Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving? Oh, my — I see a few of you raising your hands. That’s probably because it’s being held at your house, and you remember being up to your elbows in a sink of soapy water at 9 p.m. last year, muttering “Never again. Next year, we’re going out to eat.”
Thanksgiving Day doesn’t have to be a marathon stress-fest. Why not emulate that restaurant meal you were dreaming of by running your kitchen like a restaurant this year?
Restaurant chefs and cooks certainly don’t come in at 3:30 in the morning on Thanksgiving Day to put a turkey in the oven. Dishes that can be made ahead are already made before the big day. And the components of things that simply must be freshly prepared are already prepped and at hand. In professional cooking, this is called mise-en-place (“everything in its place”).
It’s not too early to start planning for Thanksgiving. Start by buying two small turkeys rather than one giant one. The first turkey can be roasted the day before, rested properly, carved from the bone and refrigerated in anticipation of a gentle reheat in the oven before dinner. You’ll need only a few hours to roast the second turkey on Thursday — this will free up oven time for reheating your pre-prepared casserole dishes while the second turkey rests, waiting in the wings for its “ooh-ahh” moment of presentation at the table. This is your stunt turkey, strictly for show and weekend leftovers. Small turkeys cook faster and are more tender and flavorful than large ones. How do you think those huge turkeys get so big anyway? Often it’s through genetic modification or advanced age.
Trim, peel and blanch green beans, asparagus, carrots and other vegetables earlier in the week so they can be dealt with via a quick sauté with some pre-chopped garlic. Even mashed potatoes can be quick if you peel, boil and mash them with some salt, milk and seasonings on Tuesday or Wednesday, cover them tightly and refrigerate. Before serving, just heat some cream and melted butter in a heavy-bottomed pan on the stovetop and put the chilled potato mixture on top. Stir occasionally while they heat through, but don’t over-stir: That’s what causes gummy mashed potatoes.
Salad ingredients should all be washed, peeled and chopped long before dinnertime. You can toss them together in a big bowl right before service — it’ll only take five minutes. Make the salad dressing the day before; it tastes better after the flavors marry for a day anyway. Using a bottled dressing? Drag Grandma’s silver sauceboat out of the china cabinet, and nobody will be the wiser.
If you’re making pies from scratch, make the crust as early as this week and freeze the dough in an airtight container until Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, then move it to the refrigerator to thaw slowly. Make the filling ahead, too — then bake the pies that Wednesday night. You’re going to need the oven space free the next day to bake the stunt turkey and reheat your casseroles.
Home chefs have one big advantage over restaurant chefs: Your guests aren’t going to be ordering from a menu. So get as much done as possible in advance and enjoy the day with your family and friends. You can thank me later.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She is a teaching assistant at Sullivan University, her alma mater.