Cooking a Thanksgiving feast can turn a home cook into an air traffic controller of sorts.
Precise timing is everything. The menu is planned based on limited oven or stovetop space. The gravy is made while the turkey is resting. The green bean or sweet potato casseroles are baked while the oven is free. Everything is coordinated so all the dishes land on the dinner table at the same time.
On such a day, the grill can be your savior.
“You can use your grill strategically,” said Kansas City, Mo.-based cookbook author Judith Fertig, who has written several grilling cookbooks – including “BBQ Bistro” and “The BBQ Queens’ Big Book of Barbecue” – with Karen Adler.
Moving the turkey or a couple of sides to be cooked in a smoker or on a charcoal or gas grill can make cooking this feast less like directing airport traffic on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and more like a holiday. Even better, enlist your spouse, a relative or friend to oversee the outdoor cooking.
Fertig and Raleigh, N.C.-based food writer Fred Thompson, author of “Grillin' with Gas” and “Barbecue Nation,” shared their advice for cooking some or all of your Thanksgiving feast outdoors:
▪ Do not cook anything larger than a 14-pound bird or you will end up with dry meat. If you need more turkey to feed your guests, cook two smaller turkeys rather than a 20-pound turkey.
▪ Smoking and grilling can dry out the turkey, so consider brining the bird beforehand.
▪ Consider your grilling experience. “This is not the time to do too much,” Thompson said. “If you haven’t smoked a turkey before, it’s not necessarily the best time to do it.” The same goes for frying a turkey, he adds. Enlist an experienced griller if you can or do a practice run if possible.
▪ For beginners, the best option is the gas grill. Be sure to roast the turkey in a roasting pan or disposable foil pan to catch the drippings for gravy. If there is room, Thompson places a pan of water or apple cider next to the turkey to do “internal grill basting,” which helps keep the bird moist.
▪ If using a charcoal grill or smoker, Thompson recommends natural hardwood lump charcoal, instead of briquettes, which contain additives.
▪ Plan on having the turkey finished cooking an hour before you want to carve it.
With the turkey done and out of the way, you can use the grill to cook side dishes.
▪ Anything in a baking dish – make-ahead mashed potatoes, dressing, green bean casserole, and macaroni and cheese - can be cooked or reheated in a gas grill. Consider it your outdoor oven.
▪ Use a cast-iron skillet on a grill to roast Brussels sprouts.
▪ Use a smoker or charcoal grill to cook sweet potatoes.
▪ So many classic dishes on the Thanksgiving table are all the same texture: creamy. Fertig suggests using the grill to add texture to the meal, by substituting grilled bread for those soft yeast rolls.
Regardless of how you use your grill, it will help ease the traffic in your kitchen. Plus, it’s not bad ambiance. “Just being outside,” Thompson said, “the smell of fall, a little bourbon in the coffee or some hard cider for sipping.”
That sounds like a lovely Thanksgiving.
MORE IDEAS FOR THANKSGIVING GRILLING
Grilled Potato Halves with Salmon and Dill: Serve these as an appetizer. Place 18 halved baby red potatoes and 2 tablespoons water in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover with vented plastic wrap and cook on high in the microwave for 5 to 6 minutes or until just fork-tender. Preheat gas grill to medium heat. Brush potatoes with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place potatoes on grill and cook 5 to 6 minutes, turning over once. When done, remove from grill and slice a flat surface onto rounded side of each potato to prevent rolling. Top each with 1/4 teaspoon sour cream, 1 bite-size piece of smoked salmon and some dill.
Grilled Root Vegetables: Slice celeriac, jicama, big potatoes, daikon or yams and grill slowly until very tender and browned. Drizzle with olive oil or melted butter and sprinkle with chopped rosemary or sage.
