You’ve been nominated. Perhaps your family has issued a decree. Or maybe, it’s simply your turn. No matter what the reason, you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner next week. This need not be a burden. In fact, given the right planning and organization, orchestrating Thanksgiving dinner can be a pleasure.
I’ve found that the key to the successful dinner is thinking backwards. Start your Thanksgiving planning by visualizing yourself surrounded by family and friends at the dinner table, then rewind your mental video to determine how you got there. Ask yourself which foods took the least amount of preparation, which took the most. Write these things down. Make a list.
Now, add a little detail to the list to remind yourself which dishes can be prepared the day (or evening) before. Which dishes need to be prepared Thanksgiving Day? Which must be prepared within an hour of dinner?
At this point, you will have at least a vague idea for your plan of attack. So now it’s time to further refine the list. In fact, it’s time to begin to create a schedule. For example, if you intend to serve dinner at 2:00 p.m., and have calculated that the turkey will take three hours to roast, and half hour to rest before carving, the bird needs to be in the oven at 10:00 a.m.
Why 10:00, and not 10:30? In addition to the three and a half hours for roasting and resting, I’ve factored in 15 minutes to pre-heat the oven, and 15 minutes to carve the bird and arrange it on a serving platter. Your schedule should reflect all of these variables.
By now, your initial list has probably become three or four lists as you prioritize the steps leading to that wonderful image of yourself sitting among family and friends at the table. The next stage in the process is to identify the tasks involved in readying the ingredients for individual dishes: the prep work.
How lovely to watch a rock star chef on Food TV blithely talking about adding a cup of chopped onions to a sauté pan, as her perfectly manicured hand reaches across an Italian granite counter to retrieve a cup of chopped onions. Of course, TV chefs have the benefit of having four sous-chefs backstage who keep them supplied with all the chopped, minced, pureed, ground, or marinated ingredients they’ll need to create a smooth-running half-hour television show. You, too, can enjoy having these things prepped in advance (although you probably can’t count on having the four sous-chefs backstage).
As part of your master schedule, allow plenty of time for prep work. This will greatly reduce any cooking anxieties. You do not want to be hunting for a clove of garlic in a refrigerator stuffed with food for twenty while you have a pan of hot oil waiting for you on the stove.
Now is also the time to think about how many of the recipes on your menu will require the same ingredients. If, for example, you have two dishes on your menu, each requiring a cup of chopped onions, be sure to chop two cups of onions to have on hand, pre-measured and ready to go when the time comes to cook. Try to think of other ingredients that can also be prepped early: have winter squash that can be peeled and cubed? Brussels sprouts to be trimmed and scored?
One task that you can check off now, days before Thanksgiving, is making sure your oven is properly calibrated. If you don’t already own one, get an inexpensive oven thermometer. Test to see if the temperature you set on your oven thermostat is indeed what is displayed on your thermometer. If your oven’s temperature does not match your control thermometer, you’ll know in advance that you’ll have to compensate, setting the oven temperature a little higher or lower. You don’t want burned pie crust or underdone potatoes.
In addition, it would be wise—again, if you don’t already have one—to get an instant-read meat thermometer for your turkey. Knowing that you’ve cooked your turkey to an internal temperature of 165 F. will give you a great deal of confidence and allow you to focus on the myriad last-minute details of getting the meal to the table.
One last comment about prep work that will make the entire Thanksgiving experience more enjoyable: give yourself a break when you’ve finished chopping vegetables, measuring ingredients, and generally assuring yourself that you have the situation in hand. Relax, perhaps with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine ,before you begin the actual cooking.
This break provides a peaceful interlude and helps you to mentally shift gears, to move from the self-supporting role of prep cook to the grander role chef de cuisine.
Of course, at some time before Thanksgiving, you’ll need to shop for ingredients. I’ve not spoken about shopping, because I feel there are too many variables. Factors such as your menu, proximity to a mega-store or specialized deli, your work schedule, etc. make it difficult to talk about provisioning in universal terms. Suffice it to say that if you can plan a menu and create a schedule, you’ll know what you need, and when.
So, menu set, shopping and prep work done, what do you do on Thanksgiving morning? First of all–trust no one. People are rarely more giving of themselves than at Thanksgiving, and offers to assist in the kitchen will be impassioned and extravagant. Be wary, be very wary. Should you delegate the creamed spinach details to a close friend or relative, don’t be surprised if Macy’s parade or the NFL game distracts your well-meaning helper and leaves you with lumpy bèchamel for your spinach.
But it’s okay. You’ve factored that into your schedule, and, you, the unflappable you, can pick up the slack. When I say that you shouldn’t trust anyone, I mean that—as I’ve written elsewhere—90% of cooking is simply being there.
Finally, at times like Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of a piece of advice I got from a doctor friend: in case of an emergency, the first thing to do is take your own pulse. While things may not go entirely as planned, you need not panic. Wholly dependable or not, help will be at hand. An emergency in the kitchen is guaranteed to draw the most hardened NFL fan away from the game to lend support. Just stick to your schedule as best you can. Everything will be fine.
Thoughtful advance planning of your Thanksgiving meal will pay off at the dinner table; you’ll reap compliments and maybe even a round of applause from happy, thankful diners. As you dry the last of the pots and pans that served so well in preparing your feast, you can savor the ultimate satisfaction that comes from a job well done and the comforting knowledge that, next year, it will be someone else’s turn.
Three entertaining—and maybe useful resources: