanksgiving Day. Trim the icky bits off the beans (the stem ends and any bits that look black and nasty). Then put a good-sized pot of water on high heat. While you’re waiting for it to boil, set up a bowl big enough for all your beans, filling it with cold water and making sure you have some extra ice.

When the water in your pot is boiling, add the beans.


Give the beans about three to five minutes. While they’re cooking, add the ice to the bowl you set up. And watch the beans. You want them looking really green and perky, not that drab greenish brown that tends to come out of cans. They can still be a little stiff, but if they’re more flexible than when they went in, you are golden. Once they’re at that point, pull them out of the hot water with a slotted spoon or a sieve and dump them into the ice water bowl.


The idea is that you’re stopping the cooking right away so that the bean keep their pretty green color. Don’t worry if they’re still a little crispy. You’re going to be cooking them again, so you want them a tad undercooked here.

So the big day has arrived. The turkey is out of the oven, the soup and the salad have been consumed, the potatoes await mashing. All you have to do is melt a tablespoon or more of butter in a frying pan over medium heat, then toss in some slivered almonds – maybe a tablespoon per four people eating. (Note – I overdid it on the almonds in the below pics.) Stir those around until they’re just starting to pick up a brown tinge, then add your beans.


Give the beans a couple more stirs, add some salt, stir again, then turn the heat way down while you cut up your turkey, then mash your potatoes. Put everything into its proper serving container and serve. And that means pouring yourself a glass of wine and relaxing. The clean up will wait.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

A Mashed Potatoes Primer (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

Welcome back to my series on making your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner, even if you’ve never done it before. If you’re just joining us, you may want to check the earlier posts on Getting Organized, The Checklist, Tools and Decorations, The Gravy Tutorial, How to Cook the Turkey, and How to Make Soup. These were written with the idea that you’d be making and doing some of this stuff in the weeks approaching Thanksgiving and I know we’re getting down to the wire here, but you can still get organized and get it all together, even at the last second. Today, a quick primer on how to make Mashed Potatoes.

I know. You’re thinking seriously? How to make mashed potatoes? Isn’t that, like, the easiest dish to make?

Yeah. It is, but it’s also a critical one and you can turn those lovely spuds into a gluey mess if you’re not careful. However, this method is about as foolproof as it can get. Also, this is one of those dishes that you really have to make fresh. Which means while everyone is lingering over their salads, you’ll be in the kitchen finishing these up.

First up, figure out which potatoes to buy and how many of them you need. Personally, I like russets (or Idahos) for mashing. Those are the longish ones with the scaly brown skins on them. My husband likes the smooth red-skinned ones. And there are those who insist that Yukon Golds (which should be specifically labelled as such) are the absolute best. Yukon Golds do make a darned good mashed potato, but a) you’re going to have to find them and b) they cost considerably more. If you really want to, go for a mix of red and russet, which is, essentially what a Yukon Gold is. As to how many? Imagine a man’s fist (or if you’re a man, make one). You want one potato roughly that size for each person (or two that together are about that size), plus a couple extra for the pot, as it were.

Don’t stress on making too much. It’s really hard to because almost everyone loves mashed potatoes. Secondly, you can do all sorts of tasty things with the leftovers.

Cooking your mashed potatoes

The easy part is getting the potatoes prepped and cooked. We don’t peel the potatoes. You can, but it’s an extra step and you can’t peel them ahead of time because the insides turn an icky gray brown sitting in air. They’ll still taste all right, but they’ll look pretty nasty. About the time the soup is ready and you’re doing your final blast of heat on the turkey, you’ll want to cut up your potatoes into 2-inch chunks. Do not get a ruler out and measure. Just guess. Trust me, it will be fine. Make sure you get them into a pot and cover them with water, then cover the pot, and put it on the stove over high heat. Keep an ear out – it will start boiling over, at which time, you go over to the stove and turn it down to medium heat and let it go for about another 20 minutes or so. You’ll probably be done with your soup (or whatever) around then. The turkey should be ready to come out of the oven to rest. Let the potatoes rest in the water, also.

Now, for the mashing. Drain the potatoes by holding the lid open just enough for the water to get out, but not the potatoes and flip it over the sink. This obviously works better with a pot with a long handle than like a Dutch oven. If you had to resort to one of those, get someone to help you drain.

mashed potatoes

Note – you’re not getting out an extra bowl or anything to mash in. Use the pot. Now add a couple chunks of butter – about a tablespoon per five potatoes, but that’s just a rough guestimate. You can add up to half a stick (four tablespoons) and probably be fine even with a relatively small amount of potato. Start with a little, and some salt and pepper. You can always add more if the potatoes aren’t as creamy as you’d like.

mashed potatoes

Same with the milk. Add a little and see what happens as you mash. You can always add more, you can’t add less. Now, if you’re used to precise proportions as laid out in a recipe, that can feel really uncomfortable. But the recipe is going to steer you wrong as often as not. The recipe writer has no idea what kind of potatoes you have, what conditions they were grown in, how hot or cool your kitchen is. You’ve just got to add a little at a time and see what happens.

