We try to keep things fresh here at Burning Questions, but when Thanksgiving rolls around, most cooks ask the same question: how do I pull off this most intimidating dinner of the year? Years ago, I came up with this plan of attack. I reread it every year, and now I offer it to you.
The main challenge of hosting Thanksgiving dinner is not the actual cooking, it's the timing. The sheer number of dishes, coupled with a bird that takes anywhere from 21/2 to 5 hours to roast, can give angst to even the most confident cook.
In fact, the bird bestows a great gift upon the cook because it must rest anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes after it is removed from the oven. During the rest, the juices will settle back into the meat so they don't spill out onto the cutting board when you start to carve. Thirty minutes after a 14-pound bird comes out of the oven, it will still be too hot to carve; an hour's rest is optimal. Tented with aluminum foil, a bird will stay warm for more than 90 minutes.
(To tell when the turkey is done, insert an instant-read thermometer into the meaty part of the thigh, not touching a bone. It should register 175 degrees. If you don't have an instant-read thermometer, go buy one. Any housewares store and most supermarkets sell them.)
Once the turkey is out of the oven, your side dishes can go in. Most oven-based Thanksgiving side dishes can be made ahead of time, an opportunity you should vigorously exploit. Make sweet-potato casserole, pumpkin pie, stuffing, etc., the night before and refrigerate them. Take them out of the refrigerator while the turkey is cooking so they are at room temperature when the turkey leaves the oven: It should take about an hour for most chilled dishes to come to room temperature. There will be no trouble heating them through by mealtime.
Limit yourself to one stovetop side dish. This usually will be the green vegetable, and this also can be done largely ahead of time. For green beans amandine, for example, boil the beans in salted water until they are just tender. Drain and plunge them into ice water. When they're cool, drain again, towel-dry and store in a resealable plastic bag overnight in the refrigerator. Take them out while the turkey cooks so they can come to room temperature. You will need less than 10 minutes to saute them in butter with slivered almonds. (The same technique works with Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe and asparagus.)
Plan a first course that either requires no cooking (such as salad) or can just sit, warming, on the back of the stove (such as soup).
Have serving platters and utensils out and ready to go before guests arrive.
Ideally, three people are needed to make this operation go smoothly, all of whom must be willing to cut short their first courses: one person to carve the turkey, one person to cook the green vegetable, one person to clear and serve.
Timing is everything
Let's say you're cooking a 14-pound turkey and dinner is planned for 6 p.m.
Here is a proposed time line:
1:45 p.m. Turkey goes into the oven.
4:30 p.m. All refrigerated side dishes out on the counter.
5:10 p.m. Soup starts to warm on the stovetop.
5:15 p.m. Turkey out of the oven and side dishes go in.
5:20 p.m. Start gravy.
5:45 p.m. Pan, utensils and ingredients are readied for stovetop vegetable.
6 p.m. Guests sit down to eat first course. At this point, the uncarved turkey can be brought in and displayed.
6:10 p.m. The team of three excuses itself. Designated carver starts on turkey; vegetable cook starts on the vegetable.
6:15 p.m. First course is cleared.
6:20 p.m. Side dishes are brought to table.
6:25 p.m. Carved turkey makes its appearance, and the meal proceeds.
A TIP FOR MESS-FREE TURKEY CARVING
A few years ago, I devised a makeshift turkey-cutting board that works better than anything you can buy. You'll need a rimmed 18-by-13-inch baking pan (in cookware-ese, a "half-sheet pan" or "jellyroll pan") and any cutting board that will fit inside it. To prevent the cutting board from slipping around, place it on top of a damp paper towel set inside the sheet pan. Now, carve your turkey. When you're all done, the juices will have accumulated in the pan, and you can easily pour them out.