Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving is almost here!

Oh my, what a lovely holiday.  This is one day that is all about the food.  No gifts to buy, just the company of family and friends.  In my family, there are expectations for this day.  They expect the same bird recipe with stuffing or dressing and mushroom gravy and the meal has to end with chocolate pecan pie and classic pecan pie.  The sides are important but not as critical as the turkey, so I can get a little creative. This concept was tested one year when we spent T-Day at the Outer Banks.  The beach was awesome, but the turkey was just OK.  We ordered a turkey and my immediate family let me know that is not what they look forward to.  I guess this is where tradition steps in and takes hold. I am good with that.  This way the main dish has been tested and approved, so be it. 

Thanksgiving food is for Thanksgiving day and it is worth the wait.  We fix a large meal and eat till we are ready to pop, have leftovers for several days afterward and and then we are done until next year.  We have whole roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberries and pecan pie once a year.  So we are in agreement that Thanksgiving is for being thankful and copious amounts of our favorite delicious food.  Oh yeah, and family and friends, they are the icing on the cake!

I would like to share some of my tips for having a successful Thanksgiving dinner.  It is quite a job being the host but there are ways to make it a little easier.  Yes, this includes everyone having a good time including the cook.

Make lists and get Organized.  If you haven't already done this, then do it now.  First make lists of what you are going to have, collect the recipes (even if they are in your head!), make an early grocery list (non perishables such as flour, sugar, canned pumpkin) and one that you have to wait till Thanksgiving week to get (the turkey, fresh vegetables, cream . . .).  Second,  plan the serving dishes and utensils for the recipes and the dishes, silver, napkins (I have cloth so I iron them with my tablecloth and it is nice to know where they actually are!) and glassware that will be needed. Make sure you have enough chairs.  Third, make a list of preparations that can be done in advance, the day before and the day of dinner.

I can't say enough about making lists.  They are invaluable to get things done and when things get busy and guests are arriving.  They keep you organized and truly aid in you having a good time also. When people ask if they can help, you can glance it over and give them a job.  I love it when someone preps for me (especially someone who knows how to chop etc.) and I can focus on cooking. As a guest,  I absolutely love being someone's prep cook.  A delicious bottle of wine in the kitchen with the cooks is a must!

If something goes wrong, go with it the best you can.  Don't let it ruin the day.  This is easier said than done considering the time and effort that goes into T-Day dinner.  Perfection is a romantic concept but is never as enjoyable in real life as it seems in your fantasies.  Something is always going to go wrong or forgotten or something.  If something is truly ruined such as burnt then don't serve it.  Laugh, do the best you can and move on.  The worst case scenario is the turkey getting burnt or over cooked or undercooked.  People love telling turkey disaster stories.  Seriously don't you love these tales (and somehow they seem to get taller as years go by!).  I have heard, seen and contributed  to these stories.  Family and friends love the stories, but mostly family and friends are there because they want to be with you. They will come back, even if it to see what happens next year!  So dang it, take a sip of wine (or whatever you sip on) and keep on going.

Unless someone is comfortable carving the turkey at the table, it is OK to carve the bird in the kitchen before it is placed on the table.  Everyone can still come watch if they like.  That beautiful bird right out of the oven seems to make everyone salivate and ooooh and aaahh. Difficulties carving the bird are more obvious and awkward at a formal table setting because all eyes are on you.  In the kitchen, it just seems more casual and fun.  Now if carving at the table is a tradition and works for you, then keep it up.

Use tried and true recipes that you have made before and know are good.  You are quite adventurous and brave if you prepare all new dishes for the first time.  The tried and true are usually those family recipes that are looked forward to, so my rule of thumb is don't disappoint.  But a new dish or two can keep things interesting.  I get in trouble a lot for changing things up.  So there are dishes such as the bird, stuffing, and gravy that are essentially the same.  I also use my Granny's biscuit/roll recipe because everyone loves them and it keeps her in my heart and at my table.  I love that about passed down recipes.

Do the heavy housekeeping before Thanksgiving week.  Over loading yourself with chores is just stressful.  Do what you can before hand and if you need to purchase some DO NOT ENTER police tape because you only time for half the house, do it.  Just make sure that everyone is not confined to one small room of the house!

Now a few tips on the meal itself.