Mashed potatoes

Now, for the mashing. Don’t use anything mechanical, even for a mountain of potatoes. Use a hand masher. It won’t take long to do by hand and you won’t end up with glue – a real risk when you’re using a hand mixer or immersion blender.

Mashed potatoes

And that’s pretty much it. If you’ve got time, try a sample batch tonight or sometime the week before Thanksgiving. Because mashed potatoes are insanely tasty and relatively easy to pull off. Even without a recipe.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Make Soup for Thanksgiving (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

Welcome back to yet another installment in my special November series on how to make a delicious Thanksgiving Dinner even if you’ve never made one before. Today’s bonus post will show you how to make soup, or specifically, a lovely tomato basil soup, for your first course. Earlier posts include getting organized, plus a checklist, tools and decorations, the gravy tutorial, and how to roast the turkey.

Your first question is probably on this day, when there’s already a ton of food to eat, why make soup? Well, okay, part of it is that my family always did for our special dinners. Also, it does help with timing your dinner. You can serve it as fast or as slowly as your bird is cooking and finishing or simply skip it if everything’s cooking too fast. Ideally, your bird is getting its final blast of heat while you’re serving the soup. But we know how often that happens.

The other great thing about soup is that you can make it way ahead of time and just heat it up again on the big day. This particular soup, Tomato Basil, has lots of advantages. It’s insanely easy, relatively cheap, very easy to double or triple (just buy more cans of tomatoes) and tastes even better re-heated. It’s also light enough that your guests won’t fill up and not eat anything else. I got the official recipe from the chef at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel (which is now the Langham Huntington Hotel), then adapted it to my needs. It’s a household fave, and we usually serve it with grilled cheese sandwiches or toasted cheese bread. You can either use a regular blender, a food processor or an immersion blender to puree it. Or don’t puree it. It’s still perfectly lovely. It will also serve six to eight people, depending on how generous you are and since it’s a first course, you don’t have to be.

You’ll need some cooking oil, an onion, a few cloves of garlic, a 28-ounce can of tomatoes (diced is good, but whole are fine, too), water, salt and pepper, and some basil, either fresh or dried. I also like to add a generous splash of vodka – it really punches up the tomato flavor.



Cut your onion in half, lengthwise, pull back the papery peeling, then slice each half, discarding the stem and root ends. The slices get tossed in your pot with just enough cooking oil to cover the bottom of the pan (I usually use corn or canola oil).


You’re going to cook this over medium heat until the onions are almost translucent and maybe even a little browned on the edges. While that’s happening, peel and slice your garlic cloves. And you can use as many as you like. If you’re a total garlic freak, use the whole head. If you hate garlic, use less or leave it out. I personally stick to three to four medium cloves. Get your can of tomatoes open and if you’re using the vodka, get that open, too. Once the garlic goes in, you have to move a little quickly to keep it from burning because burnt garlic tastes seriously nasty. So pop the garlic in the pot with the onions, stir just until you can smell it, then add the vodka (about a shot’s worth or a couple, three tablespoons), stir that, then toss in the can of tomatoes and stir that. If you’re using dried basil, add about a tablespoon, or more if you really like it, now, along with salt and pepper. Fill the can with water, and add that. If it looks like there’s not enough, i.e. you can see too many tomatoes and not enough soup, then fill the can again and pour just enough to cover everything and a bit more. This last bit means you’ve also rinsed the can and can throw it directly into your recycling bin, saving you a step.

Give your soup a quick taste. It will mostly taste like tomatoes, but if you think it could use some more salt, go ahead and add a little extra. Cover the pot and bring the soup to a boil by turning the heat all the way up. You can wander away for a couple minutes, but be careful, because once the soup is boiling, you want to turn the heat down to simmer. Let it go for 20 minutes or so.

Now, comes the fun part. Add your basil leaves (if you’re using the fresh ones), plug in your immersion blender and turn the heat off. It’s probably smart to take the pot off the stove, but I’ve been doing this so long, I, uh, forgot.


You can also do this in your traditional blender or food processor, which makes one heck of a mess. It’s why I love my immersion blender. Anyway, you want it relatively smooth. It won’t be perfectly smooth. It doesn’t need to be.



Taste it again to see if it needs any more salt or pepper and you are good to go.  You can either put it in jars or another container and put it back in the pot to reheat. Or just hold it at a simmer for serving the day of. It’s easier to make it ahead, but harder to find room in the fridge. Your call.





How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Cook a Turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner

We’re coming down the wire for my series on how to cook your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner, even if you’ve never done it before. We started with Getting Organized, added a Checklist, then looked at the tools and other things you might need, and last week looked at the trickiest part of the meal, The Gravy. If you’ve been following the series, then you’re already practicing your gravy technique. If you’re new, there’s probably still time. This week it’s how to cook a turkey.

It’s all about The Bird. Roasting a turkey is pretty easy. You prep the birdie, slap it in the oven. It cooks to 165 degrees. You pull it out, let it rest for 20 minutes while you mash the potatoes, finish the gravy and the green beans. The you slice it in the kitchen, so you can snatch some of the yummy crispy skin first, and serve.

