Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thanksgiving - Making it Through the Day

I love to cook and that's why I volunteered to host Thanksgiving this year. It's outright therapeutic for me and I just can't wait for the day to come. The fact is, however, that most people find it hectic and nerve-wracking. Getting the turkey done and having all the side dishes come out at the same time and at the right temperature with a single oven and one "chef" is difficult.

Here are a few of my tips for getting through the day:
  • Take advantage of pot-luck. Guests usually want to bring something and will do so even if you tell them not to. Instead of ending-up with 10 bottles of wine, take advantage of this by assigning side dishes or desserts to family members (or taking volunteers). Specifically choose dishes that either require the oven (which the turkey is occupying) or that will pull your attention away from the turkey for long periods of time such as potatoes, butternut squash, casseroles, etc.
  • Don't stuff your turkey. Stuffed turkeys take longer to cook in order for the stuffing to reach a safe temperature. This overcooks the breast meat and makes you have to get up at O-dark-thirty to prep the bird and get it going. Instead, cook the stuffing separately and add turkey drippings before serving for flavor. Cook's Country has a great recipe for turkey that can take as little as 3 hours. The December issue (in bookstores) has the recipe or you can sign-up for a free trial at their website. The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook also has the recipe.
  • Buy smaller birds. Nothing takes longer and more tending-to than a 23-pound bird. If you must serve something that big, buy two smaller birds. They take less time to cook, come out juicier, and have more of each part so there's no fighting Uncle Steve over the drumstick. Make sure you have two pans that will fit in the oven or that two birds will fit in one pan.
  • Use a baking bag. Baking bags, made by Reynolds, are available at most supermarkets. They're a miracle of modern technology because they make it virtually impossible to overcook your turkey. It's a plastic bag that you can put your turkey in and it goes right into the oven. Baking the bird in a bag is similar to pressure-cooking it, making it come out juicy and tender and actually cook in less time. And, you'll still get that crisp-golden skin.
  • Make what you can ahead. Pies are a definite make-ahead. Mashed butternut squash, turnip, pearl onions, and veggies reheat beautifully in the microwave, on the stove, or in a slow oven. The same goes for many casseroles. Save crispy toppings for the day-of just before reheating.
  • Make a batch of gravy the day before or the morning of using canned chicken or turkey stock. Before serving, make a batch with the drippings and combine the two or simply add the drippings to thin it out and give it fresh-roasted flavor.
  • Buns - most of us use brown 'n serve or Pilsbury refrigerated and we usually burn them because we're so involved with carving the turkey. Put someone else in charge of the buns and make sure they have access to a timer. If you wish to keep traffic down in the kitchen, put the buns in yourself, set a portable timer, and hand it to someone in the dining room. Ask them to pull them out when done or notify you to do so. Have the baskets ready.
  • Cold Dishes - Prep any cold items and condiments ahead of time, place into serving bowls, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. This works for butter, cranberry sauce, pickle and olive trays, etc. Put someone in charge of getting these to the table.
  • Don't carve at the table. While a beautifully roasted bird is a gorgeous centerpiece, it's also a pain in the butt and you'll end-up eating cold food. After resting the bird, carve it in the kitchen. Remove each of the legs and wings, cutting them at the joints. Instead of trying to carve the breast on the bird, remove the entire breast and then slice it on the board. Arrange everything on a platter and serve. If you must show-off your bird, remove it from the oven and let it rest on a sideboard in the dining room. Everyone can ooh and ahh as it rests. Bring it back to the kitchen for carving before serving.
  • I don't know about you, but my family always bickers over who will say grace once everyone has a hot steaming plate of food in front of them and it's beginning to go cold. If this happens to you too, elect someone before putting the food on the table. Once the serving dishes are there and everyone is seated, ask them to give thanks before loading-up the dinner plates.
  • If your dining table will allow, prepare duplicate condiments such as salt and pepper, sauces, gravy, bread baskets, etc. This will get them served faster and eliminate passing things from one end of the table to the other for seconds. Dividing the turkey amongst two serving platters as well instead of one giant one solves space issues, is easier and lighter to pass, and speeds-up the process.
  • Keep your tablescape simple. While everyone loves a beautiful centerpiece or decorative candles, they're just plain impractical for a meal that is served family-style because space is at a premium. If your heart is set on an artful table design, consider removing the excess items from the table before sitting down or serving your meal buffet-style so that platters and bowls have a place to be.
  • If you plan to send leftovers home with your guests, consider asking your local Chinese restaurant or supermarket deli if you can purchase takeout containers from them or purchase extra disposable plastic containers (zip-loc, gladware, etc.). This way, your guests won't be going home with your good Tupperware.
  • If your guests insist on doing the dishes, let them. I'm sure Emily Post wouldn't approve, but I personally see nothing wrong with putting-up my feet after cooking a meal like that. You've earned it!
I hope these tips help all of you have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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