Whatever your plans are in this crazy year, you might be cooking for Thanksgiving, and many of you could be doing it for the first time. No matter if you are cooking for 2 or 20, it can be a stress-free, fun experience where you can actually spend time with your guests while serving a delicious meal. With a lot of pre-planning, the big meal can come off without a hitch.
Start with the menu. Whether you use an old-fashioned legal pad or do it on your laptop or tablet, write down each dish in one column on the left. Leave ample space. To the right of each menu item, write down every ingredient you need. This will be your master list.
Shop for non-perishables the week before and perishables two days before the big feast. Do not take this time to try out new recipes. Stick with what’s tried and true. Next to the ingredient list, note what can be made ahead of time. Many vegetable dishes can be made a few days before and heated the day of. I even make stuffing the day before.
Desserts like pies and rolls can be purchased at a bakery or grocery store; not everything has to be homemade. Appetizers can be simple. Make two dips (the day before), one for chips, and one for crudité (again the day before). Pick a good sharp cheddar spread like Merkts with a couple different crackers, and you are done.
Make sure if you are using a frozen turkey, you allow enough time for thawing. Large ones can take up to three days in the refrigerator to thaw. Put it in an aluminum pan on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator. Two days before, set out all pots, pans, and utensils for the big day; you do not want to be looking for an extra pan when time is of the essence.
Next, set your table. Have serving dishes for all menu items, again no looking for a missing gravy boat right before serving. Once your table is set, cover with a clean sheet to keep dust-free.
Make your day-of schedule. Write down everything you need to do and at what time. For example, at 8 am, peel and slice potatoes, prepare the turkey, and put it in the oven. At 10 am, cook and mash potatoes, and put in the crockpot. Yes, you can make potatoes early and keep them warm in the crockpot. Add a little warmed milk and cream just before serving.
Turkey is often a meat that cooks on its own time. As you are going for a specific temperature, remember it is not an exact science. When asked when we are eating, I say, “Oh, 4ish.” That gives you some fudge time. Schedule when your veggie and other dishes that you made the day before will need to be re-heated. When the turkey is done and resting, do the last- minute things like preparing gravy and warming rolls. I do easy gravy from a McCormick pouch. Add drippings for a homemade taste. Accept help when offered.
There is a fury of activity getting everything to the table hot. Make use of that microwave and keep things warm in the oven. Dry turkey? No worries, a little warm chicken broth drizzled on works wonders.
In the end, especially this year, your guests are close family and friends. Any little snafu will certainly be laughed off. You can just open another bottle of wine and enjoy the company and great food. Be healthy and have a great Thanksgiving!
KATHLEEN WEAVER-ZECH AND DEAN’S TEAM CHICAGO