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The Big Holiday Dinner: What You Do and Don’t Need

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Welcome back to my series on how to make a delicious Big Holiday Dinner even if you’ve never done this before. This week, we’ll be covering some things you might need before you get started. In the following weeks I’ll be covering making gravy, how to roast a larger piece of meat and how to set everything up so that it all lands on the table at the right time. Plus, how to make some side dishes. Already, we have planning your dinner here and a special checklist and more thoughts on the menu here.

Thanksgiving Dinner photo

If you downloaded my checklist, you’ll see that there are three passes at shopping for the big day. It may sound like a lot of trouble to do it that way, but if you can get the bulk of your shopping done early, you’ll be beating the crowds and then some. If you’ve ever fought your way through a supermarket during the weekend before a major holiday, you’ll know what I mean. Getting as many items as you can ahead of time will give you less to buy that weekend, which means fewer altercations in the bread aisle.

So part of planning for the big day is figuring out what you have in the way of serving and other dishes, cooking equipment and the like so that you can buy or borrow it before you’re fighting over the last gravy boat in the china department. This also, by the way, includes ambiance and decor. Now, if you’re one of those folks who are good at this and love going nuts, be my guest. Or rather, let me be yours. I suck at ambiance. I’m lucky if I remember to put the now-grown offspring’s kindergarten decorations on the table.

Holiday dinner priorities

And if this is your first time doing the big holiday dinner, there are other more important things to think about, like the cooking. Yeah, yeah. I know we eat with our eyes first, but your guests will forgive a haphazard presentation if the food tastes good. No presentation can make up for lumpy, icky gravy and a dry roast. So, pour yourself a glass of wine and remind yourself that you are not Martha Stewart. You do not have to be Martha Stewart. Martha Stewart can go soak her perfect head in one of her hand-trimmed buckets. Putting out the nice dinnerware, tablecloths and napkins (no, it does not all have to match), and a couple candlesticks should be enough. Also, a fancy centerpiece makes it hard for your guests to see each other over it and there’s less room on the table for all that food you’re cooking.

So check your tablecloths, napkins and plates and serving dishes and add what you need to your shopping list. Also, if you really, really want the fancy holiday-specific platter or gravy boat, there’s no reason not to buy it. Just remember that you’ll only use one day a year and that you have to store it the rest of the time. One year, I went with the gravy boat – it’s small.

And on the matter of plates, you may be considering using paper or other disposables. I have issues with that because of the environment thing and adding to our landfills. I also understand that when your guest list has ballooned to huge proportions, disposables seem pretty attractive. The one good use for them is when you’ve got a lot of very small children on the guest list and you have to serve buffet style. Kids can learn to handle real dinner-ware at surprisingly young ages, but if you’ve got a lot of them and no table, you may want to provide a less-breakable option than your grandma’s china.

Thinking about wine

Next on your shopping list should be three or four potential wines for your big holiday dinner. Unless you already have a go-to wine, or will be serving some other beverage. We do not serve any wine to guests that we haven’t tasted. You might think that pinot noir will go great with roast beef, and it usually does. But pinot noir, in particular, can fool you. So get some roast beef and try a couple bottles to find one you really like.

If you happen to be celebrating Thanksgiving, wine can be tricky. You’ve got a lot of strong flavors, some of which are pretty sweet and that can really mess up the flavor of even the best cabernet sauvignon. Think of sipping orange juice after a big syrupy bite of pancakes. You can check out our blog for a quick tutorial on pairing and tasting wine for Thanksgiving here. This is a time when you want to make sure you invest in some tasting bottles and try them with sweet potatoes and/or turkey beforehand.

Equipment for the big holiday dinner

Your basic roasting pan, about 2-inches deep and 9-inches by 13-inches. Yes, you can roast a 22-pound bird in one of these. And a whole lot of other yummy things, when the holiday is over.

Now, your cooking equipment. The major item that you probably already have, but may not, is a good, solid roasting pan. Even if you’re a vegetarian and you’re only going to be roasting vegetables, a good roasting pan will make your life easier. I’ve tried the aluminum ones from the supermarket and, well, let’s not talk about that particular disaster. Mine is 9-inches by 13-inches and I’ve roasted more than on 22-pound turkeys in it quite successfully. A rack with handles is a good thing to have, but I’ve used everything from a small cooking rack to a small plate turned upside-down. All work very well. But the good, solid roasting pan is well worth the investment, as are a probe thermometer, and immersion blender and a gravy de-fatter.

Probe thermometer – insert probe away from a bone, set the final temp and it will beep when the meat is cooked. No guessing and perfect roasted meat every time. Well worth buying, not just for a big holiday dinner.
An immersion or stick blender – a godsend when the gravy goes lumpy. Also makes blending soups a breeze (forget pouring hot soup from a pan into a too-small blender).
Gravy de-fatter. Pour drippings into cup, wait until the fat rises to the top, pour heavier juices out.

You should already have some good knives. You don’t need more than a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. A cleaver and a carving knife and fork would be nice, but you don’t need them.

Most of the rest of your tools, you probably already have, but just in case, check out the photo below. You don’t need these exact items, but a flat spatula will make measuring flour and similar ingredients a lot easier. You need stuff to stir with and wooden spoons don’t get hot while stirring something that’s cooking. A ladle helps for serving soups and stews in general. Whisks are insanely useful across the board. And the big spoon with the holes in it? That’s great for getting the veggies out of the pan and leaving any drippy mess behind. And rubber spatulas? How do you cook without them?

Some basic tools, including spatulas, whisks, strainers and wooden spoons. And the potato masher.

Some things you do not need are roasting bags, lacing kits and basters. Seriously. You do not need them because you will not use them. Period.

7 thoughts on “The Big Holiday Dinner: What You Do and Don’t Need”

  1. Unlikely I’ll ever be expected to host Thanksgiving in a 900 square foot apartment but if I ever was, I would try to remember these! Nice pointers. Especially about focusing on the food tasting good and Martha Stewart can go soak her head!

    Boy, I should treat myself to a stick blender. Love making soup in the wintertime. I have a little hand mixer that belonged to one of my grandmothers that works pretty well but those look much less messy.

    1. Don’t be too sure about not hosting in your apartment. The Beloved Spouse and I lived in a space not much bigger than that with a supremely tiny kitchen and produced a turducken one year. And you will not regret the stick blender. It’s a little bit of a one-trick pony, but that trick is pretty awesome.

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