Make Thanksgiving Easy Again: Easy Turkey

Easy Turkey | Cook it Pretty

Two years ago I hosted my first Thanksgiving without parental supervision, and I did a lot of research on turkey roasting techniques. The combination of all the tips and tricks I found resulted in a successful approach that I’m ready to confidently share with you.

Easy Turkey | Cook it Pretty

You’ve probably seen blogs and magazine articles telling you to do everything from turning the turkey upside down to cooking it straight out of the freezer. Cover it! Don’t cover it! Baste it! Basting is over! Stuffing will kill you! Flip it! Change the temperature 10 times! Buy a million gadgets you’ll only use once a year! Hosting a big meal is stressful enough without all this conflicting information. I’ve boiled everything down to one tip for you: DO LESS.

Easy Turkey | Cook it Pretty

The only thing that is difficult about being in charge of the turkey is that you have to do some pre-planning. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, my guess is you already know that you have some planning in your (very near) future. In Dubai I only have access to frozen turkeys so I do not get a lot of choice in the matter and the following tips and techniques are for frozen turkey. Some thoughts to get you started:

  • Buy your turkey as early as possible. If your turkey is frozen, you’ll need to allow for 3 days of defrosting in the fridge. But people, this isn’t hard! All it does is sit there and take up all your fridge space for a few days.
  • Don’t double-brine. Did you know that most frozen turkeys are already in brine? Check the labels and you’ll likely see something about the ingredients including salt or salt water – that means it’s been in brine. So lucky you, you do not need to brine it again.
  • No special equipment required. As long as you have a roasting pan that is big enough for your turkey, you’re good to go. While things like roasting racks can be nice, you don’t have to have one. My method doesn’t require a baster either. One thing that’s nice to have is a meat thermometer, in case you’re anxious about things like serving your loved ones undercooked meat (raises hand).
  • Plan around oven space. Turkeys take a long time to cook and will dominate your oven on Thanksgiving day. Plan any other dishes you’re making around the idea that your oven will be in use most of the time. Things like pie can be easily made the day before to avoid conflicting oven time. Stuffing can be prepped the day before and baked after the turkey comes out. Consider vegetables cooked on the stove top, such as sauteed green beans, rather than a roasted dish that requires oven time. Or farm out your other oven dishes to guests, potluck style.

So you have your turkey defrosted and your suitably sized pan, your other holiday dishes under control, and you’re ready to go. Where to begin? Read on!

Easy Herb Roasted Turkey

Defrosted Turkey
2 Onions, halved then quartered (you want big pieces)
3 Celery stalks, chopped into 2-3 inch sections
Butter, softened
S&P
Herbs of choice (I like rosemary, sage & thyme)
1/2 Orange, quartered

Calculate your cook time
Cook time = 15 mins x #lbs. For example, a 15lb turkey will take 225 mins or 3 hours 45 mins. Preheat your oven to 325F.

Prep the pan
Place the onion and celery chunks in the bottom of the roasting pan, reserving some onion to be later placed inside the turkey. These will serve as your roasting rack, raising the bird off the bottom of the pan. They also provide a nice flavor to your drippings, which you can later use for gravy.

Prep the bird
Check the neck cavity and main cavity for little bags of gizzards, removing everything. Keep them if you like to include them in your stuffing or stock or if you’re like my mom and cook it up for the dogs. Toss them if you’re like me and get grossed out by everything I just said (it’s hard for me to even type the word gizzards). Place the turkey in the roasting pan on top of the chopped onion and celery. Fold the wings underneath the body of the turkey – this prevents them from getting dried out or burned, and it just looks better.

Give it a rub
Take the softened butter in your fingers and rub it all over your turkey, including the legs. Sprinkle everywhere with generous amounts of salt and pepper, including some inside the cavity. Add your herbs, like rosemary, sage, and thyme everywhere as well.

Easy Turkey | Cook it Pretty
Get aromatic
Put remaining onion and orange pieces inside the cavity. I’ve seen this called “aromatics” – you won’t be eating them, but they add juice and flavor to the meat from the inside. Don’t stuff it too full or it may affect your cook time, a few pieces of each will do.

Tie the legs, or don’t
This is a purely aesthetic choice. If you want a pretty picture, there’s something that makes the tied up legs just look better. But if you don’t care and just want it easy, skip this because you’ll just be removing the tie later. I skipped it last time and it looked a little awkward, but who really cares because it tastes the same!

