Hello, my name is Louisa, and I am a procrastinator. Especially about big, fancy things like making a Thanksgiving feast for 20 of my nearest and dearest.
Like everyone else, I collect all the cooking magazines with trendy new recipes for holiday classics; I listen to endless radio pieces about Thanksgivings of yore. In my heart, I am revved up to do it ahead, make and freeze, be organized. And yet, once again it is Tuesday night, 36 hours and counting, and all I’ve done so far is order a turkey.
For self-made crises like this, you need a game plan to get a whole made-from-scratch turkey feast ready in less than a day. It can be done. That’s not theory; it’s experience. I do it every year. You can turn a grocery bag of ingredients into a first-class meal. The key is prep — good, smart, last-minute prep.
Pick up a fresh, not-frozen turkey. If you get a frozen turkey, you are screwed. You’ll either have to pray it defrosts in the refrigerator or wake up every three hours to change its water bath. Go with fresh.
Order or purchase three pies (recommendations: pumpkin, pecan and apple). This is not the year to experiment with rolling the perfect crust. No one will mind if they are not homemade as long as you have good vanilla ice cream to go with the pies.
Pull out any basic cookbook. Use it for timing, quantities and whatever cooking tips your mental state can accommodate. Do not attempt a complicated, fussy recipe!
Make the stuffing. Use any old bread you have on hand and/or buy a loaf of good sandwich bread. Collect any unsweetened leftover breakfast cereal in your pantry (cornflakes, Raisin Bran, etc., but not Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs). Tear up the bread so no piece is bigger than a domino. Combine the bread and the cereal with a little chicken broth or some water and mix well; you want it to be moist, like a sponge you’ve just wrung out. Add salt (sparingly) and fresh ground pepper. Toss in a tablespoon or so of any fresh or dried seasonings you like — I’m a fan of fresh sage, rosemary and thyme. Meanwhile, sauté two or three good-sized onions with a little olive oil until the onions are soft. Combine all in a bowl.
Put the turkey in the fridge and put tinfoil over the bowl of dressing.
Call the guests and assign them the appetizers to bring, and have someone else bring a green salad.
Turn out kitchen lights and go to bed.
If you can, get to the grocery store before 10 a.m. If you can’t take the morning off, take the afternoon off. Do not get anxious. You won’t miss anything at work. Everyone else tunes out by lunch the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
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Check your pantry: Look for brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, butter, vanilla, cream or milk and other obvious staples.
Make a shopping list. The quantities you will need depend on the size of the party, but I usually figure on a cooked cup or more of each vegetable per person, and one sweet potato per person.
Sweet potatoes or yams
Brussels sprouts (unless you hate them)
Potatoes (Russets for mashed potatoes, fingerlings for roasted)
Mushrooms (several fun varieties for gravy and vegetables)
2 bags of fresh cranberries
Butternut squash (cheat here and buy the bags of fresh, pre-peeled squash)
This is prep time; you will need two to three solid hours in an unobstructed kitchen. (Order Chinese or sushi for dinner.)
Green beans: Blanch the green beans in salted water until they are bright green. Have a bowl of ice and water ready. Drain, cool and put beans in a zip-close bag in the refrigerator.
Brussels sprouts: Trim and blanch the Brussels sprouts using the same method. (They take a few more minutes than the green beans.) Drain, cool, cut in half through the stem and put in a bag in the fridge.
Cranberry relish: Follow the directions on the cranberry bag for water and sugar ratios for cooked cranberries. Let them come to a boil and start bursting, then remove from the heat. Tip: I use orange juice (frozen or fresh) instead of water to cook the cranberries and grate orange peel with a zester and add it to the relish. I also add a spoonful of red horseradish to the relish because my family likes heat with our sweet. Refrigerate relish.
Butternut squash: Steam the squash until it is tender to a fork. Drain, cool, mash or puree — but not to the consistency of baby food. Add salt and pepper to taste, then add butter to taste. For a savory flavor, add some thyme. For sweet, use a few grinds of fresh nutmeg and a little cinnamon. Don’t over spice! You can always add more tomorrow.
