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HELP! First Thanksgiving

Hi everyone! Ok here’s the deal. I am a 24 y/o just-out-of-college-student. Neither my roommates or myself can make it home for Thanksgiving this year, so we have decided to take in all the Turkey Day orphans, and have dinner at our house. This will be my FIRST EVER Thanksgiving planning endeavor. Fortunately, the one thing I don’t have to worry about is the Turkey, but I have been graciously volunteered for all the sides. I am looking for some recipes that border on easy (since I am pretty much on my own) but are still delicious (as we are all obsessed with good food). Things that can be made the night before are great, and I am working with fairly limited space in the kitchen. Any tips, tricks or advice are more than welcome.
I am excited to give this a shot, and I am really looking for that meal that makes all our friends feel at home, since I know a lot of them are wishing they could be there. Thanks in advance!!!

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  1. How many people are going to be in attendance? Is it feasable to ask each person what is the one dish they would feel incomplete without on Thanksgiving? This might set you in the right direction and maybe they can supply the recipe. Of course if everyone comes back and says greenbean mushroom soup casserole you have it made as long as you make that you can do what ever you want with the rest of the meal.

    I'd be lookng for cornbread sausage dressing and maybe an oyster dressing. Home made cranberry sauce, it is a snap and you could make that tomorrow, it will keep beautifully until turkey day adn then some. If you scroll down the HC page and glean recipes, techniques and tips and there have been a lot of them posted in the past couple of weeks you will be pretty well set.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Candy

      I think this sounds like a good idea - if you aren't having a ridiculously large number of people I would ask what everyone's favorite dish is for the holiday.

      Depending on what people say, I'd think you could do well with boiled and buttered green beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes roasted in the oven like a baked potato.

    2. I make a cranberry orange ginger sauce, served hot or room temp, and its easy and cheap! Will last in the refrigerator for weeks if its kept sealed and cold; it even freezes like a dream in ziplock bags.

      3 large oranges, zest chopped fine then juiced
      1/2 can whole berry cranberry sauce (any brand - about 1 cup)
      1 bag cranberries, cleaned
      1 TB fresh finely grated ginger
      1/4 c. honey
      1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
      salt and pepper

      Put it all in a saucepan. Cook over low heat until cranberries are soft and it looks like a chunky sauce. Adjust seasoning and serve either hot or room temp. Better the second day, reheat in microwave on 50% power, stirring often. Also great on leftover sandwiches cold, it gets pretty stiff.
      Best of luck!

      1. Apple and pumpkin pie are pretty standard. Line up a source right now - to order from an exceptional bakery or find someone in the group who can make them. And some ice cream (cinnamon?) and real whipped cream on the side.

        It won't be like a movie where everything is perfect so don't put your whole ego into making it so. And allow room for other people's ideas, input, recipes, dishes. Oh! Candy just said that.

        1. Wonderful easy sides that do not require exact recipies (quantities not important and salt and pepper goes on everything):

          1) boiled green beans (boil lightly and poor some cold water on to keep green) with smashed garlic, olive oil, chopped cilantro and toasted walnuts

          2) boiled mashed sweet potatoes with a bit of cream, butter and smoked paprika

          3)Quartered sweet onions roasted in the oven with olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar

          Good Luck!

          1. ...4)roasted sweet potatoes with rosemary

            5)roasted brussel sprouts finished with vinegar and crumbled bacon

            6)mashed potatoes made with sour cream and lots of black pepper

            1. Candy is right. There is so much info on the boards right now you'll have a hard time choosing.

              You do want to look at this post for the carrots.

