Three steamers running, tinfoil-covered dishes spread out over the counter, turkey about to come out of the oven and rolls about to go in, a stove-top covered in pots of squash and potatoes — somehow, your little kitchen has transformed into a restaurant-level production and your “sous chef” is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is no easy task.
“I think people are so timid about hosting Thanksgiving because it is a nightmare — you want everything hot and you want everything to come out at the same time,” Kristen Chinosi, owner of The Culinary Playground in Derry, said. “The beauty of it is a lot of Thanksgiving dishes are really simple. … So much of it can be prepared ahead of time.”
Imagine a less stressful Turkey Day where instead of spending all your time in the kitchen, you can actually enjoy a glass of wine while catching up over appetizers with family and friends. It’s not impossible. The Hippo talked to local chefs and business owners who have mastered the art of make-ahead meals, and they’re here to help.
Chefs Ron Boucher and Aaron Duvall of Chez Boucher Culinary Arts Training Center and Savory Square Bistro of Hampton, and Stefan Ryll of Southern New Hampshire University’s Culinary Arts program also shared some hints on how to transform Thanksgiving dinner and its leftovers.
“It’s going to be a lot of work any way you look at it, but if you can dole it out ahead of time rather than being a frazzled mess on the day of, I really think you can make it successful and enjoy it,” Chinosi said.
If you want to get a head start, follow our planner to tackle Turkey Day bit by bit. Plus, check out tips on how to rock a Thanksgiving potluck, and recipes that’ll help you empty your fridge of leftovers one delicious meal at a time.
The week before
Be a pro-planner
The best way to stay on top of Turkey Day is to be organized. Start by coming up with a menu and figure out which dishes you can do in advance, when you can make them, what you’ll need and what you’ll be doing on the day of the party.
“It’s really about planning and not trying to overdo it,” said Jane Coplan, manager of Dream Dinners in Bedford, which works with clients to create make-ahead meals all year round. “You can do it a little at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Keeping it simple is the best approach.”
“I think fleshing it out ahead of time [is key],” said Chinosi.
Like Coplan, Chinosi is a make-ahead expert. She offers a meal prep workshop at The Culinary Playground where attendees prepare a week’s worth of meals in one afternoon.
“Take the time to sit down, plan out your menu and have a plan of attack,” she said.
Once you have your menu ready, see what you can assign to guests to bring to the dinner. Most guests want to be able to help and to bring something, whether it’s a pie, an appetizer or a bottle of wine. After that, figure out your grocery list and decide if you want to place any orders at local bakeries or shops.
“You have to be organized. You have to know exactly what your menu is and what you’re going to make,” Chinosi said.
If you want to save even more time for Turkey Day by avoiding the grocery store, Dream Dinners has options for take-and-bake dishes, including boneless turkey.
“We have all the side dishes from the stuffing to the green bean casserole to the mashed potatoes to the gravy,” Coplan said.
Organization and planning are key to Chinosi’s meal prep workshops, where she generally plans one Crock Pot dish, one casserole and two other cooking and reheating methods (say, in the oven or on the stovetop).
Your freezer is your friend
Once you have your menu set, make Sunday your prep day. Instead of doing all the prep work yourself, Chinosi recommends turning it into a social occasion ― “Then it’s not so boring and so mundane,” she said.
Invite friends over to prep. Start by cutting vegetables and putting them in plastic storage bags or containers. If you’re making pies, prepare the dough for the pie crust and freeze it.
“While you can freeze it in a ball, why not roll it out, fit it to the pie plate and freeze?” Chinosi said. “That will save even more time on the big day. They can then be stacked in the freezer, which will be easier to store than balled up.”
Freezing dishes in advance won’t harm any of the ingredients, Coplan and Chinosi said, but some freeze better than others.
“It’s more about things that you really shouldn’t freeze,” Chinosi said.
Vegetables with a lot of moisture (like mashed potatoes) won’t freeze well. And cream-based dishes will taste fine but look weird. The dairy clots together so if you do choose to freeze a pumpkin soup or butternut squash, Chinosi recommends reblending the dishes after taking them out of the freezer.
Gravy and cranberry sauce are both great make-ahead dishes. You can keep a gravy base (with the stock, aromatics and vegetables) in the freezer even a month ahead of the holiday, and then add drippings to the base on the day of, Chinosi said.
“I look at it as a marrying of all those ingredients. When you’re blending them prior to freezing you’re affording the ability for those ingredients to interact and get all that flavor,” Coplan said. “It really enhances the flavor and it enhances the ingredients.”
If you prefer to make cranberry sauce or chutney, that will also store well in a covered container in the fridge.
Of course, you can also take shortcuts with dishes like the gravy and cranberry sauce, if you prefer the canned variety.
Monday & Tuesday
Get those side dishes stowed away
After school or after dinner a couple nights before can be the perfect time to spend preparing for the holiday with kids. Rather than have too many cooks in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, kids of any age can prepare pies, cookies and breads early without the stress of the big day and still spend quality time as a family.
For those dishes that won’t store well in the freezer ― like mashed potatoes, squash and green bean casserole ― you can still prepare them in advance and store them in the fridge up to three days before. Many casserole dishes also freeze well, too.
“Casseroles are really good for that. The beauty of it is it’s one thing in a pan,” Chinosi said. “[For mashed potatoes], make it up however you normally would, grease a casserole dish and load it up. Top it with some melted butter and wrap it up.”
Early preparation also helps to intensify the flavor.
