A game plan and recipes to take the stress out of your holiday meal
Here’s a game plan and recipes for making Turkey Day less stressful.
Maybe it’s your first time cooking for Thanksgiving. Or maybe you’re hoping this is the first time you’ll prepare it without inviting stress into the kitchen, too. Whatever the case, I have just the meal for you — along with the strategies to back it up.
This lineup feels familiar but not jaded, and best of all, it’s simple to prepare. (No need to start a countdown 18 days in advance.) My menu offers all the flavors and memories of a traditional meal with recipes that are hard to mess up — and won’t crowd your oven. At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is not about winning awards for having tackled a complicated, intimidating set of recipes.
Worrying, particularly about something you can so easily control, is not the way anyone wants to spend Thanksgiving (or any day, for that matter). Instead, when you follow my advice, your mind-set will be calm and welcoming. That’s a godsend, because the most important part of the meal isn’t actually what’s on the table, but the chance to connect with the people sitting around it, and to reflect about gratitude.
Here’s how to set things on the right track
from the beginning, starting with planning:
1 Keep the scope of the meal small and manageable.
You don’t have to tick off every box. Just because so-and-so grew up with two types of stuffing and another guest waxes poetic about three desserts doesn’t mean you have to make them. You can have all the nostalgic flavors in a handful of simple dishes. Besides, the fewer the dishes, the easier the calculations of how many servings to make. (My selection of recipes adds up to a plentiful meal for eight, and they’re all easily scalable.)
Skip prepared appetizers.
They just fill everyone up before the meal, anyhow. Instead, serve drinks with bowls of peanuts or pistachios — or perhaps whole radishes, olives, cornichons or jarred marinated artichoke hearts.
Forget the cocktails
(unless you can’t imagine Thanksgiving without one). Stick to beer, wine and such nonalcoholic beverages as apple cider and sparkling water. If you do want a cocktail, make one pitcher drink or punch (see Page E9) so that you don’t have to play bartender.
2 Decide what to delegate.
Some good candidates:
• Drinks and/or ice. (By the way, if you have a cold porch, that’s a great place to put drinks to make room in your fridge — and kitchen.)
• The table setting. Ask someone to bring miniature pumpkins and/or clementines, and set them out before the rest of the guests arrive. (Or consider doing this a few days in advance, because both pumpkins and clementines can sit for days without wilting or needing more water.)
• Cranberry sauce. (Or buy the stuff in a can, which so many people love.)
• Dessert. (If you want to make it, though, read on for an easy, delicious idea.)
• Final prep help.
3 Cook everything but the turkey the day before.
This renders moot the question of how to prepare multiple dishes so they’re all ready at the same time. Two of these side dishes and the dessert bake at the same temperature, for maximum timing flexibility:
• A simple bread stuffing, which can be reheated just before serving.
• Green beans, which can warm in nutty browned butter at mealtime.
• Roasted sweet potatoes, which can be rewarmed, then split, dolloped with sour cream and topped with crunchy pumpkin seeds. (This allows you to avoid the mashed-potato pitfalls of peeling, chopping and uneven reheating.)
• Apple gingerbread cake, which is just as good, if not better, after it sits for a day, and involves no rolling of pie dough, no mixer and no frosting.
4 Think of the turkey as a big chicken and skip all the fuss. Don’t brine, baste, marinate or stuff.
Simply season it generously with salt, add some water to the pan, and roast it for a couple of hours. I like to set it on a little rack made of celery, which helps to circulate air underneath it, plus it gives you yummy celery. But even this, you can skip. Buy it at least five days in advance. If it’s fresh, it will last a week in the fridge. If it’s frozen, it can stay that way for months, but it needs 24 hours of defrosting in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds. So for the 12- to 14-pound bird I call for to feed eight people, start defrosting on Saturday to be safe. ( You can defrost the same size bird in up to nine hours in a sink or other container filled with cold water, but you’ll have to change the water every half-hour.)
Once your turkey is defrosted,
remove the giblets and neck if they’re included and save them for stock.
Let the turkey rest after it roasts
for at least 20 minutes. Really: It makes such a difference in the bird’s juiciness.
Make an easy gravy
that doesn’t require an intimidating roux or run the risk of getting lumpy. While the turkey rests, whisk some sour cream into the pan juices. It couldn’t be easier, and the result tastes like pure Thanksgiving.
Learn to carve it
by watching online videos. Again, remember: It’s just a big chicken.
Get a head start on leftovers.
After you carve the bird, if you’d like, throw the carcass — along with the saved giblets and neck — into a large pot, cover with cold water and let it simmer while you’re eating (at least two hours, and ideally up to four). Later, strain the stock and use it for soup the next day. Add whatever turkey is leftover plus some cooked rice or barley and eat topped with grated cheese and parsley.
5 Remember your simple timeline:
Begin to defrost the turkey in the refrigerator if frozen.
Wednesday: Make the stuffing, blanch the green beans, bake the cake, roast the sweet potatoes.
Thursday: Roast the turkey and make the easy gravy. While the turkey rests, heat up the sweet potatoes and stuffing in the oven and warm the green beans on the stovetop in the brown butter. If you’d like, assign a guest the green beans so that you don’t have to be at the stove and at the cutting board at the same time. Have that same person or someone else top the sweet potatoes (you can’t mess that up) and serve.
6 Think beyond your kitchen. Guest list:
• Try to make it a group you will enjoy being around. If that’s not something you can control and there are some potentially bad actors in the bunch, invite more people. Not only is the more the merrier, but folks seem to have better behavior when they’re around people they don’t know.
• Music: Pick a streaming station or create a playlist well in advance and be sure to include fun music for when you’re cooking. When Thanksgiving comes, just press play.
• Charity: Reflect on the abundance on your table and consider extending it to others in your community. Find out what donations your local food pantry might benefit from, or bring your whole crew to a soup kitchen before you sit down. Or, given the history of Thanksgiving, consider giving to organizations that support indigenous communities (such as Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations).