Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to host the (almost) perfect Thanksgiving: A Beginner's Guide

I love Thanksgiving.  I have been hosting Thanksgiving since I was in college, and it is one of my favorite holidays because A)  I love food. B) I love entertaining C)  I love having my friends and family together.  This year will be a small shindig with just me, K and my parents, so this will be a simpler, low key holiday.  I've been thinking about what it takes to host a successful Thanksgiving dinner.  The main thing is to keep your stress levels low so that you can enjoy the holiday with the important people who are there.  If you do a little planning and think about ways to make it easy on yourself you will have it in the bag.

The first step is planning your menu.  If you are new to hosting big holiday meals, the best plan is to keep it simple.  Choose easy recipes, and try to make sure at least a few of them can be made ahead of time.  Here I will post links to some of my favorite recipes for Thanksgiving.  Unless otherwise noted, none of the photos are mine, and if you click on the photo it should take you to the original recipe   I will start with my favorite turkey recipes:

This Roasted Turkey from Martha Stewart was the first turkey I ever made.  It is simple and easy but delicious.
Roasted Turkey from Everyday Food

This Roast Turkey with Sage was the next turkey I made, and I continued to make it for several years.  It is almost as easy as the first turkey, but it is more impressive due to the herbs under the skin. (NOTE:  I realized that this recipe is incomplete on the Martha Stewart website, so I replaced the link with a very similar recipe   I am researching the original recipe to see if I can find it and repost it, because it is a really good one)

Roast Turkey with Sage from Everyday Food
This last Turkey was one that I attempted after I had a few Thanksgivings under my belt.  If you have never made a turkey before, I would go with one of the above recipes   But if you feel confident in your turkey roasting abilities, this is a really amazing turkey.  I think it is the best turkey I ever made.
Maple-Syrup Glazed Roast Turkey with Riesling Gravy from Martha Stewart Living
This is my own turkey when I used the above recipe   The setting might not be quite as gorgeous as Martha's, but I was really proud of this one.
I've never been a big fan of gravy, but it is nice to have, and most people will want it on their thanksgiving plate.  I would really recommend the riesling gravy that goes with the maple syrup roasted turkey above (even if you don't make that turkey).  HERE is also a really easy recipe.

While we are talking turkey, there are a few tools that you will need to make roasting a turkey easier.
1.  Roasting Pan with a rack - My first few years I used a tin foil, disposable roasting pan.  That will work, but your life will be WAY easier if you invest in a roasting pan.  I use mine all the time, not just for turkeys.
2.  Digital Thermometer - I love mine, and again, I use it often, not just at Thanksgiving.  You can set an alarm to go off when the meat reaches a certain temperature   That way, you don't really have to worry about it being under or over done.
3.  Kitchen Twine - for trussing your turkey, to help it cook evenly and keep its shape.
4.  A platter large enough to serve your turkey.  Nothing like scrambling at the last minute to find something to serve it on.  You worked hard on that turkey, and you are going to want everyone to admire its beauty.
5.  A knife sharp enough to carve your turkey.  Most people have this, just make sure that you do.

My turkey, ready to be roasted, using 3 of the 5 essentials - roasting pan, thermometer and kitchen twine (notice how my kitchen is a mess?  Yeah, that's going to happen)

If you don't know how to truss a turkey, check out this video.  It is really easy.

OK, now that you know what you are doing for the turkey, it is time to decide what else you want to make.  The secret to a stress free Thanksgiving?  Delegate.   Do NOT try to make everything yourself.  You will freak out.  I usually make the turkey, gravy and stuffing the day of and make the pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce the day before.  The rest I assign to other people.   This is especially true if you are hosting a crowd and everyone wants their own special tradition represented.  Someone just needs to have the green bean casserole?  Tell them you would love it if they would bring it.  Same with mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, bread or rolls, and anything else that a guest might ask you about.  If someone asks what they can bring, give them one of the above items.  Decide what you want at your thanksgiving table, and then make sure that everything is accounted for, by either you or a guest.

