Every year Jeffrey and I put together Thanksgiving dinner for a handful of our friends. Well okay, we’re young, so we’ve only been doing it for a few years. Yet in that time it has somehow acquired the hallowedness of tradition, and every year we get the "yes!" answers to our invitations faster and earlier. Our only regret is that our apartment isn’t big enough to fit in more of our friends.
We always make an insane amount of food, and tell people to bring tupperware if they want to take leftovers home. (That’s how much food we make!) Creating a full-blown “feast” is a bit of a juggling act, and a lot of people find it too daunting a task. There are things you can do, however, to make it easier on yourself. Here you’ll find our tips for putting together a large Thanksgiving feast (or any other kind of feast) with a minimum of fuss.
First of all, naturally, we always have a turkey–usually a big one. Better to have leftovers than to have not enough turkey. If you’re really not sure what size turkey you should have, then do what we do: Visit the Food TV website, look for their holiday section, and find their turkey calculator. It asks for the number of people you have to feed, and how many servings per person. We usually take the number of people, add one, and calculate for 2 servings per person, just to be on the safe side. It’ll give you a turkey size. There’s another toy that lets you put in the turkey size and serving time, and it’ll tell you when to put the turkey in the oven.
A brined turkey is much more flavorful and juicy than a non-brined turkey. This is a turkey that has been soaked in a salt solution overnight, usually with other flavorful ingredients. Our favorite brine can be found in The Thanksgiving Table (the Cider Brine), although Alton Brown provides another good one in his TV show “Good Eats.” We get a fresh turkey whenever possible, as opposed to frozen — you don’t have to worry about whether the turkey will be thawed in time.
Make sure you have a big enough and sturdy enough roasting pan for the size of turkey you get, or life could be difficult.
You can go very simple–just butter the turkey up and roast it up. If you’re dieting, use cooking spray (just canola oil with a bit of alcohol as propellant) instead of butter.
We used to follow the time and temperature directions that came with the turkey; now we follow a method based on Alton Brown’s suggestions. You roast the turkey (breast side up) at 500 degrees F for about 20-30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350, put a triangular piece of foil over the breast meat, and roast until a properly-placed temperature probe reads about 162 degrees in the breast meat. The deal is that breast meat is done at a lower temperature than dark meat–the foil allows the dark meat to come to a safe temperature while the white meat doesn’t get overdone. You can find the full low-down in his book I’m Just Here for the Food.
More on Turkey…
We don’t tend to do this now that we brine our turkey, but we used to finish up by glazing the turkey.
After you carve the turkey, you can always throw the carcass in a pot, cover it with water, throw an extra carrot or onion in, and simmer it while you eat so you’ll have turkey stock for the next few months.
If you’re planning a feast that isn’t for Thanksgiving, it really does help to have one large meaty dish with plenty for everyone. Either get yourself a turkey anyway, or find a large roast of some sort.
Making Feast Preparation Easier on Yourself
You should decide right now whether your feast is casual or formal. Why? Because if it’s casual, you have some extra options that can make life easier for you. For instance, use disposable dinnerware. As long as you buy good-quality materials it won’t soak through, and this way you have fewer dishes to do. You also don’t have to worry about using up your dishes while cooking and having to wash them at the last minute before dinner.
Keeping things informal has another benefit as well–less stress. You don’t have to worry about getting changed at the last minute (or keeping food off of your clothing while you cook).
Planning Things Out
Our feast-planning has been likened to generals planning for a war. First, we pick our recipes and list out the ingredients required for each. We total up everything and make a big shopping list. We note how far in advance each recipe can or should be made, and which recipes can be made partially in advance.
Next we make up a schedule. We decide which dishes we’ll make on which days, when we want to serve things, which dishes we’ll make in which order on the day of the feast, which dishes require oven use (and at what temperature and how long), which dishes can go into the oven together, and so on. We use spreadsheets–they make life easier.
