Don't Stuff The Turkey And Other Tips From 'America's Test Kitchen.'
Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster of the public TV series share tips for buying, seasoning and cooking a turkey (hint: bigger isn't necessarily better, keep lots of salt around, and give the bird a break before carving). They also give advice on how to make some of their favorite side dishes.
Other segments from the episode on November 26, 2013
November 26, 2013
Guests: Bridget Lancaster & Jack Bishop
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I'm not cooking on Thanksgiving, but you're probably a better cook than I am, so maybe you're getting ready to prepare a wonderful dinner, which is why we've invited Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop of the public TV series "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country," who we always enjoy talking with about food. They have some suggestions for preparing turkey, great side dishes and dessert.
Lancaster and Bishop are editors of the new "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook." Bishop is also the editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen." Lancaster is the executive food editor for new media, television and radio. Bridget Lancaster, Jack Bishop, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is always fun to have you on the show.
So, since we're in holiday season, let's start with turkey. If you can each give us one tip that you think is really helpful in preparing turkey. Bridget, you want to get started?
BRIDGET LANCASTER: Sure. I think one of the biggest tips that we can offer is don't buy too big of a bird. Twelve to 14 pounds is kind of the limit. Any larger than that, and you're going to have a really big problem cooking it evenly, because we always know that the breast meat tends to cook a lot faster than the dark meat. And it's also a problem of mechanics. It's really hard to get a 20-pound turkey into some of the more modern ovens.
So I'd say that starting with, you know, a medium-sized turkey is a great way to start Thanksgiving. And then after that, it's just really making sure that you season the turkey. We like natural turkeys, ones that aren't pre-brined or injected. So you either want to brine it, soak the turkey in a saltwater solution, or you can rub salt under the skin, and that really - along with time - helps to season the meat very well.
GROSS: And is that the spice thyme, or the ticking clock time that you're talking about?
LANCASTER: Ah, that's the ticking clock time. Very good catch.
LANCASTER: Yeah, you do want to let either the brine or the salt rub do its job. Salting takes a bit more time, clock time. Twenty-four hours is a good period of time to wait, and that allows the salt to - it pulls out the moisture from the meat, which sounds like a bad thing, but then it mingles back with the salt, goes back into the meat. It slowly seasons it. And also, the breast meat is great when it's salted, because it tends to hang on to its moisture a little bit more.
So it gives you a bit of a window or a cushion, error cushion there, so you don't overcook it and end up with turkey that's like from National Lampoon's "Christmas Vacation."
GROSS: Jack, do you have a turkey tip for us?
JACK BISHOP: Yeah, and it comes at the end of the process. I generally make Thanksgiving, but when I'm at other people's homes, I see this rush to carve, and turkey needs to rest before you carve it. If you're using a small bird like Bridget suggests - and I totally agree a 12 or 14-pound bird is best - it's maybe 30 minutes. If you've got a larger bird, maybe 40 minutes.
And two things that you're doing: One is it's much simpler to carve a bird that's not scorching hot. Second thing is you're letting the muscle fibers relax so that they can hold onto more of those juices, and a lot fewer juices will end up on the carving board. Last thing, the benefit is it gives you a little more time to get all those last-minute side dishes - especially anything that has to go into the oven - done.
So take the turkey out, get it out of the pan, put it on the carving board. If you want to, loosely tent it foil, and walk away for 30 minutes. You've got plenty to do. Have a last drink before dinner if you've got nothing else to do, and then come back and carve it.
GROSS: In your new "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook," you recommend crisping the skin. What's the best way to crisp it?
LANCASTER: Well, there's a couple of ways. One way is we rub the skin with a mixture of salt and pepper and a little bit of baking powder. And the baking powder seems very odd, but it actually is starting to dry out the surface just a little bit. It's not going to taste like a cookie or anything like that, so you don't have to worry about the baking powder tasting off. But that and loosening the skin, getting some of the season under the skin, and then you can finish it off at a pretty high temperature just to give it a nice final blast of heat. That will give it really nice, crisp skin.
GROSS: Jack, I know you don't eat as much meat as Bridget does.
GROSS: So do you...
LANCASTER: Nobody does.
