Chat Leftovers: Let the Thanksgiving Prep Jitters Begin

Based on the leftover questions from yesterday's What's Cooking, it's fair to say that the annual ritual of planning (and often fretting over) Thanksgiving dinner has begun. Feast day is just two weeks from tomorrow, so fire up those ovens, ladies and gents. It's time to start cooking! Today's batch of questions are turkey-centric; I promise a vegetarian equivalent in the coming days, and tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 5 at 1 ET, I'm hosting my What's Cooking Vegetarian Thanksgiving Special.

Tucson, Ariz.: I have a Thanksgiving juggling dilemma. I have a great simple recipe for roasted root veggies (cubed potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash etc. tossed with rosemary, thyme, olive oil, s&p) that I want to make for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, they need to roast in the oven for about an hour at a much higher temp than the turkey and it takes less than an hour to carve the bird after it comes out of the oven. Do you have any suggestions for how to juggle the veggies with the turkey? I was hoping that I could cook the veggies part way ahead of time and then throw them back in while the turkey was resting and being carved, but I have no idea if that will ruin them.

Tucson, by any chance do you own a gas grill -- or have a neighbor who does? Just the other day, I was on the phone with my kid brother Tim, who lives in sunny Key West, about taking advantage of the warm climate and cooking part of his Thanksgiving feast outdoors as a way to economize indoor kitchen space. Perhaps a similar indoor-outdoor two-ring cooking circus would help you in your juggling act? Set the grill to the same temperature as you would the oven, prep your veg the same way and place in a grill-proof dish. Cover the veggies with foil and keep the grill lid down to create more of a dry heat environment. Holler if this is not an option.

Perryville, Md.: I'll be cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner, for 7. My biggest worry is getting everything done at the same time and serving it hot. And, having enough serving dishes and trivets. How big of a turkey should I get? How long do I cook it? What things (aside from salads, gravy, and cranberry sauce) can be made ahead of time? I want to serve a really fabulous mac and cheese -- can that be made ahead and reheated? Can you recommend a couple good vegetable recipes?

Perryville, you are suffering from what I call a case of the virgin holiday jitters. Before we proceed, the first order of business is to take a big yogic inhale all the way up to the lungs and exhale with a sigh. Let it all out, my dear, because you're going to need to have your wits about you. Do that whenever a panic attack is imminent. A nervous cook does not a tasty holiday feast make.

For the turkey, estimate 1.5 pounds per person if you want leftovers, one pound if you don't. So for your party of seven, you'll probably want a 10-pounder. But before I address how long to cook it, have you decided on a frozen or fresh bird? Should you decide on frozen, estimate 1 thaw day for every five pounds; therefore, a 10-pound bird needs two days of thaw time in the fridge, so plan accordingly!

You may also want to scan the cabinets and do inventory of your kitchen tools; to roast a big bird, you'll need a large enough roasting pan, an instant-read thermometer for reading the turkey's internal temperature (and helping you cook it thoroughly and safely) and an extra cutting board for carving. All of these beginner tips are in my book, A Mighty Appetite for the Holidays.

Cranberry sauce may be made a few days ahead, and yes, so can that mac & cheese, as long as everything is wrapped well and you've got the storage space. Remember, there will be a thawing turkey in your midst!

But what I want to know is this: Who's helping you put on this show? I strongly urge you to seek out a cooking partner, or at the very least, recruit someone who can come a few hours early to help with reheating, serving, setting the table. Don't try to do everything as a first-time cook and host. After all, you want to be able to enjoy all your hard work when it's finally time to sit down and eat.

Pick a few items you want to cook, then ask for contributions from your guests -- be it dessert, wine, the rolls -- to ease your inaugural cooking load. It's quite an undertaking, and I can't emphasize enough how important it is to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Alexandria, Va.: I want to order a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving, but am not sure how to go about it. Help!? You're my go-to, Kim. I so appreciate all the help and support you provide.

