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Advice for First Time Thanksgiving Cook

  • j

I'm hosting Thanksgiving for the first time & need to plan my menu. We've got the ILs coming for a visit - not too big of a crowd (6 adults & 4 children) to feed. I need advice on fixing the following: turkey, ham, cornbread dressing, vegetables. We've got the sweet potato casserole covered & I plan on fixing green bean casserole, the Paula Deen pumpkin bars as well as a pecan pie. Oh, and I need to fix bread (rolls), but I'd prefer just to buy some. Any suggestions on that?

Anyone have easy recipes that are impressive? I want this to go well! :)

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  1. What kind of vegetables do you and your family like? Spinach? Cauliflower? Carrots?

    1 Reply
    1. re: eviemichael

      My go-to company vegetable is roasted asparagus. They'll eat spinach, and I'm sure they'd try anything else I fix. I've tried to roast brussel sprouts before but I don't seem to have the hang of it yet.

      1. re: blue room

        I agree that those threads will yield you more ideas than you could ever use on what to make and how to make it. On a more general level, my advice would be to choose your menu and the recipes pretty soon, and then make a detialed shopping list broken into things you can buy ahead and things you need to buy closer to the day so they are fresh. Next, make a timetable for when each recipe will be made (some things can be wholly or partially made ahead and it will save your sanity to do as much ahead as possible). Sometimes when I do that I modify the menu, realizing there is too much that needs to be done at the last minute or too many things that need to be in the oven at the same time or things that need different oven temperatures -- of course, this will change your shopping list! Then, figure out what serving dish and implements you need for each dish, in case you need to borrow a salad bowl or platter or something. All of this will reduce your last-minute stress considerably. Good luck and don't forget to have fun!

      2. The best advice I can give you is to make a schedule. I use a spreadsheet and notate how much oven and stovetop space I have available, and make sure that all of my dishes get adequate time and space that way and that everything is done/hot at the same time. Bake your pies/desserts the day before and get them out of the way. Do as much prep as possible ahead of time. If other people are bringing things that will need to be reheated, make sure you figure them into your schedule. Whether your recipes are simple or complicated, you WILL run into trouble if you don't map out your oven ahead of time!!!

        7 Replies
          1. re: biondanonima

            What can I make ahead of time, besides desserts? Can green bean casserole or dressing be made the day ahead? I have hot trays, so I can keep stuff warm once its heated.

            1. re: jh75

              It depends on your recipes, but lots of sides can be partially or completely prepared in advance. I do all the prep for my stuffing (which is a complicated version with a ton of roasted vegetables) the day before, so the day of all I have to do is toss bread cubes with the pre-made vegetables and some stock and stick it in the oven. If you do creamed onions or anything like that, they can be made ahead up to the baking point and then stuck in the fridge overnight (green bean casserole would probably do fine this way as well). Potatoes can be peeled and submerged in water. If you're making cranberry sauce from scratch, it can (and probably should) be made ahead.

              1. re: jh75

                I would add, set the table the night before and get out all the serving dishes and utensils. The next day you might want to keep the dinner plates warm on those heating trays. Nothing like a nice warm plate to keep your food hot while waiting for someone to pass you the gravy!

                1. re: jh75

                  You might consider doing what I do....I roast my turkey on Wednesday, let it rest, slice it down & put it into pyrex casseroles with some broth added in & covered with foil. In fact, I do most everything on Wednesday - mix the dressing & put it in its baking dish (I don't do it in the turkey), get my sweet potatos ready to bake, make the green bean casserole if we're having it, etc. On Thanksgiving day all that's needed is baking/reheating & making gravy. It makes for a much more relaxing Thanksgiving day. You might think about it.

                  1. re: nojunk

                    I'm hoping to do as much as possible ahead of time. Can you fix the green bean casserole the day before & just refrigerate it until its time to cook?

              2. Mashed potatoes? Gravy? Cranberry sauce?

                My tack is to keep it simple. Rather than go for "impressive", I go for sticking to the basics and doing them well. Like the Olympics: Triple axels are nice, but skating cleanly often wins the day.

                1. This turkey method is fab and gets the turkey out of the way quickly. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                  The turkey's delicious and stress free; I do recommend adding some water to the pan to preserve kitchen air quality.