GROSS: Do you ever do an alternative to turkey for Thanksgiving or for Christmas, and do you want to recommend a nice alternative holiday dish?
BISHOP: I do think Christmas, you have a little bit more leeway. Thanksgiving without turkey, it's tough sell when it's a large crowd. But when I do have more leeway, one of the things I love to do is make a whole side of salmon. Everybody pretty much eats fish, and it's sort of in between - you know, it's not a vegetarian holiday meal, which is hard for a large crowd, but it - there are a lot of vegetarians who do eat fish, and so they're happy.
And I love to do this great recipe, oven poaching. You know, when I first started cooking, I got one of these beautiful French poachers. They're about two feet long. At the time, I think it cost $100. And this was many, many, many years ago. And you fill it with water, and you poach on top of the stove.
Our method is to use aluminum foil and to put the whole side of salmon on several layers of foil, layer on some fresh herbs - I think dill is best, and sliced lemon - and then wrap up the foil and poach it directly on the oven rack in a hot oven. And by being on the oven rack, you get heat from underneath and on top, and you get perfectly cooked salmon.
There's no water involved, so it's actually poaching in its natural juices and has a much better flavor, I think, than the traditional salmon that you poach in wine and water and lemon and herbs is to just, you know, get rid of the wine and the water and just let the lemon and herbs flavor the fish.
GROSS: Sounds good. Do you serve it hot or cold?
BISHOP: I serve it hot. I have a really fun recipe that we developed in the test kitchen that seems very luxurious to go with it, where it's a horseradish cream sauce, but you whip the cream as if you were making whipped cream for a pie. You just don't leave - leave out the sugar. And then you add horseradish and a little salt and pepper. And a dollop of that is a great accompaniment to the salmon and, you know, says sort of festive to me.
GROSS: That sounds really good. So, getting back to a more traditional holiday dish, what's your favorite kind of stuffing?
BISHOP: I'm a cornbread stuffing man. That is my favorite, and I feel like it's worth the effort to make some homemade cornbread. Dry it out. I usually do a fruit-and-nut stuffing with dried apricots, dried prunes, toasted pecans, cooked - I will saute celery and onion in some butter, fresh sage, fresh thyme, some parsley. That's the best stuffing in the world.
GROSS: And you put it in as you're putting the bird in?
BISHOP: I think one more idea about making it easier to cook the turkey is to not stuff it, and instead put the stuffing in a dish, which then it becomes dressing, if you want to be technical about it. And, you know, the problem is when you stuff the turkey, yes, the stuffing gets all the wonderful flavors from the bird, but it makes it much more difficult to cook the bird. It cooks a lot more slowly and unevenly. And, obviously, if you've got vegetarians, then they're not going to eat the stuffing.
So I always just do it in buttered, baked dishes, and cover it with foil for most of the cooking, usually about 30, 40 minutes until it's warm, and then take off the foil so that the top can crisp up. And it's absolutely delicious.
GROSS: Stupid question: Why does the stuffing affect the cooking of the turkey?
BISHOP: So, you're changing the sort of thermodynamics of what's going on inside the bird. And generally, the stuffing is cold in traditional recipes. And so the, you know, the temperature of that stuffing brings down everything and just makes it that much slower to heat up. And the disparity between the white meat and the dark meat, it mostly affects the white meat, not the dark meat. And, of course, the white meat is the thing that's likely to overcook.
So, you keep the bird in longer, trying to get the stuffing up to a safe temperature, because the stuffing has eggs in it, generally, and that's the last thing to warm up because it's in the dead center of the turkey. And you're waiting and waiting and waiting until the stuffing is at a safe temperature. Meanwhile, the breast meat is so overcooked that there's really nothing you can do.
If you want to stuff your bird, you should actually microwave the stuffing before you put it in.
GROSS: Oh, I thought I heard you say microwave. Hey.
BISHOP: I know. Your favorite cooking tool. But you microwave the stuffing, and then you put hot stuffing inside the turkey, which it's a bit of a chore, frankly, but that's the best way if you are actually going to cook a stuffed bird is to begin with fairly hot stuffing. You want to get it to about 120, 130 degrees and so that you don't have quite that problem with ice cold stuffing slowing down the whole process.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop of America's Test Kitchen. They've edited a new cookbook called "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about some holiday recipes, and my guests are Bridget Lancaster and Jack Bishop of America's Test Kitchen. Their new book that they edited is "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook."
