It’s the week before Thanksgiving. You’re sitting pretty with a cup of (whiskey spiked?) cider feeling assured that mom — like every year — is taking care of the massive undertaking of cooking for 20. Even though you’ve razzed her about buying canned gravy and rolled your eyes over bags of frozen peas, you’re actually looking forward to the big meal: the late-afternoon arrival at your cousin’s house, the casual catching-up before the dinner bell rings, and the nap-filled laziness that follows. But suddenly, out of nowhere, mom approaches and says, “We thought YOU could do Thanksgiving this year.”
Dreams trashed. No more time to relax. Chug that cider. Bring it on.
If you’ve managed to escape this experience, consider yourself very lucky. To have no game plan a week out from Thanksgiving is very scary — especially when you just can’t bring yourself to take the easy way out and rely on frozen ingredients, pre-made dishes, and canned sides. But don’t panic! RJC’s production chef Leigh will help settle your nerves by sharing her secrets on how to tackle Thanksgiving prep like a pro caterer.
I never cook for large groups. This is very intimidating. Where do I start?
“This may sound obvious and oft-repeated, but the best way to reduce stress on the big day is to set yourself up for success. Asking guests to bring a favorite dish or two will not only reduce your work load but make them feel included. Choose dishes that can be served at room temperature or assembled ahead of time. Don’t go overboard: remember that no one equates the success of the holiday with the number of menu items or difficulty of dishes. Just keep it simple.
Are there any secret chef tips that can make Thanksgiving prep more efficient from the get go? Or any catering practices a home cook could use to make this undertaking easier?
“Write a prep list! This is the biggest thing you can do to keep the festivities on track. We write one every day for every member of the kitchen team. Start by writing down your full menu. Then write down when you will prepare each element of the dish. Finally, write a shopping list based on your prep list. This may seem like type-A overkill, but it will help you think through every aspect of the day so that it is stress-free. Don’t forget to add things to the prep list like “set table,” which can be done ahead of time.
My kitchen has one stove and four burners. But there’s so much food to make. Do I have enough space to get this done?
“Yes. The main trick is to write a your menu to your equipment, not the other way around!
OK. I know what I’m making and delegated my kitchen space. How do I determine how much to buy for adequate portions?
“One way I visualize portions is to imagine how much of a dish I will eat, then multiply it by the number of guests. For example, 10 people equals 10 handfuls of green beans. Then add a little “buffer.” Break it down this way rather than by imagining what you need to fill a huge serving dish full of green beans.
Time is flying, and now it’s the day before Thanksgiving. Can I start making anything now?
“You can get started several days before Thanksgiving! In catering, one way we get ahead is to do vegetable prep on day one, assemble the dish on day two, then reheat on day three. You can use this trick at home, too. Potatoes for mash can be peeled and chopped several days in advance and stored in water, cranberry sauce can be made up to a week before, and the turkey can be brined a few days in advance. The same goes for gravy. I usually buy a turkey neck and make it into turkey stock the day before. Then, stir it into the delicious pan juices for an easy gravy right before you sit down to eat.
Thanksgiving is here! What foods should be fired first? Ideally, I want everything to be served warm and sent out at the same time.
“A few random tips: Mashed potatoes reheat best on top of a double boiler or gently rewarmed on the stove with a splash of cream. And remember, the turkey needs to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour. Take advantage of this time to reheat casseroles and other dishes.
What are the best platters to serve my food in?
“I think the best platters are big enough to hold the food comfortably without it looking cramped. If you’ve been saving any special plates or platters, now is the time to use them! My family has all sizes of big, white platters that we mix in with my mom’s china serving pieces.
I did it! Now what seasonal sweet should I treat myself to for all my effort?
“How about a seasonal beer? Try Affligem Noel. It’s a Belgian Strong Dark Ale that has the tastes of biscuits, fig, molasses, spices, and some fruit at the end.”
What are your tricks that ease the Thanksgiving prep process? Tell us in the comments below.