Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that immediately evoke the thought of food. While turkey will be the star on most tables, it is the sides that excite my family. Stuffing, pies, cranberry relish and sauce (yes, both), sweet potatoes, roasted vegetables and of course the mashed potatoes. Last, but certainly not least, is the delicious gravy that ever so gently covers my sliced turkey and fluffy mashed potatoes with its creamy goodness that completes my holiday dinner.
Sounds like a Norman Rockwell description, but when you are trying to make gravy in the final minutes before serving dinner, it can be chaos. It is no wonder, so many of us have resorted to the stuff in the jar or find ourselves adding water to a dry packet of pre-measured powder.
I am proud to announce I have been liberated from the last-minute lumpy gravy frenzy and have learned to make my gravy ahead of time, and it tastes better than any I've ever made.
Gravy is a sauce made in part from drippings in the pan after cooking meat, flour and stock. I have very fond memories of my mom making fried chicken in her "harvest gold" electric skillet and being more excited about the milk gravy and mashed potatoes than the chicken. I do not remember my mom's gravy ever being lumpy, but this has certainly not always been my experience.
After repeated attempts at making gravy with lumpy and pasty results, I found success when I learned how to make a proper roux.
Roux (pronounced Roo) is a French word defined as: a mixture of flour and fat that, after being cooked slowly over low heat, is used to thicken mixtures such as soups and sauces. But, what does this mean to someone making gravy? By combining flour with fat, instead of water, starch molecules are separated and don't fold over on themselves which is what causes lumps, yielding smooth, flawless gravy.
Start with equal parts of fat from meat drippings or butter, or a combination of both and flour. Melt fat in a pan and then sprinkle in the flour, stirring thoroughly to combine leaving no lumps, or until it looks like wet sand. Continue to cook this mixture over medium heat at least 5 to 10 minutes, or until it starts to smell a little nutty and is the color of light caramel. This color is perfect for gravy, but if you are making gumbo, you will want to continue cooking your roux until it is dark brown, being careful not to burn the flour. A roux can be made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator for future use or used immediately to thicken gravy or soup.
While a well-crafted roux is important, gravy gets additional flavor from good meat or vegetable stock. You can do quality control by knowing what's actually in your stock is valuable information. I often use my favorite prepared stock, but when given the opportunity, I do like to make my own.
Homemade stock is easier than you might think; I have used bones and parts of a leftover chicken, ham bone, or in this case turkey wings or thighs. Start by roasting your stock ingredients in an open pan in a hot oven for about an hour to brown, which will give your stock nice color; next put everything in a big pot and pour a cup or two of water into your roasting pan. After scraping up any goodies left in the bottom of the pan, pour the liquid into the stockpot and add enough water to cover everything by about an inch. Heat this to a boil and simmer for about an hour. Remove from the heat, strain, and you have made yourself some homemade stock. For the best flavor be sure to add vegetables like onions, celery, carrots and spices as well, either during the roasting process or to your simmering stockpot.
After your stock has cooled, a layer of fat rendered from your roasting meat will rise to the top. This fat is great for making your roux and will add excellent flavor. The best part of making stock is that you can make it ahead of time, when you know you are going to be home, or when you see turkey wings on sale. I will be making mine this week and freezing it in pre-measured bags, separating the fat into it's own smaller bag for use in my gravy.
Putting it all together can be done a day or two ahead. Make your gravy and keep it in the refrigerator until you need it, then reheat gently and serve. It should not separate because you have used a roux as a thickening agent. My friend Donna heats her gravy earlier in the day and then pours it into a coffee carafe with a tight fitting lid, and it stays hot and fresh several hours and serves as a nice gravy pourer, too.
These are just gravy basics, so if you have a favorite recipe, simply incorporate these techniques into your recipe, and you should find success. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving with less last-minutes stress!
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.