3 Cheap and Tasty Ideas to Spice Up Holiday Meals

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Can saltwater make a turkey tastier? Can rosemary make your punch spicer? And can you really make cheap wine seem expensive with a cookie?

‘Tis the season for money-saving shortcuts!

1. Brining your turkey

A beautiful, golden turkey is the centerpiece of every Thanksgiving meal, but often it can be dry and lacking in flavor. So this year, soak it in a brine before roasting.

Brining poultry is the single best way to season and flavor the meat while also preventing it from drying out. What is a brine? It’s a liquid solution containing salt, sugar, and aromatics. When a turkey is soaked in this solution, the flavorings and the liquid in the brine are carried into the meat through osmosis. It’s a cheap and easy way to season the meat from the inside.

If you do a search for “turkey brining,” you’ll get more information than you need. The best video walkthrough I’ve seen is Turkey Brining Secrets from Food Channel star Alton Brown, which will give you a good overview. But here’s my own easy (and simpler) recipe…

Basic Brining Recipe
For a 14-to-16-pound turkey (giblets removed)

  • 1 gallon vegetable stock
1 cup salt
½ cup brown sugar
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon allspice berries
  • 1 tablespoon candied ginger
  • 1 gallon ice water

Make the brine a day or two before the turkey is roasted. Mix all ingredients except the ice water in a large pot and bring to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Once the liquid boils, turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature. Combine the cooled brine and ice water in large, food-ready bucket. Submerge the turkey in the brining solution breast side down and store in the refrigerator for 10 to 20 hours, rotating the turkey halfway through. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse with cold water, and pat dry. The turkey is now ready to be roasted following any recipe.

Some helpful tips…

  1. If you don’t have a large enough bucket, use a cleaned garbage can lined with a few large garbage bags.
  2. The aromatics in the recipe are just a suggestion. They’ll add some flavor to the turkey but aren’t necessary if you don’t already have them or have trouble finding them. The turkey will still benefit from a brine made with only water, stock, salt, and sugar.
  3. Make the brine on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving so you can start the brining process early on Wednesday morning. This will give the turkey enough time to soak up the flavor and moisture, and it will give you more time to work on the side dishes.

2. Rosemary packs a punch

When most people think of rosemary, what comes to mind might be Rosemary Chicken or even the horror flick Rosemary’s Baby. But not a holiday punch.

But this punch is delicious and perfect for holiday entertaining. It’s simple to make and is both beautiful and refreshing. Every time I serve it, I always get asked for the recipe. The key is the rosemary-infused simple syrup. It gives the punch just enough rosemary flavor and sweetness to balance the tartness from the cranberry.

For the rosemary syrup…

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 rosemary sprigs

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Then add the rosemary and simmer for 5 more minutes. Remove from heat and transfer into a a bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

For the punch…

  • 3 cups cranberry juice cocktail
  • 2 cups orange juice (fresh-squeezed is best)
  • 3 cups chilled sparkling water

Remove rosemary from the sugar syrup. Combine the syrup, juices, and sparkling water in a large pitcher. Serve over ice and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

3. California Wine Wafers

I’m usually suspicious when food writers endorse one product, but this one really works. At the Lake Tahoe Food and Wine Festival in California, I discovered a dessert that pairs perfectly with any wine. It’s a cookie called a “wine wafer” – an old European tradition that’s been around for centuries. They’re a delicious and inexpensive way to make a wine night at home as classy as a wine festival.

California Wine Wafers come in the following flavors, all $8.50 for 8 wafers, with shipping another $5 depending on quantity…

  • Lemon Vanilla – to be paired with white wine
  • Mocha-Chocolate – to be paired with red wine
  • Raspberry Almond – to be paired with champagne

I love pairing sweets with wine for a delicious dessert. However, it can be difficult to know which desserts to pair with which wines. That’s why these wafers are perfect for anyone, no matter their wine knowledge. They have an unusual quality that blends smoothly with the wine they’re paired with. To use them correctly, all you need to know is if the wine is red, white, or sparkling. It takes the guesswork out of pairing wine with dessert.

This type of wafer cookie has been around since 1640, and in its long history, there’s evolved a traditional way to eat them. They’re 7 inches in diameter, so they can be shared at a dinner party. Once the meal is over, and there’s only a bit of wine remaining, one wafer gets passed around and each guest takes a bite.

It’s important to take a big bite and let the wafer absorb the moisture in your mouth. Then just before swallowing, take a sip of wine. Instantly, the wine enhances the wafer and vice versa. What more could you want out of a cookie?

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