Thanksgiving is often touted as the hostess’s white whale, a menacing foe that requires an immense amount of experience and skill to conquer. FALSE. To successfully host a great Thanksgiving, you need just one thing: advance planning. This is the time to really unleash your Type-A-OCD-Excel-spreadsheet-loving side. Schedules and timelines are a must, as are meticulous shopping lists, a thorough check of your pantry, and a healthy sense of adventure.
SHOP AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE
Ideally, you want to start planning at least 10 days in advance. (Like right after you read this post, you know?) By now, you should know how many people are coming to dinner, and what, if anything, they are bringing. From there, you can figure out how much food you’ll need to make: a turkey for X amount of people, gravy, two sides, etc. Pick your recipes early and stick to them! You may be dazzled by the latest, greatest trendy way to cook a turkey, but dinner party rule #1 is don’t try anything new, and what is Thanksgiving if not a gigantic dinner party?
Once you have your recipes, you have your shopping list. Scour your pantry first: you probably still have spices, specialty flours and random sugars from last year. Then, divide your list by items that can be bought 7-10 days in advance, and items that must be bought 2-3 days in advance. Spices, chicken stock, herbs, sturdy vegetables (carrots, onions, celery potatoes), butter, eggs, most baking supplies, anything canned or frozen — all of these will be fine if you buy them now. This way, you only have to focus on the perishable items next weekend, and you’re not slammed with a $300 grocery bill. Also, items tend to get sold out, so the earlier you pick them up, the less chance you have of fighting another human for the last bag of French-cut green beans on Wednesday afternoon.
One note here: if you’re buying a frozen turkey, you’ll need a few days to thaw it (at least 1 day in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds of turkey). So plan accordingly if you’re going that route.
MAKE-AHEAD RECIPES ARE YOUR BFF
Ideally, the only things you’ll need to make on Thursday are the turkey and the gravy. Almost everything can be made ahead of time, and in fact, a lot of dishes are better on Day Two or Day Three.
Pie crusts can be made weeks in advance — simply triple-wrap them with plastic wrap and freeze until needed (just thaw it overnight in the fridge before using). Biscuits can also be made weeks in advance and frozen — simply freeze the raw biscuits on a baking sheet until they’re frozen completely, then transfer to a freezer bag and freeze until needed. No need to thaw — simply pop them in the oven and add 10-15 minutes to your original baking time.
Gratins and casseroles reheat like a dream. Make them on Monday and refrigerate them until 45 minutes before dinner time. Soups are also easily reheatable, and can be made a few days in advance and refrigerated until just before serving. Cranberry sauce can be made up to a week in advance and needs no reheating — simply take it out of the fridge on Thanksgiving morning so that it loses some of its chill before dinner.
Bake your pies on Wednesday night (or Thursday morning, if you eat later in the day) and leave them on the counter (hidden, if you’re worried about overeager human vultures). You can also make your whipped cream Thursday morning and leave it in the fridge until dessert time (or make it earlier in the week if you plan to use stabilizers).
You can even make your gravy base ahead of time, cooking your giblets in stock up to two days in advance and reheating gently on the stove for 15 minutes before whisking in the turkey drippings.
And stuffing? Stuffing is better when made two days in advance, and then reheated just before dinner. It allows all of the flavors to meld together in one herby, delicious mess. As I mentioned in my newsletter this month, I am not on stuffing duty for Friendsgiving. This is not out of any noble decision to share the workload or anything like that. It’s a practical decision: Debleena makes stuffing because her recipe is a classic, full of Thanksgiving flavors and probably straight from this Norman Rockwell painting.
The apples and sausage and herbs create a perfect balance of savory and sweet. I forgot to add dried cranberries, but they’d add a nice tartness to the stuffing, and chopped nuts would add a bit of crunch. I’ll be honest though: this recipe doesn’t need any of that. It is delicious and perfect on its own, and I’d should maybe be embarrassed that I ate 10-12 servings all on my own … BUT I’M NOT.
Classic Thanksgiving Stuffing
Adapted from Debleena Mitra and Smitten Kitchen
Makes 10-12 servings
– 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
– 1 pound garlic-and-herb pork or chicken sausage (or sweet Italian), casings removed
– 1 medium red onion, chopped
– 4 stalks celery, chopped
– 3 medium carrots, chopped
– 2 medium apples, chopped (I used Braeburn, but any sweet-tart cooking apple will do)
– 5 or 6 leaves fresh sage, chopped
– 4 sprigs thyme, leaves removed and chopped
– salt and pepper, to taste
– 14 ounces plain croutons (or crusty day-old bread, torn into small pieces)
– 2 cups low-sodium chicken, vegetable or turkey stock
– salt and pepper, to taste
– optional toppings: dried cranberries, chopped walnuts or pecans
1) Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 13-x-9 baking dish.
2) Add one tablespoon of olive oil to a large skillet. Brown the sausage, using a wooden spoon to break it into crumbles. Set aside.
3) Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet. Turn the heat to medium-low, then add the onions and saute until they have softened and are beginning to brown, about 7 minutes. Stir in the celery and carrots, then saute for an additional 5 minutes. Add the apples, herbs, salt and pepper, and saute for 3 minutes, then turn off the heat.
4) In a large mixing bowl, toss together the croutons, skillet mixture and sausage crumbles (you may have to do this in batches). Spread the mixture in an even layer in the buttered baking dish.
5) Pour the stock over the stuffing, then let the stuffing mixture sit for 15 minutes so that the liquid has absorbed a bit. Top with dried cranberries or nuts, if desired.
6) Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top has browned and the stuffing is no longer wet. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Make ahead: This recipe is actually better if the stuffing is baked a day or two in advance. Cover with foil and refrigerate until an hour or two before you plan to eat. To reheat, bake for 30 minutes at 350F, pouring a half-cup of stock over the stuffing before it bakes so that it doesn’t dry out. If you go this route, add your dried cranberries or chopped nuts before reheating (not before the original bake) so that they don’t burn.