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Let’s Talk Turkey: An Expat Thankgiving

By October 9, 2011November 13th, 2014Uncategorized

Food wise, Thanksgiving is the most stressful holiday of the calendar year. It doesn’t have to be!

 I was lunching with my British friend Cordelia yesterday and mentioned the frenzied run up to this very American holiday.  “Yes,” she mused in her cut glass tones, “that’s the day I get down on my knees and thank God I’m not American.”  (Between you and me?  I am not convinced this is the only day of the year Cordelia indulges in this pastime, but I digress.)

On the surface of it, Thanksgiving seems simple:  The menu is basic: roasted poultry, stuffing, potatoes, optional vegetables, and some kind of relish, then pies to finish.   What makes it complicated, however, is the emotional baggage we bring to it.

This is heightened by a warp factor of 20 when, as expats, we are 3,500 miles away from the nearest box of Stove Top Stuffing or tin of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce.   The stakes are high:  if we don’t have Aunt Hilda’s sweet potato and marshmallow casserole, or Cousin Maude’s canned string bean, pistachio, and Velveeta melt, it just won’t be Thanksgiving, so what’s the point?

I want to challenge you to throw all that out the fortechka for your Russian Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving, when we are, as President Lincoln said in the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, “sojourning abroad” is rather a time to break the chains of the past and jettison the traditional in favor of the experimental (and believe me, that processed Russian cheese isn’t going to do the trick, and good luck finding the marshmallows!)  Trust me, soon your Russian Thanksgiving will be lodged in the annals of your own family lore, and in five years, you will be scouring Farmer’s Markets in Des Moines for obscure Russian kliukva or Borodinsky Bread, because it has become the “taste of Thanksgiving.”

Here is another liberating thought:  Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be hard:  it’s one big meal, but you can break it into very manageable pieces, and you can streamline and simplify it.  Here’s how:

Thanksgiving Myth # 1 – Busted:  You do not have to stuff the turkey:

I’m not advocating not having stuffing, which after all is why we all look forward to the fourth Thursday in November, but rather that you don’t have to go through all that craziness of putting the stuffing in the bird.  It’s messy, it’s tricky, and salmonella never far from anyone’s mind.  The turkey soup will be gungey.  If you over stuff it, you risk explosion and even I can’t come up with the complete lexicon of how to explain to a Russian landlord that a large bird exploded in the oven, splattering wet bread all over the inside.     I love stuffing, and in the next few days I’ll be encouraging you to knock yourself out on the stuffing:  get fancy with chestnuts, oysters, apples, dried fruit or whatever takes your fancy, but cook it separately in a baking dish, or, as I plan to do this year, in muffin tins for neat little portions.  Cook it the night before, refrigerate it, then let it come to room temperature for a few hours while the turkey is roasting, then, as the turkey rests and someone is hacking away at it, while you and your buddy argue about gravy, you can slip the stuffing into the oven to warm it up.  Alternatively, you can nuke it, as long as you remove the stuffing from any metal containers.

Thanksgiving Myth # 2 — Busted:  You Don’t Have To Have The Meal on Thursday.

Move it to Saturday or Sunday of that same week.  Believe me, your Russian HR manager is so not interested in your need to remember the friendship forged between the Native Americans after the first hard winter in Massachusetts. Yeah right.  It’s a work day in Russia, same as any other.  So, shift it to the weekend when you can enjoy the full measure of a tryptophan-induced haze.

Thanksgiving Myth # 3: — Busted.  You Don’t have to do it all yourself!  Delegate, Delegate, Delegate: 

Thanksgiving is a time for sharing and that means doling out the work.  If you are hosting the meal, I think you should make the turkey, primarily because toting around a roast turkey in Moscow is a pain.  Coordinate and delegate with your invitees, who are likely to be what I call “The Urban Family,” or your friends and colleagues here in Russia.  Be flexible and understanding about Dee Dee really wanting to do Brussels Sprouts, and Joe Kelly saying he just can’t imagine Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes, even though you have a hankering to try a more chic turnip and sage mash you found in this month’s “Saveur.”   Ask everyone to bring their dishes completed in labeled serving dishes (so you can return them) and only needing heating up right before the meal.


