family thanksgiving

A host’s guide to Thanksgiving

16 November 2018

Santa Claus doesn’t take Christmas off. So after being absent here since spring, I’m back for Thanksgiving, the Superbowl for home cooks and my fave holiday by far. We eat, and we give thanks. My kind of holiday.

On any given Thursday, the food we eat in America is as diverse as the world – meat-and-potatoes, curries, stir fries, tacos and savory stews. Thanksgiving is the one day of the year Americans – at home and around the world – voluntarily eat more or less the same meal. Growing up as the child of immigrants, dinner at my house didn’t normally look like dinner at my friends’ homes. But on Thanksgiving we were one with Americans everywhere. I still love that.

Thanksgiving’s early this year, because November started on a Thursday. Don’t stress if you’re not ready. With a little organization, there’s plenty of time left.

I’m sharing a day-by-day timeline to keep us both on track, plus a list to mark what to make and what to outsource. I have a few pro tips, and at the end I assembled all my Thanksgiving recipes here for you from the archives.

Tip 1: Make what you like most. Outsource the rest.

Thanksgiving should be a potluck situation. Sharing is the spirit of the holiday. Guests contribute a dish they like to make or want to eat, and hosts appreciate the team effort.

It generally makes sense for the host to handle turkey and gravy, since it’s hard to transport a hot, slippery bird. Side dishes, desserts and drinks are fair game for outsourcing.

I love when friends and family bring their additional Thanksgiving traditions to the table. My mom makes sticky rice stuffing in addition to my bread stuffing, and Asian stir fried green beans. For my mother-in-law in Ohio, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without coleslaw. For my sister-in-law’s Italian family, Thanksgiving turkey comes with a side of lasagna. It’s always an unexpected assortment, and we enjoy it all.

I admit I don’t really outsource the basics – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy – because I enjoy making them. But I think it’s a wise idea to share the load. At the end of this post you’ll find a link to a printable worksheet you can use to organize your list of what to cook/buy/outsource to a willing guest.

Tip 2: Simple is good.

It’s tempting to make Thanksgiving more complex than it needs to be. You could have cornbread stuffing with sausage, apples, dried cranberries, toasted walnuts and fresh sage, next to cranberry sauce with orange zest, Grand Marnier and pecans, next to mashed potatoes with cream cheese, chives and three cheeses. But I find the complexities get a little lost, and the meal gets unnecessarily heavy.

Each dish at Thanksgiving only needs to do one job. The combination on the plate is where the magic happens.

Simple is good. Cranberries, sugar and water make an excellent sauce. Potatoes, butter and milk make perfect mashed potatoes. Bread, onion, celery and chicken broth are all you really need for stuffing. Roast turkey tastes great with a bit of oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. A festive drink can simply be cranberry juice and sparkling wine.

If you keep things simple overall, you can splurge on a more elaborate item here or there and still enjoy the process.

Tip 3: Invite Thanksgiving orphans.

It’s not fun to be alone on Thanksgiving. When I host, I try to invite friends who may not have a ready home for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year two Stanford undergraduate friends joined our dinner, and we brought back food to another friend who ended up sick in her dorm. I remember well my own dorm Thanksgivings when I was a California kid in college on the east coast, and it feels so good to give others the Thanksgiving meal I wish I’d had when I was far from home. Thanksgiving is a generous meal, and it’s easy to pull up another chair.

Tip 4: Make stuffing in a slow cooker.

Cooking bread stuffing in an electric crock pot is so sensible, I can’t believe it took me this long to try it. A crock pot can plug in anywhere, and it frees up a busy oven. Slow cooking also keeps the stuffing moist.

Stuffing is best with dried bread cubes, so the bread can absorb the flavor of the broth and seasonings. It’s easy to cube and dry bread in a low oven ahead of time, and then store the cubes back in the bags the bread came in. When it’s time to make the stuffing, just cook up some celery and onion in a generous amount of butter and add it to the bread.

With enough chicken broth to soften the bread.

A couple of beaten eggs mixed in will help provide the richness of stuffing cooked inside the turkey. Plus an unstuffed turkey will cook faster and more evenly, so it’s a win all around.

With a crock pot, you can cook the stuffing in the family room, garage, or anywhere you can find an electrical outlet. Your oven will thank you.

Tip 5: Save the turkey carcass.

People pay serious coin for bone broth these days. That roasted turkey carcass is treasure, not trash. Those bones hold beneficial collagen and minerals, and making incredible turkey stock with the carcass is almost no work at all. All you need to harvest that goodness is a big pot of water.

You could put the carcass in a bag and refrigerate it or freeze it to make stock later. But I find it easier just to do it right away. There’s not much to it:

Throw the carcass in a pot. Add a halved onion and a couple carrots and/or celery sticks, maybe a spoonful of peppercorns or a few bay leaves. Add water to cover and heat it to a boil. Turn down to the lowest simmer and forget about it for a few hours.

Your softly simmering pot will fill the house with the most deliciously warm fragrance as the bones fall apart into the broth, and you’ll be left with liquid gold. Use it for turkey soup when you get tired of eating leftovers, or just freeze the stock in jars for later.

THANKSGIVING PLANNER AND TIMELINE

I made a little Google doc to share with you guys, with a checklist of Thanksgiving items and a timeline for pacing out all the prep work. The timeline includes the Thanksgiving basics that I always make – turkey, stuffing, cranberry, gravy, mashed potatoes – but you can ignore what’s not relevant to your cooking plan, and I’ve also left space for you to jot your own notes.

I took screenshots of the doc so you can preview it here and see if you would find it helpful.

And once again, here’s the link: Thanksgiving planner and timeline.

Happy turkey day to all!

THANKSGIVING RECIPES FROM THE ARCHIVES

Appetizers/starters

Turkey

Salads

Sides

Desserts

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

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