Out of compulsion, obligation or your own neurotic drive, you are hosting Thanksgiving this year. You know you have the experience and talent to pull it off, but you also know that the complexity of it—and your own high standards of performance—can sneak up on you, making the final hours before Thanksgiving dinner a tear-streaked melodrama of anxiety and disappointment.
So if you want to succeed without losing a finger, your sanity, or the weak familial bonds you still have, we need to start right away. For the next three weeks, your hand in mine, we are going to head into Thanksgiving with grace and confidence, getting enough done each week so that at no point are you winging a shopping cart through the grocery store at midnight. And what we’re going to achieve together is not some Sandra Lee/Paula Deen/Rachael Ray half-assed sham of a Thanksgiving. Three weeks is just enough time to prepare.
Step 1 (as always): Clean The House. You will feel competent and prepared with a clean house. Do this tonight, because you have a busy weekend ahead! Do the laundry, fold it, and put it away. If you will have overnight guests for the holiday, launder the guest linens, and make sure you have all the sheets and towels you need. Clean out the fridge thoroughly. Thoroughly. You won’t need ketchup again until next summer, so toss it. Don’t worry about the floors, those are going to have to wait until the last minute. Reward yourself by finishing off the almost-empty liquor bottles, and then recycle them.
Step 2: Menu Planning. A common mistake is planning only the massive, table- and belt-busting Thanksgiving feast. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but people actually eat other meals on Thanksgiving and the days before and after it. If you’re having out-of-town guests, it’s obvious that you need to plan a meal for the night they arrive, a breakfast on Thanksgiving day, and a brunch for that Friday. But even if you live alone and the guests will only be around for a few hours, you need to feed yourself with more than spare whipped cream.
For the night before Thanksgiving, a stew that you can make in the slow cooker is ideal. Something with lots of veggies in preparation for the avalanche of starches yet to come. Don’t omit dessert, or else you’ll be tempted to sample the pie, and not only is that shameful, but you’ll also lose your appetite for pie. Dessert suggestion: lemon sorbet.
For breakfast on Thanksgiving, offer a big bowl of yogurt along with bananas and chopped almonds. Deputize someone to keep the coffee supply replenished. If you want to show your skills at every meal, you can also offer homemade granola you prepared the week before.
(FYI, here’s how to make a simple granola: Heat the oven to 250F. Get out a ¼ cup measure. Use it to put 3 scoops of brown sugar in a small saucepan. Add 2 scoops of canola (or other flavorless) oil. Add 3 scoops of maple syrup. (There’s a reason for doing it in this order, as the most fastidious of you will already understand.) Stir this and warm it over a low burner while in a big mixing bowl, using the end of a rolling pin, you mash up ½ pound of raw cashews and ½ pound of raw almonds. Mix in 2 pounds of rolled oats and ½ tablespoon of salt. When the syrup is warm and sugar is mostly dissolved, mix everything together very thoroughly. Pour the mixture onto two baking sheets. Stir things up a little every 20 minutes for an hour. When it comes out of the oven, it won’t be particularly crunchy, but that will change as it cools.)
For the day after Thanksgiving, leftovers are truly not going to cut it. The notion of having infinite leftovers to make a whole buffet of creative adaptations is a fantasy. Assuming you eat Thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the day, most of the leftovers will be gone by bedtime. Another widespread bad idea is the totally-made-ahead brunch (e.g., French toast). You know when you don’t have time to prepare this brunch? Right before Thanksgiving. You know when you have plenty of time to make brunch? The day after Thanksgiving.
For Friday brunch, omelets are your very best option. They require virtually no prep other than a little whisking and maybe snipping of tarragon. Use soft cheese so you don’t even have to bother with grating. You can make bacon without stress by baking it in the oven. Keep some sliced bread in the freezer for toast. Also in the freezer: concentrated orange juice.
Now write down all of these menus along with the shopping list for each. On paper. Ideally, in a notebook. You cannot keep track of Thanksgiving in your head. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than all of us.
Step 3: Menu Planning, for Realsies. A lot of unnecessary thought goes into the main Thanksgiving meal planning. Scanning the magazine racks at the grocery store, it’s clear that someone thinks they need literally thousands of side dish ideas. With very few exceptions, what everyone wants from Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving. Not a Moroccan fantasia on root vegetable themes.
In addition to resisting your own artistic impulses, you should also resist the urge to accommodate every palate preference and food aversion—barring allergies—that arrives to dinner. Your house is not Per Se! You are serving seven or more dishes, and the guests do not have to love each and every thing on the table!