Thanksgiving Myth # 4 – Busted:  You Don’t Have To Have One Large Turkey: You Can Have Two Small Ones

Your Russian oven may not be up to it.  I have often had two smaller ones, which will cook much faster and leave me with more bones for stock.  Don’t tell too many people this, but, of course, you could also just have a lot of chicken…


This is personal choice.  I think any time between 2 and 4 pm is the perfect time to have Thanksgiving Dinner.  Ask guests to come an hour before you plan to sit down, but be sure to have something on hand which will, on the one hand keep body and soul together, but not get in the way of the feast to come.  Avoid heavy cheeses or pates. My choice for this is always seafood.  It’s light, it whets the appetite, and if you serve it with citrus, it cleanses the palate for what is to come next.  Buy a bag of Emborg cooked shrimp and serve with a cocktail sauce (1 cup/250 ml of ketchup, a generous spoonful of horseradish, a shake of Tabasco, a glob of mayonnaise, a squeeze of lime and a generous shot of tequila or vodka.)  Serve with champagne or Bloody Marys.


Make It Easy, Fun and Relevant For The Kids; Make it Eas(ier) on the Parents:

Kids should certainly be included in the festivities, but think carefully about the range of ages you will have at your Thanksgiving feast and consider an earlier seating for the children, possibly with paper plates and napkins and (dare I suggest it) some child care laid on.

So, okay – you are all geared up for your Very Russian Thanksgiving.  Countdown begins:

14 days out Settle on your guest list, delegate side dishes.  Check you have enough plates, cutlery, barware, serving plates, chairs etc.  Make a comprehensive shopping list. 
10 days out Start sourcing the turkey.  Turkey sales don’t spike in Moscow each November, so you need to plan a little bit in advance.

  1. AUCHAN and METRO have frozen turkeys in their poultry section.
  2. The poultry section of any of the Farmer’s Markets in Moscow can organize a free-range turkey for you with some advance notice.  I advise going about a week in advance and discussing what you need with the staff, then arrange to pick up your bird one day before your Thanksgiving meal is due to start.  Be clear that you do want the neck, but that you would be delighted if they removed the feet.
  3. LavkaLavka  is a relatively new company, which brings fresh meats, vegetables, and dairy products direct to you from farms in the Moscow region.  Their friendly staff speaks some English and the products I’ve gotten from them has been exceptionally good, if slightly pricier than other options.  You’ll definitely get a free-range bird that is very fresh and delicious.  Call them in advance to discuss terms.

NOTE:  Measure the dimensions of your oven before you set out to get the turkey.


4 days out Order wine delivery for one day before your Thanksgiving dinner.If you aren’t using a wine delivery service in Moscow, this is a great time to start. gets the Moscovore endorsement because of its range of affordable European and New World vintages, its prompt service, and very pleasant staff.   Their website isn’t in English, but they do show pictures of the bottles that give you a very good idea of what you are looking at.
3 days out Do your shopping and if your duties include pie making, spend this time making the crust.
2 days out Prep vegetables and prepare breadcrumbs for stuffing.  Peeled potatoes will stay fresh in salted water in the refrigerator for two days, as will carrots and other root vegetables.  Keep in separate containers and change water each 12 hours or so.If your turkey is frozen, get it out of the freezer and begin to defrost in the fridge. 
1 day out Collect the turkey(s) and brine them:Prepare a solution of cold water, rosemary, thyme, brown sugar, coarse sea salt, lemon peel, lemon juice, and bay leaves in a large stockpot; set on moderately high heat and simmer until the salt and sugar dissolve.  Cool to room temperature, and then immerse the turkey(s) in the solution in a large cooler, lined with a garbage bag. Unless it is unseasonably warm, set this out on the balcony overnight.Set the table the night before. You will be so glad you did!
T-DAY It’s T-Day!

  1. Have a strong cup of coffee.
  2. Adjust the oven rack to the lower middle, or lowest level possible.  Preheat oven to 325F or 180C.
  3. Rinse the brined turkey thoroughly with cold water, inside and out.  Pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Remove the neck and place it in a small saucepan with 3 cups of water or stock, some sprigs of thyme, half a lemon and a lug or two of white wine.  Simmer this throughout the morning to achieve a redolent turkey broth you will use for gravy.
  5. If you are going to stuff the turkey, make sure the stuffing is pre-cooked and cooled to room temperature. Stuff the bird loosely (really loosely) right before you put it in the oven.
  6. If you aren’t going to stuff the turkey, sprinkle the cavity with a generous handful of sea salt then place a mixture of chopped green apple, yellow onion, fresh rosemary and thyme, 1 celery rib, one carrot and a sprig of parsley.
  7. Massage the skin with a mixture of melted butter and virgin olive oil and sprinkle salt and pepper over the top and bottom.  Set on the rack of a roasting pan.

