Tuesday, November 22, 2011

a Thanksgiving Dinner

When it comes to planning and prepping for a Thanksgiving dinner with all of the fixings, I get an almost three week head start on most people. My daughter was fortunate enough to be born in November and since when Thanksgiving rolls around, it is generally just the four of us, so every year for her birthday party, I make a full Thanksgiving spread.

Planning the meal is an important aspect of a successful meal. I start by looking at my menu a couple of weeks ahead of time. The menu is mostly the same from year to year, but I like to try new things from time to time. The attendees are similar from year to year, but there is slight fluctuation in the numbers - fewer people generally just equates to more leftovers for me!

Here is what we had this year:
Oven Roasted Turkey
Dressing (not stuffing, because it doesn't go in the bird)
Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes
Broccoli and Cauliflower Casserole
Spinach or Romaine Salad with homemade dressing
Brown and Serve Rolls
Vegetables and Dip
Fruit Salad

Of course, since it is a birthday party, we skip the pies in favor of birthday cake:
As you can see, Hello Kitty was our theme this year. The cake was modeled off one of my daughter's dresses. It's hard to see, but the cupcake "skirt" is covered in tulle. As you might have guessed, I start planning the cake a few weeks ahead of time too.

As we get closer to the party, I start to watch the ads and pick up the items I will need when they are on sale. I then do a shopping trip the week of the party to pick up the fresh produce and the other items that I hadn't yet purchased.

I generally am using a frozen turkey, so I pull that out of the freezer about 3 - 4 days before cooking and allow it to thaw in the refrigerator. Be sure to check your turkey's weight and recommended thaw time - the two are very related.

Using some tricks that my Grandma used and my family still uses today, I prep a lot of my items the day before the party. It makes the day of less hectic and less messy.

The turkey is one of those items. Grandma always roasted her turkey the day before the big event. This does a couple of things - it allows the turkey to set long enough after cooking to reabsorb all of the juices and it frees up a lot of space in the oven the day of the event. I prep my turkey for roasting by removing the bag and neck from the turkey and then rinsing it inside and out. I core an apple and place it in the body cavity along with a couple of bay leaves, some thyme, sage and rosemary. I cut up a stick of butter and tuck it between the skin and meat where possible and between the wings/legs and body. I prep my turkey bag and place the turkey inside. Then, it cooks. I used to not use a bag for cooking my turkey and that was just a mess! First, without the bag, you have to baste the turkey. This wasn't that big of a deal, except have you ever noticed how the hot fluid sort of drips out of the baster even when you are not squeezing? Second, I managed to make a big mess in my oven as a result. Now, I put it in the oven, set the timer and go about my other preparation tasks. Once it is done, I let it set until it has cooled slightly. This allows times for the juices to be reabsorbed and keeps me from burning my fingers while I am trying to carve. Using my baster, I pull out the drippings and set them in a container for making gravy the next day. Then, I carve the bird, saving the carcass and the hard to get pieces of turkey for making delicious turkey soup (recipe here). The meat all goes into a 9x13 covered dish (including the wings for my mom) and I add a little bit of the drippings over top. I cover it with foil and then the pans lid and place it in the refrigerator.

I make my mashed potatoes ahead of time too and oddly the recipe is called Next Day Mashed Potatoes. I boil the potatoes and mash them with cream cheese and milk and put them in 9x13 covered dish and they go in the refrigerator. I also make my sweet potatoes in a casserole (recipe here) the day before, but I wait to add the crumb top until I am ready to put it in the oven. For my stuffing (again, not actually stuffed) I use the neck and giblets from the turkey to make a broth and include a little bit of the meat as well. This recipe was from Dad's Mom and makes what I consider to be yummy stuffing. I prep this the day before and set it in the refrigerator.

The last thing I make the day ahead is the dip for my vegetables. I make a Dill Weed Dip, which seems to improve on flavor with time. I usually cut up all of my vegetables the day ahead too. It helps that I am already pulling out the celery to be in the stuffing and once I have the cutting board out, I have momentum and keep on chopping. I bake my cake the night before the party, but wait to frost.

The day of the party, I prep the broccoli and cauliflower casserole, make the vinaigrette for the salad and cut up all of the fruit for the fruit salad (don't want the bananas or apples going brown!). I also decorate my cake the morning of the party.

Having everything ready ahead of time, allows me to simply turn on the oven and put everything in about 1 - 1 1/2 hours before we want to eat. This way, I can focus on visiting with my guests (okay, my guests may tell you this isn't entirely true - I tend to visit with them while I worry about what else needs to be done.)

Then, we all sit down together, as together as we can be sitting in three or four rooms, and enjoy an early Thanksgiving meal. Makes Thanksgiving itself a rather quiet day by comparison, but it is certainly an easy meal for me. I typically make a Jennie-O Turkey Roast, some mashed potatoes, some sweet potatoes, corn and rolls. I will make either a pie or a cheesecake for dessert.

How do you prepare for your holiday meal? If you have turkey questions as you prepare, you can always head over to Jennie-O for answers to your turkey questions.

You can also find place setting and centerpiece ideas for the holiday from their test kitchen editor on Hormel Foods Recipe site.

My kids made the turkeys pictured at the top at a family night at my son's school. We used some round votive cup holders, some Mod Podge and torn pieces of tissue paper to decorate the body and then folded tissue paper for the tail feathers and for the beak. The head is a small craft ball (flat on one side), which we attached with a hot glue gun. Add a little black paint for the eyes and a turkey you have. There are tea lights inside, but I'm not sure I'm brave enough to light those with all of that tissue paper - maybe I can find the little electric flicker candles instead. We also made a placemat at the same event. Using fabric paint and stencils, they decorated a plain beige placemat turning it into a Thanksgiving placemat.

And, remember don't stress yourself out, your guests will understand if you pick up some already prepped food and add your own touch. Hormel Country Crock side dishes like Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Cinnamon Apples and Homestyle stuffing can help you save some time and energy. Or, if your house is like mine, I run out of sides first, so you could use already prepped product to be the sides on the second serving of Thanksgiving.

No compensation was received for this post. All opinions expressed are mine or those of my family. I am completing this post as a participant in the Hormel Foods Extended Family Blogger program. Hormel Foods provided some of the information for this post.