The 6-quart NESCO.
I have no doubt cooking a holiday meal is stressful for just about anyone. I bet even the Barefoot Contessa considers putting shoes on when prepping her Thanksgiving dinner. Given all the machinations, even the most seasoned chef needs the energy of a triathlete to keep the potatoes warm while making sure that the turkey stays moist, all without burning the pumpkin pie.
But when it comes to all things culinary, I am no Contessa or Paula Deen or even Sandra Lee. I identify far more strongly with "As Seen on TV" personalities like Billy Mays (R.I.P.) and Ron Popeil than with any Food Network diva. I've never once longed for the strapping confidence of a Viking commercial-grade range in my kitchen. My idea of the perfect dinner-making date is a guy named George (Foreman, of the "Lean, Mean, Fat-Burning" variety, that is).
I once, with the utmost sincerity, tried to convince a contractor that it wasn't really necessary to have a range in my finished kitchen remodel. A mere stove-like facade with deep cabinetry behind to store my impressive collection of small appliances would have suited me just fine. To me, the oven isn't so much the heart of the kitchen as it is a huge stainless-steel bully whose sole purpose is to intimidate both my countertop plug-in friends and me.
But oven avoidance is pretty hard to pull off during the holiday season, especially on Thanksgiving. The third Thursday of November is the day when the range is expected to be working at maximum capacity, producing succulent birds, perfect pies and some sort of casserole, be it string bean or sweet potato - often all at the same time. This isn't the best day for oven anxiety to kick in.
But in the spirit of celebrating bounty - isn't that what the holiday is all about? - I wondered if the traditional Thanksgiving or other holiday meal could be prepared on a cornucopia of small appliances, instead of just the range. And as it turns out, if you are willing to be a bit flexible, it is possible to make all the trappings of a delicious holiday feast without actually turning on the oven.
If you were raised in Wisconsin, your mother probably has one of these amazing oven roasters stored in the back of her basement. The invention of Milwaukee's National Enameling and Stamping Company (hence the acronym), these "portable ovens" were first introduced locally in the early 1930s, and they can still do just about everything a conventional oven can do when it comes to your bird - all while sitting on the counter. The super-size model, with an impressive 18-quart capacity, can easily handle a 20-pound turkey. Just think of all the valuable oven real estate you could reclaim for other items.
While the turkey is most often seen in the NESCO, it can be put into service for everything from brisket to stuffed green peppers to pumpkin pie. It can be used like a slow cooker (see below) whenever you need a far larger number of servings. Check the NESCO site for many recipes. In this one for mashed potatoes, much of the legwork can be done ahead of time.
Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes
(For 4-, 5- or 6-quart NESCO)
- 5 lbs. russet potatoes
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1-1/2 cups milk
- 1 3-ounce package cream cheese
- 1/4 cup butter
- 8 ounces sour cream
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 cup chives
- 1 teaspoon salt
- pepper to taste
Peel and cut potatoes in 1-1/2" to 2" chunks. Place in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil until tender. Drain.
Transfer potatoes to a large bowl. Mash potatoes, add butter and 1 cup milk, and continue to blend until smooth. Stir in cream cheese, sour cream, 1/2 cup milk, chives, salt and pepper. Refrigerate overnight.
Put potatoes in roaster and smooth in cook well with back of spoon. Set at 200 F for one hour to reheat potatoes. Then turn temperature up to 350 F for one hour to roast. Leave potatoes in roaster at 150 F until ready to serve. Once roasted, they will remain moist and delicious up to two hours.
The George Foreman Grill
It's kind of a culinary cult item; you know you are a true small-appliance aficionado when you own a George Foreman Grill. Launched in 1994, right after Foreman's remarkable heavyweight world championship comeback, this appliance, resembling a giant clam, can make a whole lot more than hamburgers.
If you and your family are ready to take a break from string bean casserole - and let's face it, who isn't - just pop some trimmed fresh green beans, coated in olive oil, on the GF for about 12-15 minutes. I promise you they will come out tender and delicious. My kids love them, as I'm sure Foreman's 10 kids would as well.