Favorite holiday side dishes.
LANCASTER: I am a sweet potato addict.
GROSS: Oh good, yes, keep going.
LANCASTER: A few years ago, I think I pretty much banned regular mashed potatoes and said only sweet potatoes from now on. So I do a mashed sweet potato. It's basically a two-fer recipe. You get your mashed on the same table as your turkey, and it takes place instead of the sweet potato casserole that's usually adorned with, you know, the little marshmallows and things.
So sweet potato, sweet - mashed sweet potatoes are so incredibly easy to make, as long as you remember you can't cook them like regular potatoes. They contain a lot more water, sweet potatoes do. So if you boil them in lots of liquid, you end up with sweet potatoes that have fallen apart, they're very soggy, they don't have that fluffy texture.
So we actually braise sweet potatoes, slice sweet potatoes very thin, about a quarter-inch, and you put them in a saucepan, or you can double the recipe, put it in a Dutch oven, and a little bit of - just a few tablespoons of heavy cream, a couple of pats of butter, and you cook it over low for a good 35 minutes or so until the potatoes are very, very tender and pretty much all the liquid has either been absorbed by the potatoes or evaporated at that point.
And you just simply mash them, season them with a little salt and pepper and finish it up, and it's so simple. We make this all the time in my house, but it's definitely a Thanksgiving must.
GROSS: So I assume you peel the sweet potato before...
LANCASTER: You sure do. Yeah, you peel them, and then sweet potatoes are a lot harder to cut. One, you need a very sharp knife. A dull knife is just not even going to hold up to sweet potatoes. So you peel the sweet potatoes. You want to cut them in half lengthwise so you get a nice, flat surface. You can also - sweet potatoes are huge, and it seems to be that there's, you know, some sort of giant sweet potato farms out there these days, you can quarter it lengthwise, so you're working now with much smaller pieces, easier to handle.
And as long as you cook them until they're the right texture, it's more about the visual cue than the timing. You know, a knife slips into the slices very easily, and you just mash them with a potato masher. You're not going to have any of that stringy sweet potato fibrous texture. They're like butter. And they're great.
You can fold in some smoked cheese, or you can fold in - top it with a little bit of toasted nuts if you like, pretty much anything that you want to do to dress them up.
GROSS: Jack, do you want to match that with a potato recipe?
BISHOP: Yeah, I - I love regular potatoes that are mashed, but I like to do a twist on them. And so I feel like if you serve people mashed potatoes, they're so happy that they're willing to allow the cook to be inventive. And a recipe that I really love to make has some bold Spanish flavors in it. So it's traditional mashed potatoes, and in the test kitchen, we really feel like you should boil whole russet potatoes in - still with the skins on.
And the reason that you're doing that is that you don't really want them to soak up more water than is necessary because you want them later on to soak up a lot of delicious half and half. And so you boil them whole, relatively gently. It's going to take 30 to 40 minutes, until a skewer will come in and out of those potatoes.
You then drain them, let them cool a little bit, and then you need to peel them. And then put them through the ricer. I love absolutely smooth, fluffy mashed potatoes, and the ricer, which is like a giant garlic press, has a big hopper, two handles, and you squeeze the potatoes through, gives you that absolutely smooth puree.
And then rather than just adding plain old butter and half and half, I love to add some smoked paprika and some toasted garlic that I've already cooked in the butter first. And stir those into the potatoes. Then add a little bit of warm half and half. A lot of people add cold cream at the last minute, and then you end up with cold mashed potatoes. So warm that half and half, add a little salt and pepper.
And a great trick if you're the kind of person who doesn't want to be doing this right before dinner, is to then put it in the slow cooker on low. And you can let the mashed potatoes, any mashed potatoes, hang out for an hour or two in the slow cooker while you get everything else ready for dinner.
GROSS: Nice idea. Can I ask you, why do lumpy mashed potatoes have such a bad reputation? I actually like the lumps because it adds more texture.