The trick is roasting the turkey so that it’s done at a certain time, such as after all the guests have arrived but before Grandma gets tipsy. Because turkeys are so big, they take a lot of time to roast. Not to mention ovens get cranky and depending on how cold your bird is before you put it in, it may take more or less time to get cooked all the way through. And you want it cooked all the way through because undercooked poultry is icky and because it can transmit salmonella, which is no fun at all.

I shoot for a slower cooking time – it’s easier to adjust for the timing of your meal. And it’s a much bigger problem if your bird is done too soon. Holding it in the oven or reheating it can dry it out and that’s not tasty. If it does happen to you, don’t despair. That’s what gravy is for. Just go ahead and slice the bird up and put it in a roasting pan or oven-safe dish, and cover it tightly with foil. Turn the oven to warm and if you can find the room (and you should, since the bones will be mostly gone), slide a pan of water on the lowest rack in the oven or on the floor. This will keep things somewhat moist.

A lot of folks recommend brining, and I used to be one of them. Until I discovered just how freaking hard it is to find a bird that hasn’t already had salt and other flavors injected into it. If your local turkeys are unbrined and you do want to, there are plenty of recipes out there on the Internet. But it is an extra step, plus the hassle of finding room in the fridge. Unless you’re in a part of the country where it’s below 40 degrees at night, in which case, a cooler on the back porch, securely closed, will probably do just fine and keep things perfectly safe. And speaking again of safety, you really want to make sure you clean any surface the raw turkey has come into contact with, and that you wash your hands before touching anything else. It’s a bit of a pain, but better than making your guests sick.

One note – because the stores hadn’t gotten their turkeys when I did the photos, I’m doing the demonstration on a chicken. Fear not. It is exactly the same process. The only difference is the size. And the first step is to figure out when you need to get the sucker into the oven. You’re going to be roasting it at 300 degrees, so figure it’s going to take 15 minutes for each pound of bird you have. I have a 12-pounder, so that’s 12 times 15, which is 180 minutes, divided by 60, equals three hours. You have a 20-pounder, that’s 20 times 15, which is 300 minutes, divided by 60, and that’s five hours. You want dinner at three. Bird goes into the oven at 10 a.m.-ish. If you’re going to stuff your bird (which I do not recommend because it takes longer and it’s harder to tell if the stuffing got cooked all the way through), then figure 20 minutes per pound.

It’s okay if the bird goes in a little late. Because I haven’t shared with you the one trick that will pretty much guarantee (as much as anything can) that the birdie will come out when you want it to. You’re going to blast it with high heat at the end of the cooking cycle. I learned this from watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats show on making turkeys, and I forget why he likes it. But I think it makes the skin crispier to blast at the end and I know I get a lot better control over when the verdamnt bugger comes out. Getting close to dinner time and the thermometer in the bird hasn’t crept past 100 degrees? Start blasting. Things cooking a little too fast? Turn down the heat until closer to dinner time, then blast the bejeebers out of it right before you serve the soup.

Which brings me to another major point – you will need at least an instant read thermometer. If you rely on the little pop-up that some birds come with, you will get over-done, dried out bird. Also, you won’t be able to tell when to turn the heat up. I like a probe thermometer, because you stick it in, put the bird in the oven and it stays. The wire drags out of the oven to the read out, but you can see exactly where your bird is at any time. And you can use it for any roast, meatloaf or even bread that you put in the oven.

Now, turn your oven to 300 degrees and prep your roasting pan, which means finding something to keep the bird above the fat and other goodies that drip to the bottom. This allows air underneath the bird and it doesn’t get so greasy. Or so I’m told. If you don’t have a rack, a small plate turned upside down will do just fine.

How to cook a turkey

Using a small plate on the left, using a rack, to hold the bird up and away from the drippings.


Wash and dry the turkey both inside and out. This is one of those rare occasions when a paper towel really does the job better than anything else.



Now, you want to season the skin. You can use oil, with salt and pepper and/or other seasonings, use only plenty of salt and pepper, or my fave: slather on some butter all over, then salt and pepper. It’s Thanksgiving and unless you have an exceptionally compelling reason to cut the calories back, it’s worth the indulgence. Do cut off the half stick of butter before you use it because you’ll just contaminate the whole stick and butter ain’t that cheap.  All you do is scoop up a chunk of butter, warm in in your hand for a moment, then rub it all over, starting with the breast side. That’s the really meaty side.




Then flip the bird into the roasting pan, breast side down. What? Am I committing heresy here? Hell, yes. It’s like I said in one of my earlier posts, that image of everyone ooing and ahhing at the perfectly browned bird? It’s a terrible way to roast a bird. All the juices drip into the back, which you don’t eat. Roasting a bird breast down doesn’t give you the pretty presentation, but all those lovely juices drip into the breast and helps keep it moist and delicious. I know which I’d rather eat. And you’ll be slicing this sucker in the kitchen to further spare you the embarrassment of doing a bad slicing job. One other benefit of roasting the bird on its breast, you don’t have to tie it up (even if you do stuff, which I do not recommend), nor do you have to worry about putting foil on the wings so they don’t get over done. No, as you see in the photo below, the wings tuck in very nicely on their own, as do the legs.

Do remember, however, to butter the backside of the bird, and generously salt and pepper it.