“Think about the stuffing,” Chinosi said. “Those flavors are mulling together and getting intensified.”
Another time-saving tip? Don’t stuff the bird. It will take longer to cook and can also result in a drier turkey. Prepare the stuffing on its own a few days before, and it’s one less thing to do on Turkey Day.
If you want a dish to taste especially fresh on Thanksgiving Day, both Chinosi and Chef Ron Boucher of Chez Boucher Culinary Arts Training Center and Savory Square Bistro of Hampton recommend preparing it, but not cooking it, ahead of time. So instead of making it, keeping it in the fridge and then re-heating it, prepare it so it’s ready to cook on Turkey Day.
“The whole idea behind it — to not be a slave to the kitchen — is to prepare everything that you could possibly prepare ahead of time so that the day of the holiday you can have fun,” Boucher said.
Boucher and Stefan Ryll of Southern New Hampshire University’s Culinary Arts program both said that one thing you want to spend more time doing is brining your turkey.
“It adds moisture and flavor,” Ryll said.
The extra effort is worth the time, they said, and you can make the brine ahead of time so it’s not adding to your workload on the big day.
“Personally, I started brining about, I want to say five Thanksgivings ago, and I don’t think I’ll ever have another turkey that I don’t take the time to brine,” Boucher said. “It just makes all the difference in the world.”
To brine your turkey, make brine with a quart of water, 1½ cups of salt, bay leaves and spices (like coriander seeds, peppercorns, fennel and mustard seeds), let simmer and stir until the salt has dissolved. Once your brine has cooled, place your turkey in a brining or oven-roasting bag in a large container. Add the brine to the bag with about six quarts of water and any other desired ingredients (wine, onions, garlic and thyme, for example). Make sure the turkey is submerged and tie the bag closed. Refrigerate for 24 hours, flipping the turkey after about 12 hours.
The night before
Go down your checklist and see what’s left to do. The turkey should be thawed and ready to go, and submerged in brine if you choose to go that route. Your fridge is loaded with pies and casseroles. Use the night before to prep whatever you haven’t done yet. Dips for appetizers can be made Wednesday night, and there’s still time to make a pie or a casserole (or two).
“I will often make my Crock Pot meal the night before,” Chinosi said.
Also, there is no law against cooking the turkey ahead of time. Let it cool, break down the bird and slice the meat, then place the turkey meat in a casserole dish. Put some turkey stock in the dish before you heat it up, and make sure to cover the dish so that it steams. Let it reheat, covered in the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes.
“We served that to the [Thanksgiving] party with the president [of Southern New Hampshire University] and I got so many emails the next day,” Ryll said.
Re-heat and rock it
The table is set, the sides and desserts are made, and the only thing left to deal with, if you can’t bring yourself to make it ahead of time, is the bird. While some deep fry the turkey or stuff it with a duck, Chinosi recommends a new turkey trend that saves time. Spatchcocking is when you cut out the backbone so the turkey cooks flat.
“You’re saving almost 50 percent of your cooking time,” Chinosi said. “The only downside is you don’t have that classic presentation.”
Spatchcocking (though its name is unattractive) saves time, cooks the turkey evenly, prevents it from cooking too long and drying out, and results in juicy white and dark meat.
If you’re cooking a turkey the traditional way, the breast meat is up high and the darker meat is underneath so it takes longer to cook — and Boucher recommends cooking the turkey at the lowest temperature possible.
“Also ... cook it breast-side down for first half of the cooking time. So if it’s four hours, two hours cook it breast-side down,” Boucher said. “Always put foil down between the rack and the bird so that it’s easier to pick up and turn over and that just helps — gravity helps. The fat is in the legs and the thighs and that helps keep the breast moist.”
“I also like taking the spoon or the spatula and separating the skin from the breast and putting butter in there with seasonings,” Chef Aaron Duvall of Chez Boucher Culinary Arts Training Center and Savory Square Bistro of Hampton said. “That basically is doing the same thing as cooking it upside down by adding fat where there’s a lack of it.”
Boucher said that during cooking classes around the holidays at Chez Boucher, he always answers the same three questions: “Cooking the turkey, carving the turkey and making the gravy,” he said. “Those are the big three.”
“Gravy seems to add stress to everybody’s Thanksgiving because it’s always the last thing, or they save it for the last thing before everybody eats, and then everybody wants to eat and the gravy’s not ready or it doesn’t come out right,” Boucher said. “I always start by taking the legs off, which opens up the breast completely, instead of trying to carve the breast side down in between the legs. … You can easily take the breast meat off in its entirety and then it’s a lot easier to slice off the bird than it is on the bird. … There’s dark meat people and there’s white meat people, and if you’re like me, I like a little bit of both. … The biggest thing … is cutting against the grain, whatever the grain is, that you’re not cutting these long strands of meat.”
Ryll recommends cooking your green vegetables on Thanksgiving. That way, they keep their bright green color without turning brown.
Once your guests start arriving and the turkey is out of the oven, it’s time to reheat all those dishes.
“Luckily, most stuff reheats at 350 degrees,” Chinosi said. “Think about how many casserole dishes you could fit in your oven.”
The key to preventing your dishes from drying out when you go to reheat them is to add some liquid. Reheating mashed potatoes? Add a little cream or milk or a bit of butter, Ryll said. Cover and let it steam in the oven.
“Never reheat above the temperature you originally cooked the item,” Duvall said. “Always let it take a little bit longer to reheat at a lower temperature with stock or gravy.”
As seen in the November 20, 2014 issue of the Hippo.