BISHOP: You know, I think it's a matter of somewhat sort of restaurant snobbery. I think restaurants and those of us with cooking backgrounds feel like they should be absolutely smooth and silky. I don't know scientifically whether they can absorb more butter and cream if they're absolutely silky smooth. Something tells me that may be part of it.
There's nothing wrong, if you want to follow that recipe and use a potato masher rather than a ricer, it will be equally delicious, as long as you don't mind a couple of lumps in your potatoes.
LANCASTER: Yeah, growing up a lump or two in the mashed potatoes always meant that they were homemade.
LANCASTER: Especially if you were, you know, at a public school system eating the mashed potatoes there. If there was a lump in the potato, you felt like you won the lottery.
GROSS: As opposed to the instant whipped.
LANCASTER: Exactly, the white stuff.
GROSS: Yeah, so if you could suggest a good vegetable side dish. Jack, why don't you go first because I know you love vegetables.
BISHOP: Yeah, and I feel like the best way to cook almost any vegetable is to roast it in a hot oven. And so I love to have something green on the table. I think it's an absolute must and love the idea of roasting broccoli. And it's very, very simple. You want to cut the broccoli and separate the florets from the stalks. I then peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler. A lot of people throw them out, and I think they are actually the best part. If you peel that outer skin, they cook up super-creamy and tender.
And so once the skin is removed from the stalks, I then cut them into planks, maybe two or three inches long and about a half-inch wide. I then will take the florets and leave them in pretty big pieces. A regular head of broccoli I might cut into four or six pieces of those florets. Toss that with some olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add just a sprinkling of sugar, half a teaspoon of sugar for a head of broccoli because that's really going to encourage the browning.
And then throw them onto a hot sheet pan that's been heated in the oven. So you put the sheet pan in the oven, turn the oven on to 500. And it's basically like stir-frying in your oven on a sheet pan. You throw the broccoli on; 10 minutes later it is gorgeous. It's browned, charred in little spots, really, really tasty. Frankly, I think a drizzle of olive oil and you're done.
If you want to dress it up, you can put some shaved parmesan. You could add some spices. You could saute some shallots or fennel and add that, as well, but honestly just the good olive oil and the broccoli, and you're done.
GROSS: Bridget, do you have a vegetable dish for us?
LANCASTER: I do. I grew up eating greens, a big pot of simmering greens, collards, sometimes kale, which is very hip these days, turnip greens, all these different kinds of greens. And I still like to serve greens during the holidays, but they get a pretty bad rap when they're cooked improperly. They're slimy, full of all this liquid. They don't taste like a lot because you have this pot full of liquid, and you pour off the pot, and all the flavor goes with it.
So instead we cook them in very little liquid. You have your big Dutch oven. You can add some of the greens, which are roughly chopped. We like to use collards and kale for - in this particular recipe because they're hardier greens. And you add half the greens at first, and they start to wilt in this pot that's got some nice browned red onion, a little bit of garlic, red pepper flakes.
You add the rest of the greens, and you do that in two batches so that they start to wilt a little bit, and you have room for the entire greens in one pot. And then after they've cooked for just a few moments, you add some chicken broth, a little bit of water, and you simmer it covered until the greens are nice and tender, and that takes about a half an hour, depending on if it's kale or collards.
After that you remove the lid, and you crank the heat up and let some of that liquid evaporate. So you've got the essence of the greens still in that liquid. You've got the chicken broth. You've got the garlic, the onion, and it all concentrates and starts to coat the greens. Even my kids will eat this, I have to say.
And of course greens can always use a little bit of brightness right before you serve them because they can taste a little bit cooked. So some cider vinegar, and I start the recipe by - I should have mentioned this because this makes everything better - I start the recipe by crisping some bacon.
GROSS: I knew you were going to say that.
LANCASTER: Oh, bacon and greens, right?
GROSS: You're always talking about putting bacon in, bacon and mushrooms.
LANCASTER: Of course.
LANCASTER: You start with a little bit of bacon. You cook the onions in the rendered bacon fat, and then you crumble that bacon, or what's left of it, if I haven't eaten it all, and just crumble it right over the finished greens right before you serve it. And it is, between the little hit of vinegar, the spices, the browned onions and the nice silky and tender greens, it's a really, really good side dish.
