Your Turn To Cook? A Thanksgiving Planner
A Thanksgiving Planner
I don't know a single home cook who doesn't get intimidated by the prospect of making Thanksgiving dinner.
Whether you make Thanksgiving dinner every year or once in a while, cook for many or just for two -- this meal has iconic status. After all, not only does the food have to taste great but this meal also needs to deliver peace of mind, cure any emotional rifts, and give us moments of child-like security.
I know a superb home cook whose Thanksgiving dinner will include a rigorously basted free-range organic turkey, a sophisticated mushroom risotto, exquisite wines, a piquant cranberry chutney -- and the most revolting baked candied yams, taken from a can along with all the viscous syrup, and topped with two layers of marshmallows. Why? Because for him the meal isn't Thanksgiving without his Proustian side dish. No one else at the table will eat this orange and white sugared combo but he would no more leave it off the menu than he would the turkey.
Thanksgiving lays bare all our sentimentality about home cooking with the dinner table as metaphor for home and hearth. Whatever your expectations for this meal, if it's your turn to cook remember that you've got a role in everyone else's movie.
The pressure is on.
Here are some tips for making the cooking and hosting less stressful.
- Do a plan. Start with a detailed menu. Review every recipe, even if you've made something often, and make a master grocery list. If you'll need items from your pantry, like cinnamon or sugar, make sure you're stocked -- there's nothing worse than being mid-recipe only to find out you're missing a key ingredient. And don't wait to the last minute to grocery shop because the stores will become painfully crowded the closer you get to November 26th.
While you review recipes, also write down a timetable, starting with when you plan to sit down to dinner and backing into when everything needs to be done. Don't forget such key steps as taking the turkey out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature pre-roasting, and letting it rest after it's cooked. Note what's done on top of the stove versus in the oven and what can be cooked in advance. Most city cooks only have a single oven, plus maybe a toaster oven or microwave, and four stove burners, so make sure you won't be in a conflict with two items needing to be in the oven at the same time but at different temperatures. This kind of planning may prompt you to change the menu if you discover a rivalry for your equipment.
Include in your plan any foods that must be ordered in advance and any housekeeping tasks, like getting your platters out of their under-the-bed storage or borrowing folding chairs from a neighbor. Then do a countdown from now until Thanksgiving Day with all the milestones for when things have to be done. The point of the plan is to eliminate surprises and leave the day itself for final cooking.
- Set the table the night before. Check in advance the state of your flatware, wineglasses, and linens -- you don’t want to be unfolding a long-since-used tablecloth on Thanksgiving morning only to find that it's too small or has stains from the last time you used it.
- Order the big stuff soon. Maybe today. If you leave turkey buying until Thanksgiving week you will have few choices. So decide now how big a bird you'll need and which kind -- organic, pre-brined, kosher, wild, etc. See our article as well as our podcast interview with master butcher Marc Reyes of Eli's Manhattan.
- Don't forget other special ordering. If you plan to buy, not make dessert, you should order these in advance, too. See our article for some of New York's best bakeries if you have pie or pumpkin cheesecake in mind. Also, decide what you're doing for wine and any apertif you may serve when your guests first arrive. Champagne or sparkling wine is always welcomed and for those who don't drink alcohol, a chilled sparkling apple cider is festive. For ideas about wine with your meal, we have advice from Andy Fisher, president of Astor Center.
- What's your budget? Dinner for 6 with an organic 15 pound turkey, plus bread stuffing, butternut squash, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, apple pie and miscellaneous hors d'oeuvres will be about $100, plus wine. Switch to a non-organic turkey and you'll save about $25. I'm not advocating this but just stating a fact.
- The major food websites -- Epicurious, Food & Wine, Food TV, Martha Stewart, and the "Dining" section of nytimes.com -- all are rich with menus, recipes, ideas and techniques (I believe Martha Stewart's method for roasting a turkey using butter-soaked cheesecloth is fail-proof and it's the method I always use; look for it at marthastewart.com).
But as tempting as it may be to replicate one of their inspiring holiday menus, please resist making a meal full of new recipes. That's because the success of home cooking comes from knowing what something should look like, when it's done, and how it should taste. This doesn't mean your Thanksgiving needs to be commonplace but try to have most of your the meal be things you've cooked at least once before.
