Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I know that for many people Thanksgiving can be a stressful and terrifying time. Many of those people get caught up in a Norman Rockwell/Martha Stewart ideal of what Thanksgiving should be. The first rule for any chef running a kitchen is: “What can my kitchen produce, and what are the skills of my cooks?” If you are Martha Stewart, you have a brigade of classically trained chefs, and a battery of the best equipment to work with, you can do a lot. Most of us have to make do with the equipment we have and the skills we have.
If you take a little extra time to plan your dinner ahead of time, and use the couple of days leading up to the big dinner to prep a little everyday, you will find you will have a more enjoyable Thanksgiving. Here are a few tips that I hope will make your Thanksgiving a little more thankful, and a little less stressful.
1. Mis En Place
Make a List. The first thing a young commis learns in culinary school is Mis en Place: literally everything in place. Prep is everything; start a few days out dicing onions, carrots, celery. Cleaning green beans and veggies and putting them in Ziploc bags. Most cranberry sauce recipes can be made a week ahead. Make your mashed potatoes the day before and heat them up on Thanksgiving Day in a double boiler. Make pies and desserts a couple days ahead.
2. Make dishes that can be served at room temperature.
Brussel sprout salad, Green Bean Salad, Root Vegetable Salad or German Potato Salad are all great ways to take pressure off the stove and still have a nice spread. I like to make Ratatouille, which is a hearty vegetarian option. A cold Cedar Planked Salmon is a great addition to any table.
3. Don’t experiment on your guests: K.I.S.S.
If you’re going to try that new Cranberry Horseradish soufflé recipe you saw on the Food Network, practice first. Try out any new recipes in the weeks leading up to the big day. You can figure out if you even like the dish and whether it is even reasonable to try to cook. There is a reason why Thanksgiving is a time of traditions. Keep it simple
4. Buy a smaller turkey and order it ahead of time
Contact your butcher or local market and order a fresh bird ahead of time. The difference in taste is discernible. Arrange to pick it up a couple of days before Thanksgiving. Depending on how many people you are serving it is easier to cook one or two smaller birds. First, smaller birds are younger and more tender (think veal or lamb). Second, they are easier to handle. And lastly, they have a more reasonable cooking time. If you are having twelve people over for Thanksgiving, a 12-pound turkey is more than sufficient. If you are a big fan of leftovers, there are always turkeys on sale on the Friday after thanksgiving.
5. Brine your bird
Soaking your bird overnight in a solution of salt, water and spices will help tenderize your bird and infuse it with a distinctive flavor. For a 12-pound bird, I use 6 cups water, 1 bottle of white wine and 1½ cups salt. You can add cinnamon sticks, mustard seed, coriander, fennel, thyme sprigs, rosemary sprigs, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring your solution to boil and then let cool. Using a pot or container large enough for the bird, cover with the solution and put in fridge over night. Before cooking, remove from the solution and rinse inside and out under running water, pat dry with paper towels and let skin dry before cooking.
6. Use a meat thermometer
Whether you like to go long and slow on your roast or deep fry your bird, the internal temperature should be 165 degrees. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Remove the bird from the oven, place on a cutting board and tent with foil. Now you can make your gravy.
7. Carve your bird in the kitchen
After letting the bird rest for 25–30 minutes, carve your bird and serve on a warmed platter. I drizzle with some warm chicken stock over the meat to give a little extra moisture and tent with foil.
8. Serve dinner as a buffet
Lay everything out and let people come up and serve themselves. Trying to fit everything on a crowded table makes people uncomfortable, and sometimes causes awkward accidents. Leave the table for biscuits, dinner rolls, the gravy boat and bottles of wine and water.
9. Always have some appetizers and drinks available when guests arrive
I like to make a punch with a holiday theme that people can serve themselves. Say a punch of bourbon, campari, sweet vermouth and cranberry juice garnished with oranges and cranberries. Always have some easy appetizers available; this could be as simple as a cheese board with a good quality cheese and dried fruit and crackers. Remember people are going to show up hungry.
10. Have a clean-up plan
One rule I have is: no one gets dessert until the dinner dishes are done. This gives people time to stretch and relax. We put on a cartoon for the kids. The day before Thanksgiving, clean out your refrigerator so you have room for the leftovers. Also make sure to have plenty of foil, Ziploc bags and Tupperware.
11. Serve good wine but not great wine
I used to set aside precious wines for Thanksgiving only to find that in the time between decanting and making that quick run to the kitchen to check on the bird, the wine was guzzled by guests before I even had the chance to proof the bottle. There are many good quality wines that will pair very well with the cacophony of flavors that is Thanksgiving Dinner without breaking the bank or your heart. That said, if you are a guest coming over to someone’s house for Thanksgiving, you should bring a bottle of something good. My rule of thumb I have is to ask myself, “what would I pay for this dinner if I was dining at a restaurant?” That is how much I spend on the bottle I bring. If you follow this rule, chances are you are more likely to be invited back for dinner again.