Thanksgiving Holiday Odds and Ends

With the holiday coming up, it's easy to start feeling overwhelmed. I usually begin the month of November with lots of plans to overhaul the kitchen and spend the week before Thanksgiving experimenting with fabulous new recipes. By the time I've reached the "one week to turkey day" mark, I'm so exhausted the idea of actually roasting the bird has me feeling pretty unenthusiastic. (Realizing that I've brought all the stress -- and aching muscles -- on myself doesn't help much.) I'm an old hand at this cycle of holiday madness because I repeat it every year to one degree or another.

One sure cure, for me anyway, is to grab a cup of hot tea and a well-earned break. If you're stopping to regain your sunny disposition between bouts of holiday frenzy, these odds and ends will provide some diversion:

Common things you didn't know - but probably should have realized. This first comes courtesy of Gabby Noone at BuzzFeed. It's a very enlightening list of: 18 Everyday Products You’ve Been Using Wrong. I admit some of these items took me by surprise, like the little aluminum foil tab thingies. If you haven't seen this list yet, it's a quick, often surprising read. Enjoy.

Have a Pet Safe Holiday - I'm a dedicated pet lover and always make a special effort to include my cats and dogs in the festivities. There are dangers though; from a guest accidentally letting an indoor cat outside, to canine stomach upsets from too many surreptitious treats slipped under the table. Make arrangements to keep your pets secure and healthy this holiday season. I really enjoyed this timely article (recommended by my husband) about foods not safe for dogs. Thanksgiving Day Foods That Can Kill Your Dog. Please note that sage and nutmeg are on the list, as well as a couple of other entries that might make you glad you invested in the click.

Thanksgiving Recipes - If the prospect of serving the same old dishes makes you feel like yawning, try something new -- or attempt an old standby in a new way. This New York Times Primer about Thanksgiving cooking should get you started: Essential Thanksgiving.

Turkey Cooking Times - Your mom's holiday bird may have been dry year after year, but it wasn't her fault. The old U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cooking guidelines for turkey recommended an internal temperature of 175 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, (or thereabouts). That has changed. The new safety guidelines drop the temperature to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (YES you read that right), which makes it a lot easier to prepare a flavorful bird with fully cooked dark meat and (still) moist breast meat. This change may require a welcome adjustment to your older recipes. If you want to learn more, please visit the USDA Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking page for details.

Here are some other things to remember:

  • Double check your recipe ingredients now. It's easier to dash to the store on Tuesday to pick up something you've forgotten than to wait until Thursday (Thanksgiving) morning.
  • Clear your kitchen countertops the day before Thanksgiving to give yourself plenty of room.
  • Don't forget to take the innards out of the bird -- front and back. Yes, this is a newbie mistake, but it's also one of the most common gotchas of turkey day.
  • Take any butter you need to soften out of the fridge sooner rather than later. Trying to soften butter in the microwave may seem like an enlightened idea, but it can go horribly wrong.
  • If there's no carving guru in your family, consider cutting the bird in the kitchen and serving it sliced and jointed on a platter. It's easier. An electric knife is great for this, too.
  • After serving, return dishes to the fridge within two hours to avoid problems with spoilage.
  • If this is your first Thanksgiving wearing the hostess apron, take a look at my TLC article: 10 Tips for Thanksgiving Newbies for more suggestions and a laugh or two.
Here's hoping your dressing is moist, your pie crust is flaky and your fowl is succulent and browned to perfection.


Using Herbs for Holiday Cooking

Although it's probably true that much of what we call herb wisdom in cooking is the result of trial and error -- at least, it's been that way for me -- I do have some tips that will help make your spice cabinet a holiday friend instead of a beguiling frienemy.

Fresh to dried - There's a big difference between dried and fresh herbs.  You'll read proponents of both, citing specific herbs that will respond better to one type of handling or another.  You can count on the fact -- proportions DO vary. Dried herbs contain concentrated, flavor enhanced oils. A good rule of thumb is that you will need one third the volume of dry herbs as you as you will fresh herbs.

Example: A recipe that calls for one teaspoon of dried parsley will require a tablespoon (3 teaspoons) of fresh parsley. There are some possible exceptions, though.  If an herb has a pungent aroma, like sage or thyme, you can typically double instead of triple the conversion rate from dried to fresh (or vice versa), and then season to taste after that.

