Don't settle for dull Thanksgiving gravy

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Just because Thanksgiving mostly is about tradition doesn't mean that we aren't open to going off script when it comes to side dishes and exactly how to cook the big bird.

But the gravy? It's where innovation goes to die! Generally, we're content to just pour some store-bought chicken broth, along with a little butter and flour, into the pan in which the turkey was roasted, then call it a day. In truth, I love a pan gravy as much as anyone, but you can make a much more exciting gravy with just a little more work.

We were taught in cooking school that your sauce will only be as good as the liquid you add to it. In the case of turkey gravy, that would be turkey broth. What can be done to amp up its flavor?

To start, you want to brown the turkey parts that have been packed inside the bird — the neck and the giblets (that is, the heart and the gizzards). Then, slice off the bird's wings — which nobody eats anyway — and add them to the other parts. (Do not add the liver; it will make the stock bitter. Instead, just reserve or freeze it until you can saute it in butter and serve it on toast. Yum!)

Browning these turkey parts, in the company of some carrots and onions, develops complex flavors. This is called the Maillard reaction. It's what happens when amino acids combined with the sugars found in meat and many vegetables are heated above 300 F. Concentrated juices from these ingredients will collect in the bottom of the pan as you brown them. When you deglaze the pan, you dissolve those juices and add them to the browned ingredients, further deepening the stock's flavor.

You may be surprised to find tomato paste among this recipe's ingredients, but tomatoes happen to be a terrific source of umami. Umami is the fifth taste, after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is usually described as "meaty." The carrots in the stock also contribute umami. Briefly sauteing the tomato paste in the skillet helps to brown it and develop its natural sugars.

Having cooked up your stock in a separate pan, you're eventually going to want to add to it the juices that streamed out of the turkey while it roasted and use the fat that accumulated in the pan while you basted the bird. Again, this is how you intensify the gravy's turkey flavor.

By the way, don't despair if your turkey is missing the happy little package of giblets and neck bone usually found inside the cavity; you'll still have the turkey wings. Just cut them off and supplement with some chicken wings. You'll need about eight ounces of poultry parts in total. Finally, I recommend making the turkey stock a day or two in advance of the feast. It will make the big day itself a little less stressful.

Bigger and better turkey gravy

Start to finish: 4 hours 15 minutes (35 minutes active)

Makes 5 cups

Ingredients:

The neck, wings and giblets (about 8-ounces total) from an 18- to 24-pound turkey

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 medium yellow onion, medium chopped

1 medium carrot, medium chopped

2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 tablespoon tomato paste

6 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

The drippings, 1/2 cup fat and pan juices from an 18- to 24-pound roasted turkey

Butter, melted (if there is not enough fat from the roast to make the gravy)

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons instant flour (such as Wondra)

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Directions:

Carefully chop the neck and wings into 1-inch pieces and pat them and the giblets dry. In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the turkey pieces and giblets, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the onion, carrot and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and add 1 cup of water to the skillet. Deglaze the pan over high heat, scraping up the brown bits with a spatula, until all the bits have been dissolved. Pour the mixture over the turkey parts in the saucepan. Add the chicken broth and 2 cups water to the saucepan.

Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, skimming the scum that rises to the surface with a skimmer or slotted spoon, until there is no more scum, 15 to 20 minutes. Add the celery, thyme and bay leaf, then simmer gently for 2 hours. Strain the stock through a colander, pressing hard on the solids. Discard the solids and measure the stock; you should have 4 cups. If you have more, return the liquid to the saucepan and simmer until it is reduced to 4 cups. If you have less, add water to the stock to make 4 cups. Cool, cover and chill until it is time to make the gravy.

When the turkey is cooked and resting on a platter, pour all the liquid in the roasting pan into a fat separator or large glass measuring cup. Pour or skim off the fat from the cup and reserve it; leave the cooking juices in the fat separator. You will need 1/2 cup of the fat for the gravy; if you don't have 1/2 cup, supplement with melted butter.

Set the roasting pan on top of 2 burners set over medium-low. Add the fat, followed by the flour. Whisk the mixture, preferably using a flat whisk, for 5 minutes. Add the reserved cooking juices from the roasting pan and two-thirds of the turkey stock. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking. If the gravy needs thinning, add more of the turkey stock and the juices that accumulated on the platter where the turkey has been resting.

Reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition information 1/4 cup: 70 calories; 50 calories from fat (71 percent of total calories); 6 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 5 mg cholesterol; 170 mg sodium; 4 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 1 g protein.

Mushroom gravy

Proceed with the master recipe up to the point of adding the fat to the roasting pan. Add half the fat and 1/3 cup minced shallots and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add 8 ounces of assorted sliced mushrooms and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are golden, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining fat and the flour and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add 1/3 cup dry sherry, Madeira or tawny port, or 1/2 cup red wine, (this is optional; you can leave the alcohol out) along with the reserved cooking juices and two-thirds of the turkey stock. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking. If the gravy needs thinning, add more of the turkey stock and the juices that accumulated on the platter where the turkey has been resting. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Mustard-herb gravy

Proceed with the master recipe up through the point of cooking the fat and flour for 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of dry white wine (this is optional; you can leave the alcohol out) along with the reserved cooking juices and two-thirds of the turkey stock. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking. If the gravy needs thinning, add more of the turkey stock and the juices that accumulated on the platter where the turkey has been resting. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Whisk in 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard and 2 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil, tarragon or sage. Season with salt and pepper.

Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks.


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