For the most part, you'll need to order a fresh turkey in advance. My first stop would be the farmers' market closest to home, and do it this weekend to put your name on a list and reserve with a deposit. I would try Arlington Courthouse, Columbia Pike, Del Ray or Falls Church markets, where you'll find either SmithFresh or Cibola Farms taking turkey orders. (If I've missed a farm, please add to the list in the comments area below.) D.C. shoppers can find turkey order lists at">Freshfarm markets at Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom and Penn Quarter; Maryland shoppes may want to head over to year-round Takoma Park market.

If farm market shopping is not on your to-do list this weekend, you can give the folks over at My Organic Market a call; they're taking orders for fresh turkeys from Maple Lawn Farm in Fulton, Md. Alternatively, you can order directly from Maple Lawn and pick up your bird the week of Thanksgiving.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it should get you started; please let me know if you get stuck and need more ideas.

Brining a Turkey..ahhhhh!: I'm terrified to do it, but I'm going to. What equipment do I need? How long should it brine? Is it different for a frozen turkey?

Actually, you've chosen one of the least terrifying turkey prep methods of all, dear. The question you need to ask yourself is: Do I have the refrigerator space for a bucket or pot that will hold the turkey and a few gallons of brine for 24-48 hours? If you can say yes, then you can brine. All the work is in this advance step, which involves making a highly seasoned solution of salt, spices and mirepoix (carrot, celery and onion), giving it time to completely cool and allowing the turkey to sit in the chilled bath for a day or two. The rest is a cakewalk -- seriously. On cooking day, remove the bird out of the brine, pat it dry, and roast it without fuss. No need to baste, truss or do extra seasoning. Because the results are so reliable, brining has been my go-to method for the past five years, and I have no intention of changing my turkey tune anytime soon.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 7, 2007; 7:59 AM ET Chat Leftovers , Thanksgiving
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I love reading about holiday food. Just in case you have space for another question in the vegetarian version (if not, no problem!): Any pointers or favorite recipes for vegetarian stuffing and gravy? Thanks!

Posted by: Kat with a K | November 7, 2007 9:02 AM

Sorry, realized after I commented that I could just submit the question for your chat tomorrow, so I went ahead and did that. Oops! I just started reading you this week so I didn't realize I didn't actually have to be online during the chat to ask a qeustion. :) Thanks!

Posted by: Kat with a K | November 7, 2007 9:16 AM

In re: cooking veggies at a higher temp than turkey...I got one of those stand-alone roasters two years ago. It may only get hauled out three times a year, and it may take up a bit of storage space, but the reduction in headaches is worth it!

I'm stressing over sides this year. FIL has recently discovered significant food celery, no potatoes (potatoes!!) are the biggies for T-day. I'm planning to do green bean casserole (homemade, ofc), mashed sweet potatoes, rolls, cranberry relish and....?? We feed between 6 and 10 people, depending on who decides to show, so I want one more seasonally-appropriate side dish to cover my bases. Roasted cauliflower? Sauteed mushrooms (tho there are loads of mushrooms in the gb casserole)?

I'm trying to limit the starches and the heavy-saucy types of dishes. What are you all doing for sides?

Posted by: librarylady | November 7, 2007 9:28 AM

sides that i do are roasted veggies & polenta. like kim suggested i do those on the grill. polenta i make in the rice cooker with the juice from the turkey. the roasted veggies are eggplant, zukes, summer squash, onions, & multi colored sweet peppers. coat with evoo & throw on the grill. be aware that eggplant is a sponge & will absorb as much oil as you can throw at it. once veggies are done throw them in a bowl with some balsamic vinegar.

Posted by: quark | November 7, 2007 10:00 AM

Wow, a 10 pound turkey for 7 people? I'd go 13-15. Leftovers are a sacred part of the meal.

Posted by: Baltimore | November 7, 2007 10:46 AM

If the outdoor temperature is correct (33-45 degrees) you can save fridge space and put the brining turkey in an unheated garage or the trunk of your car. Just don't drive with it in there. And keep an eye on the temperature to make sure it's below 46 but above freezing.

