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Wishbone U. helps challenged cooks survive Thanksgiving heat in the kitchen

TAMPA — Why can't Kim Ruark turn out a respectable, or even edible, meal? Let us count the ways.

Forgotten ingredients. Appliance challenges. A tendency not to follow directions. These are just three reasons why cupcakes bounce like baseballs, cookies are paper thin, and friends and family take cover when she operates the microwave oven

The New Port Richey woman can't cook. Or so she told us when she applied for the St. Petersburg Times' sixth annual Wishbone U. cooking boot camp.

"I am 25 years old and I think it's time I learn to cook a turkey," Ruark wrote. Or at least figure out how to prevent microwave detonations.

How could we deny her a place among the 12 eager classmates of all ages who gathered at Publix Super Markets' Apron's Cooking School in Citrus Park last month to learn the basics of preparing Thanksgiving dinner? Clearly she needed our help. And she wasn't alone. We were entertained and touched by the stories sent to the Times from readers who wanted to improve their skills.

Chefs Rich Norris and Scot Hill shared their expertise and recipes in the three-hour class that ended with the group eating dinner around a long table set with white tablecloth and cloth napkins. Just like the real deal, but this table of diners was buzzing with new hope that once back in their own kitchens, they too could make a meal fit for company.

The students ranged in age from 11 to 65. Some, like Ruark, pleaded ineptness in their application letters, others said they wanted to hone specific skills or lend a hand at home to the regular cook, and a few admitted to being just plain scared. After all, the turkey is big and the sides are many. How to get it all ready at the same time?

Take a deep breath, Chef Norris said. And don't try to make everything in one day. Some dishes can be made the day before and then heated after the turkey comes out of the oven. Heck, if you're making cranberry sauce from scratch (it can be done!), prepare it four days ahead.

Lisa Robbins, 35, of Tampa has to make Thanksgiving dinner this year. That was her promise to the family if she was accepted into Wishbone U. Now she's got to apron up.

In past years, all that she has been responsible for is reminding Mom to put out the cranberry sauce and then grabbing the other end of the wishbone. We certainly wish her luck this year.

Norris and Hill focused on techniques for roasted turkey, homemade gravy, mashed potatoes, roasted butternut squash and cranberry sauce. There was even ambrosia salad. It did start with Jell-O, and despite that much-maligned holiday staple, it was delicious. At the end of the class, the students were surprised how much was accomplished in less than three hours.

As always, the chefs' devil-may-care attitudes with salt and butter caused eyes to widen. The wincing expressions made it clear that some could feel their arteries narrowing as more butter went into the mashed potatoes and additional salt was sprinkled into the gravy. The chefs tried to assuage their fears.

"I don't worry so much about the salt that I put in dishes I make from scratch," Norris said. "I worry more about the salt that's in processed foods." Without salt, he said, the food is flat. It may look like a lot of salt when it's dropped dramatically from high above the pot, but it's likely only a teaspoon or two. Divide that by 12 diners, and individual intake is reduced considerably.

The butter? Well, Norris says, it is Thanksgiving, the annual holiday of indulgence.

Betty Hammond, 65, of Inverness came to Wishbone U. specifically to conquer mashed potatoes. Hers have always been gummy and not very flavorful. The chefs put her on gravy duty during class and she learned several lessons about making that perfect one-two Thanksgiving punch.

First, the gravy should cook on low for a while so that the flavors have time to develop and the flour is thoroughly cooked. The mashed potatoes? Use buttery Yukon Golds and always add heated milk and butter to the potatoes; save cold milk for drinking and cold butter for making pie crusts. Cooked potatoes absorb the warm ingredients more readily.

The mashed potatoes may have been the favorite dish of the class. Forget the hand mixer, which promotes over-mixing and can make the potatoes more appropriate for a craft project than dinner. Get an old-school hand masher and work your muscles, the students were told.

We had two mother-child teams this year. Jan Luongo, 44, and her daughter, Alyssa, 11, of Tampa tied on their aprons and bellied up to the cooking counter. For Alyssa, her first taste of butternut squash met with shocked delight for both daughter and mother. She liked it! She liked it?

Luongo's application caught our eyes with this simple statement: "While I thought I was cooking the turkey, I was actually cleaning the oven." That year, the appetizers were the main course.

Rosanne Hartman, 42, and her son, Christopher, 13, of St. Petersburg are big fans of the Food Network and want to get better at cooking at home on a budget. He's thinking of a career in the culinary field, and from Wishbone U. he carried away lessons in seasoning food. Don't be afraid of flavor, Norris told them.

Rounding out the class were students with desperate, touching or just plain funny stories. Among them:

• Meagan Brinkman, 24, of Hudson, who once took a nap while making chicken stock and woke up to a blaring fire alarm and an apartment full of smoke. She's got a "lifelong to-do list" and mastering Thanksgiving dinner is on it.

