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Thanksgiving // PLAIN AND SIMPLE

If Thanksgiving is stuffed with too many expectations, a little strategic rethinking will let you enjoy the holiday again.

Just as modern experts urge cooking the dressing outside the turkey, you can trim other outmoded traditions to help lighten the burden.

Stick to basics of turkey, dressing and cranberries. They're once-a-year treats but not that difficult and will fill your plates and kitchen happily.

Besides, in our too-busy lives, just getting loved ones to sit down to eat together in the dining room and say a word of thanks is a rarity as sweet as any scratch-baked elderberry pie.

STRATEGY

EAT LATER: A noonday dinner that requires a long morning in the kitchen makes less sense today than it did for our grandparents. Try moving the meal to 4 or 6 p.m. so cooks can have plenty of time to get ready (or even sleep in).

BALANCE THE MENU: Pick one or two items from Thanksgivings past, not everything every long-gone uncle and grandmother had to have. Scale down on starches (dressing is all you need to carry the gravy) and sweet, creamy vegetables.

SHOP LIGHT: Concentrate on basics and handy produce. Apples, grapes, citrus and nuts double as decor and snacks. Parsley, lemons, oranges, celery, green onions, carrots, butter, canned broth and gravy mixes can dress up or rescue any dish.

SUBCONTRACT, DELEGATE: Pilgrims and Indians cooperated; so did big families. Don't be ashamed to ask friends and family to pitch in, and take advantage of convenience products and modern services.

TURKEY

If you're short on time, energy or confidence, buy a ready-cooked turkey from a grocery, deli or caterer. Cook the bird yourself, and you may discover that oven in the stove is handy and economical on non-holiday weekends too.

Start small unless you have a big crowd. At one pound per person, an 8- or 10-pound bird will feed most families and provide leftovers.

To save time, do not stuff the turkey. You can start the bird later, it will cook faster, and you can make dressing after the turkey is in the oven.

Most birds come with simple instructions; the biggest catch is that frozen birds take time to thaw. Put a 10-pounder still in its plastic bag in the refrigerator Monday night, and it will be ready for roasting Thursday.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the plastic and bags of parts from both ends of the bird. Rinse, salt and pepper the skin and place on a rack in a pan. Calculate the approximate time needed (around three hours) and insert a meat thermometer in the thick of the thigh.

Don't baste; check turkey one hour before it should be finished, and when skin is brown, cover breast with foil.

When the temperature is 170 in the thigh or 180 in the breast, remove the turkey from the oven and let sit for 20 minutes.

DRESSING

You can get instant stuffing out of a box, but this holiday favorite is not hard to make with bags of croutons or bread crumbs, especially if you fix it separately.

Again, follow package instructions: Heat water or canned broth, mix with butter and bread crumbs and add easy extras such as chopped apples, celery, carrots, mushrooms, onions, parsley or nuts. Or make different batches, varying the seasonings, or trying cornbread in one.

Cook for at least 30 minutes in a covered container in the oven, or follow instructions for stovetop or microwave preparation. (If you use eggs or other meat, make sure the dressing is cooked to 165 degrees.)

One small bag does a small turkey, but buy two. Everybody loves dressing. It's inexpensive, freezes well and can stretch the meal easily if your guest list suddenly grows.

For cranberry sauce, the other essential complement to turkey, make it the day ahead or take the easy way out: Buy canned whole-berry sauce and stir in a few orange sections, walnuts or a splash of port.

GRAVY

This is the scariest part for many people, so stock up on back-ups _ gravy mixes, canned chicken or turkey broth, bouillon or all-out, ready-made gravies, just in case.

After you take the turkey out and remove it from the pan, pour drippings into another container and let stand 10 minutes while it cools and fat rises to top.

Scoop off fat and discard all but a small amount, about 4 tablespoons. Put that small amount of fat back in the pan and stir in 4 tablespoons of flour over low heat until the mixture thickens and browns. Slowly add about 2 cups of drippings or other liquid (water, wine, orange juice, apple cider) and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.

Doesn't work? Get out a prepared mix, add the rest of the drippings and doctor it with wine, chopped onions or mushrooms and a dash of black pepper. Cook over low heat to reduce and thicken.

VEGETABLES

Celebrate the modern harvest with lighter vegetables instead of gooey, creamy, sweet things, and cut down on duplication. All those orange vegetables with nutmeg cry out for something green, even a salad.

Hold cheese, cream and sugar and cook vegetables quickly on the stove top or in the microwave. Remember you need only two or three:

CARROTS: Steam prepeeled baby carrots and toss with parsley, mint or dill and a little butter or honey. If you want them sweet, add a can of crushed pineapple.

BROCCOLI: Cook lightly and sprinkle with lemon juice and sesame seeds.

PEAS: Cook frozen peas quickly with some rosemary and chopped onion and top with butter. Or sprinkle with fresh parsley or mint. Or splurge on sugar snap peas; they cook in a minute in the microwave, less than five on the stove top.

BEANS, BLACK-EYED PEAS. Buy canned or frozen and brighten with chopped green onions or banana peppers.

SALADS: Slice cucumbers, tomatoes and sweet onion and dress with plain vinegar and pepper. Or toss fresh spinach with orange slices, red onions and walnuts; dress with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

GREENS: Unless someone else wants to take on the chore, buy canned or frozen and add a small amount of bacon.

POTATOES: Skip 'em or take the easy way out. Cook sweet potatoes in the microwave or mash canned ones with pineapple, orange juice or a little red pepper. Don't bother to peel white potatoes; just cut in quarters, boil or steam, toss with butter and parsley. Add milk and butter to the pan and mash by hand, or let you guests mash them on the plate.

TRIMMINGS

Keep these to a minimum of hassle and let someone else do the cooking.

APPETIZERS: Put out fruit and nuts or a vegetable tray at most.

BREAD AND ROLLS: Unless a guest volunteers, buy from a good bakery or supermarket.

WINE: Don't sweat the selection. Any number of modest wines will suit a crowd and table of varied tastes. Merlot, pinot noir, Beaujolais (nouveau, too) and most zinfandels are good reds; offer sauvignon blanc, riesling or gewurztraminer for whites.

DESSERTS: Make ahead, farm out or buy ready-made. Frozen pies can be cooked in the oven before or after the turkey; just don't forget the timer. Sprinkle crust with cinnamon or sugar.

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