The do-nothing part
Now put it in the oven and set your timer according to the cook time above. THEN DO NOTHING. Don’t baste it or change the temperature or use tin foil on anything. Just ignore the turkey for the next 3 hours or so. Do your other prep and stove top cooking. Have a glass of wine. Study up on making gravy so you can put the pan drippings to use. (I can vouch for this method from The Kitchn).

Check the temp
Many frozen turkeys have a pop-up plastic thingie that tells you it’s ready. I’ve heard it’s best to double check this with a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh. Make sure it’s in the 165-180F range. The skin should be browned and crispy. Then it’s done! You roasted a whole turkey all by yourself!

Let it rest
Let the turkey rest at room temp for at least 30 minutes before carving. This is a good time to make your gravy, in which case you’ll need to remove the turkey from the roasting pan and transfer it to a cutting board. Put gallon-sized ziplock bags over oven mitts in order to safely grab the hot turkey without ruining your mitts. Be careful, turkeys are heavy and hot!

Carve it up
I’m lucky because my husband is amazing at breaking down the bird. I have never attempted this myself. But here’s the video from NYT that he watched before doing it the first time, and he knocked it out of the park. I like this method because it’s much easier to serve than carving it at the table, and you can break it up into dark and light meat platters.

You did it! Wishing you a juicy and delicious turkey to share with loved ones this Thanksgiving.

© Cook it Pretty 2016

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Fall Squash Quinoa

Fall Squash Quinoa | Cook it Pretty
Cutting right to the chase, you need this dish in your life. This recipe is full of fall flavor bombs: squash (or pumpkin), dates, dried cranberries, almonds, balsamic, and warm spices. It’s also healthy (because spinach), gluten-free, and vegetarian. I have made it with acorn squash, butternut squash, and gem pumpkins. You can impress guests by stuffing the quinoa mixture in a roasted acorn squash. It looks really cute. But this deconstructed method tastes the same. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to go the extra mile in presentation. I know this looks like a lot of ingredients but that’s ok because they’re all bringing something to the table.

Fall Squash Quinoa
1 Squash of your choice (butternut or acorn), halved and scooped
1  cup uncooked Quinoa
2 cups Water
2 Tbs Olive Oil
1 small Red Onion, diced
2 cloves Garlic, minced
S&P to taste
1 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Cinnamon
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 cup Honey
1/2 cup fresh Spinach
1 tsp Red Pepper flakes (more to taste)
1/4 cup chopped raw Almonds
6 Medjool Dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup dried Cranberries
1/4 cup crumbled Feta
1/2 cup fresh Cilantro, chopped

Roast the Squash
Preheat the oven to 400F. In a roasting pan, drizzle the squash halves with 1 Tbs of the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place them cut side down and roast for 20-25 minutes. Turn the halves over and return to oven for 10 more minutes. They’re done when you can easily stick a fork all the way through the flesh of the squash.

Cook the Quinoa
While the squash is roasting, bring your quinoa and water to a boil on the stovetop. Reduce heat to low and continue cooking the quinoa covered for 15 minutes, until all water is absorbed. Set aside.

Ready the Flavor Bombs
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet. Add the chopped onion and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic and stir. Add a dash of salt and pepper, cumin and cinnamon. Add the balsamic and honey and allow it to reduce for a couple minutes. Add the spinach and stir until the leaves cook down. Turn off heat. Add your cooked quinoa and mix well. Add red pepper flakes,  almonds, dates, cranberries, crumbled feta and cilantro and mix well. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.

Combine Forces
If you’re going for presentation points, spoon the quinoa mixture into the roasted squash halves. If your halves aren’t so pretty or you just don’t care, go ahead and scoop the cooked squash out of its skin and add it to the quinoa mixture.

Enjoy!

© Cook it Pretty 2016

All the Pumpkin Pie Things

Pumpkin Pie Filling | Cook it Pretty
I made a big batch of pumpkin pie filling at Thanksgiving time and froze the leftovers. I knew I could use it for something delicious when the craving struck. So recently I opened my freezer to discover a small pack of puff pastry squares. Light bulb moment: Heyyyyy that sounds like instant pumpkin pie to me! I decided to cut the squares down to fit a mini muffin pan. Bite sized instant pumpkin pie…even better.

