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Talking Turkey

A calculated game plan for a successful, and well-timed, Thanksgiving dinner

by B.A. Nilsson on November 10, 2011

Since trying long ago to cock a snoot at Thanksgiving tradition, I have evolved over the past 20 years a tradition of gathering with 15 to 20 friends, most of them orphaned of extended family obligations for one reason (mortality) or another (ill will). To a casual observer, it looks like any other Turkey Day tradition. But it’s mine, dammit.

Thanks to an annual influx of cookbooks, this is a time to try out new recipes, usually collected under some kind of theme. But at the heart of it will be a turkey, stuffing, an array of seasonal vegetables and more than enough for dessert.

Dinner hits the table at around 1 PM, so preparation requires restaurant-like planning. Here are my recommendations and a suspense calendar for a successful holiday meal, freeing you to join your guests at the table the instant the entrees are ready and, if you can press some of the more guilt-laden guests into dish duty, a chance to sink into a pleasant, wine-fueled stupor for the rest of the day.

Get help. I try to persuade a distant, and therefore overnight, guest in at least a day ahead for kitchen assistance. My daughter used to fill that slot, but she now devotes herself to desserts, which is also a good thing. This leaves my wife free to oversee dining room setup and to greet arriving guests, which is vital. One year, when she had to be out until early afternoon, I dragooned one of my neighborhood guests to arrive early and serve as greeter.

Forget fancy starters. A mountain of crackers and cheese will make them happy, although I usually throw a white bean dip or tapenade into the array. In past years, I summoned guests to the table with a soup course, but it proved to be more work than the lackluster response warranted. And green salads have been the least popular of the entrées, so they’ve also been dropped.

Which leads to the meal itself. I serve it as a buffet, timing everything to hit the presentation table at the same time. One year there was a lag between courses, and hungry guests dove in to what was there with such vigor that by the time I brought the last of the items out, most people had finished.

Plan a menu that includes few-to-no last-minute stovetop (known in the biz as à la minute) items. Casseroles are your Thanksgiving friend, and they can be assembled a day or two ahead. The bird itself has long been my family’s bête noire because my wife favors dark meat (how fun that is to write) while I prefer the pulsing, tender breast. But they don’t achieve simultaneous doneness. By the time the legs have cooked, the breast meat is drying. Brining the bird can help, but I prefer either smoking the turkey, which keeps it all moist while giving it a fantastic flavor—and the carcass for smoked turkey stock—or deep-frying it, which takes less than an hour, adds an insanely crisp skin, and gives you an excuse to also make steak fries. This year, however, I plan to butterfly the breast and stuff it with a forcemeat of seasoned ground leg. After which I’ll roll it, wrap it in the skin I carefully removed, tie it off and roast it. It’ll look great and carve easily.

Five days ahead: A 16- to 20-pound frozen turkey needs to start its refrigerator thaw. Put a pan beneath it to catch the runoff. Also, if you’re planning to shop at a farmer’s market, it probably will be on the Saturday or Sunday before Thanksgiving, depending on the venue.

Three to two days ahead: Do your supermarket shopping. You don’t want to be stuck behind the day-ahead herd.

Two days ahead: Tackle some of the prep. When I worked restaurant Thanksgivings, this was when we roasted and peeled chestnuts for the stuffing. Peel your onions and garlic. Save the skins to go into your stock. (Ditto any peels from carrots and other veggies.) Make cranberry sauce. If you’re serving anything with tomato sauce, make that sauce now. Good time to make your pie crust dough, too; it can freeze until Wednesday.

One day ahead: Prepare more of your mise en place. That’s the form your ingredients take as they’re about to go into the various courses, ingredients such as carrots, parsnips, potatoes—whatever. If you’re peeling potatoes, use a very sharp knife to minimize bruising and hold the spuds in water. Assemble casseroles. If you’ll be needing stock, make it in the morning. I like to have both chicken and vegetable stock on hand; the latter ensures that any vegetarian offerings are being honestly represented.

Also on the day before: Make desserts. You’ll need the oven space tomorrow, so bake those pies. Make your stuffing, but don’t stuff the bird. Doing so can turn into a bacteriological nightmare. Anyway, you’re probably smoking or deep-frying the critter, so bake the stuffing separately after dousing it with the fattiest part of the chicken stock.

Calculate oven space! A roasting bird typically wipes out the upper rack, so cook the casseroles that won’t fit. You’ll have time to bring them back up to serving temperature tomorrow once the cooked turkey is resting. Calculate refrigerator space! Usually it’s cold enough for me to use back-porch space (make sure to check with a thermometer—it needs to be a reliable 35 to 38 degrees Farenheit) Otherwise, I use only squared-off storage containers and baking dishes. Curves waste fridge space.

On the day: Rise early. Brew plenty of coffee. Pull the turkey out of the fridge to get it to room temperature about an hour before you start cooking it. Prepare remaining desserts. I usually serve some manner of chocolate mousse, which is easy to make but requires chill time. It goes into the icebox as other containers are coming out. Make sure your dining room is dressed, the wine is chilled and other beverages are ready. Lay out the appetizers. Dragoon someone in the family to keep the dog away from the food.

This is the day when I can get away with making mashed potatoes with all the butter and cream and cheese that dish deserves. That’s a stovetop item. I start boiling the spuds a couple of hours before service, and they’re still cooking as the guests arrive. At which point your turkey should be ready. If it’s been roasted, let it rest.

Sometimes I sneak in a steamed or stir-fried vegetable dish. The most critical stovetop item, however, is gravy. It starts with a roux, a one-to-one mixture of flour and melted butter that you stir over low heat until it’s attractively brown. Whisk in stock and any flavor components (wine, fruit purée) and season, keeping it smooth.

Pull out the serving dishes, making sure they’re at least at room temperature. You can run hot water over them if needed. The buffet table is ready. Fill the serving dishes and press-gang a brigade into carrying them to the dining room. Bring out the turkey platter yourself. As the applause subsides, fill your wine glass and propose a toast.