Pulling Off the Feast – Timing and Resource Management

When planning big meals, such as the Thanksgiving dinner, a mistake that many folks make is to not consider the cooking methods required and the available resources to do it all. To state it more plainly, you can’t roast a turkey, heat the stuffing, cook that green bean casserole, roast sweet potatoes, and bake rolls all in the same 4 hour window with one conventional oven. So, as much as you might want to make all those dishes, you have to adjust your own expectations a little bit to be successful. (My definition of success does include keeping one’s sanity in the process of delivering beautiful food.)

As you plan your menu, take into consideration what can be made ahead (pies, stuffing, many other dishes), how many burners you have, how to use your oven space, etc. What other heat sources are available to you – grill, crock pot, microwave, electric skillet? Don’t forget about refrigerator space, either. A turkey takes up a lot of room – can you store everything you need? You can use coolers and a kind neighbor’s refrigerator if need be (it helps if you invite that neighbor to your dinner). One thing I always do in the weeks before Thanksgiving is to cook everything I possibly can from my freezer and refrigerator in order to free up the space.

We are having 30 people this year for a sit-down dinner. We will be serving turkey, ham, gravy for the turkey, sauce for the ham, two kinds of stuffing, several vegetable dishes, mashed potatoes, a green salad, fresh cranberry relish, cranberry chutney, and of course, pies for dessert. I have a conventional oven, 4 burners, and a microwave that can also serve as a convection oven (sort of). My kitchen is smallish, but I have room to set up a folding table, which will he helpful when staging food. A few friends bring a dish, most will help me in the kitchen when they arrive. I have to be resourceful if I want to still have some fun. Here’s how I’m doing it this year:In the weeks before: I’ll roast the pumpkin I bought in October and freeze the pulp for pies. I’ll confirm my guests and start planning my menu.

Thanksgiving Week:
Tuesday
-All the shopping is done.
-Take pumpkin out of freezer and put in refrigerator to thaw.

Wednesday
-Make pumpkin pies. My friend Lynda is bringing apple pies.
-Make stuffing: While pies are baking, I will make the conventional sage stuffing and pre-bake it in several pans, making sure to not brown it. I’ll even fill the pan of my slow-cooker with stuffing and store it in the refrigerator. My cousin Christine will bring cornbread stuffing.
-Make the cranberry relish and chutney, storing in the refrigerator when done.
-Prep whatever vegetables are being served (haven’t decided yet) and store in the refrigerator. If any will take well to pre-cooking, such as sweet potatoes, I’ll cook them.
-Prepare dining area: My son Joshua will stop by after work to help move furniture and position the tables. Then we’ll set the tables.
-Last thing on Wednesday night, I will place the turkey in its brine. I will clear all work surfaces in the kitchen for maximum prep area for tomorrow.

Thursday
– Very early morning, I take everything out of the refrigerator. There is nothing on my menu that will spoil by sitting out for a few hours, and by bringing it to room temperature, re-heating will happen quickly. The turkey is taken out of the brine to warm up and dry off.
-10:15 preheat oven. Since I am making a 24 pound turkey, I can’t roast it in 2.5 hours, like my high-heat recipe, but I can pull it off in about 4 hours. Dinner’s at 3:00, so at 10:30, the turkey is in the oven and the slow-cooker is turned on, warming the stuffing. I make the roux and get the stock going for the gravy. At this point, I am setting my timer every 20 minutes to remind me to baste the turkey.
-12:00, I start my gas grill. I will turn it to low and this is where the ham will heat up (ham is spiral cut, purchased from Costco. Not my favorite, but it is a crowd pleaser and it requires little effort). I have a large metal pan that I put an inch of water in and set on the grill. Over that I place a rack. The ham is put in another roasting pan, covered with foil, then set on the rack.
-Now folks are showing up. The first recruits – er, guests who offer to help – are set up at a potato peeling station. Paper bags on the floor, peelers in hand, and a big pot of water to throw the peeled potatoes in. Give them beverages and a plate of cheese and crackers to nibble.
-1:30, I start heating the water for the potatoes. This is a massive amount of potatoes, and it will take a long time to heat that much water. Meanwhile, I start coordinating the heating of other sides, using the burners, microwave, etc. Most will happen last minute, but I like to take this time to give it some thought.
2:00 Potatoes go in water, will cook in about 20 minutes. Then they will be mashed (by a guest) and set on a very low burner to stay warm. Gravy gets started, other sides are cooked at the appropriate times.
-2:30 Grill is turned off, ham is brought in. Turkey comes out of the oven, gets wrapped with foil, and pans of stuffing go in the oven at 375°. The stuffing from the crock pot will hit the table first, with the others to remain in the oven until needed. Gravy gets finished with pan juices while I am instructing my helpers on what to do (Steam that broccoli! Slice the bread! Salad to the table!)
-3:00 We are at the table, glasses raised. Cheers, then we dig in.

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