• Kim Richfield, 25, of Tampa wanted to put the "whipped cream on the pumpkin pie" by learning how to make the holiday feast. Her family is more than 1,000 miles away and a homemade turkey dinner would make her feel just a bit more connected.

• Linda Colon, 45, of Land O'Lakes has four daughters and a recipe box full of dishes from her native Puerto Rico. The basics of the traditional American Thanksgiving meal have eluded her. The last time she roasted a turkey, she cooked the plastic bag "right into the skin." That's taking crispy just a bit too far.

• Retired pilot Bob Kline, 59, of St. Petersburg is perfectly comfortable behind the controls of a 747 jetliner, but making a big holiday dinner is more daunting. Some of the better cooks in his life are dealing with health issues, so he's back in the captain's seat, in a slightly different capacity. He wants to be as comfortable in the kitchen as he was in the cockpit.

• And then there's Nicole Vickers, 28, of Largo. Nicole is in love. Big time. An amazing guy, her Andrew. He loves her, she says, in spite of her lousy cooking skills. Their romantic dinners consist of food out of bags and boxes. Work schedules will keep them away from family this year and she vows to tackle turkey for two.

"I want to look over to the couch and see my boyfriend softly snoring from a turkey tryptophan-induced slumber on Thanksgiving afternoon and know in that moment all is right in the world," she wrote.

Nicole, we hope your wish comes true. Wishbone U. has given you, and 11 others, the skills to make Thanksgiving dinner and hopefully the warm, fuzzy memories that go with it. If not, we'll see you in class next year.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.

What the chefs say

Apron's Cooking School head chef Rich Norris and sous chef Scot Hill shared their expertise with Wishbone U. students during a three-hour class Oct. 17. The following suggestions are helpful for novice and veteran cooks:

Cooking and equipment

• Trust your nose. When food smells done, it probably is.

• Parchment paper on baking sheets makes for easy cleanup. Parchment and wax paper are not interchangeable.

• Purchase an instant-read thermometer.

• Start potatoes in cold water so that they cook evenly.

• Overcooked potatoes won't absorb as much liquid. Return drained, cooked potatoes to the hot pot and momentarily let the steam escape. Dry potatoes will better absorb all that buttery liquid.

• Use coarse kosher salt. It is easy to overdo it with fine table salt. Salt as you cook so that the seasoning works its way into the food, otherwise you may oversalt at the end.

• Leftover heated milk and butter for mashed potatoes can be frozen for future use. Let it cool completely first.

• Keep nuts in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent spoilage. Watch carefully when toasting nuts. As soon as you can smell the aroma, they are done.

• Make sure that your roasting pan will fit in your oven.

Turkey tips

• When buying a turkey, figure 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per person. That way you'll have enough for soup and turkey sandwiches.

• Don't stuff the bird, which tends to lead to an overcooked bird.

• If you're roasting the turkey in an aluminum pan, double up for sturdy's sake. Also, the turkey should sit off the bottom, on a rack. Don't have one? Make a rack of whole carrots and celery stalks.

• Salt turkey before adding herbs. The salt draws out moisture and lets the herbs and other flavors penetrate.

• There is no need to wash the turkey and, in fact, that might spread bacteria around your kitchen. However, you should pat it dry, inside and out, with paper towels before seasoning. This facilitates even browning on the outside and allows seasonings to permeate better from the inside. Make sure you remove packets of giblets.

• The turkey is done when the internal temperature of the breast is 165 degrees and the legs and thighs are 180. Tent the breast with foil to keep it from overbrowning while the dark meat finishes cooking.

• Don't rush the turkey. It needs to rest at least 15 minutes after it comes out of the oven so that the juices can redistribute into the meat. If you carve it right away, the juices will run out, leaving the bird dry. A loosely tented turkey will stay warm for nearly an hour.

• Don't carve the turkey at the table unless you are supremely confident about your knife skills. Parade the burnished bird around the table and then whisk it back into the kitchen. Carving isn't always pretty.

The Wishbone U. Class of 2010


(Miss School Spirit)

Vital stats: 24, Hudson

What she learned: Don't be afraid of salt, and trust your nose.


(Class Sweetheart)

Vital stats: 28, Largo

What she learned: Trying new things is a good thing.


(Biggest Heart)

Vital stats: 65, Inverness

What she learned: Mashing potatoes by hand can lead to more creamy, less gummy, potatoes.


(Most Ambitious)

Vital stats: 35, Tampa

What she learned: Thanksgiving dinner doesn't have to be made all in one day.


(The Next Food Network Star)

Vital stats: 25, New Port Richey

What she learned: Heat the milk and melt butter before adding to the mashed potatoes.


(Most Studious)

Vital stats: 59, St. Petersburg

What he learned: Let the gravy cook slowly.


(Most Likely To Succeed)

Vital stats: 45, Land O'Lakes

What she learned: You don't have to flip the turkey during cooking.


(Most Likely To Blossom As a Cook)

Vital stats: 25, Tampa

What she learned: It's not as hard as it looks.


