It’s that time a year again. Time to talk turkey. If you are hosting Thanksgiving, you are probably in the midst of planning your menus, writing your grocery list and thinking about how you want to style your table. Below I will share my tips, tricks and go-to ideas to help create a stress-free holiday.
Break it down
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. One reason is because it’s centered around being together with family and friends. There is food and tradition involved with a little football thrown in so in my book, it is a winner. I thought I would share how I put together my Thanksgiving menu, and all that goes with it to create a smooth holiday that doesn’t make you feel like you’re running around like a turkey with your head cut off.
I am a big sides person. I like a variety of sides that complements the turkey, but also can be reheated over the next couple of days when I don’t feel like cooking. A pro catering tip for you is you can take side dishes that you bake and keep them warm by putting them it in a cooler. Really? Yes you can! Put foil over it and place it in a cooler and it will keep it at temp for a few hours. This is great for home and transporting to someone else’s home.
Here are the things that I have to have on my Thanksgiving table for sides.
My dad‘s stuffing. My kids call it papa’s stuffing. It’s a very simple recipe and I’ve had it every Thanksgiving that I remember. I know there were times when I was younger that we did not have the stuffing, but for me, this is what my Thanksgiving memories are built around. It’s a simple stuffing made with white bread that has been toasted. Along with onions celery and mushrooms cooked in a ton of butter, seasoned with salt pepper, and Bell seasoning. Simple, pure, holiday joy that my father created, and forever will be known in our family as Papa‘s stuffing.
Creamed spinach. I don’t know why creamed spinach has become a thing with me because it was not something that we grew up eating for Thanksgiving. I think it started when I began hosting Thanksgiving myself in my late 20s. I use the Barefoot Contessa recipe for Thanksgiving every year. No other time of the year when I want to make cream spinach to go with steak let’s say, I will do it with jalapeños or more cheese but Thanksgiving it is the traditional Ina recipe that does it for me and my family. It does not disappoint.
Cranberry sauce or relish. I am not a fan of canned cranberry sauce the only time I think it’s good as if it’s mix with barbecue sauce and toss in some meatballs for a cocktail party at Christmas. I make my cranberry sauce from scratch and it’s very simple. It is one bag of fresh cranberries put into a pan. Add one can of frozen apple juice (not thawed) and one apple, whatever kind you like peeled and cut into small pieces. You turn it on medium low and once you start sharing the cranberries pop, the pectin in the apple juice will help congeal the cranberry sauce. It’s simple and it’s great on turkey sandwiches.
Mashed potatoes and gravy. I love a buttery mashed potato covered in tasty turkey gravy. Recently I have started making my mashed potatoes with a lot more butter versus milk. I rice them after they are fork tender and add a ton of butter. They are called Robuchon-style after the Michelin star chef who created the recipe. This recipe is what I’m planning on making this year, but in the past I have done mashed potatoes with unpeeled red skin potatoes or just plain old Yukon gold mashed potatoes. For the gravy I’d like to make some homemade turkey stock a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and stick it in the freezer. In a pinch you can buy turkey stock in the grocery store. Trader Joe’s makes a great turkey stock, FYI. My favorite recipe for gravy is Ina Garten (of course) and her make ahead gravy. No more trying to get lumps out of gravy. It is worth its weight in gold.
Brussel sprouts. I love Brussels all year round but something screams fall about brussels sprouts. I have been making the recipe from the Silver Palate cookbook for over 20 years. The addition of maple syrup makes it extra special.
Something orange. I know that sounds very random, but it depends on my mood what orange food item is going to appear on my Thanksgiving buffet. It could be carrots, sweet potatoes, or squash. Usually I ask my husband, but he would like and that’s what I make.
The star of the show
There are a few tips about cooking turkey that I want to share with you.
I am an anti-briner. I do not brine my turkey in liquid. There are many reasons that I choose not to do this method. Yes, it does make the meat seem moister, but is it really moisI find it changes the texture of the turkey and to me it’s just not the same. I’ll dry brine my turkey with just salt all over the inside and outside of the bird for two days before cooking it.
I do not stuff my bird with stuffing. Stuffing needs to be cooked in a casserole dish outside of the bird to ensure that it is not filled with bacteria. If you cook the inside of the stuffing to be 165°, your turkey will be as dry as the Sahara desert. Instead I stuff the cavity of my bird with lemons, thyme, sage, onions, and fennel. This helps create a wonderful dripping that you can add to your gravy.
My go to method for cooking turkey has been the Michael Symon cheese cloth method for the last 10 years. It makes a beautiful bird and keeps it nice and moist.
Carving the turkey is not something that I suggest you do at the table in front of all of your guests. It’s intimidating and Norman Rockwell already painted that picture. I also think that carving the bird by cutting the breast off of the bone and then cutting it from end to end like a football creates a better texture of meat. When you cut it side to side you’re cutting it against the grain of the meat and it creates the illusion that it’s drier than it actually is. See the photo below.
