An Easy Thanksgiving

November hosts one of my favorite holidays of the year because we focus on “giving thanks for what we have,” instead of shopping for what we don’t have. There are no mythical visitors such as the Great Pumpkin, Santa Claus, Cupid, Leprechauns, or human size pink Easter bunnies. There are no birthday candles to blow out, presents to unwrap, confetti to throw or balloons to pop. Thanksgiving boasts some of the least pomp and circumstance of all the celebrations marked on our Gregorian calendars. Yet, Thanksgiving might be one of the most important holidays of all because it asks us focus on what truly matters in our lives.

I am very grateful for Thanksgiving food, as a classic turkey dinner is one of my most favorite meals. Unfortunately, many cooks stress about this meal, which takes away from the enjoyment of the holiday. So… here are a few tips that can help you ease into this holiday, instead of panicking about all those guests descending at your doorstep.

The Menu

There are many food preparation tricks that can help relieve the day-of stressors, the key being to make much of your meal ahead of time.

  • Plan out the menu at least a week ahead of time (November 15) and create a store list for all the ingredients. Also include items you might need for your table, like candles or decorations.
  • Keep in mind any special dietary needs your guests may have. There is hardly a family out there that doesn’t have a member who is allergic to something or has dietary restrictions. If you are the host, trying to accommodate these needs is kind but challenging. If you are uncomfortable or unsure about what ingredients are safe or verboten, discuss this a week ahead with your guest so you can plan accordingly. If you aren’t confident about cooking for them, then let them know. Most people with special diets are accustomed to bringing a safe dish.
  • Shop several days ahead of time, most items will stay fresh for three to five days. Keep in mind, frozen turkeys will take anywhere from three to five days to thaw in your refrigerator.
  • You can prep much of your food the day before. For example, pies and cakes can certainly be made one day ahead. Vegetables such as potatoes and carrots can be peeled and cut and kept in cold water. You can cube your bread for stuffing. You can also season your turkey the day before.
  • Some people truly love to cook, if one of them is invited to your house ask them if they wouldn’t mind contributing a pie or side dish. It’s one less thing for you to worry about and if they truly love to cook they’ll be happy to oblige.

The Table

  • Set your table a day or two before. If you have children at home, enlist their help. This is a stellar opportunity to teach them how to properly set a table. For a visual diagram of how to set a table for any occasion, Google “Taste of Home’s How To Set a Table.” This is great reference for basic entertaining tips, too.
  • Table decorations can also be set up ahead of time, flowers will keep a few days and if you are decorating with a cornucopia of pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and corn, they keep indefinitely.

The Conversation

In case your family is known for holiday disagreements, there are ways to steer the conversation. For example, talk about fun facts and Google “Audubon’s Fun Facts about Turkeys” for ideas. Or, ramble off some Thanksgiving trivia by first searching on Good Housekeeping’s “Thanksgiving Trivia.”

Also, let’s not forget about football (unless the guests are rooting for opposite teams). Or, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, which is sure to bring a smile.

Thanksgiving is about family and friends, so make it a collaborative holiday. When everyone pitches in, everyone feels valued and invests personal ownership in the event. As the host or hostess, you’ve prepared for the day by making your home warm, welcoming, and (hopefully) smelling great with the turkey in the oven. However, that doesn’t mean you have to do it all. You can certainly ask someone to pour the drinks, light the candles, and help you put the food in the serving dishes. Who is the best turkey carver in the family? It’s definitely not me, so I ask my husband to do it. Is there a great public speaker amongst you? Hand them fun facts about turkeys and watch them enjoy the role of orator. When it comes to dessert, those who want it bad enough are usually the ones to cut and serve the pie. Next in line for the sweets is in charge of the whipped cream. And if someone offers to wash the dishes…Say Yes!

Make Ahead Cranberry Sauce

4 cups cranberries (1 package)

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

Optional: cloves and cinnamon sticks

Put cranberries and water in large saucepan and boil until cranberries pop. Put cranberries and juice through a food mill. Place extracted pulp back in pan, add sugar and boil about seven minutes, stirring now and then. For flavor, add cloves, and/or cinnamon stick while cooking the berries. A drop of cranberry sauce should jell on a cool plate when done. Skim off the foam. Pour into copper mold. When cool, wrap with plastic and freeze.

This recipe can be made as soon as cranberries are available in the grocery store because it gets frozen. On Thanksgiving Day, pull it out of the freezer about a half hour before dinner and place the mold in warm water, but do not submerge. The mold will begin to loosen quickly, and you can turn it out on to a plate. Garnish with orange zest, fresh cranberries and/or sprigs of mint or rosemary.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. Their family lives with multiple food allergies and intolerances, including: gluten, tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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