With Thanksgiving now being the most popular and celebrated family holiday, our expectations of good times soar. But the cook's heart gets a bit heavy if things are not in shape as the big day approaches.
What can be cooked ahead of time?
As a rule of thumb, anything eaten in a restaurant or purchased frozen can be made ahead of time except last-minute sautes.
Make-aheads include mashed potatoes, vegetables, gravy, relishes and the turkey itself, all of which can be refrigerated and reheated.
I cook two small turkeys, carving and storing the first turkey the night before, covered with stock to stay moist, in a plastic bag.
The second I cook on Thanksgiving morning. I reheat and serve the first turkey and put the second one on the buffet table for second helpings and to give to guests enough to take home.
Take heart, the difficult part of Thanksgiving has nothing to do with cooking, it has to do with the planning.
How to freeze
Freeze items flat whenever possible.
For liquids, insert filled bag into a bag facing the other way to catch spills and lay on a cookie sheet and spread out flat carefully so other items may be stacked on top.
If freezing casseroles, line the baking dish with foil before baking so the casserole can be removed and frozen separate from the dish.
Like any big project, breaking it down into short sessions will make it less overwhelming.
For the stock, brown neck bones, wings, back bones, or other inexpensive parts, add water and any flavorings such as onions.
Partially cover and cook down until tasty. This gives you plenty of good juices for the dressing as well as a good double batch of gravy.
A little bit done every day and a bigger push on the weekend will make it seamless.
Clean-up: A better way
Fill a cooler, preferably on wheels, with hot soapy water and put in an accessible but out-of-the-way place: deck, hallway, bathroom.
Put all last-minute pots and pans in the cooler to soak. If someone brings a dish, soak it there, too.
The sink and dishwasher MUST be empty before the first guest arrives.
The temptation is to put all the dirty dishes in the dishwasher or the sink but then they have to be washed and/or put away before dishes can be washed.
And one final trick: Hide the dishwasher soap. There is always someone who wants to jump up and do the dishes just as the cook sits down.
Simply tell them there is no soap in the kitchen, that they can scrape, but not do the dishes.
This will save silver knives and fine china from going into the dishwasher.
After all, the worst of the pots and pans are in the cooler, soaked and ready to be rinsed off and dried. The actual dishes won't take very long at all.
Here is the way to achieve serenity and a happy meal time, something to be grateful for.
There is no logical reason to eat in the middle of the day except the family always did it that way.
Pick a time close to a regular meal time, otherwise people will have eaten and not be hungry or “hangry” from not eating.
Guests should be told when dinner will be served and that other diners will be unable to wait for them, but there will still be plenty to eat when they arrive. Or, the meal can be staggered throughout the afternoon.
Ask guests in advance if there is something they want or feel they need to have for Thanksgiving: caramel cake, a vegetarian main course, etc. Suggest they help solve the problem by being responsible for bringing it. Do not let anyone bring the crucial elements to the meal, like the turkey or the potatoes.
Write out the menu. Note what may be made ahead, and how to reheat. Take a realistic look and adjust menu, making more of the favorites, mashed potatoes and gravy, perhaps, and jettisoning what is not necessary, or someone else can bring. Make a note if it can be made ahead, refrigerated or frozen, or if it really has to be last minute.
Make a time chart. Work backwards from serving time on Thanksgiving to which day and when it should be cooked, remembering to note defrosting time if necessary. Note the serving dish as you go. The chart is a work in progress and will be revised several times.
Plan for the unexpected. Have a hearty soup to fill the gap, like a meatless gumbo, in case there is a time crisis. If someone else is cooking the turkey, such as a spouse outdoors, or someone else is bringing it, prepare to cook a second 12-pound turkey the day ahead, carve it and have it ready in the refrigerator. Turkey is cheap, and there is nothing worse than raw turkey or no turkey at all.
Make the draft menu and a grocery list. Note which items can be ordered or purchased in advance and which will need to be purchased closer to the day, such as fruit, dairy products, etc.
Review and redo menu; make grocery list, noting what has to be purchased at the last minute, what has to be ordered, and when.
Shop. Remember short-cut purchases such as pre-chopped onions, store-bought pie crusts and rolls, etc., are handy. Order hard-to-get items such as fresh turkey or ham.
While putting away the groceries, put something on to cook, such as cornbread, stock or a casserole or soup that can be cooking unattended. Cut off extra celery leaves, carrot, turnip roots and greens that take up excess room. Use in stock or discard. Repackage as necessary.
Do prep work. Chefs don't do one recipe at a time; they prep for multiple dishes simultaneously because it makes life easier later.
Chop and saute all onions, garlic, celery and other ingredients used in several dishes at one time to speed up cooking. Divide into portions, mark well and freeze or refrigerate to use as needed.
Make the most important dishes first. Dressing, cranberry sauce and relish and favorite casseroles can all be made ahead.
Make all pie crusts at one time, line pie pans and freeze, or fill and freeze. Keep in refrigerator or freezer until needed.
Make rolls or bread ahead of time and freeze.
If the refrigerator, stove and pantry are not cleaned out, this is the day to do it to. Make room in the refrigerator by using up or combining bottles of olives, pickles, catsup, etc. Clear a space to put all Thanksgiving ingredients together in freezer so they can be found easily, and note where on the menu reheating list. There is nothing worse than cooking ahead only to forget it!
Check off what has been done and review “must do's” and make sure there is a plan for completion. All food should be finished except last minute and day-before fixings, such as turkey, mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, specialty items such as stuffed oranges and salad.
Delete anything there won't be time to cook, or find someone else to do it. Now is the time to buy that pie there is no time to make. Shop and store fresh vegetables. Make sure turkey is defrosting.
Organize china and linens, silver, mark serving dishes with post-it notes, and put together in a safe place. Clean house.
One to two days before Thanksgiving, cook and mash potatoes, cover tightly and refrigerate. Make gravy. Roast and carve one small turkey, separate into white and dark and refrigerate in plastic bags. Defrost anything overnight that will fit into fridge. Fill a cooler with ice and defrost anything nonperishable there. Cook fresh vegetables, undercooking slightly if necessary to reheat later. Refrigerate in plastic bags.
Redo time chart, starting with serving time and working back. Roast second turkey for buffet. Remove things from refrigerator as possible.
Complete necessary last-minute assembling. Check time chart for reheating, and reheat as necessary.
Clean out dishwasher and sink so they are empty before people arrive.
For example, for a 1 p.m. serving time:
9:30 a.m. Turkey in oven
10 a.m. Prepare and cook, or partially cook, fresh vegetables such as peas, undercooking slightly and set aside to be reheated later.
10:30 a.m. Defrost rolls, remove mashed potatoes from refrigerator, make sure pies are defrosted, check freezer for any extra items.
11 a.m. Depending on size, turkey out of oven.
11:10 a.m. Dressing and one or two casseroles in oven to reheat.
11:30 a.m. Pies out on table, covered.
11:45 a.m. Reheat soup on stove top; keep warm on center of stove, serve to early birds if necessary.
Noon Cranberry sauce, celery and cheese, and other things to be served at room temperature out on table.
12:30 p.m. Assemble ambrosia and put on table; reheat turkey if necessary; change clothes and freshen up; check nibbles and be sure there are plenty around. Oh — and don't forget to give yourself time to answer the phone, as there will be calls, one of the distractions for any host.