Taking the stress out of Thanksgiving!

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By Chef Lynn Miller

Every year, the same question pops up a month or even two before Thanksgiving. For many people, it’s a day of rest, relaxation, heavy eating and football, but for the cook it can be the most stressful day of the year – a day that many cooks dread! How does one minimize this burden and take the stress out?

  1. Don’t feel like you have to impress everybody with fancy recipes. Definitely, DO NOT make something you have never made before. This is the time for the tried and true – the recipes you know are good and where you are familiar with the steps. Even recipes from famous chefs can fail and this is not the time to experiment.
  2. It’s a big meal and a lot for one person to take on. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and even to let people bring a dish they would like to be responsible for. Let them bring things that are completed though. For example, you could ask someone to bring a sweet potato dish that just needs to be popped into the oven. This will minimize the people in the kitchen as well as breakage and mistakes.

If you are like me, however, you like to make all the dishes yourself. I don’t like a lot of people in my kitchen when the purpose of the day is to get a large meal out quickly. I have too many bad memories of teams putting together a recipe and not remembering who added what. Oh, and how about the repair of the potato peel clogged garbage disposal right in the middle of the meal preparation? Trust me on this. No one really wants to come to your house and peel potatoes anyway.

So how do you make this easy? How do you take the stress out of preparing this meal? First, think about the purpose of the meal. Do you really want to send your family running for easy chairs to sleep off their food comas? Or do you want to serve a healthy meal that will give them energy and allow them to enjoy their day together?

For me, it’s the latter. To do that, you just need to get back to the basics. Forget the gooey marshmallow sweet potatoes and get back to fresh, simple food. Maybe it’s not so traditional, but everyone will thank you for it. The only other thing you need to do is to plan ahead. Here’s a framework to guide you through the process:

Menu:
Fresh, Roasted Turkey with Delicious Stuffing and Cranberries
Parmesan Mashed Potatoes
Baked Sweet Potatoes
Fresh, steamed vegetable
Fruit pies with ice cream
Beverages

Up to one month before:

  1. If you want to have a fresh turkey, order it. If you want a frozen turkey, buy it and keep it frozen.
  2. On a day when you have plenty of time, make your pies. Only make fruit pies because you can freeze them baked or unbaked. I suggest baking them first because then dessert is completely finished and more importantly, on this day there is usually not enough oven space to do everything at the last minute.
  3. Plan your centerpiece. Use decorative things that can be set out in advance. No fresh flowers.

One week before: Do all of your food shopping, except for fresh rolls. Make sure you have enough coffee and tea. Buy cranberries already prepared.

Three days before:

  1. If your turkey is frozen, take it out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator. It will need this much time to thaw.

Two days before:

  1. Completely set the table, centerpiece and all.
  2. Plan where you are going to set up your buffet. Plan what platters and serving dishes you are going to use and set them on the buffet. This is the time to think about what will be where and what it’s going to look like.
  3. Set dessert plates, coffee and tea cups and creamer and sugar vessels out where they are handy but not in the way.

One day before:

  1. Get your fresh rolls at the bakery. Do not refrigerate them. It increases staling. Keep them in a paper bag on the counter. If you do not want to bake pies, just buy them at this time.
  2. Make your mashed potatoes. Mix in some grated Parmesan Cheese. Put them in a casserole dish. Cover and refrigerate.
  3. You do not have to have both, but if you want also to have sweet potatoes, prepare them for baking. Wash the whole potatoes, Rub with butter, sprinkle them with salt and pepper and wrap them in foil. Place them in the dish you plan to bake them in and refrigerate them.
  4. Make your stuffing, but do not put it in the bird ahead of time. (It will generate too much bacteria and could cause people to get sick. This is a really big no no.) Put it in a large baking dish. Cover it and refrigerate it.

Thanksgiving Morning:

  1. Take out your pies and set them on the counter (fruit pies only).
  2. Turn your oven on to preheat it to 425 degrees F.
  3. Put butter in its serving dish on the table so it will have time to come to room temperature.
  4. Wash your turkey off and pat it dry. Put it in a large pan. Brush it with olive oil. Sprinkle it with salt and pepper. (If you have a nice rub, rub it on the skin and omit the salt and pepper.) Put your turkey in the oven.

    NOTE: If you want to save yourself a ton of time and have your meal served hot, don’t stuff it at all. Use chicken or turkey broth when you prepare the stuffing as well as lots of onion, celery and butter. Put something crunchy in there, like water chestnuts or chopped chestnuts and/or nuts. Of course, the stuffing has to have a fair amount of butter if it’s going to be good, but this is your only indulgence in the meal itself. If your stuffing is moist enough, it honestly won’t taste that different if you bake it separately.

  5. You should cook your turkey to 165 degrees F for it to be safe to eat. Check the dark meat because it cooks slower than the white meat. An expected cooking time should be on the package or on a tag attached to the bird. Add a half hour just to be safe, then work backward from your serving time and start the turkey then. Generally, you will want to plan 15 minutes of cooking time per pound. If it gets done a little early, you can always turn off your oven and leave it in there a little longer if you need to. So start your turkey at 425 and then after about 45 minutes you can reduce it to 350. If your turkey browns too quickly, cover it with foil and continue cooking.
  6. Wash and prepare your vegetables for cooking. Put them in the top of your steamer.

One hour before the meal, begin the final preparations:

  1. Bake the sweet potatoes in a preheated oven at 425 degrees F for one about an hour.
  2. Bake the stuffing and mashed potatoes, covered for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove the foil for the last ten minutes.
  3. Steam a fresh vegetable, for example, broccoli.
  4. There will be people standing around wanting to help, so give them jobs they can’t screw up and you don’t have to supervise. Have someone else pour water into the glasses on the table. If you are having wine, have someone else open it. This same person can offer it after people sit down. Have someone else put the rolls in the basket and put them on the table. Delegate someone to carve the turkey, someone to move the vegetable and potatoes into their serving dishes. Have someone else round up the people and organize where they should sit. The key is to give people specific responsibilities. That way they will feel great about helping, they won’t be in each other’s way and everything will get done. Someone can also help you later on to serve dessert, coffee, tea, etc. You get the gist of this. Let them spoon, pour, serve and clean up, but not cook!

Sit down together, be thankful and enjoy your mea

Chef Lynn Miller

About Chef Lynn Miller

Chef Lynn M. Miller is the corporate chef for MexAmerica Foods. She is the author of the Flavor Secrets cookbook, a popular cooking instructor and the host of the Flavor Secrets cable cooking show (available online at http://www.bloomfieldtwp.org/Services/cable/Videos/FlavorSecrets.htm). For more information, see web-sites at www.flavorsecrets.com and www.spitzpress.com.