Tales from Angela's Kitchen: Thanksgiving Dinner by a Procrastinating Over-Achiever

Saturday, November 24, 2012

I'm laying here on the couch, comatose from the carb & dairy fest that was Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, and decided it is time I get back to blogging. I've been feeling a little uninspired lately. Still cooking regularly regardless, but nothing that I felt was blog worthy. I almost decided not to do Thanksgiving dinner at all, after all it would just be my son and I around to eat it, and it's not like we won't be having a big dinner for Christmas in a few weeks when we go home for the holidays. I casually approached the subject with Jaden in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, hoping to convince him that a nice seafood dinner on the beach was the way to go this year. He cut me off mid-sentence. "Mom, you ARE going to make macaroni and cheese, right?" His eyes were the size of saucers and I could see the impending fear of a sweet potato pie-less Thanksgiving set in. There was no way I was getting away with not cooking, not with this kid. "Of course, J!" I nervously replied, "I was just joking. What else would you like?" He rattled off a long list of traditional holiday foods, and as I saw how excited he was, I started to feel inspired to create something special for him. It dawned on me that I have never actually done Thanksgiving solo. I've always spent the day with my immediate family or as a guest to a friend's' home, neither of which involved making more than a few dishes by myself. I knew I was going to have an insane task ahead of me. I also knew I wasn't going to do shit about it until the day before Thanksgiving.

You see, I'm a habitual procrastinator. I'm writing this blog for the people who hit the grocery store after work on Wednesday and were still working out the final logistics of their menu while others around  the country were sitting down to eat Thanksgiving dinner. But I'm also writing for those Type A, over-achieving perfectionists who wouldn't dare go half-ass on Thanksgiving dinner no matter what the cost. If you identify with either or both personality defects, you'll understand why executing this meal as the sole cook in your kitchen is an epic feat. The holidays are the holy grail of culinary showmanship for home cooks, so without a doubt Thanksgiving is a big f****** deal. I could not let down my son, or the hundreds of blog readers on twitter salivating for food porn. This would not end up being a modest dinner for two with cornish hens and a couple sides. There would be no #StruggleMeal retweeted across the social mediasphere. Nope, if my son wanted a traditional Thanksgiving that's exactly what he was going to get, with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and all. But the problem still remained that I had nary the funds nor time to do any kind of preparation in advance. What followed was perhaps the greatest cooking adventure I'd ever embarked upon, which I'm happy to say was a total success. 

Tales from Angela's Kitchen: Thanksgiving Dinner by a Procrastinating Over-Achiever

2:00 PM, Wednesday: Most of the day was spent jotting down ideas for tomorrow's menu. Just about everybody has left the office. I can now unapologetically scour the internet for advice on roasting a turkey breast, which is my only viable option at this point in time. 

5:00 PM, Wednesday:  I've finalized my shopping list and synced it to my cell phone. Realizing I've lost track of time, I rush out of the office, praying that I don't hit early holiday traffic on the way to pick up my son from karate. I do.

6:30 PM, Wednesday:  Finally make it to Grocery Store #1. There are two parking spaces left and I have thirty minutes to shop before it closes. I spend the first 10 minutes trying to maneuver through the produce section, which is jammed by first time cooks trying to figure out the difference between cilantro and flat leaf Italian parsley. Irritated that all of the fresh sage is gone, I spend the next 10 minutes asking where the fresh turkey breasts are and explaining to an exasperated store manager that no, I simply cannot brine a partially thawed turkey breast that was frozen with up to a 15% solution. He tells me this is all that they have, unless I want to do a 17 lb natural whole bird. Frozen turkey breast it is.

7:00 PM, Wednesday I spend my last 10 minutes at Grocery Store #1 deciding between Fontina and Gruyere. The young girl at the deli counter looks like she's the type to be impressed by Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, so I know she'll be no help. I go with Fontina, mostly because it'll be a slightly less expensive experiment. I check out and continue on to finish the rest of my shopping before everything shuts down for the night.

7:30 PM, Wednesday: Liquor store run. I have no business thinking about drinking at a time like this, but I justify it by grabbing a tiny bottle of Grand Marnier that I decide will go in my sweet potato pie.

8:00 PM, Wednesday: We are in Grocery Store #2. They have fresh turkey breasts. I've already spent $15 on a turkey and it's too late to take it back, but I must have a fresh turkey now that I've seen it. The other one will be used for something else, I decide. Clearly we will be eating these turkeys for the next 2 weeks, which is good because I sense that I've blown my budget through the roof.