Keep track of the oven. Remember that if you’re making a turkey, your oven will be busy for most of Thanksgiving day. You’ll have a few hours before the turkey goes in. You’ll also have a half-hour after it comes out, while the turkey is supposed to rest and get carved. Make sure you don’t plan too many dishes that will need to be baked at the last minute. Pretty much every dish that is to be served hot should be able to cook in a 350 to 400 degree oven within 30-60 minutes.
Do your cleaning early. Don’t try to clean house while you’re cooking; do it the previous couple of weekends. Make sure to clean all old dishes and ingredients out of your fridge before shopping for new ones so you’ll have enough room and be able to find everything.
Pick a later serving time. Don’t feel you have to serve early in the day. You want to leave yourself several hours before the turkey goes into the oven for things like making the stuffing(s). Warn people that the serving time is approximate. Have a few things like spiced nuts, salsa and chips, or crackers and cheese for people to snack on in case dinner is late.
Plan the feast for a convenient day. There’s nothing that says your Thanksgiving feast has to be exactly on Thanksgiving day. We actually prefer the Saturday two days after — it gives us a couple of holiday days on which to do preparatory work.
Don’t cook the previous week. Make some homemade frozen dinners, order pizza, buy pre-packaged food, or whatever.
This is not the time to be snobbish about the use of pre-prepared ingredients such as pre-grated cheese or pre-skinned squash. As long as you get a decent brand, no one will not ice. Try to buy your non-perishables a week or two in advance so you don’t have to haul everything around and find room for it all at the last minute; then buy perishable herbs, vegetables and fruit the day before.
Buy extras of staple ingredients like milk, cream, sugar, butter, oil, flour, shortening, cheese, potatoes, bread and eggs, or anything you’ll use a lot of. You never know when an egg will fall on the floor, a recipe will need to be thrown out and started over, or you’ll have written the amount down wrong and need extra.
Doing Things Ahead of Time
Make anything that can handle a long storage time the weekend before. Make things that can handle several days of storage on the evenings before the feast. For instance, many soups not only store well, but can even benefit from a couple of days of storage.
Make parts of dishes ahead of time. If a casserole uses mashed potatoes as an ingredient, make the mashed potatoes in advance; they’ll keep in the refrigerator for a little while. Many cookbook authors now put make-ahead instructions into their recipes like “you can make up until this point and then refrigerate for up to two days;” take advantage of that. After some experience you’ll be able to figure out for yourself when you can do this, even when the recipes don’t say.
If you have extra time on the night before your feast, do some ingredient preparation. If there are vegetables that can be stored, chopped, in the fridge, then chop them, put them in plastic zipper bags, and refrigerate them. Mix dry ingredients for recipes and store them in baggies. Cut up bread for stuffing or grate cheese. Remember to label everything carefully so you remember what’s in it and what it’s for!
Pick recipes that store well. Cheesecakes and pies can usually be stored cold, so you can make them in advance and you won’t need to use the oven while you’re cooking everything else. Breads and rolls can often be made in the morning and served at room temperature. Most cranberry sauces and chutneys can be served cold. You get the idea–pick a select few recipes that’ll need to be reheated or cooked after the turkey comes out, and make everything else in advance.
Handling Dinner Itself
Make every menu item a one-dish affair, if possible. You don’t want to explain to every person who approaches the buffet that by the way, this dish should be assembled in thus-and-such a manner. Gravy is an exception, because it’s obvious. The topping for the white chocolate cheesecake in our ’98 menu is an exception, because you can just pour it on top of the whole cheesecake ahead of time.
Which brings us to our next point: serve dinner buffet-style; let people serve themselves from a separate counter or table. That way you don’t have to juggle room at the table, you don’t have to bring out the courses in the middle of dinner, and you don’t have to awkwardly pass everything around. People can get more any time they want, without having to bother other people to pass things to them.
Make sure to have a wide variety of drinks around; the more people you have coming, the wider a variety you should provide. Fresh ice cubes are good too; that way you don’t have to fit everything anyone might want to drink into the refrigerator. Here are some possible drinks you might have on hand:
- Cider, because it suits the season. Even better, spiced cider, mulled cider, or sparkling cider.
