- Design your menu -- WRITE IT OUT SOMEWHERE YOU CAN REFERENCE IT CONSTANTLY AND EASILY.
- Survey your pantry -- flour, sugar, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, course sea salt and finer kosher salt, ground pepper, dried herbs (thyme, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, bay leaves, etc.), corn starch, baking powder, baking soad -- give everything you've got in your pantry a good once-over to make sure it hasn't expired yet and to get stock of what you have and need more of to buy.
- Survey your materials -- plastic wrap, aluminum foil, baking dishes, aluminum baking or roasting trays, racks, pie dishes, tart pans, etc.
- Buy everything you need for your dinner, including drinks and any prepared desserts!
- Wash and iron the table cloth and any cloth napkins and lay out the table cloth on the table.
- Wash any new or fancy plates and stemware you plan to use, and set it out on the dining table stacked in neat piles in the corner, along with the napkins already folded (cloth or paper).
- Buy your liquor -- if doing wine then you're done; if planning to serve mixed drinks then place all your liquor on top of the liquor cabinet so you don't forget it's there (if you put it inside I swear to you it will be forgotten).
- Clean/tidy up your home if needed.
- Give your equipment a quick run through -- does your handheld mixer still work? do you have enough wooden spoons? is your emersion blender charged? Make sure all of the equipment you plan to use that perhaps you haven't touched in a year is in working order, clean, and otherwise ready to use.
- If you're planning to brine your turkey, you can prepare the brine during the day and then set the turkey in it in the evening before you go to bed.
- If you're making your own turkey or chicken stock, make it today; or just use store-bought chicken stock.
- Clean your vegetables -- peel the carrots, wash and trim the celery, peel the onions, wash and seed the peppers, trim the green beans, etc. Vegetables can keep washed and trimmed and ready to be cut in tupperware in the fridge. If you want to go a step further, organize what you'll use for what dish and label it. For example, if you're planning to make a classic stuffing then take the carrot, onion, and celery you plan to use and place it in its own container labeled "stuffing." This way when you're ready to make it if you're pressed for time you don't even have to think about what is where and used how.
- Make your pie crust -- most basic butter or lard-based crusts can be made days in advance and kept either in the freezer or fridge. Make the required amount of crust and divide it according to your recipe/s and individually wrap each dough with plastic wrap. You can even write on top what the dough is used for. For example, if you plan to make pumpkin pie and biscuits, make the dough for the pie and form it into a disk, then wrap it well in plastic wrap and label it "pie" then wrap the bisuit dough separately and label it "biscuits." This will help you keep track of what dough is going where.
- Make your cranberry sauce or relish today, cover and refrigerate until just ready to serve. That's one down already!
- Set your table completely -- place settings, glasses, everything ready and set out completely. Do your place cards if using and set out your candles or any decorations you plan on putting out. I like to do this part as a sort of mental break during the marathon cooking today. It's also best to do this during day light hours, preferably around the time you're planning for your guests to arrive so if you're concerned about lighting or how something will look, you can see how their point of view will be.
- Give your house a good vacuuming and spruce up the pillows.
- Put together any floral arrangements today -- straight in the vases you plan to use.
- Don't neglect the bathroom! If you plan to host, make sure to offer a nice fall scented candle in the bathroom or some crisp towels for people to use. It doesn't have to be cheesey or an olfactory nightmare, but a little touch like that will make a difference.
- Make your desserts -- most Thanksgiving desserts are pie, cake, or cookie based desserts that can be made a full day in advance. Go ahead and do the entire thing -- from start to finish -- and keep it wrapped with plastic wrap or even in a decorative cake stand or whatever until ready to serve the next day. Unless you use cheese (like a cheesecake for example), most of the time they can stay out even overnight.
- If you're roasting any vegetables, you can probably actually make them today. For example, if you're roasting butternut squash, yams, potatoes, brussels sprouts, etc. you can prepare and roast them straight up today, then keep them in an oven-proof dish you can simply reheat the next day about 30 min before serving. If you're roasting whole yams or sweet potatoes and planning to serve them like baked potato style, definitely make them today. Then simply rewarm them tomorrow.
- If you're doing the requisite green bean casserole -- prep the entire dish this evening and keep it overnight. Bake it tomorrow and add the fried onions on top.
- If serving a composed salad, chop and portion out everything you plan to put into it and then cover the salad. Add the dressing tomorrow right before you plan to serve it.