Mini Punkin Pies | Cook it Pretty
I didn’t waste time trying to make the crust pretty, I just kind of threw them in the tin, filled with the excess pie filling, and started baking. While I am the biggest fan of home made pie crust you know, especially my Mom’s, this was just. so. fast. Which makes it kind of irresistible, doesn’t it? Filling I already made and dough I don’t have to fret over? Pretty close to instant gratification for all your pumpkin pie craving needs.

Even after that mini pie feast, I still had more filling left. Also in my freezer, old-ass bananas saved for just such an occasion. Substitute a cup of pumpkin pie filling for one of the two eggs in my go-to banana bread recipe, reduce the sugar a tad to balance the already sweetened filling, and BAM – Pumpkin Spice Banana Bread.

Pumpkin Spice Banana Bread | Cook it Pretty
That’s two pretty major leftovers baking success stories in a row. Both delicious, quick, and easy. What’s your latest brilliant use of leftovers?

Thanksgiving Essentials: Ginger Apple Cranberry Sauce

 

Spiced Cranberry Sauce | Cook it Pretty
I’m pretty big on cranberry sauce. I love it in all forms, including shiny and jiggly out of a can. Last year I made cooked cranberry sauce for the first time, a departure from my Mom’s usual fresh cranberry relish – a family favorite close to my heart. Maybe it was because I was more focused on other things, like hosting my first Thanksgiving in Dubai, but it was a surprise hit.

Dubai Spices | Cook it Pretty
The reward could have been enhanced by my efforts to grind my own cloves. Cloves are plentiful in this land of spices, but seem to be most common in their whole, hard-as-nails form. Chopping wasn’t happening. My knives were no match. I tried mortar and pestling, slow and tiring. I even took a hammer to these suckers. I now understand why whole cloves are most often used as sharp objects plunged into defenseless foods like oranges.

Spiced Cranberry Sauce | Cook it Pretty
Success could also have been made sweeter by the hunt for key holiday ingredients, like the cranberries. In a land where I often call foods by names not widely understood by others, seeking cranberries in multiple markets was…interesting. Cranberries? They’re red and smooth? Possibly frozen? Very tart? *Points to image on a bottle of cranberry cocktail and smiles hopefully*

Spiced Cranberry Sauce | Cook it Pretty
Whatever other factors involved, the stuff tasted good. It smelled amazing. It was spiced and sweet. It tasted like it should taste. It tasted like home. The double batch lasted through many rounds of delicious leftover turkey sandwiches. I made it ahead of time and it made my life easier. And for all these reasons, I’m making it again this year. In Dubai again, this time with the in-laws. Please wish me luck on my holiday food shopping adventures.

Ginger Apple Cranberry Sauce
Double Batch, Serves 16

24 oz fresh or frozen cranberries (680 grams, for those of us shopping in the metric system)
1-2 tart apples, chopped
1 1/2 c water
1 c honey
1/2 c brown sugar
3 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp ginger
4 Tbs candied ginger, chopped
2 Tbs Cointreau or Grand Marnier
Zest from 2 oranges

In a large saucepan, bring cranberries, apples, honey, brown sugar, spices, and water to a simmer. Cover and simmer for around 10 minutes (until you notice it thickening) over medium-low heat. Add zest, candied ginger, and orange liqueur, continue simmering uncovered for a few more minutes. You’ll know when it starts to look like sauce. Remove from heat and taste, adding more sugar or spices if needed. Let cool in your serving dish of choice. Keep covered in the fridge until Turkey Day – you can make this a couple days ahead and save yourself the stove top room day-of. Bring to room temp before serving time.

© Cook it Pretty 2015

Pumpkin Spinach Lasagna

It may still be hovering around 100 degrees in Dubai, but it’s still October…technically, it’s pumpkin time. I hoarded canned pumpkin last year and had one can left – what to make? I was inspired by all the fall recipes popping up in my newsfeed and settled on a pumpkin lasagna.  I added spinach because then you can convince yourself you’re eating healthy vegetables while you consume this cheesy creamy comfort food. Nutmeg, a dash of cayenne, garlic in the bechamel, and a blend of mozzarella and parmesan cheeses bring a nice flavor to the pumpkin-centric pasta.

The two best time savers for you in this recipe are the canned pumpkin and ready-to-bake noodles. The most time consuming bit is making the bechamel, but this creamy white stuff is what takes the dish to the next level. I have a lasagna fan in the house, and he gave it immediate “is there more of this?” approval. It was pretty easy to pull together, so it could become a repeat offender!