8:15 PM, Wednesday: This store is also out of sage. Mind you, I have ground sage at home, but it won't do. Has to be fresh for the perfect Thanksgiving. The guy working the produce section fails to understand this when I ask him to check the back. I am becoming more annoyed by the minute as he stays right where he is, telling me that they're definitely out and dried sage will be fine. Clearly he is out of his league and has chosen the wrong career path in life.

8:30 PM, Wednesday: I spend at least 15 minutes deciding between unsalted cream butter, Irish butter and organic butter. My son at this point is tired, hungry and regretting that he asked me to cook, but he's a good sport about the mission I send him on to find apple cider (amidst a sea of empty shelves.) He brings back store brand cider, swears that it's all they have left, and I have to concede that it is better than frozen apple juice concentrate.

9:30 PM, Wednesday: I've triple checked my grocery list and feel it's safe to check out. I question why God would put me in an aisle with a 105 year old man bagging my groceries at the speed of sloth. Jaden sees the look on my face and runs over to help the poor guy. Certifiable heart palpitations as I look at the final register total and slide my debit card through the scanner. I believe I just spent an entire month's food budget in one evening. Approved. I exhale. With sweaty palms, I grab my receipt and head home, exhausted at the thought of putting all this crap away.

11:00 PM, Wednesday: On second thought, I'm about to get started with cooking so it really doesn't make sense to put everything away. I pull out the stuff that needed to be refrigerated and leave everything else on the counter. My apartment is a mess, the dishwasher is full, the fridge needs to be cleaned out and laundry must happen. Like a true procrastinator however, I take a quick nap to rest up for the late night I'm about to have baking desserts.

6:00 AM, Thursday: Damn. Damn. Damn. Did I really pass out on the couch? 

6:30 AM, Thursday: I toss my sweet potatoes into the oven to bake while I get started with cleaning. As I'm moving grocery bags out of the way, I see the carton of organic half & half sitting out. Thanksgiving is not the day to take chances with spoiled dairy products. Not one to be put off by a minor setback, I pour it down the sink, making a mental note to run out later. Good thing because a few minutes later, I discover that I never actually put the butter in my shopping cart. I hop online to check the grocery store hours and make the frightening realization that they're all closed. What idiot decided that was a smart business move?! I shrug it off and put my full faith into the refrigerator at the drug store being properly stocked.

8:00 AM, Thursday: I'm moving slower than the guy who bagged my groceries last night. Not a single dessert has materialized yet, but my kitchen is spotless and I remembered to email my mom the mac and cheese recipe she asked about. Two coffees and an egg sandwich later, it's game time. I still have plenty of time to prep my ingredients. If I can get the turkey brine done by 9, it'll be ready to cook at 3 and we can eat by 6. I got this.

10:00 AM, Thursday: Most of my veggies for the day are scrubbed, peeled, sliced and diced. I'm feeling good about this, but running out of time to get my planned two desserts done. I decide sweet potato pie is enough, and that it can be done later. I move on to getting the bread cubes for the dressing toasted instead. At precisely 10:15 AM, I slice through the tip of my thumb with a serrated knife. I am bleeding profusely and can't find any band-aids. I wake my son up in agony, hoping he'll feel so sorry for me that he'll agree we should just go to the beach. He asks if the pie is done. I make a mental note to research adoption laws in Florida.

10:30 AM, Thursday: We are at the drug store. My throbbing thumb is wrapped in bloody cheesecloth. I find waterproof band-aids before my suspected ADD kicks in, at which point I spend the following 20 minutes looking for the perfect red lipstick. In my mind, life is a romantic comedy in which I answer the door on Thanksgiving Day, perfectly coiffed and fabulously dressed for the moment "he" shows up for dinner. Eventually I remember that I am single, snap out of my fantasy, and woefully put the lipstick back on the shelf. I settle on going home with band aids, regular old salted butter and what was likely the only pint of half & half left in a ten mile radius. 

1:00 PM, Thursday: With a gloved left hand, I manage to get the rest of my prep work done and finish my roasted potatoes. I'm still convinced at this point that the side dishes will be a breeze. I've only just begun to start my pie so it's now looking like the turkey will be going into the oven around 4, which pushes dinner out to 7. 

