Have you felt it? There’s a chill in the air. The trees are starting to shed their lush look. The days are getting shorter, which, while not a positive thing in itself, is a precursor of something great. Soon enough the most magical time of the year will kick off and we will be in the middle of the holiday season.
Recently it was pointed out to us that in the UK people are not afraid to say they celebrate “Christmas” and we don’t have to be politically correct and say “holidays” instead. But while we appreciate the reminder and the freedom, the holidays encompass more than just the Christmas period. For us they start in exactly two months with one of our favorite times of the year – Thanksgiving.
We might not be spending November 27 in the US, but that doesn’t mean that we will miss celebrating this holiday. After all, what better excuse to throw a great dinner party? And this year, we have guests visiting, and we’re excited to cook for more than just the two of us. We’ve already started discussing the menu and what we need to do to throw a good party while being able to enjoy it ourselves.
We know from experience that throwing a great party and also having fun is possible, but not without some planning. And since we’ve done it before and were able to learn from our mistakes, we want to share the following tips:
1. Set your menu: Preparation is key and you cannot be well prepared without knowing what you’re making ahead of time. As part of your menu planning, ask your guests whether they have any food allergies or aversions and make sure to accommodate for that. It would be awful to have someone with a nut allergy turn up soon after you’ve thrown your turkey in a fryer filled with peanut oil! You’ll be embarrassed, your guest will feel unwelcome, and you’ll just have to scramble to make another dish that they can eat. One of us has a fish allergy and we always tell our host when we’re invited for dinner, but that doesn’t mean everyone will remember to tell you. Take the initiative and gather the information. Then start planning.
2. Know your kitchen: If you’re blessed to have a chef’s kitchen with a double oven and a six-hob stove, you should be able to make many dishes at the same time. Most of us don’t have that luxury. So it’s imperative to know what can be handled by your kitchen. Can your oven fit a 20lb turkey or do you need to go smaller? And can you put anything else in the oven while your protein is cooking? How about making sure you have enough pans to cook different dishes? And what about serving dishes? Do you have enough or do you need to purchase more or slim down the menu? We try to do a theoretical dry run where we think of every single pot and pan we have and how it’s going to be used. Open your cupboards and get a visual – there might be a dish you received as a gift lurking in the back of the closet that would come in handy.
3. Order your protein: Remember that scene from Christmas With The Kranks, when Mrs Krank, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, tries to get the last hickory-honey ham at the supermarket?
You really don’t want to end up in the same predicament, running around like a headless chicken trying to get your hands on the necessary protein for your party. This is especially true if your dinner is on a big holiday when other people will be emptying the shelves. We order our Thanksgiving turkey weeks in advance. Our suggestion is to find a reliable butcher or supermarket and ask them to reserve one. Ask around to make sure they’re reliable and won’t leave you in the lurch at the last minute. Also, make sure you’re going to be able to pick it up before they close. You just don’t want to turn and find the door closed with your precious protein trapped inside.
4. Make a cooking plan: One of the keys for success without stress is to know what you’re going to cook, how long it will take, and how long beforehand you can make it. As we mentioned earlier, not everyone has a kitchen big enough to allow them to cook everything at the same time. Even if you do have the dream kitchen, do you really want to be peeling 5lbs of potatoes the morning of your party? We think not. So when we’re planning our menu we make sure to include dishes that can be prepared the day before and then reheated. Some get even better when they sit in the fridge overnight. For example, this year’s Thanksgiving menu includes turkey with stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce, which need to be made on the day (although we make cornbread for the stuffing the day before). Mashed potatoes, butternut squash puree, and roasted root vegetables will all be made the day before and then reheated while the turkey is resting and we’re making the gravy. We’ve learned that as long as we take them out of the fridge and allow them to get to room temperature, they only need 20 minutes or so, especially since the oven will be piping hot. One of us is very OCD and even puts calendar alerts for when different items need to come out of the fridge. We haven’t yet decided on a starter, but it will be either soup, which can be made the day before and reheated, or salad, that doesn’t take long to put together.
5. Don’t kill the buzz with fuss: You might want to impress your guests with your culinary skills and serve a just-made soufflé for dessert. But unless you’re an expert, you might want to give this a pass and try something a little less complicated, or better still that can be made ahead of time. We tend to make pies a couple of days beforehand, but if you want to be a little more fancy, why not make crème brûlée? You can make and set the custard ahead of time and then just brown the sugar with a blow torch just before serving. You could even make some macerated seasonal fruits to serve with.
6. Start shopping: Part of our preparation includes aggregating the ingredients needed for all the dishes and then breaking them down into three lists – what can be bought in advance, what needs to be bought a couple of days before, and what needs to be purchased at the last possible minute. This allows us to start purchasing items and storing them. It also gives us a chance to determine whether certain items are hard to find and need to be ordered online. For example, we know none of the supermarkets close to us have cornmeal for our cornbread, so we might have to order that online. Especially if your party is on a holiday, this strategy avoids you having to brave the crowds for that pack of butter you so desperately need.
Of course, even the best of plans can go awry. But being prepared will avoid a lot of last minute hassle and allows you to enjoy time with your guests while also showcasing your culinary skills. Who said you can’t have the cake and eat it too?