Surgery for Amateurs:
Carving the Thanksgiving Turkey

My Black & Decker electric carving knife arrived from Amazon last night, and I couldn’t be more excited.  I used to think electric knives were a kitchen novelty from the 1970s that had gone out with the Presto Hotdogger. Not so. Their utility became clear a few years ago when I went to carve our Thanksgiving turkey. Mrs. Banks always makes it a point of pride to roast a bird far larger than what’s strictly required to feed the family at the holiday meal (“we can have tetrazzini all next week!”), and that year’s was a bruiser extraordinaire.  So when I went to carve the bird–in particular, when I went to separate its leg from its thigh using just a chef’s knife–the joint I encountered was so large and stubborn I immediately knew I was in for an extended round of  hand-to-drumstick combat. I finally was able to get the bird fully dismembered, but by the time I did I’d done so much hacking away at it I felt like I should’ve been standing in a guest bathroom at the Bates Motel.

Since then, I’ve learned from no less an authority than Alton Brown that the electric carving knife is a Gadget in Good Standing in 21st-century American kitchens, and just the thing for cutting up a turkey. Phew. For all the Norman Rockwell-esque glow that surrounds the act of carving the holiday bird, the actual job can be a physical and logistical nightmare. The typical Thanksgiving turkey is huge, for one thing, so just finding enough space to lay out all  the carved meat can be a challenge. Then, as noted, there are those cussed leg and thigh joints to undo. The breast is a mountain of white meat, usually a tad overcooked, that’s nearly impossible to carve up without shredding. Then, once the knife has been laid down at last,  the stuffing needs to be scooped. The whole process really can be a bit of a chore. Anyway, I’ve mangled more Thanksgiving turkeys than I care to remember, and have learned from cold experience that this procedure works best:

Carving Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Place a second carving board alongside the one the turkey is resting on. If you have a pair of disposable latex gloves handy, put them on. Plug in your electric carving knife (trust me!) and use it to separate the bird’s leg from its thigh, and place the leg on the spare carving board. Then, also with the electric knife, separate the thigh from the body of the bird, and put the thigh on the carving board, as well. Repeat until you run out of legs and thighs. Pull the meat off the drumsticks and place on a serving platter.  Take a chef’s knife and cut the thigh mean away from the bone and place it on the serving platter, too. Toss the thigh and leg bones into the pot of turkey stock simmering on the range. (Turkey legs are highly overrated as actual food.) Next, with a chef’s knife, cut away the entire breast from one side of the bird and place it on carving board, then cut away the breast from the other side. Cut the breast meat, across the meat’s grain, into half-inch or so slices, and transfer them to the serving platter. Do your best to keep skin attached. Take a moment to catch your breath, then pull out a serving bowl and large spoon and scoop out the damned stuffing. Have someone else carry the platter and bowl to the table, and take a short rest.

There. Thanksgiving dinner is officially on.

How To Make A Fake Brandy Alexander

There’s a certain type of drinker who just can’t resist the offer of an after-dinner Brandy Alexander. Mrs. Banks’s sister falls into this category, for instance, and I can’t say as I blame her. The drink might be mildly out of style, but it’s delicious, just the same. And when it’s served with a garnish of cinnamon or nutmeg, can be positively elegant.

But I serve them so rarely now, I’m not always conscientious about keeping the ingredients on hand. This was less of an issue years ago, especially the times when the family would gather at Mrs. Banks’s parents’ place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My father-in-law has never been an especially adventurous drinker, and stocked his bar accordingly. The typical inventory, if I remember right, was a bottle or two of whiskey, a smattering of liqueurs, and a bottle of plum wine that had been acquired years ago during my mother-in-law’s “Japan” period.

Those pickings might have been slim, but not so slim that I couldn’t figure out a way cobble together an ersatz Brandy Alexander out of them whenever I (inevitably) asked if anyone would care for one and my sister-in-law (also inevitably) piped up that, yes, yes she would. Not having any actual brandy or crème de cacao on hand presented less of a problem than you might think. Whiskey (anything but scotch) stands in nicely for the brandy, especially if you don’t volunteer to the drinker that you’ve made the switch. As for the crème de cacao, all sorts of liqueurs will substitute well. Frangelico and Amaretto come to mind, in particular. (There’s less wiggle room on the dairy side, although, in a pinch I’ve used skim milk instead of the cream and didn’t get nearly as many complaints as I expected.)