Insert your probe in the breast, away from any bone. Folks say put the probe near the thigh. I always hit a bone or the cavity and my bird ends up underdone, which is bad. If you plan to roast to 165 degrees, then everything gets done, but not overdone, and carryover heat (that final bit of cooking that gets done outside the oven while the bird is resting) takes care of the rest.



Set your probe thermometer to 140 degrees, or plan to check the turkey about every hour it’s in the oven. Put it in a 300 degree oven, but don’t stress if your forgot to turn it on earlier. Just turn it on now. It’s not going to hurt anything. That bird is going to be cooking a while. In an ideal world, you’ll be cooking it until the internal temperature hits about 140 degrees (about the time the hors d’oeuvres are set out), then blasting it with high heat until the internal temp reaches around 165-167 degrees. As noted above, if it’s cooking too fast, turn the oven down and check again in another half hour or so. If it’s cooking too slowly, give it about 15 to 20 minutes, then start blasting. And by blasting, I mean turning up your oven to its highest heat, around 500 degrees. Do keep an eye on things. My oven takes freaking forever to get to 500 degrees, even when it’s been cooking at 300 degrees. You may want to turn your oven on before Thanksgiving and see how long it takes to get to 500 degrees. It should only take about half an hour for the blast phase, but again, you can’t cook by numbers. Watch the birdie.

Oh, look. It’s done. You’ve strong-armed the bugger out of the oven. Now, using a couple sets of tongs and/or some long forks, pull it from the pan and set it on a cutting board (we like to put our cutting board on a half-sheet pan to catch all the juices) and cover with foil to keep warm while it rests. Now, we like our wooden cutting boards. We clean them with extremely hot water and a little bleach after every use and rinse them again. There are those who say that’s still not enough – and if you have someone among your guests with a compromised immune system, it may not be. You can also use a plastic cutting mat. One other note, you may want to cook some broth in that messy roasting pan, scraping all the bits off the bottom and sides, then pour everything into a jar, which you’ll put in your fridge once it’s cooled. It may be too salty for the gravy, but just salty enough to perk some up or for extra gravy later. Or you may have to toss it. But your roasting pan will be a lot easier to clean.


Now, to the cutting (and let’s thank my Beloved Spouse for demonstrating this part). First your remove the legs, separate the drumsticks from the thighs, and set them on your serving plattter, cut the meat off the thighs. Remove the wings next.


Cut the bird vertically along the breastbone, then cut the slices of breast meat from the front to the back. Repeat on the other side.



Seriously. That’s it. Serve the turkey forth, sit down and drink a big glass of wine. You’ve earned it at this point.

Catch the whole series here. Scroll down for all the links.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Make Gravy (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

This week’s post on how to make gravy is part of my month-long series on how to make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner even if you’ve never done it before. You can start with the first post, on getting organized and planning your menu, and download a checklist, then read up on what you do and don’t need. Next week, we’ll look at how to cook a turkey.

So, the bus won’t come for another half hour, and I’m killing time with a half glass of very good pinot blanc at the local wine store, Everson Royce, and the kid behind the bar points out that if I miss my bus, I can have another glass of wine. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but, I say, I have to get back home and make gravy for my blog series on how to make Thanksgiving Dinner.

“Gravy,” says another nice young man sipping wine. “That’s the most important part of the meal!”

His girlfriend and the kid behind the bar both agreed. Strongly.

This is why we’re looking at making gravy now. You do not want to make a bad gravy for Thanksgiving. I know. I’ve done it. For my in-laws. [She shudders.]

The thing is, gravy is the trickiest part of the whole shebang. The good news is that you can make it ahead. You can make enough to float an oil tanker or just enough to drizzle on the turkey slices you’re eating by yourself. And if you make too much, it’s a terrific leftover. The bad news is that making gravy involves actually cooking rather than following a recipe. It’s the technique that counts and you have to practice.

I’ll try and keep the rant short, here, but it’s the basic problem with cooking by numbers (i.e. following a recipe). Even the best recipe writers can’t account for your specific circumstances. Maybe you have an oven that runs hot. Maybe the onions that are grown in your area give off a lot of water. Cooking means you’re actively involved in the process and keeping an eye on it. When you’re cooking and the recipe says to add another cupful of water and what you’ve got is already too soupy, then you know you don’t add that extra cup of water. If the stew needs to cook longer, then it needs to cook longer. If you smell something burning, you check what’s in the oven, never mind what the timer or the recipe says.

Gravy is a process, but it’s not a hard one. You need the following items, some all purpose flour, some stock (aka broth), a fat-separator cup (not really necessary, but really handy to have), a pan and a whisk. The whisk will make your life a lot easier. Also, you want everything close at hand, because when it comes time to stir, you have to keep stirring and it helps to have everything within reach so you can grab it with your free hand. I made my gravy for these pictures from a roasted chicken – and you can make your practice gravies this way.IMG_2890

You also need fond. That’s the French word for all that grease and goop in the bottom of your roasting pan when you’ve taken whatever it was you were roasting out. Now, Thanksgiving Day, that’s supposed to be your turkey. Most turkeys these days come pre-brined, and if yours isn’t, it’s a very good idea to brine it. But brining means there’s a lot of salt in the fond or drippings, and that can be a bit much for the gravy. So for your make ahead gravy, you’ll buy some turkey wings and roast those a day or two before the big event, then make the gravy with those drippings. Figure one wing if you only need gravy for, say, four people, then buy more wings depending on the size of your crowd and how much they love gravy. You can butter the wings first or not, but do make sure you salt and pepper them, then roast them in a 325-degree oven until the skin is brown and there are plenty of juices, maybe an hour, maybe not. Take the wings out. You can do whatever you want with the meat on them. The real gold is in the roasting pan.

