Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thanksgiving Planning and Recipes

NOTE:  I have had more than one person say to me in recent days that they are dreading Thanksgiving dinner because they fear the political in-fighting among various relatives, and that the residual bad-feelings from our collective election hangover will rear their ugly head around the dinner table.  While I can't relieve the stress of family angst, I can help alleviate the panic mode of food preparation just a wee bit.  What follows is my schedule for pretty much all holiday dining -- just substitute a ham or a prime rib or some other main dish for other holidays, and this schedule still works out well.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family and friends.  One way that I alleviate stress at the holidays is to manage things through planning.  Another good way is to put out a lovely bowl and some slips of paper, and have your guests write things that they are thankful for on the slips and place them in the bowl.  After the main meal, but before dessert, read these out loud.  If you are still experiencing election hangover, put up a sign that says "please leave your politics at the door -- all sides, this means you!" and at least get a giggle out of it.  Focus on your gratitude.  It really does help.  That and a whole lot of wine...


It occurred to me this morning that planning for a Thanksgiving dinner can be overwhelming when you haven't had to plan things out before.  Especially when it is the first major holiday meal you've ever had to make for your family.

I remember that overwhelmed feeling very well the first year I cooked the bulk of the meal.

What I've learned through the years is that there is no substitute for planning.  And that dishes you can make in advance are your very best friends.

To that end, I thought I'd throw together some links and some information for folks, as well as an idea of how I line out my week on a day by day basis:

-- Here's my cooking schedule for the rest of the week:

Monday:  The Peanut and I will finish decorating and cleaning the house.  I've started cooking 3 days ahead, but that's really too early.  So use this day to get last minute groceries, get the rest of the house fairly clean for guests, and make certain you have plenty of extra napkins and such.  If you are going to the store this week, do it as early in the morning as possible, or as late at night as you can - fewer crowds means a saner shopping experience.

Tuesday:  This is where things start cooking this week.  I'll start by making my turkey stock as early as possible today, that way it can simmer in the crockpot for most of the day and all that glorious flavor develops.  It really and truly is the best turkey stock ever from your crockpot, and your stuffing recipe and gravy-making will thank you for the boost in amazing flavor.

I'll also make Granny's cranberry orange salad, so it has time for the flavors to really meld together (and so I can sneak bites of it for the next two days -- woot!).

I also make an herb butter that gets placed between the skin and the breast of the turkey to baste the meat as the turkey bakes.  To start, place a stick of butter into a ziploc freezer baggie, seal it completely and leave it out on the counter for a while to soften, usually this takes an hour or two.  Then, when the butter is softened, I finely chop the following:  some fresh parsley, thyme, chives, sage and a little but of rosemary.  I add some minced garlic and a little Penzey's poultry seasoning as well.   Open the baggie, pour in the herbs and garlic, then reseal completely; mush it altogether to combine well, then pop the butter baggie into the fridge.  As it cools a bit, try to get all the butter into a "log" so it's pretty much altogether in an easy-to-slice cylinder.  

Wednesday:  Early in the morning, I chop the fresh herbs, onions, celery and carrots in the food processor until they are mostly minced.  Then they get sauteed in some extra virgin olive oil and butter until they soften, and the sage and herb stuffing gets assembled up to the point where it goes in the oven.  I cover it tightly with foil, and it gets to sit in the fridge until tomorrow when it bakes along with the turkey for a bit.    I have found that by assembling the stuffing the day before, I not only save myself a lot of time on Thursday, but the flavor of all the herbs and veggies infuses the entire stuffing so much better.  I also cook up the potatoes for the make-ahead mashed potatoes and the sweet potatoes for the praline-topped sweet potato casserole.   Then, I'm mostly ready to go for Thursday.

Remember that herb butter?  All you have to do is slice into thin slices, work the skin of the turkey away from the meat (but very gently so that you don't rip the skin away from the turkey), and then slip those slices down between the skin and meat.  Be careful and very gentle as you do this so you don't rip the skin -- you'll be rewarded with some seriously juicy turkey breast meat.  I pop the turkey into the roasting pan,and wrap the top up in foil for the morning -- or pop the lid on the roaster, but it depends on which shelf I have available in the fridge for the height of the roaster or foil.

I sit down at this point and try to come up with a "to do" list for Thursday that times when things need to go in the oven or crockpots, so that each food is warm and ready to serve around the same time, taking into account the 20 minutes the turkey has to rest, etc. -- having this list with times figured out makes the difference between chaos and sanity for me, I have found.  Try it and see.

