Cookbook Review: How to Cook a Turkey

A Holiday Meal Handbook

Cookbook Review: How to Cook a Turkey

A Holiday Meal Handbook

Every year around Thanksgiving there are stories about the Butterball Turkey ladies.  This is a group of women who spend the holidays, including all Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, staffing the phones at the "Turkey Talk Line" talking panicked home cooks down from the ledge. 

This year, instead of calling 1-800-butterball, you can simply buy a copy of How To Cook A Turkey And All The Other Trimmings (The Taunton Press, hardcover, $19.95).  It will be even better than having one of those turkey ladies in your kitchen.

This new cookbook, by the editors and contributors of Fine Cooking magazine, may become a cookbook essential for those of us who make at least one big dinner a year, holiday or not.  It manages to successfully combine hard core cooking advice with menu planning, recipe inspirations, and a knowing approach to putting a successful meal together.

Fine Cooking is a glossy monthly magazine by Taunton Press, a publishing group that is probably best known for its DYI-type of magazines (Fine Woodworking and Sew Stylish are two others).  I've subscribed to Fine Cooking for years and while I've always thought it lacked a certain attitude that's common in its magazine competitors Gourmet and Food & Wine, I have cooked far more with Fine Cooking's recipes and advice than all my other cooking magazines combined. 

Friendly, Useful and Tempting

Here's why How To Cook A Turkey works:

 

If you've never roasted a turkey it will tell you how to buy one, prep it, roast it, and what to serve with it.  There's a photo essay on trussing and even advice on matters too pedestrian for most recipe-dominant cookbooks, like how to hoist a hot, heavy bird.  If you're a turkey veteran, it will give you a totally new perspective on how to roast this often maligned bird.  And if you're tired of turkey, it tells you how to roast a goose or duck.
 
Much of their advice is applicable to any meal.  But put against the high stakes of a holiday meal and it may make the difference between good and great, and between having a stressed out experience or for once, enjoying your own dinner.

Advice and Wisdom

Part survival guide and part inspiration, the book starts with "How to Survive Thanksgiving (or Any Other Holiday)."   But don't think this volume has low expectations.  With recipes like "Garlic-Roasted Green Beans" and "Gingerbread Cake with Espresso Glaze," there are sophisticated flavors and challenging techniques.

Some of the advice is not particularly useful to the city cook, like tips for grilling or brining turkey, neither of which is possible in most small city kitchens.  But the rest of the advice works regardless where you're cooking, such as what to do if your mashed potatoes turned to glue or your turkey is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning (although I'd tell you just don't buy a frozen turkey to begin with!).

Because the book was produced by a monthly magazine with a vibrant web site, you can supplement it with step-by-step videos and more recipes at Fine Cooking's web site (see the link below).

The book also teaches you the tricks to get over the parts of holiday meal that always intimidate.  For me it's always gravy.  I just never make it because it was the one last thing in a big meal that I couldn't handle.  Everything else would be ready to serve, I would have been cooking for two days, my guests would have arrived, and now I'm supposed to make a roux?  I may be more patient this year.

The Recipes

The book offers a selection of recipes for every course, from hors d'oeuvres to desserts:

 

The recipes are for dishes that strive to be both appealing and reasonably straight-forward to cook because the editors are offering choice that make sense for a complex meal. 

For example, as starters they offer low labor make-ahead nibbles like "Spicy Maple Walnuts."  Or more complex but still make-ahead classics like "Cheddar-Cayenne Coins."  They suggest an easy but still tempting "Crudités with Roquefort Dip" and also a more elaborate "Garlic Roasted Shrimp Cocktail" with a piquant cocktail sauce that could just as easily be used with store-bought cooked shrimp.

I love soup at a holiday meal and this book has three:  Butternut Squash Soup, Parsnip and Parmesan Soup, and Wild Rice and Mushroom.  All are made in advance and re-heated.

I know people for whom the best part of Thanksgiving is the cranberry sauce and this book offers four versions, including a "Cranberry-Pear Salsa" that would be great with poultry all winter (maybe buy a few extra bags of cranberries for the freezer?).

There are 7 stuffings, 4 gravies, 6 ways to cook a whole turkey -- the "Smoked Paprika & Fennel Seed Roast Turkey with Onion Gravy" sounds particularly appealing -- and one for a stuffed turkey breast.  While there's no mention of a green bean casserole or marshmallowed sweet potatoes (thank goodness!), there are "Green Beans with Brown Butter & Pecans," "Braised Asparagus & Cipolline Onions with Pancetta and Balsamic Butter," "Maple-Glazed Carrots," and an entire chapter on potatoes with 12 recipes ranging from simple mashed Yukon Gold to "Red Potato Slices with Lemon and Olives."

The pies and desserts include some you'll make year-round with apples, pears, pecan, pumpkin, chocolate and combos like "Ginger Cranberry-Pear."  For those of you who bake, its photo essay on doing a lattice-topped crust is very handy plus there are demos on making trimmed pie crusts and tartlets.  There are cheesecakes, gingerbread cakes, orange layer cake, bread pudding, pear strudel, apple-cranberry crisp with a pecan topping (I think this may end up on my Thanksgiving table along with a pumpkin pie), pretty trifles, and delicate soufflés.

A final chapter is all about leftovers.  While a turkey sandwich with leftover cranberry sauce is a post-holiday treat for many, this book makes us also think about making turkey stock and turkey soup, or a turkey Caesar salad, turkey cakes with spicy roasted tomato salsa, and a variety of enchiladas, tacos, and pastas.  The leftover recipes are so delicious that you may intentionally buy a larger turkey just to make them.

But How To Cook A Turkey is not just a book of recipes.  It's a book of wisdom, know-how and practical advice that will give you confidence to cook Thanksgiving dinner or any other major meal.  And your guests will love the results.

So you don't need those nice Butterball ladies and if enough of us buy this book, maybe those ladies can go home and make their own Thanksgiving dinner.  As the editors boldly write in the book's introduction, "If you've got this book in your hands, you're going to have the best Thanksgiving dinner ever this year."  They just may be right.

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