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Posted at 10:04 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Cook a Thanksgiving feast in your dorm microwave

By Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson

Not everyone gets to travel home for Thanksgiving dinner this week (or receives an invite to crash someone else's feast). Some college students are stuck in their tiny residence hall rooms with a mini-fridge and a microwave. Maybe a coffee pot.

As I thought about composing a blog post on the topic, I wondered: Is it even possible to cook an entire traditional Thanksgiving dinner using just a dorm microwave? Is it safe to zap a turkey?

Challenge accepted.

photo.JPGI invited six of my friends over for dinner on Saturday night and excitedly told them I would cook everything in my microwave. My enthusiasm was not quite matched. "Should I bring a pizza in case it doesn't work out??" one friend emailed back. My own mother deemed this a "bad idea."

When I mentioned my grand experiment on Twitter, American University student newspaper editor @charlieszold responded: "Don't do it! It will end with broken microwave/bad food." Student Press Law Center attorney @AdGo warned: "That turkey was once an animal with a soul... I'm all for killin' it, but if it doesn't come out edible, we're just murderers..."

Why all the anti-microwave sentiments? After all, one of the things Martha Stewart did while in prison in 2004 was learn "innovative ways to do microwave cooking," according to her lawyer at the time. Just because a foodie is imprisoned (or forced to live in a kitchen-less dorm room) doesn't mean she can't eat well.

MY MICROWAVED THANKSGIVING MENU

* Pecan Pesto Roasted Turkey Breasts (recipe)

* Sweet Potatoes with Apples & Cranberries (recipe)

* Watergate Salad (recipe)

* Stuffing

* Cranberry Sauce

* Mashed Potatoes and Gravy

* Cranberry Spritzers

* Hawaiian Sweet Rolls

* No-Bake Pumpkin Pie with Gingersnap Crust (recipe)

DAYS BEFORE
The key to effortless, sophisticated entertaining is planning ahead, making lots of lists and googling things like "how to microwave a turkey."

Right away, I found the USDA's fact sheet for "Turkey: Alternative Routes to the Table" which reassured me that "turkeys can be successfully cooked in a microwave oven."

The basics: Do not stuff your soon-to-be-zapped bird. Don't go bigger than 12 or 14 pounds. Use a plastic oven cooking bag to even out heat distribution. Cook it for 9 to 10 minutes per pound on medium power. Rotate your bird often. Use a food thermometer to make sure the thickest part of your turkey reaches at least 165-degrees.

photo(3).JPGAll of my research confirmed that I needed a meat thermometer. I highly recommend that you get one, too. I found mine for about $10 at Target -- I know it's a splurge, but it's the best way to make sure that your poultry is cooked thoroughly before feeding it to people you would rather not poison. That 10-buck investment gave me the confidence to look my guests in the eye and say, "You will not get sick eating this turkey. Why? Because I am the proud owner of a meat thermometer."


NIGHT BEFORE
Since my no-bake pie needed to chill for at least five hours, I decided to make it the night before. The whole reason I picked this recipe was because of the ginger-snap-crumb crust -- but I realized it was cheaper to purchase a pre-made graham cracker pie crust in a disposable pie pan than to buy a disposable pie pan. So, I decided to just dust the pre-made crust with ginger snap cookie crumbs. It's the same thing, right?

photo(4).JPGphoto(5).JPGTo get ginger snap crumbs, I put a handful of cookies in a thick plastic lock-top bag -- and then another and another -- and then I beat it with a hammer until nothing remained but crumbs. (You can also stomp them with a pair of heeled boots.)

Mix together the filling: Two boxes of instant vanilla pudding, half a cup of milk, one can of pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Pour that over the crust, cover the pie and refrigerate for at least five hours.

(Now, in the end, I wasn't a huge fan of this pie. Some alternatives: Buy a pre-made pie in the deli or a frozen one. Serve a scoop of Ben and Jerry's Pumpkin Cheesecake ice cream with ginger snap cookies. Or buy a tub of Philadelphia ready-to-eat pumpkin cheesecake filling and plastic spoons.)


SATURDAY MORNING
I had planned to get up early and spend the morning cooking Martha Stewart's cranberry sauce and Marilyn Monroe's stuffing, which was recently featured in the New York Times and calls for more than 20 ingredients including three types of nuts. Instead, I slept in, read the paper, drank coffee, went to the gym, rearranged the furniture in my apartment....


photo(10).JPGLATE SATURDAY MORNING
At some point I realized that just because I was microwaving everything, I still had to spend some time prepping and cooking. So, I made my first of several (and I mean several) trips to the grocery store around the corner. I dug through their display of fresh turkeys (if you get one that's frozen, make sure you give yourself enough time to defrost it) and pulled out the tiniest one I could find -- a cute little 12-pounder.

As soon as I got home, I realized there was no way that cute little turkey would fit in my modest-sized microwave. I ran back to the grocery store with my recipe and exchanged the 12-pound bird for a six-pound breast-only one that would easily fit in my microwave.

I don't think you are supposed to microwave it, said a helpful but skeptical Harris Teeter employee. No, no, I told him, the USDA says it's totally safe. And I own a meat thermometer.


