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Thanksgiving Thoughts #1 | Manolo for the Big Girl

Thanksgiving Thoughts #1

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.

thanksgiving-table

8 Responses to “Thanksgiving Thoughts #1”

  1. Alexis November 1, 2009 at 10:33 am #

    Excellent advice! I am thinking of trying something really untraditional this year. Nigella has a recipe for a pumpkin goat cheese lasagna in her Christmas cookbook that looks to be to die for. And you can make the whole thing in advance and reheat! It would be so perfect with vegetarians, although I will probably offer meat elsewhere in the meal, maybe in the form of another easy-peasy Nigella recipe: prosciutto-wrapped figs!

  2. Twistie November 1, 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Mmmm…that lasagna sounds beyond delish! I’m not a vegetarian, but I would be well satisfied by that as a main dish. There’s nothing at all wrong with untraditional.

  3. Nomie November 1, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    #6 is the absolute key, in my mind. For Thanksgiving we always drive down to the next state to spend the holiday with my dad’s cousin and her family, and we always bring the cranberry sauce and at least one pie. Sometimes we bring other stuff too, and it definitely makes the prep on their end easier to have just a couple of things less to worry about.

    Oh, we also bring wine. Wine is important.

  4. Mrs. Hendricks November 1, 2009 at 2:38 pm #

    Good tips. I might just add to start making a few things now that won’t suffer from the do-ahead. Piecrust can be made into disks and popped into the freezer; then all you have to do is thaw it out in the fridge the night before you make pie. I also make cranberry sauce way ahead of time, and it’s fine.

    Alexis put me in mind of another wonderful lasagna made with butternut squash, sage and hazelnuts. However, it’s not a do-head project, and leftovers don’t keep so well because of the nuts. But it is absolutely delicious and can be found on Epicurious.

  5. Twistie November 1, 2009 at 5:53 pm #

    Mrs. Hendicks, I will go look up that recipe today! It sounds beyond scrumptious. Of course, I’m a complete sucker for both butternut squash and hazelnuts.

  6. Kimks November 1, 2009 at 6:51 pm #

    Twistie- This is a great list- I am adding it to my personal file of Party tips & tricks. We host lots of dinner parties and just plain parties and always have a lot of fun with them- the key is preperation, kowing well what you can and cannot do and remembering that if it all goes to hades, most people are fine with eating pizza or random sandwiches you can throw together= if you laugh your guests will laugh too…

  7. Cat November 1, 2009 at 9:11 pm #

    Mmmmm, Mrs. Hendricks, I had a butternut squash ravioli with sage, brown butter, pine nuts, shaved Parmesan, and fresh nutmeg at a restaurant recently. It was absolutely divine.

  8. missm November 3, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    I was a bit nervous the first time I did a turkey for Thanksgiving. Then I remembered it’s just a big chicken, and I make a MEAN roast chicken and then I wasn’t worried anymore. And it was delicious, just as expected.
    Also if Cousin Becky asks if she can bring something always say YES and then tell her what that thing is. And then be happy and grateful. Maybe the way she makes Nana’s famous sweet potatoes is different than how you would do it (and you’re pretty sure it’s definitely different than how Nana did), and she’s going to bring it in some ugly container that doesn’t go with the rest of the table setting and she didn’t even include a garnish, for cryin’ out loud, but that’s not really the point, now, is it?