Happy November, everyone!
In honor of my favorite November holiday (yes, I know some of you celebrate it earlier and some of you not at all, but that’s the way it is in November in the US of A), I’m going to spend my weekends until Turkey Day offering advice, recipes, and suchlike related to the holiday.
To start the ball rolling, here are a few tips on picking your menu and preparing to host the party. If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, relax. These tips work just as well for any feasting occasion.
1: Consider what you’re good at cooking. A big dinner party (or even a small one, if you’re not used to giving one or the guests are inclined to be difficult) can be stressful. Play to your strengths. If you’re really great at braising, do a dish that uses that technique. If you’re a lousy baker, don’t try to do your own bread and pies. Rely on a good bakery.
2: Make sure you know what people don’t eat. When I invite someone over to eat for the first time, I always ask them ‘what don’t you eat.’ I don’t need a huge explanation why. It’s enough for me to know that you don’t eat hot peppers or pork or cheese or raw carrots or foods that are yellow. That way I can make sure there’s something on the table that you can eat and that will be satisfying. The better you know your guest’s food aversions, allergies, and neuroses, the better you will be able to get everyone fed well.
3: Consider your available resources. All of them. Kitchen space, appliances, cooking vessels, serving pieces, flatware, time, money, table spaces, and chairs are all resources. Make sure you’ve got enough of each before you start inviting people. This also means that you’ll need to look at what each recipe you’re cooking requires to make certain you aren’t trying to use your one oven at two different temperatures in the same window of time. If you’re low on cash, opt for less expensive dishes or just less dishes. Don’t go broke to give one party. Leave a little in the account for the next meal.
4: Stick to dishes you’ve cooked before. I’ll admit that this is the rule I break the most by a country mile. Still, even when I haven’t made a dish before, I don’t pick one involving techniques and ingredients I haven’t ever used before. Even if I haven’t made a particular gratin before, I’ve made a great many successful gratins over the years. Making one with assorted root vegetables wasn’t that different from making one with just potatoes. OTOH, puddings are my Achille’s heel in the kitchen. I don’t do them for company.
5: Before you shop for your party, clean out your fridge and write a complete grocery list. If you’ve got stuff that’s ready for a science fair in your fridge, get it out before you start trying to thaw a turkey in there. Not only does it make it more difficult to fit in everything you need, you risk contaminating your feast with rotted food. As for the grocery list, there are few things more frustrating before a big dinner party than discovering you’ve forgotten something as basic as sugar or salt. And if you had to travel to get an exotic morsel, you don’t want to discover it was the only thing you forgot. Take a thorough grocery list and check items off as you go.
6: Make-ahead dishes are your friend. Anything you can get done in advance is one less thing you have to do while rushing to get dressed, set the table, or coping with a needy child or pet. Besides, something goes wrong with nearly every event, no matter how well planned. Give yourself a bit of room to deal with any disaster that may occur.
7: Try to time things so you can be with your guests before the meal. Here’s one area where those make-ahead and store-bought goodies will stand you in good stead. Your friends and family will enjoy getting to talk to you while you nibble on nuts and cheeses far more than they will like having a panicked hostess meet them at the door and then dump them in the living room while she goes and tends four different pots, a stove, and a microwave. A big part of the fun of feeding people is getting to spend actual time with them.
8: Clean as you go. Okay, when you get done with your Thanksgiving feast, you’re going to have a lot of dishes. This cannot be avoided. Still, you can minimize the damage if you clear away as many dirty dishes and as much garbage as possible while you’re cooking. Do what Rachel Ray does and keep a bowl near you for food scraps so you can dispose of or compost them ASAP. Wash dishes while things are baking or water is coming to a boil on the stove. Your goal is to have only the dishes from the actual dinner left when your guests leave.
9: Don’t forget to breathe. Whether this is your first dinner party or your five hundredth, make sure to schedule breaks for yourself…and then take them. If you’re frazzled and exhausted when your guests arrive, you mood can make your guests feel unwelcome or nervous, and then your party rapidly goes to hell in a frivolously decorated handbasket. If, on the other hand, you appear calm and in control when people show up, they can relax, too. They know they’re in good hands.
10: Keep your sense of humor. In the end, you can only do what you can do and sometimes fate is just not on your side. If your party starts to go pear-shaped, the best thing you can do is find the funny. Remember, this, too, shall pass. Sometimes the most charmingly memorable party is one where everyone had a good laugh at something that went wrong.
Yes, you can throw a Thanksgiving dinner. It’s all a matter of being realistic about what you’re doing and proceeding with confidence.