Years later, I finally confessed that I’d been winging the ingredients all that time, and am happy to say my sister-in-law received the information more graciously than she had a right to. (She did say she’d been mildly suspicious all that time; the woman’s not an idiot, after all.) I then gave her a blind taste test that pitted four versions of my fake Brandy Alexander against the real thing, to find out which one tasted best. In the event, the real McCoy only managed to come in third.

Brandy Fauxlexander

  • 1 ounce whiskey (your pick of bourbon, rye, Canadian, or American blend)
  • 1 ounce of some liqueur or other (Amaretto, Benedictine, Frangelico, and Irish Mist all work great)
  • 1 ounce cream or milk

Pour whiskey, liqueur, and milk or cream into a mixing glass filled with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with a pinch of nutmeg or cinnamon.

Stocking the Liquor for Thanksgiving

Forget choosing the menu or deciding which stuffing to make, the most fun part of Thanksgiving planning for me is coming up with the liquor list. We’ll be nine this year: the whole family plus my son’s new fiancée, along with three of my older daughter’s friends who’ll be visiting from England. Two of those three are British and have never had a real American Thanksgiving before, so we’d like to make the day reasonably authentic. Mrs. Banks can of course be counted on to lay out a Thanksgiving  spread so traditional that we’ll be referring to each other as “thee” and “thou” by the time dessert rolls around, but I’ll try to help keep things real, too, with a few tweaks to the liquor selection. As to the beer, for example, I’ll dispense with any new-age, craft-style selections and instead go with what we grew up with: old-fashioned, watered-down, American-style pilsner. Beer cognoscenti refer to this type of beer as “sessionable,” or what, in an earlier era, the Schaefer people meant when they promised that their beer was the one to have when you’re having more than one. That’s a definite plus.  If there’s ever a day when one should pace oneself, Thanksgiving is that day.

I’ll of course lay in some bourbon—what can be more American?–both bottom-shelf (for the Manhattans) and some fancier stuff (for Mrs. Banks and the girls). Also scotch—no, not in any sort of latter-day nod to the Mother Country, but because my son likes it, having become a confirmed scotch drinker ever since a high school trip to Scotland. (Long story.) He prefers high-end, semi-obscure brands, but I’m trying, for his own sake, to wean him down to something more reasonable. That won’t go over well—it sure didn’t last year—so I’ll almost certainly end up bringing home a bottle of single-malt that has a name that’s nearly unpronounceable.

As to to the rest of my liquor list, there’s no sense stinting on the vermouth for the Manhattans. Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, and Cocchi will work fine. Also, for after dinner, port. My pals at Franco’s here in New Canaan, who are rarely wrong on these matters, pointed me towards the ten-year aged tawny port from Noval and, at the higher end, the 2003 Taylor Fladgate or 2003 Graham’s.

We already have plenty of vodka on hand, but not Bloody Mary mix–which, if recent Thanksgivings are anything to go by, can come in handy on Friday morning. If people are feeling especially stricken, we’ll switch them up to gin.

Regarding the wines we’ll be serving, the family has forbidden me from having any say in the matter whatsoever ever since I brought home some Chardonnay made in (I think) Uruguay whose most notable feature was that it came in a box. (“If you drop it by accident, it won’t break,” is how I justified my choice.) But the folks at Franco’s do know a thing or two about wine. After an inquiry by me on what will go well with Thanksgiving dinner, here’s what they suggested. Also, I’ll be getting plenty of Champagne.

Finally, late in the evening some of us (and hopefully also the visiting Brits) might decide to channel our inner Lebowskis, so I must remember to get a bottle of Kahlua.

All this, and we’ll be well prepared. Oh yes, and we’ll also have roast turkey.

Making Pan Gravy on Thanksgiving

I’d like to think the reason I’m the one assigned to make the Thanksgiving gravy each year has to do with my superior way with seasonings or proficiency with a whisk. But that’s wrong. Rather, it’s what I get for squawking too much. “Fine, you do it next time,” is what Mrs. Banks finally said to me a few holidays back after I commented, for what she later insisted was “the umpteenth gosh darn Thanksgiving in a row,” that while the dinner was just great, the gravy had been a bit on the thick/thin/dark/lightly seasoned/too salty side. I apparently also complained that there wasn’t enough. What can I say? Thanksgiving gravy must bring out the fusspot in me. I blame the tryptophan. Worse, I’d always end up being wrong on the facts–which I’d  realize the next day when I’d go to make a turkey sandwich and see to my horror that the leftover gravy had already been eaten entirely.