What I’m doing in the picture below is something that’s called de-glazing. You will love de-glazing, I promise you. Not only does it result in some totally awesome sauces, it makes the pan a lot easier to clean later. What I did was pour some chicken stock into the hot roasting pan (from which I had just removed a roasted chicken). I put that over medium-high heat on the stove – and you can’t see it, but I’ve got my whisk in there, mixing everything up and scraping up all the meaty bits from the bottom and sides of the pan. You know, the bits that usually get glued to the bottom of the pan and make it insanely hard to clean. You could add wine instead of the stock, if you like. You could add water – it just doesn’t taste very good.IMG_2895


Once everything is mixed up and the pan is mostly scraped, I pour all that meaty goodness into the fat separating cup. And wait a couple minutes.IMG_2896


See… All that golden goo at the top? That’s fat and if you get too much of it in your gravy, it’s going to taste greasy. But notice – the cup pours from the very bottom where the good drippings are. If you use a regular cup, you’re going to have to pull all that fat off the top before you can use the drippings on the bottom.IMG_2898


The best gravies are made with a roux – a mixture of fat and flour (aka starch) which combine to suspend particles in the stock (or other fluid) and thickens it. I discovered this next trick on my own, but have since learned that a lot of others knew about it as well. Anyway, I take some of that clear fatty goo from the fat separator cup and use that as my fat instead of butter. You don’t need a lot of it. I put three spoonfuls (maybe a tablespoon) into my pan. Then turn on the heat to medium-high.IMG_2901


Now, I add the flour, just enough to get the fat all grainy and gloppy. This is where great gravies live or fail. You have to keep stirring that flour and fat together so they combine smoothly.IMG_2903


Don’t panic if it’s lumpy at first. Just keep stirring and stirring.IMG_2904


I pour the remaining drippings into the flour and fat mixture, making sure as little of that extra fat in the separator cup gets into the gravy as possible. And you’ll note, I’m still stirring. It’s going to lump up again, but don’t stress. It will smooth out. Or it should.IMG_2907


Now, I add the broth. This is again where it gets tricky, because you want enough to make a nice, smooth gravy, and it can be thicker, if you like it that way, or a little runnier. Add a little at a time. You can always add more. You can’t add less (although you can sometimes get the gravy to cook off the water and thicken up that way). But whatever you do, keep that whisk stirring.gravy

This is what you’re looking for, thick enough to coat the spoon, but not a sullen pool of Jello, either. Turn the heat down as low as possible. Now, taste it. You will probably need to add salt, but don’t assume that. Taste it first. You can add some pepper, maybe some sage (I don’t, but you can) or some other flavor you like.



It does occasionally happen that no matter how much you stir, you still have lumps. There are three ways you can deal with this. You make a new batch with new turkey wings or whatever (a bit of a problem on the day of – another reason why I recommend the make-ahead approach). You can run the gravy through a sieve, picking out the meaty bits and adding them back. Or remember that immersion blender I mentioned last week? You can whiz the bejeebers out of the gravy. You do lose the texture of your meaty bits and you may have to put the heat up afterwards to boil off the water and re-thicken it, but the lumps will be gone.

And don’t sweat it – as long as the gravy tastes good, you’ll probably be okay. And practice. Roast some chicken pieces or a bit of beef (using the appropriate broths with each). There are worse things in the world than having to eat roasted meats with gravy.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Thanksgiving Dinner: What You Do and Don’t Need

Welcome back to my month-long series on how to make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner even if you’ve never done this before. This week, we’ll be covering some things you might need before you get started. In the following weeks I’ll be covering making gravy, how to cook the turkey and how to set everything up so that it all lands on the table at the right time. Plus there will be bonus posts on making some of the side dishes. Already, we have planning your dinner here and a special checklist and more thoughts on the menu here.

If you downloaded my checklist, you’ll see that there are three passes at shopping for the big day. It may sound like a lot of trouble to do it that way, but if you can get the bulk of your shopping done early, you’ll be beating the crowds and then some. If you’ve ever fought your way through a supermarket during the weekend before Thanksgiving, you’ll know what I mean. Getting as many items as you can ahead of time will give you less to buy that weekend, which means fewer altercations in the stuffing aisle.Thanksgiving Dinner photo

So part of planning for the big day is figuring out what you have in the way of serving and other dishes, cooking equipment and the like so that you can buy or borrow it before you’re fighting over the last gravy boat in the china department. This also, by the way, includes ambiance and decor. Now, if you’re one of those folks who are good at this and love going nuts, be my guest. Or rather, let me be yours. I suck at ambiance. I’m lucky if I remember to put the now-grown offspring’s paper bag turkey on the table.