Grilled Green Beans with Herb Mayonnaise: Puree 1 bunch fresh dill, leaves from 20 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, 1 cup mayonnaise and 2 teaspoons cider vinegar in a food processor. With machine running, slowly add 1/2 cup olive oil through feed tube until incorporated. Place 2 pounds trimmed green beans in a grill basket over medium heat on grill. Cook until they begin to char and soften, about 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Serve with mayonnaise.
Grilled Apples or Pears for Dessert: Halve, core and grill pears or apples. When done, drizzle with yogurt, honey and pinch of cardamom or cinnamon.
From “The Essential New York Times Grilling Cookbook,” edited by Peter Kaminsky (Sterling Epicure, 2104); “The Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen Grilling Cookbook” (Hearst Books, 2013); and “Where There’s Smoke,” by Barton Seaver (Sterling Epicure, 2013).
TURKEY REFRESHER COURSE
Before you start your menu planning and holiday-meal shopping, here are a few handy things to know about turkeys:
How much: Smaller turkeys have lower meat-to-bone ratios than large ones. If the turkey is smaller than 16 pounds, figure on 1 1/2 pounds per person to allow for leftovers. For a turkey above 16 pounds, expect 1 pound per person.
Thawing: Frozen turkeys take 24 hours per 5 pounds in the refrigerator (3 days for 15 pounds). If the turkey is in a refrigerator that isn’t opened often, such as an extra refrigerator in a garage, it may take longer to thaw. To thaw in cold water, completely submerge the wrapped turkey for 1 hour per pound. Don’t refrigerate a fresh, raw turkey longer than 3 days before cooking.
Very large turkeys are more challenging to handle. Instead of a 20-pound turkey, it may be easier to cook two 12-pound turkeys, or a whole turkey and a turkey breast.
Trussing: If you truss, truss loosely. Tying the legs too close to the body can make the legs and thighs cook more slowly.
Stuffing: If you stuff, stuff loosely, so the stuffing has room to expand. Use a thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing and all parts of the turkey reach 165 degrees.
Using a meat thermometer: With the body cavity facing you, slide it in the thickest part at the bottom of the thigh, below and to the inside of the leg. Wiggle the tip to make sure it isn’t hitting bone.
Watch the time: Let the turkey stand at least 20 minutes before carving so the juices settle back into the meat. After that, don’t let leftovers stand at room temperature for longer than two hours, including the time it’s on the table.
– Kathleen Purvis
HICKORY-SMOKED BOURBON TURKEY
1 (12-pound) fresh turkey
8 cups water
2 cups pure maple syrup
1 cup bourbon
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon salt, divided
1 tablespoon pickling spice
1 large carrot, peeled and halved crosswise
1 rib celery, halved crosswise
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 cups hickory wood chips, soaked in water for 1 hour
3 disposable aluminum pans, plus aluminum foil
Remove giblets and neck from the turkey; reserve for other uses, if desired. Rinse the turkey thoroughly with cold water and pat dry.
Make the brine: Place water, maple syrup, bourbon, 1/2 cup salt and pickling spice in a large stockpot. Bring to a simmer and stir to dissolve the salt. Place turkey in a brining bag or large plastic container with a lid and add additional water to make sure the bird is completely submerged. If using brining bag, close the bag tightly and consider putting it in a second bag to make sure it doesn’t leak. Refrigerate for 24 hours but no more than 36 hours or the brine will make the meat mushy.
Oil the grill racks. Preheat gas grill using all the burners set on high and with the lid closed for 10 to 12 minutes. When the grill is hot, turn off the center or back burner and adjust the heat to medium-low. (Or build a fire for indirect cooking in a charcoal grill.)
Remove turkey from the brine, discarding brine. Pat dry inside and out and set it on a baking sheet. Stuff the cavity with the carrot, celery and onion. Slice the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over the turkey, then place the rinds in the cavity. Season the turkey with the remaining 1 tablespoon salt and pepper, rubbing it into the skin. Fold wings under and tie the legs together with kitchen twine.
