Thanksgiving is my favorite. Period. Now as a former Chef and food enthusiast there are not a lot of holidays centered around food so maybe this wasn't so hard to figure out. However, I know so many people who love food, love to cook and who pull their hair out each Thanksgiving. I am here to try and help them (and you) discover that a little preparation goes a long way in hopes our favorite holiday is actually pleasurable this year.
No silver bullet here, no magical recipes (I will leave that to the other guys) and no magical elves who come an bail you out at the last minute. Actually one of the first things Chefs learn in culinary school is the term 'Mise en place' - the concept of being totally prepared before making a meal. Normally this applies to a recipe or a single meal where you can check off on all of the ingredients and tools before getting started. For Thanksgiving you have to have your Mise en place for the entire day, day before and even week before to make things go simply, finish on time and be up to the quality standards we all set for ourselves.
In this entry (and in Part 2) are some tips I personally follow as I sit down a week or so before the big day to get started, so get started already. Disclaimer: for as many as I put here I am sure there are more you use and those I have forgotten (buying napkins, creating a peanut-free desert for you nephew, et. al.) so please add your favorites to the comments below.
Plan, Plan, Plan - Figure out your menu and write it down, analyze it and picture in your mind who is going to eat what and how much. It is hard not to make just the dishes we like, but those dishes everyone will eat and enjoy. This is also where your guest list comes in. People who are coming over for Thanksgiving usually want to participate (sometimes too much) so take control and give out jobs. If you really want green beans with almond slices then assign them to someone, don't allow them to show up with a dish that is not on your menu. Better yet, if you know one of your guests makes something great (Uncle John's crab cakes) incorporate them into your menu and ask them to shine, they will love it. This goes down to the smallest detail. You know you want a certain brand of Pinot Grigio? Assign it to one of your guests to buy, they are happy not to have to make the decision themselves and it is one less thing to worry about. Now, see how simple that was? A lot of your work is done and you can feel confident with what is going to walk in the door on Thanksgiving day.
Thoughts on making something new. Why? Why do we as recreational chefs put ourselves through this time and time again? Musicians don't wait until their largest concert to play a new song for the first time, but we always feel the need to do something new on Thanksgiving. Don't get me wrong, professional chefs feel the same pressure, they just have smaller audiences and more chances to try things out before the big day. Instead, spice up those dishes you already are good at by adding new ingredients, flavors and textures. Lower risk, high reward.
Try some of these:
- Add Sausage (italian or chorizo) to your stuffing
- Don't use enriched bread for your stuffing- try sourdough or rye to add another flavor profile
- Reduce some white wine to put into the gravy, add tarragon and green peppercorns for a new kick
- Leeks, if you are not using them now start immediately and substitute a leek where you used an onion before or mix the two together
- Serve Champagne or Proseco as guests arrive before breaking into the wine and beer
- Soup, this is a great time of year for butternut squash soup as a side dish or starter
- Still holding out and using the canned cranberry? Try fresh this year, easier than you think
Now, you have your menu and all of your guests have their jobs, there are a couple more things you can do this weekend to get ready before you actually start preparing food. First, clean the fridge. No matter what, this always seems to set people back on Thanksgiving. You need to get so many things out of your fridge and into a cooler (or the trash). Sweet pickle relish, chinese hot sauce, take-out containers, sodas, beer and so many other things I don't even want to think of. It should look barren in there come Wednesday, and you will thank yourself on Thursday.
Get some other things ready as well. First of all, get enough butter (I prefer unsalted). However much you think you need, go ahead and get another pound. Now set at least a pound out in a covered dish. You need a lot of room-temperature butter on Thanksgiving and the microwave never seems to get it quite right. Buy kosher salt, if you don't already use it this is a great time to start. It breaks down a little slower, is non-iodized (for my father-in-law) and will get down into your bird to make sure it cooks evenly. On that note, don't forget to salt the turkey cavity! This is always missed by most cooks and you need that salt in there to breakdown from the inside - more to come in Part 2. Finally get more tin-foil, there never seems to be enough and if we can avoid a trip to the store on Thanksgiving morning, my mission is accomplished.
Now go clean your silver and stay tuned for Part 2 - Food prep and timing on the big day.