- If you're doing a stuffing from scratch, you can prepare the whole thing today and bake it off tomorrow. However -- the longer the stuffing sits the more it will retain a bread pudding consistency. Which is great if that's what you prefer. Some people prefer a drier stuffing; if that's you you'll have to make the stuffing fresh tomorrow.
- If you're planning to serve a soup like a pumpkin soup or butternut squash soup then make it today and reheat it tomorrow before serving. If the recipe says to add cream, do everything else today (including any pureeing required) and then add the cream at the end tomorrow after you've heated the soup well through.
- Refridgerate your white wines and champagne; take your red wines out of the fridge.
- Lay out your outfit on your bed including shoes so you can change quickly.
- Put on a large pot of coffee for yourself.
- Lay out in a nearby area all of the serving platters or plates you plan to use, with a post-it on each one. For example, if you're planning to do a big turkey presenation on a big platter, label it "turkey," label the mashed potatoes bowl "mash pot," etc. This way you can reach quickly for what you need and you won't accidentally use the wrong bowl for the wrong item!
- YOU CAN DO THIS
- Take your turkey out of the brine and set out to warm to room temperature. If not brining, remove your turkey from the packaging, wash it with cold water inside and out, remember to make sure the giblets are removed, and then pat extremely very try with paper towels. If using a brined turkey, drain and discard the brine and pat the turkey very dry with paper towels as well.
- Season your turkey inside and out with your seasonings and prepare it for roasting according to your recipe. Set aside and mark the time when it needs to go into the oven.
- If you're blanching or steaming your vegetables, do them now and set them aside. You can rewarm them later.
- If doing mixed drinks or a traditional bar, lay out all the trimmings you plan to use in the bar area. This lets guests help themselves and people out of your hair in the kitchen.
- The mashed potatoes are actually the last thing you should be making other than the gravy from the turkey if doing one from scratch from the drippings. The best mashed potatoes are done fresh, right before serving. So it's important you basically have everything else done and ready to be served before you enter the potatoes arena.
- If making the stuffing today then pop it in the oven before you do the turkey (if you've got one oven) then cover it to keep it warm; put it in a 400 degree oven for less than 5 min to crisp up the top if you like it that way.
- Take all of the food you've cooked already that needs to be rewarmed about 30 min before serving. This will take the chill off before you rewarm them in the oven and they will cook better.
- Toss the salad right before serving.
- Make the gravy from scratch as your turkey rests for 20 minutes. This give you more than enough time.
Some Other Tips....
I keep a jar of turkey gravy as back up just in case the homemade one goes awry. Williams Sonoma makes an outstanding jarred gravy.
Remember: turkey is actually served best at room temperature, NOT piping hot! So if you find you're a little bit behind getting the mashed potatoes to catch up to the turkey, do not fret. Your focus is now on the potatoes, not the cooked bird!
The recommended wine pairing for turkey is pinot noir, but honestly there are no rules. A wise wine expert once told me "look, you're the one drinking the wine! if you hate the noir, then drink what you love!"
I also keep some ice cream in two flavors in the freezer as a back-up. In case the pies or desserts come out horrible (one year I forgot to add sugar and it was HORRIBLE), or maybe there's an accident during the transfering from kitchen to table process. Everyone loves ice cream, so two scoops of vanilla and chocolate is classic and always satisfying. Seriously.
The cranberry thing is always up for debate. Some people adore a new and updated fresh relish while others prefer the nostalga of a childhood canned jelly. Serve them both to please everyone. And admittedly, the jelly is bomb on a sandwich the next day.
Thanksgiving is no time to watch your weight. So here's your Mantra for good tasting food:
- NO skim milk shall be used in the preparation of Thanksgiving meals; I shall use heavy cream.
- NO margarine shall be used at any point during the cooking process; instead I shall use real butter, shortening, or lard.
- NO sugar substitute will be used; instead I shall watch my portion intake.
Appetizers are supposed to be snacks to soak up the alcohol on such days, or if you plan to host people for hours and hours at your place. Keep the snacks light like a cheese spread with apple slices instead of crackers or bread that will fill them up.
And remember, Thanksgiving is about having fun. If something doesn't work out, or gets burned, or gets dropped and walked through although it can be traumatizing (believe me, I know!) it's not the end of the world and chances are people will not look badly on you AT ALL. Shit happens to everyone. And at the very least you can always order a pizza or chinese food and laugh about it later!