BISHOP: Terry, I have to tell you a little story about Bridget.
BISHOP: There are a lot of people in the food business that are very passionate about pork and pigs, and I see a lot of people now getting pig tattoos. Bridget, though, has this beautiful little gold necklace dangling from her neck of a little pig.
BISHOP: That every - I think she wears it every day. I don't remember seeing you not wearing your little friend.
LANCASTER: My little Arnold.
GROSS: Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster of the public TV series "America's Test Kitchen" will be back in the second half of the show. They are editors of the new cookbook "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Brigid Lancaster and Jack Bishop, of the public TV series, "America's Test Kitchen." They're editors of the new "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook." We're talking about cooking for the holidays. Earlier we talked about turkey and side dishes.
So what's for dessert?
BRIGID LANCASTER: Oh boy. That's a loaded question. You know, I usually have pie for dessert. I think most people have pie at the holidays. My grandmother would go all out and she would make every kind of pie, and she would also include a lemon meringue for my birthday. But recently I've been making more cakes because cakes just don't get their due. I think, you know, people make cakes for their birthday but they really should come out at the holidays. So an old-fashioned chocolate layer cake is definitely going to be something that is going to please everybody. I've never had somebody say, oh, no thank you, I don't like chocolate. It's one of those big, beautiful, fluffy layer cakes that takes the center stage of any kind of holiday buffet. And it's got lots of chocolate flavor in it, but not so much that you can't take a nice big old slice. That's kind of the chocolate conundrum when it comes to cake. You want to pack it full of chocolate for more flavor, but the more chocolate you put in something, the denser it gets.
So we actually, for our old-fashioned chocolate cake, it is aptly named. We pretty much pulled out every old-fashioned technique out there. We start the batter with a chocolate pudding, just simply melt some unsweetened chocolate with Dutch processed cocoa, a little bit of butter, and that also, the fat and the heat starts to bloom the chocolate, so you get more and more of these flavor compounds that are released, so you get a bigger chocolate bang for the amount. And then we add it to eggs and sugar that we beat until they're at that ribbon stage. And, you know, how when you look at a recipe and they say, oh, if the eggs leave a trail with your mixing your paddle, then it's fine. But that's an egg thumb, and the eggs thumb contains tons of little air bubbles. So when you mix the chocolate in with the egg thumb, then finally later on some buttermilk and flour, the egg thumb contains moisture, in the heat of the oven, the little bubbles expand and you get some beautiful rise but still a ton of chocolate flavor. And, of course, it gets the most luscious, silky, chocolate frosting on top.
GROSS: Hmm. Jack, do you have a nice dessert for us?
BISHOP: Yeah. I do something that eats like pecan pie, but is way simpler than making a pie. And I actually started doing this as a gift that I would give to all of the teachers of my girls when they were in elementary school, and I would make pecan bars. And it's basically, the base is a pecan shortbread. You make it in a food processor, toasted nuts, butter, flour. You press it into a baking pan and you bake it till it's set, about 20 minutes. And then meanwhile, while it's in the oven, you're making the gooey filling, and that's brown sugar, corn syrup, more toasted nuts that are left whole, you know, in bigger pieces, vanilla, and then best of all a shot of bourbon. And you pour that mixture over the crust that has already been partially baked, keep it back into the oven, and another sort of 20, 25 minutes and you have these beautiful pecan bars.
And then the best thing about this is we're really into aluminum foil in the test kitchen.
BISHOP: And we use aluminum foil to make something called a sling. So before you bake this, you line the baking pan with a large sheet of folded foil that has basically overhanging pieces that become the sling. And once the pecan bars are fully cooled, you just grab the two ends of the foil, you lift it out, put it onto a cutting board and so you're not, you know, trying to pry these gooey bars out of a baking pan. Cut into squares and you've got, you know, a crust that's got tons of flavor because it has got pecans in it, and the filling, which is basically pecan pie filling baked on top of this crust. It's really simple, and if you're somebody who wants to make a pie but is a little scared, this is super easy and it eats like pie.
GROSS: Do you grease the tinfoil?
