My idea of Thanksgiving dinner was always more Charlie Brown than Julia Child. While I've never served popcorn and jellybeans - as he did to his animated friends - I've rarely strayed from the safety of small game hens and store-bought side dishes. But my abilities are now much improved thanks to Manhattan chef Abigail Hitchcock, who has brought me a step closer to being able to host a dinner that would make the Pilgrims proud.
In her "My First Thanksgiving" class, Ms. Hitchcock takes even the most kitchen-challenged people and helps them figure out how to cut an onion, make a pie, and use seasonings. Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, which is fitting, given that she's a descendent of Mary Chilton, a young Mayflower passenger thought to have been the first woman to step off the ship onto Plymouth Rock.
Hitchcock has been teaching her class for the past four years, helping those whose heads are filled with visions of turkey disasters and mistimed side dishes feel a bit less timid about fixing a big meal. It's one of many classes she offers at her cozy French bistro, CamaJe, on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. On a recent Saturday morning, a handful of students collected at the restaurant, ready to spend four hours absorbing her wisdom.
Pumpkin-pie loving Laura Markson took a train and several subways from Bronxville, in Westchester County, so she could learn more about turkey and stuffing.
"I love to cook," says the married lawyer, "[but] I have no idea how to cook a turkey.... One of these years it would be nice to actually host Thanksgiving myself."
Other participants are from the city: Alex Baxter, a radiologist and alumnus of Hitchcock's classes who wants to know more about Thanksgiving foods; and Rebekah Grossman, who lives above the restaurant and has "never cooked a meal in my life."
There are two no-shows, so it's just the four of us. Hitchcock limits her hands-on classes to six - in part because her kitchen is as narrow as a railroad car and because she likes to be able to give each student individual attention.
First on our agenda is the turkey. Hitchcock sits us down on a comfy sofa at the front of the bistro to talk about roasting. Some chefs espouse fancy techniques, but she takes a simple approach: You put what you want to cook in the oven, and you come back to it after a little while. (For a turkey, for instance, she tells us to start with the oven at 450 degrees F. and then lower the temperature to 325 degrees F. after 20 to 30 minutes, when the bird shows signs of even browning. Figure about 15 minutes per pound - and resist the urge to baste until the end to keep the heat in and the cooking time down. The bird is done when a thermometer shows the temperature of the meat is 165 degrees F.)
What wows us the most is her preparation of the turkey - the only thing we don't do ourselves. She coats it with butter, stuffs it with several lemons and onions, and, in a delightful twist, separates the top skin from the breast and puts sage leaves underneath it. The result, several hours later, is artful.
There will be no stuffing inside our turkey. It's just too difficult to get it cooked thoroughly without making the outside of the bird look like leather, Hitchcock explains. Better to prepare dressing separately. We'll also be skipping soups (too filling for Thanksgiving, in the chef's opinion), and mashed potatoes, which she figures are basic enough for people to figure out on their own.
The menu we follow is full of traditional items, though, including recipes from Hitchcock's family. There's Herbed Stuffing, Green Beans With Bacon Shallot Vinaigrette, Purée of Butternut Squash, Rutabaga With Pancetta (Italian bacon, pronounced pan CHET uh), Creamed Pearl Onions, Cranberry Orange Relish, and two kinds of pie: pumpkin and pecan.
We absorb a lot of details about the recipes we'll be making, which include a few French words and some English ones we need reminding about (a rutabaga is a cousin of the turnip). But the ever-patient Hitchcock frequently reassures us that Thanksgiving dishes are fairly simple to make.
She even lets us in on a little secret about preparing pies: "On Thanksgiving you are going to be so crazed, don't make pie shells." Instead, she suggests, buy frozen shells at the store, thaw them until they are fairly soft, and then put them in pie pans from home. Pinch the edges or press them with a fork and voilà! "Everyone will think you made the pie crust," she confides.
Speaking of saving time, we wonder: How far in advance can we prepare this spread? Here's how Hitchcock breaks it down for us: The cranberry relish can be made several days or even a week ahead. The pies, squash, rutabaga, and onion dishes can be made the day before. Cook the turkey, stuffing, and green beans on the day.
But for now, we're doing everything at once, so we don aprons and get to work chopping, mixing, and browning. I choose to make the pecan pie and am surprised by how easy it is - simply mix eggs, brown sugar, Karo syrup, salt, butter, vanilla, and pecans.
While I'm chopping the nuts, Hitchcock gives me my first lesson in efficient cutting: One hand on the handle, another over the top of the knife, and never let the blade leave the board.
Later, when it's time to finely chop an onion for the rutabaga dish, she takes me aside for another cutting lesson. "This is going to change your life," she jokes as she shows me how to begin, by slicing the stem end off the onion - creating a flat end to then place on the board.
Another student, Mr. Baxter, comes by and says, "[This is] the single best reason to take a cooking class - to learn how to chop an onion properly."
The onion-cutting process is a bit too detailed to describe, but the technique is meant to reduce the juices the onion loses and thereby reduce the crying you'll do when cutting one. I file this away for future onion encounters.
