Turkey Time Tips to pulling off a big meal in just a little time

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Thanksgiving dinner takes preparation. It's a big meal. People cook desserts days in advance. They work around the big butterball in the fridge for three or four days while it safely thaws. Some people mix up the green bean casseroles on Wednesday and put the potatoes in a pot of water in the fridge to save time.

Other people don't think that far in advance -- or don't realize they are responsible for the big meal on the big day. For those people, the ones who didn't know, didn't realize or just plain procrastinated, we've put together a guide to doing it in a day.

So get out of bed, get to the store and let's get dinner on the table!


No matter how little time you have, taking a moment to make a plan will help you better manage the hours you do have. Make a list of dishes for the impromptu dinner: the bird, the stuffing, four side dishes and two desserts.

If your cupboards are like mine, you have half the ingredients to make most of the dishes for a meal. Take a quick look at what you have so you know what you need so you don't waste time standing in aisle four mentally searching your kitchen for bacon bits.

Once you're at the store, don't waste time circling for the perfect spot. Pull in and park. You'll walk more, but the foot trip takes less time than sitting and waiting for someone to load their purchases so you can be right up front. The farther your car is from the store, the closer it is to the exit.

Organize your list into aisles in the store so you have all the frozen ingredients together, all the dairy together and so forth. That will save time backtracking around store and allow you to attack from one side to the other. Take with you only the coupons for the products on your list so you don't get sidetracked with unnecessary purchases.

Place the items for each dish together on the belt at the register so they're organized when you get to the house. There's no need to put the groceries away, since you're about to put them into the oven.


So you're back from the store with all the fixins. Tackle the big project first: the turkey. Some select grocery stores sell fresh turkeys, but if you were forced to buy a frozen bird, get it in water immediately.

For a decent size turkey about 12 pounds it will take at least 4 hours under cold running water to thaw enough to pull the giblets and neck out for cooking, said Mary Slaughter, sous chef at Chartwell's catering at Southeast Missouri State University.

Take it out of the outer package, but not the inner packaging. Use cold not hot water. The hot water will breed bacteria while the inside is still frozen, Slaughter said.

Once thawed, the turkey should take 15 to 20 minutes per pound to cook. Cornish hens are a good alternative because the cook time is less than a turkey, but they only feed about two people per hen.

Stuff it and stick it in a roasting pan with about 2 cups of water in the bottom. Cover the turkey and put it on the top rack. The water will steam the meat and save you from repeatedly basting it.

Slaughter said to put the giblets and seasonings in the water so when it's time to make the gravy, it's already cooked and the broth is ready. You simply add it to a flour and water mix on the stove and stir to the right consistency.

Brown and serve rolls or fresh baked bread from the grocery store will work for the meal, just brush a little butter on the top after baking.

"It's OK to buy prebaked bread," Slaughter said. Your guests will still enjoy it.


Because the turkey is taking up the top rack of the oven, the bottom is free for other items. The average oven can fit a turkey on top and two casseroles on the bottom for the last 30 minutes of cook time.

Sweet potatoes can be the most time consuming item with peeling, boiling, mashing and baking, so local food connoisseur Tom Harte recommends serving singles. Bake the sweet potatoes and put out the butter, brown sugar and mini marshmallows for your guests to dress them as desired.

Most vegetables -- fresh or frozen -- work well in the microwave, freeing you from hovering above the stove. Premade salads dumped into a bowl look and taste as good as any hand-chopped head of Iceburg lettuce.

The ultimate Thanksgiving Day fare -- cranberry sauce -- can be faked fairly well, too. Cranberry chutney can take 45 minutes to boil the cranberries, mix everything and have it ready to serve. Harte recommended buying a can and "doctoring it up."

Put in some fresh orange rind or some candied ginger to freshen the jelly. For another, adult-oriented twist, put in some triple sec liqueur for that citrus flavor.


For dessert, Harte said a pie can be almost effortless if you leave the crust to someone else. He recommends the rolled crust instead of pie shells for better flavor. Then just dump in the filling and bake.

"The crust tends to be the most intimidating," Harte said. "Once you get past the crust, you could whip up a typical pumpkin pie easily."

Simply open the can, add the eggs, sugar and spices and whip it up. You don't even have to lug out the mixer, the mix can usually be done with a whisk. Or, to save even more time, use the pre-seasoned mix.

A graham crust or crushed ginger snap crust can add a little something to the pie as well. For individual servings that won't require as much bake time, use tart shells instead of one big pie crust.

For a non-traditional dessert, skip the dessert and serve a cheese tray -- no baking required. Buy the cheeses, put them on a tray and surround them with crackers.

"Cheese courses are kind of the rage now," Harte said.

He recommended picking three cheeses. Use soft cheeses like Brie and some form of a blue cheese. Cut them up, or to save time just plop the hunk of cheese on the plate and let the guests choose how much to cut per cracker.

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