Special Feature: Thanksgiving Game Plan


Turkey 911

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Wednesday, November, 14 By Julie Kirkwood
Staff writer

Cooking disasters on Thanksgiving Day are as traditional as turkey and pumpkin pie, especially when the host or hostess is juggling the cooking schedule with the annual family outing to the local Thanksgiving Day football game.

The secret, experts say, is to relax and keep everything in perspective.

With any luck, your deep humiliation today will be a family joke for years to come. Someday you, too, may be able to laugh about it.

In the meantime, take a deep breath and try to salvage the situation. We've asked cooking experts to share their emergency solutions to some of the most common Thanksgiving disasters.

Rock-hard bird

Problem: You wake up Thanksgiving morning and realize you were so distracted by plans for game day that you forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer to thaw.

Solution: Don't panic.

Mary Clingman, director at the Butterball Turkey Talkline, recommends immersing the turkey in cold water. It has to be cold, she said, to keep the turkey from growing harmful bacteria. Every half hour, drain the water and add more cold water. Even though it is cold, it will be warmer than the icy water you drained.

You can also choose to put a frozen turkey directly in the oven, Clingman said. It just won't look as good when it's done. Plus, you won't be able to take the giblets out before cooking and it's going to take an hour or two longer to cook.

Bad timing

Problem: It's an hour past dinner time, all the side dishes are ready, your family is starving, but the turkey is still pink.

Solution: First, don't be deceived by the color, Clingman said. Well-cooked turkeys often have pinkness near the bone. Also, the juices may be a little pink even after the turkey's safely cooked.

The only sure-fire way to know when to take the turkey out of the oven is to use a meat thermometer, she said. Butterball recommends 170 degrees in the breast and 180 degrees in the thigh, which you can achieve by covering the breast with foil two-thirds of the way through cooking. If the turkey is close to finished, speed up the process by covering the whole thing with foil and increasing the oven temperature. Also, if you stuffed the bird, take out the stuffing. The turkey will cook faster with an open cavity. If your turkey is nowhere near finished and your guests are getting anxious, it may be time for extreme measures.

Remove the drumsticks and wings, said Linda Bassett, culinary arts professor at North Shore Community College. Then take a good carving knife and cut the turkey in half up the middle. Place the pieces on baking sheets and turn up the heat in the oven a bit.

Kellie Lawless, who has taught cooking classes on stress-free entertaining at Northern Essex Community College also recommends this method, though she cautions the turkey will be drier.

"Make sure everybody has a lot of wine and they won't notice," she said.

Lawless said it's a good idea to consider making a seasonal soup that can sit in a crockpot for emergencies.

"If you find the turkey is going really, really late, you can give them the appetizer soup and they'll think you planned it," she said.

Even serving salad as a separate course before the meal can buy you a half hour without raising suspicions, she said.

All dried up

Problem: The game went late and you didn't take the turkey out of the oven when you planned to. Now it's terribly overcooked.

Solution: "Lots of gravy works," Bassett said. If you're really concerned, carve the turkey in the kitchen, add basting juices to the sliced pieces and put it back in the oven for a few minutes to soften it.

Paper trail

Problem: You pull the finished turkey out of the oven and your mother-in-law, looking over your shoulder, asks what that paper is. You didn't realize you have to take the bag containing the neck and giblets out before cooking the turkey.

Solution: First, you are not the first person to make this mistake. The Butterball Turkey Talkline fields this call all the time, Clingman said. In fact, many turkey companies now put the turkey guts in oven-safe bags because so many people forget to remove them.

Take them out as soon as you notice, Clingman said. If the turkey is cooked on the outside, but still not on the inside because the bag was in there, it's unsafe to eat, Lawless said. Toss the turkey and order a pizza.

But as long as the turkey is cooked all the way through it should be fine. The giblets, on the other hand, probably won't be any good for making gravy because they won't have the right flavor.

As a substitute, you can make the gravy from pan drippings, Clingman said. If you had your heart set on little chunks in the gravy, use mushrooms.

Oh, and a word to the wise: Check the neck cavity for bagged innards, too, said Tom Yameen, vice president of Butcher Boy Marketplace in North Andover. People often find the parts stuffed in the breast but miss that second hiding place.

Muscle masher

Problem: Your potatoes are cooked and ready to be mashed. You turn on the electric mixer, lower it into the potatoes and the beaters are overpowered. Now your mixer is broken and you have a pot full of whole potatoes.

Solution: "Find the man with the biggest arm muscles in the room and use a whisk," Lawless said.

Whatever you do, do not use a food processor to mash potatoes, she said.

If you're worried about losing your mixer, or any other mashed potato-related disaster, Lawless recommends keeping some packaged mashed potatoes on hand as a backup. Store-bought mashed potatoes, the kind you buy in the deli section, have come a long way since the days of dry flakes, she said. Add a little butter, salt and pepper and goat cheese, and nobody will notice they came from a store.

Better late than never

Problem: Dinner is ready, the turkey's on the table when you get a call from the stadium. The game is going into overtime and your family is running late.

Solution: "The turkey is going to stay hot for quite a while," Lawless said. "When it's done take it out (of the oven) and cover it with foil. It will stay hot for an hour or maybe just a bit more than an hour. ... Keep the side dishes covered. You can always pop them back in the oven."

If the family is going to be really late, slice turkey now and put it in the refrigerator so it doesn't spoil, Clingman said. You can call the Butterball Turkey Talkline for specific reheating instructions, but in general the secret to reheating the turkey in the microwave is to use low power and add a little water, chicken broth or gravy, she said. Cover the container with plastic wrap and cut a hole for ventilation. Cook at 75 percent power or less and slowly bring the turkey back to serving temperature. The guests will never know it was reheated.

"It works like a charm," Clingman said.

Save the crust

Problem: The crust on your pumpkin pie is turning a deep shade of brown but the middle is still liquid.

Solution: "Pull the pie out and line the rim with aluminum foil and then put it back in," Lawless said. The foil protects the crust from direct heat and allows the filling to continue cooking.

Cat got your pie?

Problem: You bring in the pumpkin pie from the porch where it was set to cool and realize the cat has nibbled a hole in the filling.

Solution: Lawless faced this exact problem once when her Siamese cat hopped up on a counter and helped herself to a taste of pumpkin pie.

Her solution? "I didn't serve it at the table," she said. "I cut it up in the kitchen."

The nibble was small, so she cut that piece out and threw it away.

If you had your heart set on serving the pie at the table, you could cut out the chewed part and cover it up with whipped cream so nobody would notice the dent.

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