Thanksgiving is hard enough. So why make life harder by overthinking the main dish?
This year, ditch the messy brines, the crazy deep-frying or the tedious smoking. Big, boldly flavored herb-and-spice rubs offer easy 5-minute solutions that give turkey (and, if you like, its side dishes) a powerful punch. Whether you prefer classic American or international accents, a seasoning rub will make your Thanksgiving cooking easier and more flavorful.
“Your big three are sage, thyme and rosemary,” says Laurie Harrsen, spokeswoman for McCormick & Company. “They work well together so you get a nice balanced flavor.”
For example, if you lean traditional, a couple tablespoons of dried sage, rosemary, thyme, a sprinkle of garlic powder and a big dash of salt and ground black pepper capture that classic taste. For color, you can add a pinch of paprika — sweet or smoked. For a bit of kick, try a hint of cayenne or mustard powder.
Whatever your combination, the method is the same. Combine all of your seasonings (any large leaves or whole spices should be well crumbled or ground) until evenly blended. Rub the inside and outside of your raw turkey with oil or melted butter, then rub the seasoning blend over both the inside and outside of the bird. For even better flavor, rub some of the mixture under the skin of the bird, too. Then simply roast as normal.
For a crunchy twist on the classic rub, combine those same herbs and spices with a cup of crumbled, day-old cornbread. Gently pat the mixture onto the turkey to create a golden crust. “It’s like you’re stuffing inside out,” Harrsen says. Just be sure to cover the bird with foil to avoid burning the crust.
While you’re at it, a sliced lemon or orange tossed into the cavity with a bay leaf and a quartered onion seasons the bird from the inside and creates richly-scented pan juices.
But let’s say you’re tired of eating like the Pilgrims. Go Asian. Pick a pre-made spice blend, such as Chinese five-spice powder, suggests cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, and amplify some of its flavors.
“Take star anis and toast it in a skillet, then grind it up,” she says. “Do the same with Sichuan peppercorns. Then add light brown sugar and soy sauce, and you’ve got a little rub.”
A sticky rub made by whirring shallots, garlic, lemon grass, fish sauce, brown sugar, soy sauce and black pepper in a mini-food processor also delivers Asian flavor that can stand up to turkey. Make sure to spread it under and over the skin. Tweak the pan juices with hoisin, sesame oil and rice wine or dry sherry for a Peking duck-like dipping sauce.
Nguyen suggests starting the stuffing with fully cooked, short-grain rice and adding scallions, garlic, cilantro, shiitake mushrooms, rice wine or sherry, and maybe a little Chinese sausage. A drizzle of sesame oil and a handful of fresh cilantro added just before serving brightens the flavors.
“Thanksgiving is a fun day to blend a lot of culinary traditions,” Nguyen says. “That’s what Thanksgiving is.”
If you’re feeling truly adventurous, delve into the flavors of North Africa. It’s unlikely you’ve got a turkey-sized tagine, but a blend of powdered ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric and black pepper mimics the classic Moroccan preparation.
The big flavors of schawarma — cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, sumac, black pepper and mahleb (crushed sour cherry pit) — also work well on turkey, says Aziz Osmani, an owner of the New York specialty food shop Kalustyan’s. Spike the pan juices with spicy harissa for some kick.
Start your stuffing with cooked couscous, and add chopped dates, toasted pine nuts, orange zest and a sprinkle of powdered cumin and coriander. Mash or roast your sweet potatoes with fresh orange juice and more zest. For a delicious shot of authenticity, drizzle the green beans with argan oil, a nutty, peppery oil made by pressing the almond-like fruit of Morocco’s thorny argan tree. Finish them with toasted almond slivers.
But if all you want is a fresh take on good old American food, try barbecued turkey — right in the oven.
Paul Kirk, a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, suggests starting with a half-cup of white sugar and a half-cup of brown sugar, massaged with a tablespoon of cornstarch to dry it out. Then play mix-and-match with your favorite flavored salts — seasoned salt, garlic salt, celery salt, onion salt — until you have 1 cup of them. Add a half-cup of paprika for color, a couple tablespoons of chili powder and an equal amount of black pepper.
“Those five ingredients are a basic rub,” Kirk says. Make it your own by adding a teaspoon of other flavors you enjoy, such as oregano, allspice, chipotle powder or lemon zest. And when it comes out? “Delicious,” he says. “Turkey with a slight smoked flavor.”