I grew up eating the same meal every Thanksgiving. Turkey, natch, with a simple bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, creamed onions (they were on the table, but I didn't eat them as a kid), and the ubiquitous green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and canned French-fried onion rings on top. We’d also have freshly baked rolls, my mother’s sweet pickles, canned ripe olives that we would stick on our fingers, and lots of pie (pumpkin, of course, but usually mince and often something like gooseberry, too).
My mother and grandmother would spend all day in the kitchen. My job was feeding oranges and fresh cranberries into a meat grinder (this was cooking BC, Before Cuisinart) to make Ocean Spray's famous relish, and trying to keep the bright red juice off the floor. While Uncle Olie watched football, Aunt Margaret sipped a vodka cocktail and came in only to make the gravy, which she did using nothing fancier than a big wooden spoon.
Except for the industrial green beans, I still make pretty much the same meal every year. I heard Jacques Pepin say that Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday because it’s about sharing good food with people you care for, and I have to agree. You don’t need to impress anyone with exotic preparations or pretensions of fine dining. Just serve real good food.
Buy the best turkey you can afford. Most will be frozen, so make sure you put it in the refrigerator to thaw a few days before Thanksgiving. Avoid the cheap industrial turkeys; the birds have been raised in appalling conditions.
I’ve brined turkey, but now I prefer to salt, sometimes called “dry brining” (a terrible, oxymoronic term). It’s easier, the results are better, very moist breast meat, crispy skin, and less of that “hammy” quality. Rub several tablespoons of sea salt (about 1 T for each 5 lbs of turkey weight) all over the bird, but especially on the breast; it should resemble a light snowfall. Leave the turkey in the refrigerator, uncovered (that’s important), overnight to dry the skin out a bit.
Let the turkey come to room temperature while you preheat the oven to 325F. Place it on a rack, breast side up, in a large roasting pan, and pop it in the oven.
After the bird’s been cooking for an hour or so, drop a stick of butter into the roasting pan and add the secret ingredient: a bottle of beer. This unusual basting ingredient comes from my wife’s family (New Jersey Italians who also serve lasagna before the turkey at Thanksgiving) but it makes for a wonderful turkey (and great gravy). I prefer a porter or stout or one of the special winter brews, which I can also drink while I’m cooking. If you live in the Northwest, splurge with a couple of bottles of Hair of the Dog brewery’s dark ale called Adam. WARNING: Do not use a hoppy beer. Hops are inherently bitter, and a beer with a higher IBU number will leave you with bitter gravy.
Save at least one more bottle to add halfway through cooking the turkey. Baste every 20 minutes or so, and when you add the second bottle of beer after a couple of hours, baste it really well and then cover the breast with a loose tent of foil. This stops the browning on top and helps prevent too much drying.
Use an instant-read thermometer (about $8 at a good kitchen store) to check the internal temp. Stick it into the breast; if it reads 150 or so take the bird out of the oven. Move it to a platter, keep the foil tent on, and let it rest for about 20-30 minutes while you make the gravy.
Gravy is really pretty easy. There are two basic approaches. The traditional method has you separate the fat, cook it with flour to it to make a roux, then add that back to pan juices along with the turkey or chicken stock you made earlier in the week. The other is my late Aunt Margaret’s.
After going back and forth with mixed results both ways, I’ve settled on Aunt Margaret’s technique for (usually) fool-proof gravy. Here’s how it goes: Once the turkey out of the pan, set the roasting pan on the stove and turn the burner (or burners, if the pan spans two) on medium high. While the juices are heating, scrape all of the dark, cooked-on goodness from the bottom and edges of the pan.
Mix cold water (and it must be cold water or you get lumps) slowly into a cup or so of flour (I like to make a lot of gravy, like a couple of quarts) until it becomes a smooth, not-too-viscous paste. You want this sort of runny.
Slowly pour the flour and water into the roasting pan, stirring constantly. When the mixture is smooth, you’re ready for more liquid. I usually make a few cups of turkey stock with the neck, and I’ll add water if I need more volume, but I’ve stopped using canned chicken broth (see Ruhlman for why). Bring the gravy to a simmer and cook for awhile to thicken. You can add more of the flour/water mix if you want, but always make it separately.
If you think the gravy isn’t brown enough, add some Kitchen Bouquet, a nearly flavorless caramelized sugar solution mostly for color (Maggi liquid seasoning is the same thing). It’s not necessary, but I never make gravy without it. If you still have lumps, whisk them out or use an immersion blender. Taste and add salt if needed (a splash of soy sauce can also help).
Finally, and especially if there are any fat slicks on the surface, add a cup or two of milk or cream or creme fraiche. Let the gravy simmer until you’re ready to eat.