Just seven for dinner this year with three stopping by later for leftovers and pie. No vegan guests, but two pesco-vegetarians, which means they eat fish and eggs. So the menu was simple. However, I still prepared some of my dishes using coconut milk and no butter just because I thought the dishes really tasted better prepared that way. I had all day Wednesday free, so I was able to make a lot of the dinner ahead. Here are some notes from this year's feast, in no particular order, just so I can look back next year and remember what worked for me.
Make ahead on Wednesday: Stuffing, yams, pies, cranberry sauce, salad, and rolls (this year I bought the rolls and pies). Chill the drinks. Set the table. Select all the serving dishes and utensils and have them ready. Thanksgiving day goes so smoothly with all this advanced prep.
Cranberry Sauce. Simple -- just a cup of sugar, a cup of orange juice, and 12 oz pkg. of fresh cranberries. Cook and stir over medium heat 10 minutes or so to reduce liquid. Can continue to simmer on low stirring frequently until liquid is reduced enough. At the very last, I add my secret ingredient -- a half teaspoon of vanilla. Chill in refrigerator until ready to serve. Sauce thickens when chilled.
Stuffing. Made my own bread cubes with two loaves of bread. Toasted cubes under the broiler. Two loaves is perfect so everyone has some leftovers to take home. Used all the usual seasonings along with sauteed veggies (I used butter for sauteing, but if I have vegan guests, I use dairy-free margarine). Moistened bread with one can of coconut milk and two cans of vegetable broth. Added a half cup of walnuts and one can of water chestnuts (drained and slightly chopped) and sauteed veggies. Covered and refrigerated until needed. Baked at 370 for 30 minutes. Yams and stuffing go in the oven together 40 minutes before dinner, so they come out of the oven 10 minutes before dinner.
Yams. The simplest thing to fix. Boil whole, unpeeled yams in a large pot of water for an hour. Drain and cool enough to handle. The skin peels of easily with a paring knife. In a baking pan, spread some melted butter or spray with vegetable spray. Slice yams into round medallion shapes about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Layer in the baking pan. After each layer, salt lightly, drizzle with melted butter, and sprinkle with brown sugar. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.
Mashed Potatoes. I made a really huge pot this year because we had no leftovers last year. Probably nine pounds (most of a 10-pound bag). Peeled in the morning, cut into 3-inch pieces and placed in a large pot of cold water until ready to cook. Started cooking 45 minutes before dinner. Cook over high to boil and reduce heat to medium to continue boil for 35 minutes. Mashed, adding only a can of coconut milk and very light salt, no butter. This makes them vegan or vegetarian, but honestly, they are the most delicious mashed potatoes you'll ever eat. I enlisted help mashing since things are chaotic in the kitchen the last 30 minutes. Mash in the pot and cover with a lid to keep hot until serving.
Rolls. This year I decided at the last minute to buy rolls from Winegar's instead of making my own. It was a good choice as it saved me time and work, and Winegar's rolls are really good. I bought three dozen so there were plenty for people to take home for turkey sandwiches. I didn't even heat them up, but could certainly have put them in for 10 minutes after the yams and stuffing came out of the oven.
Turkey. Just a 13-pounder. It's big enough. The family likes turkey, but any more than this would just be wasted.
Salmon. I make this every year for the vegetarians, but honestly, every guest has some as my recipe is really good (and simple). This year I cooked three pounds of salmon, so there was extra for taking home. Even though my recipe says to set the oven to 475, I set it to 370 as it has to go in while I'm also heating the yams and stuffing on the lower rack. I put a half to 3/4 stick of butter and 4 tablespoons of chopped parsley in a shallow baking pan and put it on the top shelf in the oven long enough to melt the butter. Placed the salmon on the baking pan, skin side up, and baked for about 6 minutes. Removed from oven (at this point you can remove the skin, but I didn't), turn the fish over. Salt and pepper and return to the oven for 5 or more minutes until done. I do the salmon at the end of the baking time for the yams and stuffing and after the gravies are already made and simmering on the stove.
Green beans. One large bag of prepared fresh green beans is enough. Blanched these in the morning (placed in boiling water for 10 minutes and then plunged into ice water to chill immediately) and then refrigerated until the salmon is in the oven. While the salmon baked, I sauteed beans over a med-high heat in olive oil and fresh garlic (I press it, but you can chop) for 3 or 4 minutes. Use tongs and turn these constantly to heat all of the beans through and not burn. Turn the heat down or off, cover the pan to keep the beans hot until ready to serve.