And if this is your first time doing the big meal, there are other more important things to think about, like the cooking. Yeah, yeah. I know we eat with our eyes first, but your guests will forgive a haphazard presentation if the food tastes good. No presentation can make up for lumpy, icky gravy and a dry bird. So, pour yourself a glass of wine and remind yourself that you are not Martha Stewart. You do not have to be Martha Stewart. Martha Stewart can go soak her perfect head in one of her hand-trimmed buckets. Putting out the nice dinnerware, tablecloths and napkins (no, it does not all have to match), and a couple candlesticks should be enough. Also, a fancy centerpiece makes it hard for your guests to see each other over it and there’s less room on the table for all that food you’re cooking.

So check your tablecloths, napkins and plates and serving dishes and add what you need to your shopping list. Also, if you really, really want the fancy turkey platter or gravy boat, there’s no reason not to buy it. Just remember that you’ll only use one day a year and that you have to store it the rest of the time. I went with the gravy boat – it’s small. And on the matter of plates, you may be considering using paper or other disposables. I have issues with that because of the environment thing and adding to our landfills. I also understand that when your guest list has ballooned to huge proportions, disposables seem pretty attractive. The one good use for them is when you’ve got a lot of very small children on the guest list and  you have to serve buffet style. Kids can learn to handle real dinner-ware at surprisingly young ages, but if you’ve got a lot of them and no table, you may want to provide a sturdier option than your grandma’s china.

Next on your shopping list should be three or four potential wines for your dinner. Unless you already have a go-to wine – we love Beaujolais Nouveau with our Thanksgiving Dinner. That being said, we do not serve any wine we haven’t tasted. Wine with Thanksgiving Dinner can be tricky. You’ve got a lot of strong flavors, some of which are pretty sweet and that can really mess up the flavor of even the best cabernet sauvignon. Think of sipping orange juice after a big syrupy bite of pancakes. You can check out our blog for a quick tutorial on pairing and tasting wine for Thanksgiving here. But make sure you invest in some tasting bottles and try them with sweet potatoes and/or turkey beforehand.

Now, your cooking equipment. The major item that you probably already have, but may not, is a good, solid roasting pan. I’ve tried the aluminum ones from the supermarket and, well, let’s not talk about that particular disaster. Mine is 9-inches by 13-inches and I’ve roasted 22-pound birds in it quite successfully. A rack with handles is a good thing to have, but I’ve used everything from a small cooking rack to a small plate turned upside-down. All work very well. But the good, solid roasting pan is well worth the investment, as are a probe thermometer, and immersion blender and a gravy de-fatter (see the slider below).

Some things you do not need are roasting bags, lacing kits and basters. Seriously. You do not need them because you will not use them. Period.

Now, I’ve included the below slider with a carousel of stuff you might need, assuming you don’t already have them.

[metaslider id=876]



How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Checklist for Thanksgiving Dinner (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

This is part of a multi-part series that will help you make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner, even if you’ve never done one before). I’ll be giving over the entire month of November to this series, which will include my usual weekly posts, plus several bonus posts.

Last time, I wrote about planning and your menu, and naturally, I came up with a few other thoughts as soon as it was posted. But instead of updating that post, I thought I’d simply add this bonus post – which also has the added special goodie: a checklist you can use to plan your meal.

The checklist is a basic Word doc that you can download at the bottom of this post. It’s nothing fancy or pretty. I did it that way to give you maximum flexibility in planning your Thanksgiving meal. It starts with a basic task list and a rough schedule of when to get things done. It may seem a little over-planned, especially since you’re assigning serving dishes to meal items three weeks ahead of time. But trust me, Thanksgiving morning is not the time to find out your best meat platter is broken. Or that you have one serving bowl and two sets of potatoes.

The other reason you want to be sure early on that you have everything you need is that you will need to buy or borrow whatever you don’t have, and you do not want to be fighting over the last gravy boat on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. You’ll have other emergency purchases to make that night. That’s why there are three shopping passes on the list.ThanksgivingChecklist001

The list is broken up into two parts. The task or checklist and the menu, which will also serve as your timing worksheets when we get to that point. It also has spaces for what pots you’re going to use and where you’re going to cook it. (You can see a sample of how I filled one of these out for my dinner in the photo on the right). Your turkey won’t necessarily be in the oven. Maybe you’ve got your heart set on smoking it outside, or there’s someone in the household crazy enough to deep fry it. I seriously do not recommend deep-frying. It can be very dangerous, especially if you’ve never done it before. If you’re going to try something that crazy, save it for after you’ve got a few more Thanksgiving dinners under your belt and plenty of folks to help. That being said, smoking and frying do mean that your oven will be free for sweet potato casseroles and other goodies. So there is that.

I’m also going to assume you’re going to buy dessert. Why not? There are plenty of perfectly good bakeries and frozen options out there, and dessert can be tricky. Make it easy on yourself.

And a couple other thoughts on menu planning. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if you have junior members in the household. I am firmly in favor of child labor. Okay, not the child labor that involves underfed 7-year-olds picking cacao beans for pennies a day. I mean putting your own children to work helping you clean house, cut veggies and being useful, in general. That’s how they learn to clean house and cook so they’re not dependent on you or frantically searching web sites the night before Thanksgiving to find out how to cook a freaking turkey.

