Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Planning Thanksgiving So You Don't Make Yourself Crazy

If you are hosting the meal, Thanksgiving is the best of times and the worst of times.

For my mother, Thanksgiving was the best holiday of the year and I agree with her whole heartedly.
Thanksgiving gives us time to pause and enjoy our family and friends.

But hosting the meal can seem daunting. So many details to take care of, so much food to get on the table and so much to clean up.

How do restaurants and caterers deal with the stress of putting on big events?

They plan out every detail so there are no surprises.

The Guest List

Start with the guest list. Most importantly you'll need to know how many people are coming. That will tell you how many chairs you'll need and how big the dinning room table has to be.

These days, many people have dietary restrictions, so it is good to know that as well. Along with the invitation, ask if there are certain ingredients or foods your guests need to avoid.

If you expect a lot of children, decide where you want them to play and organize that space as carefully as the dinning room.


Write up the menu. Go over everything, as my grandmother used to say, from soup to nuts.

If friends and family want to contribute to the meal, work out who will bring what. Give people assignments so you don't end up with three platters of green beans and no pumpkin pie.

Organize your recipes and do the math. Most recipes are written for 4 adults. Given the number of your guests, make the appropriate multiplication.

Go through the ingredient lists for all dishes and write up a master ingredients list. For example, if the stuffing recipe calls for 1 cup of mushrooms and the gravy recipe needs 1/2 cup of mushrooms, you know you need a total of 1 1/2 cups of mushrooms for the meal. Put that on your ingredients list.

Once you have a master list, divide up which ingredients you want to buy at farmers markets, specialy stores (like bakeries and cheese shops) and the supermarket.

We rely on farmers markets for fresh produce. I our neighborhood, four days from Thanksgiving, we'll shop at the Sunday Palisades farmers market for produce that can last most of a week: root vegeables like beets from Underwood Farm or yams, sweet potatoes from Yang Farms, and G Farms for pluots and oranges.

For us, the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market is a good place to pick up leafy greens, berries and fresh fruit. Any farmers market the day before Thanksgiving is going to be crowded, so get there early before the crowds.

If you want a specialty turkey (organic, kosher, heritage), it would be good to order your bird now from your local butcher or supermarket.

Time Line

Just about as important as settling on the menu is understanding what needs to be done and when.
Put into your time line details like when you will clean the house, wash and dry the tablecloth, check and clean all the dishes, silverware and glasses you want to use and, if you don't have enough, when you will pick up what you need to borrow from a friend.

Do you have enough chairs? If not, when you will pick up extra ones and from where.

Also indicate when you will pick up flowers and the turkey.

If you are ordering a cake from a local baker or a ready-to-serve dinner, put that into your time line, and check when they open and close. You wouldn't want your guests to miss enjoying your turkey because you arrived after the store was closed.

To figure out the time line for your menu, sit down at the dining room table with a pad of paper, a pen and a glass of wine or cup of tea and organize the dishes in terms of preparation and cooking time.

Some dishes can be prepped or made the day before. For instance, we always serve a roasted beet salad that we make on Wednesday. We also wash, dry and wrap in aluminum foil the sweet potatoes and baked potatoes that we will cook Thursday.

If you are buying a ready-to-serve meal, you still have to allow time to reheat the dinner. If you are cooking the entire meal, which we love doing even if it makes the day crazy-hectic, you need to account for every minute of the day.

Our kitchen is the size of a New York closet, which I like because I don't have to move much when I want to go from the sink to the stove, but when there are two or more people in that small space, it can get kind of hectic.

In our small kitchen, we have a Wolf stove. I love the six burners, which helps big time on Thanksgiving but because there is only one oven, we have to strategize when to bake our pies since the turkey will monopolize the oven for most of the day.

Planning out the day in as detailed as possible, helps keep the craziness manageable and fun.

We write up a schedule for the day that looks something like this:

6:00am wash and prep the turkey
6:15am saute onions, Italian sausage, shiitake mushrooms, parsley and garlic for the stuffing
6:30am preheat the oven to 350F degrees
7:00am put the turkey in the oven
7:30am make the cranberry sauce

And so on, going hour by hour, we backtime each dish so we know when it has to be cooked so it will be on the table at 3:00pm when we want to serve dinner.

Clean up

Don't forget to preplan clean up.

Work out who will be doing clean up during the meal. As courses are finished, serving platters and plates need to be cleared.
Since our house is small and the kitchen is open to the dining room, we clean as we go. After each course, we are joined by members of the dinner party who help bus the dishes and silverware into the kitchen. After they help clean up between courses, they reset the table with clean plates.

We have a tradition of taking a walk with our friends and family walk around the block after the entrees, before desserts are served. A selected few remain behind to clean up the dining room and kitchen so when everyone returns, desserts are on the table with fresh plates and silverware.

So with a little bit of planning, Thanksgiving is a lot more fun.

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