I don't want to be another in the chorus of voices implying that you should freak out about Thanksgiving. I think that as a meal it gets blown out of proportion to its actual difficulty, and it's best approached in a relaxed frame of mind. Our small and swanky make-ahead menu emphasizes this grand holiday as the homey, fun gathering it can be.
Having said that, advance preparation is the key element of every good dinner party and cheerful host. Here are a few things that you can do right now to prevent last-minute stress and welcome Thanksgiving with a twinkle in your eye and a spring in your step.
I think of the Thanksgiving meal, particularly the turkey component, as a marathon that most of us aren't trained to run. It's like sprinting only from the car to the grocery store all year long then getting up one day and suddenly running 26.2. I don't know about you, but I just don't roast 15-pound birds year-round.
This is part of why I fell victim to one of the classic blunders this year: not thinking ahead about my gear! When planning this Thanksgiving meal, I had a vague sense that I probably needed a larger roasting pan to hold the turkey, but I just didn't pin down the solution. Then, on the morning of the dinner, I snapped to my senses. I had no roasting pan! My poor husband had to run out to Target and buy a roasting pan at the very last minute. Fortunately for me, we did this dinner in October; if it had been Thanksgiving Day itself I wonder if he would have found bare shelves?
Thanksgiving benefits from a little thinking ahead and a kitchen audit to make sure you're equipped to go the distance. Don't be like me — make sure you have everything you need.
Also, all ten of these suggested do-ahead items are things that you really could do for any dinner party. But the thing that sets Thanksgiving apart from other dinners is its sheer scale. Depending on your situation, you may be hosting twenty in an apartment sized for two. You may be cooking a 15-pound turkey for the first time in your life, or wondering what in sweet mercy a gravy strainer is supposed to do. And since everyone else is doing the exact same thing on the exact same day, it's best to get what you need weeks ahead, before the stores are picked clean.
Check your cooking and serving gear: Think through the things that you're going to make on Thanksgiving. Do you need a roasting pan, potato ricer, or more pie dishes? (Check out this list of tools that are often needed on Thanksgiving.) On the serving side, do you have enough platters, bowls, and serving spoons? If you don't have everything you need, try to borrow them. Also, make sure everything you need is clean. Dusty servingware can be a last-minute hitch.
Check your dishes, flatware, and glassware: If you're hosting the dinner, check your dishes and silverware. Do you have enough? (Don't forget about the dessert!) Again, borrowing is a good option here. Ask a guest to bring a stack of plates or forks, and make sure they're returned washed and gleaming. Glasses are another item it's easy to overlook. You need enough glasses for wine, but also for water and any other beverages you would like to serve. Again, make sure everything is clean.
Make a plan for the table: Decide on how you want to decorate the table (if at all) and gather anything you need. Do you have candles to fit the candlesticks? What will hold the flowers you bought? Do you want to use a tablecloth? Find it now, and make sure it's clean. You really don't want to be looking for a tablecloth on Thanksgiving morning!
Clean out the fridge and freezer: I like to do this as early as practically possible — usually about a week before Thanksgiving. You're going to have a lot of ingredients, and probably dishes you made ahead. Get your fridge and freezer ship-shape. This is a good opportunity to eat up leftovers and clean out the freezer.
Rearrange oven racks: This is a last-minute item, but good to think about. Most ovens need a little rearrangement to fit a big turkey. What's the best arrangement of oven racks? Can you strategize to fit the turkey and a row or two of casserole dishes? Move your oven racks and check as you go to make sure your pie and casserole dishes fit. Do it the night before, not when you're trying to get the bird into the oven.
Rolls: Rolls can be made weeks ahead and frozen after baking, then warmed gently in foil just before eating.
Cranberry sauce: Cranberry sauce can be made a week ahead and refrigerated, or several weeks ahead and frozen. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
Turkey stock and gravy - I like to make a batch of turkey stock using wings and legs weeks ahead of the dinner, then use it to make a batch of backup gravy. Homemade turkey stock is also essential for good bread dressing, in my opinion. (But then, I'm obsessed with turkey stock.) Freeze any gravy or extra stock.
Appetizers: Choose pre-dinner nibbles you can make ahead. For our menu, we suggest making gougères a few weeks ahead and freezing them. (You can bake them straight from the freezer.) You could also make a batch of roasted nuts and store them in an airtight container.
Bread Stuffing/Dressing - I make my bread dressing one to two days ahead of time and refrigerate it unbaked. I bake it at the last minute before serving.
Those are the primary things I try to do ahead of time. What about you? Are you doing anything now to prepare for Thanksgiving or the other big holidays coming up?
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