Your Thanksgiving menu should be as simple as this: roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, vegetable/casserole and pie. No white potatoes! No salad! Where do people get these ideas? Variety is the not the spirit of this holiday—comforting food that puts you to sleep when your middle-aged relatives start to get annoying: that’s the spirit!
Within these parameters, some things are fixed and some things are open. Don’t worry about stuffing, gravy or cranberry sauce. We’re going to do those in the simplest, most direct way possible—they need no elevation or innovation. But your sweet potatoes could be mashed, baked or roasted (together with parsnips or celery root). Your pie can be pumpkin or pecan. (If you need more than one kind of pie, ask others to bring some.)
Your vegetable dish is where you most get to express your creativity, but I insist: don’t be too adventurous. People simply crave something green to balance the umami overload. Roasted Brussels sprouts or sautéed Siberian kale spiced with a little cayenne pepper would be perfect. Green beans or broccoli with any delicious white sauce would also be nice, and a little retro.
Step 4: Start Eating Sandwiches. You’re going to make stuffing and you’re going to need a lot of stale bread. So start this week packing sandwiches for your lunch. If you’re worried about holiday poundage, make them with baba ghanoush or kale-almond pesto instead of cheese. Buy unsliced loaves so you can be particularly generous in cutting off and cutting up the heels. Keep them in a big zipper bag in your freezer. When Thanksgiving comes, you’ll inevitably need to supplement this stash with additional toasted bread cubes, but leftover bread is the whole point of stuffing.
Step 5: Wine Shopping. This weekend, go wine shopping. I know it’s early, but when the holiday gets nearer, the wine stores get crowded and their shelves get empty. Shopping early also means you can order something that’s running low or not stocked. Plus, all the wine stores will have tastings on Saturday afternoon, so enjoy it now before you get too busy.
What to get? All you need to know is here, but if you don’t have a mind for wine, just remember Loire for both white and red. If you insist on an American wine, reduce the environmental impacts of shipping by picking a wine from your own side of the country. Out west, look for a Zinfandel with low alcohol, around 14%. Back east, consider Cabernet franc, produced in various, delightful ways from the Finger Lakes all the way down to Georgia.
Step 6. Start Grocery Shopping.There are some things you can buy already that will keep (or freeze) and will be in short supply later. For your pie, buy the pecans or canned pumpkin. (Don’t get canned “pumpkin pie filling” nor fresh pumpkin, which is not particularly good in pie.) Buy a bag of cranberries. Buy three pounds of butter, a five-pound bag of flour, a three-pound bag of sugar, and make sure you have plenty of salt and pepper. Review your spice rack and restock as necessary. Replace last year’s cinnamon. Make sure you have plastic wrap, paper towels, zipper bags and aluminum foil. Check the toilet-paper supply.
Oh, and this is important: buy three pounds of turkey wings, because we’re making stock this weekend. Oh, does the store not have any turkey wings in stock? Thank goodness we started so early! Order them from the butcher for pickup later this week.
Step 7. Relaxing Yet Productive Sunday in the Kitchen. You don’t have to get this all done on Sunday, but you have three crucial prep tasks to accomplish before next week: making dough, stock and beurre manié. First, make your pie dough and put it in the freezer. (Obviously don’t roll it out and/or bake it.) Couple of tips here: remember you need to freeze some butter for this task. At the same time, put a stick of butter out on the counter—this will make sense later. While some butter freezes and some butter gets soft, you can be working on chopping vegetables and stuff for the stock.
Okay, so then make the stock we mentioned before. Divide this into one-quart zipper bags and put it in the freezer.
When that stick of butter is soft and your hands are idle, make beurre manié, which will ultimately be used to thicken your gravy. You’re making life easier for your future self! This is an Alton Brown tip you can find all over the interwebs, but here are some simplified instructions:
• Combine the stick of butter with ½ cup of flour. Mix together very, very thoroughly using either a dough blender or a hand mixer.
• Divide this into eight equal parts. Roll them into balls. Put the balls into a zipper bag and freeze them.
I hope you have enough room in your freezer for all this, but remember when I told you to clean out the fridge?!
Homework Assignment: Before our meeting next week, decide on your vegetable dish(es). Also spend some time thinking about decoration. No handprint turkey cutouts or construction paper pilgrim hats, because we’re doing a much classier thing here. Are you happy with the linens and napkins you have? Glassware and flatware? You could totally order these wine tumblers and get them in time for Thanksgiving. These bar mops would make great napkins.
Okay, are you feeling totally calm and confident and ready win—I mean, welcome Thanksgiving?
K. Emerson Beyer, environmentalist and gadabout, lives in Durham, N.C. and tweets as @patebrisee.