Five P's will get you through Thanksgiving

Nov. 19, 2013 @ 10:39 AM

Almost anyone who cooks a little can prepare a six- to eight-ingredient recipe with results that, if not spectacular, usually exceed expectations. But, take that same recipe and join it with three, four, five or six more, all to be served sequentially or simultaneously and even experienced cooks start doubting their skills.
Planning a homemade Thanksgiving dinner carries with it the hope for a kitchen filled with the seasonal aroma of a roasting turkey and herb dressing, the earthy fragrance of sweet potatoes mingling with the yeasty scent of warming dinner rolls and the tang of cranberries.
Imagination can be tricky, though. A Norman Rockwell, picture-perfect Thanksgiving image can easily turn into real trepidation on Thanksgiving morning. Few want their turkey and stuffing to end up over-cooked and dry, or their gravy looking like a miniature tan sea with glacier-like lumps floating on the oily surface, or their too-long-in-the-oven dinner rolls as hard as baked clay.
I’ve prepared or helped prepare more than 35 Thanksgiving dinners and, yes, made my share of embarrassing errors. Here are some personal rules, ideas and repair tricks accumulated over the years that may reduce your tension, elevate your confidence and save a dish.
The first and most important rule for any special large dinner, especially Thanksgiving: Never ... never ... never select a recipe you’ll be preparing for the first time. There’s just too much happening for any recipe to be at the beginning of its “learning curve.”
Years ago a friend taught me the five “P’s” of success: Prior planning prevents poor performance. It’s never too soon to start noodling your Thanksgiving menu, collecting the recipes and testing those that haven’t been made before. I pick a quiet, comfortable place and with pad and pen in hand, close my eyes and visualize everything from laying out the table cloth, to dividing up leftovers for guests to take home; making notes as I go.
On a clean page, I start at the bottom with 6 p.m. marked in the left margin and “Dinner Served” on the right. Then, working backwards using approximate times, I might write, 5:50 p.m. - Remove turkey from oven for final 10-minute rest or 5:55 p.m. - send gravy boat to the table. The top of that page may read, “Order fresh turkey by Nov. 21,” or “Borrow Mom’s roasting pan, rack and turkey platter.”
Prepare as much of the meal ahead as reasonably possible: if I’m serving whipped potatoes, I peel them (an under-appreciated task) in the morning and store them covered with water on my cold, protected porch until needed. They’ll make their next appearance on my “time line” 60-minutes before their planned serving time.
Schedule plenty of time for defrosting your frozen turkey in the refrigerator and don’t forget to remove the giblet bag from the turkey’s cavity.
Using an instant-read thermometer to know “for certain” when a turkey’s done makes you look like a genius and ensures your dinner’s centerpiece against failure. Every time I do the pounds-times-minutes calculation only, my turkey inevitably comes out over-cooked. I don’t know why but my experience also taught me that never-frozen “fresh” turkeys seem to cook faster than previously frozen ones.
Tricks: Running lumpy gravy through a wire mesh strainer quickly solves that problem. Lining a steamer insert with a paper towel and briefly steaming hard dinner rolls can save them from the trash or bird food. Brining has always made my turkeys end up tasting better, as well as virtually guaranteeing moist white meat.
Finally, remember this is the time to give thanks for all the many good things that make up our lives and don’t try being as perfect as that Martha person.
If you’ve never prepared your own bread cubes for stuffing, you don’t really know what a big difference they make.

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Simple and Tasty Oven-Baked Turkey Stuffing

2 cups fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth
1 (1/4-ounce) packet Butter Buds butter-flavored mix, dissolved in 1/2-cup hot chicken broth
1 large egg
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 medium celery ribs, diced medium (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
2 ounces finely chopped pecans
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
12 cups dried 1/2-inch bread cubes from one 1-pound loaf French bread*

Place the oven rack in the lower-middle position and begin heating the oven to 400 degrees.

Add the chicken broth, dissolved Butter Buds, egg, egg whites, and salt to a large mixing bowl, whisking together until combined. Set aside.
Place a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When hot, add the onion and celery and sauté until softened, about 7 or 8 minutes. Stir in the sage, thyme, marjoram, black pepper and pecans. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add the parsley and sauté for 1 minute, or until fragrant.
Stir the onion/celery mixture into the chicken broth mixture. Add the bread cubes and combine, stirring and tossing gently to evenly mix the dry and wet ingredients.
Lightly spray the interior of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with butter-flavored oil. Spoon the stuffing into the baking dish, spreading it out evenly. Lightly spray the stuffing with butter-flavored oil. Cover tightly with foil**, and bake about 25 minutes, or until fragrant. Remove foil and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a golden brown crust forms on top. Serve warm. Makes 10 servings as a side dish.
Nutrition values per serving: 183 calories (31 percent from fat), 6.3 g fat(0.6 g saturated fat), 1 g dietary fiber, 6.5 g protein, 24.6 g carbohydrate, 21 mg cholesterol, 545 mg sodium.
*To dry and make bread cubes: Heat the oven to 225 degrees. Slice the French bread into 1/2-inch slices. Lay the slices in a single layer on the oven racks for 30 to 40 minutes or until brittle but not brown. Cut the slices into 1/2-inch cubes.
**This stuffing may be prepared the day before to this point, covered and refrigerated until needed; allowing 30 minutes for it to begin warming up at room temperature before placing in the oven.
LeanNotes: 1 pound of reduced-fat bulk breakfast sausage may be browned lightly in a small amount of olive oil, drained and added to the stuffing mixture at the same time everything is combined (step 4.) Proceed as directed.
Fresh sage, thyme and marjoram leaves may be substituted for the dry, but increase each to 1 1/2 teaspoons.

Don Mauer’s “Lean and Lovin’ It” column appears every other Wednesday. Don welcomes comments, suggestions and recipe makeover requests at leanwizard@aol.com.