thanksgiving spread

Thanksgiving meal planning

15 November 2012

Thanksgiving, with its focus on gratitude and an generous meal with loved ones, is easily my favorite holiday of the year. In contrast with the frenzied, materialistic rush that Christmas has become, Thanksgiving is a day to slow down and be grateful for all that we have (at least until Black Friday sales start at midnight).

Thanksgiving dinner is also my favorite meal of the year. The turkey gets top billing, but Thanksgiving is truly a superstar ensemble cast. The combination of all the players – sweet, savory, hot, cold, soft, crunchy, colorful – is what makes Thanksgiving dinner special. And although Thanksgiving can be intimidating in its number of traditional dishes, each one can be prepared very simply by even the novice cook.

The fun thing about Thanksgiving dinner is that the wide array of options allows every diner to curate their own meal. Those who like salty foods can focus on the savory elements – turkey, gravy, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes. Those who like sweet can load up on cranberry and sweet potatoes. Carb avoiders and carb lovers both have plenty of options.

The easiest way to have Thanksgiving dinner is for each guest to contribute one key dish. But I like to make all the basics and invite guests to bring the one extra dish they can’t live without at Thanksgiving. My mom loves a cranberry jello with cream cheese frosting, as well as a Chinese sticky rice stuffing. My mother-in-law brings an old-fashioned cole slaw. My friend Jenny makes a rich corn pudding. Everyone’s special traditions add personality to the classic American feast, and I love the variety at the table. It ends up being way too much, but I send everyone home with food and celebrate my refrigerator full of leftovers.

My goal at Thanksgiving is to be able to eat a LOT. So I don’t like any single element to be overpoweringly rich. I want to enjoy a big meal and still have room for dessert.

I haven’t posted many Thanksgiving recipes, because my own preparations are so basic. But I thought a summary might be helpful for those of you planning your own feasts.


Salt is the key to a moist, flavorful turkey. Brined or kosher birds are ready to go. You can brine the bird at home or try dry-brining, an easier method of simply salting the bird very well inside and out a few days before you cook it. These extra-large Ziploc bags make brining much easier.

My mom’s secret for a glossy brown turkey is a bit of oil and soy sauce rubbed all over the bird before roasting. It also gives the turkey drippings and the gravy a rich chocolate color.

I made two turkeys last year using two different methods, and I think I’m sold on the breast-down approach – not as pretty, (you’ll have rack indentations on the breast of the turkey, and the skin will probably tear when you flip it over for carving), but since the turkey gets carved before serving, I’m less concerned about the look. Last year I tried Cook’s Illustrated’s method, starting the bird breast-down and flipping it after an hour or so. To avoid the risk inherent in flipping a hot turkey, I want to try the roasting method from Elise at Simply Recipes, which is similar to Cook’s Illustrated’s but leaves the bird breast-down for the entire roasting time.

Bread stuffing

No one seems to stuff turkeys anymore. Maybe it’s the rise of salmonella concerns, maybe it’s because the turkey cooks so much faster and more evenly unstuffed. In any case, cooking bread stuffing in pans is easier. The key to adding the moistness that comes from cooking the stuffing inside the turkey cavity is to add some beaten egg into the stuffing mixture before baking.

I always thought it was the herbs that made stuffing taste like stuffing. But my mother-in-law uses no herbs at all, just celery, onion and a sprinkle of sugar (yes, sugar! – standard too in many commercial stuffing seasonings). But surprisingly her herb-less stuffing tastes great too.

I love cornbread stuffing, and as a standalone dish it’s much more interesting than regular bread stuffing. But I find it too filling as part of the Thanksgiving ensemble, and everyone in my family likes the classic bread stuffing best.

Preparation: Celery and onion sauteed in butter (herbs optional), mixed with stale bread cubes, enough chicken broth to moisten it all. Season with salt and pepper to taste (sugar optional). Mix in beaten egg and bake in a buttered baking dish. I have posted this one.

Mashed potatoes

Potatoes are on the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list of produce with the most pesticide residue. I can’t get too crazy about it all, because of course my kids eat french fries at restaurants. But if possible, I try to buy organic potatoes when I make them at home.

