Although I cant help you keep Aunt Martha out of the kitchen or keep your cousin Steve from hitting on your friends, I can give you a few culinary tips to make your Thanksgiving a little less stressful.
Do Your Shopping Early
- Purchase the Turkey Now!
If you're buying a frozen turkey, get it as soon as possible. Turkeys are a seasonal product and although there is a larger supply during the holidays, buyers are snatching up the best ones. Don't forget to allow 2 or 3 days for it to thaw properly.
If you prefer to buy a fresh, never-frozen turkey, try to make arrangements to pre-purchase your bird and pick it up 2 or 3 days ahead of time.
Looking for something extra special? Consider buying a heritage turkey or wild turkey. Much more flavorful and moist, these turkeys harken back to the colonial days before turkeys became another factory-farmed commodity. Heritage turkeys can be found at Heritage Foods USA or check out Local Harvest for turkey farmers in your area. Wild turkeys are available from iGourmet.
How Big a Turkey Should I Buy?
For a small bird (8 to 12 pounds), plan on 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of uncooked turkey per person. Larger birds have more meat to bone, so 3/4 to 1 pound uncooked turkey per person will be plenty.
- Go to the Market Early!
Dont wait until the day before Thanksgiving to buy your supplies. This is one of the busiest supermarket days of the year. The markets are very crowded and you risk the possibility of not finding a particular ingredient. Most of your ingredients can be purchased a week ahead; frozen turkeys, potatoes, carrots, apples and pears, dry ingredients like flour and pasta, butter, frozen vegetables or pastries, etc. Buy more perishable fresh produce like greens two days before the meal. By doing your shopping early, you can also be certain of finding any specialty ingredients a recipe might call for.
If you want to avoid the supermarket entirely, buy your gourmet groceries online and have them delivered. Check out my list of Top 10 Gourmet Shops.
Make a Cooking Schedule
Certain dishes can be made two or even three days ahead. Many desserts and side dishes can be made in advance and reheated, if necessary, just before the big dinner. Check the recipe to see how long they will keep. If you are making your own bread or dinner rolls, you may want to make the bread right away and freeze it for Thanksgiving Day. You may also freeze the dough and thaw it the day before.
Save time by cutting all your vegetables the day before needed. Peeled potatoes covered with water will keep overnight in the fridge. Be sure to cover vegetables with plastic wrap.
Have a cooking schedule for Thanksgiving Day. Most of us are limited by the amount of space we have in the oven or on the stovetop. The turkey doesn't need to be the last thing out of the oven. The turkey can rest for up to two hours on the table. If you cook the turkey early, this will allow more oven space for reheating your side dishes or bread.
Where is everything going to fit? Dont forget to keep cold food cold until needed. If guests are also bringing food, it may need to be refrigerated. Most dishes should not stay at room temperature for more than two hours. Having a large cooler or two full of ice can provide extra space for storing cold foods.
Have snacks or appetizers on hand, especially if you are having a late dinner. Providing munchies will keep guests satisfied if your cooking schedule runs late (This turkey is taking forever!) or you are waiting for other guests to arrive. Snacks are a must if there are children at your gathering. Hungry kids will make it more stressful for everyone.
Appetizers can be very simple like a vegetable tray or crackers. You may also want to make them more interesting and give your guests something to chat about. Consider having a cheese board, a variety of olives, smoked salmon, or spicy nuts. Dont make anything too fancy; you have enough to do already. Having a big crowd this year? Consider buying appetizers premade. Just heat and eat. There are some great gourmet companies out there. Check out my list of Top Ten Mail Order Appetizer Companies.
If guests offer to bring something, let them! Thanksgiving is a community experience. Don't hog all the glory for yourself. The less time you have to spend in the kitchen, the more time you can spend with your guests. If you are particularly unskilled at making something (such as pie), suggest they bring that item. One word of warning: be specific! You don't want five versions of cranberry sauce or if both Grandma and your Aunt Betty bring pumpkin pies, there's bound to be a bit of "Which do you like better?"
Prepared Foods Can Save Your Life
You may want to consider buying prepared foods for a portion of your feast. Many local bakeries and shops will have pies and cakes especially for Thanksgiving. You may need to preorder, so be sure to call ahead. Artisan breads will also be a welcome addition to the Thanksgiving table. Consider buying a loaf of cranberry-walnut loaf or olive bread. Online, Zingermans is one place to find sweets like Sweet Potato Pecan Pie and artisan breads.
Many delis and markets will have gourmet salads and side dishes that may be suitable for the Thanksgiving table. Ask for a taste before purchasing.
Remember, Thanksgiving is more than just cooking. Your guests came to see you, too!