Thanksgiving 101: How to make the cooking marathon (mostly) stress-free
Thanksgiving is the biggest food holiday of the year, a joyful and fun-loving feast that celebrates our American roots along with fall harvest.
If you volunteered to cook for family and friends, however, the joy and the fun may be short-lived. Have you seen those sweatpants with the words “Cranky Pants” printed down the side? We just ordered some for you.
But not to worry. This year, we've got home cooks covered like a damask tablecloth, thanks to a handy cheat sheet of tips from the professionals.
By drawing up a menu of foods you enjoy cooking, outsourcing the dishes you don't like and creating a detailed shopping list and timeline for the cooking marathon, you can be confident that all of your dishes will cross the finish line together.
Then you can relax, spend time with your guests and actually enjoy the festivities.
Laci Sandoval, chef/owner of Wind & Rye Kitchen cooking school in Penngrove, was inspired to create a Thanksgiving 101 course this year after her best friend told her she wanted to learn how to execute all the different dishes at once.
Earlier this month, Sandoval enlisted the help of chef/owner Daniel Kedan of Backyard to teach the two-day workshop on “Hosting the Holiday Feast.”
Over the course of the weekend, the chefs ran a gaggle of home cooks through the Thanksgiving gamut, recipe by recipe, providing advice on everything from service style to shopping strategy.
The dishes shared below were all sourced from the Wind & Rye workshop, but we left out a few with the understanding that most home cooks will want to add some of their own favorites. Here's everything you need to know to get ready for the Turkey Day feast, from soup to nuts:
The guest list
Consider how much space you have, not just for sitting and serving but for moving around before and after dinner. Settle on a number that will fit comfortably. Keep in mind that making a meal for eight is about the same amount of work as four, Sandoval said, but moving from eight to 12 or 16 can drastically change the volume of food you need to prepare (two turkeys, two pies, etc.).
A time for dinner
Will your guests have eaten lunch, or will they be arriving hungry? “If it is being served on the early side, they likely will have skipped lunch,” Sandoval said. “If there are children invited, keep that in mind and serve the meal promptly on time. … Or provide a small meal for the kids earlier if that suits you.”
Your service style
Think about whether you want to plate each course, have guests serve themselves on a buffet, or pass around serving bowls and platters (difficult if you are using hot, heavy platters). You could also opt for a hybrid-style service.
“I usually serve a modified buffet, where one or two things are pre-plated (salad) and everything else is on the buffet,” Sandoval said. “I like the idea of leaving a soup in a crock pot on the buffet, with small mugs nearby.”
Deciding the menu
Where to start? Sandoval always begins by deciding on her entree, and this particular workshop centered on a traditional turkey made with traditional spices. As with any meal, she said, think about how heavy the protein is, then plan the number of your sides accordingly, erring on the side of generosity.
“Turkey is less heavy than prime rib or rack of lamb,” she said. “With turkey, people get palate fatigue. They don't pile their plate high with turkey.”
If you want to source from local turkey farms such as Tara Firma in Petaluma or suppliers such as Thistle Meats in Petaluma or the Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa, it's a good idea to order in advance, as supplies are limited, especially for small turkeys. Through most local grocery stores, you can order fresh birds from companies such as Willie Bird of Santa Rosa or Diestel of Sonora. If you end up with a frozen bird, you'll need to thaw it in advance.
“If it's frozen rock hard, thaw 24 hours in the fridge, and then 24 hours at room temperature,” Sandoval said. “I like to cook the bird at room temperature. It cooks more evenly that way.”
For the workshop, the chefs demonstrated how to spatchcock the bird (remove the wings and backbone, then flatten the breastbone). They used a wet brine with salt and honey - the same one Kedan uses for his fried chicken - to help flavor and tenderize the meat. The wet brine also helps with the browning of the skin. (Check YouTube for demonstrations of the spatchcock technique - a pair of poultry shears may come in handy for those lacking in knife skills.)
There are many advantages to cooking a flattened, whole bird, Sandoval said. First, you cut the cooking time from six hours to 45 minutes, creating more oven time for other dishes. You can also reserve the backbone and wings and use them to make stock for your gravy. While cooking, the flattened turkey gets roasted more evenly, with every inch of skin turning out nice and crisp. It's a win-win.