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The Perfect Thanksgiving Menu: How to Create It | Manolo for the Big Girl

The Perfect Thanksgiving Menu: How to Create It

There were some fabulous comments to my article last week about Thanksgiving dishes we love and loathe. It’s a meal most people have wildly strong opinions about, in large part because of our histories with the holiday.

So I’m not going to even attempt to tell you what you have to have on your table or what you must needs avoid for fear of winding up in Food Hell. Where one person adores green bean casserole, another hates it. Where one can only eat homemade stuffing straight from the bird, another will only eat Stove Top cooked on, well, the stove top. Where one thinks sweet potatoes are naked sans miniature marshmallows, another holds any sweetening of sweet potatoes as an abomination. Where one wants a Jell-o mold, another longs for green salad. Pitched battles can be fought over pumpkin pie vs pecan.

In the end, I’m not too exercised about which dishes make it Thanksgiving for you and which you hold in contempt. I’m curious, but not worried too much about your individual decisions.

I do, however, have a few tips if you’re floundering about wondering what to cook for this Important Meal.

Know your audience. Before you can make any decisions, you need to know how many people are coming over to eat with you, and have a general idea of their Thanksgiving preferences. Be aware of any dietary restrictions, whether from religious belief, moral choice, medical issues, or just plain old preference. The great thing about the fact that Thanksgiving is usually served family style with platters and bowls being passed around the table is that you don’t have to limit every dish so that every person can have some… but you do need to know what to quietly warn people they won’t find appropriate.

Really think about what makes it Thanksgiving to you. See? There was a method to the madness of asking that question last week. You need to know what still makes it Thanksgiving if everything else is different. But once you know that, you are free to consider a Thanksgiving without the things you really hate, or that your family never touches despite your efforts. If the Thanksgiving thing you can’t stand is the turkey, you can serve ham or roast beef or sweet and sour shrimp, or pumpkin barley casserole instead. So long as you’ve got your beloved dish of green bean casserole or that special Jell-o mold or cranberries in some form on the table to make it the holiday you know, it’s okay to think outside the box. Just be sure the rest of your family is ready to experiment, too.

Play to your culinary strengths. This is not the time to try out something you aren’t absolutely sure you can do. Just be aware of techniques you’re good at and go with dishes that use those techniques. I’m just plain brilliant with baking and roasting… but sauces, not so much. I can do them, but they aren’t my strong suit. Knowing that, I look for recipes that allow me to show off what I do best and don’t rely heavily on the stuff I’m not as good at. So if you poach like a whiz, but aren’t very good at frying, look for something you can poach and pass the fried dishes by.

Know your resources. I’ve got one stove with five burners and a single oven to work with. I’ve got a sadly slender bank account. I’ve got a bajillion cookbooks. I’ve got a beautiful marble pastry slab. I’ve got great taste buds and a lot of food knowledge. I’ve got a kitchen table that seats four in reasonable comfort as long as nobody needs to get into the refrigerator. I’ve got Mom’s silver, but no formal china. I’ve got plenty of time. That’s what I’ve got. You may have more or less burners, a second oven or just one that’s really tiny. You may have more money but less literature to work with. You may have half an hour here and there to work with. Each of us has resources that help and lack of resources that hinder us in creating the perfect menu. Be aware of both your options and your limitations. After all, if you have one oven, you can’t cook two dishes in it at the same time unless they cook at the same temperature. And when the money’s gone, the money’s gone. But once you know where your strong and weak points are, you can get creative about exploiting one and mitigating the other.

Once you have a good idea of what you’re cooking, take a moment to work out a prep timeline. See what can be prepared in advance and how long things need to cook at the last minute. When you see  a conflict, either figure out a way around it or change your menu. This is where you get the best grasp of whether you’ve created a truly workable plan. And be sure to give yourself a bit of leeway here and there. Things come up at the last moment, we all lose track of time once in a while. If your schedule is too rigid, you’ll have no room if you fall behind. Besides, you’ll need time to relax a little and make yourself presentable before people show up hungry!

If you’ve got another cook coming to your table, consider farming out a dish or two. This is actually the deal I’ve got with a good friend. Mr. Twistie and I go visit her, and bring along a couple dishes. Basically, she makes the turkey and stuffing (homemade, in the bird, sausage and cornbread), a salad, and opens the can of cranberry jelly. I make the mashed potatoes (my mother’s recipe with sour cream and cottage cheese in it, topped with melted butter and toasted almonds), a fabulous fresh cranberry ginger orange relish, and the pumpkin pie. Then I spend a couple days with my friend eating leftovers and watching insane amounts of Criminal Minds and the occasional Bruce Campbell movie while Mr. Twistie goes home and plays in his studio for a couple days without worrying about whether I’m feeling oppressed by it. All is well. Then she sends me home with a rabbit to put in my freezer until such time as Mr. Twistie will be gone for several days. Yum.

Having Thanksgiving at your table without my mother’s annual meltdown that signaled the official start of the holiday season is mostly a matter of preparation. If you know what you’re doing, avoid things that make you crazy, rely on your strengths, know where to delegate and what to just punt… you can have a lovely meal with good friends and family that will please them all and leave you smiling.

3 Responses to “The Perfect Thanksgiving Menu: How to Create It”

  1. Kimks November 13, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    Great tips. We have an open invitation Thanksgiving where we are fairly certain of the number of people coming but won’t know for sure until we actually sit down to eat- makes sitting the table a bit of a challenge, but otherwise all is good.
    I know there are almost always going to be at least one vegetarian showing up, so I stopped making my pie crust with lard- no one noticed.I also swapped veggie stock for chick in all non- meat dishes- I think they are better tasting.

    My brother, who is the main cook in his house- has zero desire to spend hours in the kitchen, but likes all the leftovers, so he has ordered 2 complete Thanksgiving dinners from his market for years- no one complains.

    Know yourself, know your guests, have fun.

  2. dinazad November 14, 2011 at 5:25 am #

    Now about that cranberry orange relish…… could you be persuaded to share the recipe?

  3. Margie November 18, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    For the holidays we always celebrate with Aunts, Uncles, Cousins…. so there are quite a few of us. And for every family get-to-gether, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, food plans are always the same. The hosting family usually provides the main meats (turkey AND ham for Thanksgiving, turkey, ham AND tamales for Christmas) and then the rest is mostly potluck style. As long as we have a potato/pasta, veggie, bread, and desert, we are all set! we all just kinda fill in the blanks, everyone brings something to share. and when we eat it is always buffet style so you eat what you want and are able to graze the rest of the day! many times what happens is, we all eat dinner, stay at the tables talking or playing games, then some of the moms will “re-organize” the buffet tables so that dishes are condensed and reheated, if needed, and we continue to eat. and we actually use our times together as opportunity to share new recipes and first time dishes. by the end of dinner we are swapping recipes! (My family is big time into cooking so we are all always trying to do something new and different each year.)