If Your Back Is Against The Wall, Precooked Is A Pretty Good Substitute For Homemade
Thanksgiving and Christmas, the “cooking holidays,” are upon us. Sure, people cook for Easter and they cook out for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. But Thanksgiving and Christmas are the undisputed kings of holiday cooking. As such, they're also the holidays most likely to be packed with stress and culinary performance anxiety. But fear not; I have recently – as in the last few days – had an epiphany that may help reduce that stress level. I'm talking about precooked, store bought turkey and ham.
Now, I've been hammering and yammering for years and years about how easy it is to make delicious turkey and/or ham yourself for the holidays. I've offered practical advice and provided simple recipes. It's just not the big deal that most people make it. If you learn a few proper preparation techniques, you'll never have another dry, tasteless turkey or ham on your holiday table. BUT.......sometimes there are surprises.
My wife's company was planning a big potluck Thanksgiving feast for the Friday before T-day. Usually, because we are cooks and caterers, she is involved in prepping for these things, but as we were planning to be out of town that weekend, she wasn't in on this one. She was a little disappointed. She really likes helping out. So somebody tossed some ideas around and decided to move the event to the Monday immediately preceding Thanksgiving, thus enabling her to be involved. Involvement in this case means three turkeys, three hams, and a big batch of my maple-glazed carrots. This whole change of plans went down with just three days notice before we were heading out of town. Great. Now all we have to do is prepare the two proteins and one veg – about seventy pounds of meat and six pounds of carrots – and have it all ready to serve at noon on Monday when we won't even be back in town until late Sunday night. Now what? The veg I can deal with. That's easy. But how am I gonna finagle three turkeys and three hams on such short notice? Here's where I had my epiphany.
A local chain grocery store offers precooked holiday meals for relatively reasonable prices. You get your choice of protein, a few sides, and a dessert. All you have to do is pick it up at the store and heat it up once you get it home. A perfect solution for the time-pressed modern family or for people who just can't cook. Me? I've never even considered the store-bought holiday dinner option. I've always thought it was kind of a cop out. Besides, I've heard some horror stories about gluey mashed potatoes, overcooked vegetables, and inedible desserts. But still.......I've gotta have three turkeys and three hams ready to go on short notice.
I decided to gamble. What the hell? It was only my wife's job on the line, right? Not really, but she truly did want to make a good impression, so she was a little leery at first. She'd heard those horror stories, too. We did a lot of research into precooked proteins – and I do mean a lot. Research that included going down to the store and checking everything out with their chef manager and their deli manager. I didn't need any sides, I told them, just the turkeys and the hams. And I needed them to be ready for pickup at 8 o'clock on Monday morning. I kept pushing that point because this was a time-sensitive situation. The company was going to start serving at noon come hell or high water, and I needed to have meat on the table. The store assured me it would be no problem.
I went home and loaded up the truck with all the chafers and other serving equipment so that it would be ready to roll out on Monday. Then we tossed our luggage in the car and headed off on our trip, all the while wondering if the turkey and ham would actually be ready on time and, equally importantly, would it be any good?
That was a legitimate concern. We've been cooking turkeys and hams for years. It's not uncommon for us to cook three or four or more of each for different holiday celebrations. And we know exactly how to do it. We know how to cook them to maximize the rich flavor and moist texture of each protein. We have it down to a science and we've never yet produced a bad bird or pig. By going the precooked route, we were putting that prized flavor and texture in somebody else's hands, something we had never done before. Was it going to measure up to our expectations? Yeah, I know; we're such control freaks.
Well, we got home Sunday night at about 9 o'clock as planned. I went straight to work and knocked out the carrots, packing them up in hotel pans and stuffing them in the fridge to be reheated the next day. We were at the store bright and early next morning and everything was ready as promised. Health regulations in most states won't permit supermarkets to provide you a “hot” holiday meal to go. What they do is thaw the turkeys and hams and then fully cook them. Then they are packaged and kept refrigerated at a safe 40° or less until you pick them up. You take them home and heat them to 140°, Butterball's recommended temperature for reheating leftover turkey, which is sort of what you're doing.
A friend was opening his nearby restaurant kitchen early for us so we could use his convection ovens to heat everything up. (Three whole turkeys and three half hams, remember?) We toted the boxed-up turkeys and hams to the kitchen, fired the ovens up to 325°, and tossed the proteins in. Using probe thermometers to monitor the temperature, the reheating process took a little over an hour. We pulled the meats out of the ovens, rested them, carved them, stuffed them in hotel pans, loaded them into a hot box, and headed for my wife's office across town. We set up the service and everything was absolutely perfect. I needn't have worried for a moment; the turkeys and the hams were as moist and flavorful as any we could have made completely on our own. Yes, the fact that we had the knowledge and the equipment to reheat everything was instrumental, but my toque is off to the grocery store cooks who turned out incredibly good product. It was product I was proud to serve to a room full of very important people, and I was sure to give credit where it was due. I didn't want my wife's bosses and coworkers thinking we had done it all, although I would have been glad to claim the end result. It was that good.
Bottom line: I'm over my precooked prejudice. Not that I'm going to make it a habit to buy store bought product now. I'm still a cook and I still enjoy cooking and there's an element of pride involved. But now at least I know I can fall back on stores like Publix, Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Fresh Market and other higher-end chains to turn out acceptable fare in a pinch. And I feel comfortable recommending that you check out store-bought, precooked proteins if you lack the skills, the time, or the energy to do it yourself. I still maintain that nothing beats homemade, but if your back is against the wall, precooked is a pretty good substitute.