Thanksgiving Dinner Part I: Planning

by Elizabeth Skipper | November 6th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

turkey usmcI am making my first Thanksgiving dinner for the family, which is a group of 10. I’ve eaten many dinners and helped family, but my husband and I have never made the whole dinner. What advice can you offer?

So you and hubby are to single-handedly put on Thanksgiving dinner for the family for the first time this year. My advice can be summed up in one word, “Plan.” Plan the menu. Plan the quantities, the grocery list, the seating, the tableware, the serving dishes, the beverages, and the timing. Make a spreadsheet if you’re so inclined. Make a timeline.

Generally speaking, when I think of Thanksgiving dinner I see a stuffed, roasted turkey as the centerpiece, surrounded by mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry relish, one orange vegetable, one green vegetable, and pies like apple, pumpkin, mincemeat, and pecan. Is your family likely to want familiar dishes? If so, get the requisite recipes if you don’t have them already. If not, then you have a lot of options. Some like bread stuffing, some add chestnuts or oysters; some use cornbread with or without sausage. You can stuff the turkey (my choice) or make it easy on yourself and bake it in a casserole.

I take it you’re not accustomed to cooking for 10 people. Don’t let that daunt you. The key to success is to not do anything too elaborate – after all, Thanksgiving isn’t traditionally a fancy meal, it’s a family meal – and to do as much as possible ahead. You can even make some things now, almost a month ahead. Baked mashed squash and turkey stock for the gravy freeze well, as do all pies except pumpkin. Green beans or broccoli can be blanched two days ahead and refrigerated; all you’ll need to do on the day itself is heat them. Toppings like sliced or chopped nuts can be toasted ahead. Just be sure you have room in the fridge and freezer for these things.

Not everything need be homemade. Make the appetizers simple, something that doesn’t require cooking. If you don’t want to bake and freeze your own pies, buy them at a good bakery. Lots of specialty stores and markets prepare and sell side dishes as well. If purchasing these items makes your job as hosts easier, that’s one fewer thing you’ll need to be concerned about.

If you want a fresh bird, place the order now with your store or butcher. They’ll appreciate the advance notice, and you’re more likely to get exactly what you want. If you want a free-range bird, deadlines are rapidly approaching for ordering, as they’re in limited supply. If you’d rather have an inexpensive frozen bird, you can wait and pick it up when they’re being sold as loss leaders to get you into the store. Just be sure to pick it up early enough to defrost in the refrigerator, the only safe way to thaw something of this size. You don’t say how many of you are adults and how many children, but for a family of 10, you’ll want a bird that weighs at least 15 or 16 pounds. A turkey that size can take up to four days to defrost, depending on the temperature of your refrigerator.

Think about how dishes are to be cooked. What goes in the oven, what on the stove top? There are only four burners on most home stoves, so don’t plan on using more than that. What can go into small appliances like an electric frying pan or a crockpot? Mashed potatoes can be kept warm in a crockpot, as can stuffing or other side dishes. If push comes to shove, you can keep gravy warm in a Thermos. Don’t plan a menu where everything needs the oven, or where certain dishes need widely divergent temperatures. An appetizer that requires a 450° oven will conflict with a pan of stuffing that cooks at 350°. Keep in mind, though, that with its large mass, the turkey can come out of the oven up to an hour ahead of meal time and still be warm when carved if it’s tented (covered with aluminum foil.) You’ll have that hour to cook or heat other things.

Decide what serving dishes, platters, and utensils you’ll use. Wash them if they’re dusty; polish them if they’re tarnished. Some people put Post-it notes on each, showing what goes in it. That’ll save you from having to explain everything to anyone who pitches in. Are the linens clean and ironed?

And your time line … list everything that needs to be done and when, and check it off as it’s done. Maybe even make more than one time line, one for the next few weeks, and one for the actual cooking. It may sound excessive, but planning makes all the difference between an anxious and a relaxed hostess. And a relaxed hostess equals a successful, enjoyable day.

Next week I’ll talk about portion sizes and stuffing the bird … or not…

(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

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