GRAND GRAVY

Homemade gravy provides the perfect medium for reheating Thanksgiving leftovers.

Story and Photos by Katherine Larson

I was barely 20, shy and inept. I was spending my first Thanksgiving far from home and had been invited by a young man I’d been dating to come to his family’s meal.
What I did not expect was for him to disappear into the living room to join the uncles, the cigars, and the whiskey after dropping me off in the kitchen, where all the aunts were hard at work. And what I especially did not expect was to be told to make the gravy.
I had watched my father make turkey gravy before. He always made it right in the pan, after the turkey had been taken out for its pre-carving rest. I vaguely remembered watching him cook flour in the fat in the bottom of the pan, and then whisk in some broth.
But this pan looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. Instead of the fine brown glaze of drippings that I expected, I found liquid at least an inch deep, with a layer of some sort of fat floating on top.
Have I mentioned that none of the aunts spoke English?
Intimidated, I did not even attempt to ask questions. I took a scoop of plain flour and dumped it straight into the pan liquid, then stirred. Lumps. I added more flour; more lumps. I tried boiling everything. The lumps clumped into an amorphous blob…
We drop a merciful curtain over this unhappy scene.
Gravy is, for me, the apex of the Thanksgiving meal. Well-made, it pulls together the disparate parts of the meal into a harmonious whole. Well-made, it adds moisture and flavor to any dish that might not have turned out quite perfect, while enhancing all that succeeded. Well-made, it provides a versatile, useful, delectable leftover.
But first you have to make it well.
I feel particularly qualified to write about this topic because, starting with that memorable Thanksgiving with the stone-faced aunts, I have made most of the mistakes it is possible to make with gravy.
My first and biggest mistake was trying to make gravy from scratch right in the pan. Sure, sometimes it works. But if you try it you are completely dependent on everything going just right, from the perfect quality of drippings—not too much fat, not too much liquid, no bits of stuffing that fell out when the turkey started cooking hours ago and now sit there, indigestible bits of charred matter ready to impart an unpleasant burned flavor to the gravy. Moreover, you are working without a safety net: in less than half an hour the turkey will be ready to carve, all the rest of the complex meal will be rising to its climax, and you will still be there in your greasy apron frantically stirring…

No, no, no.
Begin your gravy days or weeks or months before, when you make your own chicken or turkey broth. It’s easy and economical: at the most basic, just toss the bones into a freezer bag after every chicken dinner for a few months, and when the bag is full place the contents into your stock pot with a lot of water and simmer for hours. Strain it, and there you are: a fine simple broth. It will last for days in the refrigerator or months in the freezer.
Then, perhaps the day before Thanksgiving or during a peaceful early-morning interlude before the frenzy of potato-mashing gets under way, enrich the simple broth. Oh, it was good enough before, but nowhere near good enough for the high august purposes of Thanksgiving gravy. I know; I’ve made that mistake too.
So whether you are starting with your own simple broth or using commercially-prepared broth, improve it. You want aromatics in there: an onion, a carrot, a celery stalk, a few sprigs of parsley, some garlic. You want herbs and spices: a bay leaf, a bit of thyme, a sprinkle of salt, a whole clove or two. You want several dozen whole peppercorns to impart their subtle undertones of warmth.
You also want a good rich color and some extra meatiness. So take the neck out of your turkey and put it in an oiled pie pan with a halved onion, cut side down. Don’t bother peeling the onion. Put the pan in the oven—ideally 400 degrees, but if the turkey’s already in the oven just make do with whatever temperature is available. In half an hour or so, the neck and the onion should have achieved a pleasant degree of browning. Plop them into about six cups of broth with all those aromatics and herbs and peppercorns and let everything simmer together for an hour or two.

