a thanksgiving primer

I have been cooking the big Thanksgiving meal for my family for years now, and I wake up early and cook straight through to the meal (no prep beforehand). It’s possible, even with one oven and some flaky burners.

Your goal? Splendid leftovers, like this sandwich I made last year:

turkey sandwich (with notes) from Thanksgiving leftovers

Here’s how I do T Day in ten steps:

1. Wake up early and make desserts first. Convince someone to bring dessert (hint: most people don’t actually like pumpkin pie of any sort) or buy pie crusts and start there.

Do not take up hours on dessert because we are cooking a whole meal, not just a few recipes.

I like to make apple turnovers—this can be done with bought phyllo dough after the meal and before dessert—and drizzle them with dulce de leche (from a jar) and ice cream.

My recommended recipe: Use store-bought phyllo dough and let it defrost on the counter during the meal. Crank the oven to 400 degrees F. Grate 2 apples (try Honeycrisp or Granny Smith), stir in the zest and juice of half a lemon (zest it first) and a tablespoon of sugar. Let it be while you line two baking sheets with parchment paper, cut the dough into squares (about five inches). Spoon a big tablespoon into each, fold it over, crimp the edges with a fork, sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar if you like. Bake for 20 min. Drizzle with dulce de leche and serve with ice cream of your preferred dairy or non-dairy.

2. Gravy next. This is annoying to make at the very end when the bird is cooling and everyone is crowding the kitchen. Make it ahead of time. And don’t actually make gravy. Make Marsala sauce (this is a good recipe to have on hand anyway).

Take the neck and giblets out of the bird (which should be defrosted and ready to put in the oven soon). Add 1 tbsp olive oil to a saute pan and add the neck and giblets; cook, stirring, five minutes. Remove. Add 1 strip of bacon and let it render until nicely browned. Remove the bacon (eat it, obviously) and melt 3 tbsp unsalted butter in the pan with rendered bacon fat, add half a chopped onion, cooking over medium until translucent (about four minutes). Add 2 tbsp of flour and stir for two minutes, until it disappears into the onion. (If you feel fancy, use two shallots instead for better flavor.) Add 1 cup of good stock (chicken or veal) if you have it—if not, sub in water, and 1/2 cup dry Marsala wine and boil for 5 min until reduced to your preferred consistency. Season with salt and pepper. (Note: Please join me in ridding the world of those nasty gravy packets sold at grocers. And only use dry Marsala wine.)

3. Now, chop the veg. Use knives earlier in the day when people aren’t milling about, trying to help. When the veg is chopped, your reward is opening the bubbly (Mimosas, darlings). So, this is a holiday for vegheads and we will roast the sog out of our old friends, root vegetables. Adjust the oven shelves so you can use both simultaneously.

With the oven at 425 degrees F, brussel sprouts should be halved (if larger than a ping-pong ball, quarter them) and placed on a baking sheet. Core and chop 1 pear into 1/2 inch pieces for every two handfuls of brussels. Using your hands, toss the brussel sprouts and pears with a few tablespoons of oil, and spread into a single layer. Roast for 20 minutes, shaking once. You want them to be soft and also have some color. Note: the trendy thing this year is to stir Sriracha sauce and honey into brussels—I like harissa instead. For T Day, mince a few teaspoons of ginger to stir in. Let cool. (Ginger also aids digestion and your family will love you even more.)

While the brussels and pears cook, peel a 3 lb butternut squash and chop. Then, leave the skin on a few apples (again, Honeycrisp are nice) and chop them. Toss the apples and butternut squash with oil and roast for 20-30 minutes, shaking every ten minutes. Meanwhile, toast a handful of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) in a dry pan over medium heat until they pop, then throw them in the food processor with a few tablespoons of olive oil and spin until it becomes a dressing (a few strong pulses should be enough). Pour dressing over squash and fruit when out of oven. Let cool.

Take the greens off the top of the carrots, wash and spin in the food processor with one clove of minced garlic, a pinch of crushed red pepper, and some oil. Peel the carrots and halve lengthwise (quarter if large) and do the same with parsnips, if using, or cut a fennel bulb horizontally into half-inch slices. Roast carrots and parsnips/fennel for 20-30 minutes, shaking every 10. Cool and stir the carrot-top chimichurri in.

Congrats: you are mostly done. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees F.

4. It’s time to put the bird in—perhaps you brined the turkey with salt for a few days? Set the timer. And, if cooking for fewer than ten people, consider turkey alternatives; roast chicken is really a very nice thing and two small chickens are more fun and easier to roast. Just a thought. You need about a pound to pound and a half (weight before cooking) per person partaking.

5. Bread pudding/stuffing: chop three leeks for the bread pudding of your choice. And cube a loaf of bread (1-inch pieces) for that. Thomas Keller’s savory bread pudding is incredibly delicious and a bit fussy–don’t hold it in the oven, as it will dry out. Chop the leeks and then let someone assemble the pudding (they can scissor in the chives). Note: children are awesome at layering prepped ingredients. Or use the family recipe of choice. (I think oyster stuffing is sketchy, personally. Make a quick champagne vinaigrette and have the oysters before the meal instead.) Do what you will, but do not sub in random coconut/almond/soy dairy imposters in stuffing—make it into panzanella instead.

6. One more chop: any potatoes larger than golf balls. Look for fingerlings or small purple potatoes (these are often sold in packages now) and buy at least three pounds. Put potatoes (do not peel!) at the bottom of a large stockpot, cover with water (water should go an inch above the potatoes), bring to boil. Simmer for twenty minutes, until you can slide a knife through, but it doesn’t fall apart. Drain. Let cool. Then, put the potatoes in a big bowl and smush them with a masher or large spoon. Add big pats of butter, some buttermilk (add 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice to 1 cup whole milk and let it sit five minutes to clabber it into buttermilk), stir, and season heavily. Put in the fridge and heat back up later. Add Parm and scallions if you feel so moved. I usually do.

7. Open bottles now. I like to open bubbly first, then a minerally white if the table allows (usually doesn’t) and a lighter Pinot Noir for the rest of the meal.

8. Make cranberry sauce. Take 1 pint of cranberries and simmer them with 1/2 cup of orange juice, 1/2 cup water, and 1/2 cup sugar for five minutes. Add orange zest while cooking. Cranberries should pop. Let cool. Taste. (You can also use champage/cava/prosecco as a cooking liquid here.) If you have time and/or helpers, sugar a few berries and some sage leaves to top the sauce.

cranberry sauce with sugared cranberries and sage leaves

9. If you are feeling anxious about the vegetarians and vegans in attendance (who are already taken care of by most of the dishes above), make quinoa (takes about five minutes) and stir in pomegranate seeds and walnuts, pecans, or almonds with a little oil. It’s a glistening dish of protein and complete amino acids. Look for black or red quinoa for color.

10. Make kale salad to start the meal. If you can find baby kale, use the whole stem too—if not, just use the leaves. You can rip them into a bowl. Find a helper and have them massage (seriously, massage) a little kosher salt into the leaves and add some vinegar and oil; season. Let it sit while you arrange the dishes or plate.

Finally, encourage carving in the kitchen. Wrest the electric knife away if possible, and cut each breast in half, slice with the skin, then arrange the legs and wings on the rest of the platter. If the bird looks dry, pour a little melted butter over it.

Have a lovely, lovely Thanksgiving. And don’t forget about that sandwich.

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