Working with a chef, you're reminded that cooking is more than just throwing a bunch of ingredients together. You have to think about how the foods interact. That turkey, for example, doesn't have a lot of natural flavor, so you want to add seasoning to it when cooking (salt, pepper, sage) and to the foods you're serving with it.
"You've got to get over your fear of salt because it's what makes food taste good," Hitchcock tells us, suggesting we use sea salt instead of table salt (too much iodine). "There's nothing worse than underseasoned food."
Another tip: Make stuffing with stale bread, which acts like a sponge for all the flavors you're cooking with it.
As the afternoon progresses, a Thanksgiving dinner emerges: The stuffing is completed. The squash is cooked, scooped, and pureed. The cranberries are boiled - I watch them slowly pop open while Ms. Markson grates orange peel (zest) over them. As for gravy, Hitchcock whips that up from the leftover turkey juices and onions, adding white wine, chicken stock, butter, flour, and thyme.
During the class we have mishaps, of course: squash seeds in the pecan-pie batter, bread chunks for the stuffing dropped on the floor, and a whole nutmeg seed dropped in the pearl onion sauce (but quickly fished out).
Following Hitchcock's lead, we calmly move on. Ultimately, we agree that the class has made the process of making a holiday meal less mysterious, less daunting. "The cooking is actually easier than I thought," says Ms. Grossman.
As we sit around eating (it's all good - but rutabaga may be an acquired taste), Hitchcock leaves us with a final thought about preparation: Don't worry about everything being piping hot when you serve it. "Food really does hold heat for a while," she says, adding one last tip for making everything seem warmer than it is: "Make sure the gravy is really hot."
1 bag (16 ounces) fresh cranberries
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
Juice and zest of 1 large orange
Place all ingredients in a non- aluminum saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the cranberries burst. Skim off any foam that may form.
Cool to room temperature and place in a decorative bowl. This may be made several days ahead and refrigerated. It keeps well.
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin (do NOT use pumpkin pie mix)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 unbaked 8-inch pie shells
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Whisk pie filling ingredients together until smooth.
Pour into the two pie shells. Bake for 10 minutes at 425 degrees F., and then reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake 30 to 35 minutes more, until pie is no longer jiggly in the center.
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
2 large onions, chopped
3 ribs celery, diced
3 leaves sage, finely chopped
2 sprigs thyme, leaves only
1 sprig rosemary, finely chopped
1 loaf (about 1 pound) white bread, stale or dried, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Melt butter over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Add the onions and celery and cook until softened and translucent, but not brown. Add the sage, thyme, and rosemary, and cook 30 seconds to bring out their flavor.
In a large bowl, toss together onion mixture and bread. Pour broth and water over the mixture and toss again.
Place in a buttered baking dish and cook for about 30 minutes, or until heated through and slightly browned on top.
NOTE: It is not fashionable to stuff turkeys these days. The biggest problem is that by the time the internal temperature of the stuffing reaches a food-safe temperature, the outer meat will be like shoe leather. If you want to have your bird stuffed, you can microwave your stuffing for 3 minutes, or until piping hot, and then stuff it into the bird and pop the whole thing in the oven.
2 medium butternut squash
1 teaspoon ground ginger, optional
2 tablespoons brown sugar, optional
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy or light cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Cut into large chunks. Place in a baking dish with 1/4-inch of water on the bottom. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and, if you like, with the optional ginger and brown sugar. Cover dish with foil and bake until soft, about 30 minutes.
Allow squash to cool enough that it can be handled, and then scoop out flesh into a saucepan. Add butter and cream. Mash using a whisk, food mill, or an electric mixer fitted with a paddle.
Heat mixture over low heat and then place in a serving dish. If needed, place in a heat-proof serving dish or casserole, cover with foil, and place in a 350 degree F. oven to keep the puree warm until serving.
Serves 6 to 8.
1. Place thawed or fresh turkey, breast up, on a flat rack in a shallow pan, 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep.
2. Brush or rub skin with oil to prevent the skin from drying and to enhance the golden color.
3. Insert oven-safe meat thermometer deep into the lower part of the thigh muscle, but not touching the bone.
4. Place in a preheated 325 degree F. oven.
5. When the turkey is about two-thirds done, loosely cover the breast and top of drumsticks with a piece of lightweight foil to prevent overcooking the breast.
6. Use the following roasting schedule as a guideline; start checking for doneness 1/2 hour before recommended end times:
Weight Unstuffed Stuffed
(in pounds) (in hours) (in hours)
10 to 18 3 to 3-1/2 3-3/4 to 4-1/2
18 to 22 3-1/2 to 4 4-1/2 to 5
22 to 24 4 to 4-1/2 5 to 5-1/2
24 to 30 4-1/2 to 5 5-1/2 to 6-1/4
If unstuffed, the turkey is done when the meat thermometer reaches 180 degrees F. deep in the thigh; also, juices should be clear, not reddish pink when thigh muscle is pierced deeply.
If the turkey is stuffed, move the thermometer to the center of stuffing to read temperature. It should be 160 degrees F.
Before removing stuffing and carving the bird, let the turkey stand 15 minutes to allow juices to set and stuffing temperature to rise to 165 degrees F.
Source: Butterball, www.butterball.com