 Here are some of my other favorite recipes:

Be sure you buy (or make, but I buy) a few extra containers of chicken stock for this stuffing.  I always run out.
Simple Stuffing from Everyday Food
The easiest cranberry sauce.  Make this a day or two ahead and refrigerate.  One less thing for you to do on T-day.
Basic Cranberry Sauce from Everyday Food
These Parsnip Smashed Potatoes are a new favorite, and they are really just incredible.  They also happen to be vegan (but if you aren't vegan, don't let that scare you.  They are delicious) .
Smashed Parsnips and Potatoes with Thyme from Martha Stewart
Another thing that can be made ahead is the pumpkin pie.  Again, this is a really easy recipe and doesn't take long at all.  You can cheat and buy premade pie crusts (I do that often if I am busy or overwhelmed), but the dough recipe included is also super easy and can be made ahead and frozen.
Pumpkin Pie from Everyday Food
Of course, don't forget that people will be thirsty.  Many people have traditional thanksgiving drinks, for example I always feel like I need to have ginger ale on hand. Depending on the type of crowd you are serving you can decide what is best, but I think it is always a good idea to have a few non alcoholic choices and a few with alcohol.  An example list (you wouldn't necessarily want to have everything on the list, unless you are going to have a large crowd, but choose at least 1-2 of each) :
Ginger ale
Soda (diet coke in my house)
Cranberry juice
Apple cider
A specialty cocktail (Like This one or this one)

This year I have been seeing crock pot apple ciders all over pinterest, and so I think I am going to mix up a batch Thanksgiving morning to have available all day.  I have never made it before, but my cousin made this one for a party and says it was delicious.  She kept a bottle of spiced rum next to the pot so that people could make themselves a grown up version if they wanted.
A few more (again, I can't speak to how good these are since I have never made them):
Hot Spiced Cider - She also has a ton of cute, shabby chic fall decorating ideas, so you have to scroll down quite a ways before you get to the cider recipe.  

It is also a good idea to have a few appetizers out for people to nibble on throughout the day.  Nothing too heavy - people should be hungry for the big dinner.  But I learned that if you starve people all day, they do not have much patience if dinner is running late - and it will almost always be running late.  Things never go exactly according to plan.  Some easy choices are
Cheese and crackers
Fruit/raw veggies

And maybe ONE easy hot appetizer - go easy on yourself, and remember your oven is busy!
A quick and easy one is Bacon Wrapped Dates.  Another is Pear Brie Tarts

Pear Brie Tarts made by me

Pear Brie Tarts
I learned this from my friend Nancy (the one who taught me about Martini Friday)
They are easy, delicious and impressive.  My favorite combination for appetizers!
You can buy the premade phyllo dough tart shells in the freezer section.  Fill each tart with a mixture of diced pear and brie, bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly.  Remove from the oven and drizzle with honey.  Tada!
Appetizer table after being picked over
The photo above is to show you that you don't have to go crazy with fancy appetizers, but they will still be appreciated.  I also had bagels in the morning with Skinnnytaste pumpkin spice cream cheese (made the day before, of course).  

I do best with lists, so here is a simple list to follow that will make your Thanksgiving more manageable.

1.  Make a Meal Plan
2.  Plan your guest list and assign dishes out as needed
2.  Collect all of your recipes in one place  (include appetizers and drinks)
3.  Make a shopping list from your recipes, also non food items such as cooking utensils and table settings.
4.  Go shopping a few days before to avoid the crowds.
5.  Make a list of what order to cook things (what can be made ahead?  How long will the turkey take?  If your turkey takes 4 hours, how long do your other dishes take?  When should you start them?)
7.  Tuesday and Wednesday, make everything that you can make ahead of time.
6. Thursday:  Keep calm and follow your list.  Assign other people to tasks as needed.  Remember that things probably will not go perfectly, and that is OK.  The point of this holiday is to spend time with people you love and create memories.

You may also want to have some games or movies on hand for the post dinner food coma.

Happy Thanksgiving!
My Thanksgiving dinner, 2010

Pin It!


Colleen said...

I need more blog posts.... Wine Wednesday??

NW Girl said...

Sorry! I'm on it!

Blogging tips