Anyway, the Thanksgiving gravy is my bailiwick now, and over the years I’ve developed a process for making it that turns out gravy that isn’t just reliably lump-free but also downright tasty. The main challenge with turkey pan gravy has of course to do with the sheer volume of liquid involved. When Mrs. Banks makes a gravy to go with roast chicken, for instance, she just sprinkles some flour over the drippings, whisks it into a roux and lets it cook for a few minutes, and then slowly whisks in some liquid. That doesn’t work as well with turkeys. A fully stuffed 20-lb bird will produce an ocean of drippings that won’t take well to being sprinkled with what would have to be a mountain of flour. The resulting gravy will likely be lumpy, too thin, too greasy, or some combination thereof.  Rather try it this way:

Turkey Giblet Pan Gravy

Remove the bird to a carving board, and pour the pan drippings from the roasting pan into a gravy separator. Place the empty roasting pan over a burner on your range. Turn on the hot water in the kitchen and keep it running. Spoon or pour a goodly portion of the fat that’s floated to the top of the separator—don’t be shy, a quarter cup or more—back into the pan. Set the heat on low. Whisk in an equivalent amount of flour into the fat. The resulting roux should be moist but not too greasy. Let it cook for two to three minutes.

Now, the moment of high drama: fill a large measuring cup with hot water and slowly whisk the water into the roux. Then whisk in another until it’s clear that the roux is thickening the mixture and not lumpening it. Once the thickener has set, add the drippings from the bottom of the gravy separator. If you’ve made stock from the turkey’s neck and giblets, pull out the liver and heart and set them on a carving board to cool. Add some turkey stock to the gravy until you get to the desired thickness. My brother-in-law Tom Moran likes to add a splash of white wine at this point, and I can’t say that that’s a bad idea. If the gravy gets to be too thin, don’t worry, let it cook down for awhile. Finely dice the liver and heart and add to the gravy. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Thanksgiving Dinner, Punched Up

I began to sour on the traditional Thanksgiving dinner the year Mrs. Banks’s brother and his family arrived at our house from Baltimore on the Tuesday before the holiday (“we wanted to beat the traffic!”) and didn’t leave until Saturday afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, my in-laws are wonderful people, and will be invited back to visit within the next ten years or so. But they were around for so long that year that, by the time the actual holiday dinner was served, the meal turned out to be a bit of anti-climax. Sitting there looking down at my plate, I couldn’t help noticing what a downer the standard Thanksgiving menu is. It’s a mélange of white and mushy (mashed potatoes), brown and mushy (turkey stuffing), and scorched and mushy (candied yams), all laid out alongside the tan and bland (the turkey itself). This was likely a satisfying enough meal for a group of people who were half-starving to death 400 years ago. But here in the early 21st century, I’m surprised Ina Garten hasn’t staged an intervention.

Anyway, in the years since that Week That Would Not Die, my wife has done some tweaking and has improved the meal considerably. Despite ardent lobbying by me to the contrary, turkey is still in the lineup, but it’s now matched with what turns out to be an ideal complement to the bird’s, um, subtlety: rack of lamb. And we have corn fritters, which are rustic and elegant at the same time, and add some needed, contrasting crispiness. Alas, there is nothing to be done about the mashed potatoes. But the candied yams are out of the picture, replaced by a platter of assorted roasted winter vegetables that’s pleasing to both the eye and the palate. And the stuffing, which I was perhaps overly harsh about earlier, is superb. The only thing on the menu that can be spotty is the giblet gravy, and that’s because I’m the one who makes it.

At our house, we aim to serve dinner around 5:00, and sometimes succeed. The main benefit of planning an early meal is that, whether it gets to the table on time or not, cocktail hour can start early, too. We’ll usually begin mixing at 4:00 and, depending on how much tedium has been induced by watching the Lions get clobbered yet again, will sometimes start earlier.

Upgrade Your Ice Cubes. You’ll Be Happy You Did.

