When it comes to wrangling the Thanksgiving meal onto the table, one motto gets it right: Be prepared.
Let's face it, our national day of feasting features multiple dishes, all of which require different cooking times, temperatures and techniques. For most of us, orchestrating all of that - while also navigating the chaos of a houseful of surly relatives - can be a challenge, to say the least. Fortunately, there are people in our midst who cook this way all the time: professional chefs.
OK, maybe not with a houseful of relatives, but they probably know something about dealing with a roomful of surly guests.
"You need a game plan," says Sarah Stegner, one of the chefs and owners of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Ill. "You need to write the menu out, not just have it in your head. You need to have it organized in blocks of when you're going to prepare your food, what can be done ahead and what can be done at the last minute. Thanksgiving is all about the timing."
Luckily, these pros say that all but a few critical items can be made in advance. They shared with us their formula for a stress-free Thanksgiving - at least on the food side. You're on your own with Uncle Harry.
* Green beans and other vegetables:
The vote is unanimous on this one: Parboil your vegetables the night before, shock (cool) them in ice water, then store them in the refrigerator. On Thanksgiving, reheat them just before serving in a saute pan with olive oil or really good butter. Flavored butter, such as herb or shallot, provides a nice accent, says Rick Rodgers, author of "The Big Book of Sides." Flavored butters can be made up to a week ahead.
Suzette Gresham, executive chef and co-owner of San Francisco's Acquerello, which just won its second Michelin star, braises pearl onions in butter a day or two before. At mealtime, she reheats them and adds frozen - yes, frozen - baby peas called petit pois. She also recommends a gratin of cauliflower or broccoli. The sauce and toppings can all be prepared in advance, then popped into the oven while the turkey is resting.
Root and cruciferous vegetables - think carrots, parsnips, turnips, Brussels sprouts - can be washed, peeled and cut a day in advance for a beautiful medley of roasted vegetables. "All I do is prep it with some olive oil and herbs and it goes in the oven," says Patti Jackson, chef-owner of New York's Delaware and Hudson restaurant, which recently won its first Michelin star. "It's colorful. It's a show stopper."
* Sweet potatoes:
Mashed sweet potatoes with a meringue topping can be made almost wholly in advance, Rodgers says. Ditto for Stegner's sweet potato gratin layered with chestnuts and cream. But even roasted sweet potatoes can be cooked in advance, says Jackson, and rewarmed in a glaze of bourbon, brown sugar and orange juice.
So here's your big revelation. Wait for it. While many chefs agree that the celery, onions and meat can all be cooked ahead and tossed with your bread chunks on Thanksgiving morning, Gresham says you actually can make the entire stuffing ahead of time. And freeze it.
"Nobody seems to realize you can freeze your stuffing beautifully," she says. "I do the full on butter, milk, dried bread, sausage, but I freeze that puppy a week ahead. And everybody in my family wants my stuffing."
The woman's got two Michelin stars, so if she can do it, so can you. Gresham advises freezing the stuffing in small bundles to hasten defrosting. Let the bundles come to temperature slowly, then stuff the bird.
* Consider a cold dish:
Consider filling out your table with items that don't need any heat at all. Gresham often offers shrimp cocktail or pate or oysters on the half-shell. Jackson loves the relish tray - and yes, she puts the black olives on her fingertips, she says. Rodgers channels his grandmother.
"I love me some Jell-O salad," he says. "In many families, there is a chilled cranberry mold thing. A spoonful of that goes a long way to refreshing your palate. I'm not saying 'Serve a bad cranberry mold.' Serve a good one."
You may warm your pie in the oven on Thanksgiving Day, but there's no reason it should actually be cooking then. Pies and most desserts can be made in advance. If you're Stegner, who has won two James Beard awards, you plan your pie way, way, way in advance.
"We have the farmer grow the pumpkins especially for us," she says. "They're an heirloom variety. They're delicious. From the same farmer, her family owns a pecan tree farm. We get beautiful pecans from her and make pecan pie."
"Anyone who has had to make a mountain of mashed potatoes for a big holiday dinner knows that it can be quite a mad dash to get the potatoes on the table in a timely manner. When faced with a crowd, I prepare this casserole the day before and bake it with the other side dishes," Rick Rodgers writes in his new cookbook, "The Big Book of Sides."
Start to finish: 1 hour
5 pounds baking potatoes (such as russets), peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
8 ounces cream cheese, cut into chunks, at room temperature
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (6 tablespoons at room temperature, 2 tablespoons cut into small cubes), plus extra
Kosher salt and ground black or white pepper
Place the potatoes in a large pot, then add enough cold water to cover them by 1 inch. Add a generous spoonful of salt, then cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Set the lid ajar and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the potatoes at a steady simmer until they are barely tender when pierced with the tip of a small, sharp knife, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the potatoes well.
Return the potatoes to the pot. Cook them over medium-low heat, stirring almost constantly, until the potatoes begin to film the bottom of the pot, about 3 minutes. Add the cream cheese. Using a handheld electric mixer, whip the potatoes until the cream cheese melts. Add the sour cream, milk and the 6 tablespoons room temperature butter. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Use a bit of butter to lightly coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Transfer the potatoes to the baking dish, smoothing the top. Dot the top of the casserole with the 2 tablespoons of cubed butter. Let cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before the final baking.
When ready to reheat, position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375 F.
Uncover the casserole. Bake it until the top is lightly browned and the casserole is heated through, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
Nutrition information per serving: 390 calories; 190 calories from fat (49 percent of total calories); 21 g fat (13 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 60 mg cholesterol; 45 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 6 g protein; 300 mg sodium.
* Mashed potatoes:
Unless you make a casserole - Rodgers bolsters his with sour cream and cream cheese - you're going to have to go last minute on these. While it's possible to peel, cut and store the potatoes in a bowl of water overnight, chefs say the final dish must be made just before arriving at the table.
"I insist on mashed potatoes being hot," Gresham says. "You can make your gravy and warm it. You can make your gratin. But those mashed potatoes, they have to be at the last minute."
Where there are mashed potatoes, there better be gravy.
But you don't have to wait for the bird to get started. Roast turkey wings, legs and necks a few days in advance and simmer them into a rich stock.
You can stop here - or go ahead and do the deed, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of your roasting pan to complete the gravy.
"It actually tastes better the second day, anyway," Jackson says. If it feels like cheating, you can always add the drippings from the real turkey just before serving.