Season of Family Feasting Boasts Room to Personalize
When days grow cooler and leaves dazzle in fiery shades, you know it’s fall. More aptly, it’s “frenzied-feasting-that-starts-with-mountains-of-Halloween-candy-then-crests-into-a-turkey-centric-nap-fest-for-Thanksgiving-and-closes-with-a-champagne-fueled-bang-at-New Year’s” season. For two months, we celebrate our many blessings with the simple act of eating (a lot) together. It makes sense. Food is life. Sharing the choicest, most delectable bits of it is, ultimately, celebrating the life of every individual around the table and we heap blessings on loved ones by the plateful.
Maybe that’s why Thanksgiving is our national foodie holiday. Our devotion is evidenced by bare grocery store shelves and glutted travel routes with people scrambling to get “home.” New World favorites such as turkey, corn, potatoes, pumpkin and cranberries harken to the celebration’s early American origins. Menu highlights may sound homogeneous, but preparations are as varied as their cooks. Turkeys may be slow-roasted whole, butterflied, grilled, smoked, fried or stewed until tender in a giant crockpot. They may be seasoned with fresh sage or drizzled with honey, dabbed with butter, or crusted with a mix of bold seasonings. Stuffing, or dressing, if you please, is its classic counterpart and a blank canvas for creative cooks to personalize. It provides a starchy, satisfying component to the meal that is relatively simple to make but loaded with flavor.
The difference between stuffing and dressing is its cooking method. Stuffing is, literally, “stuffed” inside the bird as it cooks. Dressing is prepared separately. But call it whatever you will; guests will gobble it down.
Cheryl Turner makes both versions. She and daughter, Krystal, are cooking instructors with Frederick County Parks and Recreation. Each year, four generations of their family pitch in to create a Thanksgiving feast for 35 or more guests. For the purists, Turner stuffs the turkey with a simple mix of bread cubes, broth, butter and seasonings. A crock pot is loaded with the second version, since the oven is full. It’s jazzed up with celery and onions sautéed in butter. She also adds an egg, “to give it moisture and help it stick together. … It’s nice when there’s a little bit of crunch on the outside but the inside is moist and savory.” She knows it doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. “It’s nothing elaborate, but everybody enjoys it.”
The Turners make a day of it, gathering early to shuck oysters for frying and peel potatoes. Her advice to fledgling hosts is to allow guests with a signature dish to contribute. “I used to try to do it all. Now we divide it out,” says Turner. Instead of one frantic, overloaded cook, recognize collective prep time as joyful togetherness, too. Great grandma makes her hallmark cranberry relish. Auntie bakes fresh bread and kids tear the dried pieces for stuffing. “Everybody has their job.”
Turner honors her family’s German heritage by including sauerkraut on the feast menu. Carla Lemons adds Italian flair to hers. Born in Naples to a military family, Lemons’ holiday table brims with mingled flavors of garlic, rosemary, bright citrus and piquant Parmesan. Lemons is a professionally trained chef and culinary lab technician for Frederick Community College’s Hospitality, Culinary and Tourism Institute. Her teaching experience includes stints with Parks and Recreation and Christine Van Bloem’s The Kitchen Studio Cooking School, where she shared her skill in fresh pasta and ravioli making.
Her advice: “Plan it out.” She’ll order from Hillside Turkey Farm in Thurmont two or three weeks prior and gather inspiration from local sources, such as the Buckeystown-based Thanksgiving Farm’s community-supported agriculture program, of which FCC receives a share of fresh produce. Lemons notes, “We want students to understand, you need to look around and see what’s fresh, right now, in your backyard.” It’s a lesson she embraces for her own table.
Lemons also encourages cooks to experiment. “Probably the most important part is that you put your own mark on it.” Last year she made browned butter mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta. Green beans are brightened with lemon zest. For the stuffing, Lemons prefers ciabatta bread. “I usually start prepping on Tuesday.” She’ll chop enough onion, celery and garlic for the entire meal and store ingredients in the fridge. Some things, such as stuffing, can be made a day or two in advance. “The more planning you do, the more likely everything will get on the table hot.”
Rochelle Myers believes in planning, too. As a professional caterer, culinary teacher and food writer, her routine makes time for layering on the flavor. She shares, “A couple days before Thanksgiving, I buy turkey wings and roast them to make the stock. Then I use that liquid for my stuffing.” The stock is refrigerated overnight so the solidified fat can be skimmed and used to sauté celery and onions. She adds organic, homegrown thyme and sage, and spikes the flavored dish with bold sausage and dried cranberry, a family favorite combo. “The stuffing should be an extension of the turkey’s flavor.”
Myers usually makes three batches of dressing. “…Because I want way more ‘stuffing’ than that,” she jokes, noting a safety issue, too. A stuffed turkey must register at 165 degrees in the center. “If you do that, the breast meat can be overdone.”
Her practical advice for newbies is to focus on one or two dishes and do them well. “It’s ok to buy the rest of it. It’s ok to ask your friends to make some.” Many families serve more than a dozen items at Thanksgiving. She reasons, churning out flaky pies and silky gravy is challenging for seasoned cooks. “Decide what is important to you. If all you make is the stuffing and cranberry sauce, great.”
Besides, on a day that’s all about being thankful, every cook appreciates being able to sit down and spend time with loved ones. It’s even better when somebody else does the dishes.