Hello, dear readers! It’s Jen again, filling in for Michelle while she enjoys a much needed vacation.
There are people out there that live for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Hot chocolate or mulled cider on Christmas Eve while you stare longingly at the presents under the tree, seeing the joy on your loved one’s faces as they tear into the boxes on Christmas morning to find exactly what they were hoping for, and getting to be with all your friends to share a glass (okay, three) of champagne a week later. I see the appeal of this week, but for me, the holiday season is all about the food. If you’ve got to have a completely over-the-top holiday, make mine Thanksgiving.
Many people are overwhelmed by Thanksgiving, and rightfully so. Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that’s always orchestrated by the grownups. No one really knows how these people came to be so knowledgeable about how it all comes together, but somehow a feast just appears while the rest of the family watches football. A few years ago, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. I would single-handedly craft my own Thanksgiving meal, a meal to beat all others. I’m lucky enough that I have my husband’s mom to make a delicious feast on Thursday, while I cook for friends on Friday so we can recount all the great stories from the day before.
If you don’t have decades worth of turkey feasts under your belt, here are some pointers. These are the things I wish I would have known years ago. I’m sure I’ll regret giving up some secrets, but I firmly believe everyone deserves a beautiful feast. Happy eating!
The Turkey – You’ll inevitably know your family’s eating habits much better than I do, but the general rule is to estimate somewhere around a pound of bird for each guest. I always estimate a little higher, because we all love our turkey – and I like to be able to send guests home with enough to make a sandwich the next day. If that’s your philosophy, go for about two pounds or so per person.
Making the big bird is great, but if it’s a feast for a small group, consider just buying a turkey breast or two. They’ll cook up much easier and faster and you can slice them so no one will be the wiser. Of course, you’ll lose the presentation factor and the drumsticks, but it might be worth the trade-off.
Don’t be intimidated by carving the turkey. You can use an electric knife if that works best for you, but I’d suggest using a regular, very sharp knife with a thin blade to do the initial prep work. There are countless visual guides out there (google “carving a turkey” and you won’t be disappointed), but here’s the basics: separate the thigh and drumstick from the body, then separate the two from one another. Cut the meat into small slices and arrange them on a platter. Separate the wings from the body. After all the limbs are separated (dark meat will stay moist longer than light meat), slice the breasts. Try to stay parallel to the body to preserve the flavor of the meat. That’s it! Oh, and be sure to sample lots of the meat along the way. Quality control is important.
The Sides – Decide on how many side dishes you want to cook based on how many people will be there – or how much you like to cook. My feast inevitably has way too much food and people end up taking a whole lot of leftovers home, but I like to err on the side of variety. Consider your heavier dishes versus your lighter ones. It’s easy to load up on casseroles, but just make sure you’ve got a little bit of contrast in your dishes. I love having mashed potatoes and gravy, and I have a particularly special stuffing recipe, but that’s as much starch as I like to put in my meal.
Adding a little something to your standard dishes gives Thanksgiving a special spin. My mashed potatoes have horseradish and roasted garlic in them, I add sage sausage and apples to my stuffing, and the secret to my cornbread is a mixture of cornbread and yellow cake. It’s not too innovative, but it’s just enough to make the meal feel special.
Cook ahead when you can. Casseroles can usually be done ahead of time, and desserts are okay to do on Tuesday or Wednesday. I’d save things like veggies for the day-of, and there’s not much you can do for the bird. Save time where you can – it’s definitely less stressful on Wednesday than when your guests are already there on Thursday!
The Guests – People will inevitably ask you what you’d like them to bring. I always have guests bring drinks so I can focus on the food. Don’t forget about little things like paper napkins, as well as plates and cups if you don’t have enough. Something simple like fresh bread can be found at a grocery store along the way, and it’s a big timesaver for you. Your guests will be able to contribute to the meal and make life a little easier for you, but you still get to have the spotlight (and obsessively plan your menu, if you’re anything like me).
Also, there’s something to be said for potluck. Many people have a special holiday recipe tucked away for occasions just like this, so if someone asks what they should bring, ask them what their specialty is. If they’ve got a stuffing recipe that’s been handed down for five generations, let them share it with you! It’s less effort on your part and you’ll get to try something new.
Most importantly, don’t get too stressed. Thanksgiving is a fun holiday, and like all others, is about getting together with your loved ones and sharing a special occasion. It will be special because you’re all there together, regardless of whether or not you use those special turkey-shaped napkin rings. Have fun and take time to enjoy this time with your friends and family!
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