Cloudy Large Ice Cube In GlassI try to keep the math-related banter to a minimum here, but when the topic turns to ice cubes, as it occasionally must if I want to be taken seriously by the more worldly drinkers in the audience, I sometimes have no choice. So allow me a brief word on the geometry of solid forms: a single, large cube (made of, oh, I don’t know, ice, for instance) has less total surface area than do several smaller cubes of the same aggregate volume, and so will melt more slowly in your glass and, importantly, dilute your drink at a more leisurely rate.

Makes sense when you think about it, right? The implication of this math mini-lesson came home to me with full force a few years ago at a restaurant in the East Village called Momofuku that is much celebrated by New York food types. The meal we had was fine, but the high point of the evening for me came with the arrival of my after-dinner Manhattan. For there, floating in my glass, wasn’t the same old scoopful of quick-melting machine-made ice cubes we’ve all come to expect in our after-dinner drinks, but rather a single, magnificent cube. It must’ve measured two inches by two inches at least, was cold and clear, and kept my drink bracing for what seemed like forever. Out of a sample size that’s likely considerably larger than any number you have in mind, this was the best Manhattan I ever drank. I nearly asked our waiter if he had any spare cubes I could take home until I realized he would’ve thought I was an idiot.

Tovolo King Ice TraysFrom that moment, the Banks family has been a large-ice-cube household. I ordered some oversized-ice trays (Tovolo King, in blue) on-line the next morning, and since then the cubes they produce have gone into the vast majority of Manhattans, Negronis, Martinis, Rusty Nails, Old-Fashioneds, glasses of whiskey, and just about everything else I turn out at my bar. I’ve even been known to upsize my summertime gin and tonics to pint glasses in order to use the larger cubes there, too. A gin and tonic made with the big cubes, by the way, is very nearly the last word in refreshment. . . .

A Twist on a Manhattan That’s
Actually Pretty Darn Good

portmanhattanOne of the downsides to the craft-cocktails boom, it seems to me, is the tendency of too many bartenders, perhaps wanting to show they know how to put the “artisan” in “artisanal,” to offer their interpretations of classic drinks rather than just mixing and serving the real thing. The results aren’t always a plus. At one place here in town, for example, they’ve replaced the tequila in their Margaritas with mescal, added a liqueur I’ve never heard of, and now call the drink–I’m speaking from memory here–a “Conchita 2.0.” I think I’d prefer the Margarita. Rye is so ascendant in certain joints nowadays that if you want a real old-fashioned Old Fashioned—that is, the kind with bourbon in it—you have to practically beg. One drinks menu I came across recently featured what it called “our version of the traditional gin & tonic,” and I remember being taken aback for a moment and wondering, how did they figure out a way to mess with that?

All of which is to say, I’m generally against drinks-tinkering, ok? So when I tell you I’ve come up with a worthwhile variation of the Manhattan, you’ll have to take my word for it that I didn’t mean to, and that it happened completely by accident. Still, the drink tastes awfully good. I was at home getting ready to mix myself my nightly after-dinner drink (a Manhattan, as it happens) when I saw to my horror that I’d run out of sweet vermouth entirely. Not a drop in the house. But that’s no reason to abandon the project, I decided, so in a semi-desperate search for a vermouth substitute, I scanned the bar and saw at the end of it a bottle of . . . tawny port.

Oh, stop making that face, and open your mind up a little bit. Next, I poured some bourbon over ice in a tall glass, added a splash of the port, and strained it all it into an old-fashioned glass containing a large single cube. No bitters. No garnish. I took a sip. What I tasted is a drink that’s surprisingly satisfying. It’s slightly sweeter than the traditional Manhattan is, but has an impressive depth of flavor. I’ve had many more since.

Inasmuch as high-concept mixologist types have surely mixed everything with everything else by now, I can’t possibly be the first one to think to put port in a Manhattan. (My twitter pal Robert Simonson tells me he’s even seen the drink listed on fancy-cocktail menus.) No matter. You won’t see me swapping in mescal for tequila anytime soon. But port Manhattans are worth a try.

The Curse of the Locavores Is Upon Us

This is the time of year we all face the horror of what the locavore fanatics have wrought. Here in the Northeast in the fall, for instance, “locally sourced food” apparently begins and ends with . . . . winter squash. If you’ll forgive the expression, blecch! From now until springtime, there will be no end to the ways restaurants in town will invite us to consume butternut squash and pumpkin.  Heaven help us. A few years back, one place here I’d rather not name concocted a “pumpkin lasagna” that was especially awful and for some reason stayed on the menu through Easter. It’s as if we’ve all agreed to pretend that transcontinental rail shipping and refrigerated box cars don’t exist. Worse, though, are the novelty autumn cocktails that seem to be popping up. “Tennessee Cider,” with apple cider, maple syrup, and a cinnamon stick garnish sounds especially unpleasant. . . .

