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One Gourmet Meal, All the Fixin's, Straight From the Box


As you plan your holiday gathering with family and friends, you’re recalling the wonderful experiences of previous years. But cooking the festive meal, which some consider the highlight of the celebration, may not be your fondest memory. Maybe spending a day in the kitchen is as stressful for you as a root canal.

There is an alternative, and it’s not making a dinner reservation for 24. Instead, you can order a precooked dinner from your local supermarket.

Imagine a roast turkey or baked ham. Mashed potatoes with gravy. Stuffing. Cranberry sauce. Sweet potatoes. Rolls. Dessert. All you have to do warm the courses before serving.

You’ll have a traditional menu on the table in a fraction of the time it takes to make it from scratch. However, you may feel a twinge of guilt – aren’t you supposed to work your culinary magic?

Maybe you’re like Missy Chase Lapine, who’s not comfortable unless she puts her own stamp on dinner.

That’s why “it’s fantastic to add your personal touch,” says Lapine, author of “The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals” (Running Press, 2007).

Decide what you want to leave to the supermarket’s culinary team and what you’d prefer to either prepare or embellish. 

For example, maybe you’d like to free yourself from baby-sitting a turkey for 6 hours. Many cooks consider the main protein intimidating and time-consuming, says Lapine. Let a supermarket assume the turkey-roasting task while you exercise your ingenuity with the side dishes.

“For some people it’s all about the bird. I think people need to be mindful of the things that come along the sides of the plate,” says Julie Jones, Ph.D., professor emeritus of foods and nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. 

If you’re only seeing white – stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls – ask for colorful enhancements or add your own.

Add the supermarket’s green beans, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and carrots to the order. Switch from white to whole-wheat rolls if you have the choice.

Always add your own fresh salad. It’s easy to do and will be a welcome addition for those who don’t want to fill up on starches.

“Buy a bag salad; add feta cheese, spinach and walnuts for crunch,” says Dee Sandquist, a registered dietitian spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Pick up raw prepared vegetables in bags; add a yogurt dip and you’re adding nutritional value to the meal, she adds.

Although packaged meals usually include a dessert classic, such as pumpkin pie or fruit cobbler, your guests will appreciate a fresh and light alternative. Offer sliced pears, drizzled with honey and walnuts, or vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt with thawed frozen blueberries.

Turkey, With a Twist

If the meal-in-a-box approach is too outside-the-box for the holiday main course, perhaps a new-look turkey is in order. Preparing a fancy turkey and buying pre-made side dishes will still save time, but also keep it very personal. Try this recipe for Orange and Maple Roasted Turkey, from the National Turkey Federation, which adds the traditional citrus and maple flavors of winter to the bird.  – Matthew M. F. Miller

Orange and Maple Roasted Turkey

Recipe Created By: Marc Van Steyn, executive chef, Rigsby’s Cuisine Volatile, Columbus, Ohio


1/2 cup sugar 

1/4 cup salt 

10 black peppercorns, whole 

1 medium orange, peeled and juiced 

1 gallon cold water 

1 12-pound whole turkey, fresh or thawed

1. Combine all ingredients, except turkey, in large pot and simmer over low heat for 1-½ hours. 

2. Chill brine in ice bath until cold. 

3. Place whole turkey into foodservice-safe grade container. 

4. Pour chilled brine over top to submerge. Close bag and cover. 

5. Marinate for 24 hours in the refrigerator. 

6. Remove turkey from brine, drain excess liquid.

Turkey Prep 

2 bay leaves 

2 sprigs fresh rosemary 

4 sprigs fresh thyme 

2 celery ribs, peeled, cut into 2-inch pieces 

2 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 2-inch pieces 

2 medium white onions, peeled, cut into 2-inch pieces 

1. Place herbs and vegetables in body cavity and secure.

Cooking Procedure 

1 pound unsalted butter, softened 

2 medium oranges, juiced 

1-1/2 teaspoons salt 

1/4 teaspoon pepper 

1/2 cup maple syrup 

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped 

1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped 

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1. Combine butter, orange juice, salt, pepper, maple syrup, rosemary, thyme and garlic in a large bowl. 