BISHOP: Yeah. A shot of cooking spray helps. But frankly, there's so much butter in the crust, sticking isn't really much of a worry in terms of that. The real problem is that the foil keeps any of the gooey filling from getting down underneath the crust and then causing the crust to adhere to the pan. And so with that foil there, you have no trouble getting it out and if it's sticking enough to the foil, it's easy enough to peel to foil off because you're no longer inside the pan.
GROSS: So I'd like you both to reminisce for a moment and tell us what foods you particularly loved and particularly disliked when you were growing up at holiday time.
BISHOP: Well, for me this is easy.
BISHOP: My Italian grandmother would prepare an Italian feast for Christmas. And so it was all the seafood on Christmas Eve. And then Christmas Day, which I as a kid liked the food better at Christmas Day than Christmas Eve, she would make the most amazing lasagna. And we would have Braciole, and we'd have meatballs and it just was, it was just all the best foods that she would make throughout the year, all put together on one big table so that everyone would eat way too much. And I, you know, I still miss my grandmother's lasagna. I've tried and I've gotten close. But even I can't make a lasagna as good as the lasagna that I had when I was a kid.
GROSS: And foods you didn't like?
BISHOP: You know what? I'm not that picky.
GROSS: And Brigid?
LANCASTER: My mom was and still is an amazing cook. She would make the best cornbread dressing. I didn't know what stuffing was until I moved up north. It was always dressing. And she would make the turkey. We had - usually had turkey both on Christmas and Thanksgiving. But the - I can definitely remember the food that I didn't like. We used to have quite a few parties at our house and there would be lots of appetizers around. And the one that couldn't stand was Rumaki, which is...
GROSS: What is that?
LANCASTER: ...really going back to kind of the "Mad Men" era. It's water chestnut with chicken livers wrapped in bacon. And this is the one time that I'm going to say I didn't like something containing bacon. And you roast them. It was a big deal. It was one of those, you know, up there with pimiento cheese ball, you know.
LANCASTER: You had to have Rumaki. You had to have the little sausages, the little meatballs, and you had to have the Rumaki. And anyone out there that remembers Rumaki, I feel for you. I commiserate with you.
GROSS: So now that it's approaching winter, what are you doing to compensate for the fact that you don't have all the wonderful vegetables from your gardens?
LANCASTER: That's actually near and dear to my heart. Well, we still have lots of potatoes, which is sort of a vegetable; it's between a starch and a vegetable. But I did a lot of prep over the summer. We had a huge amount of green beans, so I made quick pickles out of green beans, little dilly beans. Tomato sauce - did huge big batches of the tomatoes - the ugly tomatoes that, you know, hit the ground and fell off the vines. But I think my family starts eating more winter fruit as well when the weather starts to get colder. I think that's necessary just for health. I think we all need our vitamin C this time of year. But I think it's easier to get some nice summer - or winter fruits - at this time. It's harder to get vegetables in season. And in a way we're not supposed to eat our vegetables and fruits that are out of season.
GROSS: So you've got apples as winter fruit. What else are you counting?
LANCASTER: All citrus. All the tropical fruit ...
GROSS: Why is it OK to you tropical fruit but not vegetables from another...
GROSS: ...from a warmer climate? I don't understand that.
LANCASTER: Well, that's, that's true. Well, I just think that winter is the season for, that's when tropical fruit is at its best. And traditionally that's when, you know, that's why we decorate the holidays with oranges because they come into season at that point. Cranberries, these kinds of things that are available at this point, I think is better than frozen broccoli, you know, or - well, broccoli is actually a cold-weather vegetable, so that's a poor example. But if you're trying to eat, you know, a fresh tomato in the middle of January, I think you should be ready to be disappointed.
GROSS: Right. So one last question about the holidays - and Jack, you kind of addressed this earlier. In your family, did people like eat and overeat and overeat some more and then complain for the rest of the night because they had overeaten?
BISHOP: Oh, I think my sharpest holiday memory is being on the couch with my belt unbuckled with my brother and my sister.
BISHOP: And, you know, just, it was always at least an hour of that odd time, because in my family, and I think a lot of families, even earlier on the holidays. And so, you know, it's only 6 o'clock or whatever time it is and, you know, you've got a lot of hours till dinner. And there was always that resting hour before the evening activities - belts unbuckled, pants undone, just sort of saying why, why, why?
