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‘No-Rules Thanksgiving’ Is Time To Experiment, Try Something New

WFPL arts reporter Stephanie Wolf's niece, Madeline Wolf O'Hair, at Thanksgiving dinner in 2018.
WFPL arts reporter Stephanie Wolf's niece, Madeline Wolf O'Hair, at Thanksgiving dinner in 2018.

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Pandemic-Era ‘No-Rules Thanksgiving’ Is Time To Experiment, Try Something New

For Shirley Mae Beard, of Louisville restaurant Shirley Mae’s Cafe, home cooked is the way to go for Thanksgiving, even in the middle of a global pandemic. 

“Because when you do it yourself and you do it from scratch, and you never did it before, it's very encouraging to you,” she said. “And, plus, it's fun to do it.”

Fun, and maybe also something to distract you from the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, is at home and only with the people who live in that household. Which means many people will have to adapt their holiday meals, as well as their holiday plans, in the age of coronavirus. 

Beard plans on going all out for her small Thanksgiving day party of five: making cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, turnip greens, and a whole turkey. 

“You’d think 40 people are getting ready to come in the door any minute. We're not gonna skimp on it at all,” chef Teri Simpson, who is Beard’s daughter and works with her at the café. 

Certainly not skimping on the turkey, Simpson, who will likely be on turkey duty for the meal preparation, said. There is no need to fear a big bird. 

“That's usually more economical anyway,” and the cooked meat can be frozen for future meals. 

But you don’t have to be quite so ambitious, Beard added. 

“You don't have to buy the whole turkey,” Bear said. “You can buy the part of the turkey that you really love.”

Just be mindful of your seasoning if you’re downsizing dishes.

“It’s easy to over-season, and you can over salt or over pepper,” Simpson said, particularly if you’re cooking for a meal for one or two people. 

“But it will give you something to do to take your mind off the blues.” 

Simpson thinks 2020 is actually a great year to cook a Thanksgiving dinner on your own, especially if it’s your first go at it. 

“You get to learn what not to do the next time” without an audience, she said.

“It's just you anyway, if you mess up,” Beard jumped in. “Don’t get upset. There's your trial run.”

If you’re going turkey, here are some basics

Cooking a turkey for the first time can be intimidating, and if you’re having any doubts day-of, resources are a phone call away.

This marks the second holiday season that Samantha Woulfe is working the phones for Butterball’s Turkey Talk line, a hotline that’s been operating for more than three decades. People can call in, or  text or chat, to get answers to their turkey-related questions. 

One of the most common questions Woulfe gets is straightforward: how do you know whether the bird is done? 

She said, for a 10 to 18 pound turkey completely thawed and with the giblets removed – don’t forget that!  – the turkey needs to cook about three to three and a half hours at 325 in the oven. 

But it’s really more about temperature than it is about time.  

“So, you want that breast to hit 170 degrees, and that side to hit 180 degrees, and that stuffing to 165,” she said.

That should also produce a nice golden brown color on the skin, she said, and Woulfe keeps it simple to achieve that desired look, by brushing or spraying the turkey with vegetable oil. 

Rewinding a bit, Woulfe said it takes about a day of thawing in the fridge on a tray, to capture the run off juices, for every four pounds of turkey. 

Something that might come as a surprise, as it certainly did for Woulfe during her turkey training, is that all the fuss about basting the turkey to keep it moist might actually just be that. Fuss. 

“You think back to childhood and everything your mom and your grandma did... But when you're constantly basting it it doesn't help the cooking and it can actually extend the cooking time,” Woulfe said. “So we don't recommend basting at all.”

Instead, Woulfe recommends making an aluminum foil tent over the breast of the turkey to keep it from drying out.

“That loose piece of tinfoil will kind of shield that breast part of the turkey from over cooking.”

You can also tune into Splendid Table’s annual Thanksgiving Day radio program “Turkey Confidential,” which will air on WFPL. The show won’t be aired live this year due to the pandemic, but the host will be joined by a lineup of culinary experts to talk all things Thanksgiving meal prep.  

Reimagining Thanksgiving leftovers

The U.S. Department of Agriculturerecommends that you eat any leftover turkey within three to four days. At that point, you can toss the remainder in the freezer for two to six months. 

But after a day or two of reheated leftovers and the classic turkey and stuffing sandwich, your taste buds might be ready for a change, and that’s normal, Ashlie Stevens said. 

Stevens, who is based in Louisville, is a staff writer on the food and culture desk for the online news site Salon. She also used to cover arts and culture for WFPL. 

She said, when that Thanksgiving-flavor-combo boredom sets in, consider revamping the leftovers two different ways. 

“You should think about changing up the flavor profile of your leftovers, and then changing up the meal where you serve them.”

A typical Thanksgiving meal will have butter, cream, poultry, and probably sage, rosemary, citrus. Stevens suggested adding “new layers of flavors” to that. 

“So, take soy sauce, for instance,Bon Appetit put out a really amazing recipe a couple years ago for a turkey stock ramen, which I'm excited to try out this year,” she said. 

“And I would also say, think about spice and acid,” like tossing leftover cranberries into a salsa, which Stevens tried a few years ago, adding that to spicy turkey to make a tostada. 

Speaking from my own experience, leftover mashed potatoes make a good base for homemade gnocchi. I use a gnocchi recipe from Pampered Chef

Chef Teri Simpson likes to turn her leftover turkey into tacos, turkey salad or a creamy turkey a la king. 

To overhaul leftovers for a different meal, Stevens said try brunch. 

“So, pancakes with cranberry sauce, or stuffing waffles or a root vegetable hash with Turkey and a fried egg.”

She’s looking forward to making cranberry mimosas this year. 

‘Don’t feel obligated’ to do the whole turkey dinner

Chef and author Edward Lee, of Louisville restaurants 610 Magnolia and Whiskey Dry, said you can forego the classic turkey this year, as there are a variety of smaller “amazing birds” if you’re feeding a small group of people.

“A capon is a delicious bird slightly bigger than a chicken, but smaller than a turkey,” Lee said. Pheasant and duck are amazing luxurious offerings. And Cornish hens are perfect because one bird will feed one person and then there is plenty of room to indulge in sides.”

For Lee, that means he can grab a bigger helping of his Thanksgiving must-have, oyster and cornbread stuffing with chestnuts.

Lee said don’t stress yourself out because, this year, “is a no-rules Thanksgiving.”

“If you want to make turkey lasagna, go for it. If you want a turkey burger and beer, that sounds great,” he said. “Do something non-traditional that is going to make you happy and keep your anxiety low.” 

And if cooking is going to make you edgy, then “don't forget that all of your local restaurants are hurting and many are doing to-go Thanksgiving dinners.”