When it comes to wrangling the Thanksgiving meal onto the table, one motto gets it right: Be prepared.
Our national day of feasting features multiple dishes, all of which require different cooking times, temperatures and techniques. For most of us, orchestrating all of that — while also navigating the chaos of a houseful of surly relatives — can be a challenge.
“You need a game plan,” says Sarah Stegner, one of the chefs and owners of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Ill. “You need to write the menu out, not just have it in your head. You need to have it organized in blocks of when you’re going to prepare your food, what can be done ahead and what can be done at the last minute. Thanksgiving is all about the timing.”
Luckily, these pros say that all but a few critical items can be made in advance.
For planning purposes, consider:
• Carrots: a 1-pound bag makes 4 to 5 servings
• Cranberry sauce: a 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries makes about 2¼ cups of sauce; a 16-ounce can has 6 servings
• Gravy: plan for 1/3 cup of gravy per person
• Green beans: 1½ pounds of beans makes 6 to 8 servings
• Mashed potatoes: a 5-pound bag of potatoes makes 10 to 12 servings
• Stuffing: a 14-ounce bag of stuffing makes about 11 servings
Green beans and other vegetables: The vote is unanimous on this one: Parboil your vegetables the night before, shock (cool) them in ice water, then store them in the refrigerator. On Thanksgiving, reheat them just before serving in a saute pan with olive oil or really good butter. Flavored butter, such as herb or shallot, provides a nice accent, says Rick Rodgers, author of “The Big Book of Sides.” Flavored butters can be made up to a week ahead.
Suzette Gresham, executive chef and co-owner of San Francisco’s Acquerello, which just won its second Michelin star, braises pearl onions in butter a day or two before. At mealtime, she reheats them and adds frozen — yes, frozen — baby peas called petit pois. She also recommends a gratin of cauliflower or broccoli. The sauce and toppings can all be prepared in advance, then popped into the oven while the turkey is resting.
Root and cruciferous vegetables — think carrots, parsnips, turnips, Brussels sprouts — can be washed, peeled and cut a day in advance for a beautiful medley of roasted vegetables. “All I do is prep it with some olive oil and herbs and it goes in the oven,” says Patti Jackson, chef-owner of New York’s Delaware and Hudson restaurant, which recently won its first Michelin star. “It’s colorful. It’s a show stopper.”
Mashed potatoes: Unless you make a casserole — Rodgers bolsters his with sour cream and cream cheese — you’re going to have to go last minute on these. While it’s possible to peel, cut and store the potatoes in a bowl of water overnight, chefs say the final dish must be made just before arriving at the table.
“I insist on mashed potatoes being hot,” Gresham says. “You can make your gravy and warm it. You can make your gratin. But those mashed potatoes, they have to be at the last minute.”
Gravy: Where there are mashed potatoes, there better be gravy. But you don’t have to wait for the bird to get started. Roast turkey wings, legs and necks a few days in advance and simmer them into a rich stock. You can stop here — or go ahead and do the deed, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of your roasting pan to complete the gravy.
“It actually tastes better the second day, anyway,” Jackson says. If it feels like cheating, you can always add the drippings from the real turkey just before serving.
Sweet potatoes: Mashed sweet potatoes with a meringue topping can be made almost wholly in advance, Rodgers says. Even roasted sweet potatoes can be cooked in advance, says Jackson, and rewarmed in a glaze of bourbon, brown sugar and orange juice.
Stuffing: While many chefs agree that the celery, onions and meat can all be cooked ahead and tossed with your bread chunks on Thanksgiving morning, Gresham says you actually can make the entire stuffing ahead of time. And freeze it.
“Nobody seems to realize you can freeze your stuffing beautifully,” she says. “I do the full on butter, milk, dried bread, sausage, but I freeze that puppy a week ahead. And everybody in my family wants my stuffing.”
Gresham advises freezing the stuffing in small bundles to hasten defrosting. Let the bundles come to temperature slowly, then stuff the bird.
