Ah, here they are again, those holiday months in which millions of people who never, ever cook suddenly find themselves roasting birds the size of Labradors -- and accompanying them with 27 side dishes. There is a good reason the Butterball people offer a toll-free lifeline for turkey emergencies this time of year. Once, while waiting to be on a talk show in Chicago, I met a woman who answers those cries for help and who finds it very fulfilling. "I'm the person who saves Thanksgiving!" she explained. To that, I might add, she's the person who saves lives. I'd like to join her this year with a few holiday-dinner survival tips of my own. Let's start with the most fundamental advice of all:
Thaw the darned turkey. In the refrigerator. Not on the counter. And especially not in the microwave, which is as ruinous as it is dangerous. Thawing a giant bird in the fridge takes days -- depending on the weight, as many as five -- but it's the best answer. Food-safety guidelines warn that harmful bacteria really start going to town on meat when it's at room temperature longer than two hours. Or . . .
Try a fresh turkey for a change. From a butcher. Yes, butchers still exist, and most stock never-frozen, free-range birds that are really flavorful. Remember to order ahead, as most butchers need at least a couple weeks' notice.
Beware of deep-frying. I'm not saying not to do it -- deep-fried turkey is a delicious Southern confection. But unfortunately, every holiday season, a startling number of poultry Rambos burn their decks, their houses, their pets or themselves trying to make one. It's so dangerous that Underwriters Laboratories won't put its UL product-safety logo on any turkey-frying kit, arguing that none is truly safe for home use. If you are frying this year, get a fire extinguisher and make sure you use an oil with a high smoking point, like canola or corn (never olive). And lower the turkey very slowly and carefully into the hot oil.
Innovate—but not too much. The holidays are about traditions. As such, they are not the time to throw the classics out the window. For my holidays, I expect a roast turkey, stuffing, deviled eggs and cranberry sauce. If you want to introduce some new wines or unusual additional side dishes, great. If you want to add ham or a beef roast to the party, terrific. But people are expecting the Holiday Greatest Hits.
Delegate. If you're overwhelmed, consider throwing a potluck. Not only does this spread the work around but it also allows other people to share in the culinary glory. Best of all, other cooks can introduce you to their specialties, which might then become new traditions in your home.
Plan and work ahead. Many holiday favorites can be made a day or two in advance without suffering: Stuffing and cranberry sauce come to mind. Speaking of stuffing, it sure is tasty when it's baked inside the bird, but many experts advise against this because it slows the turkey cooking time and raises safety concerns. The real deal-breaker for me is that the inside of a turkey is just too small to hold enough of it.
Deconstruct your bird. If you're nervous about cooking a giant flightless fowl, take the easy way out: Roast pieces instead. Buy a breast and as many legs as you want, and you can produce a platter of poultry much faster. Bonus: You can tell the kids that this year's turkey had seven legs. Try my Deconstructed Turkey recipe. Happy cooking, and happy holidays!
Ted skips the giant bird and roasts separate parts with his foolproof Deconstructed Turkey recipe.