I have an important message about the Thanksgiving meal for all you moms, dads, bubbes and holiday feast-makers out there: It’s not about the food.
There, I said it.
The truth is, holiday meals are never about the food. They are about family traditions, friends who are family, lively discussions, screaming kids and ranting in-laws. They are about making memories and laughter and having enough leftover turkey to make sandwiches the next day.
No matter how creamy your mashed potatoes are or how many Michelin stars your meal might earn, the fact is, no one is going to remember the food. What they will remember is your radiance, your happiness, your warmth and maybe even your dance moves.
So please, if you are preparing for the upcoming Thanksgiving meal, give yourself permission to take some shortcuts. If your meal is five-star but your face says “I just want to crawl back into bed,” you have lost. This year, commit to not being that frazzled person who is too stressed to be grateful on the official day of gratitude.
This year, commit to not being that frazzled person who is too stressed to be grateful on the official day of gratitude.
I speak from experience. For many years, I’ve prepared the Thanksgiving meal for almost 200 Foreign Service Officers at the U.S. Embassy in Uganda. Not only do I have the added pressure of cooking for people who would rather be home for the holiday, but I have to start well before Thanksgiving arrives — after all, I’d end up in a straitjacket if I woke up Wednesday morning still needing to make hundreds of pies and peel 200 pounds of potatoes.
Yet, many home cooks do just that sort of thing before big meals. This Thanksgiving, take it from a person who cooks for a living: Follow this schedule I’ve put together to take some anxiety out of the holiday.
Monday, Nov. 20: Do your shopping
Nothing spells heartbreak faster than running to 20 stores on Thanksgiving morning in search of croutons — or cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie filling. Don’t forget extra herbs and seasonings, salt, butter (or schmaltz or oil), flour, cream, milk, coffee, tea, sugar and large, disposable foil containers. Also, buy a meat thermometer with a pop-up timer. They cost next to nothing, and you will need to know when your turkey is cooked.
Tuesday, Nov. 21: Start preparing
Today is the day to make dough and desserts, and to prep the veggies, the frozen turkey and the fridge.
Apple pies can be made in advance and frozen unbaked. Pumpkin and pecan pies can be made today, and they will sit happily in your fridge until Thursday.
Figure out the challah/roll/biscuit situation and deal with that. You can make the dough and shape it in advance, then put it in the freezer to pop into the oven on Thursday.
This is also the day to peel regular and sweet potatoes and cover them with cold water. Trim the ends off string beans, blanch them in salted water and freeze in bags.
For the stuffing, prepare croutons, celery, onions and garlic before storing them in the fridge in Ziploc bags.
Clear out your fridge to make as much room as you can. Be brutal: Throw away those jars of condiments you’ve had in there since 1986. Then — and this is critical — if your turkey is frozen, put it in the fridge to thaw. Many Turkey Days have been ruined by underestimating how long it takes to thaw a big bird.
Wednesday, Nov. 22: Side dish day
Make the stuffing, the mashed and sweet potatoes, the green bean casserole, rice, couscous or whatever dishes your traditions dictate. Grease those disposable foil containers, put side dishes in them, cover them with foil and throw them in the fridge, ready to go into the oven the next day.
And if you bought a kosher turkey, you have even more to be grateful for. You can skip all that messy brining because kosher turkeys have already been brined.
Thursday, Nov. 23: Thanksgiving
While everyone else is trudging to the store looking for cranberries, here’s all that’s left for you to do this morning:
Preheat your oven and remove the side dishes and turkey from the fridge, so they come to room temperature. Rinse your turkey well with plenty of cool water, dry it with paper towels and let it sit on the counter for about an hour.
If you need to bake a pie or rolls/challah/biscuits, now is the time. While those are baking, set the table. Go all out. This is the most fun part of entertaining, and if you have mismatched plates and platters, all the better. If you’re like me and almost each one of your serving dishes tells a story, recalls a place you’ve been or reminds you of a relative you miss, this is a great chance to remember.
When the bread and pies are out of the oven, turn up the temperature to 500 F. Put your meat thermometer in the deepest part of the turkey’s thigh — where it meets the breast — and rub oil all over the bird. Season the inside and outside with your choice of herbs and spices. In the roasting pan, pour a few cups of wine or water and add the giblets and neck you reserved.
Pop the turkey into the oven for 30 minutes to brown all over. Then remove the turkey from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 F. Cover the breast meat with a small piece of foil and put the turkey back in the oven until your timer goes off or your thermometer reads 165 F. An unstuffed turkey will take about 9 minutes per pound.
Basting is unnecessary, and opening the oven door will just increase the cooking time. Let your cooked bird rest for at least 30 minutes or longer. This allows the juices to redistribute and make the meat moist and flavorful. Avoid covering the turkey during the resting period to prevent rubbery skin.
While the turkey is resting, put the foil-covered side dishes in the oven to warm.
Before getting showered and dressed, take a few minutes to remove the pan drippings from your resting-turkey pan, discard the giblets and neck, and prepare the gravy. If you want to be a super chef, pour the gravy into microwave-safe gravy boats to be warmed for 2 minutes before serving.
At this point, you’ll probably be remembering frantic meals of holidays past and wondering why you’re done already — without even breaking a sweat. Keep the good times rolling: Talk someone else into carving the turkey and browning the tops of the side dishes before transferring them to serving platters. Then kick back and enjoy a pre-dinner Thanksgiving l’chaim!
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.