And we’re off!

Here are approximate times for both stuffed and un-stuffed turkeys.  These are meant to be rough guidelines only.  If you have sourced your turkey from the farmers’ market or LavkaLavka, and it is free-range, slaughtered the day before, it will cook much faster than a frozen turkey (which you have obviously unthawed.) Brining, while also making the bird incredibly moist, speeds up the cooking time as well, so keep an eye on the turkey as it cooks.   After the first hour, you can add some chicken stock/white wine to the roasting pan to get some gravy going.  Watch out for the skin of the turkey being scorched on the top.  If this is happening, smear butter on the bottom of a sheet of aluminum foil and paste it butter side down on to the turkey.

The best way to tell if a turkey is done is to take its temperature:  it should have an internal temperature of 170-180 F or 76-82C.  Make sure the stuffing is at least 165F.  If you don’t have a meat thermometer, take a sharp knife and insert it into the drumstick.  If the juices run clear, you are done.

Pounds Kilos Stuffed Unstuffed
8-12 3.7 — 5.4 3 to 3 ½ hours 2 ½ to 3 hours
12-14 5.4 – 6.3 3 ½ to 4 hours 3 to 3 ½ hours
14-18 6.3 0—8.2 4 to 4 ¼ hours 3 ½ to 4 hours
18-20 8.2 – 9 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hours 3 ¾ to 4 hours

 When the turkey is done, bring it out of the oven and place on a carving board.  “Tent” it with aluminum foil for at least ½ hour.

While you “rest” the turkey, slot the vegetable dishes into the oven to warm up and make the gravy.

The gravy is where it gets ugly.

My friend Thad went ballistic one November over it (and then we later learned he was bi-polar.)  I have seen mothers threaten daughters with large knives over gravy.  I am not sure why, but it does.  My advice is to designate a Gravy Tsar and order everyone out of the way.  If no Gravy Tsar suggests himself (it curiously, like grilling seems to be a guy thing), then here is what you do:

Gravy 101:

Take the empty roasting pan from which you have removed the turkey and drain all but ¼ cup or 60 ml of drippings from the pan.  Set the pan on 1 or 2 burners on low heat.

As the drippings heat up, pour ¼ cup or 60 ml of dry white wine on the drippings.  As the wine bubbles, use a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits at the bottom of the roasting pan.  Keep stirring as the wine reduces to a syrupy consistency.

Whisk in 1-½ cups or 375 ml of turkey stock and simmer until reduced by half.  This can take up to 20 minutes.

Combine 1 Tablespoon of all-purpose flour with 1 Tablespoon of butter into a roux or paste, and then gently whisk it into the roasting pan.  As you whisk, the gravy will thicken.

Taste and adjust seasonings. You can add salt, pepper, chopped thyme, lemon juice, more wine…or whatever your own inner Gravy Tsar tells you is a good idea.  If the gravy does not thicken, make more roux.

Finally, reduce the temperature in the oven to a low 140F or 60C and place any pies that need warming up in the oven.

All that remains is to dig in!


Hey There Moscovores!

What’s on your Thanksgiving docket for this year?  Do you have any Very Russian Thanksgiving stories to share?  Hit the comment button below and share them with us!  Over the probki and through the metro, to babushka’s house we go…


  • Mary Deathe says:

    Oh, where were you when I first moved to Moscow? And if all else fails, meet your friends at Starlite for their Thanksgiving dinner!

    • jennifer says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mary! you can, of course meet the gang at the Starlite, and if I’m not mistaken, they do a fine takeaway Thanksgiving dinner!
      Many thanks for stopping by!

  • Joanie Chapel says:

    Great article! And as a vegetarian, I can easily do without the turkey (not sure my dog can) but without mashed potatoes it is NOT Thanksgiving! (And if the gravy has a little turkey broth in it – well…. maybe I’m not entirely vegetarian!). And that’s why I’m bringing mashed potatoes to the Thanksgiving potluck!

