My favorite holiday is fast approaching, my friends. In just a couple of weeks we'll be surrounded by the aromas and flavors of the holidays and, most importantly, by loved ones.
Planning and executing a Thanksgiving menu is a joy for me, so much so that I've insisted on hosting this family gathering at our home indefinitely. Our dining room is small but our welcome is big!
Today I'd like to share some of my favorite tips for taking the stress out of the Thanksgiving meal. Working in the restaurant and catering world taught me a lot of tricks that, believe it or not, also apply to entertaining at home. A little planning in advance can make things run a whole lot smoother on the day of the meal. Listed below is my short list of favorite tips in chronological order.
1. Order the Turkey
For carnivores, the turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, so why not treat it as such? At least two weeks ahead of time, consider ordering a fresh turkey from a local butcher. I know the frozen ones at the grocery store are cheap and seem convenient, but even this hardcore budgeter is in favor of spending a bit more on such an occasion. And that illusion of convenience is just that; with a fresh turkey there's no thawing to consider, only a little phone call in advance. Don't underestimate how helpful a butcher can be if you have special requests, too. Case in point: this year I'm roasting my legs and breasts separately, though still on the bones. I'm doing this because the breast meat dries out before the legs are cooked through. My butcher shop is going to do all that bone sawing for me -- how's that for convenience? I also added a pound of porcini-thyme sausage to my order so my Mom can use it in her family's stuffing recipe.
We ordered a Heritage Bronze turkey, known for its larger thighs (we're leg men around here.) For those local to Kansas City, consider Local Pig for your turkey order. They sell only local, ethically treated turkeys and you can have your pick of more white or more dark meat.
Most importantly, people: Fresh turkeys taste better. Period.
2. Plan the Menu and Hand out Assignments
Now comes the fun part. This process can look many different ways. If you're me, you sit down with a cup of coffee, your mom, and a stack of food magazines. If you're a little more traditional, you make a list of what each relative likes to make and your menu is done. If you're getting together with friends, you might give each one a ring to ask what he or she likes to contribute, then decide how you'll fill in the gaps.
We like to keep things simple. Lots and lots of dishes means lots and lots of prep time, which can take the fun out of the event. When I've had large groups in the past, I've welcomed contributions; I simply like to find out what people are going to bring in advance so I can plan around those dishes and any oven time they might need. If people ask you what you'd like them to bring, be direct. Requesting dishes that can be served at room temperature is a really good idea (see number 4.)
This year we're a small group and Mom and I are doing all the cooking. We're approaching this like we would a dinner party menu. The important components are all there, with nothing superfluous and everything easy to execute.
3. Plan the Table Setting
Your table can be spare or extravagant -- it's completely up to you. The important thing is to decide what it's going to look like ahead of time so you're not scrambling at the last minute. If you're a fancy china kind of person, you're going to want to make sure it's all washed a few days in advance. If you want to have a festive centerpiece, have a crafting night a week ahead of time.
Ina once said, "Every girl has a weakness and mine is a well-pressed linen." *And then I laughed until I cried. Nevertheless, if a well-pressed linen is on the agenda, do it on Sunday, not on Thursday morning. I borrowed one of my favorite practices from the catering world: I take ten minutes a few days prior and choose the platters I'm going to use for plating all of my dishes. I put a post-it on each one and stack them up in an out-of-the-way spot. That way I'm not holding a piping hot pot of mashed potatoes while turning in circles in the kitchen, trying to find a vessel.
4. Make the Lists
First up is the shopping list. I do this every Sunday after I plan my weekly menu for my family. I'm just a little more careful about it when it comes to Thanksgiving. No one wants to run out to the store on a holiday because you bought 3 onions when you needed 7.
Next is the prep schedule. It's super helpful to see what can be done on Monday or Tuesday that might ease your load on Wednesday and Thursday. Read over your recipes and double check how long your turkey needs to brine, for example, or how dry your bread cubes should be for the stuffing. You can make and freeze pie dough well in advance and most cranberry sauces keep for days in the fridge. You can wash and chop veggies, peel potatoes and keep them in a bowl of water, even make pumpkin pie filling and store it in a container in the fridge until you're ready to bake it. Give yourself a couple of tasks each day and the day of will be a breeze.
Lastly, write out an oven schedule. This is especially important if you have one small oven. You may need to bake some dishes in the morning, then put them back in to warm once the turkey comes out to rest.
Now we're getting close to the big meal and the cooking begins. If you're dreading this part, you probably shouldn't be hosting Thanksgiving. I kid, but only sort of. Figure out what will make the preparation enjoyable for you. Pull out some pretty tea towels and sharpen your knives. Pour yourself a glass of good wine and put on some dance tunes while you scurry around the kitchen. Or drink spiced cider and play a holiday movie in the background, taking your time and really getting into the process.
With careful planning, there won't have to be any last minute rush. Breathe, congratulate yourself, and sit down to savor a slow, delicious meal.
I hope you have so much fun gearing up for Thanksgiving. Check back for my full menu posting with prep schedule as well as table setting ideas!
*But seriously, Ina, I love you.