Pumpkin Spinach Lasagna

For the filling:
1 can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup defrosted frozen spinach
1/2 stick butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup grated parmesan
2 Tbs sage
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Dash cayenne pepper

For the bechamel:
3 Tbs Butter
1/2 Tbs minced garlic
3 Tbs flour
3 cups whole milk
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Salt

For assembly:
Ready-to-bake lasagna noodles
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup more grated parmesan

Preheat oven to 375F.

To make the filling, start by melting and browning the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Combine browned butter with pumpkin puree, spinach, parmesan, sage, nutmeg, salt, and cayenne. Adjust seasoning to taste.

To make the bechamel, melt remaining 3 Tbs of butter with the minced garlic over medium heat. In a separate pan, bring milk to a gentle simmer over low heat. Whisk flour into the melted butter and garlic and reduce heat to low. (You don’t necessarily need to know that this is called a roux, but it does help you sound like a fancy chef.) Continue whisking frequently as you gradually add the hot milk. Add 1/4 tsp salt and nutmeg. Bring heat back up to medium and bring to a boil, keep whisking. Cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 5 minutes. Add another 1/4 tsp salt.

Put it allll together! Use a small baking dish (this is not a large yield recipe). Coat bottom of the dish wish small amount of the bechamel. Then arrange the pasta lining the dish (they come in all different sizes, make it work for your dish size and shape!). Top with a layer of the pumpkin filling, another layer of pasta, then pour more bechamel and top with a mix of the two cheeses. Keep repeating the layers of pasta, pumpkin, pasta, bechamel, cheese depending on the depth of your dish and the amounts of each you have left, ending with a pasta and cheese layer on top.

Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue cooking until the cheese starts to brown, about 35 more minutes.

This recipe is easy to adjust. I would have doubled it if only I had more pumpkin! Mix different spices in the filling or swap out the cheese types depending on what you have or what you like. Enjoy!

© Cook it Pretty 2015

Couscous or Quinoa, Pumpkin or Squash?

Any conversation about squash or pumpkin can get pretty confusing around here. In Dubai, and apparently in Australia as well, butternut squash is referred to as butternut pumpkin. I’ve also seen acorn squash labeled as green pumpkin. I like pretty much all manner of squash and/or pumpkin and tend to gravitate toward recipes with these ingredients. (A recent review of my Pinterest boards made that pretty clear).

Butternut Squash Couscous | Cook it Pretty

So I recently picked up a “butternut pumpkin” and was looking for a recipe to use it with. I opted for  this Couscous Salad with Butternut Squash and Cranberry from The Kitchn. I followed the recipe pretty closely except for not soaking the dried cranberries (I eat them straight from the bag anyway – anyone know why I would need to soak them?) and adding some honey to the dressing as I found it a little too strong on the vinegar. I do love the local couscous, how cute is the packaging?

Dubai Couscous | Cook it Pretty

As I was making it I realized how close this recipe is to the Quinoa-Stuffed Acorn Squash recipe that is a big favorite of mine. After tasting it, I concluded that I prefer the quinoa/acorn version. This recipe from Camille Styles is the favorite of which I speak. I’ve made it over and over and it has sweet, salt, spice, and heat in all the right places. I always use cranberries instead of currants and different chopped nuts instead of pepitas, and my favorite personal addition is dates.

Quinoa Stuffed Acorn Squash | Cook it Pretty

I think this one also wins for presentation, and the addition of greens ups the health factor. Secret bonus of this presentation – no peeling or chopping the squash. That’s right, it’s actually easier to make it the cute way this time. I’ve made it clear in the past how partial I am to quinoa. Maybe I’m biased, but quinoa beats couscous this round. Cute camel packaging notwithstanding.

It’s Pumpkin Soup Season. Even here.

It started with this picture.

LAT Pumpkin Soup

Image from LA Times

This was 2009, aka pre-Pinterest, so it was the cutest pumpkin recipe presentation I had ever seen. I suggested it as a new addition to our family’s Thanksgiving feast that year, and went for it with the help of my Mom and sister. I photo-documented the whole thing, clearly always a blogger at heart, even if my photos weren’t the greatest. The recipe claims 2 hours prep/cook time, I’d say it took us more like 5. That’s because the original recipe from LA Times calls for starting with an entire actual pumpkin rather than the just-as-good canned pumpkin puree that people in the real world are more likely to use.

