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Thanksgiving tips to help make your holiday more enjoyable

The turkey

Instead of roasting a whole turkey, purchase the turkey broken down.

Why? For one, dark meat takes longer to cook than white meat. By having the white and dark meat separate, I have more control over the doneness, which results in a better final product.

In addition, by not cooking a whole turkey valuable oven space is freed up, which allows you room to cook other things. 

If you are using a whole turkey and are concerned about oven space, 

par-cook the turkey halfway the day before. Once it cools down a bit, wrap it and put it in the refrigerator. Par-cooking a turkey will not affect the quality of the final product, and it reduces the final cooking time, freeing up valuable oven space. 

Professional kitchens deal with the same lack of kitchen and oven space during the holidays as in a home kitchen. As a former chef, the holidays were always a challenge because we were preparing much more food than usual, so we improvised. The idea to par-cook turkeys came to me years ago when I had to cook 150 whole turkeys and literally did not have space. 

Is your menu eye-appealing

When planning your menu, think about colors. Are all the menu items the same color? Variety is beautiful.

What are you presenting your dishes on? Contrasting colors between the food item and the dish it’s presented in is appealing to the eye. 

Finalizing preparation and setup

Set the table with anything not served hot around 30 minutes before the meal, including salads, salad dressing, accoutrements, water, butter, rolls (bread), and so forth. 

If you are short on oven or stovetop space, remember certain items, such as potato dishes, roasted meats, stuffing, and soup retain their heat better than other items. Cook these items a bit ahead, remove them from the oven, then you have space for last-minute preparations such as sautéing vegetables or heating gravy. 

Short on fridge space? Fill up a cooler with ice to chill beverages.

Convenience is not always a good thing

You can easily find pre-chopped vegetables in most stores. Avoid purchased anything in the onion family that is peeled or chopped.

Why? Anything in the onion family becomes pungent and sour when cut too far in advance. 

Have you ever eaten a sandwich or salad with raw onion and the onions tasted strong and sour? That is because they were cut too far in advance.

It is best to cut anything in the onion family just before use.

General tips

Use heavy cream, not milk, or half and half in your mashed potatoes. The result is much better, richer mashed potatoes

Tape recipes to your kitchen cabinet doors

A slow cooker is excellent for keeping things hot.

The colder something is, the more it masks the flavor. Any food or white wine typically served cold should be removed from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Your menu

Want to be adventurous with your menu items? Consider your guests first. Some people want the standard fare and bearing in mind the holidays come once a year, you don’t want to ruin someone’s day by not taking their tastes into consideration.

If you want to be adventurous, keep the staples traditional, and get freaky with additional items. Or, you can offer two options for some staples if you desire. For example, you could provide the traditional stuffing and in addition, offer your more adventurous, sourdough, duck liver, pistachio, portabella, and sun-dried cranberry stuffing. This approach allows you to accommodate those who like more traditional fare and those who are more adventurous.

Cheese platter

It is ideal to have the cheesemonger cut cheese for you as opposed to purchasing pre-cut. 

Make sure you have a variety of cheese, representing different textures and flavors. For example, you wouldn’t want only sharp cheese, or all blue cheese, or all washed rind. 

In addition, you want cheese from each type of animal milk represented. (Cow, sheep, and goat)

If you purchased high-quality cheeses, don’t settle for anything less than very good, fresh-baked bread. 

Have different knives for each cheese. I personally dislike blue cheese, so I wouldn’t want a knife coated in blue cheese to cut some other cheese I want. 

Toasted nuts, fresh fruit, and dried fruit are wonderful accoutrements to cheese. 

Make your life easy

If you serve appetizers, prepare items that can be served at room temperature. Set up your appetizers on a table for guests to help themselves so you can focus on preparing the meal. 

Some examples are assorted dips with crostini, a cheese platter, cured meat platter, chips, etc.

The night before

Place any cold appetizers, salads, dressings, relishes, etc., in their appropriate serving dishes, wrap with plastic, and place in the refrigerator. Shortly before the meal, the only thing required is placing the items on the table. Performing this task the night before will allow you to focus solely on cooking and executing the hot food the following day. 

Wash all dishes and organize your kitchen how you want it, so the next morning no setup is required. 

Set the dinner table or any other area you are hosting with anything not perishable. For example, if you are setting up a drink station, put out your glasses, liquor, red wine, and other similar items. 

Set up a beverage station with glasses, the beverages, ice buckets and accoutrements so people can help themselves. 

Play it safe and execute properly 

If your culinary skills are limited, don’t use one of the biggest holidays of the year to try a new recipe that may require a higher culinary skill level, possibly resulting in an unpleasant culinary experience.

As a chef, I would rather have a simple (even boring) meal that was executed properly, with the food cooked and seasoned just right over some adventurous meal that wasn’t executed well. 

In other words, do the basics well.  

While Thanksgiving may be one of our biggest holidays, don’t allow yourself to get stressed over it. The tips provided here should make your life easier, and at the end of the day, it’s a national holiday, so set yourself up so you can enjoy it, instead of feeling like a line cook in the weeds during dinner rush in a popular restaurant. 










About the author

Curt Sassak is the president of Winetasters Choice, a promotional agency based in Texas and serving seven states. Curt is a 35-year veteran of the food and beverage industry, with the first 27 years of his career spent as a chef.

Curt Sassak

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