Frugal feast: How to stretch your Thanksgiving dollar

How to stretch your Thanksgiving dollar

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comNovember 13, 2012 

  • The Thanksgiving basics How much turkey: As a rule of thumb, figure 1 pound per person. But if you want leftovers, go up a little more. A 12-pound turkey is about right for 8 people. Thawing: The safest method is to place it on a tray in the refrigerator and leave 24 hours for every 4 pounds; a 12-pound turkey will take three to four days. If you have less time, completely submerge the wrapped turkey in cold water. Allow 30 minutes per pound, and check regularly to make sure the water is cold. Check the cavity: Make sure you remove the turkey neck and the bag of giblets inside the bird. If you forget, however, you can remove them after the turkey is cooking. The bag is food-grade plastic. Get a thermometer. The pop-up indicators that come in some turkeys aren’t reliable. Use an instant-read thermometer or a meat thermometer, inserted in the thickest part of the thigh pointing toward the body. Wiggle the tip to make sure it isn’t hitting bone. Cook the turkey until it registers 165 degrees. • Remember the rules for safe food handling: Don’t put cooked food on a surface that held raw food unless you wash the surface with hot, soapy water. Don’t let cooked food remain at room temperature for more than two hours. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly. Kathleen Purvis
  • 8 tips for pennywise pilgrims • Cook from scratch. Convenience comes at a cost. Your money usually goes further if you make things yourself. Bread crumbs, cornbread, pie crusts and chicken stock are particularly worth making. • Eat seasonally. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival. Things that are in season will fit the menu and also be the most affordable. • Plan carefully and use leftovers well. Don’t buy more than you need and don’t buy anything that won’t get used up on Thanksgiving or soon after. • Shop wisely. Spread out your shopping so your budget doesn’t take a big hit all at once. Stores plan a lot of specials to get you in the door. Take advantage of those and stock up. • Dried herbs and spices are often cheaper from the bulk bins. • Spread the menu among volunteers. Let everyone pitch in to bring something. • Save your vegetable trimmings, even celery leaves, onion ends and carrot scrapings, to use when you make soup stock. • Don’t buy Grade A maple syrup for cooking. Grade B usually costs less and brings more flavor to dishes. Don’t replace maple syrup with pancake syrup, though – it’s too thin for most recipes. Kathleen Purvis
  • Dry-Brined Roasted Turkey and Stock Adapted from “Fine Cooking Thanksgiving Cookbook,” from the editors of Fine Cooking magazine (Taunton, $12.95). Dry brining adds flavor and helps to make the skin crisp, but isn’t as difficult as wet-brining. 1 10- to 12-pound turkey 1/4 cup kosher salt 2 medium to large yellow onions, unpeeled and cut in eighths 2 medium carrots, unpeeled and cut in 1-inch chunks 2 medium ribs celery, cut in 1-inch chunks 1 1/2 cups water Stock: 2 tablespoons vegetable oil Turkey carcass (bones, wings, skin and any trimmings) 1 large onion, unpeeled, halved 2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped 1 large carrot, coarsely chopped 1/4 cup brandy 1 (1-inch) chunk fresh ginger, peeled and sliced 1 bay leaf 1 large sprig fresh thyme 10 black peppercorns REMOVE neck and giblets from the turkey and cut off the tail if attached. Reserve them for making broth for gravy. Rinse the turkey well and pat dry. Sprinkle the salt all over the turkey, starting on the back, then the cavity and the breast. Put the turkey on a wire rack set over a rimmed pan, such as a jellyroll pan, and refrigerate, uncovered, overnight. REMOVE the turkey from the refrigerator one hour before roasting and let stand at room temperature. Fifteen to 20 minutes before roasting, position a rack in the lowest part of the oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Put half the onions, carrots and celery in the turkey cavity. Tie the legs with kitchen twine. Tuck the wings behind the neck. Scatter the remaining onions, carrots and celery in a large roasting pan with a V-rack. Place the turkey, breast down, on the rack. ROAST for 30 minutes. Pour 1 cup of the water into the roasting pan and roast 30 minutes longer. Remove the turkey from the oven and close the oven door. Using wads of paper towels or a turkey lifter, carefully turn the turkey breast-up. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water to the roasting pan. RETURN the turkey to the oven and roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 170 degrees and the juices run clear, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Transfer the turkey to a carving board or platter, tent with foil and let rest at least 45 minutes and up to 1 hour before carving. Add turkey broth to the roasting pan to scrape up browned bits and use the liquid for gravy. ROASTED TURKEY STOCK: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 425 degrees. Pour the oil into the clean roasting pan. Break or chop the turkey carcass into three or four pieces and put it in the pan with onion, celery and carrot. Roast for 30 minutes, stirring two or three times. Transfer carcass and vegetables to a large stockpot. POUR off and discard any fat from the roasting pan. Place the roasting pan over medium heat and add brandy. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the browned bits. Pour the drippings into the stockpot. ADD the ginger, bay leaf, thyme and peppercorns to the pot. Add 12 cups cold water (or enough to almost cover the turkey pieces). Bring to a simmer, skim any foam from the top, then reduce heat to a very slow simmer. Simmer 2 hours. STRAIN into a large bowl, cool and refrigerate overnight. Skim the fat from the surface and measure the stock into freezer containers and freeze until needed. YIELD: 10 servings for turkey, about 9 cups for stock.