                  I've never cooked a ham before--not sure if this high-heat and fast method would be compatible with ham cooking time/needs. But I SOLIDLY recommend this turkey method. Even a lame meat cook like me got raves and requests for a repeat performance. And it couldn't be easier.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: miss louella

                    NOT compatible with ham, which needs to be warmed up (it's already fully cooked) low and slow or it will turn leathery. Ham should be wrapped tightly with foil or in an oven bag and heated ideally at 300 but no higher than 325. My personal belief is that any pack of glaze that comes with the ham belongs in the trash can. Much better to poke whole cloves into it before heating and/or brush with mustard. For potlucks I have heated the ham thorough the night before with the whole cloves stuck in it, then refrigerated overnight and served at room temperature, and people go crazy for it (regular old spiral-sliced ham from the supermarket). So you could do that and not worry about serving it warm.

                  2. Last year was my first year making cranberry sauce. I made this wonderful fuji apple cranberry sauce the day before (while working from home!) and it turned out great:

                    1. For bread/rolls, buy frozen bread dough (Bridgeford, Rhodes, whatever is sold in your area) and cut a one pound loaf into 6 pieces when partly thawed, then let rise, brush with butter and bake. Fresh and good. Everyone always wants my 'recipe'.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Cathy

                        Rhodes makes individual dinner rolls too, which I usually make. Just follow the instructions on the bag.

                      2. My biggest tip would be to have PLENTY of good chicken stock on hand,preferably the boxed variety. You will use it to make and refresh your turkey, dressing, gravy, for reheating the leftovers, etc. And the opened boxes can be kept in the refrigerator until needed.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: mothrpoet

                          Amen to that! I can never believe how much stock I use over the Holidays.

                        2. One major tip. Don't get caught in the trap of thinking "just one more thing". Plan the work and work the plan. As others have said: Schedule.

                          I’m all about dirtying as few pans/dishes as possible.

                          I would suggest roasted mixed vegetables all in one large pan. You’ll need to keep it to like-density vegetables so that they roast at the same rate or add lighter density ones later. Vegetables can be prepped a day or 2 ahead. The day-of, all you do is toss in oil, salt and pepper, then roast. If you don't have herbs, I wouldn't let it be a deal breaker. From Ina: http://www.foodnetwork.com/search/del...

                          For non-roasted vegetables, buy frozen and nuke 'em in their container. Freshen them up by add seasonings as you normally would.

                          The bread - While impressive and good, if you buy frozen yeast rolls, you have to let them rise in a perfect and constant warm temp for the duration of the rise and even then, they rise at their own pace. Your profile says you're in Plano. If that's TX, let Central Market be your friend and baker. They have outstanding loaves and rolls. Use them!

                          For the turkey, if it's frozen be sure to put it in the fridge to thaw 3 or 4 days before Thur.

                          For roasting the turkey, a thermometer is a MUST. If it's in your budget, buy one that has a probe which remains in the turkey for the duration of roasting. You set the doneness temp on a remote module and it beeps when the turkey has come to set temp. That way, you're not having to check it every so often when it's close to coming out. You can concentrate on other things. The turkey will remain warm (tented) for at least an hour so you'll have time to do baking, heating, other details.

                          I hope your first Thanksgiving is a total success.

                          As to Central Market and later snacking - they have great mini-baguettes, 6/$1.50. Heat for 5 minutes @ 350 to get a wonderfully crispy exterior - great for (leftover turkey/ham) sandwiches. (If you don’t crisp them though, the dough can be tough and difficult to bite through).

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: CocoaNut

                            I love Central Market, especially their desserts. What rolls would you suggest from there?

                            1. re: jh75

                              I'd look for a simple white/yeast/country roll. They have so many different types. Wheat (and other flour) rolls tend to be heavier, more filling and you don't want to take away from the other delectables on the table.

                              You could also get a loaf, have them slice it (the slices are thin) pull out 5 or 6 slices and cut them down the middle to serve or have both slices and rolls for a variety. If you go with the rolls, just before sitting down to eat, put them in the oven on 350 (or residual from what was last in) for about 5 min to warm and put a crisp on the outer crust. Don't forget to pull them out and get them to the table!!

                          2. In terms of menu planning, balance is the key. With the proteins and cornbread dressing and green bean casserole, you are set on all of the "hearty" dishes. Round out your menu with a simple salad (mesclun with apples and walnuts in a sherry vinaigrette for example) or steamed asparagus with a drizzle of EVOO and parmesan shavings. Also, make sure those other dishes you are planning are ones you can heat on the stovetop because it looks like the rest of those dishes would be heated in the oven.

