A Stress-Free Thanksgiving

November 5, 2013

So, I’ve been doing Thanksgiving dinner at my house for 14 years now. Each year, I have found another way to make things easier on myself. Now, let me make something clear, my Thanksgiving dinner is nothing fussy or fancy. I serve the food family style and allow people to pick and choose the items they want. We also sit all around the house to eat. Some people sit in the kitchen, some in the dining room, and some in the living room. I believe that this makes things more casual and comfortable for my guests. There were a few years where we all sat around a table together and it just felt too formal for my liking. Now, with that said, if you’re into the more formal style, by all means, go for it. The food is really what this is about anyhow. So each family is different and everyone does things their own special way. This is certainly not me telling you what to cook, how to cook it, or how to conduct your Thanksgiving dinner. This is simply me sharing a few tricks and shortcuts that I have been using for years to reduce that frantic feeling when you’re hot as hell from slaving over a hot stove all day, and the tantalizing aromas are leading more and more people into your kitchen to loom over your shoulder with hungry eyes, and there you are, silently praying for death while your gravy decides to choose TODAY of all days to seize up and be clumpy. Look, we’ve all been there and that is what Bourbon is for. And in all honesty, no matter HOW much you plan ahead and do in advance, there is always going to be some amount of stress and pressure when conducting those last moments of the “Turkey Dinner Symphony”. I don’t care WHO you are, it is a challenge getting everything out and warm at the same time. So, just do your best and have a cocktail. You’ve earned it.

Now, I have found that the key to the most successful procession on the big day figuring out what can be done in advance. The more you do ahead of time, the less you’re doing that day. It’s that simple. I know that I was quite unaware for several years just how many things can be done WEEKS in advance and frozen. No one can even tell…not even ME. I mean, I am not willing to sacrifice authentic flavor just so I can make things easier on myself that day. These things really taste 100% the same reheated as they do fresh. The second category of cooking in advance are items that can be cooked a couple days in advance and then reheated or assembled when needed. These are dishes that I would not or could not freeze. Then there is a category of items that can be prepped a day or two before Thanksgiving and then assembled and cooked the day of. Many vegetables used in things such as stuffing and side dishes can be cut up and stored in airtight containers for a few days. This reduces the amount of chopping, slicing, and dicing you’re doing the day of. Then, of course, there is the small group of items that must be cooked the day of, but really, with so much of the other stuff already done, these few things become much more manageable. Ready for me to break it down for you?

Things to cook/make in advance that can be frozen:

Pie crust. Depending on how many pies you plan on baking, make the appropriate amount of dough, plus one extra two-crust pie dough. That extra one can be used to make a turkey pot pie with leftovers. Making your own pie dough is really fairly simple. It freezes wonderfully and thaws overnight in the refrigerator. I generally store my dough in a ziplock freezer bag. I shape the dough into a disc shape and freeze each disc individually. The other option, if you are making several crusts, is to wrap each disc individually in saran wrap and then place the discs together in a larger ziplock bag. The flavor and texture you achieve from a homemade crust is unbeatable, and when you make it weeks in advance, it’s a breeze to make a homemade pie for Thanksgiving.

Gravy. Gravy is another item that freezes wonderfully and will keep in your freezer for months. What do you make your gravy with without a roasted turkey?? Well, go to the meat section of the grocery store and look for turkey wings and necks. If you cannot find them, ask the butcher and see if they can provide you with some. Roast those up in the oven until golden brown and crispy, and use the bits from the bottom of the pan as the drippings for your gravy. If all else fails, simply make a gravy with butter, flour, turkey or chicken stock, and whatever herbs you desire. Store the gravy in an airtight container (those clear plastic containers with covers at the olive bar in the grocery store work great!) making sure to leave some room because the gravy will expand slightly when it freezes. Thaw overnight in your fridge and heat up when ready to use it.

Mashed Butternut Squash. What I do is cut the squash in half, remove seeds, brush with some olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Then I roast them in the oven at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes or until fork tender. Once cool to the touch, I scoop out the flesh and discard the skin. Then i mash it up with some butter and maybe a dash of cream. Adjust seasoning if necessary and then freeze in a ziplock bag. I label things that I freeze too. This way I know exactly what everything is when I take it out weeks later. Thaw the squash overnight in the refrigerator and on the day of, scoop it into a nice bowl and microwave it up until it’s warm. The other option is to place the thawed squash in a casserole dish and bake it in the oven, though I rarely have enough room in my oven at this point of the day. The microwave becomes my best friend for a day on Thanksgiving.

Alright! That’s three things 100% done and out of the way. Next is the stuff you can make a few days before Thanksgiving and store in your refrigerator. I generally keep my side dishes very simple. Prep as many veggies as you can ahead of time and store in airtight containers. This way, when you’re cooking on the day of, everything is ready to go. No peeling, chopping, dicing. It’s like having a prep cook in your kitchen.

Cranberry sauce. In my house, we use the good old canned stuff, but if you plan to make homemade cranberry sauce, that can be made up to a week before the day and stored in an airtight container in your refrigerator.

Brussels sprouts. I make roasted sprouts every year. I have made believers of avid sprouts-haters with these roasted brussels sprouts. Although I do roast them on the day of, I prep the sprouts by removing their stems and halving them. They store in a ziplock bag for days this way. Then when you’re ready for them, you just dump them into a baking dish and season them up and pop them in the oven.

Green beans. I make a variation of “green beans almondine” as a side dish. What I do is trim the beans and blanch them in boiling water for a couple minutes. Then I cool them immediately in an ice bath. This stops the cooking immediately and keeps them a nice bright emerald green color. Once cooled, I store them in a ziplock bag in the fridge for a day or two. Then I heat them up at the last minute and add the remaining ingredients. Very simple. Big time-saver.