SO NOW IT'S MID-AFTERNOON
Since I am cooking this turkey in a microwave, I felt the need to make it fancier than if I popped it in the oven. So, I decided to create a pecan-and-herb pesto to slide under the skin. (You don't have to be that fancy, you can just put it in the microwave. Your friends will still be impressed.)

photo(6).JPGphoto(19).JPGChances are you don't have a food processor in your dorm, so put one cup of pecans in a plastic bag and use the hammer technique described above to smash them into crumbs. Finely chop one small onion, 12 fresh sage leaves and half a cup of parsley leaves. Zest one lemon. Then mix everything together with three tablespoons of olive oil.

Remove the turkey from the packaging, rinse it off and pat it dry with clean paper towels. Place the turkey in a plastic oven bag (don't close it just yet) on top of a microwave-safe plate. Trim off any excessive fat and then pull back the turkey skin and stuff handfuls of the pesto underneath. It does not have to be pretty. Mine definitely was not.

Heat up four tablespoons of butter with two bay leaves in the microwave. Spread half the butter over the bird. Sprinkle salt and pepper over everything. Tie the bag closed and cut six small slits in the bag (so that it won't explode -- I forgot this step until about five minutes into cooking time).

Since I had a 6-pounder, I cooked it for about 60 minutes at 50-percent or medium heat. Halfway through, I took it out of the microwave and spread the rest of the melted butter over it. If your microwave doesn't have a rotating plate, you will want to rotate your turkey every 15 minutes.

photo(2).JPGAs you go along, keep in mind that raw poultry can cause major health problems. Use hot water and soap to clean up your workspace. Don't reuse cutting boards that have touched raw meat. If you get meat juices on a towel, throw it in the laundry. (More safety tips)

And another safety tip: You might be tempted to leave your dorm room as your turkey cooks, but that's really a bad idea. Make sure to stay in the room, just in case something goes wrong. PLEASE, DO NOT BURN DOWN YOUR DORM. Thank you.


LATE, LATE AFTERNOON
Sixty minutes were quickly up. I removed the turkey from the microwave and stuck my meat thermometer into a couple different spots, making sure everything was over 165-degrees. Since my guests still hadn't arrived, I put it back into the microwave and reheated the space on low every now and then to keep it warm.


photo(8).JPGphoto(14).JPGAS MY GUESTS FILTERED IN
I offered everyone cranberry spritzers -- cranberry juice and club soda, with a lime slice and skewer of cranberries. One guest accepted a spritzer, but the rest went for other beverages offered. I also set out bowls of baby carrots and hummus, cranberries, green olives and left-over ginger snap cookies.

One friend set the table with paper plates, napkins and plastic forks (I know it's not earth-friendly, but it makes clean-up so much easier). Another snapped artsy photos. Another created a playlist on Grooveshark. If you are feeling uber-festive you can decorate the table with colorful fall leaves or splurge for flowers (I put mine in an old coffee can).

At about this time I realized that I had a list of sides to make and sort of freaked out.


AS MY GUEST GOT HUNGRY
First I prepped the sweet potatoes with apples and cranberries, a recipe that I found on my friend Kevin's wedding Web site (Warning: It's a super, super cutesy site) and decided to double. Peeled and chopped three huge sweet potatoes. Chopped two Granny Smith apples. Threw that into two Ziploc steamer bags with a handful of dried cranberries, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter and salt. Once the turkey came out of the microwave, I cooked the bags for about nine minutes each.

photo(18).JPGphoto(17).JPGI also mixed together a fluffy, bright-green "salad" composed of a can of crushed pineapple, two boxes of pistachio instant pudding, a container of thawed Cool Whip and two containers of vanilla yogurt. (You can also stir in mini-marshmallows, maraschino cherries or chopped nuts.) This is in no way an actual salad -- it is a bowl of sugar. Maybe it's just because I get homesick for the Midwest around this time of year, but I think it's delicious. (Not many other people at the table shared this enthusiasm, which is why I have been stuck eating this stuff for breakfast the last two days.)

And then came the shameless cheating: I mixed some boiling water with a box of Stove Top -- bam, stuffing was ready. Mixed some boiling water with instant potatoes -- bam, mashed potatoes were done. Pulled out a can opener -- bam, bowl of cranberry sauce. Opened a bag -- bam, rolls. Heated up a jar of 99-cent gravy -- bam, done.

Next challenge: Anyone know how to carve a turkey? I had never done this and years of watching holiday-themed sitcoms has taught me that it requires some sort of special skills. You just cut it, a friend offered. Thanks.


photo(13).JPGAND DINNER
After it all, seven of us crowded around a table packed with food. Everyone kept commenting that this didn't look like a dorm Thanksgiving, and that the food was not only edible, but surprisingly delicious.

Since all of us are well over 21 and have not lived in campus housing for several years, we split a can of watermelon Four Loko and raised a toast. Even if things hadn't worked out, even if we had to order in pizza, the important thing about Thanksgiving is being surrounded by people who rally behind you (and your crazy work-related experiments) with a sense of humor.

Have you cooked Thanksgiving dinner in a dorm microwave? I would love to hear your stories and see your photos! Shoot me an e-mail, johnsonj@washpost.com.

And on Wednesday at 1 p.m. the Post's food editor Joe Yonan and I will answer your questions about cooking on campus during my online chat, Campus Overload Live. Send in your questions now!

By Jenna Johnson  | November 23, 2010; 10:04 AM ET
Categories:  College 101  | Tags:  Thanksgiving  
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