For most Americans, the annual Thanksgiving Day celebration conjures up images of family and friends gathering around a traditional meal straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
In one corner, there's the plump store-bought Butterball bird, cooked to perfection with a moist inside and a golden brown exterior. That golden gobbler is then surrounded by mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cornbread stuffing, some sort of cranberry sauce, and of course, a selection of pies that run the gamut from pumpkin to pecan.
Afterwards, there's a retreat into the den or family room to watch football and to gradually polish off the leftovers as we enjoy the companies of those we love and cherish.
But for a number of outdoor enthusiasts, there isn’t a better way to celebrate the holiday than eschewing the Rockwell version and heading outside to enjoy the great outdoors as we contemplate all that we have to be thankful for as American hunters, anglers and camping enthusiasts.
If that's your idea of a great Thanksgiving Day celebration, then consider it's still possible to serve up a delectable holiday meal – with a nod to the usual table fare – while still staying out of the indoors kitchen.
What follows are some recipe ideas gleaned from a number of different sources, ideas that might give you a new holiday favorite.
And to start off with, how about three different main entree ideas, recipes ranging from chicken-fried venison to deep fried wild turkey to a roasted gobbler in a cast iron Dutch oven.
Texas Chicken-Fried Venison
This recipe comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website (http://tpwd.texas.gov/exptexas/programs/wildgame), specifically from the Country Secrets - Wild Game Cookbook, a 1992 publication by the Texas Game Warden Association.
Supplied by Angleton's E.L. King, the recipe calls for venison steak cutlets, several eggs, flour, vegetable oil and seasoned salt and pepper.
Take the steak cutlets – or pieces of backstrap, if you want – and tenderize with a meat mallet (or the edge of a small dinner plate or cup). Then dip each tenderized steak in one to two large eggs that have been beaten with just a bit of water.
After dipping in the egg wash, quickly dredge both sides in the flour prior to placing in a hot iron skillet with one to two inches of hot vegetable oil. Season the frying cuts of venison with the salt and pepper, lowering the heat to medium.
The TPWD recipe instructions say when the outer edge of the cutlets starts to turn a deep golden brown color, it's then time to turn the steak over (once only).
When the meat is finished cooking, remove and drain on paper towels.
Deep Fried Wild Turkey
A recipe from the Sportsmen's Alliance (http://www.sportsmensalliance.org/news/ussas-top-10-wild-turkey-recipes), this one is most likely a backyard-deck kind of recipe, although I suppose it's possible to pull this off in a campground somewhere (check regulations and follow safety precautions however).
- 1 wild turkey, whole, dressed
- 2 1/2 gallons peanut oil
- 1 cup Italian salad dressing
- 1/2 cup lemon juice, fresh
- 3 teaspoons onion juice
- 3 teaspoons garlic juice
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoons liquid smoke
- 1 1/3 ounces cayenne pepper
- 1/4 cup salt
In this recipe, mix all of the ingredients together (except the turkey and peanut oil, of course) to make the marinade. Use a meat injecting needle to inject throughout the turkey, putting the bird and the remaining marinade in a large plastic bag that you'll refrigerate for a full day.
On the day you're going to fry the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator and bring it up to room temp just before cooking. Heat the peanut oil in a 40- to 60-quart pot up to 325 degrees (F) (use a frying thermometer or candy thermometer to check the temperature).
The Sportsmen's Alliance says to place a pie tin (with holes punched in the bottom) into the bottom of the fryer to prevent the bird from sticking as it fries. Then, carefully immerse the turkey completely and cook for four minutes per pound.
When the turkey is done cooking, pull it, let it cool a bit and drain on paper towels, and then slice it up before serving.
Dutch Oven Roast Wild Turkey
Admittedly, this recipe can be a bit more difficult on three accounts.
First, you'll either need a wild turkey (or a store bought one in a pinch) that fits into a standard Dutch oven (which from my experience might be a younger jake or even a hen (where legal) that has been taken during fall turkey hunting season).
If the bird is too big for your cast iron Dutch oven, you'll need to cut up the bird and carefully arrange it within the oven to ensure that it fits underneath the closed lid.
Second, you'll have to pay reasonably close attention to the fire and coals since you don't want to undercook or overcook the bird. As with domestic turkey, you'll want to follow safe cooking and handling procedures for this wild bird.
And third, this recipe will require some careful thought beforehand since you'll need to bring a properly thawed and handled bird along with the ingredients with you (if you're camping out). Here's where a YETI Cooler can work some campsite magic, letting your bring the ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving Day feast out into the woods.
After that, it's reasonably straightforward using a recipe and cooking method that I've adapted from different places: the Boy Scouts of America Scouting magazine (http://www.scoutingmagazine.org) and the L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook (by Angus Cameron and Judith Jones; while out-of-print, copies are still available at Amazon):
- Wild turkey (approximately 8 to 10 pounds)
- 1 pie plate tin with holes poked into the bottom
- 3 cups of chicken stock
- 8 ribs of celery
- 1 medium onion (halved)
- 1 medium carrot (halved)
- 1 cored apple, quartered and seeds removed
- 4 cloves of garlic
- Herb blend of rosemary, sage and thyme
- 1 bunch parsley, coarsely chopped
- ½ stick of butter
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
As mentioned above, your turkey will need to be safely thawed and properly handled. Then rub the turkey down, inside and out, with the lemon juice. Follow that up by chopping up the celery, the onion and the carrot. You'll also want to quarter up the apple (coring it and removing the seeds) and chopping the parsley, putting all of these ingredients and the ½ of the stick of butter into the cavity of the bird.