Stuffing. Now, I do not make the stuffing in advance, but I do prep all of the veggies and herbs involved in the recipe. I store them in an airtight container in the fridge for a couple days, and when I’m ready for them, I toss them in a pan to sautee them and add them to rest of the ingredients for the stuffing. I also toast the bread cubes the day before and store them overnight in a ziplock bag until I’m ready to use them. The oven is occupied for several hours during the day of thanksgiving, this way, it’s one less thing you need it for. Voila! Simple.

Appetizers. Certain appetizers can be prepped and even made in advance. I generally slice up the cheeses and store them in a ziplock bag a couple days in advance for my cheese and cracker plate. This way, all I’m doing is assembling the day of. Dips can also be made in advance. Often times, dips get better after a day or two in the fridge. I also make my deviled eggs ahead too. I put the yolk mixture into a large ziplock bag, and the halved whites in a separate bag. Then, when I’m ready to assemble, I simply cut off a small piece of the corner of the yolk bag and it becomes an instant piping bag. This allows you to easily fill each egg half. Those peeled hard boiled eggs at the grocery store are worth every penny in this case, but by all means, boil your own eggs ahead of time. A boiled egg will keep in the fridge for at least a week. I like the ones at the store because they are perfectly cooked every single time, and I don’t have to mess with peeling them. The olive bar at your grocery store can also be your best friend for holiday snacking. With a variety of items, from olives, to artichokes, to cheeses, you can easily gather a little bit of this and a little bit of that and make a great antipasto plate. These items can be purchased days in advance and stored in your fridge until you’re ready to put them out for your guests.

Pies. I generally bake my pies the day before thanksgiving. If you plan for it, thaw your dough, and set aside the time, all you have to do is assemble the pie and bake it! I keep my pie at room temperature overnight because I think that putting them in the fridge for 24 hours is 1. unnecessary and 2. makes the crust soggy. If you like your pie warm, pop it in the already warm oven while everyone is eating the dinner. It will be nice and warm by the time dessert rolls around.

It’s really amazing just how much you have done at this stage of the game. And nobody has even seen you break a sweat! Now for the things that must wait until the big day…

Turkey. If you’re buying a frozen turkey, you will need to thaw it properly before cooking. The best method for thawing the turkey is in the refrigerator at about 38 degrees. You can calculate that the turkey will need 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey. So for a 15 pound turkey, it will take 3 days to thaw. If there is no room in the fridge for a turkey to thaw, you can place the turkey in a cooler outside (in cold weather, of course) with some ice scattered around the bottom of the cooler to ensure it does not get too warm. When deciding how many pounds of turkey to get, I generally go with the rule of 1 pound of turkey per person. Does that mean that if you plan to have 20 people over for dinner you buy a 20lb. turkey? No. Some years we’ve had more guests than others. For those of you with lots of guests coming, I would recommend buying two smaller turkeys rather than one gigantic one. For starters, the giant ones take forever to cook, and often dry out by the time they are done. The other reason is that when you buy two turkeys, you can roast one the evening before Thanksgiving and keep in the fridge until the next day. Some people really like cold turkey. I slice the turkey the night before, and store in an airtight container in the fridge overnight. Then when I’m ready for it, I put the sliced turkey in a container with some chicken stock and microwave it for a minute to heat it up. The chicken stock ensures you get moist turkey. No one is ever the wiser. Then you also have the second turkey roasting in the oven the day of, giving your house that amazing aroma. Basically, I use the hot turkey first, and use the cold turkey for seconds and leftovers.

Mashed potatoes. I tend to be rather finicky about mashed potatoes. I think they take on a different flavor reheated, so I make them the day of. However, if you don’t mind reheated mashed potatoes, by all means, make those a few days in advance too and then reheat them the day of. What I do though, is to peel and cut them and then put them in a large pot and cover them with salted water. Not only does this mean they’re ready to go when I want to cook them, the salt water prevents them from browning. I usually peel and cut the potatoes the morning of Thanksgiving, once the turkey is in the oven. Then when I’m ready for them, I simply bring the pot of potatoes to a boil and cook them for about 15 minutes or until fork tender. Then all that’s left is the mashing. Easy!!

Rolls. Reheated rolls just aren’t the same. I bake the rolls at the last minute. Once everything is out of the oven, I pop them in. They only take a few minutes to brown, so by the time I’m done putting all the dishes out for the dinner, the rolls are ready to go.

So that’s pretty much it!! Make sure to have plenty of drinks, cocktails, sparkling waters, things of that nature. Try and relax and have some fun. Make sure to sit down once and a while and take some deep breaths. You can do this. If there is anything that you would like to know more about that perhaps I have left out, please feel free to contact me and ask away. Mostly, you can take the techniques I’ve explained and apply them to whatever dishes you are planning to make. Start planning now. Make a menu list. Make a guest list. Figure out and break down what can be done when. Buy any and all non-perishable ingredients as far in advance as possible. Not only does this make things more manageable financially, it makes it easier for you to be able to focus when the big day approaches. Make grocery lists for ingredients. Think about how you walk through the store and what is located where. As you visually imagine the store, list your items in the order of which you go through the store. This will save you SO much time not having to walk back and forth over and over. I hope this has been helpful and allows you to master your own Thanksgiving dinner. Best of luck to you and have a great holiday! I will be adding links to recipes for my Thanksgiving dishes over the next couple weeks. Stay tuned!



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