  • Green Bean Casserole With Crunchy Potato Peel Topping Price per serving: 82 cents (not including sage and paprika). Yes, you can put even the potato peels to work, replacing those canned onions. And green bean casserole from scratch is much better than using canned soup. Adapted from and Food Network magazine. 2 pounds green beans, stem ends trimmed, broken into 2 or 3 pieces Peels from 4 to 5 Yukon Gold potatoes 2 tablespoons chopped or rubbed sage Large pinch of paprika 4 teaspoons olive oil 2 slices bacon, diced 1/2 large onion, diced 4 tablespoons butter 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour 2 cups milk 1/2 cup half-and-half Salt and pepper to taste 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper BRING a pot of water to boil and add a steamer insert. Place a bowl of ice water nearby. Add the green beans, cover and steam 3 to 4 minutes, until crisp-tender. Drop into ice water. Remove green beans with a slotted spoon, drain and roll in paper towels. Set aside. (Green beans can be refrigerated up to 2 days in advance.) PLACE several potato peels flat on a cutting board. Cut into very thin strands, about 1/8 to 1/16 inch wide. Keep cutting until you have about 1 1/2 cups of strands. Toss with sage, paprika, olive oil and salt and pepper. SPREAD peels on a nonstick baking sheet (or line it with parchment paper or nonstick foil). Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes, until crisp. Cool and set aside. (Can be made several hours in advance.) FRY bacon in a large nonstick skillet. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel to drain. Add the onion to the skillet, cooking several minutes, until softened. Remove and add to bacon. Wipe out skillet. ADD butter to the skillet and heat until melted. Whisk in the flour and cook a couple of minutes, until just starting to brown. WHISK in the milk and half-and-half. Increase heat to medium-high and cook until sauce is bubbling and thickened. Remove from heat. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika. Stir in the green beans, onions and bacon. Pour into a 2-quart casserole dish. BAKE at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with potato peels and cook 5 minutes longer. YIELD: 8 servings.
  • Sweet Potato Coconut Casserole Price per serving: 62 cents . Adapted from Everyday Cooking. 2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes (5 or 6), peeled and diced 1 tablespoon salt 3/4 cup canned coconut milk (see note) 1 teaspoon grated lime zest, divided 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice 1/2 cup frozen grated coconut, thawed PLACE sweet potatoes in a large pot and cover with water and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 10 to 12 minutes, until fork-tender. Drain well. BEAT with an electric mixer or process in a food processor until smooth. Beat in coconut milk, 1/2 teaspoon lime zest and lime juice. Process until combined. Transfer to a 2-quart baking dish. TOSS together coconut and 1/2 teaspoon lime zest. Sprinkle on top of the sweet potatoes. Bake at 375 degrees until golden, about 15 minutes. NOTE: Canned coconut milk tends to separate. When you open the can, stir it well. Pour leftover coconut milk into an airtight container and refrigerate several days. Try adding it to turkey soup or mixing it with water to make rice. YIELD: 8 servings.
  • Dressing-Stuffed Acorn Squash Price per serving: $2.28 (not including sage). You get two dishes in one, and neither is very expensive. 4 medium acorn squash 4 tablespoons butter, divided 8 tablespoons maple syrup, preferably Grade B 1 loaf French, Italian or sourdough bread 1 (16-ounce) package bulk sausage 1 tablespoon olive oil 1/2 onion, diced (about 1/2 cup) 1 stalk celery, diced (about 1/4 cup) 2 eggs 1 cup turkey broth or chicken broth 1 tablespoon rubbed sage 1/2 cup dried cranberries PIERCE skins of squash with a fork and microwave each one about 2 minutes, to soften the skin a little and make it easier to cut them. Cut each one in half. Scoop out the seeds and scrape the cavities clean. CUT 3 tablespoons butter into cubes and place a cube in the cavity of each squash along with 1 tablespoon maple syrup. Either microwave the squash halves (working in batches) for 5 to 8 minutes, or place them all in a baking dish and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees, until just fork tender. Poke the insides with a fork several times and let stand until needed. (Can be made several hours ahead.) CUT the bread into 1-inch slices, then cut each slice into 1-inch cubes. Spread on a baking sheet and place in a 325-degree oven for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until bread is dried. CRUMBLE and brown the sausage in a skillet. Drain well and set aside. Place 1 tablespoon oil in skillet and saute the onion and celery until just softened, about 5 minutes. PLACE dried bread crumbs, sausage, celery, onion and dried cranberries in a large mixing bowl. Add eggs and broth and stir to mix well. Season with sage and add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the dried cranberries. PILE dressing mixture into the cavities of the squash, dividing evenly. Place the squash halves in a pan large enough to hold them all. Brush the cut edges of the squash with the remaining butter. BAKE in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until dressing is crisp on top and everything is heated through. YIELD: 8 servings.