Then, I try to get to bed relatively early, because a tired and cranky mom makes for a tired and cranky Thanksgiving.

Thursday (Thanksgiving):  This used to start with the ham getting popped into the crockpot for a Honey-Baked ham clone recipe.  For convenience sake last year, I bought a honey-baked ham from the store and it was easy and delicious (if not ridiculously overpriced!), so we will likely go with that again this year just because I'm crunched for time due to girls basketball practices and other commitments.  Survival has to come first during the holidays -- if we learned nothing else from the last few years of cancer surgeries and treatment, it is that.  If I am making sweet potato casserole, it will also get popped into a second crockpot at some point this morning.

The turkey gets oiled, herbed up and baked.  I like to stuff my turkey with a quartered onion, a quartered lemon and some fresh herbs -- usually parsley, sage and thyme -- and sometimes a few cloves of garlic.  Then I bake it in a roaster with a lid, with a little water around it -- it comes out nice and moist.  Sometimes I use sticky chicken spices, sometimes I just use poultry seasoning spices (which is this year's plan).

Later, the stuffing gets baked as well.  And, eventually, the mashed potatoes get reheated.   At some point, relatives arrive with pies, green beans and assorted other dishes.

Then?  We eat.

The things on my plate that I can't quite control?  There are lots:

-- I used to purchase my turkey frozen, several days in advance, giving it 1 day of thawing time per every 4 pounds of turkey in accordance with the guidelines they publish every year on the Butterball hotline page.

The problem is that they never really thaw well in there, and I always end up having to pop the turkey into sink with a water bath the night before in a panic that it won't fully thaw.  Somehow, the miracle always happens that it is fine the next day -- but it nonetheless drives me nuts up to and including the moment I stick it in the oven to begin baking, because I just know there is some frozen part in there that won't fully cook and someone will go home with  food poisoning...but no one ever does, because I always test with a meat thermometer to make sure we've reached the critical temperature on the meatiest point of the thigh:  180 degrees F.

A couple of years ago, I ordered a fresh turkey to be picked up on Wednesday, so that my fridge could stay relatively clear of giant turkey until the day before the meal.  It was a revelation:  life is much easier when you keep your turkey in the store fridge, and you don't have to panic about will it or won't it thaw.  We've done this every year since then, and it is truly worth some consideration if you have similar issues.  You pay a little more for it, but I get a fresh, organic, delicious turkey that cooks evenly due to no frozen spots in the center, and that makes me a much happier cook.

-- I try very hard to get all of my ham and glaze ingredients, stuffing ingredients, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, and cranberry salad ingredients well in advance.  I pick up my turkey the day before and use that trip to the store to snag any extra items that I've forgotten along the way - otherwise, I avoid the grocery store like the plague.  The store is insane this time of year -- if you don't have your groceries yet, do not panic.  But try to shop early in the morning or really, really late at night to avoid having your foot run over by someone else's cart.  (which has happened to me, and the person didn't even apologize...sigh...that person is so getting coal in her stocking).

But I just know I've forgotten something important.  And it is nagging at me, because that means I'll be running out in a panic into shopping hell this week to get it if and when I finally remember whatever in the heck it is.

One of these years?  I'm going to make a master list.  (But, alas, I'll probably just promptly lose it.  lol)

Some helpful posts from prior years:

-- Thanksgiving tidbits and recipes

Here are some tips on turkey prep and baking.  One thing that I tried last year and loved was a dry brine from Williams-Sonoma:  I put it on my turkey the night before, rinsed it off a bit the next morning, placed sliced compound butter under the skin of the breast really gently and then stuffed it with cut-up lemons and onions and herbs just like I always do.  I use a covered roaster and I swear last year's turkey was the best one I have ever tasted.

I'll be repeating that again this year.  Yummy.

Make-ahead recipes are also a life saver.  I do my stuffing ahead, so all I have to do is pop it in the over to bake along with the turkey.

An essential part of that stuffing?  Rich turkey stock:  I make mine in my crockpot a day ahead, and it is delicious and perfect for stuffing and gravy.  Make enough for both and you'll be hooked, too.

My Granny's cranberry salad recipe?  An absolute must.  No holiday meal is complete without it.

Also, if you need an easy idea for breakfast on Turkey Day, look no further than these easy overnight cinnamon rolls.  We usually make them for Christmas morning, too, because they can rise overnight and then get popped in the oven while we open our presents.  But they work equally well for Thanksgiving morning, when the last thing the cook wants to do is to have to make a full meal before she has to make a full meal.  Enjoy!

(Photo via John Morgan.  Gorgeous color!)

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