From farmers markets to big-box groceries, we have a lot of food issues to work out as a nation, but maybe none is more fraught than the poor, freaked-out-over Thanksgiving turkey: It has to deal with our emotional baggage about family, friends and the stress of the holiday season. And so, in the name of the perfect bird, we obsess over brines, under-skin butters, heritage breeds, times, temperatures, fireballing fryers … I even know poor souls who flip turkeys mid-roast and apply bags of ice to the breasts. You know what? Stop. Take a deep breath, and decide to relax. Here’s how to prepare for, survive, and maybe even have a little fun cooking this year.
First of all, forgive me for saying this, but turkey, even when done the best it can be, is just not that good. I'm not saying you should replace your holiday turkey with lobes of foie gras or porterhouse steaks, but I'd just like everyone to be honest and lower the bar a little. Admitting that what you’re really attempting is to channel all the glory of American history and elevate a humble, relatively bland beast to the heights of culinary excellence is the first step towards sanity. Secondly, remember that this is not any of your guests’ first rodeo. Chances are that, no matter how badly you botch the job of cooking your bird, these people sitting around your living room have had much worse. Guaranteed: Someone in the room has attended a Thanksgiving dinner so heinous that it ended up at a Chinese restaurant. Are you feeling a little less anxious? Great! Now we can begin to plan a stress-free day of thanks.
Most people would, at this point, begin talking about turkeys, but it's much more important to talk about booze and snacks. A hungry guest who cannot find a drink is an angry guest. A hungry guest who can find a drink, but nothing to soak it up, is also an angry guest. Protect yourself and your holiday: Have booze and snacks. (As an aside, on booze I like to start with the nice stuff to reward guests who show up on time, and then use the box wine later, during the loud, close-talker portion of the evening's program.)
Next, choose your bird. What kind of turkey you purchase is caught up in personal convictions and identity politics; I’m not going to judge. Whether you get a supermarket turkey or a pastured bird with a pedigree that got its feet rubbed down with artisan cider every evening, just know what you're buying and plan accordingly. If you end up with an industrial, Butterball-type of bird you can get away with murder and roast it hard and fast at 425⁰ F if you have your back to the wall timing-wise. If you choose a pastured, heritage or wild turkey, you have to brine it for at least a day and roast it at or below 325⁰ for much longer to allow for its firmer flesh to become tender. Just know how early in the morning you have to get up to start cooking your precious showpiece, and maybe add an extra hour in there for the sake of sanity.
Stuffing naturally follows turkeys and all I can say is: Please, please, please do not put your stuffing in the turkey. I know all the flavor and tradition arguments pro-turkey stuffing, and I don't care. Find your flavor somewhere else (like with good gravy) and keep it out of the cavity of your bird. Why am I so staunchly anti-stuffing? Time. Pure and simple. All stuffing is different, and all of it will completely screw with your planned roasting time and thusly enter into the equation an element of the unknown. The name of the game is low-stress, stuffing causes randomness, randomness causes stress. Keep stress out of your turkey.
As for sides, stay focused on the classics. I have seen the most creative and forward-minded line cook nearly reduced to tears upon learning that there were no sweet potatoes with marshmallows at the table. Don't be the guy that makes somebody cry because you couldn't resist putting bottarga in the stuffing or decided to replace mashed potatoes with a roasted root vegetable puree. Try to keep the bold-flavor-foodie thing in your pants, stock up on Bell's poultry seasoning and embrace all that is mediocre and amazing about your mother’s plastic recipe box.
And finally, whatever you do, remember that Thanksgiving really isn't about you, it's about them. Keep them boozed up, free from hunger and don't screw up their beloved sides, and you're 80 percent of the way to loosening the icy grip of fear that torments all cooks as they lie in bed the night before Thanksgiving. Keep it simple. Keep it safe. Maybe even take a Xanax and truly enjoy the warm glow of having a house full of crazy people.