Consider a cold dish: Consider filling out your table with items that don’t need any heat at all. Gresham often offers shrimp cocktail or pate or oysters on the half-shell. Jackson loves the relish tray — and yes, she puts the black olives on her fingertips, she says. Rodgers channels his grandmother.
“I love me some Jell-O salad,” he says. “In many families, there is a chilled cranberry mold thing. A spoonful of that goes a long way to refreshing your palate. I’m not saying serve a bad cranberry mold. Serve a good one.”
Dessert: You may warm your pie in the oven on Thanksgiving Day, but there’s no reason it should actually be cooking then. Pies and most desserts can be made in advance.
MAKE-AHEAD MASHED POTATO CASSEROLE
“Anyone who has had to make a mountain of mashed potatoes for a big holiday dinner knows that it can be quite a mad dash to get the potatoes on the table in a timely manner. When faced with a crowd, I prepare this casserole the day before and bake it with the other side dishes,” Rick Rodgers writes in his new cookbook, “The Big Book of Sides.”
Makes 10 servings
5 pounds baking potatoes (such as russets), peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
8 ounces cream cheese, cut into chunks, at room temperature
1 cup sour cream
½ cup whole milk
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (6 tablespoons at room temperature, 2 tablespoons cut into small cubes), plus extra
Kosher salt and ground black or white pepper
1. Place the potatoes in a large pot, then add enough cold water to cover them by 1 inch. Add a generous spoonful of salt, then cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Set the lid ajar and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the potatoes at a steady simmer until they are barely tender when pierced with the tip of a small, sharp knife, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the potatoes well.
2. Return the potatoes to the pot. Cook them over medium-low heat, stirring almost constantly, until the potatoes begin to film the bottom of the pot, about three minutes. Add the cream cheese. Using a handheld electric mixer, whip the potatoes until the cream cheese melts. Add the sour cream, milk and the 6 tablespoons room temperature butter. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Use a bit of butter to lightly coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Transfer the potatoes to the baking dish, smoothing the top. Dot the top of the casserole with the 2 tablespoons of cubed butter. Let cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one day. Remove from the refrigerator an hour before the final baking.
4. When ready to reheat, position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375 F.
5. Uncover the casserole. Bake it until the top is lightly browned and the casserole is heated through, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
— Recipe adapted from Rick Rodger’s “The Big Book of Sides,” Ballantine Books, 2014
MAKE-AHEAD TURKEY GRAVY
The turkey stock used in this gravy recipe takes a few hours to make, but it is mostly hands off. It can be done up to several days ahead of time and refrigerated. The gravy itself also can be prepped ahead up to the point of needing the roasted turkey drippings, then quickly finished just before serving. Don’t feel like making your own turkey stock? Use chicken stock and start the recipe at the “To prepare the gravy” stage. When stirring the gravy, a flat whisk is the best tool for the job. But if you don’t have one, a wooden spoon or rubber spatula with a squared corner should work just as well to let you get into the corners of the pan.
Makes 8 servings
For the stock:
The giblets, neck and wing tips from 1 turkey
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water
1 small yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 small carrot, halved lengthwise
1 celery rib, halved lengthwise
1 small parsnip, halved lengthwise
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh parsley
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
For the gravy:
½ cup turkey fat (skimmed from the stock) or butter
1/3 cup Wondra flour or all-purpose flour
Salt and ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
1. To prepare the stock, in a small to medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the giblets, neck and wing tips with the chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce to a simmer, skimming and discarding the scum that rises to the surface.
2. After about 20 minutes, when there is no more scum rising to the surface, add the onion, carrot, celery, parsnip, thyme, parsley, bay leaf and peppercorns. Return to a simmer and cook, adding water as needed to maintain the level, for three to four hours. Set aside to cool. Once cooled, skim off and reserve any fat that accumulates on the surface. Strain the stock and discard the solids. Set the stock aside.