Back to Bourbon

Bourbon and Seltzer BottleMy autumn transition from white liquor to brown isn’t going too well, and I’m not sure why. It is true that gin season was especially gratifying this year, owing in part, I think, to my new habit of laying in spare handles of Tanqueray out in the garage. “Just to be safe, in case of an emergency shortage,” I told Mrs. Banks when she asked what all those bottles were doing there. “You can’t put a price on piece of mind.” Rather, it’s the whiskey part that’s had me addled. For as long as I can remember, my go-to brand of bourbon, which you’ll understand I’d rather not name, is one from the very bottom shelf at the liquor store. It’s nice and cheap, and comes in handles made of shatterproof plastic rather than glass, which can be a blessing whenever I’m afflicted with a late-night case of the dropsies. But for years Mrs. Banks has been urging me to upgrade. “It really is a bit of an insult to serve that to guests,” she’ll say, and perhaps have a point. So this fall I resolved to switch to one of those newer premium bourbons, the ones with names like “Old Boot Hill Reserve” that come in bottles that look like something out of the Old West. I chose one that seemed particularly authentic, and brought it home. My wife was pleased.

You’ll have your own ritual for evaluating a bourbon you’re unfamiliar with. Some people, for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, will have it neat, even though they never drink whiskey that way in real life. Others will add a splash of water, which seems more sensible. For myself, I go straight into production: I’ll pour the bourbon onto some ice in a short glass and add a splash of soda, as is my normal routine. It was thus, and with great anticipation, that I sampled the Old Boot Hill Reserve when I got home from the liquor store. I took a sip. At first I felt enveloped by a warm cowboy-campfire glow, but that dissipated once I realized I was still being mesmerized by the design of the bottle. Then I took another sip, and a third, at which point it dawned on me—and I can’t say this makes me especially proud—that this new, premium whiskey didn’t taste any better to me than the cheaper stuff I’ve been drinking for forty or so years. This reaction says more about the quality of my palate, I’m sure, than it does about the quality of the bourbon.

So it’s back to the bargain brand. I’m not especially pleased to have realized that I’m not the discerning libationist I once took myself for. (On the other hand, I do know how to enjoy the really good stuff.) Nor is Mrs. Banks too happy, either, that we’re still a cheap-bourbon household. Then again, when I mix myself a bourbon on the rocks at cocktail time now, it’s like sitting down with an old friend.  Come to think of it, maybe this fall’s brown-liquor transition is going better than I thought.

Bourbon on the rocks, with a splash of soda.

You’ll think this is an odd cocktail to feature, given how simple it is, but too often I’ve seen people in bars order a “bourbon and soda” expecting to get, well, a bourbon on the rocks with a splash of soda. Their disappointment when the drink arrives can be palpable, and should be, since a bourbon and soda is one of the least appealing drinks ever invented. Anyway, here goes:

Pour 1-2 jiggers bourbon into an Old-Fashioned glass filled with ice.

Add a splash of seltzer or club soda. No garnish.

Delightful, especially this time of year.

For Whiskey Fans, Some Disappointing News

PappyIn my house, we dip into the family’s stash of Pappy Van Winkle—the bottle is stored away from the bar in a location that, for reasons you’ll likely understand, is known only to Mrs. Banks—on the following days: my birthday, Fathers’ Day, Christmas Eve, and Thanksgiving Day assuming no family has come to visit. We mix the whiskey with just a drop of water or club soda and serve it in rocks glasses over the clear, oversized ice cubes I make in the freezer out in the garage and have become a bit obsessed with. Then we proceed to solve the world’s problems while watching football or golf. It really is a treat. My son appreciates Pappy for its sheer smoothness. I like that, too, and also the fact that it’s 107 proof. The reason I’m so parsimonious with the stuff, though—and it really is just Pappy Van Winkle that brings out the tightwad in me–is of course that it’s ridiculously hard to find in the first place, and not the sort of thing one wants to share on a lark. And now, egad!, comes the sad news that the situation is about to get even worse.

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