Thanksgiving, and the difference between cooking and entertaining

It was a great Thanksgiving.

Cooking versus entertaining

Knowing the difference superficially is easy. Check the Zagat guide. The ratings are a function of food, service, decor, and cost ratings. Cooking is the first column. Entertaining is everything else.

Appreciating the difference requires experience. For me it started when I started working on presentation. A few months ago I started “plating” things as a joke. I joked around because I knew I liked beautiful plates but lacked the skill to execute. I’m still pretty bad, but I’ve improved a little. I’ve learned one way to plate soups and stews nicely, arranging the solids in a warm, dry bowl, gently pouring the broth or sauce, and then garnishing. Baby steps.

Entertaining means paying attention to the finer details, similar to the above. How is the table set? How easy is it for my guests to serve themselves? When should the dishes come out? These are all newbie questions. People like Martha Stewart have investigated this topic much more deeply. The underlying question is, “What can I do to make sure my guests have a good time?” I think it’s worth answering this last question well.

What we cooked

I initially planned on doing Thanksgiving with a Filipino twist. For example, most Filipinos have eaten a condiment known as Mang Tomas. I wondered if I could spin our gravy that way, season cranberry sauce with calamansi, etc. But I changed my mind when I compared Thanksgiving to Christmas. Christmas is celebrated around the world. For someone like me, it’s obvious what we should cook: whatever my parents and their parents cooked. Ethnic food traditions are well known, even in reasonably assimilated families like mine.

In contrast, Thanksgiving is an American (and Canadian) holiday. We’d never really nailed the menu, so why not try to get it right before changing it? What we did follows below. We started cooking some time after 10 AM and started eating at 5 PM. The exception was the confit turkey legs. The turkey was butchered and the legs put into the oven the night before.

  • Appetizers
    • Kale chips: Strip leaves from stems. Wash, spin, and toss in confit oil. Into 200 degrees F oven until crisp. Season with thyme salt.
    • Olives, cheese, honey, and crackers: Store-bought by my mom.
  • Mains
    • Confit turkey legs: Salt on both sides. Two heads garlic and 4 whole bay leaf. Overnight in oven at 200 degrees F. Seared when done and served whole on the plate. These were the star.
    • Roasted turkey wings: I roasted the wingettes and drumettes on top of diced mirepoix. Towards the end of cooking I spooned oil from the confit over the turkey parts to encourage browning and crisp skin.
    • Low-temp turkey cutlets (not served): These were a fail. I blindly followed a time-temp combination I found online (64 C for two hours). The cutlets, once separated from the tenderloins, were each close to the size of an unseparated chicken cutlet. So 1 hour at 63 degrees should have been my time and temp. My parents turned this into turkey salad.
    • Gravy: Stock from turkey carcass (1 part turkey, 1.5 parts water, and 1 bay leaf per 3 kg turkey). Cooked roux, added turkey stock (turkey, water, and bay), and whisked. Needed to thicken so made a slurry of flour and mushroom stock (dried shiitake and water). Salt and pepper to taste.
    • Cranberry sauce: Boiled cranberries and reduced. Flavored with sugar (good place to start: 1/6 of cranberry weight) and salt to taste.
    • Mashed potatoes: For every 1 kg potato, 2 tbsp butter and 5 cloves garlic. Had about 2500 grams potato. Peel, dice, boil. Whisk with garlic-infused butter, cream, and salt to taste.
    • Stuffing: Sweated finely chopped onion, celery, and mushrooms in butter. Added finely chopped dried apricots. Flavored with thyme and sage. Folded cooked mixture into torn, toasted bread. Moistened with turkey stock and mushroom stock. Finished in oven.
    • Cooked greens: Blanch broccoli raab in salted water. Finished in pan with oil from confit.
  • Dessert
    • Coffee: Plain coffee. I prefer mine black.
    • Chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting: My mom made this.

Other thoughts

Just a list:

  • Preparation pays off. A few weeks out I started brainstorming; the day of cooking I spent 15 minutes planning the cooking. This year’s cooking was drama-free.
  • Keep notes. I have my shopping list — serves 9 with leftovers and 13 without — and I know the order in which I did things. These notes will simplify next year’s planning and allow us to focus on adding new things.
  • Appetizers should be on the table and main course dishes should be holding in the oven at 200 degrees F once dinner starts. I made a small error of finishing some things after appetizers. The most important part of Thanksgiving dinner is spending time together.
  • I don’t know what a good price for entry-level “restaurant-style” plates is — as a newbie, I’ve only really shopped at the Williams-Sonoma outlet by me — but buying these is money well spent. The food looks nicer. In the case of rimmed plates, there is extra function as well.
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