Thanksgiving Tips & Tricks
The year’s greatest and most gluttonous holiday is so close I can smell it, and if you’re in charge of feeding everyone like I am, I’m sure you’re also feeling the heat, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve cooked for just me and my parents and I’ve also cooked for a small army of people over the past 15 years, and I’ve come to realize that the pressure to perform knows no crowd size. You still want to gift the people you care about with an unforgettable meal that will have them coming back for seconds. (And eventually leaving with Tupperware if you’re lucky.) Whether it’s your first time cooking, you’re an old pro, or maybe you’ve just been asked to bring a dish or a bottle of wine and you want to impress, I’m here to toss you a few tips that I’ve learned over the years.
For starters, the bird is the most intimidating aspect of the meal to tackle. There’s a reason we only eat this particular fowl once a year- it was not meant to be eaten. The thing has to be manipulated within an inch of it’s life to be edible, from brining to stuffing, rubbing with fats, tying the legs, pulling out the insides and making sure it’s done without drying, it’s a tough bird to manage. If you have a wild turkey, you are definitely going to need to brine it to get out the gamey taste. Store-bought birds are already injected with a solution, but in years past I’ve soaked mine regardless in a brine filled with salt, brown sugar, black peppercorn and tons of flavorful additions like citrus, garlic and herbs. The most important thing, no matter if you’re frying, roasting or smoking: INVEST IN A GOOD MEAT THERMOMETER AND DON’T RELY ON THE PLASTIC ONE THAT COMES PRE-PACKAGED! Pull your turkey when it’s cooked to 160 degrees then let it rest, covered, for at least 30 mins while you’re plating all your sides. It will continue to cook on the counter and rise to 165, giving you a perfectly juicy finish. I also recommend stuffing butter, oil and seasonings under the skin of the breast so it will run down, keeping the white meat inside tender while the outside gets nice and crisp.
So now for the sides. I love making the staples, but I also love the idea of asking family and friends to come potluck style and bring their own favorite dish. This year mom and dad are handling all the desserts while I am in charge of the main event. It relieves some of the pressure from the cook and you might just discover a new favorite dish to add to your line-up. One of my favorite sides from my holiday dinner is a super easy but flavorful creamed corn recipe that I got from my ex-husband’s aunt. I still make it for my own family dinner even 5 years later. You can also help yourself out by prepping any chopping ahead of time. Things like celery, onions, garlic and carrots can be chopped the night before. Many dishes can even be prepared ahead of time, then popped in the oven to bake or heat on the day of. Gravy, dressing, deviled eggs, all those things can be knocked out in advance. Utilize your crockpot too. This year I am making super cheesy, creamy macaroni in mine. Not only will it stay warm until ready to serve, but it will create space on your stovetop.
Finally, and for me most importantly, the beverage list. It’s important to have a wide variety of liquids on hand to satisfy every palate. Even for those of you who don’t drink alcohol, here in the south we all know people are particular about what they drink. You’ve got to have something for the aunt with the diet Coke addiction, lemon water for mom who is on a cleanse and make sure grandma’s sweet tea is just so. Definitely always offer the standards of sweetened/unsweetened tea, ice water with lemon and coffee. Then I always grab a few 2 liters or a mix of cans of the most popular sodas- cola, dr.cola, lemon lime soda and maybe a wild card like a batch of kool-aid. If they’re picky beyond that, there is nothing rude in telling people what you’re providing and inviting them to bring their own beverage if nothing suits their fancy.
For those of you who drink alcohol, wine can be as intimidating as the turkey, if not more so. But there are 2 things I am here to tell you as a lover of fine wines, that should ease your nerves- 95% of people don’t know ANYTHING about wine, they just want something that tastes good and will give them a buzz. The fact that this is such a food-centric holiday means the wine is simply there to compliment the many different flavors and aromas of the huge meal. You don’t want anything that is extremely bold to overpower or compete with your food, nor do you want something that is going to fade away and taste like water. A semi-dry Riesling is always a good choice for whites, or if you want to be adventurous and try something new, I would recommend trying a soave. This Italian white is a great alternative to sauvignon balance without being grassy or citrusy. For reds, pinot noir has always been the recommendation. Just be wary that pinot noir is grown all across the world and will taste far different from place to place; a safe bet is always Willamette Valley in Oregon. If you want something a bit more jammy with notes of pepper spice, opt for a French Gamay. I personally love cab franc from the Finger Lakes for something off the beaten path. But if you want a crowd pleaser that is going to compliment each course and dish, you simply cannot go wrong with rose or sparkling wine. Many of us think sparkling wines are not meant to be paired with food and that couldn’t be further from the truth. And a nice bold rose is going to stand up to poultry, or even a salty ham or seafood dish if you’re going the non-traditional route. Don’t break the bank on expensive stuff trying to impress, but don’t resort to grocery store grapes either. There are thousands of beautiful, unique bottles from around the world in specialty shops at the same price as the mass-produced stuff in your local supermarket. You can also set up a small bar for cocktails or make a big batch of mimosas in a punch bowl for easy self-service. If all else fails, a variety of beers never hurts to have on hand, and again, BYOB is not rude.
I hope these tips help you have the best holiday possible. Though the roots of Thanksgiving are a bit marred with ugly history, I choose to create my own reason for the season- to just be thankful for what we have in this moment, nothing more nothing less. If you have people to spend the day with, food on your table and a roof over your head, you are blessed beyond measure. So many times we ignore all the things we have and become bitter about the things we want or the things we’ve lost. So many people pray for the things we take for granted every day. Consider that and maybe reach out to those less fortunate if you have plenty. Invite a lonely neighbor over, or just take leftovers to the homeless or volunteer. There’s not enough of that in the world.