              1. My own Orphan Thanksgiving tradition started when my older daughter was in law school and her friends couldn't go home for the day. Since I have a big house and am used to cooking for crowds, she asked if we could have T'giving at home. But the guest list started to get out of control.
                We finally gave up and realized that MY traditional meal wasn't necessarily THEIRS. So we went with basic, even lowest common denominator, American foods. As the numbers grew, things got really loose.
                The much-maligned green bean casserole was just what everyone had always had at Aunt Somebody's house and they ate every last bit. They cleaned out the plain mashed potatoes and rice covered with oceans of good gravy. They ate the Ocean Spray canned cranberries as well as the good stuff made from scratch. The oyster dressing satisfied the coastal kids and the cornbread made the Southerners happy. Plain sweet potatoes and some with marshmallows. Nobody cared that the pies were Mrs. Smith's because there were about 10 of them plus brownies and cookies - and some of their Moms always served Mrs. Smith's too.
                Everything was in big chafing dishes to stay hot for seconds and thirds.
                I made an enormous green salad - why does everyone seem to forget that on T'giving? Lots of rolls.
                And I even put out sandwich fixings for those who consider leftovers the best reason for Thanksgiving.
                It was OK to have beer with dinner. There was a TV for football when you were done. A couple of the guys even raked the leaves in my garden. We sent "care package" leftovers home with the kids who helped clean up.
                The food was hardly "gourmet" but it was like Home for a bunch of kids away from their own homes. They were happy and so was I.
                I've been using that plain old menu ever since because I never know until the last minute if I'll have 10 or 50 people. Last year my main oven broke on Thanksgiving morning and it still worked because everything is so uncomplicated.

                1. The above ideas are great (I would add, be sure you know how many are coming so you won't cook for 6 and then 18 show up).

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: wayne keyser

                    I usually do the opposite - cook for many more and then send home the leftovers. Lots of people really like T'giving leftovers, especially young people and singles.
                    I try to shop for staples early and buy things in bulk that I know I can use anyway like big bags of potatoes and rice. A few extra frozen pies, frozen green beans, cans of mushroom soup, etc. Even brownie mix or slice and bake cookie. Definitely not CH but they disappear.
                    I usually never use processed foods but a few of the better ones make this one meal go like clockwork. It's a never-fail.
                    The simple menu lends itself to expansion because it doesn't require exotic ingredients, fancy technique or last minute preparations.

                  2. How many people will there be? You want to plan now for if it will be a seated dinner or if you will serve it buffet style, and make sure you have enough plates and silver and serving dishes and utensils. Don't worry about going out and buying a lot of stuff you can't afford; you will find that good food and good will makes the dinner, not fancy dishes. (If you can afford it and are going out to buy, plain white dishes work best in the long run for most holiday dinners).

                    You are going to want balance in your side dishes - maybe two starches, a green vegetable, and a yellow/orange/red vegetable. There are tons of ideas from the last week or two in this topic, and lots of them are easy to prepare and can be done ahead. One of the previous posts suggests asking your friends what the most important dish for them is - that's a wonderful idea, and will give everyone a vested interest in the meal.

                    Here would be my easy version of side dishes:

                    mashed potatoes

                    cornbread dressing with mushrooms and onions, baked in a casserole dish and basted with a little of the turkey drippings

                    maple butternut squash - smallish chunks of butternut squash baked until tender (can be done the day before)then coarsely mashed with butter, salt and pepper, piled into a casserole dish, dotted with butter, drizzled with maple syrup and baked until golden brown

                    green beans with almonds - sizzle some butter, maybe 4 tablespoons, in a skillet, add half a cup of slivered blanched almonds and brown them lightly. Add a large bag of frozen whole green beans (thawed and patted dry), toss with the buttered nuts, salt and pepper them, and heat through.

                    cranberry sauce - very easy to do, just follow the recipe on the bag of cranberries, and add stuff if you like - chopped apples and walnuts, for instance, or jalapeno pepper and white onion.

                    Above all, this is so exciting, I have done so many Thanksgiving dinners and the first one was the one I remember most fondly.

                    1. Wow! Thanks everyone for the great responses so far! These are some fantastic ideas. As of now I am expecting about 8-10 people, but I am positive by the time the day of rolls around, we will have gathered all the stragglers. I will make sure to ask everyone what their favorite dishes from home are, so I can be sure to get that personal touch in. Also if anyone has a recipe or a link to a great cornbread dressing, I think that will get my foot in the door. Oh! and there has been a request for some kind of green bean and bacon dish? It was a “well my mom use to make...” Any ideas on that one?

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: jdutch

                        For a large bag of frozen whole green beans, chop up five or six slices of bacon and fry it crisp and brown, then pour off much of the fat. Chop up a big onion and saute it until it browns around the edges. Add a lump of butter, a couple of tablespoons or so, melt it and stir well to loosten the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Now, if your friend is from a family which adds vinegar to its beans, add a quarter cup of cider vinegar (or any other good vinegar) and cook down a bit. Otherwise, don't - my family does. Now add your green beans, which can be either microwaved according to the package directions, or steamed in a steamer above the pan where you're cooking your potatoes, or dropped into boiling water until heated through. Toss the beans with the bacon and onions, then keep warm until time to eat.