Have appetizers but keep them simple.  You don't want to cook more than you need to and don't want the guests to fill up before dinner.  Put someone else in charge of the appetizer plate so you don't have to keep stopping to supply it.  So my suggestions are the following:
  • cheese plate with a semi hard goat cheese, a medium or sharp cheddar, a blue cheese or Roquefort, shards of good quality Parmesan Reggiano cheese - not all just a couple of your favorites
  • roasted unsalted almonds (every time I serve these I get comments about how good they are)
  • fruit - grapes, sliced apples, sliced pears
  • olives - one kind or a variety in a bowl (my favorite is garlic stuffed green olives - yum)
Drinks and wine:
  • always have non alcoholics drinks such as cider, mulled cider, cider mixed with cranberry or pomegranate (spiced or not), sparkling cider if you are serving champagne before or after dinner, green or black tea bags (it is nice to have a hot water kettle so they can easily make their own tea, this probably not the best time to heat water on the stove) and definitely have water available
  • fruity wines are generally best served for the Thanksgiving meal.  My suggestions are Pinot Noir, Zinfandels or a nice beaujolais for the reds.  An unoaked chardonnay, white Burgundy or a Gewurztraminer that is more dry and spicy than sweet are good choices for the whites.  This year I am going with an old vine Zinfandel from CA and a Gewurstraminer for the dinner.
  • a robust coffee or espresso is excellent for after dinner but the Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer will also go with dessert.  I also like to have a small touch of Grand Marnier sometimes.  Adults tend to get really excited about having Grand Marnier with desserts.  Isn't that funny.
  • hard cider and beer for those that don't care for wine
  • brining a bird keeps it moist even when you over cook it.  Really, I can attest to this.  Brining has definitely saved my bird in the past.  Here is a basic recipe for brining a turkey:  1 cup kosher salt, 1/2 cup of brown sugar added to 2 gallons of water.  Place the first gallon of water with the salt and sugar and bring to a simmer.  Turn off the heat and allow the liquid to cool for 30 minutes.  Add 8 cups of ice to cool further.  This liquid needs to be ice cold when the bird is added.  Also make sure the cavity has been emptied out. Use a fresh turkey or one that is not self basting.   The great thing about this general recipe is that you can personalize it up by replacing some of the liquid with stock, cider, pomegranate or cranberry juice.  If you would like to add spices or dried herbs such as peppercorns, cinnamon stick, allspice, thyme, sage add them before you bring the liquid to a boil.  Fresh herbs should be added after the liquid has simmered for a minute or two and the heat has been turned off.  Place the turkey in large clean plastic bag or container and brine it for 8 to 12 hours.  I keep mine in an ice chest on my deck in the shade placed in ice and water to keep it at 40 degrees or slightly below.  If I had a spare refrigerator, I would put it in a very clean, 5 gallon bucket and place in the frig overnight.
  • instead of stuffing the cavity, I stuff on top of the breast and legs under the skin which essentially bastes the bird while it cooks.  I have gotten so many complements on this that I will always do my turkey this way
  • the turkey is done when internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.  Take the turkey out and tent it with foil and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.  The temperature will rise another 10 to 15 degrees as it sits on the counter.  I actually need 30 to 35 minutes to get the rest of the meal done so 30 minutes works well for me.
  • make homemade gravy.  Google it if you don't know how.  Store bought in a jar is just not the same.  Mine is 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 sweet butter sauteed together for a couple of minutes over medium heat.  Whisk in warm liquid slowly (2 cups stock and 2 cup cream).  Simmer until the mixture thickens.  Make sure you add the degreased pan drippings from the turkey roaster after it has thickened.  Flavor to taste with salt, pepper, Worstershire, thyme, or sage.  Your choice on flavorings, but try to match the flavors that you are using in your turkey.
  • this is where friends and family come in to bring all their favorites
  • try to have some lighter, refreshing sides to balance the richer dishes, sides are just as important as the bird
  • cranberry relish can be made 3 days in advance, take advantage of that!
  • some of my favorite sides can be found here, here, and here. Oh yeah, and then there is one of my daughters favorites here.
  • my guess is you have desserts covered.  My one recommendation is to make something like this pumpkin cheesecake that can be made a couple of days in advance.  This recipe can be found here.  If it is not finished and you are in sugar overload, pop it in the freezer for a later date.  One of my favorite tricks from this post is sprinkling chopped crystalized ginger on top of whipped cream for desserts like pumpkin pie or any dessert with ginger in it

Don't be too quick to clear the table.  The best conversations seem to take place at this time.  Enjoy this.

 Also don't be afraid to delegate.  People like to help and participate.  In the end, it is just as important that you have fun and enjoy yourself.  I love this holiday, I love to cook for this holiday and I love that my family enjoys that.

Now that I have reviewed all this - I think I am ready!  I hope this helps some who are stressing over how to get it all done.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

PS.  Maybe I will add some pics later but for now . . .  I hope this will do!


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