Thanksgiving ranks as a singular holiday.
Non-denominational and surprisingly non-retail (outside the grocery aisles, that is), with no costumes to rent, pumpkins to carve, stockings to stuff or gifts to give, the day registers so low on the consumerism radar it slips rather quietly between Halloween and Christmas. This manages to make Thanksgiving, in many ways, a purer holiday than others.
All the better to enjoy the day for what it is: a chance to rediscover, for at least one day each year, the art of togetherness with family and friends. One thing to be thankful for is the delicious harvest-inspired menu that comes along with the package.
Because it is such a traditional meal, however, the prospect of pulling it off can be intimidating to even the most practiced cooks. You just get one chance a year, right? Here are some tips to help ensure your Thanksgiving celebration comes off without a hitch.
1) Don’t forget to thaw the turkey. This surely ranks as one of the top Thanksgiving dinner debacles. Nothing like the main course being still half-frozen at dinner time, prompting a call for Chinese delivery. So, which goes better with stuffing and marshmallow-topped yams: kung pao chicken or Szechwan tofu?
Avoid the quandary altogether by scheduling plenty of thaw time. Slow thawing in the refrigerator is best by far (for both safety and meat quality), but do the math: The USDA’s food safety arm recommends budgeting 24 hours refrigerated thaw time for every 4 to 5 pounds your turkey weighs. Got a 16-pound bird? That’s 3 1/2 to 4 days. Which means buying a frozen turkey on November 23 might be a problem. And no, you can’t just toss the glacial turkey in the oven and add an extra hour or two for cooking …. the outside will be dry as sawdust before the interior is thawed, let alone cooked or safe to be eaten.
Mark your calendar now for a reminder to thaw in the fridge. Or get yourself a fresh bird, if at all possible (check with top butchers in your area), though often advance ordering is required.
2) Don’t overlook other great birds. While turkey is without a doubt the quintessential Thanksgiving centerpiece, few chefs would tell you that it scores top marks as a culinary treat. (It’s that eternal question: how to achieve the perfect balance of not-too-dry breast meat, not-too-pink leg meat and delicious crispy skin.)
If your Thanksgiving table will have a dozen or less folks, consider roasting two or three chickens or ducks, or four to six Cornish hens. Or skip the winged creatures altogether and give thanks for growing supplies of natural, grass-fed meats out there by showcasing a standing rib roast.
3) Stay within your comfort zone. Don’t pick a menu or a game plan that will have you wigging out on Thursday. You and your guests will enjoy the day much more if the atmosphere is relaxed rather than frenzied. Sure, there’s always a little stress involved: Did you make enough mashed potatoes? Will the gravy be perfectly silky? Will Uncle Ed launch into his dirty limericks at dessert again?
It’s a major dining event and a little anxiety is to be expected. But we tend to put too much pressure on ourselves to make this day perfect: The roasted turkey that looks just like those on magazine covers, worthy of a centerpiece. The hand-crafted place card holders, elaborate five-spice pumpkin Charlotte for dessert, blue cheese and chive soufflé for starters. If you really want to cap off the meal with that Charlotte—or any other challenging recipe you haven’t tackled before—consider giving it a dry run over the weekend.
4) Prep ahead. Even the simplest of menus can benefit from spreading the work out over a day or two. Soups will be only better made up to a few days in advance, gently reheated before serving. Rolls or biscuits can be made ahead by a week and frozen. Pies, salad dressing, stock for gravy, roasted garlic — plenty of elements can be made a day or two in advance to lessen your same-day workload.
Even for those dishes that need last-minute cooking or assembly, you can probably find an ingredient or two that can be prepped ahead —peeled and sliced carrots, chopped onion, toasted nuts. It all helps with the to-do list for the big day.
5) Carve in the kitchen. But not until you have presented the whole bird for the appropriate oohs and ahhs from your seated guests. Two good reasons for carving the bird in the privacy of your kitchen:
First, to lessen the whole performance-anxiety thing with regard to your carving style. Heck, none of us gets all that much practice time carving a big bird. Unless you’ve got a master carver at the table or it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the tradition of Dad massacring the turkey in front of the family, it doesn’t have to be a floor show for the whole crowd.
Second, if you get down to the rich dark thigh meat or base of the breast and find the bird’s not quite fully cooked, you can carve off the ready parts, toss the rest back in the oven and claim that the turkey will be served in two courses — very continental, you know — so that seconds will be good and warm.
6) Feel free to amend family traditions. If Aunt Eloise’s cranberry fluff recipe never floated your boat, toss it aside. You’re the cook now. If family peace might be compromised, you can always tell the gang that your new cranberry kumquat chutney is “in honor of Aunt Eloise’s distinctive cranberry fluff,” and you've created a new dish inspired by hers. Who isn’t flattered to be considered an inspiration to others? She may not like the fluff all that much anyway.
But then again...
7) Don’t dismay at cranberry sauce from a can, complete with those distinctive tin-can ridges, or any other once-a-year standbys that may seem outdated and unchic.
This day is about tradition with a capital “T.” If it’s the one day a year you serve pitted black olives in a relish dish, go for it. How often to do we get to revert to childhood, plop those black, briny, bland olives on the end of our fingers and eat them off one by one? You can freshen up some classics without losing the spirit of the dish. Consider the green-bean casserole: Nix the condensed mushroom soup and instead make a béchamel sauce, and add in minced shallot, chopped wild mushrooms and minced parsley.
8) Consider the grill. Cooking your bird outside frees up the oven for sweet potatoes, pies and that casserole. It also adds a fun unexpected twist on tradition, and you don’t think those Pilgrims had Thermador convection ovens, do you?
The year I served grilled Cornish game hens to my family still ranks as one of my favorite Thanksgiving meals, served with a delicious blueberry chutney I’d bought a week or two earlier. Cornish hens grill quickly and easily, but I've also grilled a turkey as well, which just takes a bit more attention and restoking the charcoal. Rick Rodgers’ “Thanksgiving 101” offers great tips for grilling turkey.
9) Break out the games. Sure, there’s always one playing on TV, but if this day’s to be about togetherness, you should be interacting across a table rather than all staring at the box (or the plasma screen, as the case may be). Games can be a great way to kill time if the bird’s taking longer than expected, or a great way to break the ice if your daughter’s new boyfriend is joining you this year. Otherwise, no better way to weather the after-dinner Thanksgiving Day slump than a little game-playing. Break out Parcheesi or Yahtzee, start up a rousing game of charades or try your hands at Texas Hold 'Em.
No other holiday each year is more steeped in individual family traditions; no other meal more eloquently defines comfort and togetherness than this all-American feast. Make the most of Thanksgiving this year, enjoy the time in the kitchen and the time with your family and friends. Oh, and of course all those tasty leftovers as well.
Seattle-based food and travel writer has authored ten cookbooks, most recently "Rover's: Recipes from Seattle's Chef in the Hat," with chef Thierry Rautureau.