Monday, November 30, 2015

On Semi-Homemade (and Delicious) Thanksgivings

I somehow didn't get around to taking pictures, so here's a mouth-watering GIF instead.

This year for Thanksgiving, I opted to make things a little easier on myself as far as the cooking goes. I love planning, preparing, and eating holiday meals for sure. However, I don't love feeling in over my head because I have multiple time-consuming dishes to prepare, especially if I've been feeling overtired or short on energy the way I've been feeling so far this fall. 

That said, I'm all about efficiency -- getting a delicious meal on the table quickly and with as little hassle involved as possible -- so I have zero problem taking advantage of shortcuts and modern conveniences whenever it suits me. Here's a quick breakdown of what we did to make our Thanksgiving fuss-free and delicious this year.

Pre-Prepped Oven Ready Turkey

I've been so happy with the meats Omaha Steaks has been been sending us, that I decided to try an oven-ready turkey from them this year instead of fussing with a grocery store turkey that needs to be cleaned and dressed before it's ready to go. Let me tell you, that was an excellent decision. The turkey was already brined, seasoned, and ready to pop in the oven. It also came with an oven bag to help keep it moist. 

I did use the oven bag, but I'm not totally sure I would really use one again. (It kept wanting to stick to the turkey after a while, so I wound up losing some of the skin.) If there's one thing I know how to do well myself, it's roast difficult meats like turkey without it getting all dry and gross anyway, so the bag was probably unnecessary. Skin hang-ups aside though, the turkey was absolutely delicious. To the best of my knowledge, I've never eaten a turkey that's been brined before, but it really did make a difference. The brine made the entire turkey super juicy and gave it a subtle sweet, seasoned flavor.

A Better Way to Carve Your Turkey 

I also decided to break down what was left of turkey right after we finished eating instead of doing what I usually do -- awkwardly wrapping the carcass in tin foil, shoving it back into the fridge, and waiting until some other day to retrieve the rest of the meat. Let me tell you something. I can't believe what a huge difference "carving turkey the right way" made as far as the overall fuss factor. The meat we ate for our actual dinner was more tender handled this way. Also, with the turkey still somewhat warm, the leftover meat was ridiculously easy to remove. (In fact, the turkey was so freaking tender, a lot of it fell off right in my hands.) I've avoided breaking down a turkey that way for years because I doubted my ability to do it properly, but I truly wish I'd been doing it this way all along because it was so easy.

Two bags filled with white meat and dark meat went into the fridge and the bare carcass went straight in the trash. (I like making a lot of things from scratch when the mood hits me, but broth is not really one of those things.) There was way more room in the fridge for other leftovers without the carcass in there. Plus, we didn't have to struggle with an awkward carcass and ice cold meat later on that weekend. We were just free to enjoy our turkey and we could easily keep track of exactly how much of it we had for making other things. The Christmas duck and the New Year's ham we have planned will be getting the same treatment, I assure you.

Semi-Homemade Side Dishes

Truth be told, there are a lot of Thanksgiving staples that I never make completely from scratch -- like stuffing, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. I didn't grow up in a household where those things were ever 100% homemade, but they were always delicious regardless, so I see no reason to do things differently now. I typically start with pantry staples like a couple of boxes of Stove Top stuffing or some gravy packets and then doctor them up by adding fresh produce, herbs, additional spices, broths, wine, or anything else I have on hand that I think will make it delicious. 

This year, I actually went the semi-homemade route with all of the sides instead of just the ones I do as a rule. Since I was already getting the Omaha Steaks turkey, I decided to order a couple of containers of their turkey gravy and cash in some loyalty points on a pumpkin pie as well. Even when I use gravy packets as a starter, the gravy is still usually pretty labor intensive, so it was really convenient to have something so delicious all ready to go. (Nothing new about going pre-made with the pie. I'm not a baker and neither is anyone else in my family, so pies for us have always been store bought.)

The stuffing was our go-to Stove Top jazzed up with some sauteed onions, as well as fresh carrot and cilantro from our CSA box (which the produce guy was nice enough to deliver as usual even though it was Thanksgiving). I added plenty of the turkey drippings as well so it was nice and rich. I normally mash my own potatoes, but this year I went with a couple of those instant Idahoan instant mashed potatoes with added turkey drippings, Provolone cheese, and more cilantro instead. There were also fresh green beans in the same farm box as the cilantro, so I sauteed those in bacon grease and served them with crumbled bacon on top. We had Hawaiian rolls with butter to go with our dinner as well.

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Over all, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving and all of the food was amazing. We've also been thoroughly enjoying the leftovers. Honestly, this was just as convenient if not more so than the heat-and-eat holiday meals I used to buy from Safeway's deli back when I still had to juggle actual Thanksgiving entertaining with a ridiculous retail work schedule every year. I would absolutely recommend considering this if you're ever pressed for time or just want to save yourself some hassle. This is definitely something to try for anyone that really can't cook as well. (If you're capable of making boxed macaroni and cheese, you could easily do this, too.)

Personally, I don't get why more people don't do the semi-homemade thing more often. If you choose the right products and add some additional touches, they taste just as good and feel just as special as anything made from scratch. I sincerely doubt many people would even be able to tell you took any shortcuts unless you told them so either. The products and services I linked to throughout my post are all products we not only buy regularly, but that we like and trust enough to include as part of an important meal. I highly recommend any one of them for that reason.
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