3:00 PM, Thursday: The kitchen doesn't look like a disaster area yet. For once in my life I am following the "clean as you go" rule. Trust me, the last thing you want on Thanksgiving is a kitchen full of dirty pots & pans when you need room to cook. My sweet potato pie batter tastes heavenly. I am pretty sure that slow roasted sweet potatoes, Saigon cinnamon and freshly ground nutmeg made all the difference. Telling myself that makes me feel better about spending $5 for half a teaspoon of spices. I am feeling like a pro as I grind my nutmeg using a spiffy new microplane grater. These are the things that separate the girls from the women in the kitchen. Saigon cinnamon and microplane graters. You're welcome. My pie crust dough is coming along fantastically. In the past, crusts have always been a problem for me. I will not f*** it up this year. I have graduated today from using an empty wine bottle to an actual rolling pin. My perfect sweet potato pie will not have a soggy bottom, so I blind bake my crust, weighed down with rice over a piece of parchment paper. Jaden sees me do this and asks, "pie weights?" I beam, knowing that he's been learning from watching America's Test Kitchen. I brush my crust with an egg white and pop it back in the oven for a couple minutes. I can't believe it has taken 3 hours to make a pie, but when I finally fill my crust with velvety, luscious sweet potato batter, it looks so freaking perfect that I spend at least another 20 minutes admiring my work before I place it on the center rack of the oven.

4:30 PM, Thursday: The macaroni noodles are boiling and Jaden is shredding cheese for me. At this point I should have been done with the mac & cheese and had the turkey in the oven, but I got sidetracked researching cornbread recipes and finding a live stream for the Redskins game. I scan my Twitter timeline and grow slightly concerned that most of my network is reporting cases of the "Itis" already, meaning they had long since eaten and were starting to feel sleepy. I'll probably never understand why we call it Thanksgiving dinner when everybody seems to expect it to be ready at lunch time. Jaden settles on a peanut butter sandwich as he intently watches me create his favorite part of Thanksgiving.

6:00 PM, Thursday: I'm starving and not sure if I can survive the smell of Linguica frying for my dressing. My back is killing me and my feet are swollen. I remain strong, for if I stop to sit down and eat I will probably never finish this meal. It is finally turkey time. The turkey breast is rubbed down with my specially concocted spice mix, olive oil and brown sugar. I remembered to pour chicken stock into the bottom of the roasting pan so that pan drippings wouldn't burn. This may very well be the latest dinner to go down in Thanksgiving history, but damn if it won't be the best meal we have ever eaten at home.

7:00 PM, Thursday: My onions are caramelizing, a 45 minute process in and of itself. The dressing I decided could cook on the very top rack, above the roasting turkey breast, so long as it stayed covered with foil so as not to burn. I would jack the heat up and let the top toast a little bit after the turkey was done. 

7:30 PM, Thursday: We're nearing the finish line, folks. As Thanksgiving dinner begins to come together before our eyes, I realize I forgot to make the cranberry sauce. I take a swig of Grand Marnier and give myself a pep talk.

8:00 PM, Thursday: The turkey is just about finished roasting. It wasn't as browned as I would have liked to see though, so I rubbed it down with butter. That's the great thing about holidays. You can get your Paula Deen on and everybody will love you more for it. Butter fixes everything on Thanksgiving. There is no debating this. My turkey is now getting all crispy and golden and amazing, but the drippings are incinerated at the bottom of the roasting pan. I may be able to salvage some of the fat, but there was no way I was doing a true pan gravy. I had plenty of chicken stock though, so as my mirepoix sauteed in the pot, I decide on supplementing the flavor with a bit of apple cider instead. When things don't go as planned in the kitchen, you've gotta be able to adjust and forge ahead. On a brighter note, my cranberries are starting to pop and the smell of oranges and cinnamon is wafting through the air. I chuckle at how fond I used to be of the canned stuff. There is not nearly enough time for it to cool and thicken up on its own, so I stick the pot in the freezer and hope for the best.

8:45 PM, Thursday: Jaden has taken matters into his own hands and decides he'll make the cornbread himself. I feel like he's shading me as he glances at an imaginary watch on his wrist. I let this slide, as I really do need his help at this point. I direct him through the process of making cornbread while stirring gravy at the stove.

9:00 PM, Thursday: I am making my final dish of the night. The green beans are blanched, onions are nicely caramelized, and all that is left to do is brown the mushrooms. My roasted turkey breast has reached the perfect threshold of 160° and is tented with foil and resting. My apple cider gravy is simmering. The corn bread crust is a beautiful golden brown, glistening with honey butter. The sweet potatoes, dressing and mac and cheese are reheating in the oven. I am still wearing my pajamas and yesterday's mascara.