Posted by: Turkey Lover | November 7, 2007 11:08 AM

Hi Tucson here,
Unfortunately, I will be up north in the cold for turkey day, not in warm Tucson. I will however have a nice gas grill to use. It sounds like I am just going to have suck it up and put on coat and gloves. Lets just hope it doesn't snow!
Thanks for the suggestion.

Posted by: Re: Tucson (roasted veggies) | November 7, 2007 11:14 AM

I should have asked this during yesterday's chat, but I was overcome by work (of all things). I'm headed to Key West this weekend- any good restaurants that you can recommend?

Posted by: Key West Question... | November 7, 2007 11:16 AM

I'm interested in brining my turkey this year (for the first time). I did hear that brining makes the turkey really salty which makes me hesitate. Is that the case??? I'm bringing the turkey for our family dinner w/ my in-laws so I don't want to be the girl who brought the gross turkey for the rest of time. :) Also, I saw that Williams-Sonoma has huge plastic prining bags-- a ziploc on steroids. Any tips on brining would be greatly appreciated!!

Posted by: falls church | November 7, 2007 11:29 AM

Ziploc makes its own Ziploc-on-Steroids bags... XL and XXL. Big enough by FAR for a turkey and brine. Pleated on the bottom so they stand, and has handles. Might want to test those first before you spend Wms-Son prices (not that I don't love Wms...)

Posted by: for Falls Church | November 7, 2007 11:34 AM

The one time I brined the turkey it looked spectacular but tasted awful - salty and the texture was bouncy. It sort of squeaked when chewed. What did I have do wrong????

Posted by: ACL, Newton | November 7, 2007 11:50 AM

Non Potato Side Dish Ideas:

Acorn Squash Rings

Butternut Squash Casserole

Poached Pears

I know you wanted to stay away from starches, but what about wild rice or perhaps a loaf of gingerbread, pumpkin bread, or zuchini bread?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 7, 2007 12:02 PM

Another non-potato side dish:

What about simply having a cheese tray? That would be simple, most people like cheese, you could slice the cheese the night before, and it requires no cooking. You could even do it as an appetizer while people are waiting while you are putting finishing touches on other dishes.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 7, 2007 12:08 PM

Great tip!! I will definitely go that route before paying 2-3x more at W & S! Thanks!!

Posted by: Ziploc on steroids | November 7, 2007 12:18 PM

I have the exact same problem as the original poster who wants to roast vegetables at a higher temp than the turkey. I do not have access to a grill or a countertop roaster--any other ideas? Thanks so much in advance--it makes me feel better that there are others struggling with this!

Posted by: Roasted vegetables--no grill. | November 7, 2007 12:23 PM

Roast the veggies along with the turkey. Then, when you take the turkey out, turn the temp up and finish them. You may need 5 or 10 extra minutes by starting at a lower temp, but they will still come out great.

Posted by: Sweetie | November 7, 2007 12:26 PM

My Mom and Grandmother have made this for years at Thanksgiving and I love it. Its a little heartier so it might be a nice swap for a potato dish:

Squash Souffle:

2 pounds sliced yellow summer squash
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons flour
8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated
seasoned salt and pepper, to taste
buttered bread crumbs
Combine squash, onion, and salt in a large saucepan; cover with water and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and mash well. Stir in milk, eggs, melted butter, flour and cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Preheat oven to 350°. Bake in a buttered 1 1/2-quart casserole for about 30 minutes. Top with buttered bread crumbs and bake for about 10 minutes longer.

Posted by: side dishes | November 7, 2007 12:40 PM

If the veggies are in the oven with the turkey, does the oven need to be turned up a bit to keep the heat at the right temperature for the turkey? If so, by how much?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 7, 2007 1:03 PM

I brined last year. Used extra large ziploc type bag for the brine, which saved space in fridge. I followed the Best Recipes brining (and cooking) method. The turkey was beautiful and very flavorful - nicely seasoned but not overly salty. I highly recommend.

