This year, we're determined to upgrade from the cleanup crew and tackle the whole affair. But, we know that, like all daunting tasks, this one is all about the research and prep. We sought out some local pros, including chefs and culinary school instructors, to give us the inside scoop on how the uninitiated can pull off a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. Click through to learn how to plan, organize, and prepare a legendary feat — er, feast. We guarantee you'll want to try it yourself, so maybe it's time to get those invites out?
Make a Plan
Your mission? Plan ahead so you can do as little cooking as possible (aside from the turkey) on Thanksgiving Day, says Rochelle Myers, a seasoned chef who runs her own catering and cooking school. This can only be accomplished if you make a plan and stick to it.
Caterer and cooking class instructor Chris Coppola Leibner of Just Simply Cuisine clued us in on the importance of a Thanksgiving-week timetable. It’s a step-by-step checklist leading up to the big day that will keep you on task and help you enjoy your own party. We summarized it for you to get you started:
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, set your menu and shop for groceries — including the turkey. On Tuesday, make the turkey brine and stock. On Wednesday, make the pies and the stuffing, prep the sides and vegetables, and brine the turkey overnight in the refrigerator. On Thursday morning, pull the turkey out of the brine, rinse, and dry well. Stuff the turkey, then roast it. (Check the turkey weight for cooking temperature and time.)
In the afternoon, make the salad, prepare the appetizers, and set up the bar. Make the gravy with drippings from the turkey roaster, and roast your vegetables. Just before dinner, steam the green beans, warm the dinner rolls, reheat the corn pudding and gravy, and carve the turkey. And voila — dinner is served.
Stick With Easy Sides
Creating a menu of simple appetizers, starters, and sides is key to surviving (and enjoying) your first holiday as hostess. Every expert we talked to told us to make life easier by choosing side dishes that are easy to prepare, which saves time and lets you focus on the (high-maintenance) turkey. So, just for you, we sourced some crowd-pleasing, easy-to-prepare recipes from local caterers and foodies.
For appetizers, blogger Michelle Peters recommends choosing starters "that can be prepared the day before for easy setup,” and directed us to her favorite recipe for a cranberry cheese log. Set this out with crackers and a fruit plate to keep your guests fueled (but not full) after they arrive.
For the salad, try an early fall veggie salad with arugula and ricotta. It’s a crowd-pleasing favorite of Leibner's, and it can be prepped in advance and tossed together just before serving.
Leibner suggests rounding out the menu with tried-and-true classics like roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, corn pudding, and sweet potato puree. All those dishes can be prepared in advance, then baked, roasted, or reheated on the big day.
We checked in with blogger (and ace entertainer) Julie Eitner of Julip Made for her Turkey Day tips, and her go-to recipe. "Don't add stress by trying out complicated recipes for the first time on the big day," she says. "Stick to simple classics, or test out new-to-you recipes ahead of time. That way, you'll be relaxed and going through familiar motions on the day of."
Miso Butter Sweet Potatoes
2 tbsp butter, melted
2 tsp miso paste
4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into approximately 1-inch cubes
1 bunch of scallions, diced
In a large saucepan, bring water to a boil and add sweet potatoes. Cook until tender when pierced with a fork. Strain and return to the pan. While the sweet potatoes are boiling, mix the melted butter and miso paste. Pour the miso butter over the sweet potatoes and mix well. Sprinkle the scallions over the sweet potatoes to serve.
Healthy-eating expert Alicia Sokol of Weekly Greens pitched in with her favorite side dish, as well. "Thanksgiving dinner is a decadent meal, so I like to keep the vegetables simple and fairly clean — no cream sauces or cans of mushroom soup here. (But I do use butter!)" Sokol says. "I also like to make as many dishes as I can in the day or two before so I can relax with my guests after I slide the big bird into the oven. But don't be fooled — I am not about calorie counting! I make sure the mashed potatoes and desserts would keep a cardiologist in business. This is my go-to recipe for green beans."
