Another Thanksgiving brings another round of traditional foods that can be bland, soggy and, frankly, unappealing. But it's not too late to snap your holiday meal out of the doldrums with a few simple cooking makeovers.
The holiday is full of culinary hurdles, says Chris Kimball, host of America's Test Kitchen on PBS. But he assures that a few recipe redos can help solve perennial problems.
It's all too easy, for example, to dry out the white meat and undercook the dark meat, he says. The fault lies not with you, but with Mother Nature: Turkeys were clearly never designed to be roasted.
"The construct of a turkey is a disaster," Kimball says. "You have this huge cavity on the inside that doesn't conduct heat very well, so you have uneven cooking."
The solution? Instead of roasting the entire bird as a whole, Kimball suggests breaking down and cooking the turkey in parts — a method popularized by Julia Child. See this technique, and more, in this recipe interactive.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And this morning we're looking ahead to another Thanksgiving and another round of traditional foods that can be bland, soggy and, frankly, unappealing. But it is not too late. To snap your meal out of the doldrums, let's welcome...
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Chris Kimball, host of the PBS show, "America's Test kitchen," who's here to walk us through a redo of traditional dishes.
Mr. CHRIS KIMBALL (Host, "America's Test Kitchen): This is a Thanksgiving makeover.
MONTAGNE: Some of the makeover have to do with food that we know are traditional, maybe loved as children, but really don't serve now.
Mr. KIMBALL: Thanksgiving's full of culinary perks. Roasting the turkey, it's the white meat versus the dark meat. You undercook the white or you overcook the white meat. When you do an apple pie, it serves eight. It took you three hours to make it. You can serve the other eight people at the table. You have stuffing that's either in the bird or you don't have enough stuffing to serve everybody or it's done in the oven separately and then it doesn't have all the juices.
So this is high stress, the biggest day of the year. So we're going to solve -try to solve - all these problems.
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MONTAGNE: Our first makeover - the turkey. Chris Kimball says it's all too easy to dry out the white meat and undercook the dark meat. The fault, he says, lies not with you, but with Mother Nature. Turkeys were clearly never designed to be roasted.
Mr. KIMBALL: The construct of a turkey is a disaster. You have this huge cavity inside that doesn't conduct heat very well. So you have uneven cooking. So we're going back to a method - actually Julia Child invented this or at least she popularized it - she would break down her turkey into parts and cook the parts.
MONTAGNE: You don't need to cut up the turkey yourself, just buy one that's already disassembled- breast, legs and thighs. Brush on some melted butter, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and place into a 275 degree oven.
Mr. KIMBALL: It's on a wire rack set over a jelly roll pan or baking sheet. And underneath it are celery onion and carrot. The juices come down from the turkey parts onto the vegetable. And we use those vegetables as the basis for the gravy.
MONTAGNE: The drawback - you loose that Norman Rockwell moment when you bring out a magnificent golden turkey to oohs and ahhs from guests seated around the table. But let's not forget, this is a Thanksgiving makeover.
Mr. KIMBALL: The question is, is it about the food or is it about the presentation. You know, we're focused here on the food. You know, you can take a painting of Norman Rockwell and put it on the wall. You can wear a bowtie. But you want perfectly cooked white meat, perfectly cooked dark meat. This is the way to do it.
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MONTAGNE: With the turkey cooking, it's time to move on to the stuffing. Traditionally you'd make it inside the bird. But that's obviously not an option in this case.
Mr. KIMBALL: We ain't got a bird.
MONTAGNE: We don't have a bid.
Mr. KIMBALL: We've got bird parts. We got bird parts. We don't have a bird.
MONTAGNE: And the problem - when you try and bake stuffing, I'm sorry, it's really hard to make it taste good.
Mr. KIMBALL: The question is, how do you get all the juices from the bird into the stuffing, which is - if you don't do that you don't have a lot of flavor.
MONTAGNE: The answer - to bake the stuffing along with some turkey wings, which you saute first.
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When the wings are nice and brown, throw in some celery, onions and a little broth so you have a base. Then add the bread.
Mr. KIMBALL: We start with cubed bread. You have to dry it out. If you just let this sit on the counter there's still going to be a lot of moisture in the bread. So you end up with soggy...
Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, soggy. That's the - we've solved the problem of soggy stuffing. If you actually put these bread cubes in the oven, the moisture inside the bread cubes evaporates. So now we have bread cubes that actually really are dry.
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MONTAGNE: Chris beats up some eggs and adds them to the mix. Dried cherries and cooked sausage go in as well. Eventually everything gets poured into a buttered casserole dish.
Then an innovation, place those sauteed turkey wings on top of the stuffing mixture. And cover the entire dish with foil.
Mr. KIMBALL: OK. We've put that in a 375 oven for about an hour and 15 minutes or so.
MONTAGNE: And while it bakes, the juices from the wings drip down into the stuffing, infusing it with that inside-the-bird flavor. You end up with perfect stuffing, all thanks to what Chris calls the trickle-down theory.
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MONTAGNE: Time now for a mashed potato makeover. If you're fed up with a dry, bland potatoey(ph) lump, try this: whipped potatoes.
Mr. KIMBALL: About 1930, the Sunbeam Mix Mater came along. It was one of the great success stories of the 20th century in terms of kitchen appliances. One of the settings was whipped potatoes. This is a lost recipe.
We've always said, in the test kitchen, don't whip your potatoes because they get that gluey texture. It turns out you can - using a standing mixture or a hand mixer, not a food processor - you can whip potatoes and they're incredibly light.
MONTAGNE: You said this was a lost recipe. This was not lost in my family. This was absolutely, to this day, the only way the potatoes are done at Thanksgiving.
Mr. KIMBALL: I should have just called you.
Mr. KIMBALL: You could have saved me the weeks of testing.
MONTAGNE: Save so many steps.
Mr. KIMBALL: Call Renee for lost recipe hotline.
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MONTAGNE: Okay, so let me start you off. Fill a stockpot with peeled russet potatoes, cut into one inch squares...
Mr. KIMBALL: Steam them. Then we drain them. We put the potatoes back in that hot Dutch oven or stockpot, 'cause it's really important for what potatoes to be light, you want to get a lot of liquid out. And then we put them in the mixer. We'll do it right now.
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MONTAGNE: While mixing, add in some warm milk and melted butter. It only takes about two minutes for the potatoes to be transformed into a fluffy, white masterpiece.
Mr. KIMBALL: They're nice and light.
MONTAGNE: It looks like a cloud. It's beautiful.
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MONTAGNE: Time now for dessert and a makeover for the traditional apple pie. Among the traditional downsides of this homey desert, its filling can be runny, its bottom crust soggy, and it's a lot of work for just a few slices.
Chris Kimball's solution?
Mr. KIMBALL: It's called Apple Slab Pie. It looks like the huge Pop Tart.
MONTAGNE: It begins with two readymade store bought pie crusts, rolled out into a big sheet.
Mr. KIMBALL: We took some Animal Crackers. This is like I told you this was going to be fun.
MONTAGNE: Animal Crackers?
Mr. KIMBALL: Animal Crackers and sugar, but them in a food processor, crunch them down to essentially a dust. Put that on the counter and then roll out and the two pie doughs to get about a, you know, the size of a 19 by 12, roughly, of the size of a half baking sheet.
Now we have drained apples. And you can help me if you want. We're just going to take these and shingle them apples.
MONTAGNE: like this? Shingle them as in laying the roof.
Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah. Yeah. What's happening here is since we've sugared the apple is we're getting a lot of concentrated apple flavor. And you can serve, you know, 20 people with this.
MONTAGNE: And the secret ingredient that makes Apple Slab Pie sit up: Instance tapioca.
After the apples are laid out, cover them with another large sheet of pie dough. It takes about an hour to bake and when it's cooled, paint it with a glaze made from confectioners' sugar, milk, apple and lemon juice.
Mr. KIMBALL: And now we're going to see if you like it.
MONTAGNE: Well, first of all, it's lovely. The glaze looks like ceramic's glaze. Mmm. One of these days, Im going to say I don't like one of these. Just as the cook...
Mr. KIMBALL: Is today the day or is today not the day?
MONTAGNE: This is not the day. This is not the day.
Mr. KIMBALL: Whew. I made it another year.
MONTAGNE: This is lovely.
Chris, Happy Thanksgiving. If I had a class, I'd toast you. Happy Thanksgiving.
Mr. KIMBALL: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Chris Kimball is a host of "America's Test Kitchen" and a regular ambassador of food, come Thanksgiving at MORNING EDITION. You can find some how-to photos and all of today's recipes, no makeover required, at our Web site. Plus a few more, like slow up Cooker Green Bean Casserole and Old Fashioned Pecan Pie made with real maple syrup and molasses, no corn syrup.
Also, this holiday season, we're exploring how people use cooking apps for their mobile devices. We're interested in your experience. Send a tweet to @morningedition to tell us more.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.