Tips for a calamity-free Thanksgiving Feast

KITCHEN SHRINK:

Ever wonder why therapists are busiest during Thanksgiving week? That's because stress is the main course served on the holiday table for both inexperienced cooks and master chefs. Let's ease the anxiety with these tips for preventing culinary disasters, along with tricks for performing damage control should a gaffe or two rear its ugly head.

An ounce of prevention

Create a well thought out game plan and stick to it. By now, you should know the dietary restrictions and preferences of your guests so you can compile a thorough shopping list, including menu items for vegans and vegetarians, the cholesterol-conscious, and those with gluten sensitivities.

You snooze, you loose, so shop early while pickings are good and plenty, especially for the turkey. While fresh is always best, if you choose frozen, thaw safely and with plenty of time to spare. (Allow 24 hours of thawing in the refrigerator for each 4 pounds, keeping the bird in its original wrapping).

Prep and cook ahead to ease the load on Thanksgiving Day. Many dishes can be frozen or refrigerated, then simply reheated for the feast, such as seasonal soups, cranberry sauces, sweet potato casseroles, and fluffy mashed potatoes. Fresh herbs and vegetables can be washed and trimmed, ready to use, while the turkey can be brined in a blend of cherry apple cider or citrus juices, black pepper, lemongrass, sage, and coarse sea salt for a tender, juicy bird bursting with flavor.

Of course, desserts can be pre-made, whether pies, cookies, brownies or biscotti, then ready to serve without fuss.

On thin ice

Don't fret over a stubborn turkey that hasn't completely thawed by Thanksgiving morning. Simply submerge the unopened bird breast side downward in a tub of cold water (changing the water every 30 minutes) until it defrosts. If the turkey is completely frozen (god forbid) this could take a half an hour per pound. For quicker thawing, place in a braising pan filled with water and simmer on the stovetop.

Some skin in the game

Everyone hopes their turkey will emerge from the oven with an even golden glaze. If your bird tends to look a little anemic toward the end of roasting, simply slather some white vermouth over the skin for a nice bronze-y gloss thanks to the sugars in the fortified wine. For a crispy skin without the booze generously brush olive oil or melted butter over the turkey, and broil for a minute or two, leaving at least a six-inch clearance from the element.

Monster mash

If mashed potatoes have been mechanically whipped into a runny or sticky goo then blend with a divine cheese like Gruyere or Petite Basque, and bake in a casserole for a rich, creamy gratin.

Tart little darling

When cranberry sauce turns out too tart just add a drizzle of maple syrup, honey or orange juice to balance the sourness. But if you've been heavy-handed with the sweetener then temper with a squirt of lip-puckering lemon juice and zest. As a backup, keep a can of organic whole-berry cranberry sauce on hand, and dial it up with tangerine segments, candied ginger, and toasted pecans.

Crème de la Crème

Alas, you took your eyeballs off the pot of steaming string beans, spinach, broccolini, or Brussels sprouts, and they've become a heap of mushy baby food. For a quick fix coarsely chop or puree, and blend in heavy whipping cream, a dollop of butter, along with assorted herbs and spices for a delicious side.

Gravy Train

While smooth as silk gravy is most appetizing, a few little lumps and bumps can be easily camouflaged with some diced giblets or crimini mushrooms that also add an oomph of flavor.

Pie in the Sky

Pies with burned crusts can still be salvaged and transformed into elegant parfaits. Whether pumpkin, pecan or apple pie simply scoop the filling into martini glasses and top with a dollop of vanilla bean whipped cream.

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Recipe: Simply Sublime Mashed Potatoes

Recipe courtesy of Bernard Guillas, executive chef at The Marine Room, La Jolla

Ingredients: 3 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled, quartered; 1/2 cup crème fraiche; 1/2 cup mascarpone; 1/2 pound unsalted butter (two sticks cut into small cubes)

Method: Transfer potatoes to large stockpot. Cover with cold salted water. Place over medium high heat. Bring to simmer. Cook until fork tender. Drain. Process with a ricer into the pot or mash by hand.

Set heat to medium high. Fold in crème fraiche and mascarpone with a wooden spoon. Add butter. Blend

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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