Jane Says: It's Time to Start Planning for Thanksgiving

If you're going all out for Turkey Day, you need to start plotting and scheming and buying now.

Planning for Thanksgiving Dinner

(John E. Kelly/Getty)

Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“This year, I’m in charge of Thanksgiving for the very first time. Can you help me get organized?”

—Daniel Curtis

You bet. And take inspiration from the novelist and Gourmet columnist Laurie Colwin, who once wrote: “Aside from your initial ride on a two-wheeler or solo outing as a licensed driver, there is nothing as liberating as the first Thanksgiving dinner you organize entirely on your own.”

She wasn’t kidding. Hate creamed onions? Don’t make them. Want to change out a classic bread stuffing for one your gluten-free friends can enjoy without compromising one bit of flavor? Click here for some thoughts. Have a sneaking fondness for your mother’s (and grandmother’s) relish tray, with jarred pimento-stuffed olives and the huge black ones out of a can—but are afraid your foodie friends will laugh at you? Go for it. Odds are, they will fall upon it with cries of joy. They have mothers and grandmothers too, you know.

One rookie mistake is to think you have to do it all. You don’t! There is no moral failing  in store-bought. If you have a great bakery nearby, for example, buy your Thanksgiving pies there. You’ll save lots of time and angst without sacrificing quality—and you’ll help support the local economy as well.

Another trap you want to avoid is last-minute shopping. Unless you have the patience to wait in interminable lines and can accept the fact that every store within a 20-mile radius is out of fresh cranberries AND the canned stuff (which you secretly like best, anyway), get it out of the way early. That way, you can also spread out the cooking so you have as much time as possible on Thanksgiving itself to concentrate on the turkey (or whatever main course you choose), bring everything together—and genuinely enjoy the day.

GAME PLAN FOR A MANAGEABLE FEAST

IMMEDIATELY, IF NOT SOONER

Order an organic, free-range, and/or heritage turkey if using: The time to do this is RIGHT NOW. For a more in-depth discussion of the pros and cons of heritage birds, see this column from last year. And here are some sources for those specialty birds.

•   BN Ranch to Table: Fresh or frozen heritage and free-range turkeys from animal-welfare pioneer Bill Niman and his BN Ranch. Order online by Nov. 18 for $19.99 shipping nationwide.

•   D’Artagnan: Organic or free-range heritage turkeys for online mail order.

•   Heritage Foods USA: Founded in 2001 as the marketing arm of Slow Food USA’s Ark project (and creator of Heritage Radio Network), Heritage Foods USA offers heritage turkeys, beef, pork, and other meats and poultry.

•   Local Harvest: Several heritage breeds offered for online mail order.

•   Mary’s Free-Range Turkeys: Find a store near you that carries Mary’s free-range, organic, and heritage turkeys.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE

Get your menu buttoned up: Whether you are a novice or seasoned cook, it’s a given that you have limited time and energy. Plan your menu in advance, and if the meal is a communal one, know what each person is bringing so you don’t end up with six variations on sweet potatoes—and no green vegetable.

Shop for nonperishables and equipment: Read through the recipes you plan on using, and buy as many nonperishable ingredients as you can. Think rice, butter, canned pumpkin, molasses, vacuum-packed chestnuts (a huge time saver, if making chestnut stuffing), flour, sugar, and any spices you may need. (Take inventory of your spice rack and smell what you’ll be using; if stale, throw it out, and buy a new supply.) Don’t forget wine, beer, hard cider, spirits—whatever your guests like to drink. Also take stock of your equipment—do you need an instant thermometer, a decent corkscrew, a pie plate, a roasting pan, or an extra Pyrex baking dish? If serving the meal late in the afternoon (another key to sanity), don’t forget candles (and matches). Those and a simple bowl of apples or pears from the farmers market on the table is all the centerpiece you’ll need.

Turkey stock: Pick up turkey wings and/or legs or thighs and make your stock for gravy and stuffing well in advance of the day. Let it cool completely before freezing, and thaw it in the fridge a day or so before. Stock can also be made one week ahead and kept refrigerated.

ONE WEEK BEFORE

Make pie dough: The dough for a single-crust pie, like pumpkin or pecan, should be frozen in its pie plate until firm to help the crust keep its shape during baking. You can do this a week ahead and just keep it frozen, wrapped in plastic wrap. Bring to room temperature before using.

Make vinaigrette: Vegetable side dishes don’t necessarily have to be served hot. Roasted brussels sprouts or steamed green beans, for instance, are delicious served room temperature, drizzled with a basic vinaigrette. Make the vinaigrette ahead and refrigerate. Bring it to room temperature and shake well before using.

THREE DAYS BEFORE

Last shopping trip: Pick up root vegetables, brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, onions, cranberries, fresh herbs (buy extra and garnish the turkey platter with them), bread for stuffing, heavy cream, eggs, fresh fruit, ice.

If using a supermarket turkey, buy it now: Whether fresh or frozen, unwrap the turkey when you get it home, cover it with plastic wrap, and, if necessary, let it thaw completely in the fridge. (Depending on the size of the bird, this can easily take a day or two.)

Clean up, pare down: Get the house ready for company. Check plates, glassware, flatware, serving bowls, linens—it doesn’t matter if they match, but everything should be spotless. The last thing you want to be doing while reheating the gravy is frantically washing and drying wineglasses. And move everything extraneous—toaster oven, juicer, tub of dog food, countertop tchotkes, whatever—out of the kitchen and stash in the bathtub if you have to. You’ll need every inch of space.

ONE DAY BEFORE

Marathon prep: Odds are, several different dishes call for chopped onions, carrots, herbs, etc. Add up the total amounts you need and get it all done at once. Store in  airtight containers in the fridge, then measure out as needed. You can also prep vegetables such as brussels sprouts for cooking as well.

Assemble stuffing: Make your stuffing (this is where some of that premade stock really comes in handy), but do NOT stuff the turkey, for food-safety reasons. Refrigerate in airtight containers.

Make mash: If you are serving mashed potatoes or a parsnip or sweet potato purée, for instance, make it the day before and store in the fridge. Gently reheat in a bowl placed over a pot of simmering water.

Make pies: Baking pies a day ahead gives the flavors a chance to mingle and, in fruit pies, it gives the juices a chance to become reabsorbed. Store custard pies in the fridge and fruit pies at room temperature.

No-bake (and gluten-free) pie alternative: Poached pears make a celebratory dessert, and, best of all, they don’t have to be ripe. Refrigerate the pears in their syrup.

THANKSGIVING DAY

Roast the turkey, make the gravy, reheat sides. Pour yourself a glass of something delicious—and know that everyone will want to be invited back next year.

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