(Most Improved)

Vital Stats: 44, Tampa

What she learned: Add the stock to the roux to make the gravy rather than the other way around.


(Most Likely To Lend a Hand)

Vital stats: 11, Tampa

What she learned: "I tried butternut squash. And I liked it."


(Most Likely To Buy an Herb Chopper)

Vital Stats: 42, St. Petersburg

What she learned: Try to cook at home instead of going to Grandma's.


(Most Likely To Become a Chef)

Vital stats: 13, St. Petersburg

What he learned: Seasonings can make the difference, including grating fresh nutmeg into mashed potatoes.


(Teacher of the Year)

Vital stats: head chef, Apron's Cooking School, Publix


(Faculty Fry-Baby)

Vital stats: sous chef, Apron's Cooking School, Publix


Oven Roasted Turkey

1 turkey, 10 to 12 pounds

Carrots and celery stalks (necessary only if elevating the turkey)

1 bunch sage, divided use

2 large onions, halved

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

2 cups low-salt chicken broth (Optional, to use for basting if there isn't much pan juice)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Pat turkey dry, inside and out. Place turkey on small rack (or make a rack of carrots and celery stalks) and set in a large roasting pan. Fill main cavity with ½ bunch sage and onions. Mix oil, pepper, chopped thyme and 1 tablespoon chopped sage (save remaining sage for another use) in small bowl to form a paste; smear all over the turkey. Tuck wingtips under, and tie legs together loosely to hold shape.

Roast turkey for 1 hour, tenting breast loosely with foil if browning too quickly. Turn pan around; roast another 30 minutes. Baste with juices every 30 minutes until thermometer inserted in thickest part of thigh registers 180 degrees.

Transfer turkey to platter. Remove vegetables and herbs from main cavity and discard. Spoon any juices from cavity into roasting pan. Let turkey stand 30 minutes (internal temperature will increase 5 to 10 degrees). Serves 10 to 12.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix


Cranberry Orange Sauce

16 ounces fresh cranberries

Zest of 1 orange

½ cup sugar

½ cup orange juice

2 cinnamon sticks

Pick through the cranberries for any bad ones. Put all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and simmer until cranberries split and the sauce thickens somewhat. Place in the refrigerator to cool. It will thicken considerably after chilling; remove cinnamon sticks before serving.

Serves 8.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix


Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes

3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 stick of butter

1 to 2 pints heavy cream

Kosher salt and white pepper for seasoning

Place potatoes in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender (about 30 minutes). Place butter and cream in a small pot, bring to a simmer and remove from heat.

Drain potatoes, return to pan and let excess water evaporate. While the potatoes are still hot but dry, puree with a food mill or potato masher. Whisk in butter and cream, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix


Roasted Butternut Squash With Herbs

1 butternut squash, split and seeded

3 ounces olive oil

3 tablespoons sage leaves, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a bowl, mix olive oil, sage and salt and pepper, and rub on the flesh side of the squash. Roast the squash cut-side side down on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper until the skin starts to caramelize and a knife easily pierces the squash. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.

Remove the skin and mash squash. Add the butter and season to taste. Stir well.

Serves 4.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix


Homemade Turkey Gravy

1 quart turkey or chicken stock

2 cups turkey drippings

1/2 cup reserved turkey fat

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Remove turkey from roasting pan. Pour off pan drippings and reserve. Place the drippings in the refrigerator to cool so that the fat separates (or invest in a plastic fat separator that looks something like a measuring cup with a spout).

Place the roasting pan over medium heat and deglaze with 2 cups turkey or chicken stock, scraping the pan with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes. Add additional 2 cups of stock and heat through. Pour through a strainer and reserve.

Skim the fat from the reserved pan drippings. Add the defatted pan drippings to the stock.

Heat turkey fat in a large pot and stir in flour. Cook mixture (called a roux) over moderate heat, whisking, for 5 minutes. Add stock mixture in a stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps, then bring to a boil, whisking occasionally. Stir in any turkey juices accumulated on platter and simmer for 5 minutes. Season gravy with salt and pepper.

Makes about 1 quart.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix


Ambrosia Salad

1 (3-ounce) package orange-flavored gelatin

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup boiling water

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1 (11-ounce) can mandarin oranges, drained

1 (8.25-ounce) can crushed pineapple

1 cup flaked coconut

1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted

1 cup minimarshmallows

1 cup sour cream

Dissolve gelatin and sugar thoroughly in boiling water and chill until mixture starts to thicken. (To hasten setting, pour gelatin mixture into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish or another shallow pan.)

Whip heavy cream and confectioners' sugar into soft peaks. Fold partially set gelatin and other ingredients into whipped cream mixture. Pour into 9- by 13-inch pan and chill until firm. Cut into squares to serve.

Serves 12 to 15.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix

Wishbone U. helps challenged cooks survive Thanksgiving heat in the kitchen 11/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 7:58am]
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