Preparation: Peeled and cut (quartered if large, halved if small) potatoes in a large pot; cover with water. Boil until fork inserted into potato goes in easily. Drain and place potatoes back in covered pot. Just before serving, mash potatoes with butter first, then hot milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Sweet potatoes

Oven space is scarce on Thanksgiving, and sweet potatoes are easy to make ahead of time. Unlike regular potatoes, sweet potatoes are on the Environmental Working Group’s clean 15 list of produce with the least pesticide residue.

Preparation: Peel and cut sweet potatoes into lengthwise wedges. Dot with butter and brown sugar (maple syrup is also good) and bake until soft. If you like them slightly caramelized, as my mom does, you can runs them under the broiler to reheat them (watch carefully, as with the sugar they are very quick to burn). Otherwise simply reheat in microwave or oven. Top with toasted nuts, if you like.

Green beans

They aren’t in season in November, but green beans still seem essential at Thanksgiving. My mom makes amazing deep-fried Asian green beans, but when she’s not there to make them I make my standby, green beans with feta and balsamic vinegar. Either way, green beans are good for preparing early in the day. Reheat before serving (I also like them room temperature), and add the finishing touches.

Preparation: Saute whole green beans in olive oil until crisp-tender. Season well with salt and pepper and remove to platter. Before serving, drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette and top with crumbled feta.

Green salad

I like the lightness a green salad brings to a heavy turkey day plate. It’s hard to beat mixed greens with dried cranberries, candied nuts and feta. Mixed with the perfect balsamic vinaigrette, of course.

Preparation: A week or so before, I make my balsamic vinaigrette and candied nuts. The day before, I wash and dry my greens. So on Thanksgiving all I have to do is toss the greens with vinaigrette and sprinkle on handfuls of cranberries, nuts and feta.

Cranberry sauce

Easy to buy, but making it is like boiling water.

Preparation: Bag of cranberries, cup of sugar, cup of water (or orange juice if you like). Boil until you hear cranberries popping. That’s it. But I also have it in a post.

I’m all about the sides, so my Thanksgiving plate looks like this (those dark globes that kind of look like mushrooms are actually whole roasted brussels sprouts):

What’s essential at your Thanksgiving table? I’d love to know.

One week to go! Next up: pecan pie, without the corn syrup…

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanna 15 November 2012 at 4:29 pm

I have fond memories of our Thanksgiving dinner in 1991! Ariel and I have been doing Thanksgiving together almost every year since (my folks often fly out from California for it), and we have added some staples to the basics: gougeres, salami, and bloody Marys to start, port-glazed shallots, my grandmother’s cookies, and maple sugar pie (like pecan pie, but nutless, and even better). We do the turkey on the grill to save oven space (it gets a great color and smoky flavor). I also came to love Susan Stamberg’s cranberry sauce many years ago, so it’s required. It does sound horrible, but it’s delicious.


cg 16 November 2012 at 1:33 pm

joanna! i was just thinking about our long-ago college thanksgiving dinner and wondering what ariel, an exacting chef even then, is cooking these days. how awesome and fun that you guys still have thanksgiving together. and i love knowing what you’ve added to the feast! grilling the turkey is an awesome idea to save oven. wish i could join you guys, it sounds fantastic. love to try the creamy, spicy cranberry relish – it’s the unusual combinations that are the most memorable and irreplaceable. thanks so much for sharing, and say hi to ariel for me!


BK 19 November 2012 at 12:54 pm

Wow, the maple sugar pie sounds really good.


mm 24 November 2012 at 2:28 pm

Do you have your mum’s recipe for her sticky rice stuffing? I would love to try this with our Xmas turkey (or goose). Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!


cg 26 November 2012 at 1:27 am

hi mm – i’ll have to shadow my mom to see if i can put a recipe together…of course she always cooks without measuring. i think she usually uses chinese sausage, mushrooms and chestnuts, stir fries it all with the rice and soy sauce for flavor, then steams it. very yummy.


mm 29 November 2012 at 5:08 am

Thanks, cg. It’s funny how the older generation tend to cook without measuring – or is it because Chinese grandmas want to keep their recipes secret? Many a time I have requested recipes with precise quantities and instructions, only to be told, “I use a bit of this and a bit of that”!


cg 1 December 2012 at 1:02 am

yes, for my mom and other experienced cooks it’s just easier to cook by feel. and cleanup is easier without all those measuring cups and spoons. =)


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