A Streamlined Thanksgiving
I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving (most years I’ve cooked it twice) since I was 12, I’m 36 now. While I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, I do know a thing of two about the day and the meal. I’ve made MANY mistakes over the years, elastic-y mashed potatoes anyone? I’ve learned from my missteps and learned to fix them and make those dishes easier and better. I’ve also come to love helping people trouble shoot their days and get a lot of texts during the day with questions so I thought I would write up a few of the common ones, outline my personal Thanksgiving day game plan and share a few of the inexpensive DIY projects that I plan on doing this year.
First up, the prep. I used to prep a couple of weeks in advance but now I’m lucky if I’ve gone to the grocery store by the Monday or Tuesday before. I actually like that I don’t have as much time any longer to devote to prepping and planning, mostly because I think that’s where a lot of the stress of the day comes from. When you have a day to prep and a few hours to cook in the kitchen on the day of, it helps to streamline everything and you get to the point so much faster and with less energy. You learn to divide and conquer and you also see what’s necessary and eliminate was isn’t so you can have a fun day yourself as the host.
I start with a list of my guests and dishes that I want to cook. I should stop here and stress that I really pick the dishes that I want to cook. Not the dishes I’ve been pressured in to because Sally HAS to have her great grandmother’s stuffing for Thanksgiving or else it really isn’t Thanksgiving. Don’t you worry though, I have a plan for Sally to get her beloved stuffing but without me having the pressure to make it. After MANY years crying in the bathroom (so many that my family used to work it into the daily schedule) because of stress, high emotions and the overall unreasonably high expectations around the holidays, I realized that the host sets the tone for the day and if I’m not happy, no one will be. So now I make it a priority to lower my stress and do my best to cater to my guests but also welcome them into my world and introduce them to my style of the holiday. After making this switch I’ve been much happier and my guests have a much better time and leave filled from the meal but filled with good energy and holiday cheer.
Once guests have been invited, I usually check in with them regarding their traditions and their can’t live without holiday dishes, if they have any. If someone, like Sally, can’t live without her great grandmother’s stuffing, then I invite Sally to make it and bring it with her. This way she gets to have her tradition, is happy and feels connected to the day but I’m relieved of not having that added pressure.
From there I grab all my favorite recipes and usually a new one or two that I want to try for the big day. I keep my menu fairly simple; turkey (or chicken - more on that later), mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts or green beans, a big fall salad, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, gravy and one or two pies usually pumpkin and apple. (I’ll run through my favorite recipes and techniques) below. If someone is bringing their signature dish, then I eliminate it from my list so I don’t have doubles. Then I make my grocery lists hit my favorite stores. If you like grocery pick up or delivery this might be the time for you to implement that - keep your life simple. I like shopping and physically selecting my groceries so it’s less stress for me to shop but you do you. Also, since it’s usually a mad house at the grocery stores the week of Thanksgiving, I usually plan on going first thing in the morning right when the stores open are restocked and less crowded.
For table decoration, I’ve opted the last few years to pick up simple greens and seasonal fruit or squash to decorate my table with at the grocery store as well. This works for me since Thanksgiving isn’t the time I want to do any elaborate floral arrangements but if that relaxes you and makes you happy, go for it. For me, it was always a source of stress so I let it go and do this instead.
This year I really wanted to use items I already had so I rolled butcher paper down the middle that I already had, here’s a similar one, cut down the larger branches of eucalyptus and ran it down the middle of the table. From there I added seasonal fruit, you could add squash and or mini pumpkins but my store didn’t have them so I selected persimmons and cranberries both you can use later, which helps reduce waste and money. All in all, the materials for this table cost me $12 for the materials.
I created placards by stamping directly on the butcher paper with a stamp set I had. A fun trick I learned a few years back for using individual letter stamps are the use a rubber band to secure your name/word together and then the stamps will act as one large stamp and everything is perfectly spaced.
I chose to use butcher paper so that the kids that will be at our table will have something to doodle on when they get fidgety, perfect to draw on or to play a quick game of tic tac toe or hangman. The butcher paper can be recycled once you’re done with it.
I also took cooking twine, tied a few springs of eucalyptus together and then tied to the back of my chairs using decorative ribbon at the end to cover the twine for a festive touch.
Lastly, since the food is the main star on Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share a few of the resources I use to find solid recipes along with a few tips and tricks I have for getting everything pulled together and on the table.
Let’s chat about turkey:
I’m not the biggest turkey fan. I think it’s a difficult bird to cook well and have it really taste amazing. That being said, there are a few things you can do to make it better, in my opinion if you are a purist of the holiday and must have a turkey. My favorite way to cook a turkey is to to spatchcock, by removing the backbone, flattening the turkey on a baking tray (deep enough to collect juices). I apply a herbed butter between the skin and the meat and roast in the oven. I love spatchcocking because it reduces your cook time, you get a crispy skinned bird all over and because of the reduced cook time, the meat stays juicy. I also find it’s easier to let the bird rest after cooking and carve this way. I’m also a fan of brining but you generally need start that by Monday night so you have enough time to brine and then let the bird rest in the fridge for 24 hours prior to cooking so you get a nice crispy skin.
A quick reminder that you want to cook the turkey until an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh should reads 165 degrees.
This year I’m actually going to spatchcock a chicken since I prefer chicken over turkey but still spatchcocking and using the herbed butter between the skin and meat.
When using and cooking recipes for the holidays, I usually turn first to Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa. Her recipes are solid, well tested, easy to follow and crowd favorites. Although over the past few years I have added in other favorite like Pamela Salzman and Lucinda Scala Quinn. I also find the recipes on Epicurious and Bon Appetit are well done and also people leave thoughtful reviews with suggestions of what worked for them. I also find that You Tube is a great resource to walk me through any techniques that are new to me.
Saving veggie scraps as you cook:
The best part of the day for me is the leftovers and a simmer turkey stock on the stove the next day. I keep a bag or bowl on my counter to add usable veggie scraps as I cook to add to the stock the next day.
Find a fun station to stream throughout the day, songs everyone knows. It helps keep the mood light and fun.
Lastly, while an important day for so many, it is just a day. If you have an off one or something goes wrong, shake it off and know that tomorrow is a fresh start and that you learned something to apply to next year.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends!