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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Executive Chef Offers Best Tips for Thanksgiving Meal Prep

By Jon Cawley

While Thanksgiving may be the king of eating holidays - stuffed with turkey, dressing and other delights - it comes with a steep price for many, in terms of time and effort put into preparation.

That's not all. Because the typical holiday spread is outside the norm for most cooks, the meal can also be marred by food-related illness if not prepared correctly.

To help ensure a safe and healthy Thanksgiving for the Monarch community, Old Dominion University Executive Chef Robert "Bob" Patton, drawing on his extensive culinary background, shared his best advice for preparing the holiday meal.

Planning and execution should be realistic and in tune with guest preferences.

"If you're a novice, keep it simple; if more experienced, go out on a limb a bit," he said. "If your guest expects a traditional feast, then don't disappoint because you want to get creative; however, if your guests expect lavender honey-glazed turkey, then by all means."

Chef Patton advised: Keep safe food handling in mind, always. Wash your hands often, and keep cold food cold and hot food hot.

When shopping, a good rule of thumb is to buy one pound of turkey for each person, or a pound and a half per person if you want to have leftovers.

For the best results, Chef Patton recommended:

  • Create a natural roasting rack for your turkey by layering carrots, onions and celery on the bottom of the roasting pan. Lifting the turkey off the base of the pan helps increase hot air circulation around the whole bird so that it will get crispy all over. And the vegetables add great flavor to the gravy.
  • Brining is a sure-fire way to serve a moist and flavorful turkey. A typical brining solution contains water, salt, sugar and a variety of spices and aromatics. Just be sure to follow a trusted recipe so you get the right proportion of each.
  • Chances are the Thanksgivings of your childhood featured a stuffing cooked in the cavity of the turkey. Better to cook the stuffing in a separate pan. Cooking the stuffing in the turkey can provide fertile ground for harmful bacteria. In addition, a stuffed turkey will take longer to cook, which could result in drier white meat. Instead, loosely fill the turkey with aromatics such as onions and herbs, and cook the stuffing separately.
  • To help ensure that poultry cooks evenly, many professional cooks like to truss their birds, which is just a fancy term for tying them up. While it's not necessary to produce a terrific turkey, it can be fun to show off your culinary skills at home. Simply tuck the wings of the turkey under the body and tie the legs together with kitchen string to create a tight package.
  • Before putting the turkey in the oven, make sure the skin is as dry as possible, and then rub it all over with butter or oil. For even moister meat, place pats of butter under the skin.
  • Basting means more oven-door opening, resulting in temperature fluctuations that can dry out your bird. Keep your turkey moist by brining it or by rubbing it all over with butter or oil. You might also try covering it with foil for the first 75 percent of the cooking time and uncover to brown for the last quarter.
  • Check for doneness by inserting an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey, around the thigh, avoiding the bone. At 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it's done. The turkey will continue to cook as it rests, so the temperature should rise an additional 10 degrees or so when it's out of the oven.
  • To lock in juices, tent your turkey with foil and let it rest for at least 15 to 20 minutes before carving, longer for a larger bird. Be sure you don't cover the turkey too tightly as you don't want the bird to steam under the foil.

Finally, Chef Patton said not to let the actual enjoyment of the meal get lost in process. And don't forget the leftovers.

"Before you take that post-meal nap, be sure to properly refrigerate your leftovers so you can safely enjoy them the next day," he said.

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