Next, put the pie plate tin (with holes poked into the bottom) into the bottom of your Dutch oven. Then place the turkey in the Dutch oven, pouring the chicken stock over the bird. Next, sprinkle the herb blend and salt and pepper mixture over the top of the bird.
All that's left to do now is cover the Dutch oven with its cast iron lid, putting the bird over hot coals and covering the lid with the same (you'll probably need a fire going not far from the coals so you can resupply as necessary).
What you're aiming for here is an initial roasting temperature of 400 degrees (F) for the first 30 minutes that will help brown the skin. After that, you'll want to remove some coals to reduce the temperature inside the Dutch oven to 350 degrees.
You'll also want to rotate the Dutch oven around during the cooking process to ensure that the heat gets evenly distributed and that the bird gets properly cooked top to bottom and side to side. If one portion gets to roasting faster than another, parchment paper can be used to cover that portion of the bird in an attempt at evening things out.
Using an instant read style thermometer, you'll need to check the internal temperature of the bird every half-hour or so, checking the internal temperature of the bird (at its thickest portion, the breast/thigh region) until it reads 165 to 180 degrees.
When that happens, you'll want to pull the bird off of the coals, allowing it to rest for 15 minutes before carving and serving.
Now that we've got the main entrees out of the way, how about some of the side dishes that make the Thanksgiving Day meal so memorable?
With an outdoors twist, of course.
Iron Skillet Mashed Potato Cakes
Cooking Light (http://www.cookinglight.com) is the inspiration behind this recipe idea, one that will involve at least some prior preparation.
To start with, make up your favorite mashed potatoes recipe at home, mixing in some finely chopped onion, some finely crumbled cooked bacon, and some salt and pepper to taste. If you'd like, add some shredded cheese to the mashed potato mixture, putting in a bowl, refrigerating and then transporting to your campsite by way of a YETI Cooler.
At your campsite, take an iron skillet and spray it with some non-stick cooking spray or use a little olive oil to help you flip these mashed potato cakes when ready. All that's left to do now is to form the cold mashed potato mixture into some ½-thick cakes (think small pancakes here), arranging the cakes in the skillet to cook for approximately 10 to 12 minutes per side.
The goal here is to thoroughly heat up the mashed potato insides of these cakes while achieving a crisp, golden brown crust on each side. Pull off of the heat and serve hot.
Fired Up Sweet Potatoes
There are a couple of ways to go about preparing sweet potatoes for your outdoors Thanksgiving meal.
One method is to use aluminum foil packets to cook the sweet potato. Rinse them, skin them and chop them up, adding some chopped onion, some salt and pepper and a little bit of chili powder seasoning to add an unusual flavoring twist. Put all of this mixture into a foil packet, adding a bit of water and a ½ stick of butter before closing the packet up and placing onto some coals or off to the edge of your campfire. Cook for a half-hour or so, until tender.
Another method is to take whole sweet potatoes, rinsing them and partially splitting them. Cover the sweet potato with foil, putting some butter, miniature marshmallows and some brown sugar into the split portion before wrapping and closing up. Then put the sweet potatoes onto some coals or off to the edge of your campfire, cooking for a half-hour or more until softened up and tender.
Fire Roasted Green Beans
While it's entirely possible to cook a green bean casserole in a cast iron Dutch oven, I decided to go with this simpler idea here, borrowing from the foil packet fire roasted sweet potatoes mentioned above.
For this one, take a pound or so of green beans pulled from a garden or purchased from either the produce section of your local grocer or at a farmer's market.
Rinse them and chop off the ends if desired. Next, put the green beans in one or more aluminum foil packets, adding a bit of water, a dash of olive oil (or a ½ stick of butter) and some seasoning that includes salt and pepper to taste.
If you like, you can add some crumbled bits of cooked bacon, some chopped mushrooms (if you have some frozen morels leftover from last spring, this can make a tasty addition) or some chopped onions here.
After that, follow the idea above by placing these foil packets on coals or at the edge of a campfire, cooking for 8 to 10 minutes before flipping the packets and repeating the cooking time.
Every Thanksgiving Day meal needs some dessert, right?
Well, one way is to bring along a store-bought pumpkin pie or a store-bought pecan pie if you want to stay with the standard, traditional meal.
But if you want to adapt your Thanksgiving sweet-tooth to the outdoors cooking methods mentioned in this story, why not try a simple Dutch oven cherry cobbler
Dutch Oven Cherry Cobbler
First, take two cans of cherry pie filling (or peach, if you'd like) and pour into the bottom of your Dutch oven.
Next, evenly spread one 18-ounce box of either yellow or white dry cake mix (some recipes call for using a biscuit mixture like Bisquick) onto the top of the filling, again lightly sprinkling with cinnamon (to taste) if so desired. Then cut up a ½ stick of butter, arranging the pieces on top of the cake mixture.
All that's left to do now is to close the lid, putting the Dutch oven on a few hot coals and placing a scattering of coals on top of the lid. This will cook quickly if you have enough heat, sometimes as quickly as 10 minutes or so, so pay careful attention to this so it doesn't burn.
And there you have it, a Thanksgiving Day holiday celebration prepared with some of the usual foods that we all look forward to each fall as the national holiday is celebrated.
Foods that may very well be enjoyed as we give thanks against a breathtaking view that even a Norman Rockwell painting can't fully duplicate.