If you can afford it and have the room, I highly suggest cooking your turkey in a Nesco roaster. This type of pan helps create a very juicy bird in a smaller amount of time and also freeze up your oven. It’s worth it for an investment if you have a place to store it but please do not feel you have to buy this to have a successful Thanksgiving. Your turkey can rest for an hour so as long as you have everything that needs to go in the oven prepared and ready to go as soon as that bird comes out you should be fine.
Don’t hate me. I prefer sweet potato pie over pumpkin pie. Let me tell you why. it’s just better. Simple. The end. I use the recipe from Southern Living and it is outstanding. I used to buy canned sweet potatoes and found the method in this recipe worth doing, I will never go back to canned sweet potato again.
Apple pie. It’s an American holiday and there’s nothing more American than a good old apple pie. My daughter made a caramel apple pie when thanksgiving that was fantastic. I’ve also made a fisherman’s apple pie that has sour cream in it. That is also outstanding. The basic simple apple pie is always a winner too.
A pumpkin roll. I looked all through my recipes and could not find the pumpkin roll recipe that my mom used to make for Thanksgiving. I know it’s out there and I’m going to find it as soon as this is published but a pumpkin roll is a really nice way to have the pumpkin-cinnamon-cloves flavor, but in a cake form.
Getting Ready – Making your list and check it twice
The first thing you need to do is create your menu. Then break out your grocery list and decide what you can purchase in the upcoming week and what needs to be purchased the week of Thanksgiving. I highly suggest ordering a fresh turkey ahead of time so you’re guaranteed the size you need. Fresh turkeys to me are the best. I do not love a butterball turkey. Butterball turkeys injected with saline to create the “moist” texture and I like to control the flavor of my food.
Once you have your grocery list ready to go the next thing is to create your timeline.
Creating your timeline starts with things that you can make beforehand and possibly stick in the freezer like corn bread for stuffing or pie dough for crust. Turkey stock is some thing I like to do the weekend before Thanksgiving. Also, my homemade cranberry sauce can be made up to four days before it’s going to be served. For the day of Thanksgiving create a timeline that works to balance your oven space. This will help everything runs smoothly and lessen anxiety.
Ask for HELP!
I am a control freak. I am a type A person who wants everything done the way I want it done so it is very hard for me to ask for help. If you are the same way, I totally get it but trust me being able to ask for help will ease some stress. When you have folks over to your house, especially on a holiday, they want to help. They don’t want to feel useless. So, I suggest you find things that you can let go of and give assignments to others to do.
A couple days before Thanksgiving. Take out your serving dishes and utensils. Take sticky notes and write what you’re going to serve on each plate or in each bowl. Why bother? Let me explain. When everything is getting ready at the same time, and your mother-in-law is breathing down your neck, you can say “would you mind putting the potatoes in the bowl marked potatoes, please”? You won’t be pulling things out of your cabinet and franticly looking for the gravy ladle you haven’t used in a year while she said “well, I wish you were ready for today”. See? In control but letting others help can be of benefit to you.
Water and ice in the glasses. That’s something that a couple of kids could do for you. Have the pitchers for water out and ready to go and give them a job to do. They will feel a part of the preparations and that helps them feel valued.
If you forgot to buy something at the store, don’t worry about it. You’re the only one that knows your menu. As Julia Child say “no one will know” so just keep going. Let it go.
Relax! Pass the gravy that isn’t lumpy. Enjoy the day and be thankful it only comes once a year.
My favorite mashed potatoes!! Had them for the first time at dinner in Paris at L’Atelier De Joel Robuchon!! They were a gorgeous shade of yellow that just melted in your mouth. One of my favorite food memories 😍
Aren’t they to die for?
Jeri what great tips! Loved it all ! My Mother was a master at preparing for Thanksgiving! She was the perfect southern cook and hostess! For the 2nd year in a row now I will be doing Thanksgiving at my house, so I’m in the process of learning what I want to keep and what new things to add to the meal. I may try your mashed potato recipe and that creamed spinach sounds like a winner too! Thanks for sharing.
You are a great writer and speaker- I predict great things for your future in 👏this arena! ( I can still hear my Mother say ..” put some ice in the glasses… “ and one of us girls would hop to it ! Lol)
Oh I love you sharing this memory with me. Thank you and good luck hosting. You’ve got this girl!
We have a “Papa’s Dressing” recipe tradition that comes from my maternal grandfather. We’ve had other stuffings/dressings at my in-laws over the years, but even my kids refuse to eat anything other than the Hemmer Stuffing!
I have enjoyed reading your Thanksgiving Menu and am saving some of the recipes for myself.
Thank you! I am glad you liked it.