I happen to really enjoy cooking and find it relaxing, and I have been making this dinner for umpteen years, so it is familiar to me. Nevertheless, there is a lot to remember and the MORE you can do to help organize yourself, the more enjoyable the day will be for you and your guests. And I have not only witnessed, but caused, more than one Thanksgiving to go from peace to pandemonium in record time. One minute you are full of Thankfulness and Goodwill toward All, and the next minute you are fantasizing about feigning your own death. Your urge to strangle the next person who lifts up a lid to peak at something becomes almost uncontrollable. Total turmoil causes you to forget to serve a major component of the dinner. (In my case, it was the yams which were discovered late Thanksgiving night, withering away in the cold oven)
Now I tend to be pretty casual about things, and doubt that anyone who knows me would consider me compulsive, obsessive, or both. I am very capable of leaving my bed unmade without having it haunt me. Unlike my mother AND my daughter Kris, I am not a house-cleaning fanatic, and I have a fairly high tolerance for a temporary mess. When I used to make this dinner with my Mom, I would turn around to get a knife or kitchen tool and find that she had washed it, dried it, and put it in its appropriate drawer, ALL in that 2-minute period during which I wasn’t using it!! I like to rinse dishes as I go, but I don’t mind a small depository of kitchen necessities sitting around.
BUT watch me get ready for Thanksgiving! I turn list-making into a science. I have tasks and shopping lists prepared in advance and saved in Word. I have learned that if I want to enjoy the entire process and not have this nagging “I-know-I -forgot-to-do-something” feeling, I have to allow my evil, neurotic twin to take over when it comes to the planning part of a big party.
So, not one to ignore the ample knowledge to be gained from one’s mistakes, I have come up with a few tricks that work for me. I suspect that as I get even OLDER, these not-so-subtle memory crutches will become even more obvious. Rather than a myriad of index cards stuck to my fridge, guests will arrive to see giant flip-chart pages covering the walls. The detail of these lists will be unbelievable. Nothing will be trusted to memory. Hopefully, my plan to grow old gracefully will kick in before I start stuffing the turkey with yams and putting marshmallows on the stuffing, and I will have the sense to pass the Thanksgiving drumstick to a younger member of the family!
But for now, until that “growing old gracefully” thing kicks in, these are the things that work for me.
1. I make my menu and master list of EVERYTHING that will be served on Thanksgiving at least a week in advance, or earlier. I include everything that needs to be put on the table — even condiments.
2. From the menu, I gather all the recipes and make my shopping lists. I always end up getting some things at one store and some at another. I have favorite stores for different things. Anything I need in great quantity I get at Costco; and they are about the only place that has poultry BIG enough to suit me. I like the bakeries at Von’s and Albertson’s. I love the produce at Fresh & Easy. I make my list on the computer so I can move things around to different list for different stores. (I know, I know….)
3. I buy as much as I can ahead of time. All the canned things, any baking supplies, anything that is just as good frozen as fresh.. I buy those things as far ahead as two weeks, just to space out the trips to the market.
4. Now here is where it gets really compulsive. I take index cards and I make a series of cards for EACH menu item. For instance, for the cranberry salad, I would make one card that says “Grind and prepare cranberries” and another one that says “Whip cream and finish cranberry salad”. For the gravy there would be a card that says “Roast turkey wings” one that says “Make turkey stock” , and one that says “Prepare Gravy”. Tasks are combined on one card if they can be done at the same time (I probably will roast the wings and make the stock on the same day, but just in case….) Then on the reverse side of the card, I write the DAY I am going to do that task. Just to show you HOW excessively single-minded I can get, I even specify morning or afternoon. Sick, I know.
5. Then I sort all the cards into stacks by timing, and clip them together. As I finish each job, I toss that card away. I am easily tricked into feelings of accomplishment, so tossing away an index card that said “slice the butter” can make me feel almost as good as tossing “cook the turkey”. I am into cheap thrills. When you have finished the entire pile for that timeframe, you can either plop down and relax, or get ahead of the game by dipping into the NEXT day’s pile! Exciting, huh???