While all this is happening on the stove top, bake the unpeeled, washed sweet potatoes at 350 F until they are soft. Let them cool overnight on the countertop.
Mashed potatoes: Peel, scrub and throw them into a large pot of salted water while all else is baking and boiling. Let them cool in the liquid overnight. Roasted potatoes can wait till the morning.
Turn out the kitchen lights and go to bed.
Wake up. Turn on the parade. Make coffee.
Roast the turkey: Heat the oven to 300 F or 350 F, salt the inside of the bird then stuff it. Dress the turkey skin with olive oil, pepper, salt and herbs.
Tie the legs together with twine (or whatever) and close the opening as much as possible. Put some celery and cut onions in the bottom of the pan with a cup or so of water.
Place turkey on a rack in the roasting pan, then put it in the oven.
Do the math according to the size of the bird and use a meat thermometer. Very few turkeys take more than three hours to cook. Figure your start time based on the turkey being done an hour or so before you want to serve.
Exit the kitchen. Move the furniture. Set the table. Find candles, napkins and a tablecloth. Iron only if absolutely necessary. Decide which serving utensils and dishes you’ll need for the beans, squash and gravy.
Put wine and water in the fridge to cool. Take the pies out of the fridge.
Back to the kitchen: Check on the turkey. If it is browning too fast, put a sheet of foil over the breast.
Mushrooms: In a large pan over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil with a splash of lemon. Let them get soft.
Candied sweet potatoes/yams: If you want the sweet potatoes candied and in chunks, gently peel away the skin as if you were unwrapping a precious gift, cut into chunks, and place them in an attractive pattern in an oven-to-table baking dish or pan. Add a little water or juice to the pan. Mix maple syrup and butter, or honey and vanilla, dust with cinnamon, dot liberally with butter and crumble brown sugar over the top. Put sweet potatoes in the oven for a half hour or more before serving and after your turkey has come out. They should be crusty and caramelized.
Mashed sweet potatoes: Peel off the skin. Mash sweet potatoes with a ricer or fork to a smooth consistency. Thin with a little liquid if needed. (Apple cider is terrific!) Add butter, cream, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Put in a greased oven-to-table baking dish and top with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg, and if you like, dot with mini marshmallows.
Two hours before you want to serve dinner
Roasted potatoes: One hour before you estimate the turkey will be done, toss whole small fingerlings or another type in a bowl with salt, oil and rosemary. Arrange around the turkey in the pan, then the pan goes back in the oven.
Put cranberry relish in a pretty bowl.
Make mashed potatoes. Peel if you want. Do not puree! Add milk, butter, salt, etc. Put in a microwaveable serving dish.
Take a shower and make the bed. Get sort of dressed. Save the mascara application, if wearing, until everything is out of the oven.
One hour or less before dinner
Sweet potatoes: Put the sweet potatoes in the oven. After a half hour, put the squash and the mashed potatoes in the oven to warm.
Brussels sprouts: Heat a big sauté pan over a high flame and sauté the Brussels sprouts with a little lemon and/or balsamic glaze. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let them get a little charred and move them to a microwaveable serving dish.
Gravy: Using the pan drippings, make the gravy. Add wine or water and reduce the liquid on the stove top. In our house, we add a jar of currant jelly to the pan to give the gravy body and bulk.
Green beans: Just before serving, reduce the heat in the pan to medium, add a little more olive oil and a tad of butter, then sauté the green beans. Add a few handfuls of the cooked mushrooms and a splash of lemon juice.
Just before dinner
Uncork the wine. Put the turkey on the platter. Some idiot decides to carve. Side dishes go briefly back in the oven, stove top or microwave to get piping hot.
Turn off the oven. Put pies in cooling oven to warm for dessert.
Put on mascara if desired.
Take a bow. Operation complete.
Main photo: Fall squash. Credit: Louisa Kasdon