Yesterday I outlined my steps for prepping to cook your own Thanksgiving dinner, with tips and tricks learned over my many years of trial and errors. Now let’s talk about the menu and take a look at some more tips and recipes …
Offering appetizers will keep people happy while they are watching the football games – my tummy is always growling smelling the turkey roasting and the other foods. This will keep them occupied and they won’t need a lot of your time or efforts when you are busy cooking the main event. Dips and chips or crackers are always popular and simple to have ready ahead of time. Some of my favorites are Chile-Pumpkin Hummus, Chipotle Black Bean Dip, and Hot Cheesy Artichoke and Chile Dip.
For the feast itself, I keep the turkey fairly simple, preferring to let its natural flavor shine through. Dry brining is the key to the easiest, cleanest, and tastiest turkey you’ve ever had. No more wrestling with a wet slippery bird and trying to figure out how to make room for it in the refrigerator. The trick is to lightly salt the outside of the turkey, let it hang out in the refrigerator for a few days, and then roast it. The salt initially draws some moisture out of the meat, but if you leave it alone, it will reabsorb the liquid, drawing the seasoning deep into the meat. You can add herbs for even more flavoring. When you are ready to cook, fill the cavity with quartered onions, lemons, and fresh herb sprigs. This helps flavor the turkey from the inside out.
Being Irish, we always have mashed potatoes, cornbread dressing (aka stuffing), and of course gravy. From mid-2012 on, all my recipes have both regular and gluten-free options so everyone can make them the way they like. The potatoes can be peeled and cubed, then stored in water in the refrigerator until ready to cook (drain and cover with fresh water before cooking). You can assemble all the components of the dressing in advance, store them covered separately, and toss them together just before baking. Because I use my own turkey stock to make the gravy, I can make it completely in advance. But if you can, add some of the drippings from the turkey to really bump up the flavor!
I strongly recommend you do not cook the dressing inside the turkey. By the time it is hot enough, your turkey will be overcooked; and if you cook the turkey perfectly, the dressing will not have come to a safe temperature. Using turkey stock as the liquid to moisten the dried bread cubes, gives you the flavor of cooking it inside the bird without any of the risks. And bonus, no eggs required! You do not need a binder with this dressing and if there are people coming to dinner who cannot have eggs, this makes it safe for them too!
To balance all those carbs, I am always sure to have fresh vegetables on my menu. I know the classic green bean casserole is a favorite of many (including me), but The Artist hates it so that is one place I can substitute fresh vegetables, usually making simple green beans with sliced almonds, a little lemon zest, and maybe a light drizzle of shallot butter. Maple-sweetened carrots with dill is another of our favorites and adds a touch of sweetness to the plate.
Homemade cranberry sauce is a must. Please do yourself a favor and make this – do not buy that can of gelatinized cranberry jelly. Cooking the cranberry sauce is the easiest recipe of all and foolproof. Keep it really simple or spice it up, whatever you want to treat your family with.
If you have people who demand sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, but you want something a little more elegant, you can make it all in one pan! Boil and mash the sweet potatoes, spread them in a 9×13-inch pan. Top half with the marshmallows, the other half with a maple pecan streusel and bake. Everyone is a happy camper!
If you are cooking for a smaller group, you can buy a turkey breast and a few thighs. They cook faster and all the pieces cook to the perfect temperature – a whole turkey can be challenging to have the legs fully cooked without overcooking the breast. If no one likes dark meat, you can use the thigh meat for soup or sandwiches. I tend to prefer cooking separate parts – you can have your butcher break it down for you to make it easier to cook.
Once I know what I am making, I pick the dishes I will use to serve them. The dishes/plates go onto the sideboard with post-it stickers to remind me which one is for which recipe. If I am using any silver pieces, they get polished and washed. Wrap them in plastic wrap and they will stay clean a lot longer!
I set the dining table about 3 days in advance with the glasses and plates upside down to keep them cleaner. If you need any help with where to put each piece, take a look at the table setting diagrams here. I set up the centerpieces, keeping them low so people can see over them, a cornucopia is classic and easy to fill with fresh fruits and nuts. Make sure to leave room for any serving dishes that will be on the table – like the bowl of cranberry sauce and the gravy boat. Don’t forget wine coasters for the bottles (or use small plates) and collars around the necks to minimize drips – you can also tie a napkin around the neck to do the same thing. A kid’s table can be draped with a fun plastic-coated tablecloth to make clean up easy.
Set up a “bar” area outside the kitchen and assign someone to man it for you. This is where you keep bottled water, sodas, wine, alcohol (if you are serving it), mixers, cut up citrus, glassware, etc. If you need a knife, mixing spoon, or other equipment, be sure they are on hand. This will greatly reduce the traffic in the kitchen, helping reduce your stress.
If you don’t already have one, buy a kitchen timer with multiple timer settings. I always have a TimeStick Trio from Thermapen with me. It comes with a neck strap so no matter where I wander in the house or yard I know when it is time to take something out of the oven, start cooking a dish, or reduce the temperature of the oven.
The biggest tip I can give you is to get as much done in advance as possible and then relax and enjoy yourself and your guests are guaranteed to have a good time too! I sincerely wish every one of you the most joyous holiday feast and a day filled with gratitude and happiness.
Happy Thanksgiving One and All!