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Turkey Triage

A how-to guide for holiday emergencies

By Marina Wolf

DURING this festive season, you might fantasize about a chat with the experts. It would be more of a confrontation than a conversation. Waving a half-cooked turkey and an impossible guest list in their faces, you'd ask, "OK, wise guys, what would you do?"

Well, here's as close as you can get in print: a celebrity panel with a surprisingly down-to-earth attitude about holiday entertaining. Katie Brown, TV personality and author of Katie Brown Entertains (HarperCollins), stocks Diet Coke, mixed nuts, and Valium (hey, she made the joke, not me). Rick Rodgers, author of Thanksgiving 101 and Christmas 101 (Broadway Books) has been around the country and on TV teaching his holiday basics, but he has the same problems as everybody else, including parents who wouldn't listen to his grilling advice (nothing larger that 14 pounds on the grill) and ended up lighting on fire a turkey the size of a Volkswagen bug. And Barbara Kafka, who recently released Roasting (HarperCollins), brings years of experience to the table, but still found herself temporarily flummoxed with the dinner party from hell, which included one guest who kept kosher, one who couldn't eat anything with seeds, and one who was recovering from alcoholism.

So pull up a chair and let's get a taste of how the pros might handle some common holiday emergencies.

Your significant other's parents are meeting you for the first time, and you're hosting the dinner. What do you prepare?

Rick Rodgers: Call your mother-in-law and say, "Mom, will you please give me your favorite recipe for stuffing? I don't know what kind to make, and Jimmy loves your stuffing." Even better, have her teach you how to make the stuffing. Make it the family thing it's supposed to be.

Barbara Kafka: I think you have to know how good a cook you are. In other words, if you're a good cook you might go ahead and be a little more ambitious. If you're not such a good cook, do the safe thing. I wouldn't be extravagant for the first time, either. I think that sets a bad tone, like gee, she's going to bankrupt our son.

Katie Brown: First of all, don't do anything out of the ordinary. This is not the time to show off your skills. This is the time to go with classics. If you want to pop in one thing extraordinary, make sure it's a side dish and that it still has traditional components. I made turkey lasagna for my dad, and it didn't work.

Dinner hour has arrived, everybody's hungry, and you realize that you put the turkey in too late. It has at least two more hours to go. What do you do to keep everyone happy until then?

Kafka: I turn that oven up to 500 degrees. In about half to three-quarters of an hour, it'll be ready. This isn't a real disaster.

Rodgers: One solution is to cut the turkey in half through the rib cage--crosswise through the back--separating breast and wings from drumsticks and thighs(light from dark). Roast them separately and they'll cook faster. Then just prop them together and decorate with parsley. Next year you'll be joking about the time we had to cut the turkey in half.

Brown: I've been there, and it's miserable. Sometimes you can substitute side dishes or make them last longer. Put your soup course out, put out salad as second course, go into third course with a vegetable plate, and then just serve turkey with stuffing. Do anything, add more courses, get naked, light yourself on fire. The key is to never admit defeat. Because then people start to lose faith.

It's your turn to host the family dinner. What with other social obligations, you'll have about three hours to get ready on the day of the dinner. How would you make this happen with as little stress as possible?

Rodgers: There are three ways of doing it. One is to be superorganized and start way ahead of time, with three shopping lists and a visit to the express lane the day before the dinner. Another way is to have a potluck. But they get out of control because people never bring what they say they're going to bring. So I clip recipes, send them to the guests, and ask them to make two batches. Finally, this is what the gourmet departments are for. Buy everything you can from them, and concentrate just on the turkey and stuffing. People are so thrilled that they are invited to your house, they're relaxed and eating dinner off of china, so they're very slow to criticize.

Brown: First of all, I might order the turkey online or from the grocery store so that the only thing I had to worry about were side dishes. Keep it simple. For bread, I'd go right to the frozen food section and get Parker House rolls, put them out on a cookie sheet, slice them on the side, squirt in something like honey butter, pumpkin butter, and bake those. Buy premixed greens, toast some pecans, add dried cherries or cranberries, maybe even some orange slices and red onions, and store-bought ginger-soy dressing. Get pre-made pie crusts, canned pumpkin. I think you can do it all in three hours.

Kafka: It only takes 45 minutes to make a boned and rolled loin of pork or leg of lamb. Takes about the same time to make the potatoes, if you cut them in half. And anyway, remember that even if you want to make the turkey, by the time your guests sit and eat, if you give them enough first courses, you'll have enough time to get that turkey done. We tend to forget that these things take time to get done. Guests don't have to eat the instant they walk in.

It's Christmas day--or pick your major holiday--the cocktail hour before dinner. One of your guests shows up at the door with four strangers in tow. "I found out at the last minute that they were alone," says your friend. "I didn't think you'd mind." How would you handle the situation?

Kafka: First of all, I'd try to be gracious, hard though that may seem. I would want to be a lady about it. Rather than trying to stretch the food you have, you should just add something, a simple pasta or soup course. Again, you want to do things that are easy, because by this time it's late. Courses like this you can make in great quantity. Remember to sharpen your knife so you can slice the meat thinly. And then you can tell your friend afterwards, if she does it again, you'll kill her.

Brown: I always cook more than I should. I always plan for extra people. At least you'll have leftovers and you can make people to-go packets. If you didn't make enough, you can throw two or three more dishes together. Cut up some extra potatoes and roast them to go with the mashed potatoes. You can even heat up frozen vegetables, mix in some herbs, and melt some cheese over the top.

Rodgers: The smart cook is going to prepare for the worst-case scenario and make extra, because people get ruder and ruder every year. I had a friend ask once, the night before, if he could bring a friend. Two hours later he called back to tell me he's allergic to cheese and garlic. Oh, well! They'll get more green beans.

Triage Tips
Five things for the emergency kit

A good roasting pan, an expensive one that'll last forever. "They absorb heat to make great drippings, and they don't fold in half like aluminum." [Rodgers]

A plate of cookies and a bowl of mixed nuts. "When people come into the kitchen while you're working, you don't want them picking at you or your food." [Brown]

Smoked salmon "Everyone seems to like smoked salmon, especially if it's the good stuff." [Kafka]

Whatever drink keeps you going, to keep you grounded during a crisis. "I have Diet Coke; my mom drinks iced tea." [Brown]

Thermometers, both oven and instant-read meat types. "No one's oven is exactly what the dial says." [Rodgers]

Shake it Up
How to make the perfect martini

This recipe requires extra time for preparation but is well worth the effort. It serves two.

First, you'll need

Stainless steel cocktail shaker
Martini glasses--the larger the better
Shot glass
Gin--preferably Tanqueray
Vermouth--preferably Martini & Rossi Extra Dry
Fresh lemon
Quality cocktail olives

The day before:

Prepare fresh ice using bottled or distilled water.

Place ingredients in refrigerator; place glasses and shaker in freezer.

Strain olives; then bathe them overnight in vermouth.

Now you're ready

Coat the rim of each chilled glass with a lemon wedge.

Into your shaker add: 10 ice cubes, four gin shots, 1/4 shot vermouth.

Shake 40 times.

Strain into glasses, alternating between each.

Place one vermouth-drenched olive into each glass.

Optional:

Add a splash of cranberry juice or crème de menthe for holiday color. For one of the most exhaustive martini recipe sites on the Internet, check out The Martini List. And remember that perfection is a subjective experience, so feel free to experiment.

Then you might want to bid on a new liver on eBay.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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