There’s a reason the American Psychological Association maintains a separate section on its website about managing holiday expectations. This is especially applicable for the chef: You want to put your best foot forward and delight your guests. Partially it’s virtuous, and partially it’s about ego.
But what if you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing? If you have been called upon to host — or even if you’ve volunteered, for some reason — don’t overdo it. Breathe deeply and read on. Here are realistic tips for civilians, from the experts.
Get real about your abilities. Don’t use Thanksgiving to propel yourself toward a new personality. You will not transform into Ina Garten, no matter how many fancy ingredients you buy. You will only end up spending too much money and regretting it. Go easy on yourself.
“Don’t punch above your weight. That doesn’t mean ‘don’t make great food,’ it means: Don’t invite too many people; keep it manageable. Don’t make overly complicated items,” says restaurateur Tiffani Faison.
Clean out your fridge. You’re going to need space for leftovers. Now’s the time to ditch ancient condiments and mysterious takeout boxes, says Mei Mei’s Mei Li. “Eat stuff. Throw stuff out,” she says.
About those leftovers: Invest in extra-sturdy plastic wrap. Li loves SealWrap Cling Classic Zip Safe.
Focus on the classics. Because that’s what people want, even if they’re too polite to say so. Save the new technique that you learned on the Food Network for a smaller dinner party.
“I tried a number of times to be ‘creative’ with the Thanksgiving menu at my restaurant Rialto, but inevitably, 85 percent of the people chose the traditional turkey dinner. One year we boned, stuffed, and rolled the breast. Another year we turned the legs into a confit terrine,” recalls restaurateur Jody Adams. “Neither of these ideas, and others that we tried, had the super star success we had anticipated. Everyone was relieved when we went back to old-fashioned roasting.”
If Jody Adams couldn’t pull it off, is there hope for the rest of us?
Pare down your menu. Banish thoughts of four kinds of squash, five pies, and a table that spilleth over with multiple gravies.
“Cut your menu in half,” urges Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap and Trotter’s Tony Maws. “A beautiful meal is a perfect vegetable, squash, stuffing, turkey, and chutney. That’s it! That’s a lot of food! People start piling on the rice, the mash, the green beans, pearl onions. What are you doing? You’re killing yourself. Do fewer things made well.”
Give people a chance to get tipsy without you. While you’re in the kitchen, let people fix their own drinks. This serves two purposes: They’ll be busy (instead of hovering over you), and they’ll soon be happy.
“Have a great bar spread where people can make [and] mix their own drinks so they don’t need you to get loose,” Faison advises.
You’ll emerge from the kitchen with relaxed guests.
Work ahead. “Roasted carrots, stuffing, butternut squash, pearl onions, candied sweet potatoes can all be made ahead of time and then kept in foil [pans] with lids. Just pop them in the oven the day of to heat them through,” says Cultivar’s Mary Dumont.
Cheat with stock. Buy quality chicken or turkey stock from a grocer such as Whole Foods, advises Little Dipper’s Robyn McGrath. Reduce it and use it as a gravy base. (To reduce, simmer uncovered until it coats a spoon.) “Chill it, put it away, and then put it into a pot and heat it as the turkey rests. Add salt, pepper, and a touch of lemon juice,” she says.
Thicken gravy with Wondra flour. All-purpose flour can get lumpy, says restaurateur Michael Schlow. Wondra is a foolproof alternative. “This is a grandma trick. It doesn’t clump up. It’ll thicken the gravy. Whisk it, and it comes out with a finer consistency,” he says.
Invest in a ricer. “Ninety-five percent of people don’t have a ricer,” laments Select Oyster Bar’s Michael Serpa. Available on Amazon, this cranked presser will make potatoes smoother and creamier. (He likes Yukon Golds.) “You won’t overwork the potatoes. They won’t get gummy,” he says.
Blanch to reduce cooking time. Deadhorse Hill’s Jared Forman uses this technique to slash cooking time for green veggies. Let the vegetables cook in salted boiled water to your chosen doneness. Remove, plunge them into an ice bath, and presto — “it’s ready for whatever other cooking technique you want,” he says. Veggies can be blanched hours ahead; quickly sauté in brown butter or olive oil right before you sit down.
Try goat butter. Uni’s Tony Messina uses goat butter — available at most grocery stores — to give ho-hum roast carrots extra oomph. “It has almost a musky funkiness, in a good way,” he says. He finishes the carrots with an easy, herbaceous charmoula, a bright North African marinade of blended parsley, cilantro, preserved lemon, capers, olive oil, lemon juice, and anchovies.
Use fresh and frozen cranberries for sauce. “The frozen [berries] help cook the fresh cranberries. It releases water a little bit. I use star anise, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, orange, lemon zest, and brown sugar for sweetness and acidity,” says Strip by Strega’s Farouk Bazoune.
Use a wireless thermometer. “This is very important: Buy a good thermometer,” says Southern Proper’s Jason Cheek, who cooks his bird to 150 degrees and lets it rest for 45 minutes — it will continue to cook at rest, he says — before popping it back into the oven for an extra 10 minutes for crispness. With a wireless, remote thermometer and probe, you won’t need to open the door to nervously check on the bird. No timers necessary. He uses ThermoPro.
Cook it upside down. “I roast my turkey upside down and always have. It doesn’t make the most beautiful bird, but when you eat the breast meat, it’s totally juicy,” says restaurateur Lydia Shire. She also injects her turkey breast with a Sauternes wine butter sauce for richness. “To me, it’s gilding the lily. Sauternes is a pricy bottle to buy —a nice one is $99 — but the turkey is a lowly bird on the scale, so you might as well dress it up,” she says. She uses a stick and a half of butter melted into two cups of the wine, with a bit of salt and pepper.
Get creamy. Finally, if you’re brave enough to make your own crust but haven’t mastered the art, cold, cubed cream cheese is your friend. Seek out recipes that incorporate it.
“This is your insurance policy not to mess up too badly. The straight butter, flour, water method is lovely if you’re a master of pie crust. But I don’t make pies that often, so I love to have cream cheese added in,” says Boston Urban Hospitality’s Adrienne Wright. “It helps your crust stay flaky and tender, even if you over-knead it a bit.”
Finally, have perspective. “I’ve never left a Thanksgiving meal thinking it was the greatest culinary achievement in the world (including and especially mine), but I have left feeling more than satisfied, loved, and warmed to my soul,” says Faison.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.