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How to Plan And Cook a Thanksgiving Dinner

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How to Plan the Menu

First things first: who will be at your table, and what are you going to eat? Here are some suggestions on how to build a successful Thanksgiving plan, whether this is your first holiday as the cook or your 10th. Need recipe ideas? Visit our menu planner.

HOW TO GET STARTED
Planning a really good menu is the stealth approach to being a really good cook. What leaves an impression is not only the dishes you can make, but also how they taste, look and feel when assembled into a meal.

• The pitfall to avoid is repeating ingredients. If you are serving pecan pie for dessert, don’t put out spiced pecans as an hors d’oeuvre. Both may be fabulously delicious, but the pie just won’t be as appealing by the time dessert rolls around.

• Variety is especially important at Thanksgiving, when you are likely to be collecting guests with different tastes, allergies and aversions around one table. If there are vegetarians and vegans present, you can and must plan for them, too.

• If you’re unsure how to start, think about colors. The basic palette for Thanksgiving is heavy on dishes that are white (mashed potatoes, creamed onions) and brown (turkey, stuffing, gravy) dishes. It needs the ruby red of cranberry sauce, the warm orange of pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes, to make it interesting. Add something green and snappy.

• Next, think about texture. If you already have a creamy vegetable side dish, add one that’s roasted or caramelized.

• Finally, throw in a surprising flavor. Be truly daring and add a seriously spicy dish like our fiery sweet potatoes. Pickles and relishes like piccalilli or chutney add a puckery note.

COUNT YOUR GUESTS

• Feeding a big gang has its challenges. Most Thanksgiving recipes are tailored for eight to 12 guests. But what if you’re having 25?

Roasting two whole turkeys at the same time demands a giant oven. Carving said fowl is a daunting task requiring at least several helpers if you want to get the meat onto the table while it’s still hot.

Instead, try roasting one bird to use as your centerpiece for the big Norman Rockwell moment (get your phone cameras ready), while simultaneously roasting a tray of turkey parts on a separate rack underneath. (Here’s the recipe, which is also pictured above.) The parts cook quickly, are incredibly easy to carve, and you can tailor them to your group, eliminating any fights over dark meat or white.

Think of it as the Thanksgiving analogue to the wedding-cake trick: At large affairs, there’s always one tiered cake done up for show, and several other plain sheet pans full of cake that are easy for the caterers to slice and quickly serve.

• For a smaller group — say, closer to eight people — count yourself lucky. You get to make a much more interesting meal. Since you don’t have to cook in bulk, try out recipes that are a little more creative than classic. Have a guest bring the mashed potatoes, so you can make a sweet potato gratin instead. Buy some puff pastry and play around with it to make cheese straws, pumpkin turnovers or an apple tarte Tatin.

Roast a turkey breast and use the extra oven space to bake a dressing that’s new to you. (If you already have a signature dressing, make both — having two is a Thanksgiving dream.) Take the opportunity to fuss over the table and the guests a little more than usual. Get out the linen napkins, polish the candlesticks, dust off the ramekins and serve individual stuffing cups or vanilla custards to each guest.

ASSESS YOUR SKILL SET
• If you’re a novice, stick to the essentials: turkey, dressing, a cranberry sauce, potatoes, gravy and a vegetable of some kind. To tamp down any anxiety about multitasking, think of yourself as making a simple roast chicken dinner with a couple of extra sides. There is no need to bake a pie. Ask someone to bring one, or buy a good one the day before the feast. (If you feel the need to make one, though, ask a guest to bring a side dish of some sort, making working with them fairly closely to make sure that it fits into your overall menu.)

• The inexperienced cook should consider the casserole. Thanksgiving dinner can feel like a high-stakes race among the cook, the guests and the turkey. In this sprint, the casserole is your greatest friend. It does not have to include cream soup or canned vegetables. It does not have to be layered or topped with a crust. It can be messy in the pan and still look and taste great on the plate. Just think of a casserole as a roasting pan where almost anything can be assembled and even cooked well in advance, then left in the refrigerator until you remember its existence about an hour before Thanksgiving dinner.

Starchy vegetable purées (celery root, carrot, potatoes, squash) work especially well, but almost any baked or braised side dish can fit this model: mashed potatoes with plenty of butter and sour cream; red cabbage with apples, which can be braised in the oven instead of on the stove, then refrigerated; cubed squash with fresh rosemary and garlic (pictured above), which keep their pungency.

Just leave plenty of time to reheat the casseroles at 400 degrees before the meal. Many casseroles (except very dense ones like mashed potatoes) can go into the oven when the turkey comes out. Remove them from the fridge first thing Thanksgiving morning so they are not completely chilled.

• Seasoned cooks should pick a dish or two each year that will stretch their skills. The payoffs in terms of flavor and self-satisfaction are worth their weight in gold.

The highest-impact change you can make to Thanksgiving dinner may be mastering a new recipe for turkey. But because smoking, spatchcocking and deep-frying all require at least one test run, and many cooks are already busy from now until Thanksgiving, here are some alternatives: a more sophisticated vegetable side, a fancier pie crust or a snappy modern touch like an herb salad.

It’s fun to mess around with mashed potatoes, if your family will allow it. You can pipe them into puffs that can be baked at the last minute. Top them with whipped cream and broil to make pommes Chantilly, or make patties and pan-fry to make garlic-potato cakes, crisp rounds that taste like supersized Tater Tots.

How to please both everyone, Thanksgiving conservatives and progressives? It’s not easy in a nation where those who insist on a hard-core traditional Thanksgiving meal and those who flirt each year with different dishes are more polarized than Republicans and Democrats.

It is possible for one cook to satisfy both camps, but it requires some ingenuity. Adding new ingredients to the old favorites is not the way; instead, add one or more new dishes to perennials on the table, and make sure they have modern, fresh flavors. Here’s how to proceed.

• Some things should not be messed with. Glazing a turkey with pomegranate or rubbing it with chipotle won’t change anyone’s mind; people either like turkey or they don’t. Adding celery root, Cheddar and the like to the classic mashed potatoes is risky. These days, plain, buttery, homemade mashed potatoes are a treat that everyone seems to look forward to at the holiday.

• Make sure there’s a creamed vegetable on the table. It doesn’t have to be onions. Also have a jellied cranberry sauce (canned is fine), so the reactionaries will be happy.

• For the neophiles, add a sprightly green vegetable, whether raw, roasted or blanched. A little salad of fresh herbs, pictured above, is very refreshing, but broccoli, string beans or spinach can also nestle in nicely on the table.

• Prowl for recipes that use ingredients from different culinary traditions: Asian condiments, Moroccan spices, Middle Eastern syrups. These can add a welcome note of surprise to an all-too-familiar menu.

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