This is Part One of a special five-week series that I’ll be doing to help you make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner with a minimum of stress and anxiety.We’ll be covering timing, equipment, shopping, how to squeeze everything into the fridge, starting today with Planning and The Menu.
Cue the theme from Jaws. It’s coming. Thanksgiving Day. And you’re the one making dinner. Maybe you got a little too tipsy last year and volunteered. Maybe there is simply no one else to do it. Maybe it’s something you’ve always wanted to try. Either way, you know it’s coming and it’s not going to be a simple project, and maybe you’re still a little bit in denial, but trust me, you want to start thinking about this now.
Why? Because it takes planning to get everything made and on the table at the right time. Planning will save your backside several times over, especially when something goes wrong – and it inevitably does. But Don’t Panic. I’m here to walk you through the process so that come November 26, you’ll still be speaking in complete sentences and everyone will be appropriately stuffed. So pour yourself a nice glass of wine, get out your pen and paper or tablet or sticky notes or however you like to take notes and your calendar. You’ve got this one.
Thanksgiving Dinner is not that complicated. Or let me re-phrase that. None of the traditional dishes that make up a Thanksgiving Dinner are that complicated in and of themselves, unless one of those dishes is Grandma’s special seven-layer cake with a different flavor for each layer, or special sweet potato souflle and it’s just not Thanksgiving without it. What makes Thanksgiving challenging is the sheer quantity of dishes you’re preparing and the need to get a bunch of those dishes on the table at the same time.
The other challenge is the high expectations we have for the meal. It’s laden with tradition and a host of other cultural baggage, only starting with that rotten Norman Rockwell painting of Grandma placing the perfectly roasted turkey before Grandpa, surrounded by eager faces. Do yourself a favor and banish that image from your head right now. Pour another glass of wine if you have to. For one thing, the only reason you want your turkey looking like that is for the image. It’s a horrible way to roast a bird – and we’ll cover that in Week Four.
The first part of planning is figuring out who will be there. Are you planning a blow-out for the 50 or so relatives that show up every year? You and five or six of your friends who have no relatives near? You and your beloved and the kids? Which of those persons is a vegetarian or has other food issues? Who’s the die-hard traditionalist and is it worth ruffling said persons’ feathers?
And speaking of ruffling feathers, there is no law that says you must have turkey on Thanksgiving. I’m going to assume that we are. A ham or roast beef is also very nice, and I have a cousin who serves all of the above. But no matter what you decide to serve, keep it simple, especially if this is your first time doing the whole shebang.
Once you have your guest list firmly in place, look at your kitchen. Before you decide what to cook and how to cook it, it helps to have a grip on what your resources are. You don’t want to plan three casseroles on top of The Bird when you only have one small oven. My personal arsenal includes an average-sized oven, four burners on the stove top, a crockpot, a toaster oven and a microwave. One other quick tip – if possible, make sure your microwave and your toaster oven are not on the same electrical circuit. They are massive power hogs. It’s easy to test. Turn both on at the same time and see if the power goes out. You don’t want to be relying on the nuker to re-heat the gravy while you’re toasting some nuts for the green beans and have the circuit blow.
Now, let us proceed to The Menu. The basic elements of the day’s dinner are the turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, vegetable and pie. I also like to serve hors d’oeuvres, soup and salad and I serve them in courses. Why? You can buy yourself all kinds of stalling time if the turkey decides it’s going to take its sweet time getting done or if Uncle Jimmy is late again (lovely man, no sense of time). You can also serve the three courses right on top of each other if the bird gets done too soon. Finally, if you serve in courses, it gives your guests a few minutes to relax and re-group before the final onslaught while you do the last second stuff like carve the bird and mash the potatoes. Notice – I did not say make the gravy. You can do it at the last second, but that is fraught with peril. On Week Three, we will have the tutorial on gravy – a make ahead gravy.
Hors d’oeuvres can be as simple as chips and dip. Or a relish tray and dip. Or cheese and crackers. Or black olives that the little ones can stick on their fingers and suck off. As long as there are just enough munchies to occupy impatient guests without getting them too full for dinner. You can buy some excellent soups and keep them warm in a crockpot. Or you can make a soup the weekend before. Just find something rather light, like veggies in broth, since the rest of the dinner is going to be pretty heavy. Or you can make a sweet potato soup and cover that part of the meal. The same with the salad – just basic greens. Check out my post on Salad Basics II for some ideas.
As for which vegetable side, how to cook the sweet potatoes, and what stuffing to make, that’s going to depend on your guests and your own tastes. I, personally, loathe stuffing. It’s just soggy bread. Blech. But for some reason, that’s the first thing to go on my table. People like it, so it’s worth making. Now, whether you stuff your turkey with it, there are a lot of considerations there, but I’ll cover that in the Turkey post.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your little brother throws a hissy if there isn’t any green bean casserole, ask him to bring it. Talk your friend into bringing the sweet potatoes and marshmallows, especially if, like me, you are staunchly opposed to sweet potatoes and marshmallows. And use recipes. I know – I usually don’t encourage that, and being able to throw together a soup or a salad without having to refer to one will make your day go more smoothly. But there are traditions to uphold here, and if you need a recipe to make it work, use it.
One last thought – don’t expect it to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be. Something might burn, things will boil over at the worst possible time, things happen. You’ll get through it and all will be well. I promise. If I can survive a clogged drain the night before Thanksgiving (I was buying drain cleaner seconds before the store closed – how did the clerk think I was doing that night?), you can, too. You may even be able to laugh about it. Later. In the meantime, there’s wine, your personal array of lists and time.
Next up, some equipment you might need, shopping and the whole ambiance thing. The links to all the posts are below.
And coming soon timing and leftovers.