How to Prepare for Your Thanksgiving Dinner

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It's time to tackle hosting a holiday event.
It's time to tackle hosting a holiday event. (Image: thanksgiving dinner image by Richard Amidon III from Fotolia.com)

It's that time of year again--time to gather with friends and family, turn on some football, put away the bathroom scale and eat like you haven't since … well … last Thanksgiving. This year, take a chance on preparing the meal yourself. It's time to tackle hosting a holiday event. After all, cooking can be fun, rewarding and tasty.

Follow a Countdown Schedule

Thanksgiving dinners require a lot of planning in advance and at least a couple of trips to the supermarket, so following a countdown schedule is useful when planning your Thanksgiving feast:

As soon as you decide to host a dinner, make up a guest list and invite your guests. Don't invite more people than you can afford to feed. Invite people via phone calls, so you can get an instant yes or no.

Do your shopping one week before. If you wait until the last couple of days, all the decent-sized turkeys will be gone and you'll have to settle for a small one or fool your guests with a giant chicken. Buy all the ingredients for your recipes, and put the turkey in the coldest part of your freezer.

Make sure you have all the necessary cooking equipment. In addition to the usual assortment of pots and pans, locate a cheese grater, a strainer, an electric mixer and various sized mixing bowls and baking dishes.

Three days before Thanksgiving, do a massive cleaning job on your fridge--you're going to need the room. Also, take the turkey out of the freezer and move it into the refrigerator, so it can properly defrost.

One day before, prepare all your side dishes and pies. Unless you have more than one oven, you might not have the room to bake any thing with the turkey at the same time. This also gives you more time to schmooze with your guests. Get dinner rolls, salad, drinks, ice, napkins and table decorations.

On Thanksgiving day, prepare the rest of the food (especially the turkey) about five hours before you plan to eat, set the table and serve the meal.

Prepare the Turkey

To get the tastiest and safest bird possible, pick out a turkey that is 4- to 6-months-old, Grade A and USDA-approved. Buy a frozen turkey at least three days in advance so you can properly defrost it.

To figure out how big of a turkey you need, estimate that each guest will eat about 1.3 lbs., then round up. For example, for eight guests: 8 x 1.3 = 10.4. Your turkey should weigh at least 11 lbs.

Avoid prestuffed turkeys. Even though they seem efficient, baking turkeys with the stuffing inside them promotes bacterial growth, which can cause illness.

Any turkey under 20 lbs. should take no more than three days to thaw in the fridge. For turkeys over 20 lbs., it may take four or five days.

On Thursday morning, you'll have a nice, defrosted turkey sitting in your fridge. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. Remove the turkey wrapper. "Wash" your turkey by running cold, wet paper towels along its body. Dry the turkey with paper towels. Pull out the neck from the body cavity and remove the giblets from the neck cavity. Drain the juices and blot the cavities with paper towels. Rub the outside of the turkey with olive oil, then rub on some salt and pepper.

If your turkey has roasting directions on its packaging, it's best to follow those. However, here are some universal instructions: Place the turkey breast-side up on a flat rack in an open roasting pan about 2 inches deep. In general, a turkey should be roasted 10 to 12 minutes per pound at 325 degrees. You'll know when your turkey is done when a meat thermometer that's inserted into the thigh reads 175 to 180 degrees.

About a half hour before you expect the turkey to be done, check in on it and make sure there aren't any catastrophes. If you find that your turkey is browning too quickly (which often happens to larger birds), cover the entire pan with a loose tent of aluminum foil.

Let the turkey stand 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

Stuff the turkey after it's been fully cooked to prevent bacterial growth. Make bread stuffing, then spoon it into the two "empty compartments" at the front and back of the bird.

Bread Stuffing 12 cups day-old bread, cut into ½-inch cubes 4½ cups chicken stock 2½ sticks celery, finely chopped 1¼ onion, peeled and finely chopped 2½ large eggs ½ cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat, then add the celery and onions and cook for about five minutes. Put all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix well. Use your hands if necessary.

Transfer the stuffing into a 9- x 13-inch buttered baking pan and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil, raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes. The stuffing is done when the top is brown and crispy.

Prepare Side Dishes

Cornbread 1 tbsp. vegetable shortening 1 tsp. baking powder 1 tsp. baking soda 2 cups buttermilk 1¾ cups stone-ground cornmeal 2 large eggs ¾ tsp. salt 1 tbsp. sugar

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, sugar and salt. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl, then add buttermilk. Combine this mixture with the cornmeal mix. Stir everything until just barely blended to get that mealy cornbread texture.

Drop the vegetable shortening into the center of an 8- x 8-inch glass baking pan. Put the pan in the oven and watch it until smoke starts rising from the shortening. Quickly remove the pan from the oven, pour in the batter and bake 20 to 25 minutes. The cornbread is done when the top is brown and the center feels firm when you poke it.