                        1. re: jdutch

                          I'd skip taking requests. Even making simple dishes can be a lot of work for a first timer. Make what you feel comfortable with. But it's a good idea to let others to bring a dish or two to help you out.

                          Don't hesitate to make some dishes 2 days ahead and reheat. You can make cranberry sauce a week ahead.

                        2. Here's a cornbread & sausage stuffing recipe, cut & pasted from Cook's Illustrated:

                          12 cups cornbread broken into 1-inch pieces (include crumbs), spread in even layer on 2 baking sheets, and dried in 250-degree oven 50 to 60 minutes
                          3 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
                          2 cups half-and-half
                          2 large eggs , beaten lightly
                          8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), plus extra for baking dish
                          1 1/2 pounds bulk pork sausage , broken into 1-inch pieces
                          3 medium onions , chopped fine (about 3 cups)
                          3 ribs celery , chopped fine (about 1 1/2 cups)
                          2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves
                          2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves
                          3 cloves garlic , minced
                          1 tablespoon kosher salt
                          2 teaspoons ground black pepper

                          Letting the stuffing soak in a mixture of stock, eggs, and half and half ensures a rich moist texture. A hot oven crisps the top.

                          1. Place cornbread in large bowl. Whisk together stock, half-and-half, and eggs in medium bowl; pour over cornbread and toss very gently to coat so that cornbread does not break into smaller pieces. Set aside.

                          2. Heat heavy-bottomed, 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons butter to pan and swirl to coat pan bottom. When foam subsides, add sausage and cook, stirring occasionally, until sausage loses its raw color, 5 to 7 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer sausage to medium bowl. Add about half the onions and celery to fat in skillet; sauté, stirring occasionally, over medium-high until softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer onion mixture to bowl with sausage. Return skillet to heat and add remaining 6 tablespoons butter; when foam subsides, add remaining celery and onions and sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in thyme, sage, and garlic; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds; add salt and pepper. Add this mixture along with sausage and onion mixture to cornbread and stir gently to combine so that cornbread does not break into smaller pieces. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate to blend flavors, at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours.

                          3. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter 10 by 15-inch baking dish (or two 9-inch square or 11 by 7-inch baking dishes). Transfer stuffing to baking dish; pour any liquid accumulated in bottom of bowl over stuffing and, if necessary, gently press stuffing with rubber spatula to fit into baking dish. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes.

                          1. I know you're not responsible for the turkey - maybe there isn't going to be one - but if there is - make sure the preparer knows that it has to start defrosting in the fridge a day or two before the big day. I think that's the most common mistake for first timers. Hosting a big dinner is nervewracking enough without frantically blow-drying or showering a frozen turkey.

                            Good luck!

                            1. And come back after Thanksgiving, dig up this thread, and let us know how it all came out.

                              1. I highly recommend picking up "Thanksgiving 101" by Rick Rodgers. He really covers all the basics in an easy-to-understand way and you can pick a basic and delicous meal from the book.

                                My mom bought it a few years ago after cooking for 30 Thanksgivings straight and still found some great tips for improvement.

                                1. My sister and I made our first thanksgiving when we were 10 and 12 (my parents worked in restaurants and didn't want to cook on their only days off). Don't fear. You are just making dinner. You say in your post you and your friends are obsessed with good food, I would go with that and select a few dishes and make them well. I would avoid making too many dishes, it will make you crazy. Instead, pick a few really great recipes and then just make them in appropriate quanties to feed everyone with leftovers. I would also go with fresh veggies over frozen any day. Perhaps Bruce's cornbread stuffing (if you have any veggies in the group I would just skip the sausage rather than making two separate stuffings), mashed potatoes, two veggies (I like to do a green bean dish and a brussel sprout or roasted root vegetable dish), cranberries. Nearly all side dishes the can be made in advance. I would outsource apps, salad, pies, rolls, and wine to reliable friends. I'd also recruit a designated assistant to help you clean up as you go. As much as you can do the day before the better, Your friends will all be thrilled, it will be great, Have fun and good luck!

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: China

                                    Oh yes, I almost forgot, music. One of the biggest problems I've seen at dinners thrown by my friends in their early 20s is music. In my opinion dinner music is different than either dance party music or sitting around feeling depressed music. I might recommend picking up a few CDs or asking a friend to bring a few if you don't have anything that you think will work to create the festive atmosphere you want for dinner.

