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How to Host Thankgiving Dinner and Enjoy it Anyway
You have been nominated; or perhaps your family has issued a decree; or maybe it just happens to you. Whatever the reason, you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year. This doesn’t have to be a burden. It can actually be a pleasure, given the right planning and organization.
I’ve found that the key to an almost effortless dinner is to think backwards. Start your Thanksgiving planning by visualizing yourself surrounded by family and friends at the dinner table, then work backwards to determine how you got there. Ask yourself which foods took the least preparation, which took the most. Write these things down in a list.
Now refine the list, but only slightly. Which dishes can be prepared the day (or evening) before? What dishes should be prepared that day? What dishes should be prepared within an hour after dinner?
At this point, you should have at least a vague idea of your plan of attack. So now it’s time to further refine the list. In fact, it’s time to start creating a calendar. If you expect to serve dinner at 2 p.m., for example, and the turkey will take three hours to roast and then a half hour to rest before carving, it needs to be in the oven by 10:15 a.m.
Why 10:15 and not 10:30? My start time allows for three and a half hours, plus about fifteen minutes to carve the bird and arrange it on a serving plate after it has rested. And don’t forget that it will also take about fifteen minutes to preheat your oven. Your schedule should reflect all of these variables.
By now, your list, or perhaps lists, has grown substantially, as you perfect the tasks necessary to arrive at that wonderful image of yourself sitting among family and friends at the dinner table. The next step in the process is to begin identifying the tasks involved in preparing the ingredients for the dishes that will make up your Thanksgiving menu; the preparatory work.
It’s lovely to watch Food TV chefs happily talk about adding a cup of chopped onion to a pan, while picking up a cup of chopped onion that has been placed within reach on the counter. Of course, they have the advantage of having four sous chefs behind the scenes keeping them supplied with the chopped, chopped, pureed or marinated ingredients they’ll need to create a smooth-running half-hour TV show. You can do the same. (although you can’t count on having all four chefs behind the scenes).
As part of your master schedule, leave plenty of time for prep work. This will ensure smooth cooking when the time comes. You don’t want to be hunting for a clove of garlic in a fridge full of food for twenty years, while a pan of hot oil is waiting for you on the stove.
This is also the time to think about how many of the recipes on your menu will call for the same ingredients. If, for example, you have two dishes on your menu that each require a cup of onion, be sure to chop two cups of onion and have them on hand, measured and ready to serve when it’s time to cook.
Think about what ingredients could be prepared, maybe even the night before. Carrots, celery, and onions, for example, can be cut within twenty-four hours of eating and stored, pre-measured, in ziplock plastic bags in the refrigerator. This step alone could save up to half an hour on Thanksgiving. Try to think of other ingredients that could also be prepared soon.
Another activity that should be on your pre-Thanksgiving to-do list is checking that your oven is properly calibrated. If you don’t already have one, get an inexpensive oven thermometer and check that the temperature you set on the thermostat is indeed the same as the temperature registered on the thermometer.
Also, it would be wise, again, if you don’t already have one, to get an instant-read meat thermometer. Knowing that you’ve cooked your turkey to an internal temperature of 165 F. will give you a lot of confidence and allow you to focus on the countless last-minute details to get your meal to the dining room table.
One final thought about prep work that will help the entire Thanksgiving experience flow more smoothly: Give yourself a break when you’re done chopping vegetables, measuring ingredients, and generally making sure that you have the situation in hand. Relaxed; maybe have a cup of coffee before you start cooking. This break serves two purposes: to give you a chance to reflect on your work so far and to make sure you’re ready for the next step. And it helps you mentally shift gears and move from the role of prep cook to that of chef.
Of course, sometime before Thanksgiving, you’ll need to buy ingredients. I haven’t talked about shopping, because I think there are too many variables to be able to talk about it in general. Topics such as your menu, the proximity to a mega store or a specialized delicatessen perhaps, your working hours, etc. they make it difficult to talk about it in universal terms. Suffice to say, if you’ve set a menu and created a schedule, they’ll tell you what you need and when.
So, now that you’ve got your menu, done your shopping and prep work, what should you do on Thanksgiving morning? First: Don’t trust anyone. People rarely give more of themselves than at Thanksgiving, so offers of help in the kitchen can be plentiful and generous. be careful You can delegate a close friend or family member to watch over the burnt spinach, but don’t be surprised if the Macy’s parade or NFL game pulls your well-meaning helper away from the kitchen before the spinach runs out.
That’s all right. You have taken this into account in your schedule and can take the margin. When I say that no one should be trusted, I mean that – as I have written elsewhere – 90% of cooking is being there. And Thanksgiving is a difficult time for anyone, let alone one of your guests.
Finally, at times like Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of a piece of advice I once received from a doctor friend: In an emergency, the first thing to do is take your pulse. This means that things may not go quite as planned. But don’t panic. Trusted or not, you will have help available. A kitchen emergency is guaranteed to pull the most die-hard NFL fan away from the game to lend a hand. Just stick to your schedule, as best you can, and everything will be fine.
Take the time to plan your Thanksgiving meal thoroughly and well in advance, and you’ll reap big rewards at the dinner table in the form of compliments, possibly applause, and happy, grateful diners. And as you dry the last of the pots and pans that served so well to prepare your party, you can enjoy the satisfaction that comes with a job well done, and knowing that next year it will be someone else’s turn.
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