Also on the menu planner is a space for those items that can possibly be made ahead of time. Not too far ahead of time, or sure as shooting, somebody in the household will discover the jar that plainly reads “Don’t touch under pain of death” and suck down the one perfect gravy you finally made. It’s appalling how otherwise perfectly intelligent human beings suddenly forget how to read or think gravy is a really thick soup. And if you’re going to serve chip and dip for hors d’oeuvres, that should probably wait until closer to the main event to buy and serve, especially if you have hungry teen-age males in the house. However, there are a good many things you can make ahead of time, including soup, sweet potatoes, stuffing. Three things you will want to make fresh are the turkey, the mashed potatoes (they get funky when they’ve been made ahead) and your green vegetable side. And probably also your salad, but there are some salads that you can make ahead. Make-aheads can make your life easier. Unless you forget to serve them. That’s why we make lists. And lists of lists.

Your Free Thanksgiving Checklist

Week One: Five Weeks to Thanksgiving Dinner

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Five Weeks to Thanksgiving Dinner (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

This is Part One of a special five-week series that I’ll be doing to help you make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner with a minimum of stress and anxiety.We’ll be covering timing, equipment, shopping, how to squeeze everything into the fridge, starting today with Planning and The Menu.

ThanksgivingCalendarShotCue the theme from Jaws. It’s coming. Thanksgiving Day. And you’re the one making dinner. Maybe you got a little too tipsy last year and volunteered. Maybe there is simply no one else to do it. Maybe it’s something you’ve always wanted to try. Either way, you know it’s coming and it’s not going to be a simple project, and maybe you’re still a little bit in denial, but trust me, you want to start thinking about this now.

Why? Because it takes planning to get everything made and on the table at the right time. Planning will save your backside several times over, especially when something goes wrong – and it inevitably does. But Don’t Panic. I’m here to walk you through the process so that come November 26, you’ll still be speaking in complete sentences and everyone will be appropriately stuffed. So pour yourself a nice glass of wine, get out your pen and paper or tablet or sticky notes or however you like to take notes and your calendar. You’ve got this one.

Thanksgiving Dinner is not that complicated. Or let me re-phrase that. None of the traditional dishes that make up a Thanksgiving Dinner are that complicated in and of themselves, unless one of those dishes is Grandma’s special seven-layer cake with a different flavor for each layer, or special sweet potato souflle and it’s just not Thanksgiving without it. What makes Thanksgiving challenging is the sheer quantity of dishes you’re preparing and the need to get a bunch of those dishes on the table at the same time.

The other challenge is the high expectations we have for the meal. It’s laden with tradition and a host of other cultural baggage, only starting with that rotten Norman Rockwell painting of Grandma placing the perfectly roasted turkey before Grandpa, surrounded by eager faces. Do yourself a favor and banish that image from your head right now. Pour another glass of wine if you have to. For one thing, the only reason you want your turkey looking like that is for the image. It’s a horrible way to roast a bird – and we’ll cover that in Week Four.

The first part of planning is figuring out who will be there. Are you planning a blow-out for the 50 or so relatives that show up every year? You and five or six of your friends who have no relatives near? You and your beloved and the kids? Which of those persons is a vegetarian or has other food issues? Who’s the die-hard traditionalist and is it worth ruffling said persons’ feathers?

And speaking of ruffling feathers, there is no law that says you must have turkey on Thanksgiving. I’m going to assume that we are. A ham or roast beef is also very nice, and I have a cousin who serves all of the above. But no matter what you decide to serve, keep it simple, especially if this is your first time doing the whole shebang.

Once you have your guest list firmly in place, look at your kitchen. Before you decide what to cook and how to cook it, it helps to have a grip on what your resources are. You don’t want to plan three casseroles on top of The Bird when you only have one small oven. My personal arsenal includes an average-sized oven, four burners on the stove top, a crockpot, a toaster oven and a microwave. One other quick tip – if possible, make sure your microwave and your toaster oven are not on the same electrical circuit. They are massive power hogs. It’s easy to test. Turn both on at the same time and see if the power goes out. You don’t want to be relying on the nuker to re-heat the gravy while you’re toasting some nuts for the green beans and have the circuit blow.

Now, let us proceed to The Menu. The basic elements of the day’s dinner are the turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, vegetable and pie. I also like to serve hors d’oeuvres, soup and salad and I serve them in courses. Why? You can buy yourself all kinds of stalling time if the turkey decides it’s going to take its sweet time getting done or if Uncle Jimmy is late again (lovely man, no sense of time). You can also serve the three courses right on top of each other if the bird gets done too soon. Finally, if you serve in courses, it gives your guests a few minutes to relax and re-group before the final onslaught while you do the last second stuff like carve the bird and mash the potatoes. Notice – I did not say make the gravy. You can do it at the last second, but that is fraught with peril. On Week Three, we will have the tutorial on gravy – a make ahead gravy.