Drinks. I always offer a cabernet sauvignon, but this year I also had a Kendall Jackson sauvignon blanc and it was very popular. A bottle of each was enough this year, but I would double that if I had 12 or more people. I had soft drinks (a dozen coke, a dozen diet coke), but no-one drank any although they did take some home. I had 10 bottles of the zero-calorie orange sparkling drinks for the kids and a lot of those went home with the families, too.
Pies. Heck, I just bought the Marie Callendar's frozen pies this year: apple and banana cream. Also the pumpkin, but it looked so small, I ended up buying a larger one at Smith's bakery. Even with sending pie home with everyone, I ended up with that one Marie Callendar's pumpkin pie untouched. Next time, I'll just bake two MC pies and buy the pumpkin fresh.
Gravies. I did the usual mushroom red wine gravy for vegetarians and simple turkey gravy for everyone else. Had to send my son to get mushrooms at the last minute as the ones I had bought on Sunday and gone bad. Lesson learned. I made the gravies while the potatoes boiled after putting the yams and stuffing in the oven. Even the mushroom gravy only takes 10 minutes to make, and I put both gravies on back burners and a low simmer, stirring occasionally. Also, I added the wine to the mushroom gravy just a minute or two before serving for best flavor. I had read that if you add the wine too soon, it can add a bitter taste to the gravy.
Salad. Just my very popular make ahead broccoli-grape-pasta salad.
Hors D'oeuvres. None. I had pretzels and candies set out along with the wines and wine glasses on the server in the living room, so people had a drink and a little taste of chocolate before dinner. Forget all the cheese and crackers or crab-stuffed goodies. People want to fill up on the main event.
As far as buying food the Sunday before, it's fine for the turkey and most everything else. But knowing what I know now, I would make a short shopping trip on Wednesday to purchase the mushrooms, a fresh pumpkin pie, and rolls.
Timing is crazy the last hour before serving in order to have everything done at the same time. I do the turkey in a roaster so my oven is free for this crucial time. With that in mind, here's how I manage the last hour before dinner when serving at 2 p.m.
- As people arrive, invite them to select a drink. Also enlist helpers for last minute serving.
- 1:00 (Or any time sooner) Put butter, salt and pepper and lemon wedges on the buffet. Whisk together the thickening agent for gravies (flour and liquid) and set aside. Can also saute the mushrooms etc. for the gravy earlier and set aside until needed.
- 1:05 Preheat oven to 370.
- 1:10 Start the potatoes cooking on high.
- 1:15 Put yams and stuffing in oven, bottom rack. Put the shallow pan for salmon on the top rack to melt the butter. Remove as soon as butter melts.
- 1:20 Make mushroom gravy and put on back burner to simmer.
- 1:30 Remove turkey from roaster. Lift out with the rack handles, place on a baking pan, and tent with foil and allow to rest for 30 minutes. Pour off liquid for gravy.
- 1:35 Make turkey gravy and put on back burner to simmer.
- 1:40 Test potatoes. If not done, cook for 5 more minutes. If done, drain, mash in the pot and cover until ready to serve (you always get offers of help and this is a great one to assign to someone).
- 1:45 Put salmon in the oven.
- 1:46 Start sauteing green beans on high. After 3 or 4 minutes, cover, reduce or remove from heat.
- 1:46 Set out salad, rolls and cranberry sauce for serving (I assigned this task to grandkids).
- 1:47 Stir wine into gravy and continue to simmer very low.
- 1:50 Remove yams and stuffing from oven and set out for serving (assign someone to add serving spoons, forks spatulas, etc, as needed to the hot dishes).
- 1:51 Remove salmon from oven, turn it over and return to oven for 6 to 8 more minutes.
- 1:52 Move turkey to a serving platter and slice some white and dark meat. A grandchild can decorate the platter with parsley now.
- 1:59 Put into serving dishes the mashed potatoes, gravies and green beans. Remove salmon from oven and place on a serving platter. Cut into individual portions and drizzle with some of the butter from the pan.
- 2:00 Dinner is served.
Whew! You really have to keep moving and be organized to have all the food done and hot at the same time. This works for me.
I serve buffet style as my table is really too narrow for all those serving dishes along with the place settings. So when the hot food is ready, I invite people to bring a plate from the table and serve themselves from the buffet. I provide smaller plates for cold foods like salad and roll. All of this is very efficiently handled using my kitchen island.
So that's it for another year. Dinner was a success and the family stayed and stayed. Every year I think I might not do the dinner. But knowing how important the tradition is to my family, I keep it up. It's such a pleasure to see how people enjoy the day together and how they really enjoy the food. Yes, I will probably do it again next year. But now I've written down the little details, I won't have to think it all through again. My plan is right here.