I’ve been waiting all year for this. My stomach is rumbling, I can’t stop thinking about it. Turkey, dark meat, crunchy wing bones, crispy skin. This is one polarizing meal, separating the meat eaters from the vegetarians, the turkey lovers from the turkey haters, pecan pie fans from the pumpkin pie fanatics. The battles are vicious, I try to stay out of it, so I’ll say yes to just about anything on the Thanksgiving table besides cranberry sauce from a can.
This year I was lucky enough to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving in October. Yes we eat the same foods. No it’s not about the pilgrims. I agree that it’s a little odd to have the exact same holiday with the same food and same name for completely different reasons. However, according to my research, the first North American Thanksgiving was celebrated in Canada in 1578, 43 years before the pilgrims landed in Plymouth. Just a little pearl of wisdom for your cocktail hour conversations next week.
But regardless of its provenance, most of us will agree that Thanksgiving dinner is one of the tastiest of the year.
For years I used to schedule vacation days on the Tuesday and Wednesday preceding Thanksgiving to give myself a little prep window. I so looked forward to those two days when I could plan, shop, and cook to my heart’s content. Not to mention drink a few too many afternoon glasses of red wine. And in the spirit of full disclosure, a wee bit of sherry, Pedro Ximinez, the kind you can basically eat with a spoon.
But isn’t that what the holidays are about? Inappropriate, guilt-free indulgence?
Since I threw myself into cooking years ago, I’ve become the defacto destination amongst my friends for any Thanksgiving-related questions. What kind of turkey should I buy? Heritage or organic? What size? What stuffing should I make? What can I make ahead?
So I thought I’d break it down and create a mini guide for those of you who want to throw a first class dinner without losing your mind. In fact, if you follow the menu and timeline exactly, it should be a cinch. Just imagine, sleeping in until 10:30AM, making yourself a cappuccino, reading the paper, and finally by 1PM settling in for the real prep work. Nobody is getting up at 5AM on my program, that’s for sure.
Before you click away from this page, thinking that I’m making some kind of psychotic overpromise, let me coax you back. Yes, I agree that cooking Thanksgiving dinner can be a big undertaking, but if you plan ahead, and prepare the whole thing in baby steps, it’s actually easy to pull off.
Back when Gourmet magazine existed (hold on, wiping a tear) they used to illustrate this point with their party menus. Whether it was a Mothers’ day brunch, a Cinco de Mayo party, or even Thanksgiving dinner, they’d suggest a full menu – from the appetizer to the main course, side(s), a dessert, and even a signature cocktail – and lay out the specific daily steps to get you there. It was so helpful, and so clear that if you spent an hour or two prepping each day, you could make magic happen.
I take this same approach with Thanksgiving and do as much as I can in advance. I don’t like to be slaving over a hot stove when guests arrive. So the majority of the cooking is done before anyone walks through our front door. I want to be able to join my friends and family for cocktail hour, not watch them from the sidelines.
The great thing about Thanksgiving dinner is that most of the ingredients and dishes can be pulled together ahead of time. In some cases, waaaay ahead of time. Like homemade turkey stock. If you need a great recipe, try this one from Bon Appetit magazine. It makes a huge difference in the outcome of your dishes – just stash it in the freezer and thaw it early Thanksgiving week. It’ll be ready for you to use in all of your side dishes; the star of your homemade gravy.
The menu I’ve pulled together is my go-to meal on Thanksgiving, made from the recipes that I trust and have made time and again. This meal has been 10+ years in the making, and let me tell you, I’ve done my research. I used to hole up every weekend in October with a stack of cooking magazines at my feet and just start ripping, stuffing the recipes into a giant green binder. This was the party planning equivalent of dial-up modems now that we have Pinterest (I’ll cop to now having a Thanksgiving board, feel free to follow it for more great recipes). But I used to love the process nonetheless.
It wasn’t easy to narrow my set of dishes down to the final list, but the easiest and tastiest won out: the chestnut and sausage stuffing that’s appeared on our table every year since 2001; the cranberry sauce with zinfandel (how many kids really go for cranberry sauce anyway?); the creamed spinach and parsnips that bring guests to their knees. I’ve had people ask “what is this?” as though parsnips are some kind of wonderfood from Mars. Most important, I’ve included a DRY-BRINED bird. Because 1. every bird should be brined, and 2. nobody wants to take up valuable fridge space with 20-lb floating raw turkey. And I’ve included the newest addition to the menu, the truly auto-pilot sweet potato, coconut & smoked paprika soup, so easy, it basically cooks itself.