Year after year, the glossy food magazines scream that you have to tart up your turkey and pimp out your pumpkin pie. But the truth is, when it comes to Thanksgiving, most of us don't want new-fangled dishes. We want classic, comforting food, the stuff of Norman Rockwell.
"All that malarkey gets in the way of making a good Thanksgiving," says Sam Sifton, author of "Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well" (Random House, 2012). "Just make a good bird. How about we start with excellence on the basics and move beyond there? You can probably improve on a classic Thanksgiving, but why?"
Thanksgiving exists as much in our minds as our stomachs, say cookbook authors and food experts, and it's not the day to mess with people's expectations. Remember the year you departed from family tradition by putting walnuts in the stuffing? Or the time you skipped Grandma's Jell-O mold? Didn't go so well, did it? But traditional doesn't have to mean boring. As with any good meal, experts say start with excellent ingredients and treat them well. Vary flavors, textures and colors. And perhaps most important, know your limits.
"I suggest to people that they need to be honest with themselves about what they can really accomplish," says Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, publisher of Cook's Illustrated magazine. "You can have this fantasy, but if the reality does not line up, then you've just created a nightmare moment rather than a comforting moment."
If you've only got a day to shop and prepare, Bishop offers, don't make pies. Buy them, or have a guest bring them. If you've got one oven, do your mashed sweet potatoes in the slow cooker, and maybe grill or deep fry the turkey to free up the oven for other things. Do as much as you can — the soup, the cranberry sauce — beforehand.
Use your time — and your money — wisely by investing in the best possible ingredients. If you buy a pie, buy a good pie. If you make one, use European butter and the crispest apples you can find. Make your cornbread stuffing with real eggs and butter and get the andouille from the local specialty shop. And remember that the absolute last place to cut back is the turkey.
"The turkey has to be the star of the show," says Rick Rodgers, author of "Thanksgiving 101" (William Morrow, 2007). "That means choose it carefully. That means a fresh turkey. I never use a frozen turkey. The cost of a fresh turkey has come way down. Once a year you're going to roast a turkey. Would it kill you to buy a nice one?"
And remember that little things — things that take no time at all — can make the meal exciting and special.
"Fresh out of the oven rolls. Really good local butter. A wine that you would never serve unless it's a holiday," Rodgers says. "Homemade cranberry sauce. I repeat, homemade. It's so easy to make and it's delicious. One day out of the year, why open a can when it takes you five minutes to make it? It's just little things like that that make it a special meal."
Plan the menu well, anticipating how all the dishes go together so that the meal doesn't run together into one bland sensation.
"You don't want to make three potato dishes," Bishop says. "You need to think about how the flavors and colors and textures are going to work on the plate. You don't want four starchy, creamy, buttery things, as delicious as that sounds."
But don't skip the starchy, creamy, buttery things, they all agree. Thanksgiving is a day of indulgence, a national day of dietary absolution. So use real cream and real butter. Forget about Uncle Morty's high blood pressure and salt the food until it tastes good. Use real sugar in the desserts.
"It's Thanksgiving," Sifton says. "You can have a salad tomorrow."
Mom Parsons' cranberries
Makes about 2½ cups
3 cloves and 3 allspice berries
2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
1½ cups sugar
¾ cup water
1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries
Grated zest of 1 orange
Make a sachet: Wrap the cloves, allspice and cinnamon sticks in a cheesecloth square and tie it shut. Bring sugar, water and spice sachet to a boil in a 4-quart saucepan. Cook, stirring, until the syrup is clear, about 3 minutes. Add the cranberries and cook just until they begin to pop, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, add the grated orange zest and cool. Refrigerate one to three days before serving. Remove the spice sachet before serving.
This recipe is from Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times. Says he, "My mom has a recipe on Epicurious. At first I found that amusing. Epicurious, after all, is the holy grail of recipe Web sites, the collected works of some of the best food writers in the country. And, to put it most kindly, my mom was not a gifted cook. At least not by the definition we most often apply today.
"Oh, it's a good recipe. Maybe a great recipe. We printed it in the Los Angeles Times for the first time in 1992 and for the last time in 2000, and I still get calls and e-mails every Thanksgiving asking for Mom Parsons' cranberries.
"It has just the right balance of sweet and tart, with the spice of cloves, cinnamon and allspice coming up from the background."
Per ¼ cup: 134 calories; 35 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 1 milligram sodium; 32 grams sugar.
Tom Colicchio's herb-butter turkey
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds turkey necks and/or wings
2 cups diced onions
1 cup diced peeled carrots
1 cup diced celery
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme, plush 15 fresh sprigs
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon, plus 5 large sprigs
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, plus 5 fresh sprigs
2 teaspoons minced fresh sage, plus 5 fresh sprigs
1 (14- to 16-pound) turkey
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Gravy base: Melt the butter in a heavy large deep skillet over high heat. Add the turkey necks and/or wings and sauté until deep brown, about 15 minutes. Add the onions, carrots and celery and sauté until vegetables are deep brown, about 15 minutes.
Add the 6 cups broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour the gravy base through a strainer set over a 4-cup measuring cup, pressing on the solids to extract liquid. If necessary, add more chicken broth to gravy base to measure 4 cups.
Turkey: Mix ½ cup butter and all the minced herbs in a small bowl.
Season the herb butter with salt and pepper. Transfer 2 generous tablespoons to another bowl and reserve for gravy; let stand at room temperature.
Set a rack at lowest position in the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Rinse the turkey inside and out; pat dry. Starting at the neck end, slide your hand between the skin and the breast meat to loosen the skin. Rub 4 tablespoons of herb butter over the breast meat under the skin. Place the turkey on a rack set into a large roasting pan. Sprinkle the main cavity generously with salt and pepper. Place 4 tablespoons plain butter and the herb sprigs in the main cavity. Tuck the wing tips under. Tie the legs together loosely. Rub the 2 tablespoons remaining herb butter over the outside of the turkey. Sprinkle the turkey generously with salt and pepper.
Place the turkey in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. Roast 30 minutes more, then pour 1 cup broth over and add 1 tablespoon plain butter to the roasting pan.
Roast 30 minutes more, baste with pan juices, then pour 1 cup broth over and add another tablespoon butter to pan. Cover turkey loosely with foil. Roast until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 175 degrees, basting with juices and adding 1 cup broth and 1 tablespoon butter to pan every 45 minutes, about 1 hour and 45 minutes longer. Transfer turkey to platter and let stand 30 minutes.
Strain the pan juices into a bowl. Whisk in the gravy base. Melt the reserved 2 tablespoon herb butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat; add the flour and whisk constantly until the roux is golden brown, about 6 minutes. Gradually add the pan juice — gravy base mixture; increase the heat and whisk constantly until gravy thickens, boils and is smooth. Reduce the heat to medium; boil gently until gravy is reduced to 4½ cups, whisking often, about 10 minutes.
Season gravy with salt and pepper and serve with turkey.
This recipe is from "The Epicurious Cookbook: More Than 250 of Our Best-Loved Four-Fork Recipes for Weeknights, Weekends & Special Occasions," by Tanya Steel and the editors of Epicurious.com (Clarkson Potter, $27.99).