Nov. 16, 2012 -- Sam Sifton, the national editor of The New York Times, has a new book out called "Thanksgiving, How to Cook it Well" in which he cleverly outlines the do's and don'ts for a perfect Thanksgiving feast.
"Thanksgiving is scary for a lot of people. It's a holiday that's filled with a lot of stress," Sifton told ABC News. "Do I have enough plates? Do I have enough glasses? Am I really going to have a tablecloth? What is a tablecloth? Can I use a sheet? That's cheap. Maybe I should -- well, maybe it's good. What do I do about Uncle Morty who's an alcoholic? He's gotta be there -- but then he gets drunk!"
Sifton's secret: Thanksgiving doesn't have to be so complicated.
"I thought it might be helpful just to say – everything's gonna be OK," Sifton said. "It's a pretty simple meal when you really think about it. You're roasting a giant chicken. You're mashing some potatoes. You're mashing almost everything. It's basically piles of mush on a plate with slices of big chicken."
And while some of today's cooking icons offer extravagant menus, Sifton's goal is to maintain simplicity.
"Well, I love Martha Stewart," Sifton said. "Between us, I'm a little scared of Martha Stewart too. And I love Rachael Ray. I don't think I'm scared of Rachael Ray, but I love both those women and they're accomplished cooks and accomplished entertainers. I'm much more low bar than those beautiful women. I'm just the guy saying, 'Hey, let's roast a turkey and make it really delicious.'"
Sifton grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his appreciation for food began at a very young age.
"I spent my childhood driving around with my father looking for different products. ... We would come back and make these great big feasts in the house," Sifton said. "So from a very early age, I was kind of fascinated by the diversity of foods in the city and how you can get them and what it tasted like and how much it mattered that this pizza was better than that pizza."
Sifton spent two years as the restaurant critic for The New York Times, dining out all over the city and beyond, refining a 25-year passion for food and cooking. In what has become a trademark of his writing, he wittily lays down some "rules" in this new handbook to Thanksgiving:
1. Use lots of butter."Let us speak plainly about butter. There's gonna be a lot of butter. I think it is not incorrect to lay in at least two pounds of butter for the day," Sifton said.
2. Cranberry sauce and gravy are necessary side dishes."At the very center of all this – are the cranberry sauce and the gravy."
2. You must have pie."You need to have pie at the end," Sifton said. At least the three most important ones: apple pie, pumpkin pie and pecan pie. "There's no place for chocolate at Thanksgiving. Chocolate – it's good for depressing nights. For unfortunate birthdays, for New Year's Eve spent alone – things of this nature. It's not for Thanksgiving."
3. Always set the table and give thanks."This changes the behavior of those who gather at the table. Children are better behaved by dint of this kind of special thing before them. Even grown-ups sit up straighter and act a little more ... adult," Sifton said. "If you take that moment at the beginning of the meal to say a grace – simply take a moment to look everyone at the table in the eye and say I want to say thanks. I want to give thanks for your presence. Maybe you want to thank the turkey, if it's one of those fancy turkeys that went to college. That's the purpose of the whole thing, right? It's the one holiday that all Americans really, really gather together to celebrate. More than the Fourth of July, I would argue. More than Christmas."
1. No appetizers."You must not serve appetizers," Sifton insisted. "The scent of the turkey is enough to stir your hunger, and I certainly am not going to spend all day roasting a turkey so that you can come into my home and eat two pounds of nuts and then refuse seconds. That's just rude."
2. No salad."You must not serve a salad," Sifton said. "This is not a place for health. This is Thanksgiving. So let us speak plainly about butter."
1. Turkey goes into the oven dry."Let me give you three secret tips," Sifton said. "The first is to make sure that the bird that goes into the oven is dry. That is it has been well-dried with paper towels, and the reason for this is pretty simple. You don't want the heat of the oven having to work to evaporate all this water that's on the bird before it gets to work burnishing the skin."
2. Make a simple turkey stock."The second tip is take that turkey neck – maybe you didn't know it was a turkey neck – take that turkey part that was in the turkey at the beginning of the day and put it into a pot with some vegetables that you happen to have lying around – a carrot, apiece of celery, an onion," Sifton said. "Add water and let that bubble away all day as a kind of primitive turkey stock. You could use it to moisten your dressing. You could use it to moisten and warm up the sliced turkey before you serve it. People will be like 'This is really, this is the best turkey you've ever made!' And you'll say, 'Thank you.' It's great! It works every time."
3. Have plenty of gravy."The third tip that I can offer, from years of cooking this thing and writing this book, is that gravy is a big problem for people," Sifton said. "It's a big mystery. They're scared of it. They don't need to be. There's a product you can get in supermarkets, it's like a finely milled flour – they call it instant flour. I think Wondra is one of the brands – there must be others. They come in these kind of sleeves. And it's kind of magical because it doesn't clump. And so when you scatter it over the mess at the bottom of the pan that you're gonna turn into this magical elixir called gravy. And you want a lot of gravy – you want rivers of gravy to put over everything. You put it in there, you mix it around and it doesn't clump up in that way that regular all-purpose flour does. And you cook it down and let the taste of the flour come off. Add stock and cream and booze and salt and pepper to that – you've got an amazing gravy – every time, once again people say, this is the best gravy you've ever made. And the response is simply, 'Thank you!'"
Footnote: Remember – no one ever judged you because you bought your own cranberry sauce.