Thanksgiving may be a little over a week away, but it's not too early to start planning. In fact, if you haven't already started doing that, you're a little late—but not dangerously so.
Big holiday dinners don't have to be complicated, but we're easing out of a pandemic and even seasoned cooks are a little out of practice. As for you who are unseasoned, if the closest you've ever come to turkey in your kitchen is the deli-sliced variety in a sandwich, you really do need a plan—and help, so don't be shy about asking for it.
To that end, over the next week leading up to Thanksgiving, I'm resurrecting Mastering Thanksgiving, the series of advice, recipes, and short-cut tips from several years ago.
The first step is to get acquainted with three essential tools that every cook needs: organization, a mastery of the make-ahead dish, and the art of delegating (also known here in the South as sweet talking).
Organization is the most important of those, and contrary to popular belief, it's not a skill that some have and some don't: anyone can be organized. It's just that some choose to make that effort and some don't, so decide to choose it and get going.
The first step is to put together a basic menu. The next is to use that menu to make a plan for the coming week. As you begin, be realistic. If you've never made something that's complicated or requires equipment that you don't own, this isn't the time to try it. Don't plan a menu where everything needs the oven or must be finished at the last minute.
In keeping with that, be flexible. There's no point to stubbornly holding onto a menu that you'll have to drive all over town (or to another one) to fill, or in having to max out your credit card with kitchen equipment and cookware that you don't have to make it. Take it from someone who's made those mistakes more than once: You're just asking for anxiety when something gets in your plan's way or upsets your menu—that's "when," not "if."
Most of all, be thoughtful. Ask your guests about their tastes and dietary restrictions before finalizing the menu and getting attached to it. You don't want to wait until you're sitting down to the meal to find out that you're the only person in your family who likes a dish or that someone has developed a deadly allergy since you last saw them.
Mastering the make-ahead dish is nothing more than figuring what can safely and practically be made ahead without doing significant damage to its quality. If you find you've planned a menu where nothing can be made ahead, it's time to rethink it.
Spread those make-ahead chores out over the next week. For example, cranberry sauces and relishes are full of sugar and will keep for more than a week without damage. Broth can be made up to four days ahead (and yes, you should make your own—it's the difference between a good meal and a great one, and the aroma filling your house is well worth it). Casseroles, pies, and cakes can be made up to three days ahead. Green vegetables can be blanched, cooled, and refrigerated for three or four days so they'll take very little time to finish. Yeast rolls do well made a day ahead: Slightly underbake, cool, then cover and refrigerate until you're ready to brown them.
The art of delegating is simply learning how to charm people into helping out. If you're one of those control freaks who needs to supervise every detail, for heaven's sake, get over it. It's easy: Just smile sweetly and say, "You know, no one can make those good rolls like you" or "I just can't make pastry like yours." Trust me, they'll feel as if you're doing them a favor instead of the other way around.
One really effective ploy is to ask guests what dish they simply couldn't do without, and when they bite, before they know what's hit them, 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 below).
· Do one thing that can be put away and forgotten, like ironing napkins. It'll give you a solid feeling of confidence that you're on top of things, even if you aren't.
There is no law saying that you have to have a turkey in the middle of your Thanksgiving table. If you really hate it, there's no reason to have it. But if you're having company, especially ones who may not know that about you, do let them know not to expect it. But if you are cooking a turkey, most of us don't do it more than twice a year, so it doesn't hurt to refresh your memory about what to buy and when, and how to safely store it.
Buy small: Bigger isn't better with turkeys. Smaller ones 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 each guest (some suggest a full pound if you want leftovers).
Buying it fresh: for the best flavor, choose a local, naturally raised bird if you can, at the very least, an "all-natural" turkey that isn't "self-basting" (which means it was injected with a water-based solution of salt, fat, and who knows what else). Buy up to four days ahead and keep it wrapped, and store it set 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. Ask when you order so you can allow time to thaw it.
Buying it frozen: There's a school of thought that frozen turkeys, properly stored, are more reliable than fresh ones. If you choose a frozen one, buy it no later than Saturday: it has to be thawed under refrigeration. Keep it wrapped, set it in a rimmed pan, and put it on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Allow 24 hours for every 4 pounds to 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.