It's embarrassing to admit that I had no earthly idea what the heck I was doing when I embarked on cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner. Ignorance is not only bliss, but it can be courage, willfulness, and eventually resourcefulness all wrapped in one plastic-netted frozen chunk of poultry. I proudly did all my grocery shopping on Tuesday night (yes, the one that's barely more than a day before Thanksgiving) to make sure the ingredients were just as fresh as could be. I had no clue that would mean "just as frozen as could be" when it came to turkeys. I'm sure you've heard and quite possibly shook your head in unbelievable amazement at stories of the poor souls who do a rapid-thaw turkey-in-the-bathtub procedure. Oh yeah. You guessed it.
Thank heavens that my mom came to assist me on Thanksgiving Eve. I'll never forget her gentle surprise when she asked me to get the turkey, and I removed a 20-pound bird from my refrigerator still frozen solid. The plan had been to prepare the stuffing, cram it into every nook and cranny of that presumably thawed gobbler late at night, and set it on a slow roast until the noontime gathering. Up to that point, the plan did not include wearing a path between my kitchen and bathroom. Alas, resourcefulness arrived on the scene, and I spent many hours that evening doting on my bathing beauty in its red, white, and blue wet suit of sorts. During my repeated visits to check the water temperature and add cool water to its bath, I clearly remember intermittent fits of panic and punchiness. Who could have ever guessed that over 15 years later I would be wishing for a picture of that bird bath?
** Insert your own imaginary photo here. **
Kids, in my retrospection let me proclaim that Thanksgiving Eve bathtub turkey thawing is a potentially dangerous method of preparing your frozen winged friend for his big day. For safety's sake, put your avian on a slow thaw days ahead of time so no one ends up watching the Lions game in the ER.
I lucked out. My escapades only caused us to eat a little later than originally planned, and I am still very thankful that my Turkey Day debut was a success despite the bathtub debacle. My guests were only miserable because they overstuffed themselves at dinner. No one was the wiser. Sometimes ignorance is only bliss.
So, I survived a nerve-wracking lesson. Since then I smartly employ the much safer alternative of slowly thawing a frozen turkey for the recommended amount of days in the refrigerator prior to preparing it. I smartly make a grocery list at least a week in advance for HotDog to do the shopping. And I still smartly prepare my turkey and stuffing the same way: Mom's way.
Turkey and Sage Stuffing
1 thoroughly and properly thawed turkey, 10-12 pounds
3 king-size loaves of white bread
1 package of celery hearts
3 large onions
2 1/2 sticks butter, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons ground sage
1 cup chicken broth
For each loaf of bread, tear it up and divide it between two large, shallow baking pans.
Bake at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes, depending on your oven. Gently stir it around on the pans and bake another 5-10 minutes. The idea is to get them nicely browned, but not too brown.
Each time a pair of bread pans is done, transfer the bread to a giant pot or bowl. In this case, I am once again using that 16-quart monster pot I love so dearly.
In between baking your bread bits to get croutons, wash and chop the celery. Chop the onions, too. Melt two sticks (8 Tablespoons) of butter in a large saute pan. Yes, it is a lot of butter, but keep in mind it will be coating your croutons from THREE loaves of bread. Add the celery and onions to the melted butter, stirring occassionally until they are cooked through.
Rinse the bird, on the outside and inside both cavities. Don't forget that they - whoever the proverbial "they" may be - like to shove the neck and other various parts and sometimes a packet of gravy inside those cavities. I've heard rumors that the gravy is surprisingly good, although I've never tried it. Take those hidden gems out and do what you will with 'em. I have no advice here, as even cooking the extra body parts to make broth kinda grosses me out. Set your cavity-clean bird aside to drain or pat it dry.
Add the celery/onions/butter to the croutons and stir together well. Since it is such a large amount of bread, I like to add the sauteed veggies two or three parts at a time, stirring it together as I go. Do the same for the salt, pepper, and sage. I liken it to the directions on shampoo, except replace "lather" with "add a little" and "rinse" with "stir". Add a little, stir, repeat.
If you bird has a large flap of skin like this one, pull it over the stuffing as best you can to close it up and protect the stuffing from getting too dry while it's in the sauna.
The little pop-up temperature gauge will be on the bottom, but it's the only way to let gravity do its thing to help the juices run into the white meat. It's certainly not pretty, but it works.
Melt the remaining 1/2 stick (4 Tablespoons) of butter. Use a little of that butter to coat a small casserole dish or loaf pan for the remaining stuffing.
Brush the rest of the butter all over the turkey, and add some additional chicken broth or water to the roasting pan. Look how cute it is in its Child's Pose, all ready for Oven Yoga.
Cover/tent it with foil and bake at 350 degrees, according to the directions on its plastic wrapper. I always add anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for a stuffed bird. Since this is an 11-pound bird, I set the timer for 5 hours. (The directions said it would need 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours.)
This is the turkey after the timer beeped. It's a beautiful thing when the meat is falling off the bone like this.
Just to be sure it was completely done, I checked the temperature of the thigh and the middle of the stuffing. You can see this baby is plenty hot through and through, exceeding the recommended temperature of 165 degrees for both turkey and stuffing. Some sites will tell you that the turkey is horribly overdone at this point, but the meat from my turkeys has never been too dry.
If you prefer, you can remove the foil and bake it another 15-30 minutes to get the skin more golden brown. Since I don't present the whole bird at dinner, I simply start putting the stuffing and meat on a platter and nibble as I go. My preference is to plate my Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing something like this.
Now for that extra little stuffing casserole... I baked it the next evening at 350 degrees for about 1 1/2 hours. I checked it with the meat thermometer to make sure it was super hot inside, particularly because I had touched it while I stuffed the raw turkey.
See how conscientious I've become?