Last Thanksgiving, Scott Heimendinger strapped on a pair safety goggles, told his family to stand back, and plunged his deconstructed turkey into a roasting pan of smoking hot oil.
"We had a long-time tradition of making a turducken, but we'd do it from scratch, bone all the birds ourselves," says the 29-year-old director of applied research for modernist cuisine guru Nathan Myhrvold.
Instead of turducken — a duck inside a chicken inside a turkey — this year, Heimendinger cut his turkey into pieces, injected it with brine and cooked it in the water bath known as sous vide. The goggles and safety perimeter were for protection as he afterward seared the skin in a roasting pan of smoking hot oil. "The whole family was unanimous that this was the best turkey they'd ever had," he says. "I fully intend to do that this year."
Thanksgiving can be an adventurous cook's bonanza, offering myriad ways to riff on familiar themes and traditions. New York chef Marc Forgione has been known to bone the turkey and roll it up with the stuffing inside, or to stuff the bird under the skin. And Heimendinger probably isn't the only one cooking his turkey sous vide.
On this holiday of eating, turkey tricks and extravagant foods are all sure to impress. But chefs and cookbook writers say bowling over your guests may be easier than you think. And that it goes way beyond the cooking.
"Your table setting has to wow them," says Rick Rodgers, author of "Thanksgiving 101" (William Morrow, 2007). "Every year I do a different table setting. ... Now my guests walk in and go 'We have to see the table!' People take photos, and they're Facebooking it all over."
Rogers might use an antique ceramic turkey as the centerpiece, or gourds and pumpkins jumbled with votive candles. Half-burnt tapers in autumnal colors like orange and cream make an elegant table, just as kitschy Pilgrim candles create a festive atmosphere. Sometimes Rodgers puts a foil-covered chocolate turkey at each place, or does something as small as tying up the napkins with raffia.
"It takes two seconds and people think you're an entertaining god," he says.
Offering a house cocktail is another easy way to score big with little effort. Artisan hard cider with a cinnamon-stick stirrer has the fizz of Champagne but the taste of the season. Spiked punch, a cranberry kir, or a drink made with bourbon — an American spirit — can all set the mood.
"Something like that is a nice touch," Forgione says. "Whenever you start the day or evening with a nice cocktail it lets you know this is going to be a party."
And opulent treats don't have to be complicated. A cocktail of colossal shrimp makes a gorgeous appetizer, Rodgers says, and a dish of caviar adds class. For the green bean salad, Forgione says, go the extra mile and boil some fresh beans.
"Always think of things you know people don't have a lot of," Rodgers says. "Wild mushrooms. Truffle oil. Anything that says 'I've taken extra care for you.'"
Of course, if you're a food geek like Heimendinger, you'll want to carry the show through the end of the meal, maybe preparing a dessert in the style of the restaurant Alinea, Chicago's mecca of modernist cuisine, where the course is plated directly on the silicon table cloth, and finished with a dramatic shattering of edible vases filled with cotton candy and other treasures.
"If you really wanted to do drama that's what you could do," Heimendinger says. "But even the idea of eating dessert without plates would be very cool."
Others believe the most impressive element of the meal is something far more mundane.
"This is going to sound like such a simple thing, but don't overcook your turkey," Forgione says. "The turkey roulade and stuffing under the skin, we do that at the restaurant because people are coming and they're spending a lot of money. We like to fancy it up. But if I'm at home and there are 12 or 15 people at the table, if you cook a perfectly roasted turkey, there's something very satisfying about that."