9:30 PM, Thursday: I ask Jaden to google "how to carve a turkey breast." Nothing useful pops up that I could see at a glance, so I decide to wing it. Somehow I manage to slice it all up without leaving too much meat behind or tearing away the perfectly browned & crisp skin. Both of us are amazed at how juicy the thickly sliced turkey meat is. I let Jaden have another slice; this holds him over long enough for me to snap photographs of my dishes while he gets our drinks together. I can see him mentally planning out his plate in his head. I used to do the same thing as a kid - I'd figure out how much I could fit on my first plate and what I would come back to for seconds.  I wrap up the turkey carcass in foil and stuff it into a freezer bag, visions of turkey stock in my head.

10:00 PM, Thursday: You ever spend so much time cooking that you don't actually have an appetite when you're done? Yeah, well today wasn't one of those days. We devour our meals like savages. Every minute spent in that kitchen, every hiccup along the way, every painstakingly meticulous detail that was put into Thanksgiving dinner, was all laying before me on that plate. By the time I take a few pictures and get my first bite, my son is already halfway finished with his heaping portion of mac & cheese, his chunky frame swaying back and forth to an imaginary beat. When Jaden was little, he used to do this little move at the table that I called his "happy dance." That's when you know the food is good. Dish by dish, Jaden gives me his verdict. "Mmmm, turkey's so good Mom." Happy dance. "Gravy is excellent." Happy dance. "Wow. Sweet potatoes are great." Happy dance. I cringe for just a second as he takes a bite of dressing, something he's never really cared for. "Dressing's good Mom." Happy dance.  I smile.

10:30 PM, Thursday: "Time for dessert Mom?" Yes Jaden, it is time for dessert. The moment of truth was upon us. The thing about pies is that it's pretty hard to know if they came out alright until it's time to serve them, and as a cook I'm not sure there's anything more terrifying than a dish you can't taste test. I make the first slice into the creamy center and as my knife slides through the tender, flaky crust, I damn near weep with tears of pride. I scoop a big dollop of cold, creamy whipped coconut cream onto that perfect slice of pie, grind a little nutmeg over the top (okay, I am just showing off at this point) and stand back to revel in the pièce de résistance. We take bites at the same time. I am propelled into memories of visiting my late grandmother in Newport News, freshly baked sweet potato pies waiting for me on her kitchen table. Jaden is doing his happy dance again. When he finishes, he clears the table and comes over to give me a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks Mom. Dinner was great." No, this is not part of my vivid imagination in which we are starring in a classic family movie. I actually have one of those kids who puts away his plate, hugs me and thanks me for dinner. Jaden remarks how tired he is, and voluntarily saunters off to bed with his protruding, happy belly.

11:30 PM, Thursday: I manage to upload a few pics to Facebook and Twitter, shoot off a few late text messages, and put all the food and (most of) the dishes away. I finally get a hot shower. I take a look at my unopened bottle of Kraken rum, a gift to myself for all of my hard work today, and sigh, knowing I am too damn tired to muster up the energy for a cocktail. I'm not sure at what point I actually sit back and put my feet up, but I do remember feeling like only the jaws of life would be able to remove me from this couch. As I close my laptop for the night, the day replays in my head. For once, I have no harsh criticism for myself, no self-defeating thoughts or obsessing about little things I would have done differently. I am not disappointed that we ate six hours later than the rest of the country. I'm not even upset that I probably won't be able to afford groceries for another month. And I surely don't care that I forgot to get dressed and put on lipstick to take an obligatory holiday picture. Thanksgiving happened, my son is happy, and I am pleased.

By the way...we didn't miss the sage.

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  1. mmm,....that food looked really good

  2. If it makes you feel any better, one of my friends was shocked and appalled when by 2:30pm I'd eaten both customary plates of food AND had dessert. She said nobody was eating at her house until 6:30, so... somebody else understands what Thanksgiving dinner is all about. :)

    That plate of food looks ABSOLUTELY amazing and if you were to just so happen to need to freeze up a plate, vacuum seal it and ship it off somewhere, I'd be more than happy to send you my mailing address.

    1. LOL glad we weren't the only late eaters. Thank you!

  3. You're amazing! How long did the leftovers last?

    1. Thanks girl...we were just about out by Sunday, luckily had some family visiting on Saturday to get rid of it!