Old herbs and spices - Conventional wisdom was that dried herbs would only retain their flavor for six months or so.  This turned out to be a big boon for seasoning manufacturers, but not such good news for cooks forced to buy large jars of herbs and then end up pitching half or more of their contents.  The thinking has changed somewhat in recent years:  Most food professionals now believe many dried herbs and spices will last at least a year, and sometimes two or three years.  Your best bet is to date the herbs you buy, and use the sniff test once they're a year old or more.  Pinch older stored herbs to see if they have the aroma you associate with them. If they're losing their "punch," replace them -- or in an emergency, use somewhat more in your recipes, say a quarter to a third more or so.

Preparation - There is a difference between buying ground spices and grinding them yourself.  The classic example is nutmeg, which smells amazing when it's fresh-ground but loses aroma quickly. This rule applies to quality cinnamon and other spices as well. If you have a hectic lifestyle and want to produce a great meal, you probably have more to worry about than prepping your own spices, though. Using pre-ground spices and herbs will likely provide enough zest, especially if you're using them in concert with other aromatic ingredients. Grind your own if you can; if not, don't sweat the small stuff.

Cooking times - Lots of old-timey recipes are favorites around the holidays.  They may be a family tradition, or just have charming or enticing elements that make them seem perfect for a Norman Rockwell style feast.  Don't be fooled. Even though some older recipes call for adding herbs at the beginning, most herbs are best added within the last half-hour of cooking or so. Exceptions are some individual herbs (bay leaf) and herb bags or tied herbs that can be removed later.  Very long cooking times typically turn herbs bitter, dark and unappealing.


Dried Herbs - If you're buying dried herbs and spices to use this holiday season, store them in a dark, dry location.  Spices sold in cellophane packets (scandalous!) should be transferred to jars with tight fitting lids for long term storage. (Tinted jars are best.) I save my spice jars and refill them as needed.

Fresh Herbs - When you purchase fresh cut herbs from the produce department of your local market, remove a half-inch from the stem end and stand them in a glass of water in your refrigerator. This should net you another few days of useful life.  If the volume is more than you need, dry the remainder in a warm (not hot) oven on a cookie sheet (turning often). Another option is to chop them up in water and freeze them into herby ice cubes.

When you harvest fresh herbs, avoid using the stems. Not only are they typically tough, they have concentrated oils that tend to make them bitter.  Here's how to harvest leaves from stems: Cut and wash the stems. Pinch the tip end of each stem and run your fingers down to the base using some pressure. This will release individual leaves into the sink or a small bowl. Discard the stems. (One exception is rosemary stems, which make inspired kabob skewers.)

Another option is to purchase live plants. Harvest up to a third of the foliage, and place the plants in a sunny windowsill until spring -- pampering them with water and TLC, of course.

Using herbs and spices can be loads of fun, especially around the holidays when any culinary effort seems to carry with it a backstory and memory making potential. Standing in a warm kitchen filled with the aroma of blended herbs is a treat in itself. The rest, as they say, is gravy.  Here's hoping your recipes are delicious and all your little helpers offer to clean the kitchen.


Rum Toddy Redux

If the idea of another season of long, frosty evenings leaves you feeling hungry for spring, I'd like to share a good reason to love the cold weather.  Around the holidays, I always make a big batch of rum toddy mix.  This stuff is more than simply delicious; it's a memory in the making.

The batter is a do ahead task and can easily sit in the fridge from Thanksgiving to Christmas without a problem.  The ingredients include plenty of aromatic and delicious spices like ginger, cinnamon and cloves.  It has a butter base and is rich in brown sugar and honey, too.

Here's how it works: After mixing up a batch of batter, you spoon it into boiling water, add rum (or another libation) and finish it off with a little whipped cream and fresh ground nutmeg (if you like).  Nothing -- I mean noting -- not a hot bath, not a back rub and not an unexpectedly clean kitchen, has more appeal than 15 quiet, indulgent minutes with this delicious drink. 

Hey, I'm not even much of an alcohol drinker, and I look forward to making this mix -- and the resulting steaming cups of rum toddy -- every, single year. Do yourself a favor and give it a try. 

I included the actual recipe in a previous post.  You can find it here.

The Best Rum Toddy Recipe Ever  

While you're at it, here are a couple of other posts that may interest you until next time:

Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe 
Thanksgiving at the Last Minute - Tips and Tricks
Sage is Good for More than Stuffing