This November, Tasting Table is going to party like it's 2015. Join us.
Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away (wasn't it just Labor Day?), and the excitement is beginning to mount. Daydreams of perfectly browned birds and leftover sandwiches layered with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce are starting to distract from everyday life.
The pressure is on to finalize menus, gather decorations and plan shopping lists. Thankfully, we've reached out to some of our favorite chefs, winemakers, bakers and food experts to gather entertaining tips to ensure that the big day goes off without a hitch.
Beat the clock: The biggest obstacle for the lucky host always seems to be getting an entire meal on the table while keeping everyone sufficiently entertained. Chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson frees up time by making sure to adequately prep. "I will start the day before with major tasks like spatchcocking the bird, prepping stuffings and salad dressings. And brining the bird," he says. It also can't hurt to ask for help from the little ones: "Kids will do the vegetable prep: peeling, washing, spinning."
Justin Warner, author of The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them, advises making whichever dishes you can ahead of time. "Restaurants do this all the time, but they call it mise en place," he says. "Make whatever you can in advance and then reheat. Personally, I think the vast majority of casserole and starch dishes are better after they've had some time to comingle."
For Jennifer Mason, head baker at Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, that preparation applies to desserts as well: "I make the crust and prep ingredients the day before. And on Thanksgiving, I throw it all together." If you're wary of kinks in the pie-making process, Mason suggests trying out a new pie before Thanksgiving, giving yourself a chance to make any tweaks or improvements to the recipe.
Do the math: In an ideal world, you'd have an expertly stocked wine cellar and enough time to shake up cocktails for each individual guest. But when reality comes crashing down, Warner points to batched cocktails as your best ally. "Mulled wine, hot cider and true punch are great. This keeps you from having to hunt for corkscrews and glassware, and it frees up refrigeration space," Warner says.
When you're deep in the trenches, basting and chopping away, the last thing you need is to realize there's a food shortage. "For most guests, plan for about eight ounces of protein per person after it's cooked," chef and restaurant veteran David Burke says. You wouldn't dare skimp on the booze either. "Depending on what you are drinking, plan for three glasses per person," Burke says, "and always try to keep extra wine on hand, so you have enough backup."
There's an appetizer for that: With all the planning that goes into the main event, appetizers can sometimes fall by the wayside. Acheson keeps things simple and satisfying: "Oysters on the half shell, maybe some shrimp cocktail. Old-school stuff that always makes people happy. Some salumi and cheeses."
If your Thanksgiving party is an all-day event, snacks and appetizers can often act as a buffer for when the inevitable happens. Warner likes to plan for surprises. "We all envision a glorious Thanksgiving; we imagine everyone in their own seat with centerpiece upon centerpiece of deliciousness sitting before us," he says. "That's not real. People are gonna show up late and early and everywhere in between. Someone is gonna bring their ex, because they're gonna use the mushy feelings of the holiday to try to rekindle their relationship. Apps, hors d'oeuvres and snacks certainly help to keep people content until you can find enough chairs."
Set the mood: Decorations are just as essential in setting the right mood. Restaurateur and television host Lidia Bastianich embraces the festivities: "I like to incorporate the seasons on my tables for Thanksgiving, so that often means creating simple centerpieces made out of small squash, nuts and maybe some citrus fruit like clementines and navel oranges. Persimmons and pomegranate are also in season and are colorful and festive." As far as seating your guests, Admirable Family Vineyards winemaker Béatrice Cointreau prefers to shake things up: "I don't assign seats around the table in advance. I throw pieces of paper in a hat or bucket and ask everyone to pick a number."
Show your thanks: If you're a guest in someone else's home for Thanksgiving, a bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers is always a welcome gift, but thinking outside the box will surely earn you bonus points. "A digestif or Scotch is especially classy," Warner recommends. "Nobody thinks about how you are going to feel after the big meal.". Cointreau opts for something homey and personal like herbs from your garden or freshly baked bread.
Most importantly, entertaining on Thanksgiving shouldn't take away from your own enjoyment of the day. We're inclined to follow Acheson's line of thinking: "I am going to do everything in my power to have a glass of wine nestled in my hand an hour prior to dinner, with no worries about the final steps to a full table."
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