6. The other thing I have been doing for years is selecting the serving dishes for each and every thing two or three days ahead of time. This way you can clean silver if need be, wash things that need it, and make sure you have everything you need to make your table look nice. I put a little slip of paper in each serving piece with the name of what is to be in it. (You are smirking, I can feel it! ) But really, this makes dishing up the dinner on Thursday SO much easier and you don’t have to make those BIG decisions on the spot! Also, if someone is helping you dish up, they can easily pitch in without digging through your cupboards! And yes, try to remember to take the little note out of the serving dish before dishing up.
There are a few serving pieces that I only USE on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and it is entirely possible that I have stashed them somewhere or loaned them out, and tracking them down could take a bit of doing. You do not want to be doing this while the turkey sits on the counter leaking its precious bodily fluids onto the platter!!
7. I always set the table as early as Tuesday or Wednesday. It is one less thing to worry about, and you can also plan the seating for all your guests. Plus, I like to discover the inevitable shortage of something, like napkins, in advance. This year we are expecting a big crowd and I may have to have rent an extra table. That will mean double serving dishes for each item, so all the more reason to do it ahead of time!
So the schedule ends up looking something like this:
As far ahead as you wish: Roast turkey wings and make stock.
A week or so in advance: Buy non-perishable groceries.
Monday or Tuesday: Select serving dishes and wash/polish if needed.
Tuesday or Wednesday: Set the table completely. Buy the rest of the groceries.
Wednesday: Bake pies, bake yams, grind cranberries, tear up bread, cut up celery and onion for stuffing. If you are serving white wine, put in fridge to chill.
Thursday morning: Mix stuffing together; stuff and truss the turkey and get him in the oven. Peel russet potatoes, cover with water, set on stove. Peel cooked yams and slice, place in container in fridge. If your favorite side dish cannot be made on Wednesday and heated on Thursday, then now is the time to put it together.
Thursday afternoon, about two hours before the ETE (expected time of eating)… Boil the russets. Make the caramel sauce for the yams. Whip the cream for the pies and put in the fridge. Make the gravy from the stock. Saute mushrooms for gravy IF you like. When potatoes are done, drop a stick of butter in them and put the lid back on.
Thursday RIGHT before dinner: Rice potatoes, add cream and reheat. Heat up the yams in the caramel sauce, prepare the yam casserole with the marshmallows. Reheat the gravy. Put butter on the table, water in water glasses, get wine ready to serve. Take turkey out when done. Remove stuffing from cavities. Put yam casserole in the oven until marshmallows melt. Let turkey sit for 15 or so minutes so juices redistribute. THEN carve and put on platter.
VOILA!! Wasn’t that easy?
One last thing to mention. IF you invite your guests to come early and spend the day as we do, set out a few LIGHT snacks. I put out 4 cans of black, pitted olives, and that is just for Kelly. Then for everyone else, I put out olives, marinated artichoke hearts, and other interesting little pickled vegetables from the gourmet section of the market. We don’t want to fill people up!
I JUST this week-end learned of a new appetizer, however, that is just too perfect to pass up. Not only does it SCREAM “Thanksgiving”, but it is so delicious that I must add it to the menu this year for the FIRST time. My friend Patti, (of previous sage fame) who has, by the way, totally redeemed herself many times over, made this delectable delight just this week-end while visiting. It is a keeper!
PATTI’S SCRUMPTIOUS BRIE
One wedge of good quality Brie
One cup of dried cranberries
1/2 Granny Smith Apple, very finely diced
Bottled caramel ice cream topping
Crackers (buttery plain crackers work best — like, yes, Ritz, or a close relative)
Soak cranberries in Gran Marnier, Triple Sec, or another liqueur of your choice. Place them in a small bowl and pour enough liquor over to just cover. When cranberries are puffed up, (about an hour) drain off liqueur.
Place brie on microwavable serving dish. Pile cranberries on top. Place diced apple on top of cranberries. Drizzle caramel sauce back and forth across brie. (Don’t overdo the caramel). Place in microwave and cook for ONE MINUTE. Cheese will just be warm and starting to melt a little.
Serve with crackers and stand back. If you have a lot guests, obviously you will want to do more than one of these. You can do two or more wedges on one plate, points facing each other, and adjust the amounts and microwave time accordingly. Increase the microwave time in small increments so as not to melt the entire wedge.