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Hacking Thanksgiving: Prep to Impress

Spend your Thanksgiving day lounging and reveling with friends and family, impressing with flavorful and farm-to-fork delights at every turn...against a backdrop of jazz with a glass of wine in hand.

No, this is not a dream.

I've been entertaining, serving and planning dinners and events for groups of from two to two-hundred for two decades. And what I can tell you is, it's all in the preparation.

No time to think and plan about planning, or spend hours going to specialty grocery stores, standing in front of your stove? I don't, and nor should you.

Preparation works better when it's uncomplicated. Keep. it. simple.

Forget everything you think you know about cooking a Thanksgiving feast (except one or two of those special family recipes, of course).

Firstly, optimize your time by prioritizing the menu. You can do this a multitude of ways.

One workable method is to list all the must-have sides and mains you love, and parse it by a third. Just keep it balanced between main(s), sides and sweets.

The second method, and my approach, is to follow 1-2-3. One main, two savory, and three semi-sweet sides. For me, this means one turkey, potatoes and sage stuffing, and cranberry chutney, yams and pie. And thinking about alternating the prep and cooking method to prevent overcrowding (stovetop vs. counter vs. oven availability). I've cooked in a city apartment for years, so my methods are optimized for efficiency.

Here's the secret to optimizing your time and leisurely prepping over three days your ultimate farm-to-table Thanksgiving:

Day 0 (Ingredients Shopping)

Buy local, when possible. Head to Sunday farmer's market and pick up fresh yams, herbs, potatoes and bread. A city grocery mart with locally sourced produce will do fine, too!

Day 1 (Tuesday):

Orange-Cranberry Chutney and Garam Masala Spiced Yams (40 minutes total)

6:30-7pm Homemade Cranberry Chutney. Stovetop.

Make sure to add a whole cinnamon stick, orange juice and orange zest (and a splash of Grand Marnier toward the end)!

6:40-7:10pm Garam Masala Spiced Yams, or Sweet Potatoes. Oven.

Preheat oven to 400F when you start the cranberry chutney on the stove. By the time it's ready, your cranberries will be in the boiling liquid and readying for their 'simmer and thicken' stage, and your yams will be peeled and sliced for roasting. Both should finish around the same time.

Once everything has cooked and cooled, plate in its microwave or oven safe serving bowl or platter for Thursday's feast, cover tightly with saran wrap and store in the fridge until Thursday. Serve the cranberry sauce to room temperature, and warm the yams in the microwave in increments of 20 seconds until heated.

Orange -Cranberry Chutney

Garam Masala Roasted Yams

Day 2 (Wednesday):

Black Pepper Pumpkin Pie & Sage Sausage Stuffing

6:30-7:30pm Black Pepper Pumpkin Pie. Oven.

You can start preheating the oven as you begin mixing your pie filling. Add black peppercorn, crushed with a mortar and pestle, at the end for a spicy finish without overdoing the nutmeg.

6:45-7:30pm Sage Sausage Sourdough Stuffing. Stovetop.

Once the pie is in the oven, start cooking your ground sausage (pork). Once nearly thoroughly cooked, add your shallots and celery (and ample butter). You don't want your celery or onions to brown, just become translucent. Finely chop or pulverize your seasoning of sage, rosemary, thyme and marjoram (and a pinch of garam masala) and add to the cooking mixture. Don't forget the splash of orange juice for freshness! The last stage is mixing the cubes of sourdough bread into the buttery, seasoned sausage, celery and onion mixture. Add chicken stock as needed to moisten thoroughly.

Package in foil, refrigerate and reheat in the oven on Thursday during the last 30-45 minutes of the turkey's cook time.

Day 3 (Thanksgiving):

Free Range Turkey & Pomme Purée

11:45-12:00pm Turkey Washing, Cleaning and Buttering. Sink. (15 minutes active time, before guests arrive)

For a feast time of 3pm, have your turkey washed, dried and buttered by noon. Be sure to disinfect with bleach the surfaces touched and the sink, just in case.

12:00-3:00pm Turkey. Oven. Estimation is based on a stuffed, 12-14 lb bird.

Cook in a bag (like Reynold's Wrap Turkey Cooking Bag). For the love of all things good, use a bag (or foil, if nothing else, but preferably the bag). Don't forget to shake a little flour in the bag first, and cut a few slits in the top once the turkey is bagged. Your turkey self-bastes in the bag, meaning no babysitting it or basting it by hand. It also ensures equal and even cooking throughout, so you're not stuck with an embarrassingly undercooked or overcooked leg after several hours of waiting.

12:00pm-3:00pm Turkey Gravy. Stovetop. (<5 minutes active time)

No babysitting required. Simmer and slow cook the neck and organs (rinse first) while the turkey is roasting. Strip the delicious meat off the neck, removing the bones, and add to the gravy before serving. Remove any organs as well. Lastly, using a mesh strainer, add some drippings from the turkey pan into the saucepan THEN salt and pepper to taste. Salt and pepper should be the last thing you do, at the risk of over-flavoring.

2:00-2:30pm Pomme Pureé. Stovetop. (15 minutes active time)

Saute onions and shallots in butter until translucent, and set aside. Boil peeled gold potatoes on the stovetop, then simmer for 15 minutes or so. Drain. Add softened butter and warm whole milk or cream (just enough to make them creamy, not soupy), cracked black pepper and the sauteed onions. Mix only 4 sweeps with a large spoon (the potatoes should naturally crumble apart without mashing). Add tablespoon of salt and mix two to three more sweeps with the spoon. Be cautious not to overmix, as the potatoes can soon become gummy or soupy; we desire textured, fluffy potatoes.

Pro Tip

If you are suddenly expecting more guests than you had originally planned, throw together a board with a few blocks of cheese (hard, semi-soft and soft), a handful of walnuts or pecans, and a baguette. No cooking required.


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