Now that Halloween is over, it is time to begin planning for Thanksgiving, which just so happens to be my favorite, all-time, culinary holiday. Whenever we are in town, I host it. I started hosting Thanksgiving dinner the very first year I was married. Phil was a first year resident, and we didn't even know if he would have the day off until a few weeks before. I was really upset at the thought he would be working on our first Thanksgiving together. I couldn't think of anything more depressing! He finally got his November schedule, and (yay!!!), he had off!! Even though he was on call the night before (he would get home early Thanksgiving morning), we decided to host a Thanksgiving dinner at our house. We invited a few friends over, and I began to plan my menu.
I have always been a "list-maker". Whether it be a grocery list, a packing list, or a list of errands that need to be run that week, I feel very anxious and unorganized if I do not have a list. So obviously, when faced with the task of cooking my very first Thanksgiving meal for a dozen or so people, I pulled out my trusty legal pad, and began planning my meal. Not only did I plan the entire meal, I made my shopping list and a time table as well. You see, I do not work well under pressure. To me, having to shop, cook, and clean, on the day you have to entertain is very stressful. I like to relax, and take a nap before my guests arrive. As you know from this blog, I like to prep my dishes in advance whenever possible, ESPECIALLY when entertaining. There is no way I could get to Thanksgiving day, with any degree of sanity, if I did not have the majority of the meal prepared in advance.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, I like a fairly traditional menu..light apps, turkey, potatoes, maybe stuffing, a couple of vegetable side dishes, and a few decadent desserts. After years of experimenting, I have discovered that there is no way to make the turkey ahead of time. I have tried several different methods, and it always dries out. The absolute best way to make a turkey, is in an oven bag (I like Reynolds Turkey Oven Bags). You put the turkey, a little flour and your seasoning in the oven bag, seal the bag, place the bag in a roasting pan and follow the cooking directions on the oven bag box. The turkey comes out moist, browned and perfect every time, and there is no mess!!!!! Plus, all of the drippings you need to make homemade gravy, are all right there in the bottom of the bag. No deglazing of the pan is necessary. I do not know why anyone would prepare a turkey without an ovenbag!
OK...so we cannot make our main dish in advance, but we can make the majority of the dinner in advance. Over the next few weeks, I am going to give you some of my favorite, classic Thanksgiving, make-ahead dishes. I usually begin making my list the day after Halloween, and try to prepare two of my dishes a week, for the next month. I save anything that cannot be frozen, until the day or two before Thanksgiving, prepare it, and store it in the refrigerator (example....fresh cut vegetables to serve as an appetizer, would be washed and cut up the day before, and stored in the refrigerator). Don't forget to start clearing out your freezer, in order to make room for everything that is going to get stored. Label everything (I use a dry erase marker directly on my Tupperware...it wipes right off with a paper towel or in the dishwasher), along with any last minute instructions (example..."Defrost in the refrigerator, cook for 40 minutes at 375, then sprinkle top with shredded cheddar cheese, and put bake in the oven until cheese melts").
Don't forget that most guests offer to bring a dish with them. I always accept, and have them bring the items I know I can't make in advance like a salad or cut up fruit. I also like to have the table set the day before (one less thing to worry about). I leave Phil in charge of wine and beverages (one less thing for me to deal with). I try not to spend too much time in the kitchen cleaning up, while my guests are still in my home, because I want to spend the time with my guests, not at my kitchen sink. Finally, whenever possible, I have my cleaning service come the day AFTER Thanksgiving. No one is checking out how clean my kitchen counter is, or if my staircase is vacuumed. I would much rather have them come after everyone leaves, and clean up THEIR mess!
Here is my first "Make Ahead Thanksgiving Side Dish", a decadent Potato Casserole, courtesy of Paula Deen. At first glance, this seems like an ordinary, potato casserole, but it is not. I promise you, everyone will go back for seconds and thirds. Thanksgiving is not a time to be watching your waistline, but there are a few ways to lighten this dish, if you feel like you must! I have noted them at the bottom of the recipe. You can make this up to a month in advance. It stores very well in the freezer. If you are freezing it, undercook it by 15 minutes. I think this is a picture of Paula Deen dressed up like a stick of butter....
2 cups mashed potatoes
1/2 cup sour cream
House Seasoning, recipe follows
1 small onion, sliced thin
1 small bell pepper, sliced thin
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter (see above photo)
1 1/2 cups grated Cheddar
4 medium potatoes, cooked
6 slices bacon, cooked crisp
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Spread mashed potatoes evenly on bottom of casserole dish. Layer sour cream evenly over top. Sprinkle House Seasoning, to taste. Saute onion and bell pepper in butter; evenly layer over top of sour cream. Slice potatoes and layer over onions and bell peppers. Add butter. Sprinkle House seasoning. Finally top with cheese. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and crumble bacon over top.
Paula's Note: Leftover mashed potatoes work wonderfully in this recipe.
1 cup salt
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup garlic powder
Mix ingredients together and store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
Options to lighten Paula's Potato Casserole:
Use 1/2 stick of butter to saute the red pepper and onion; OR use olive oil in place of the butter.
Use light sour cream.
Leave out the second layer of sliced potatoes.
Half the amount of bacon sprinkled over the top.