2. With fingers, slowly massage the compound butter into the skin of the turkey until well absorbed. 

3. Fold wings under the back of the turkey and return legs to the tucked position. Turkey may be cooked in a 325 F oven or on a rotisserie. 

4. If roasting in a thermal oven, cook on a rack for approximately 3 hours or until the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 170 F in the breast and 180 F in the thigh. 

5. If cooking by the rotisserie method, thread turkey evenly on the rotisserie-spit fork using a counterweight to achieve an even balance. Place a drip pan in the center of the grill beneath the area where the turkey juices will drip. Cook the turkey over indirect medium heat in a covered rotisserie. 

6. If cooking with charcoal, replenish briquettes with about 15 briquettes every hour, as needed, to maintain medium heat. Cook until the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 170 F in the breast and 180 F in the thigh (about 3 hours). 

7. Allow turkey to rest for about 15 minutes. Remove vegetables and herbs from the cavity prior to carving. Place slices on a platter and garnish with oranges.

Dressing Up the Menu

Think of a supermarket’s holiday meal as the plain white T-shirt. 

It covers the essentials, but with some adornment, it can be a knockout.

Accessories include nuts, herbs, olive oil, cheese, wine and/or spirits, honey and fruit.

Start with appetizers, the course that sets the tone.

Your simple but elegant opening gambit is fresh figs, stuffed with a little cheese, maybe Gorgonzola or Camembert, and wrapped in sliced prosciutto. You can heat it just until the cheese melts, says Julie Jones, Ph.D., who works with the California Fig Advisory Board.

Dinner rolls don’t have to be an afterthought, not if you follow a tip from Missy Chase Lapine, author of the upcoming book, “The Speedy Sneaky Chef.” “I always warm them, no matter what. It makes them taste better,” says Lapine. She recommends heating rolls in a conventional oven, not a microwave.

For another layer of flavor, brush the rolls with olive oil, sprinkle with a little coarse salt and chopped rosemary, before putting them in the oven. “It gives [the roll] a wonderful homemade taste,” adds Lapine.

Switch to an elegant fig and Port reduction in place of the gravy, suggests Jones.

If you prefer an easy approach using the gravy that comes with the prepared meal, you can enliven the flavor. Pour the gravy into a small saucepan. Add a generous pinch of minced fresh sage and a splash of dry vermouth. Simmer for 5 minutes, or until your company crowds the kitchen.

We all know nuts are delicious, but they’re even better after toasting. “If you’re serving nuts of any kind, toast them in a dry skillet for two to three minutes, adding a little rosemary,” says Lapine, who recommends herb-toasted nuts as an appetizer.

Although you may not expect guests to clamor for vegetables, you can change that. Stir minced chives into the mashed potatoes; drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over baked squash, sprinkle toasted nuts on green beans or broccoli and sprinkle Parmesan cheese on baked potato wedges.

Make Way For Turkey

The day before your festive meal your refrigerator is about to get very full.

Make sure you have room for the food. 

If the dishes you bring home are still hot from the supermarket, divide the items into smaller amounts and pack in separate covered containers for faster chilling in the refrigerator.  If the food was cooked and chilled at the store, place it in covered containers and refrigerate. 

Your supermarket may offer the option of a cooked, stuffed turkey. If that’s your choice you should buy it hot to eat immediately, according to the food safety experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Otherwise, purchase a cooked, unstuffed bird to reduce the risk food-borne illness.

To reheat a turkey, preheat the oven to 325 F. Place the bird in a shallow roasting pan. Add a small amount of chicken broth to keep the meat moist and lightly cover the bird with heavy-duty aluminum foil to prevent it from drying. 

Insert a meat thermometer into the thigh, not touching bone. When heated through the bird’s internal temperature should reach 165 F. 

To reheat a spiral-sliced baked ham, preheat the oven to 325 F. Place the meat in a shallow roasting pan, cover with heavy-duty aluminum foil and heat for about 10 minutes per pound of ham. A meat thermometer should read 165 F.

Heat vegetables and stuffing in covered containers either in a microwave or a conventional oven, using appropriate cookware. Soup and gravy can be heated in a microwave oven or on top of the stove over low heat.


For more information on heating and storing cooked turkey and stuffing and ham, visit the following web sites:




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