Spiced Pumpkin Soup - start with a pumpkin

Entire actual pumpkin used.

Being a family that places value on things from scratch, we went for it anyway. It involved a lot of secondary containers and extra sets of hands as we worked the huge batch through the food processor to break down the pumpkin chunks.

Cooking down the pumpkin chunks.

Cooking down the pumpkin chunks.

Don’t forget that you also have to carve out the minis for those cute pumpkin bowls!

Spiced Pumpkin Soup in mini pumpkin bowls

Making mini pumpkin bowls

The recipe makes a big batch that serves 12 – could you imagine making a dozen pumpkin bowls? Four was plenty. Here’s the finished product, in our imperfect yet pretty darn cute white pumpkin serving vessels.

Spiced Pumpkin Soup in Mini Pumpkin Bowls

Spiced Pumpkin Soup in Mini Pumpkin Bowls

We may have slaved for hours, but no one was complaining by the time we were eating it. Working that hard for something can make it taste even better. What sets this pumpkin soup apart from others I’ve seen and tasted, other than the impressive presentation, is the bisque-like texture (thanks to heavy cream) and the sweet spicy flavors (thanks to roasted chiles and maple syrup). And don’t forget the bacon!

In short, it was worth it. For a special occasion, I’d probably do those pumpkin bowls again. But what if I want to eat pumpkin soup every damn day?? And I kind of do. Thankfully, I have smart, resourceful, and talented friends.

Spiced Pumpkin Soup - Thanksgiving 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 version – garnished with extra nutmeg

My fabulous friend Pam over at Seriously Yum has taught me many kitchen lessons over the years, and has been doing this cooking and writing about it thing way longer than I have. She took on the “full fat, full afternoon” version and successfully cut down on time and calories – down to 100 calories per serving, in fact. Color me impressed. That was a fun collabo – Pam, we need to do it again! Find her lighter, faster version here.

I still seem to tweak the recipe slightly every time I make it, and I now make it at least once a year due to popular demand. Sometimes from myself.

Spiced Pumpkin Soup

Thanksgiving 2013 version

I’ve arrived at this recipe (below), which is a combination of the original and Pam’s. I think the extra creamy texture of the heavy cream is worth the fat content, as is a little extra bacon. However, I’ll likely always use canned pumpkin versus the more time-consuming, straight from the pumpkin patch method. Over time I’ve ditched the Tabasco called for in the original, and stopped concerning myself over some of the details, such as whether my paprika is Hungarian. I also added nutmeg to balance the flavors, and forgot that the original didn’t include it.

I encourage you to taste test along the way and add more heat or mellow it with more sweetness as you go. Therefore, measurements may not be exact and I mean it when I say “to taste”!

I have yet to find canned pumpkin in Dubai…insert sad face here. Thankfully, my family is visiting soon and I’ve asked them to bring me some! We’ve done this before…because we are a totally normal family that travels internationally with canned goods in our suitcases. Until then, enjoy some soup for me!

Laura’s Spiced Pumpkin Soup

3 tbsp butter
3-4 slices bacon
1/4 cup chardonnay
1 large onion, chopped
1 or 2 serrano chiles (or similar) broiled til skin is charred. Seeds removed, roughly chopped.
2 large cans (or 4 small) pumpkin puree
4 cans chicken broth (about 6.5 cups)
1/4 cup maple syrup (more to taste)
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne (to taste)
salt and pepper (to taste)
2 cups half & half or heavy cream, depending on your diet!
1 tsp nutmeg (more to taste)
Green onion garnish (optional)

Roast the chiles over high heat on a rack or skewer on your stove-top burner, s’mores style. When the skin is charred all over, place the peppers in a paper bag (this helps make it easier to remove the skin). Leave them for about 10 minutes, then remove and peel the skin. Discard the stem and seeds, and chop the peppers coarsely.

In large stockpot, heat butter and bacon over medium heat about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until bacon starts to get crispy. Add chopped onion and stir occasionally for about 15 minutes, until they start caramelizing. Add chile, mix well.

Add wine, pumpkin and 3 cans broth. Stir well to combine. Add syrup, paprika, cayenne, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir again. When it starts bubbling, reduce to low and cover. Stir once in a while for about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat. Using an immersion blender, puree until smooth. Return to heat. Stir in cream. Add some or all of the 4th can of broth, checking the texture. Add more syrup, salt or spice to taste. Garnish with green onion or additional nutmeg if desired.