                                    1. re: China

                                      All good ideas. Also among the don't forgets, outsource a center piece. It completes your table.

                                  2. Do you really have to do all of the sides all by yourself? Whenever we have an "orphan" Thanksgiving or Christmas, most people seem pleased with the suggestion, "Bring something that is traditional for (Thanksgiving, Christmas) dinner in your family."

                                    1. Two organizational techniques that have worked well for me:

                                      1. Do a "time line" - working back from when you plan to serve, so that you know exactly what you have to do when.

                                      2. If you can, print out or photocopy each of the recipes, and put them up on the cabinets with masking tape - that way you're not contantly looking for pages in cookbooks etc.

                                      Good luck - I have great memories of my first Thanksgiving dinner for a group of strays when I was in college.

                                      1. How fun! I like the cornbread stuffing above. If you are not down with corn bread you can sub bread. Cube the bread, sauce it up with some garlic butter and toss it in the oven turning occasionally to brown it up. THEN continue with the recipe.

                                        OK a few things:
                                        1) write back if you need timing/temperature help once you get your sides menu set.

                                        2)You can make mashed potatoes early (like even two days ahead if you are pressed for time. If you are low on bowls stuff the potatoes into a zip lock (but not full) and you can stack them in the fridge.

                                        Don't stuff that turkey until just before you are gonna put it in the oven and do not pack it too tight. The bird will take longer to cook stuffed. Let the bird sit out for a while before putting it into the oven. Ditto the stuffing.

                                        Easy Sweet potatoes that are amazingly yummy:
                                        WHIPPED SWEET POTATOES SOUFFLE

                                        For sweet potatoes
                                        22 ounces red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams; about 2 large), peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces (Or canned yams/sweet potatoes of approximate same weight)
                                        6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
                                        1 large egg
                                        6 tablespoons sugar
                                        1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
                                        Pinch of salt
                                        For topping
                                        1 1/2 cups cornflakes, crushed
                                        1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
                                        1/2 cup chopped pecans
                                        6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted

                                        Make sweet potatoes:
                                        Preheat oven to 400°F. Cook sweet potatoes in large pot of boiling water until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain; transfer potatoes to large bowl and add butter. Using electric mixer, beat until smooth. Add egg, sugar, spice and salt; beat to blend. Transfer mixture to 8 x 8-inch baking dish. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before continuing.) Bake potatoes until beginning to brown around edges and slightly puffed, about 25 minutes.
                                        Meanwhile, prepare topping:
                                        Mix together all ingredients in medium bowl.
                                        Spoon topping evenly over potatoes. Bake until golden brown and crisp, about 10 minutes longer.

                                        You can double it, triple it... and use canned yams or sweet potatoes.

                                        And if you are feeling fancy:

                                        Incomparable Creamed Corn
                                        1⁄2 onion, diced
                                        1 tablespoon butter
                                        2 pinches kosher salt
                                        8 ears fresh corn
                                        1 sprig fresh rosemary, bruised
                                        1 tablespoon sugar
                                        1⁄4 teaspoon turmeric
                                        2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
                                        1 cup heavy cream
                                        Fresh ground black pepper
                                        In a saucepan over medium heat, sweat the onion in butter and salt until translucent.
                                        In a large mixing bowl, place a paper bowl in the middle of the bowl. Resting the cob on the bowl in a vertical position remove only the tops of the kernel with a knife, using long smooth downward strokes and rotating the cob as you go. After the cob has been stripped, use the dull backside of your knife to scrape any remaining pulp and milk off the cob.
                                        Add the corn and pulp mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium high until the juice from the corn has tightened. Add the rosemary. Sprinkle the corn with the sugar and turmeric. Stir constantly for about 2 minutes. Sprinkle the cornmeal onto the corn, using a whisk to combine well. Add the heavy cream and cook until the corn has softened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the rosemary. Season with freshly ground black pepper.

                                        You want to vary the colors/textures/savory/sweet so like... WHITE Mashed Potatoes, Green Beans, YELLOW Creamed Corn, BROWN stuffing, Red Cranberry Sauce.

                                        Make sure you have enough plates and silver. If you don't get them to bring their own or get with another orphan who has that stuff.

                                        Have fun! Don't drink too much while you are cooking. I speak from experience. Things go haywire.