- Juices. Fresh is always better of course but on turkey day fridge space is at a premium, so we usually buy concentrated OJ, grape juice, and maybe one or two others. We also serve lemonade, and we make plenty of lemonade syrup ahead of time.
- Milk and eggnog.
- Soda (both caffeinated and non-). Possibly diet as well.
- Filtered, refrigerated water.
- If your guests like alcohol, a good wine or champagne sets a celebratory tone. If they don’t, mulled cider does nicely.
Always ask your guests before you plan your menu what their allergies are, and what sorts of foods they hate. Food allergies can be life-threatening! You’re far better off knowing ahead of time that you have to leave something out (particularly because it could be something very common, like pepper, wheat or peanuts) than trying to remember afterward what you put into each dish. Otherwise, you could be risking someone’s life.
Don’t invite too many people for the amount of space you have.
It’s handy to set up your feast a little while in advance, so that people won’t have already made other plans. But you’ll also want to remind them of the event about one week in advance. Remind them of such things as date, serving time, when they’re welcome to come over, and how formal or informal things will be.
Try to send out the menu with that reminder. Seeing the menu may prompt people to remember if there’s something they’re allergic to that they didn’t tell you about, or if you somehow managed not to include a single dish they’ll like.
When you send out the menu, say that it’s tentative, and depends on such vagaries as availability of ingredients, energy level of the cook(s), and unexpected catastrophes. That way you won’t feel panicked or pressured when something causes you to leave a dish out.
If you feel up to it, ask if there are any special requests when you first announce your feast. Specifically ask for simple requests along the lines of “something chocolate,” “a cheesecake,” “something with corn in it.” Tell people that you aren’t promising anything. That way you know for sure that there’ll be things your guests will like, but you aren’t setting yourself up to make something you can’t handle if it’s requested.
If you like making exotic foods (we certainly do!), make sure to include a few “meat and potatoes” types of dishes on your menu. Not everyone likes exotic food. For instance, we always make sure to have one fairly “standard” stuffing, as well as one comparatively plain potato dish of some sort.
Things to Have on Hand
Remember to have enough napkins, paper towels, and/or paper napkins, as well as disposable dinnerware if you’re using it.
If you’re using disposable dinnerware, don’t forget all of it: bowls, plates, utensils, cups. Get about twice the amount you think you’ll need; worst case you’ll have extra for your next feast. And get a decent brand, even if it costs a little more. It’s better than having to clean up after cracked cups or food that has soaked through paper plates onto your tables.
An inexpensive disposable tablecloth can make cleanup of your table a snap after dinner.
The Little Things
If you have cats or dogs, then don’t let them wander around freely through the kitchen while you have leftover turkey sitting out on the counter.
Don’t let anything with meat or seafood in it sit out for too long if you intend to eat the leftovers. Just throw foil or plastic wrap over it and put it in the fridge. One-gallon resealable storage bags are invaluable for storing things like turkey.
Don’t plan to take a trip somewhere the next day. You’ll have leftovers to deal with and cleanup to finish. Besides, you’ll be tired.
Keep the weather in mind. If it’s hot out, you probably won’t want to make a big roast or do a lot of oven-food. The colder it is, the more warm dishes you’ll want to serve to your guests, and the warmer it is the more cold dishes you’ll want to serve.
Make sure you have more plastic food storage things than you think you’ll need for storage of leftovers! We get some of the reusable, recyclable, disposable, dishwasher-safe plastic storage containers; they’re cheap enough that you can hand out leftovers to guests in them and not have to worry about them not being returned.
We hope that our experiences will help you to have an easier, more satisfying, less exhausting feast experience. Enjoy yourself, and remember, don’t push yourself too far. If you pick your dishes well, no one will realize that you’ve chosen things that are easy as well as impressive. Start small with your first feast, and build up as you gain more experience and learn what you’re capable of. And unless you have boundless energy, time, and enthusiasm, don’t try to do this as a one-person operation. We find that you need at least two people to do it right.