Next week I'll be cooking my inaugural Thanksgiving dinner. I've been itching to tackle this project for as long as I've been a chronological adult, but this is the first time I've been sufficiently motivated and stove-having to take this important matter into my own hands. Plus no one invited me to dinner this year, so I figure I might as well celebrate the successful completion of Operation Alienation by throwing my own party.
I've never cooked a whole bird of any kind, so the prospect of preparing a 15-pound turkey is somewhat daunting—and also completely unnecessary since I'm only feeding two people—but it turns out they don't make mini turkeys. With all the advances in the miniaturization of dogs and cars and Snickers bars, I had assumed I could pick up a nice 5-pound turkey, but that's apparently not the case.
My only options seem to be: A) downsizing to a less regal bird, which I won't do because I'm tired of chicken, I'm not sure what a squab is, and no one will sell me a crow; B) resorting to just a turkey breast, which presents the infernal problem of all white meat; and C) resigning myself to leftover turkey sandwiches through Valentine's Day.
The best and most obvious answer for a novice cook hosting a two-person dinner is a hasty retreat to the frozen food aisle. Alas, I can't go that route. My pleasant and popular wife was a civilian casualty in the aforementioned Operation Alienation, so I owe her the home-cooked meal she could easily have gotten elsewhere. But let's say you find yourself in a more reasonable situation. Maybe you have to work an inconvenient shift next Thursday, or perhaps the holiday finds you far from your loved ones and you want something festive to eat when you Skype into the family meal back home.
Regardless of your reasoning, there's never any shame in taking the easy way out, so I took it upon myself to taste four leading brands of frozen turkey-and-etc. meals. I cooked them all in a conventional oven.
Hungry-Man Roasted Carved White Meat Turkey ($2.50, 16 ounces)
This pound of food promises "home-style gravy with white meat turkey, seasoned stuffing, creamy mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and an apple cranberry dessert." It's cheap and easy to pick apart silly food marketing adjectives—"Ooh, honey, let's get this one: The turkey's carved!"—so I will only allow myself to say that this gravy, and the entire meal it insufficiently masks, is only "home-style" if you live in a combination prison-orphanage engaged in the black-market manufacture of sodium and despair.
Just about every element of the Hungry-Man was disastrous. The gravy was salty and greasy, the flavorless potatoes were barely reconstituted, the turkey was gummy and sliced too thin, and the stuffing managed to fail on both sides of the same dirty coin: The portion buried under the turkey was sogged into submission and the part exposed to the heating element for the full 40 minute cook time was rock-hard.
To be fair, the ambitious four-veg blend of peas, carrots, baby carrot coins, and (two) green beans was nearly mediocre, with the peas less desiccated than expected and the mushy carrots at least a proud shade of orange. The apple-cranberry dessert tasted like brown sugar jelly, but it was a thoughtful touch that in a different life wouldn't necessarily wreck a bagel. Alas, in the final accounting I have to say that no man, woman, or beast should ever be hungry enough to eat this.
Banquet Turkey Meal ($1.09, 9.25 ounces)
This was better than the Hungry-Man, and it's hard to quibble with any complete meal that costs $1.09. But I'm an expert quibbler, so here we go!
The dense, gray potatoes had an odd vegetal flavor that leaned more toward dirty than earthy. The turkey was a mix of light and dark meat, neither of which tasted like anything in particular and both of which were egregiously rubbery. However, the gravy was suitably viscous and the stuffing held up well. And good news for those who buy TV dinners for the vegetables: the peas were better than they looked, tasting fine for the quick second before they devolved into a mouthful of pea paste.
Stouffer's Signature Classics Roast Turkey ($2.89, 9.6 ounces)
Now we're getting somewhere. The potatoes were a bit overwhipped for my taste, but they fell squarely on the spectrum of acceptable mashed potato consistency and get major points for having actual flavor (fake butter, but still). The thick-sliced turkey tasted like good roasted chicken, and the stuffing had the best texture of the bunch. The peppery gravy was nice, but there wasn't enough of it; the scarceness and the package design made it hard to slop enough gravy over into the potato compartment.
And the Winner Is...
Boston Market Turkey Breast Medallions ($2.50, 15 ounces)
Boston Market scored big with both the best potatoes and the best turkey. The turkey's a little tough and stringy, but the substantial medallions represented the only protein in this tasting not best described as "probably chicken or, wait, is that canned ham?" It's turkey through and through.
The gravy was well-seasoned and savory. This dinner also benefitted from the best package design (which turned out to be a surprisingly important factor). The bold decision to throw compartments to the wind enabled maximum diner discretion in mixing the potatoes, turkey, and gravy, with the imposing mound of mashed keeping the mixed vegetables safe and dry on the far side of the good stuff.