My question is, is it advisable to brine if you're going to deep fry the turkey? Seems like the extra liquid in the meat might not be good for that cooking method.

Posted by: MBinDC | November 7, 2007 1:59 PM

Don't brine the turkey if you are going to deep fry it. You deep fry turkeys in peanut oil and they are juicy enough. If you brine it first it will taste funny and won't cook properly. You can, however, inject the turkey with flavors, my uncle injects them every year with Italian Salad Dressing and it's delicious.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 7, 2007 2:19 PM

Falls Church: The proportions for the brine I've been doing for five-plus years does not yield overly salty results.
For Falls: I LOVE the idea of Ziploc on steroids. Excellent idea. Where have you been able to track these down?
MB in DC: I agree -- it's not worth brining if you're deep frying.
And to all of you -- I love all the great side dish ideas!!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 7, 2007 2:25 PM

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 7, 2007 2:28 PM

Some kinds of turkeys come pre-brined, or with salt water injected (like Butterballs, methinks). So, DON'T brine prebrined turkeys, which would definitely result in the saltiness some people are complaining of. Brining does not get better when you do it a second time.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 7, 2007 2:56 PM

roasted veggies. if you don't have access to a grill or anything else there is nothing wrong with cooking the veggies the day before. i would cook them with the evoo but save adding the balsamic vineger until after reheating. the veggies are fine if served room temp or a little warmer.

Posted by: quark | November 7, 2007 3:31 PM

Hi, Kim,
I was wondering if you happened to have an eggnog recipe that you use? I'd love to put a bottle up to age after thanksgiving for new years, but am baffled by the variation.

Posted by: Tanya | November 7, 2007 3:34 PM

I'm REALLY dying to brine a turkey this year but I just don't have the fridge space. I'm interested in hearing about people's experiences doing this in an unheated basement. Would it be reasonable to do this in a cooler and rotate ice packs in with the brine and turkey to keep the temperature low enough? I think I may have read about this in an old food magazine, but I didn't save the directions.

I love the sides people are posting. Keep it up and thanks for the inspiration! I also have a butternut squash puree that has always been a hit, even with picky eaters. I found the recipe in Bon Appetit's November 2002 issue. You can find it on - "Butternut Squash Puree with Orange, Ginger, and Honey."

I'd love to see what other folks are planning to cook! This year my tentative menu is:

Roasted Butternut Squash and Apple Soup
Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese and Apples
Turkey (simple if brined, with herbed butter under skin if not)
Cranberry Sauce (homemade of course!)
Sausage and cornbread stuffing
Green Beans with Dijon Vinaigrette
Mashed potatos (to satisfy the traditionalists - blech)

I also read about a polenta mushroom souflee that I was hoping to try but I can't find the recipe! It must have been a dream or something....

Posted by: Zimmy | November 7, 2007 3:41 PM

The XL are 20 gallon; the XXL are 30 gallon. As a point of reference, regular food storage bags are 1 to 3 gallons.

The XL and XXL come in boxes of 4 (I think). The box is flat and square-- not like the long sort of tubular boxes that teh regular Z bags come in. These are between the size of a box of rice and the size of a box of cake mix. Target would have them if the paper goods aisle at your grocer doesn't. Or try a hardware store. Around here, they're usually with the garbage bags or with storage items in the grocery store.

I'd also bet you can order them online from Ziploc.

Posted by: Ziploc bags | November 7, 2007 4:00 PM

To the folks wondering about roasting the veggies with turkey, Ina Garten has a recipe for that in one of her books--Barefoot Contessa Parties, maybe? She roasts the turkey on top of the veggies. Just FYI.

Posted by: Roasting veggies | November 8, 2007 9:24 AM

I found this awesome site on Good Housekeeping's website that has a countdown to Thanksgiving -

Posted by: golightly05 | November 8, 2007 2:25 PM

Has anyone brined turkey that has been labelled moistened with 8% solution. The label does not say if it was salt solution so not sure if this turkey has been brined.

Posted by: Smoker | November 17, 2007 12:02 AM

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