Cranberry sauce 16 oz. fresh cranberries 1¼ cup sugar 1¼ cup water

Boil the water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Add the cranberries, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.

When all the cranberries have split open from the heat, pour the contents of the saucepan into a strainer placed over a medium-sized bowl. Push the sauce through the strainer with the back of a spoon until there is no pulp left in the strainer. Stir the cranberry sauce and transfer it to a small bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to cool for at least three hours.

Mashed Potatoes 8 medium-sized potatoes 6 tbsp. butter ¾ cup warm milk salt and black pepper to taste ½ cup chopped chives (optional) ½ cup bacon bits (optional) If you opt to use both optional options, incorporate only ¼ cup of each.

Peel the potatoes, then cut them in half width-wise. If you want to make your mashed potatoes more nutritious, leave half the potatoes unpeeled (but wash them thoroughly).

Boil the potatoes in a large pot of slightly salted water for 20 minutes, longer if they're not tender enough to be pierced easily. Drain them, and put them back in the pot, cover the pot and shake the potatoes around a bit.

Add the milk and butter, and mix on medium speed until the potatoes are smooth and creamy. If necessary, add more milk, but add only 1 tbsp. at a time or you might end up with watery potatoes. Add the optional ingredients if desired, then salt and pepper to taste.

Desserts

If you have time, make both.

Pumpkin pie If this pie isn't being made on Thanksgiving day, it should be the last thing you make the night before; the pie crust will begin to soften after it's baked with the filling, so the sooner your guests devour it, the better.

1 ready-made pie crust 2 cups canned pumpkin puree 1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar ½ cup sugar 1½ cup evaporated milk 3 eggs 1 tsp. group cinnamon 1 tsp. ground ginger ½ tsp. ground nutmeg ½ tsp. salt Whipped topping

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and warm the pie crust in the oven until it is feels hot. In a large bowl, mix all the other ingredients together until smooth.

Remove the pie crust from the oven, pour the pumpkin filling into it and bake 35 to 40 minutes. Keep checking up on the pie, because it'll crack if overbaked. The pie is done when the filling is mostly solid and only a tad bouncy when nudged.

Cool the pie on a rack, and then refrigerate until the next day. Don't freeze pumpkin pies because they don't thaw to the same consistency. Serve with a dollop of whipped topping on each slice.

Cranberry-blueberry pie a la mode 1 ready-made pie crust 12 oz. frozen unsweetened blueberries 12 oz. fresh cranberries 1½ cups sugar 1 tsp. ground cinnamon ½ tsp. ground nutmeg ¼ cup cornstarch 6 tbsp. orange juice 2 tbsp. heavy cream Half gallon vanilla ice cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the blueberries, cranberries, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in a large bowl and mix well. Heat the orange juice in a large saucepan and slowly add cornstarch until it dissolves. Add the berry mix and bring everything to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook and stir the mixture constantly five to eight minutes until the sauce thickens. Remove it from heat and let it cool completely.

Carefully spoon the berry filling into the ready-made pie crust. Sprinkle the top of the pie all over with 1 tbsp. of sugar. Bake for about an hour, or until the crust is brown and the berry filling is bubbling. Check on the pie constantly to make sure the crust doesn't crack and the berries aren't bubbling over.

Cool the pie and refrigerate until one hour before it's to be served or serve the pie warmed over and with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of each slice.

Set the Table and Serve the Food

Make sure you have enough space, chairs and utensils for everybody. Get out the fancy silverware, dinnerware, napkins and glasses and wash them all. If you don't own any fancy dining equipment, buy a matching plastic set. Arrange the tableware at each seating nicely. If you're serving soup or chowder, place a soup bowl on top of each plate.

If your table isn't large enough to accommodate all your guests, all the dishes, and the turkey, get out a folding table, situate it on the end of the dinner table, and place all the dishes and food there. After each guest has had some of each side dish, the dishes can be placed on this backup table and accessed for seconds and thirds. Drinks and ice also can be placed on the folding table.

Ask everyone to be seated before presenting the food. Bring out the side dishes first and the turkey last. You want to make a grand entrance, so clear out a space for it on the table beforehand.

When carving your turkey, keep these tips in mind: Cut the joints, not the bones; go with the grain of the meat; separate the thighs and drumsticks by bending the turkey legs away from the body and cutting at the place where they meet; when cutting the breast meat, place your knife parallel and as close to the wing as possible, and cut straight to the bone. Then cut slices perpendicular to this base cut.

Don't fear leftovers--they're good to eat for up to five days after you prepared them if stored properly. Cover the dishes with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and put them in the fridge. Remove all the stuffing from the turkey and store the two separately.

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