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.