The Electric Skillet
I have a lot of pleasant memories of my mother-in-law. She was more than just a fabulous cook; she was the consummate hostess and a loving grandmother, and she could wield an electric skillet like nobody's business. Her Thanksgiving candied sweet potatoes were an undeniable specialty. It might be worth buying an electric skillet just for this dish. We are lucky to have inherited hers.
Candied Sweet Potatoes
6 large sweet potatoes
- 1 cup butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup water
Peel potatoes and cut into two-inch slices. Drop in salted water as you peel and cut so they don't turn brown. Combine butter, sugar and water in the electric skillet. Let butter melt and stir ingredients together; add sweet potatoes after draining well. Cover and simmer at 250 degrees for one hour or until done, turning frequently. If the syrup is not thick enough, turn up the heat and cook for a few more minutes. Syrup will thicken as it begins to cool.
The Slow Cooker
The Mayflower was pretty cramped quarters. There is no way a full-sized range would have ever fit on board. But if electricity had been discovered at the time, I'm sure Miles Standish would have found a way to smuggle on this space-saving appliance. Launched in the 1970s, and often referred to by the brand name Crock-Pot, slow cookers are experiencing a bit of a revival. And according to enthusiasts, they are the ideal place to whip up a delightfully moist stuffing. My husband's family is Southern, and for him the only acceptable dressing is cornbread-based. I tried the one below in my six-quart cooker in preparation for an oven-free holiday. My husband said it was almost as good as his mom's.
Crock-Pot Cornbread Stuffing
- 1 cup butter or margarine
- 2 cups chopped onion
- 2 cups chopped celery
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 12 ounces sliced mushrooms
- 12 cups dry cornbread cubes
- 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
- 1-1/2 teaspoons dried sage
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4-1/2 cups chicken broth, or as needed
- 2 eggs, beaten
Melt butter or margarine in a skillet over medium heat. Cook onion, celery, mushrooms and parsley in butter, stirring frequently.
Spoon cooked vegetables over bread cubes in a very large mixing bowl. Season with poultry seasoning, sage, thyme, marjoram, and salt and pepper. Pour in enough broth to moisten, and mix in eggs. Transfer mixture to slow cooker and cover.
Cook on high for 45 minutes, then reduce heat to low and cook for four to eight hours.
The FryBaby (and friends)
Sure, dessert has to be pumpkin. But does it really need to be pie? If you are able to think outside the oven just a bit when it comes to your sweets, you'll have the chance of a lifetime to use the Presto GranPappy Elite electric deep fryer. It's the famed Presto FryBaby on steroids. There are lots of delicious and artery-clogging things you can make in this one, but I can't imagine anything more delicious than doughnuts. This harvest version is straight off the Eau Claire-based manufacturer's website.
- 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 3/4 cup canned solid pack pumpkin
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
- vegetable oil for frying
Sift 1 cup of the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spices into mixing bowl. In separate bowl, stir together pumpkin, butter, and eggs. Add to dry ingredients and mix on medium speed until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add remaining 2-1/2 cups flour and mix on low speed until just combined, about 30 seconds.
Turn out onto floured surface and let sit 15 minutes. Roll out to 1/2-inch thickness with floured rolling pin, or pat out with floured hands. Cut out doughnuts and holes with floured cutter. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Brush off excess flour. Let sit 15 minutes.
Meanwhile preheat oil in electric deep fryer. Fry doughnuts until golden, about one minute per side. Drain on paper towels.
The Fondue Pot
While a fondue pot is technically not a small appliance in the purest sense of the word, I'd be remiss not to allow our Swiss friend a fair shake. Just imagine friends and family, all wielding color-coded mini-pitchforks, gathered around a communal vat of warm cranberries. This recipe, while not particularly traditional, would probably taste pretty delicious with marshmallows. Or with one of those pumpkin doughnuts dipped in. Other dippers: apple wedges, holiday cookies, fruitcake or biscotti.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup chopped shallots
- 3 cups cranberries
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 to 1 cup cranberry cocktail, as needed
Heat oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring. Add cranberries, wine, vinegar, sugar, ginger, zest and cinnamon. Bring to a boil over high heat; lower to a simmer and cook until cranberries pop, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Transfer mixture to a food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer to a fondue pot and warm over a low flame. Add cranberry cocktail as needed to prevent fondue from burning or clumping.