The Mark Bittman way to a faster, and better, Thanksgiving feast

in Nonfiction by

In a year of rushed family dinners, one meal stands out: traditional, slow, and packed with family and memories— Thanksgiving. The feast is a favorite of many, but few cooks appreciate having to spend hours in the kitchen, when they really want to be sitting at the table. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) offers smart solutions to this annual predicament—and the nightly dilemma of how to produce a home-cooked dinner in a sliver of time—with more than 1,000 pages of simple recipes that take 45 minutes or less to make.

As always, Bittman (who honed his culinary voice of reason through his “Minimalist” column in the New York Times and his 1998 classic How to Cook Everything ) communicates his encyclopedic knowledge with concise, down-to-earth writing. There’s udon next to the orzo, and jambalaya next to Thai sticky rice. Yet no matter how far a recipe strayed from my cooking comfort range, I read it and thought, “I can make that!”

No other cookbook author so effectively encourages you to broaden your cooking horizons by cooking more real food more often. Variations on the dish follow each recipe, so White Beans with Sausage, Greens and Garlic can become Black Beans with Chorizo, Greens and Garlic.

When I made Bittman’s Roast Turkey Breast with Sausage and Sage Stuffing Cakes (perfect for a four-guest Thanksgiving), it took 58 minutes from grocery bag to table. That’s 13 minutes more than Bittman suggests, but I had time to set the table, too. The meat was juicy; the stuffing was herby, crisp and moist. If there is some sacrifice for a short cut—here, no crispy skin—it’s worth it for more time at table and no processed ingredients.

Green Bean Casserole can have a real-food makeover, too. Ditch the canned soup and try a Green Bean Salad with Caramelized Onions and Toasted Almonds, or Green Beans with Onion Dip appetizer. Each takes a half an hour and elegantly recreates that delicious flavor combination.

Mark-Bittman1
Mark Bittman

As in any quick food cookbook, there are pastas and salads galore, both the basic (30 minute Mac and Cheese) and the unexpected (Warm Pickled Cauliflower Salad with Roasted Red Peppers). But there’s also a cornucopia of grains, meats, soups and stews. Get inspired for Thanksgiving with Charred Brussels Sprouts with Gorgonzola and Walnuts, or Butternut Squash Soup with Apples and Bacon.

One ingenious section is called Simultaneous Sides, dishes that don’t hog your attention in the kitchen and don’t have to be served piping hot. Cook up some Sauteed Sweet Potatoes, Garlicky Mushrooms, or Peas with Bacon and Onion while your turkey is in the oven.  Many of the recipes are one-pot meals and most have easy vegan or vegetarian variations.

Interspersed among the recipes are tips on cooking smarter, like which time-saving ingredients are worth it (canned beans, yes; canned chicken stock, no) and how to organize your kitchen and your time for maximum efficiency. Some ideas are self-evident: of course potatoes for mash can be cut thin to cook faster. Other ideas are less obvious, and are true improvements—like snipping herbs with cooking shears.

Bittman’s big innovation is the recipe presentation: Each is color-coded blue and black, delineating cooking and prepping steps. You can see at a glance what exactly needs to be done when. If you cook with a friend, the separation of labor is already done. Yes, most cooks already prep as they go, but it is rare to see a cookbook acknowledge this, let alone actively empower it. The subtly suggested times near the top of the recipe seem realistic. Though I turned off a hot burner twice to keep up with the prep work, I still finished a Bok Choy Pancake (think a healthier scallion pancake) with seven minutes to spare (23 minutes!).

If you want to spend fewer minutes in the kitchen (and more time eating yummy food) this holiday—and everyday—this is the book for you.

Roast Turkey Breast with Sausage and Sage Stuffing Cakes

Ingredients

One 3-pound skin-on boneless turkey breast

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons butter

8 ounces sage or Italian pork sausage

2 sprigs fresh sage

6 to 8 slices any rustic bread

2 eggs

1 cup chicken stock

Prep/Cook

  1. Heat the oven to 450ºF.

Remove and discard the turkey skin. To butterfly the breast, cut horizontally partway through so it opens like a book, creating a fairly even thickness of about 1 inch.

  1. Put the opened turkey breast on a rimmed baking sheet, and rub with 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Flip it over and repeat with oil and salt and pepper. Break 1 tablespoon butter into bits and scatter on top. When the oven is hot, roast the turkey for 30 minutes.
  1. Put 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

Remove the sausage meat from the casings. Strip the leaves from 2 sage sprigs and chop.

  1. Add the sausage to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally until the sausage is browned, 5 to 10 minutes, adding the sage for the last minute or two.

Cut 6 to 8 slices bread into small cubes and put them in a large bowl (you should have 4 or 5 cups of cubes). Mix 2 eggs into the bowl.

  1. When the sausage is browned, add it to the bowl along with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and 1/4 cup chicken stock. Mix well to combine; you want the bread to absorb the moisture.  If it needs more liquid, add up to another ¼ cup of stock.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter.

  1. After the turkey has roasted for 30 minutes, gently pack the stuffing on top of the breast to cover (it’s okay if some falls off). Drizzle on the melted butter and return to the oven to finish roasting for 15 minutes. It’s done when the turkey is firm to the touch, white or very pale pink inside, and 160º to 165ºF on an instant-read thermometer.
  1. When the turkey and stuffing are cooked, transfer it all to a cutting board, add 1/2 cup stock to the baking sheet, and stir to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom.
  1. Spoon off stuffing as you slice the turkey and divide stuffing and turkey among plates. Drizzle the juices from the baking sheet over all and serve.

Variations

5 Ways to Flavor Stuffing Cakes

Add any of the following to the sausage for the last few minutes of cooking:

  1. 1 tablespoon minced garlic, ginger, or chiles
  2. 2 teaspoons cumin, smoked paprika, or curry powder.
  3. 1 tablespoon chopped chipotles in adobo
  4. ¼ cup chopped scallions
  5.  ¼ cup chopped dried apples

 

Rosemary Newnham received an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University in 2008. She has worked with the Shoah Foundation, with the 9/11 Oral History archives at Columbia University, and with writing workshops for cancer patients. In 2011, she co-authored a book on prostate cancer recovery with a renowned urologist. Rosemary grew up a few blocks away from the famous Penn State University Creamery, and remains particularly fond of ice cream. She lives, cooks, and eats in New York City, with her husband, two children, and a cat named Fred.

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