To prepare for Thanksgiving, Karla Brewer is signing up for a crash course covering the basics of preparing the meal. Never mind that she’s already taken this class a dozen times. “It’s the kick-off to the holiday season. That’s when the holidays start for me,” says Brewer, in the Chicago area.
Whether you’re a novice, or like Brewer, have a few roast turkeys in your culinary repertoire, getting into the Thanksgiving spirit can be easier when you get back to basics.
Don’t think you have to search out the hottest food trend (avocado toast is over). That’s not necessary or expected. Instead concentrate on what’s important – providing a meal that nurtures your guests and fits your comfort level, say, cooking experts. Think about the foods that are connected with sentiment and nostalgia, says Shelley Young, founder, CEO of the Chopping Block, a Chicago recreational cooking school that offers the Thanksgiving class Brewer enjoys.
This could mean including Uncle Joe’s sweet potatoes or Aunt Sue’s favorite green beans with bacon on the menu.
If you can’t remember the family favorites, ask. But be practical as you formulate your menu.
“When it comes to a busy day and you have guests, pick the things you know you do well and are comfortable with,” says Susana Holloway, co-owner and chef instructor, Portland’s Culinary Workshop, Portland, Ore.
Maybe you’ll decide to ask a friend to bring her prized pumpkin pie rather than making it yourself. Give yourself and your guests a break from those foods you think you “should” serve. “I think I should focus on nutrition, but every time those foods aren’t touched,” Holloway says.
You can cross appetizers off the menu as well. Your guests can build their appetites waiting for the meal and you have more important things to cook.
As Young says, “It’s unnecessary work and effort.” By planning your menu in advance, you can set a stress-free pace for shopping and cooking. First, take a kitchen inventory of the equipment and ingredients you’ll need. Even if you’ve hosted decades of Thanksgiving meals, you may be surprised at what’s missing from the cupboards.
The baking soda you intend for the biscuits may be two years old or maybe you lent your roasting pan to a neighbor who hasn’t returned it. Your guest headcount may require more dishes that you can buy or borrow.
Write two shopping lists, one for ingredients you can pick up well ahead of time and a second for those things you’ll purchase a few days before Thanksgiving, Young says.
You can buy the turkey (thawing instructions follow), cranberries, butter, and any frozen vegetables in advance if you have the freezer space.
In addition, replenish pantry items such as flour, cornmeal, sugar, dried herbs, spices, vinegar, and oil. Your second list includes perishables you’ll want to stock closer to Thanksgiving, such as milk, eggs, vegetables, and fruits.
Use the same approach to food preparation. Start some dishes weeks before and freeze them while making others close to or on Thanksgiving Day.
For example, cut up bread for stuffing and freeze that. “Pull it out [of the freezer] and toast right before making the stuffing,” Young says.
Freeze baked muffins if desired. To serve, thaw at room temperature and reheat in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes while the turkey is resting.
Early during Thanksgiving week make the cranberry sauce.“Cranberry sauce can be done three or four days ahead and tastes even more delicious if you do it in advance,” Holloway says.
Go over the menu again and see what else you can do the day before, including trimming the ends off green beans, making salad dressing and baking sweet potatoes for mashed sweet potato casserole.
The night before Thanksgiving, pull out the pots and pans you’ll need and note the food that goes into each. “I have notes for everything,” Brewer says.
“Post-it notes and a glass of wine and your music,” she says, sharing her Thanksgiving secret for success.