I have made no secret of the fact that Thanksgiving is my favorite meal of the year. No, I am not American, so no, it means little more to me than an opportunity to cook a big bird and have a big party, but I love it nonetheless. This will be my fifth year in a row cooking Thanksgiving dinner for at least 12 people, and there is something about the sheer size of the job that I completely relish. As a foodie with a food blog, I think I have already clearly established that I love being in the kitchen, but Thanksgiving is a whole other level. Funnily enough, for me the turkey is the easiest part. I like to brine my turkey, which requires a bit of forward planning, but by the time the bird goes in the oven, I feel my work there is pretty much done; it just needs to sit in the oven for 4-6 hours and you need to keep an eye on it and baste it occasionally, but really, no biggie. The real challenge is how to pull off everything else. With all sorts of ingredients competing for oven, fridge, and counter-top real estate, and a big menu of appetizers, soups, salads, side dishes, breads, and desserts that all need to be ready at the same time, served presentably, and at the appropriate temperature, the fun part is figuring out how to orchestrate all this. The trick, I’ve learned, is to be organized. I mean, it’s never a bad idea to be organized in the kitchen in general, but for day-to-day cooking I find that one can afford to be less disciplined about advance planning…Good planning, however, can make all the difference between a hellish experience in the kitchen come Thanksgiving day, and an enjoyable one.
1. Plan your menu in advance: In the week or two leading up to the holiday, spend an hour thinking of everything you want to serve. There are so many options out there so – I know – this it can be a bit daunting, but leaving the decision until the last minute can make it even more so. Once you figure out the menu, start making a list of everything you need to buy, and get your grocery shopping done ahead of time. There is nothing worse than shopping for ingredients the day of, or even the night before, and realizing that some ingredients you want are out of stock or forgetting something important and wasting precious cooking time going back and forth to the supermarket. Plus, some ingredients (such as your turkey) require advance prep time. Brining a turkey usually takes at least 12 hours, and if you are buying a frozen turkey, it can take up to a week to thaw in your fridge.
2. Learn the joys of mise en place: Before anything so much as sees the inside of an oven, spend an hour or two on Thanksgiving morning preparing all of your ingredients and laying them out on your counter top. Mise en place is a French term that literally means “everything in place,” and it refers to organizing and arranging the ingredients that will be used to prepare a particular meal or dish. This basically means measuring out, washing, chopping, and placing all of your required ingredients in individual bowls, and grouping them in clusters by dish. It also means having all needed equipment, such as spatulas, knives, bowls, food processors, etc on hand, and obviously pre- heating pans and ovens as needed. Having everything mise en place ahead of time in this way means that once you start cooking, you will never need to stop and assemble items, and you can just focus on the cooking process. For a long time I used to think that mise en place was unnecessarily fussy, but I have learned to appreciate it over time, and, trust me, it is worth the effort. Not only will it make you more efficient, which is important given time constraints on Thanksgiving day, but it also means less mess. Yup, less mess, which means less piled-up dishes to clean after the party. After you wash, chop, and measure out everything you will need, you can run the dishwasher, clean the counter tops, and start cooking with a clean slate (literally).
3. Make as many things in advance as you can: Another way to make Thanksgiving day less stressful is to minimize the number of things you have to do on the day of. Pie crust can me made and frozen up to several weeks in advance, cranberry sauce will keep for a few days in your fridge, soups and mashes can be made a day or two beforehand and reheated on the day, and pies and breads can be baked the night before. Check a few dishes off your list early and you will have fewer things to worry about on the big day.
4. Ask your guests to pitch in: Your guests will almost definitely ask you if they can bring anything, so why not take them up on the offer? You can ask someone to bring a salad, a selection of cheeses, or a pie for dessert and voila- one less thing to do yourself.
5. Don’t cook alone: If you’re going to spend all day cooking, why do it alone? Invite a friend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, or even a child to help you out. Not only is it nice to have company (great time for a glass of wine and a gossip date, no?) but it really does help to have another pair of hands around when you need them.
Are you as excited as I am for Thanksgiving?!
In good health,