How to Not Completely Screw Up Thanksgiving Dinner
By Gina Ruccione, Cuisine Writer
The holiday season comes at the same time every year, but somehow it always seems to sneak up out of nowhere.
Stress ensues and often continues all the way to New Year’s Day. And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s here again.
This year Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 26, exactly two weeks from the morning this edition of Random Lengths hit the streets. That tends to set the tone for the rest of holiday parties leading up to the New Year, so let’s make sure we don’t get off to a rocky start. I did you all a favor. I talked to some of the best chefs in the Harbor Area and had them share some cooking tips and tricks for making Thanksgiving dinner run as smoothly as possible. You can thank me later.
Brine your turkey
You need to brine your turkey. Period. End of story. Regardless of if you prefer a wet brine or a dry brine, it needs to happen. Dustin Trani, the executive chef of J. Trani’s in San Pedro, says the trick is to never let it brine for longer than 24 hours. The point of brining a turkey is to cure the outside so that you keep the moisture and juices in the bird. If you do it too long, it breaks down the bird. If you don’t do it long enough, it’s like dipping the turkey in salt water. That does nothing. At the very minimum, brine it for eight hours, but again NEVER longer than 24 hours.
Let Your Bird Rest
Do not skip this part. The bird must rest after it gets out of the oven. Every chef I spoke to could not emphasize this enough. If you cut into the bird and you see all of that “wonderful juice” on the cutting board, there is a problem. That juice is no longer in your bird. Now it’s too late. Cook the bird according to the instructions and weight for your turkey. Aim for a center temperature of 145 degrees and then pull it out and let it rest until it comes up to 165 degrees. This is anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.
Don’t Overcomplicate Anything
For some of you, this next tip might sound blasphemous, but bear with me. If you have a tendency to dry out your turkey every year, Frank DeLoach, executive chef of Padre in Long Beach, suggests butchering your turkey before you cook it. I know, I struggled with that concept too, but let’s talk this one out. Thanksgiving is supposed to be enjoyable, the turkey included, so I’m open to any suggestion that makes my life a little easier on that day. Deconstruct the bird as you would a chicken, as the dark meat and light meat cook best at varying lengths of time.
“Too many people overthink Thanksgiving. Just enjoy it,” he says.
Don’t Stuff Your Bird
As one chef said, “Don’t stuff your turkey. That’s stupid—that’s how you kill people. It actually creates bad bacteria and doesn’t cook out properly.”
Well, that’s enough to instill fear in the masses, but more importantly, every chef agreed unanimously. Other tips for making stuffing include cutting your bread the day before; it dries out the bread so the stuffing holds more flavors. Also, make sure to cut the bread cubes into small pieces. Big chunks of bread are obviously not bite size and are harder to eat.
Canned Cranberry Sauce. Please Don’t
Cranberry sauce is not rocket science, folks. At the very least you can make this from scratch. Executive Chef David MacLennan from James Republic likes to take fresh cranberries and pulse them in a food processor. Then add sugar, orange juice, a little zest and some Grand Marnier. Do this a couple of days in advance to let everything sit and marinate together. Throw that in the fridge and you’re done.
So, You Want to Make a Casserole?
I like the idea of casseroles but I don’t do well with soggy anything. If your idea of casserole includes throwing green beans in a baking dish with a can of cream of mushroom soup, I worry—unless, of course, you’re into brown mush. Then be my guest. Here’s a better way to do a casserole. MacLennan suggests making all of the components in separate parts to ensure a better consistency. Blanch the green beans in salt water, shock them in ice water to stop them from cooking, drain and dry. Make a mushroom cream sauce separately. The crispy onion topping is also fairly easy to make. Cut up shallots, toss in buttermilk and then dredge them in flour. Fry them up in a little pan and you’re good to go. Just reheat all of the components, layer and serve.
Gina Ruccione has traveled all over Europe and Asia and has lived in almost every nook of Los Angeles County. You can visit her website at
Gleaned from the New Orleans
Is there any part of the meal that strikes more terror into the heart of the cook than the all important gravy? Many folks just open a packet or a can and call it good. Most wonder, where does a gravy even come from?
There are three simple components to a gravy: a thickening agent, the “drippings” or at least a stock, and the seasonings. My tip focuses on the third, assuming the first two are under control.
What makes a gravy memorable is its consistency. For Thanksgiving turkey gravy, I have found two ways.
First, if you do not put your dressing inside the turkey, stuff the cavity of the bird with celery, onion, red and green bell peppers and carrots. When the bird is done, fetch the vegetables and add them to the start of your gravy. Using an immersion blender will render the gravy into smooth, velvety deliciousness, with a lovely sheen across the surface. The abundant flavor comes from the fact the vegetables have cooked inside of the turkey for hours.
If you do stuff the turkey, roast in a pan that has enough space to place the vegetables around the turkey, to take in some of the flavor from the bird. The seasoning will take less time than the turkey, so either start with the vegetables in the pan and take them out after a couple of hours, or put them on the pan when the turkey is within two hours of being done. They will blend in just as easily as when they are inside the turkey. However, do make sure they are entirely cooked. They should be complete mush.
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— Noramae Munster, Culinary Director at Ports O’ Call Waterfront Dining.Read More