  • Pommes Mont D’Or Per serving: 83 cents. The mustard-flavored mashed potatoes from “Basic to Brilliant, Y’All,” by Virginia Willis, makes a rich casserole that tastes just a little different – at a very low cost. 2 pounds (4 to 6) Yukon Gold potatoes Salt 1 1/3 cups nonfat or low-fat milk 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter 1/4 cup coarse-grain Dijon mustard 3 eggs, lightly beaten 1 ounce (1/4 cup) grated Gruyere cheese PEEL potatoes as thinly as possible with a vegetable peeler. (Set peelings aside if using for the crunchy potato-peel topping on the green bean casserole.) Cut potatoes into chunks and place in a large, heavy saucepan. Cover with cold water and add about 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, decrease heat to low and simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 25 minutes. COMBINE milk, butter and mustard in a small saucepan over low heat while the potatoes are cooking. Cook until the butter is melted; cover and keep warm. DRAIN the potatoes in a colander and return to the saucepan over medium heat. Place over low heat, stirring and tossing a little, to dry them out so they’re not watery when mashed. Remove from heat. Pass the potatoes through a ricer or food mill, or mash with a potato masher. ADD the warm milk a little at a time, stirring vigorously, until well-combined but not too loose. PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Grease a gratin dish or 1 1/2-quart baking dish with 1 tablespoon unsalted butter. Cool the potato mixture a little, then whisk in eggs. Pour into the prepared dish and smooth top. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated Gruyere and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Cool slightly before serving. YIELD: 6 servings.
  • All-Purpose Pie Dough Price per serving: 8 cents (not including cider vinegar). Adapted from “Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well,” by New York Times writer Sam Sifton (Random House, $18). Double for a two-crust pie. 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening, cold 1 pinch kosher salt Yolk of 1 egg, beaten (save the egg white for brushing on a top crust or add it to dressing) 1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar 1/2 cup ice water BLEND together the flour, butter, shortening and fat with your fingertips or a pastry cutter, or pulse in a food processor. Work in the fats until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. There would be pebbles of butter throughout. PLACE the ice and enough water to make 1/2 cup in a measuring cup. Stir in the egg yolk and vinegar. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of this mixture over the dough and gently stir or pulse to combine. Gather a golf-ball-size bit of dough and squeeze to combine. If it doesn’t hold together, add a little more liquid and stir or pulse, then check again. TURN the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a rough ball. Divide the ball in half with a knife or pastry scraper, then divide each portion in half again, to create four portions. Using the heel of your hand, flatten each portion once or twice to expand the pebbles of butter, then gather the dough together again in one ball. FLATTEN the ball into a 5- or 6-inch disc and dust lightly with flour. Wrap disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 60 minutes. ROLL out on a floured surface into a circle wide enough to fit your pie plate. Place in the plate, easing down into the bottom, then crimp the edges. If baking before filling, place in the freezer for 15 minutes while you heat the oven to 425 degrees. Place a sheet of foil in the bottom of the pie, then fill with pie weights or dried beans. (Make sure they’re pushed toward the edges, to keep the sides from shrinking into the pie plate). BAKE 15 minutes, then remove the foil and weights and bake 5 minutes longer, until the dough is dry and the edges are just beginning to brown. YIELD: 1 9-inch crust (8 servings).
  • Cranberry-Lime Relish Per serving: 94 cents. Adapted from a recipe by chef Jacques Pepin. 1 lime 1 (12-ounce) bag package fresh cranberries 1 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper CUT the lime lengthwise into quarters, then slice three of the quarters into thin triangular slices. Rinse the cranberries in a colander and pick through to discard any that feel squishy. COMBINE lime slices, cranberries, maple syrup and cayenne in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Mix well, cover again and reduce heat to medium. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, just until the cranberries have popped. SERVE at room temperature, garnished with remaining slices of lime. Can be made up to 48 hours in advance and refrigerated. Let come to room temperature before serving. YIELD: 2 1/2 cups, or 8 servings.
  • About this series Throughout this year, we’ve offered techniques, tricks and thinking to help you get the most for your food dollar.
  • Peanut Pie Price per serving (filling): 89 cents. A poor crop last year in Texas, the nation’s second-largest source of pecans, has sent pecan prices much higher this year. But Georgia’s other nut, the peanut, is having a big harvest, making them more affordable. 1 prebaked pie crust (see recipe) 2 cups salted peanuts 3 large eggs 2/3 cup sugar 1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 1 1/4 cups light corn syrup 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted Whipped cream (optional) PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Spread the peanuts on a work surface and lightly crush with a rolling pin or mallet. BEAT the eggs; whisk in the sugar, brown sugar, flour, corn syrup and melted butter. Mix until completely combined. Fold in the peanuts. POUR the filling into the baked crust. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until the pie is golden brown and set around the edges, but still a little jiggly in the center. (If the crust gets too dark, tent the edges with a pie shield or foil.) COOL to room temperature and serve with whipped cream, if desired. YIELD: 8 servings.

Thanksgiving dinner is inching closer to 50 bucks every year.

That would be the average price of a traditional meal for 10 – 16-pound turkey, green peas, sweet potatoes, dressing, rolls, cranberries, a gallon of milk, pumpkin pie filling, pie shells and whipped cream.

When the American Farm Bureau Federation started tracking the price in 1986, the average cost was $28.74. This year, it hit $49.48, up 28 cents from last year’s $49.20.

Of course, that’s a pretty basic meal. Add in the appetizers, maybe a few bottles of wine and a couple of desserts and the real cost climbs a lot higher. That’s especially true this year. Between the cost of living and a Midwest drought, the price of food has either crept up or leapt up, depending on where you look on your food bill.

This year, we’ve tried to help a little with our series on frugal cooking. We’ve talked to home economics teachers, food writers, restaurant owners and economic advisers on how to save a little here and there.

To wrap it up, we decided to see how bargain-minded we could get about the biggest meal of all. At about $50 for eight servings, not including a turkey, it is higher than that national average. But it has more to offer. It is a time of celebration, and we all want the meal to be special. There are ways, though, that we can keep costs in line.

Planning ahead is the best tool, said Erin Huffstetler. A mother of two in east Tennessee, Huffstetler runs the Frugal Living section of the website She’s also a champion corner-cutter who writes for several bargain-focused websites and magazines.

“I’m always mindful of the cost of things,” she says. “For Thanksgiving, I do a lot of the cooking from scratch. We think it’s a hard thing to do. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to be.”

If you plan ahead, she says, it’s easier to find time to do things like make the dough for pie crust and sock it away in the freezer.

Her favorite pick for the most affordable thing on the Thanksgiving menu? Cranberry sauce, since bags of fresh cranberries are often selling at deep discounts.

“I would totally recommend everybody give homemade cranberry sauce a shot. It’s the simplest thing – cranberries, sugar and water or orange juice. It takes 3 minutes and it’s so much better than the canned stuff.”

Of course, not everything from scratch is the best deal at Thanksgiving. Stores run so many specials, it’s worth weighing your time and your expectation against the sale prices. While fresh, farm-raised or all-natural turkeys usually sell for higher prices, many stores offer deep discounts on frozen turkeys. The national average, according to the American Farm Bureau, is $1.39 a pound this year. It’s up to you to decide which is worth it for you.

Even if you choose a higher-priced turkey, though, you can bring down the cost by making sure you use every bit of it. Remove the meat right after the Thanksgiving meal and split it into packages for sandwiches, casseroles or salads. Within a day, send the picked-over bones, skin and trimmings to the stockpot, to yield enough broth for several meals.

For Huffstetler, the real trick to keeping down the cost of Thanksgiving is making things yourself. We asked her to finish the sentence “Don’t bother to buy ...”

“Pie crust,” she said, firmly. “People think that’s a hard thing to make. It’s not, and you can make it now and put the dough in the freezer.

“Don’t bother to buy boxed stuffing mix. It’s very, very basic ingredients. Don’t bother to buy the seasonal spices – apple pie spice, pumpkin pie spice, poultry seasoning. We assume those are special things, but they’re all just a mix of things you probably already have in your spice rack.”

Even though it appears the economy is improving a little, Huffstetler thinks the bargain-living habits many people have developed lately aren’t just a passing fad.

“When I go to the store, I see shelves being clear of whatever the deal was that week (on couponing websites). It will be interesting to see if this is now more of a habit for people.”

Editor’s note: For the estimated price-per-serving on our dishes, we used prices from a local Harris Teeter with no sales or coupons. We omitted salt and pepper and some herbs that were too small to estimate accurately. We did not estimate the price per serving for turkey because prices and number of servings, including stock, vary widely.

Purvis: 704-358-5236 Editor’s note: For the estimated price-per-serving on our dishes, we used prices from a local Harris Teeter with no sales or coupons. We omitted salt and pepper and some herbs that were too small to estimate accurately. We did not estimate the price per serving for turkey because prices and number of servings, including stock, vary widely.

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