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Recipes and Stories

20 November 2014 Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner I

Thanksgiving may be a week away, but that's not as much time as you think: if you don’t already have a plan in place, it’s time to stop daydreaming over those picture-perfect magazine table-settings and turkeys and get real.

As you begin to plan, be aware that your three greatest weapons are good organization, the make-ahead dish, and the fine art of delegation (also known as sweet talking someone into doing something for you), but at the risk of sounding scriptural, the greatest of these is organization.

Get organized by putting together a basic menu and plan for the week. Stay flexible with both: there’s little point to stubbornly insisting on a menu that you have to drive all over town to fulfill, and if you hold onto your plan for dear life, you’re just be asking for anxiety when something gets in your plan’s way—that’s “when” not “if.”

Make things ahead of time. You can’t make it all ahead but you also can’t put it all off to the very last minute, either. Plan several things that can be made as far in advance as possible and get them out of the way. Cranberry sauces and compotes keep for at least a week; broth can be made up to four days ahead (and yes, you should make your own); bread for dressing has to be made at least a day ahead so it can get stale (you can even make it a week ahead and freeze it); casseroles, pies, and cakes can be made one to three days in advance. Yeast rolls do very well made-ahead: just like commercial brown-and-serve rolls they can be partially baked, cooled, wrapped up, and frozen.

Delegate. If you are a control freak who must supervise every detail, get over it. The calmest cooks at Thanksgiving are not the ones who have prepared every crumb but those who turned their talents to sweet talking someone else to do a big chunk of the cooking for them. Face it: it wouldn’t be perfect if you slavishly did it all yourself and, who knows, it might be better. Just say, “No one can make those good butter rolls like you” or “you know I can’t make pastry like yours,” trust me, they’ll feel as if you’re bestowing a great favor on them.

One effective ploy is to ask your guests for the one dish they simply couldn’t do without, and when they bite, strike quickly and sweetly ask them to be a dear and bring it.

Here’s what you can do right now:
• Lay out the menu and survey your pantry staples. If you haven’t used the flour, cornmeal, and dried herbs since last Thanksgiving, pitch them and start over.
• Stock up on the ingredients for all the things you’re making ahead.
• If you haven’t already done so, order the bird (see Damon Lee Talks Turkey, Part I, below).
• Do one thing that you can put away and forget about, even if it’s just ironing napkins.

Talking Turkey, Part I
My mother loves turkey, so it’s the centerpiece of practically every holiday meal at her house, from Thanksgiving to Easter, so she roasts one of these birds at least four times a year. Most of the rest of us don’t do it that often, so it never hurts to refresh our knowledge of what to buy, how to store it, and how to achieve succulent perfection.
We’ll talk about the roasting later: for now, here’s what you need to know about selecting and keeping the bird.
• Buy small: Bigger isn’t always better. Small turkeys are easier to handle, cook more evenly, and taste better. If cooking for a crowd, consider two small birds or roast a turkey breast along with the whole bird. Allow half a pound for every person you are feeding (some suggest a full pound to insure leftovers, but keep in mind that some of your guests will eat more than others).
• A fresh bird: for the best flavor, choose a local, naturally (or organically) raised bird if you can, at the very least, an “all-natural” turkey that is not “self-basting” (which means it was injected with a water-based solution of salt, fat, and who knows what else). Buy it up to four days ahead and keep it, still wrapped, in a rimmed pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Be aware that if you order a naturally-raised bird from a small pastured-animal farmer, they’re often flash frozen as soon as they’re harvested.
• A frozen bird: many argue that frozen turkeys (properly stored) are more reliable than fresh ones. If you choose that route, or have ordered from a small poultry farmer, get it no later than Saturday. Thaw it under refrigeration: leave it wrapped, put it in a rimmed pan, and set it on the bottom shelf. Allow a day of thawing for every 4 pounds, and make sure it’s completely thawed before cooking it.
• Err on the side of caution: a frozen turkey that has been thawed in the refrigerator will keep for at least 24 hours after it’s fully thawed—provided it is kept at a temperature below 42 degrees, but cook it as soon as you can after it fully thaws.

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