Drain the wood chips and place in a smoker box (follow your manufacturer’s instructions), or make a wood-chip packet by placing 1 cup of soaked wood chips in a small disposable aluminum foil pan; cover it with foil and poke a few holes in the foil. Place the foil packet under the cooking grates, directly on the angled metal plates covering the burners or on lava rocks or ceramic briquettes. Place another small disposable pan on the grill and fill halfway with water. Prepare two more pans of wood chips for later.
Place turkey on the grill and cover. The turkey will need to cook until a meat thermometer registers 170 degrees when inserted in the thickest part of the thigh or the juices run clear when nicked with a knife. A 12-pound turkey took about 2 hours. During this time, you will need to add water and wood chips about every 30 minutes.
When the turkey is done, remove from the grill and let stand at least 30 minutes before carving.
From “Grillin’ With Gas: 150 Mouthwatering Recipes for Great Grilled Food,” by Fred Thompson, (Taunton Press, 2009).
GRILL-ROASTED PUMPKIN WITH DRY-CURED OLIVES AND GARLIC
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 small pumpkin, butternut or Hubbard squash (about 1 1/2 pounds), stemmed, seeded and cut into 2-inch wedges (at the widest part)
20 black, dry-cured olives, pitted and halved
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Prepare a medium-hot fire in the grill. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil and garlic together until the garlic is fragrant, about 4 minutes.
Arrange the pumpkin slices, olives and thyme in disposable aluminum pans. Drizzle with the olive oil mixture, and then season with salt and pepper. Place on the grill, close the lid and grill for 20 minutes.
Open the lid and turn the pumpkin slices over. Close the lid and grill for 15 to 20 minutes longer or until the pumpkin is fork-tender. Transfer the pumpkin wedges to a platter and drizzle with the juices from the pan. Sprinkle the olives over the pumpkin and serve warm.
Reprinted with permission from “BBQ Bistro,” by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig, (Running Press, 2015).
GRILLED CABBAGE SALAD WITH APPLES, RAISINS AND WARM BACON DRESSING
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 red cabbage
1/2 green cabbage
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium tart apple, like Granny Smith
3 slices bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place raisins and vinegar in small bowl. Let soak while you prepare the cabbage.
Cut cabbage halves in thirds, leaving each portion with a part of the core so it will stay together.
Preheat gas grill and oil grill grates or light charcoal (the charcoal is ready when the coals are glowing red and coated with light gray ash). Spread out coals and oil grill grates. Grill cabbage; once cabbage has grill marks on one side, turn it. The cabbage is done when it has grill marks on all sides and has softened, about 12-15 minutes.
Remove the cabbage from grill and place on a cutting board. Remove core, slice cabbage and place in a large bowl. Set aside.
Peel, core and slice apple. Place apple slices in cold water so it doesn’t turn brown. Set aside.
Heat medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped bacon, saute until brown and crisp, about 5 minutes. Add shallot to bacon, stir and saute for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add vinegar, raisins and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and stir to fully combine. Pour over cabbage. Toss well; using your hands is best.
Drain apple slices. Top cabbage with apple and toasted pine nuts and serve.
Inspired by Kansas City-based cookbook Judith Fertig.
GRILLED SPICE-RUBBED CARROTS
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, packed
2 pounds whole carrots
4 tablespoons butter, melted
Combine cumin, salt, pepper and brown sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.
Peel carrots. Place on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with seasoning mix. Roll carrots around to coat. Set aside.
Prepare grill. Preheat gas grill and oil grill grates or light charcoal (the charcoal is ready when the coals are glowing red and coated with light gray ash), spread out coals and oil grill grates.
Place carrots on grill until charred, then move away from direct heat and cover the grill. Cook until the carrots are tender, 8-10 minutes.
Remove carrots from grill. Chop into bite-sized pieces, toss with melted butter and serve.
Adapted from “The Essential New York Times Grilling Cookbook,” edited by Peter Kaminsky (Sterling Epicure, 2104).