Your Turn To Cook? A Thanksgiving Planner

A Thanksgiving Planner

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.

Practical Tips

Here are some tips for making the cooking and hosting less stressful.


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.


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.


Menu Planning

I shared these menu suggestions a year ago, but I think they merit a repeat to help as you plan your menu:


Table Settings


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. 

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