Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thanksgiving 101: Timing Is Everything

Timing is a challenge in any kind of cooking—and especially when it comes to a meal as ambitious and symbolically significant as Thanksgiving.

Much as I love the fact that my cousin and I have taken over making our extended family's T-Day dinner, there are always some performance-anxiety jitters about getting everything on the table on time. In fact, in the week or so leading up to the big meal, I invariably have an annually recurring nightmare that we are supposed to serve dinner at 4:00 but it's 3:30 and the turkey has not gone into the oven yet. (Seriously, it's a really specific dream—even my subconscious is anal-retentive.)

To keep you from getting Butterball-related butterflies in your stomach, here are some tips on Thanksgiving-dinner time management.

  • First, as soon as you get your groceries, check them against your shopping list to make sure nothing is missing. Better to send someone out to the store right away than to discover on T-Day a missing ingredient that derails a dish.

  • The cardinal rule: Anything that can be made in advance, should be. This means almost everything except turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes, and possibly green vegetables (but seriously, who eats green vegetables on Thanksgiving? Unless they are from a can, mixed with cream of mushroom soup, topped with Funyuns, and baked in a casserole dish—in which case they can be made in advance).

  • Make a timeline of when to prepare various dishes (sometimes in stages—e.g., you can make crust for pumpkin pie one night, filling the next). Be sure to compare this against your menu so nothing slips through the cracks.

  • For the timeline, make a list of tasks under Tuesday and Wednesday (yes, it's an epic process, this) in no particular order. Then for Thursday, include times, working backward from when you want to serve the main meal. For instance, if your dinner is at, let's say, 4 PM and guests are arriving at 2:30 PM, you'd be like: "2:15 PM: Reheat hot appetizers" and "3:45 PM: Let turkey rest; make gravy." (Or: "3:58 PM: Open can of gravy and heat." I won't judge…well, okay, maybe just a little.)

  • Don’t freak out if you have scheduled your Thursday to-dos and find yourself running behind! Just be sure to have plenty of wine on hand (or Dora the Explorer DVDs for the little ones) so people don't mind if they have to wait a little longer for dinner.

  • It's also a good idea to identify a relative or two whom you can conscript as a sous-chef as needed—one who will (a) be helpful, (b) not try to call the shots, and (c) be unfazed by you barking orders and running around like a crazy person with bits of stuffing in your hair.

  • Conversely, DO NOT under any circumstances let that toxic, passive-aggressive douchebag [insert name of relative fitting this description] into the kitchen, as s/he will undermine you and discombobulate you, throwing you off your timing rhythm. And food thrown in frustration across the kitchen cannot be unthrown.

  • Last but most important: You're there to spend quality time with your family, and the food is not the most important thing, so don't stress too much about making everything perfect. Ha-ha, yeah, right. AS IF the food is not the most important thing. Anyway, don't overcook the turkey. Thanksgiving will be ruined.

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