The story of Southern Cuisine makes for many cookbooks and even novels, but I am not here to write a literary masterpiece. I have stories to tell, but its practical information that will make your life in a kitchen easier and more enjoyable.
Friends have asked for information on basic cooking techniques and simple recipes. They liked the hints I gave them about what to keep in a pantry, especially since we live twenty miles from a major grocery store. It is so easy these days to go to the store and find a pre-mixed salad in a bag, already cooked meat that you just heat in a microwave, vegetables that have a sauce in a microwave bag, and a pre-made dessert frozen and ready to thaw and eat. This may save you some time in the kitchen but what does it actually cost per serving and have you read the labels on the packaging?
It’s scary! On both counts.
Remember that Southern Cuisine is also about handing down tradition and teaching the future generations the practical knowledge that you will use everyday. It is using math to scale recipes, using your senses of taste and smell, organization and planning. And starting you own family traditions with your sons and daughters. Thanksgiving is all about tradition. This year my wife taught our son and daughter-in-law how to make cornbread dressing. It ended up expanding to include an aunt and went from three pans to seven pans.
There are times that it just takes more than one person to prep a meal. And this is a time when you can share ideas and remember good meals and how to better your not so good meals. Get your children involved so when mealtime comes they can show off their contribution to the meal.
Now the practical; if you plan to have turkey at Christmas and your turkey at Thanksgiving wasn’t quite the masterpiece you hoped for or you don’t do turkey because it is too daunting, maybe these tips will help.
Common complaints include; the turkey was dry, it was tasteless, not enough or too much turkey, it was still frozen or cold when it should be ready for cooking, can’t tell if it is done and there is no room in the oven for the turkey and everything else you want to bake.
Let’s start with too much or not enough turkey. If you are cooking to feed people only for that one meal, then plan on ¾ to one pound of turkey per person: a ten pound turkey will feed up to ten people. If you want to have leftovers, try for slightly more than a pound per person. And if you need a large turkey, try cooking two smaller ones (instead of a twenty pound turkey, cook two ten pounders). They defrost faster, cook faster and stay moister. Just roast them side by side. That eliminates the frozen or cold turkey two hours before dinner time. Remember to take the package out from inside the turkey (gizzard, neck, etc.) as soon as the turkey is defrosted.
The oven space problem can be eliminated by using a roaster. They come in all sizes and prices. The one I use cost the least for the greatest size. As long as it has a simple temperature control and is easy to clean. And it can sit on a counter, freeing up all your oven space. When we are not using it for roasting, we use it to sterilize our canning jars and lids. Alton Brown would be proud of our multitasking.
If a dry turkey is the problem, try brining. I believe you should brine every large or thick piece of meat. It will keep the meat moist during longer cooking times waiting for the center to get to temperature. Simple brine is just water, salt and sugar. Add about a cup of salt and a cup of sugar to two gallons of water and stir until dissolved. The trick is to put the turkey in a container that will keep the bird submerged and you can put it in the refrigerator. They do make large plastic re-sealable bags and there are bags made just for brining turkeys. For your first time, use the specialty bag and then you will know what to do the next time. Brine it overnight and then rinse and pat dry the turkey and prepare it for your cooking method.
Stuff the cavity with something instead of dressing. Cut up onion, garlic, lemon slices, and /or thyme, sage, rosemary, whatever you prefer. Leave some air space, not a packed mass.
And the most important, temperature. The oven temperature can be 350 degrees, but you must monitor the turkey temperature. Don’t depend on the pop up if your turkey has one. Buy a good meat thermometer, and check the temperature of the turkey at the thickest part (breast and between thigh and body cavity). Most sources say to cook until internal is 180 degrees. Let rest for ten to twenty minutes, depending on turkey size.
These are not the only directions needed for cooking a turkey but are ones that may help reduce your stress and improve your outcome.
Have I told you I love okra? Any way you fix it, I’ll eat it. Stewed in a little water and lots of butter, or coated with cornmeal and fried, I don’t care. But if you want them for a snack as a finger food, then you should bake them.