Hors d’oeuvres can be as simple as chips and dip. Or a relish tray and dip. Or cheese and crackers. Or black olives that the little ones can stick on their fingers and suck off. As long as there are just enough munchies to occupy impatient guests without getting them too full for dinner. You can buy some excellent soups and keep them warm in a crockpot. Or you can make a soup the weekend before. Just find something rather light, like veggies in broth, since the rest of the dinner is going to be pretty heavy. Or you can make a sweet potato soup and cover that part of the meal. The same with the salad – just basic greens. Check out my post on Salad Basics II for some ideas.

As for which vegetable side, how to cook the sweet potatoes, and what stuffing to make, that’s going to depend on your guests and your own tastes. I, personally, loathe stuffing. It’s just soggy bread. Blech. But for some reason, that’s the first thing to go on my table. People like it, so it’s worth making. Now, whether you stuff your turkey with it, there are a lot of considerations there, but I’ll cover that in the Turkey post.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your little brother throws a hissy if there isn’t any green bean casserole, ask him to bring it. Talk your friend into bringing the sweet potatoes and marshmallows, especially if, like me, you are staunchly opposed to sweet potatoes and marshmallows. And use recipes. I know – I usually don’t encourage that, and being able to throw together a soup or a salad without having to refer to one will make your day go more smoothly. But there are traditions to uphold here, and if you need a recipe to make it work, use it.

One last thought – don’t expect it to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be. Something might burn, things will boil over at the worst possible time, things happen. You’ll get through it and all will be well. I promise. If I can survive a clogged drain the night before Thanksgiving (I was buying drain cleaner seconds before the store closed – how did the clerk think I was doing that night?), you can, too. You may even be able to laugh about it. Later. In the meantime, there’s wine, your personal array of lists and time.

Next up, some equipment you might need, shopping and the whole ambiance thing. The links to all the posts are below.

Bonus Post: Checklist for Thanksgiving Dinner

What you need for tools and decorations

The Gravy tutorial

How to Roast a Turkey

How to Make Soup

How to make mashed potatoes

How to make green beans amandine

And coming soon timing and leftovers.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

From the Dark Side of the Fridge: Salad Basics II

how to make saladsSome years back, I read a cookbook which started with the author being asked for a recipe for egg salad. My reaction was akin to the author’s: You need a recipe for egg salad? In fact, I find it hard to imagine needing recipes for salads at all. Oh, maybe there’s a specific combination of ingredients for a classic salad, such as a Waldorf (apples, walnuts and celery) or a taco salad (avocado, chips, beans, cheese, spiced meat, tomatoes, black olives and lettuce). But how you combine said specific ingredients has more to do with how you like your Waldorf salad or the odds of that half can of black beans getting pushed to the back of the fridge never to see daylight again, which is why I tend to use the whole can even when there are only two of us eating.

We’re learning how to cook without recipes here because it’s faster and easier to just cook rather than look up what you’re doing every other minute and measure out just so much of this or that. Salads are an easy way to practice throwing stuff together. They are also a very easy way to get dinner on the table with a  minimum of muss or fuss. Depending on your base ingredient, you may not need to cook anything. Or you may just use one pan.

The nice thing about salads, especially those using greens or healthy grains as a base, is that you feel really virtuous serving them. Be careful. If you ladle on the dressing like it’s soup, you’re adding boatloads of calories for no good reason. Most salads, even those serving up to eight people only need a couple tablespoons or so of dressing. And let’s not even talk about chicken or potato salads drenched in mayonnaise. Okay, let’s talk about them because they are really, really tasty, but not so good for the waistline or arteries. And eating healthier is one of the reasons we’re learning how to cook.

I put together this infographic as a basic blueprint for salad making. Even though I list dressing as the last step, as noted in my last post on salads, you make the dressing first, right in the bowl you will mix your salad components in. But before you figure out what dressing to use, it helps to know what kind of salad you’re making.

Step One – Choose the base. Got some leftover chicken? Shred it for chicken salad (which you can serve on a tomato if you can get decent ones this time of year). Cook up some brown rice one night, let it cool, then make a rice salad. Greens as a base do not keep well, so if you’re using lettuce and/or spinach, make sure you only use what you can eat. Actually, salads don’t generally keep well. Nobody waxes enthusiastic over day-old potato salad. But once the lettuce hits the dressing, you’ve only got a matter of hours before it gets all wilted and even slimy. Grain-based salads do better as leftovers, but you still don’t want to go too long before finishing your pasta salad.

Step Two – Add your incidentals. This can be largely a matter of what’s in the fridge, although I recommend using juicier ingredients like tomatoes and cucumber with green salads, since you’re going to eat it right away. Otherwise, the cuke or tomatoes will let go of their juice and make everything really watery.

Step Three – Pick your dressing and mix it in the bowl. Mayonnaise dressings are usually most popular with starchy bases, such as pasta or potatoes, but oil and vinegar work, too. Same with meat-based salads, such as chicken or tuna (which isn’t technically a meat, but close enough). Try adding some pickle relish for flavoring.

You will need to clean your veggies. You can cut lettuce, but do make sure you’ve dried it by wrapping it in a lint-free towel and letting it drain or using a salad spinner. Chop everything into bite-sized bits, toss them together with the dressing and you’re done.