I’m going to come right out and say it: planning and cooking a traditional Thanksgiving feast is not easy. It’s a challenge, to say the least. Few people have the sort of kitchens that can store and cook all the food required in one go, let alone sufficient helping hands. There are things in that traditional menu that very, very few of us cook at any point in the rest of the year. After all, when else do most people roast a turkey or make a pie? Yes, I do make pie pretty regularly, but that turkey? Not so much. That’s a big honking bird to cook for two people, which is how many eat here in one go maximum most of the year. Heck, my mother had a husband, three hungry kids, and usually at least one friend of someone in the family at that dinner table most nights, and turkey was still a once a year thing.
So let’s talk about a few ways you can make your life easier if you choose to take on making a more or less standard, traditional Thanksgiving meal for you and yours. After all, you want the energy to enjoy what you have wrought when you sit down to eat. Landing face first in the mashed potatoes from exhaustion and frustration does not make for a fun holiday for anyone.
So what can you do to make sure you’re in good shape to celebrate? What can you do to make unfamiliar dishes taste like you’re a pro at cooking them?
First off, make out your menu well in advance. The more prepared you are, the less last minute fuss and feathers. If you’re ordering a turkey from a butcher, now is the time to do it. If you know what your cranberry needs are now, you can buy and freeze them now rather than waiting until you need to go to three stores to find enough for everything you plan to do with them. That extra butter you need? Will also live happily in the freezer for a couple weeks. But get your milk and lettuce at the last minute. They don’t store well, longterm.
The other good thing about knowing in advance what you’re making is that you can identify the dishes that can be made – or partially made – in advance and kept in the fridge or freezer until the big day. In fact, many recipes and cookbooks will point out if a recipe can be frozen and reheated successfully, or if it will last in the fridge for a week or more. Also, think about your oven space and similar ingredients in relation to the dishes you’re making. Can you choose two side dishes that cook at the same temperature and fit them in together? If you make one dish that requires several egg yolks, can you find another that will use up the whites? Thinking about these aspects means less waste and more efficient use of facilities.
If you’re having friends over, consider farming out some of the work. Unless you’re collaborating on setting the menu, don’t hand them a recipe and say ‘do this.’ Rather ask them if they would be so kind as to provide a green vegetable or bring along a dessert. If someone asks what they can bring, have a general suggestion like that at the ready.
I don’t know about you, but I find it helpful in the week beforehand to write out a schedule for the work and a shopping list for any last minute items I need. It helps me make sure I’ve got everything I need and that I can actually cook everything I need to in my kitchen in the time I’ve got. Sometimes just having a plan written down can be a calming influence.
As for the tastier aspect, well, here are a couple ideas to think about.
What about brining turkeys? I must admit, it’s something I’ve never done. One of my bizarre talents in the kitchen is that of never making a dry turkey. It probably has more to do with always picking a very small turkey – as turkeys go – than with any native talent or mystical ability. Still, it’s easy to make a very dry turkey, and brining has long been considered a Very Good Idea. But J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats decided to do an experiment to find out if it’s really the best way to get a moist and flavorful turkey. His results may just surprise you. Suffice it to say I’m finding advance salting works for me with a lot of meats.
And how about pies? One of the most ubiquitous problems with pie is soggy bottom crusts. Well, there’s a cure for that, and it’s ridiculously easy. Before you pour your filling into the crust, seal it. How do you do this? Melt a small amount of chocolate or, if chocolate isn’t ideal with your filling, a relatively neutral smooth fruit preserve (apricot is good for this and also doubles nicely as a glaze for the fruit in those topless tarts) and paint it onto the bottom of your crust with a pastry brush. If you don’t have a pastry brush, just spoon it in and then use the back of the spoon to smooth it around as best you can. Just be sure to coat the bottom of the crust with a very thin layer. The chocolate or preserves will protect the crust from absorbing the juices from the filling and make it crisper. Plus it’s an added layer of flavor, yum.
Really, when it comes to Thanksgiving – or any major feast – the key to keeping it merely challenging as opposed to virtually impossible is organization. Plan carefully and everything will be just fine.