3. To prepare the gravy, if your stock has been chilled, heat it just to a simmer.
4. In a medium skillet over medium-low, heat the turkey fat until melted. If you don’t have a full ½ cup of fat from making the stock, substitute butter for the missing fat. Add the flour and whisk until the roux (the butter-flour mixture) looks like wet sand, about two to three minutes.
5. Add the warm stock in a stream, whisking or stirring, and bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the gravy, stirring occasionally, for eight minutes. Don’t worry if the gravy seems thick, you will be adding more liquid when you finish it. Season with salt and pepper. Let cool slightly, transfer to a bowl and cover the surface of the gravy with kitchen parchment. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill until ready to use.
6. When the turkey is cooked and resting on a platter, it is time to finish the gravy. Pour off any fat from the roasting pan, then place the pan over two burners. Heat the pan over medium heat. Add the wine, if using, or a cup of chicken broth or water to the pan and simmer, scraping up the brown bits with a metal spatula, until the liquid is reduced by half.
7. Add the make-ahead gravy, stirring, and some of the juices from the turkey resting platter. Simmer the gravy in the pan until it is reduced to the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper.
— The Associated Press
Makes 4 servings
1 pound carrots, young ones if possible, or older ones cut into lengths of around 1/2 inch by 2 inches, trimmed and peeled
Kosher salt, to taste
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium-size shallot, peeled and finely diced
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
Black pepper, to taste
1. Put carrots in a saute pan, season aggressively with salt and add a tablespoon of the vinegar. Add cold water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the carrots. Set pan over high heat and bring liquid to a boil.
2. Turn heat down to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until carrots are just cooked through, about 15 minutes. (If pan appears about to dry out during this process, add a splash or two of water.)
3. Once carrots are cooked through, discard any excess liquid in the pan. Add remaining tablespoon sherry vinegar to pan, along with the honey, olive oil, shallot and thyme, and cook for about two minutes to glaze the carrots. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or made in advance and served at room temperature, or cold from the refrigerator.
— Adapted by The New York Times from “Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food” by Jody Williams
CORNBREAD BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
The biscuits can be prepared up to the point of baking, then arranged on the pan, wrapped tightly in plastic and frozen for up to two weeks. They can be baked right from the freezer, but be sure to allow three to four minutes of extra cooking time than is called for in the recipe. These biscuits also are easily customized. We offer four suggestions for additions to the basic biscuit dough. Use one or all or any combination.
Makes 12 servings
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut in ½-inch cubes
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
¼ cup chopped pickled jalapeño pepper slices
2/3 cup crumbled cooked bacon or chopped ham
¼cup chopped fresh chives
1. Heat the oven to 400 F. Mist a baking sheet with cooking spray.
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2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder and sugar. Add the butter and use two knives or your fingertips to work the cubes into the dry mixture until no clump is larger than the size of a pea. If using any optional additions, mix them into the dry ingredients at this stage. Set aside.
3. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the egg, cream and buttermilk. Add to the dry mixture and stir just until a dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pat into a 1-inch-thick round. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds, gently reworking the scraps to cut additional biscuits (but do this only once).
4. Arrange the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them several inches apart. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.
— The Associated Press
ROASTED BEETS WITH ORANGE VINAIGRETTE, PECANS AND GOAT CHEESE
This can be made in advance and served chilled or at room temperature
Makes 8 servings
2 bunches of medium beets, trimmed of stems
½ cup olive oil, divided
Salt and ground black pepper
4 scallions, light and dark green parts, chopped
Zest and juice of 2 small oranges
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
½ cup toasted pecans, chopped
½ cup soft goat cheese crumbles
1. Heat the oven to 400 F. Rub the beets with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap the beets in a double layer of foil, then set them on a baking sheet. Roast until just tender, about 45 minutes (larger, older beets could take longer). Set aside to cool until easily handled.
2. Using paper towels, gently rub off and discard the skins of the beets. Cut the beets into 1½ -inch cubes. Set aside.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining olive oil, scallions, orange zest and juice, and the thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Toss the beets with the vinaigrette, then sprinkle with pecans and goat cheese. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
— The Associated Press