Why did we refrain from peeling the onion? Look at the stock. See that lovely brown color? Thanks, onion skin!
After the stock is duly enriched, strain it out. Into a bowl or pot, please. Do not pour the stock through the strainer and down the drain; yes, I’ve made that mistake too.
Many people, including me, like to fork the now-tender meat off the neck and chop it up to add to the gravy later, along with the turkey liver and heart that we minced up fine and sautéed in a little butter with salt and pepper. For now, set that aside. Everything else in the strainer can be discarded.
At this point we are still hours before T-time, still in the afternoon of Thanksgiving Eve or those peaceful early morning hours of the celebratory day. There’s one more step to take at this preliminary stage: thickening the gravy.
Yes, now. We won’t use that pesky turkey pan for this purpose. It’s unreliable, and also the thickening stage can take an unexpectedly long time. Again, I’ve made that mistake.
To thicken about five or six cups of stock, you need—gasp!—a whole stick of butter. I didn’t believe it either, until I tried to make do with less; another mistake. And, to go with that whole stick of butter, a full half-cup of flour.
In a clean pot, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour. And whisk, and whisk, and whisk, and whisk, over a medium-low flame, until you’ve achieved a nice roux with a bit of color to it.
Not too dark, or it will taste burned. Not too light, or it will taste floury. Just right, the Goldilocks roux has a pleasant tinge of color. I used to think I could achieve decent gravy by cooking the roux for only few moments. I was wrong. It takes a bare minimum of five minutes, and last Thanksgiving (I was timing myself, anticipating writing this article) it took eighteen.

 

Make certain to whisk your stock slowly into the roux, or lumps will inevitably ensue.

But it was so worth it! Because when I slowly whisked in the waiting stock, it thickened up most beautifully—silken, without a single lump.
I realize that I’ve glided over another mistake from past years. Please don’t try to dump all the stock into the roux all at once. Lumps will inevitably ensue. Drizzle in a bit of stock and whisk it in, then a bit more and whisk that, then a bit more and whisk that… When it’s all in the pan, let it all cook together for a few minutes, whisking periodically to make sure that nothing burns on the bottom. This is the time to add in those set-aside bits of turkey neck, liver, and heart too.
Okay, that’s it. The foundation of the gravy is done. Even if the turkey itself proves a disaster, this gravy will be perfectly delicious. You can—and hopefully will—still improve it, but you’re in great shape. If dinner will be eaten within a few hours, just put a lid on the pot and place it in some unused corner of the kitchen. If dinner isn’t until tomorrow, refrigerate the pot and take it out an hour or two before it will be needed.
When it will be needed is when the turkey emerges from the oven, so as that time approaches you’ll want to begin gently to heat the gravy up again. And, importantly, to stir it periodically to make sure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan and burns; yes, I’ve made that mistake too.
Remove the turkey rack, with turkey upon it, from the roasting pan and set it aside for its half-hour rest. Now look in that pan. What do you see?
Lots and lots of watery slime, as I saw so many years ago? Yuck! Stick with the gravy that you’ve already made.
Charcoaled bits of stuffing marring a lovely brown glaze on the bottom? Lift them out and then use the glaze.
Lots of fat, but a lovely brown glaze on the bottom? Pour off all the extra fat (not down the drain, that’s why plumbers work hard on Thanksgiving), and then use the glaze.
A beautiful glaze but very salty? Nope. If you wet-brined your turkey, the drippings are too salty for gravy. (Drippings from a dry-brined turkey don’t present this problem.) Good thing you made good gravy already; it’ll work fine as is.
Just plain lovely brown glaze? Hooray! Place the roasting pan across a couple of burners on the stove. Turn those burners to medium high, and pour in some wine.
What kind of wine? To begin with, nothing labeled “cooking wine”; it’s inedible and will spoil anything it touches. The wine should be good enough to drink but doesn’t need to be at all fancy. I have done just fine with those little bottles of a California bulk wine that typically can be found, 10 for $10, in the grocery store as Thanksgiving nears. For this purpose, one of those little bottles—about three quarters of a cup—will suffice.
Red or white? For me, red is a mistake; I don’t like the purple tinge that it imparts to the gravy. Also, cheap red tastes worse than cheap white, and I’d rather save the better red to enjoy in a glass. Sweet wine, of either color, would be even more of a mistake. An uncomplicated Pinot Grigio will do nicely.
As the wine boils, scrape the pan vigorously. The lovely brown glaze will melt into the wine, the alcohol will boil away, and what you have left will be chock-full of rich flavor. Whisk these drippings straight into the waiting gravy to levitate it from perfectly delicious to perfectly sublime.
Give thanks.

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