LANCASTER: Yeah. My grandfather would have, quote-unquote, dinner on the table at noon.
LANCASTER: We ate our - yeah. It was noon, you know, butts in the seats, we had to be there, and it actually was the best idea, because you have this great meal. We would go outside. We would play football. You'd burn it off, of course, after a good nap. And then around 4 or 5 o'clock, you went in for the best part - which is the leftovers, and you get them on the same day. You went in for more pie. And it was - we - every holiday we got two holiday meals out of the day. So definitely recommend eating as early as possible. Breakfast.
GROSS: Did you have breakfast first?
LANCASTER: Did have breakfast, but that was usually Life cereal.
GROSS: Well, happy holidays to both of you. Jack Bishop, Brigid Lancaster, thank you both so much.
LANCASTER: Thanks, Terry.
BISHOP: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Jack Bishop and Brigid Lancaster are cast members of the public TV series "America's Test Kitchen." They're editors of "The America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook." On our website you'll find some of their turkey tips, as well as their recipes for pecan bars and mashed potatoes with a few variations. That's at FRESH AIR.npr.org.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a recording of James Levine's comeback concert conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Conductor James Levine's physical ailments forced him out of circulation more than two years. But last May, he made a triumphant comeback, leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. That event is now on CD, and our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, is very happy. Here's Lloyd's review.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: An extended ovation greeted conductor James Levine last May when he returned to performing after a two-year absence. In 2011, he resigned as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and cancelled his performances at the Metropolitan Opera. He'd been plagued by health problems, injuries and operations, and it was painful for him to move. Many of his admirers, even he himself, feared he might never conduct again.
But last year, the Met announced that he'd be returning this year to lead three opera productions and several concerts with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. A special wheelchair had been rigged for him, and although he wasn't walking, he was evidently pain-free and his upper body was strong and flexible. We can hear his exciting return on a new two-CD set of that first Carnegie Hall concert, leading orchestral staples by Wagner, Beethoven and Schubert.
The concert begins with Wagner's sublime prelude to the first act of "Lohengrin." Charlie Chaplin fans will recognize it from his anti-Nazi satire "The Great Dictator," as the music during which Chaplin - as Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, who is determined to rule the world - does a little ballet with an inflated globe. How could the music not be by Hitler's favorite composer? But Wagner himself described this music as a vision of angels carrying the Holy Grail. Levine's performance is visionary, floating yet forward-moving, a radiant and airborne hymn of thanksgiving.
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SCHWARTZ: The nearly hour-long piece taking up the entire second CD is why this set is a necessary addition to the Levine discography. Schubert's Ninth Symphony, nicknamed "The Great," is his most ambitious orchestral work, one of the most magnificent pieces in the entire symphonic repertoire. And this is one of Levine's most exciting and most nuanced performances. He lets this all-encompassing score unfold from funeral to festivity as a full and complex living experience.
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SCHWARTZ: Since his return to active duty, James Levine has been getting rave reviews for conducting Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" at the Met and for his second Carnegie Hall program, which featured a challenging major work by one of his favorite composers, the late Elliott Carter. He's also scheduled to conduct entire runs of Verdi's comic masterpiece, "Falstaff," and Alban Berg's "Wozzeck," one of opera's grimmest tragedies - the opposite poles of the operatic repertoire.
Both "Falstaff" and "Cosi fan tutte" will be telecast in movie theaters in the Met's "Live in HD" series. There's been a lot of bad news in the classical music world lately, but the good news is that James Levine is back and at the top of his game.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwarts teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and writes for the Web journal New York Arts. He reviewed "James Levine and the Met Orchestra Live at Carnegie Hall," a two CD set on the DG label. The Met will feature Verdi's "Falstaff" in its "Live in HD" series in movie theaters on December 14th. "Cosi fan tutte" will be featured on April 26th.
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GROSS: Coming up, in the spirit of the holidays, book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends some books she's grateful for. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This Thursday marks the all too rare holiday of Thanksgivukkah, a melding of Thanksgiving and the first day and second night of Hanukkah. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has some reading recommendations to see you through at least eight days.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Mark your calendars. According to some scholars, the next time it might happen is the year 79811. I'm talking, of course, about the hybrid holiday of Thanksgivukkah. The borscht belt-style pilgrim jokes and mishmash recipes - turkey brined in Manischewitz, anyone? - are flying around the Internet. But since Jews are frequently referred to as the people of the book and Pilgrims pretty much live by the book, Thanksgivukkah seems to me like the quintessential stressful family holiday to celebrate by escaping into a book.