I remember a Thanksgiving of many years ago when instead of making the rice, sage and sausage stuffing that I learned from my mother that I know is always successful, I decided to substitute it with one by Bobby Flay that I had just seen on television. In this recipe, Flay combined rice with vibrant southwestern seasonings plus goat cheese. I don't know if it was me or the recipe, but the result was awful (this is when I learned how gobs of goat cheese can take over the flavor of anything, even jalapeno peppers). So resist the unfamiliar and stay with mostly the tried and true. If you decide to include a new recipe, make sure you've got some back-up in case things don't work out.
Just continuing on this point for a moment longer: no restaurant chef -- or for that matter, no grandmother hosting her 35th holiday meal -- would dream of adding an unfamiliar dish to a menu. While something new can be fun for you and interesting for your guests, do a trial run of any new recipe before adding it to an important holiday meal. Ask your family or a friend to be a guinea pig the week before and insist that they be candid with the result.
- When roasting your turkey, place the bird in the oven legs first. The legs are dark meat and with more fat, they take longer to cook than the breasts and most ovens are slightly hotter -- some as much as 5 degrees hotter -- in the back, away from the door.
I shared these menu suggestions a year ago, but I think they merit a repeat to help as you plan your menu:
- Avoid the pitfalls of an all-white meal. Visualize a plate filled with white turkey meat, white mashed potatoes, white stuffing, creamed onions and pale gravy and you'll see what I mean. Instead make your meal more appetizing by filling it with color: red cranberry sauce, bright green beans, orange butternut squash, etc.
- The same thing goes for texture. Some Thanksgiving meals seem like they could be eaten without having any teeth! Resist having too many things that are mashed or pureed or sauced and instead make sure you've also got some crunch and chewiness in the meal.
- Mix up the flavors. Since fall foods can be very musky and sweet -- sweet yams, mushrooms, dried fruit in a bread stuffing, etc. -- include a range of flavors in your meal so that when a plate is filled it includes sweet, savory, piquant, bitter, green and maybe some heat.
- Don't over-do the hors d'oeuvres. These starters are meant to only tease the appetite, not satisfy it. You're preparing a big meal and no one likes to over-eat so resist a groaning tray of pre-meal snacks. I always have a dish of nuts and another of olives when serving drinks, and since this is a special meal, I'll add something extra, like a cheese wafer or oven-baked potato chips (both can be made in advance; see our recipes).
- If you haven't yet made the switch to always using cloth napkins, the holiday is a good time to start. Buy big, generous ones; cotton or linen are always better than a synthetic. Yes, they need to be ironed but they're greener, they feel better on your hands and mouth, and they'll launder better because synthetics are prone to holding on to grease and odors.
- A colored napkin is nice -- orange or golden yellow would be seasonal, but I always prefer plain white ones because they are fresh, welcoming and if any get stained with wine or lipstick, a little Clorox erases the marks. If you want to add an inexpensive seasonal touch, buy a length of orange or dark green satin ribbon and then cut this into one-foot-long pieces and tie around each napkin that's been rolled. Save the ribbon pieces after the meal because you can press them with an iron and re-use next year (and they take up nearly no space to store).
- I'm not a big fan of flowers on the table for two reasons: first, most city cooks I know don't have gigantic dining rooms or dining tables so a flower arrangement takes up precious space. And second, most flowers have fragrance and you don't want floral scents competing with the aroma of the meal. You could put flowers in the center of a table until the meal is served and then remove it to another location. Also, this time of year you can buy potted mums in beautiful fall colors and these will last longer than cut flowers.
- If your dinner table has the room, a few decorations can be fun without taking up space or being a costly extravagance. This fall I've left two mini-pumpkins on my table, placing them next to the votive candles I also usually use. They take up little space, are cute and always provoke a nice response. Back to candles for a moment -- I love the drama of tall candlesticks but put in the center of most tables, they interfere with conversation and eye contact. If your table is long, put tall candles at either end, but for square and round tables, low profile votives are usually better. And of course, make sure your candles are fragrance-free. Who wants the scent of Mexican vanilla or bougainvillea wafting over your turkey?
- I prefer to be seated close together around a smaller table than spread apart at a bigger one. My dinner table can grow by adding a leaf but the truth is that I'd rather crowd six at the smaller version. Elbow-to-elbow, I think the conversation is more intimate and there's more chance of having a fully inclusive table. To me the talk at the table is as important as the food so I'm happy to be close to my dinner neighbor.
Regardless how or what you cook, Thanksgiving should be special. A celebration. A feast. But bounty doesn't require huge quantities or expensive food. You can prepare and serve a meal that stands out by measure of your generosity, a pretty table, and friends and family lingering over empty plates and rumpled napkins.
Above all, enjoy both your time in the kitchen and at the table.