Pie, Pretty Please
For dessert, keep it simple (and traditional) by serving pie. Make your life easier by either buying or making your crust ahead of time and stashing in the freezer. If you choose the DIY approach, try this pie crust recipe from Doron Petersan, owner of Sticky Fingers Bakery.
Sweet as Pie Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup non-hydrogenated vegan margarine, cold, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 tbsp cold water
In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse together the flour, sugar, and salt until combined. Add the margarine pieces and pulse 5 to 7 times until the mixture becomes crumbly. Add the cold water and pulse 5 to 7 more times until mixture just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface. Briefly knead the dough until all the dry ingredients are incorporated, about 30 seconds. Do not over mix or over knead the dough. The pie crust will be tough if you work it too long.
If you don't have a food processor, work the margarine into the flour mixture with a dough cutter. Sprinkle the water over the mixture and gently toss with a fork, until all the dough is moist and you can form it into a ball. Be careful not to over mix it and do not knead it. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
For an adult version of pecan pie, Petersan recommends adding bourbon. Here's her grown-up recipe:
Bourbon Pecan Pie
1/4 cup non-hydrogenated vegan margarine
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup bourbon
2/3 cup water
1 cup plus 1 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup pecans
Preheat the oven 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch pie pan that is at least 1 1/2-inch deep. Roll the pie dough out to a 13-inch circle and transfer to the pan. Press the dough evenly into the bottom and sides of the pie dish. Crimp the edges above the rim; this will give you a little extra headroom to hold the filling when it expands in the oven.
Refrigerate the crust while the oven preheats. In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the margarine. Add the flour and whisk together, cooking over medium heat until the color is light to golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the bourbon and cook for 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the water and stir to mix. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the maple syrup, brown sugar, and salt and continue to cook for 15 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and add the vanilla and pecans; stir to combine. When the oven is ready, place the pie dish on a baking sheet. Pour the filling into the unbaked pie shell. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool completely before serving.
Tackle the Turkey In Steps
Even though the turkey is the most labor-intensive part of the meal, these suggestions will help you keep it all under control.
Our experts were strongly in favor of making the turkey stock a few days ahead of time. To make turkey stock, buy turkey wings, backs, and any other parts; roast them; and combine in a pot with carrots, onions, celery, a few bay leaves, peppercorns, and thyme. Cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about four hours. Skim any foam or fat off the top before straining the stock; then let it cool before putting it in the fridge to chill before the big day. You can use the stock for everything: gravy, stuffing, and for roasting and braising vegetables. To use it in the stuffing, reduce the stock by boiling it down until halved, then add it to your stuffing recipe in place of water.
Don't overlook the turkey fat, Myers advises. It will rise to the top of the finished stock, and it's almost as valuable as the stock itself. "Use it to flavor all kinds of things: as a medium for sautéing veggies; instead of butter or oil for roasting Brussels sprouts; as the fat in a roux for gravy," Myers says. "This stretches the turkey flavor into all the savory elements of the meal."
Season the turkey the day before roasting, says Myers. “Advance seasoning makes a big difference to the finished product — there is no substitute for seasoning that penetrates all the meat to the bone.” A simple brining recipe includes two gallons of water, a cup of salt, a cup of sugar, two lemons, four bay leaves, and a handful of cloves. Combine everything in a large pot, add the turkey, and refrigerate overnight.
Now you're ready to prep the turkey! Remove the innards, wash and dry the bird, and fill the inside with onion, carrots, and celery. Use aluminum foil to close the opening, and tie the legs with kitchen string. Rub olive oil over the skin, then roast the turkey breast down according to the directions on the package.
You can also use the tasty remnants from the roasting pan to make the gravy in a technique known as deglazing, says N.I. Silver of Cut To The Quick cooking school. “Deglazing simply means dissolving the bits by adding water or wine or other liquid to the pan, and heating it on the burner," he notes. Combine the liquid with your gravy recipe in place of water to enhance the flavor.