Some tips for your Thanksgiving holiday
If you’re an American who isn’t somehow involved in the Black Friday insanity, you will most likely be celebrating our yearly feast Holiday of Thanksgiving. It is a time for gathering with family and friends to break bread and share an evening together.
For some of you, the preparation of this grand meal will be on your shoulders. To the experienced it’s a time to shine, for the inexperienced it can be overwhelming. This year (like most years) the task will be on my father, with me as his Sous-Chef. While I don’t have any grand recipes to share with you today, I wanted to contribute with some tips based on my own experiences.
I thought about leaving this one for last, but I think it’s better first. Don’t be afraid to break traditions, or even make new ones. I’ve seen some who feel pressured or bored with the “traditional meal”, and thus I say “why make that?” The meal can be anything you want. Make a pot roast, or lasagna, or fish, or even pizza. While historically turkey was served to the Pilgrims, it was mainly because that was what was available to them. There is no set “law” that says you must serve turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc.
It’s more important to remember the meaning of the holiday. It’s about getting together with loved ones. It’s about sharing time and especially taking a moment to really look at the positive aspects of your life. Even if you think life has given you a bad hand, and you spend every day wishing for more, take a moment to instead reflect on where you are and how things could be worse. Be happy to be alive and for the people you have in your life. That’s what Thanksgiving is all about.
The Main Course
While I just spoke of breaking traditions, let’s assume you decide you really want a meal centering around a turkey. Based on my experiences cooking for groups of people, and of cooking a turkey, I’d really push the point to plan ahead. I’m dead serious, this isn’t just about deciding on a menu and shopping lists, but also about scheduling when things will be made, and how long they will take. The main reason is you probably have one oven and four stove units. You don’t want to be stuck where you need the oven for something but it’s already full of food cooking.
If you cook a turkey, make sure you fully thaw out your bird. This is not something that will take a few hours, but more one or a few days. I had the unfortunate experience of trying to roast a half-frozen turkey, and while I managed to make it work, I know things could have been much better if my bird were fully thawed. Learn from my mistake.
I’ll also toss in that you should take the time to fully brine the turkey. I plan on writing an article explaining what a brine is, and how it differs from a marinade. For now, the most basic brine would be to dissolve 1 cup of salt into 1 gallon of water, and soak the turkey in it overnight. This will break down the flesh (like you do with chicken) and thus give you tender, delicious meat. You can add other seasonings, herbs, and aromatics to your brine, but the salt and water is key, or else you end up with a dry bird.
One other great piece of advice I’ve been spreading came from Bon Appetit Magazine. They actually suggested to cook the turkey breasts separately from the legs/thighs. Bear in mind this is a tip, and not sacred technique. Maybe you dream of placing a full bird on the table and carving it in front of everyone. If so, then skip this advice.
However, if you are more planning on serving the cut up turkey on a platter, then try separating. Bon Appetit suggested seasoning and roasting the breasts in the oven, but braising the legs and thighs on the stove with a Dutch Oven. The end result will be less oven time and both parts of the turkey cooked to perfection. I love the idea and so plan on trying it when I make a turkey on my own again.
The Side Dishes
Of course you have to serve something with the turkey (or the main course you decided upon). As I spoke of planning ahead earlier, branch that thought and cook some sides in advance. Seriously, not everything has to be done on Thanksgiving day. A green bean casserole could be done several days in advance (put the onions on at the end). Same with mashed (or roasted) potatoes. Most pies and desserts can be made in advance. If you’re preparing the meal, do some of your work on the days leading up so you get to spend time socializing as opposed to just cooking.
Stuffing or dressing? People ask what the difference is. Stuffing is when you put it in the bird. Dressing is when you cook it separately. My advice? Try making a dressing as opposed to a stuffing. It’s the same ideology as cooking the turkey parts separately. Unless you want that grand presentation of a fully stuffed bird, you should try making a dressing instead in a baking pan. You can do it in advance and thus cut down your time cooking your turkey.
I’d also add in to go beyond boxed stuffing. Stove Top and the rest are tasty, but it’s not that difficult to make a stuffing or dressing on your own. Look around online for a recipe and try one. You’ll be shocked how much better a homemade stuffing or dressing will taste, and how well you can make it your own with additions/edits to the recipe.
Moving along, I think a cool idea is to introduce grilling and roasting to your sides. Mashed potatoes were never a big hit with my family, so we opted for roasted potatoes. I also love the idea of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and other vegetables on the menu. If you happen to have a gill sitting outside not being used, fire it up. Grill some vegetables and add a new flavor to your dinner table.
Your vegetable dishes (beyond potatoes) should go further than just a healthy green side. Add some flair to your vegetables. While Zuzana is a fan of the traditional green bean casserole, the rest of us really aren’t. I personally love to steam up the green beans halfway, then finish them in a pot with butter and garlic, plating them with a topping of shaved almond slices. Look around on Pinterest or Google Images. Find some interesting ways to make and serve your vegetables and you’ll be surprised how quickly the platters clear.
Let’s go beyond the dinner table. Are you only entertaining family/friends at night? Or are you having relatives stay with you for the weekend? Your holiday could end up being a group of “zombies” watching football (which is perfectly ok), but you could raise the bar in some aspects.
Instead of a bowl of chips, make a cheese platter. As opposed to just buying a case of beer, make a house drink in a pitcher. Something that can be easily poured and enjoyed. If relatives are with you all day, plan the day in courses like meals. Make a simple breakfast that can sit on the dinner table for anyone to grab, as well as munchies for lunch. Clear it all out when it’s closer to dinner.
I’ll also add to take some time to know your wines. One great suggestion I’ve heard is to offer some chilled sparkling wines for the drinking during the day. With dinner try a Pinot Noir or Zinfandel for the reds, and a Sauvignon Blanc or even a Riesling for the whites. An interesting idea would also be to buy a bottle of Honey Mead and mulling spices. Bring that out after dinner when guests have settled back into the living room. It’s a warm and tasty way to bid goodbye to the Thanksgiving holiday and hello to the Christmas season.
Don’t forget the children. While the holiday season is a time to indulge, try to make sure the children aren’t stuffing themselves on snacks before the dinner, and then moaning how they’re full when it’s time to eat. Like I mentioned about a house drink, try the same thing for the kids and non-alcoholic drinkers. Maybe a pitcher of some sparking beverage or kiddie cocktails to make them feel special. Whoever isn’t working in the kitchen should also volunteer to make sure the children are entertained.
Lastly, you should bring a potluck ideology to the meal. Part of the fun of Thanksgiving is sharing with loved ones, and I can’t imagine you’re the only foodie in the room. Talk to your foodie friends in advance. Ask them if they would like to be involved. They will gladly and happily make a side dish or dessert mainly to have their moment to shine and feel involved in the final feast. This is what makes the holiday special for everyone.
Do you have any other advice? Please post them as comments.