                            1. My crew always likes to have one cold/crunchy item to go along with all the warm, soft stuff. So, I usually make either an old fashioned layered salad or a broccoli/cauliflower salad of some sort (have a couple different ones we all like). Any of those can (should in some cases) be made the day before. I prefer those to a regular green salad, because the leftovers hold well and we always eat more of it in the day or so after the feast.

                              1. Here is my recipe for cornbread stuffing, it is a meal in it's self.

                                1. Congratulations on your first Thanksgiving dinner. Since the in-laws will be there, I would prep as much as possible the day before. Bake your pie, and your bars the day before. I believe it was Michael Chiarello's show that introduced me to making the gravy early. Go to the store and get a turkey wing, bake it, and make your gravy the day before. Try this for an easy quick recipe http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/gr.... and add about 1/2 cup of chopped fine onion to your roux and get the roux a golden brown . You can reheat gravy on Thanksgiving on a low flame with a bit of water, and add a couple of tablespoons of half and half and use a whisk and whip it good. Cut your veggies for your dressing and put it in a zip lock bag, break up your bread, or make your cornbread for your dressing, peel potatoes and put in a pan of water in your fridge the night before. I don't know where you are but Trader Joe's has good cranberry sauce, and Costco good rolls if you run short on time. Get all your dishes out that you are using, your set your table. Yes, make a schedule for the big day. The Thanksgiving morning goes fast, and it's your Thanksgiving too. I have been doing this for years, and it always is a lot of prep work. There are many good suggestions from others too. Get the beverages and some h'ordreves ready for your guest 1/2 hour before they arrive and have fun.

                                  1. This was a really helpful thread for me last year (it was my first turkey) and Rubee gave me a lot of great advice (as did others).


                                    I made the creamed onions, gravy and the baked brie, all with great results! I am making all 3 again this year and will do most / all of the prep work in advance.

                                    Good luck, and as many have mentioned, make lists and be organized and this will make the day run oh so smoothly! Enjoy!

                                    1. When choosing your vegetables, I would add one other thing in support of the fact that "you eat with your eyes first". I always try to choose a vegetable of different bright colors - orange, green, red, yellow. It makes for enticing plate building.

                                      And yes, you can do the green bean casserole ahead. Just don't add the crunchy topping until it goes in the oven, otherwise, it will get soggy. Make a note on your "master" list that you have to add the topping. May seem silly, but it's small things that are important and sometimes forgotten.

                                      Also, don't forget to remove the giblet package from the turkey before roasting.

                                      1. MY BEST SUGGESTION: Prep as much as you can the days before so that it all just comes together on Thanksgiving Day, and so you can spend more time enjoying your company and less time in the kitchen. Enlist as many helpers as you can.

                                        SECOND BEST SUGGESTION: If you have a gas grill, use it to cook your turkey (as long as it is no larger than 16lbs or so). Prepare it and get it all ready to go, then give your husband or father-in-law the responsibility of cooking it. Yes, it seems to be a cliche' that men love to grill... but in my experience, they do. I did this last year and it not only freed up my oven, but also my time! Just give them some basic instructions and make sure someone is competent enough to make sure it doesn't go badly (but of course check on the bird yourself periodically). Also, be aware that you cannot cook the stuffing inside the bird, as the grill will never get it it hot enough to kill bacteria. I think it is always a safer bet to cook the stuffing separately anyway. Here is a link on how to grill. I have been told that it tastes better than roasted turkey and those who try it will never go back. (P.S. make sure your propane tank is AT LEAST half full, or better yet- have a spare on hand)

                                        AS FOR OTHER SIDE DISHES:
                                        It is good at least one simple vegetable dish that has light, clean flavors as a contrast to all of the richness of the meal. It sounds like you have some heavy sides going on there. Here are a few that may offer a lighter alternative:

                                        Or make it really simple with a steamed or lightly sauteed green veggie with just garlic, salt, lemon juice, and a little olive oil or butter. (Think fresh green beans, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower, zucchini, brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, etc).

                                        Also, never underestimate the appeal of a simple green salad!

                                        Good luck!

                                        1. Be careful of an in-law or husband making a last-minute demand or deciding they will prepare a dish in your kitchen. Have an answer ready. You don't need your mother in law in your hair making yams when you already decided yams wouldn't be on the menu.

