November 09, 2008

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By Frances Largeman-Roth, RD
A few years back I worked myself into a complete frenzy over Thanksgiving dinner. I decided to host it for the first time ever, and I spent an inordinate amount of time picking out tantalizing (translation: challenging) recipes from epicurean magazines, and then spent ridiculous amounts of time buying all of the ingredients. Unfortunately, I didn't give myself enough time to actually cook it all, and wound up pulling an all-nighter. Needless to say, I ended up stressed, broke, and exhausted by the end.

So, to those other perfectionist types out there (you know who you are), do not give in to the insanity! There's a better way. Before you pick up your turkey baster, follow these rules and you'll end up with a spectacular day that you'll actually enjoy.

Plan ahead
Think about what you want to make, but don't stress about finding the most innovative, cutting-edge recipes. The truth is, people want Thanksgiving recipes that smell and taste like their memories of the holiday. So there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Go for favorites like mashed potatoes and simple roast turkey. If you want to think outside the box, try a new recipe with a flavor or ingredient that you know people expect, like a pumpkin cheesecake instead of a pumpkin pie.

Once you know what you're going to make, you can figure out what (if anything) can be made ahead, and which ingredients you'll need to order in advance.

Make a date with your turkey
There are many choices beyond the good old Butterball these days. I'm a big fan of fresh birds myself—they just have a better flavor, plus you don't have to wait an eternity for them to defrost. If you do opt for a frozen bird, plan ahead, because it takes a day in the fridge for every 5 pounds of meat.

Heritage turkeys are one way to go, and you can find them both frozen and fresh these days. What exactly is a heritage bird? They're breeds that are native to the United States, but because they're harder to raise, they have smaller breasts and a more distinctive flavor. Plus, they're not mass-produced. Heritage breeds include the Narragansett and the Bourbon Red.

To find fresh ones in your area, go to Local Harvest, plug in "heritage turkey" and your zip code, and see what's available. Just make sure to order it about three weeks in advance. These birds go fast!

Delegate
I know it's tough to hand the reins over, but think of it as an investment in your sanity. Ask your friend who doesn't cook to bring wine or a great loaf of bread. And since your oven will likely be jam-packed, an extra dessert from Aunt Mildred couldn't hurt. Other smart things to ask people to bring are:

  • Ice cream for the pies
  • Undressed salad
  • Beer
  • Cider and other nonalcoholic drinks
  • Cheese plate for predinner snacking

Make some things ahead of time
Pie crusts and bread can be made in advance and then frozen. You can make pie crusts up to two months ahead of time—the key is to keep out any freezer odor and freeze them without the filling. You can either bake the crust "blind"—filled with beans or ceramic pie weights—and freeze it, or just place the raw dough into a pie pan and freeze it. Either way, here's what you do.

  1. Place the pie crust on a baking sheet (don't cover it) and freeze it.
  2. When frozen, take it out of the freezer and wrap it in plastic wrap and a freezer bag.
  3. Thaw it at room temperature. Let it defrost with the plastic wrap still on. If you remove it, you'll end up with a wet, soggy mess.

If you're making cornbread stuffing, you can bake a pan of it a week or so ahead of time, and then cube it, transfer it to a freezer bag, and freeze it. It only takes about an hour to fully thaw at room temperature. You can do the same thing with bread rolls, and there's no need to thaw. Just wrap them in foil and reheat them in the oven at about 325° until warm.

Manage your expectations
If your decoupage turkey falls apart, the stuffing burns to a crisp, or the dog steals the turkey off the table (yes, this happened to me), don't have a meltdown. Chalk it up to making memories, and keep in mind that you're (hopefully) surrounded by family and friends who love you. Oh, and just in case you're curious, most pizza places still deliver on Thanksgiving.

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