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All this week, Special Fork bloggers will highlight Thanksgiving with tips, tricks and recipes for your holiday, culminating on Video Friday with a stuffed delicata squash demo, the perfect Thanksgiving main dish for vegetarians and a wonderful side for everyone else. For more recipes, visit our Special Fork database of recipes. Use the keyword, “Thanksgiving,” for your search.
When Dave made his first Thanksgiving dinner while at grad school in Massachusetts, I was prepared to be his personal Thanksgiving hotline until the meal was done. Actually, my son seemed to have survived his first major entertaining experience unscathed. As he pointed out with a chuckle, since many guests were international students, they had no great expectations.
If you’re cooking your first Thanksgiving dinner or if you aren’t a frequent host or hostess, here are some tips I shared with Dave that could help.
In a nutshell: Thanksgiving is all about planning. Planning is all about the menu. And the menu begins with the turkey.
It’s about the turkey:
Your entire Thanksgiving plan, from when you shop to what works for your menu, revolves around the turkey. If you buy a frozen bird, you have to allow for thawing time, which means buying your turkey a few days in advance. (We splurge on a fresh, free-range turkey these days, but we’ve bought many a frozen bird when our budget was tighter.) When menu planning, remember that the turkey will be monopolizing your oven for hours; side dishes or desserts that compete for oven space must be baked before or after the turkey is done, unless you have a second oven.
The US Department of Agriculture has an excellent Thanksgiving guide with charts for defrosting and roasting, based on the weight of your turkey.
Now for some reassurance: a turkey is the easiest thing to cook. If you just removed the giblets and neck from the two cavities (neck and body), and salted and roasted the bird, you would have a perfectly fine product, so no worries. There are lots of refinements that make it better, of course. Try Andrew’s California Roast Turkey, which offers a complete, step-by-step guide to a super-delicious main course.
Once the turkey is roasted, it needs to sit for 20 to 30 minutes before carving to finish cooking and to enable the juices to get back into the tissues, making meat moister. Those precious 20 minutes are your window for heating or reheating side dishes and making the gravy. This is the most hectic time before the meal.
Plan your table setting:
- Food always tastes better when the table is set attractively. Your table setting could be as simple as a grouping of small pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn, interspersed with bronze chrysanthemums or sunflowers, and inexpensive tea lights.
- Plan your serving dishes. You don’t want to be rummaging through your cabinets looking for dishes at the last minute. Make sure you have the right size bowls or platters and enough serving utensils; if not, buy or borrow. The night before, arrange all the platters and put a sticky note in each so you know what dish goes in which platter.
- Setting out your serving dishes in advance is also a great way to ensure you bring to the table everything you planned to serve. In the frenzy of getting ready, it’s easy to leave a dish in your fridge, forgotten until the next day. An empty platter will remind you.
- If this is a potluck dinner, ask guests to bring their own serving platters and utensils. (Somebody always forgets so have extras on hand.)
Check your equipment:
- Make sure you have an instant read thermometer that is working. It should read 212 degrees in boiling water and 32 degrees in a mixture of crushed ice and water; if your thermometer fails the test, buy a new one. Your entire meal depends on getting the turkey out of the oven at 165°F, the magic temperature for doneness.
- Be sure you have the right size roasting pan for your bird and find your bulb baster.
Plan your menu:
- Which items can be cooked in the oven before the bird goes in and served at room temperature? Which can be reheated in the 20 minutes when the bird vacates the oven?
- How many dishes can be cooked on stovetop while the turkey is roasting?
- Mashed potatoes are a challenge if you have to make gravy at the same time. Make mashed potatoes up to two hours ahead and keep warm in a slow cooker. Or put mashed potatoes in a heatproof bowl and put the bowl over a pot of simmering water. The bowl should sit above the water. Cover with plastic wrap; stir occasionally. If the texture isn’t right, add a little more butter or warm milk to reconstitute.
Go shopping now:
- You know the supermarket will become a madhouse closer to Thanksgiving. Buy the non-perishables now to save yourself some aggravation.
Make whatever you can ahead of time:
- Cranberry sauce keeps well so it can be made ahead.
- Pie dough can be made the day before, flattened into a disk and chilled, to roll out the next day; or make a week ahead and freeze.
- If you want to make the gravy ahead, roast turkey wings or even a small turkey ahead of time, simmer the carcass for stock, and use the stock and drippings for the gravy. Then you don’t have to scramble at the last minute when the turkey is done.
Prep the night before:
- Chop all the vegetables for stuffing and store separately in plastic bags. If you are chopping onion in advance, double bag the chopped onions and as a precaution, wrap the bag in newspapers, which will absorb any odors.
- Wash and dry lettuce for a salad and prep crudités by blanching veggies like carrots and broccoli florets the night before. (To blanch veggies, drop them into a pot of simmering water just until color turns darker; do not overcook. Drain immediately and put veggies in ice water to stop cooking; drain and pat dry with paper towels.)
Make a timetable:
- Remember that everything will probably take longer than expected. Cooking times on recipes don’t account for the time to heat a pan or boil water; prep times depend on the experience and skill of the cook.
- List every dish you are serving on a master timetable – note when you’re prepping, when you’re cooking and when you’re reheating.
- When you schedule the turkey, remember to allow for prep time. Before you can put the turkey in the oven, you’ll have to remove the neck and giblets from the cavities, wash out the turkey, pat dry with paper towels and season the bird.
Start with the easy things first:
- If I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll whack off the easy items first so I feel like I’ve accomplished something. If I get the cranberry sauce done, I can check something off the menu.
- For complicated recipes like stuffing, I accomplish it in parts – cube the bread, for example, or dice the onion. Once I complete a smart part, I’m ready to tackle the next part, and before you know it, the dish is done.
- Roasting a turkey isn’t an exact science. Each bird cooks in its own time. Have some nibbles on hand when guests arrive, in case the turkey is taking longer to cook.
- If parts of the turkey aren’t done, you can start slicing the part that is done (the breast first) and put the turkey back to roast for second helpings. Or slice individual portions and broil or microwave until cooked.
- If the bird is done earlier than expected, tent it with heavy-duty aluminum foil (lay foil loosely over turkey to contain the heat; do not seal tightly or bird will steam and the skin will get soggy.
Plan for leftovers:
- USDA says that you should cut up the turkey, separate stuffing and refrigerate in shallow containers within two hours of cooking, for food safety’s sake.
- If you plan to share leftovers with your guests, have partitioned paper plates handy that they can fill up with food. Paper plates are sealable with Glad Press ‘n Seal wrap. Or provide zip-top plastic bags.
- No matter how tired, don’t leave cleanup for the next day. It won’t be a pretty sight when you wake up.
- Throw all linens – napkins, tablecloth – into the washer so grease and stains don’t set in.
- If guests offer to help with the cleanup, do it before dessert so everyone can sit back down again and finish enjoying the party, rather than having their last impression of your dinner be about doing chores.
Does the whole deal seem like a lot of work? Yes, it is. But it’s also very satisfying, immensely creative and you get a vacation from cooking on Friday! Remember, no one is expecting perfection. Thanksgiving is a time to gather with loved ones to enjoy each other’s company and to reflect upon the blessings we have received. In the end, that’s all that counts!
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