                                          1. I did Thanksgiving for the first time two years ago. Here are my suggestions, some of which are covered by others here:

                                            *Make a schedule for the week, and do as much as you can before Thursday. You can assemble casseroles or bake desserts in the evenings after work when you're making dinner, then heat them on Thursday. On Thursday, know what needs to go in the oven when in order to be warm at dinner.
                                            *Don't do too many dishes. You don't need 12 sides if you have five that are awesome! Know the must-haves, and throw in an item or two of your own for "flair." You'll be far less stressed than if you try to have a comprehensive menu of every dish everyone has ever enjoyed at any past Thanksgiving! Also, it helps control dishes.
                                            *For the love of God, do not allow people to bring things. The last thing you need at crunch time is to be fighting family for space in the oven when you're running against the clock. If you feel you must give, have people bring desserts. Pies just need to chill or re-heat, both of which can happen after you've pulled the turkey and sides out for service.

                                            Good luck to you - you'll hate the family Thursday morning, but you'll feel so accomplished when it's done.

                                            1. I'm planning on fixing cranberries to go with the turkey. I don't eat this so I have no clue what its supposed to taste like. I bought a bag of cranberries and plan to just follow the direction on the bag. If I do that tomorrow morning, will it be ready for Thursday lunch? I assume they need time to set in the fridge, right?

                                              7 Replies
                                              1. re: jh75

                                                You can make the recipe on the bag just before eating (I start boiling water an hour or so before we are going to sit down) and serve it warm or make tomorrow and chill.

                                                1. re: jh75

                                                  People can be very picky about cranberries, so I try to have a couple of options. I usually buy the canned jellied kind for the old-school cranberry sauce fans. I also make a relish that I make three days ahead. You don't need to cook it, just give it time in the fridge so the flavors will meld.

                                                  1 12-oz bag of cranberries
                                                  1 orange - peel removed and cut into segments, avoiding the membranes
                                                  1 peeled and chopped apple

                                                  Put the fruit into a food processor and add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of allspice and 1/4 cup of sugar. Pulse until desired consistency.

                                                  It is tart and sweet, perfect for turkey, and it looks pretty on the table.

                                                  Good luck!

                                                  1. re: liza.calderon

                                                    Or you could go with Cookin' with Coolio's version of Susan Stamberg's mother-in-law's "sounds terrible, tastes terrific" Cranberry Relish recipe that he calls "Mama Stamberg and Coolio's Wild Cranberry Pinkout."

                                                      1. re: mattwarner

                                                        I make an apple-cranberry "relish"....

                                                        Mix in a pot:
                                                        1 bag cranberries, rinsed & picked over
                                                        Zest of 1 orange
                                                        1 apple, chopped fine
                                                        1/4 cup water
                                                        1 + 1/4 cup sugar
                                                        Cinnamon to taste

                                                        Heat over medium heat until cranberries pop somewhat (not all will) and thicken.....You can puree if you like or leave it chunky. I used a hand blender in mine to make it a bit of both. If you need to add more liquid, add the juice of the orange you zested.

                                                        I like it a bit tart & slightly sweet, so you can reduce the sugar if you'd like. I made mine yesterday.

                                                        1. re: mattwarner

                                                          > Link! Please!

                                                          The upgrade to Microsoft Internet Explorer version 8 is free and well worth the download time. It allows you to use accelerators like Google Search, so all you do is highlight whatever you have a question about, and click on the dropdown menu to select Google. It takes just a few seconds to get an answer to the question, "Who is Coolio and what is the recipe to Susan Stamberg's Cranberry Relish?"

                                                    1. As someone who has lived through a recent Thanksgiving (In Canada...same thing, different month) Here are some things you can consider:

                                                      1. put out all your service plates, bowls, and cutlery with a sticky note on each one stating which dish it is for. Helps a lot for last minute prep.
                                                      2. have tupperware and the like ready and on hand for leftovers.
                                                      3. wear light clothing; no matter how cold it is (or not) in your neck of the woods, you will get hot.
                                                      4. people will eat more mashed potatoes than you expect. I don't know why, but they do
                                                      5. take a picture of the table with all the food on it before everyone sits down. you will want to look back and savour a moment that you won't remember otherwise, like your wedding.
                                                      6. clean out and organize the fridge when you have time and if possible. your leftovers will thank you.
                                                      7. people love pie but they also love fruit. they need a grease cutter (my SO's phrase) after that huge meal.

                                                      good luck & let us know how it goes.