    • jennifer says:

      Joanie – very good point, and one I’ll be addressing in the next few days. My two nieces are vegetarians and I always wrack my brains to keep it interesting.
      T’day would not be t’day without gravy…would it?
      Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

  • Heather says:

    Oh I love this article! It is my first Thanksgiving away from my family and I am already gearing up by making a skype date with my grandma to cook all day (well, night here). Your turkey brine looks fantastic, I can’t wait to try it.
    I will be cooking for 10 Russians and 2 Brits (and a partridge in a pear tree) and I bought a 14 lb turkey – do you think it’s enough? I was afraid to buy a larger one because of exactly what you said – the oven it TINY! I found it at Metro, just like you said (thanks for that!)
    Also, I loved the potluck idea. Although I am a bit weary of my green bean casserole coming with a mayo glaze or “salad” as selyodka pod shuboi (ew)!
    Have you ever found sweet potatoes here? I am mildly horrified that there is no such thing in Russia as I can’t find an adequate translation or appropriately describe what one is to a Russian. No sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving!??!? I thought maybe if it’s under a different name (like the squash all being called pumpkin!), you would know.
    I will be making everything from scratch from the cream of mushroom soup and fried onion garnish for the green bean casserole to the graham crackers for the crust of the pumpkin pie.
    Is there a Stokmann in Moscow? We have them here in Petersburg and they might help you find those “wilder” ingredients – I even found mini marshmallows there once. For the price of my left ovary, of course.
    and CONVERSION CHARTS! those are magnificent, since I am making everything by eye-ing it due to lack of “special equipment” like measure cups (my hozyaika told me that she “doesn’t bake”) and I had no idea what 200 g looks like (until now!) Thanks!!

  • jennifer says:

    Dear Heather!
    Wow! You really made my week! I’m so pleased this article was helpful for you in preparation for your first solo T’day!

    I do think a 14 pounder is enough, but if you are concerned, my advice is to get 2 turkey breasts (so easy to find here) and just roast them the day before and keep them handy. You can always hurl them in the soup.

    Sweet potatoes are called either батат or сладкий картофель. Here in Moscow, I’ve seen them in the upscale perekrestoks (Perekrestok Zelyonii) and at Stockmann’s (yep, we have three).

    I have a very hassle-free recipe for Mushroom soup on the blog, do check it out.

    Final piece of advice: prep your Russian guests about how this meal unfolds. T’day is an unusually American event and most Russians I know are simply gobsmacked by the scale.

    Please — photos on the Moscovore Facebook page please! We want to see your triumphs!



  • Potty Mummy says:

    Wow – and I thought Christmas was big deal in the UK… Fantastic pointers Jen – and I just bought some sweet potatotes (for a curry, I’m afraid, rather than to serve with marshmallows *cue theatrical shudder in a Cordelia-styley*) from Auchan in the chiller cabinet. The chiller cabinet – of course! Why didn’t I think of looking there before?

  • Karen Percy says:

    I just did an 8kg turkey for Canadian Thanksgiving (early October) and wish I had read this before hand. I sourced the bird from Doromogilovskaya – my lovely lady came through yet again. So far she has never let me down – 3 Thanksgivings and 2 Xmases I have had lovely turkeys that I order before hand and pick up on the day. This one was a whopper – iIt just fit in my pan and just fit in the oven. Despite basting it endlessly it was a bit dry – I was so worried about not cooking it enough because it was by far the biggest I had ever cooked – even with my thermometer I went a little too much the other way. The brine solution idea is a fab one. Also love the idea of butter on foil!! So simple. Still it was delicious with gravy, mashed potatoes and the various vegetables and salads our guests brought. I found sweet potatoes at the Alye Parusa near Kievskaya – individually wrapped (egad!!) and costing about $3 each. But they were great. I also put my mashed potatoes in the slow cooker on low – as suggested in one of your other excellent postings. I made a cranberry and pumpkin seed stuffing (dressing for you Americans) which was delicious too. All in all a fabulous feast!

  • Hello there! I’m glad to have visited this page and found this topic interesting. Surely Thanksgiving isn’t just about the turkey. There are a lot of other things to cook too. Thanks a lot!

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