A couple of these recommendations are holiday themed, some are not, but all will have you saying thanks a latke for the all-year-round gift of reading. There's one short book that's ideal for reading aloud at the Thanksgivukkah table. Technically it's for kids but its ability to hit readers right in the gut knows no age limit. "Molly's Pilgrim" is a 1983 story by Barbara Cohen about a young girl and her parents, Russian Jews, who immigrate to the U.S. early in the last century.
As the only Jewish child in her rural school, Molly is, of course, bullied by the mean girls. When Thanksgiving approaches, the class is assigned a homework project of making Pilgrim dolls out of clothespins. That evening, Molly explains Pilgrims to her baffled Yiddish-speaking mother. Pilgrims, she says, came to this country from the other side for religious freedom.
Inspired, her mother takes over the project and creates a Pilgrim babushka fusion doll that teaches Molly's classmates about the inclusive message of Thanksgiving. If you want to cut the schmaltz of sentimentality with some vinegar, the omnivore public intellectual James Wolcott is your man. "Critical Mass" is a four-decade collection of Wolcott's music, film, and book reviews.
Don't think leftovers, thing time capsules of major cultural happenings that Wolcott was present to witness, chew over, and occasionally spit out. Here's the opening of Wolcott's 1975 review of a performance at New York's CBGBs by punk newcomer Patti Smith: Patti Smith moves through a room like a shark through the lower depths. Sharp features, oil black hair, dark, intense eyes. So her smile catches you by surprise, not only because it's switchblade quick, but because it's not the smile of a killer.
So many reports on Patti Smith have made her sound demonic, word-crazed, a cocaine-Ophelia. Her flakiness is legendary, but her smile carries the weight of professional confidence. The precision and prescience of that review also distinguished Wolcott's essays on Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, and Ayn Rand. Critics like Wolcott - and there's aren't many like him - are lights in the darkness.
The miracle of Hanukkah, candles burning for eight days, is a religious mystery that can only be explained by faith. The kind of mysteries that Scottish writer Morag Joss creates also defy rational explanation, although the origins of the crimes in her novels seem more sinister than sacred. Joss's just published thriller is called "Our Picnics in the Sun" and it tells the story of what happens when a stranger enters the lives of a defeated old hippie couple who run a dilapidated bed and breakfast deep in the English moors.
In addition to her uncanny powers of storytelling, Joss can capture a world in the space of a few charged words. The bed and breakfast, we're told, resisted all home improvements. It was a house that seemed always to be waiting for the next winter. Joss's aged hippies live far off the beaten track but once upon a time, all along America's highways, a restaurant chain called Howard Johnson's served up tender sweet clam strips, 28 flavors of ice cream, and grilled frankfurts to a ravenous public on the move.
"A History of Howard Johnson's" by Anthony Mitchell Sammacro is a chatty and charming look backward at a time when America took to the road and Howard Johnson's supplied the gastronomic fuel. Sammarco's book includes illustrations, recipes, and a chapter devoted to the largest and most elegant Howard Johnson's of them all - the one built in Rego Park, Queens for the 1939 World's Fair.
Outfitted with crystal chandeliers, this was the Howard Johnson's where, many years later, my family would go on special Sundays for genuine roast turkey dinners. I've tried to avoid mentioning football, but it's time to surrender. This Thanksgivukkah roundup ends with a nod to Ben Fountain's brilliant 2012 novel "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," which takes place almost entirely during the space of a rainy Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game.
Fountain's main characters are a squad of soldiers who've survived an Iraqi attack and they're being trotted around America on a goodwill tour to drum up support for the war. Sharp and mordantly witty about the class divide between those Americans who fight and those Americans who have the luxury of thanking others for their service, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" will give readers much to digest long after the last bit of Challah stuffing has been swept away. A good gobble-tov to all readers everywhere.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You'll find the list of books she recommended on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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