13 Rules of Thanksgiving

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We had Thanksgiving at our house this year, and my sister helped make half the menu. We had 7 grown-ups and 4 kiddoes and although my parents couldn’t make it, it was really fun co-hosting with my sister.

I picked up a few do’s and don’ts this year. But first, here was the menu:

Peel & eat shrimp with Old Bay seasoning and cocktail sauce – My father-in-law brought these as an appetizer leading up to our 3 p.m. dinner.

Roast Turkey – I used Barefoot Contessa’s recipe which has you roast the bird at a low oven temp (325 degrees). I also used regular butter under the skin instead of truffle butter and added a halved lemon inside the cavity, plus some quartered onions around the bottom of the roasting pan.

Roast Chicken – We like roast chicken better than turkey so I did a small one of each. I prepared them pretty much the same way–stuffed with lemon, garlic, thyme and onion–and roasted them both at 325. Again, I scattered quartered onions around the bottom of the pan. They smell amazing within 5 minutes of going in the oven, and taste great with the bird.

Mashed potatoes — No real recipe here. Just Yukon Gold potatoes boiled until tender, then drained. Then mash and add butter, milk, salt and pepper. My sister peeled the spuds and my husband finished them. They were the last thing we made so they’d be hot, and they turned out great.

Turkey Gravy – This was the second to last dish to come together and my proudest moment. I have never had good luck with gravy so I was really happy with how good this turned out. I used store-bought turkey broth, then added about half-cup of turkey drippings from the roasting pan. Barefoot Contessa’s recipe also calls for cognac which really adds depth. At first reading, it seems like a lot of onion. But they cook for a good 15 minutes and end up sort of melting into the gravy.

Traditional stuffing – My sister used Pepperidge Farm prepared bread cubes and it turned out great.

Brussels sprouts with bacon – This is a recipe I got from my mom. Over the past few years, it’s become a must-have at Thanksgiving. Here’s how I make it: Boil 3 lbs of Brussels sprouts, then drain. When they’re cool enough to handle, slice the sprouts in thirds (or halves if they’re small). In a big soup pot or skillet, saute a bunch of chopped bacon (like 10 slices) with a bunch of sliced shallots, then add the sliced sprouts and give them a rough stir to mix. Add salt and pepper, then dump the mixture in a buttered casserole dish. Top with 1/2 cup of heavy cream and 1/2 cup of homemade bread crumbs. Lay 3-4 pats of butter (I know!) over top and bake it at 350 for 30 or so minutes. My mom also adds grated Gruyere cheese.

Roasted carrots – My sister used slender organic carrots and left the tiniest bit of green on the top. So cute.

Slow-cooker creamed corn – I wanted another vegetable in case someone didn’t like Brussels sprouts. But I also knew I would have no room in the oven. I like how this creamed corn rounded out the color palette and can be made in the slow cooker. It couldn’t have been easier and went over really well, including with (some of) the kids. A keeper!

Cranberry sauce – I intended to add the bourbon that this recipe calls for. But my daughter, a world-class picky eater, said she’d eat some cranberry sauce. I was worried little miss detective would somehow uncover that I’d added something fancy or grown-up to the basic recipe. So I left it out and it was still good. I threw in a whole cinnamon stick instead of ground cinnamon.

Baked apples with cinnamon – My sister brought these too. Stouffer’s in the microwave and the kids like them.

Apple pie and cherry pies – Store-bought and there were no complaints!

Listen, I’m no Thanksgiving expert. But here are the 13 rules of the road I picked up this year:

  1. Set out at least two boxes of butter on the counter in the morning. It’s amazing how much room-temperature butter you end up needing.
  2. Keep a saucepan of hot turkey broth on the stove. You’ll need it for the gravy for sure, but also for random things, like warming up the dressing or finishing carved turkey slices. I picked this one up from my mom a few years back.
  3. The turkey is the least of your worries. It’s just like roasting a chicken, which is the one of the easiest things in the world to make. The hardest part is carving it. A perfect job for husbands.
  4. Last-minute adds to the guest list generally make it more interesting.
  5. Have champagne or Prosecco on hand. It makes the occasion more festive.
  6. Take stock of your tablecloth & linen napkin situation in advance. I had linen napkins in my cart at Target but put them back at the last minute. On Thanksgiving morning, I discovered I already had a dozen nice linen napkins from Williams-Sonoma in the sideboard. Of course, they needed washed and ironed but I was glad I hadn’t bought more.
  7. Sit at the dining table if you can. In years’ past, I thumbed my nose at the formality and just had family and friends sit around the living room watching TV with plates in their laps. It was partly a space issue but if you can swing it, sitting together at a grown-up table makes dinner more special.
  8. Play some music on low. We played the “Music for Egon Schiele” album by Rachel’s from the Mac in the kitchen.
  9. Have the kids make place cards for everybody. This paper-and-marker activity kept my two busy while I was trying to cook.
  10. Make a list for yourself that shows all the dishes you’re making, including oven temperatures, cooking times and whether stuff goes in the oven, stove, slow cooker or microwave. Stick it on the fridge.
  11. Make at least one new dish. This year, it was the slow-cooker creamed corn. In years’ past, I’ve done celery root puree, potato & poblano gratin and even salmon.
  12. Make a few surefire winners for the kids. Otherwise, you will be hearing about it 2 minutes after you sit down. When the kids were younger, I actually served them microwaved popcorn.
  13. It’s OK to flip off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after 15 minutes. The Wiz’s performance of “A Brand New Day” nearly sent me over the edge.

A Word About Wednesday

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving always seemed special to me as a kid. Usually we were driving to a grandparents’ house a few hours away. It was always fun to go on that little road trip in the dark, to hear my parents complain about the traffic on 71 while I busied myself with my Walkman. The Wednesday dinner was usually pizza from some unfamiliar place in downtown Amherst. I would sleep on the couch and listen to the grandfather clock tick-tock and then gong at the stroke of midnight.

This year, we watched the first half of “Titanic” and had Donato’s on the living room floor. It was fun to watch the kids watch Leo say, I’m the king of the world! They couldn’t believe the Titanic disaster really happened. I guess my point is, what you do on Wednesday night can make as deep an impression as what you do on Thursday.

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