Countdown: Your guide to Thanksgiving dinner

USA TODAY - The next two months are going to go fly by faster than eight tiny reindeer, and the trick to making the most of the holiday season is to be prepared – especially if you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving is three weeks away, which is plenty of time to work ahead. We put together a timeline of kitchen tasks you can complete in advance, including tips from Marcy Ragan, a personal chef and owner of Relish Your Chef in Long Branch, and Chef Eric LeVine, owner of Morris Tap & Grill in Randolph and Paragon Tap & Table in Clark.

So roll up your sleeves and get ready –Turkey Day is on the way.

WEEK 1:

Make a plan: "When I went to culinary school, every chef that I worked with, they all had a work list, they make a plan," Ragan said. "Write out the menu, even if it's tentative. Write out the work list. If you know you'll need to get your vegetables chopped first, write it out."

Make a detailed list of everything you want to serve, down to the garnishes for drinks and coffee creamer. Shop for as many groceries as you can, saving ingredients that should be purchased later - vegetables, dairy products, etc. - for a final trip a few days before Thanksgiving.
Turkey: If you want a fresh bird from a local farm, order as soon as possible or you may miss out. Try Hinck's Turkey Farm in Wall, Green Duchess Farm in Franklin Township, Somerset County; Griggstown Farm in Princeton, Mercer County; and Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff, Bergen County.

"If you're getting a heritage turkey, make sure that you understand that its a lot leaner than a supermarket bird and is going to cook quicker," Ragan said. Heritage turkey breasts also are smaller than other turkeys, so plan accordingly.

Dessert: Good news: Pies, one of the holiday's most time-intensive dishes, can be made well in advance (something to remember while apple picking next year). The best pies to make and freeze are fruit pies.

Prepare up until baking and then freeze, uncovered, until hard.Wrap in plastic wrap and foil and pop it back in the freezer. On Thanksgiving or the day before, put the pie directly into the oven – no need to thaw – and bake until bubbly, adding 20 to 30 minutes to the recipe's bake time.

A tip: To keep a cold glass pie plate from shattering in a hot oven, line the plate with plastic wrap before assembling the pie. Once frozen, pop the pie out of the plate, wrap it and return to the freeze without the plate.

WEEK 2:

Butter: Compound butters are delicious on warm dinner rolls and can be made well in advance. Bring butter to room temperature, mix in chopped herbs, garlic powder, salt, pepper and lemon zest, then shape into a log on plastic wrap and roll up, twisting ends well, and freeze. Move to the refrigerator the day before Thanksgiving or thaw on the counter the day of the meal.
Soup: These can be prepared completely, cooled, frozen and then thawed a day or before the holiday. If making a soup that includes pasta, leave that out and add it during rewarming so it doesn't absorb the broth.

Bread and rolls: Prepare these through the first rise then freeze. The day before Thanksgiving, proceed with the recipe.

Turkey stock: Homemade stock "will make all the difference in your gravy," Ragan said. "It can freeze ahead of time and it's super cheap and super easy to do." Start with turkey necks and wings, both of which can be found at the grocery store, and roast them at 425 degrees until golden, approximately 30 to 40 minutes. Put them in a big stock pot, add aromatics – onion, carrot, thyme – and cold water to cover. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for one to two hours, skimming the foam off the top. "You're going to have a really beautiful, deep turkey stock."

WEEK 3:

Prep your kitchen: Clean out the fridge –you are going to need space – and sharpen your knives.

Turkey: If you bought a frozen turkey, move it from the freezer to the refrigerator two or three days before Thanksgiving. If you plan to brine your bird, you can make the salt/water/spice solution now, as it takes time to cool down and can sit in the refrigerator for a few days.

Buy a five-gallon bucket or cooler and have ready a heavy-duty garbage bag to hold the turkey and brine. If you have room, the turkey, brine and container will go in the fridge, but if not, you can store it outside as long as the temperature is 40 degrees or below.

LeVine brines his turkeys for 48 hours; "that helps keep the turkey really, really, really moist. We have people say it's the best turkey they've ever had."
Cranberry sauce: This is one of those dishes that benefit from a few days in the fridge. Prepare it, cool completely and cover with plastic wrap.

Stuffing: Chop the bread and dice vegetables.

Vegetables:  Parboil green beans, slice mushrooms, wash and dry salad greens, peel and chop carrots, parsnips, turnips and Brussels sprouts.

THE DAY BEFORE:

Refine the plan: Make a list of all dishes, their cook times and temperatures; this will keep your kitchen organized. Start with the time you plan to serve dinner and work backward so you know when to begin cooking.

Stuffing: It can be prepped a day ahead, but to keep the bread from turning to mush, don't add too much liquid. "As long as you're not adding too much moisture, it won't get soggy," said LeVine, who will prepare about 400 pounds of stuffing at his restaurants, which means he is used to working in advance.

If the finished dish seems dry, you can add broth before reheating. And if you still worry about sogginess, prepare the ingredients up until the point of baking – toast the bread, cook sausage and vegetables – then proceed with the recipe on Thanksgiving.
Sweet potatoes: "You can make your sweet potatoes ahead of time and just finish them in the oven," LeVine said, adding that the day of cooking, add the topping – nuts, a glaze, marshmallows – then rewarm.

Mashed potatoes: Some cooks insist on day-of mashed potatoes, but if you need the space on your stove top, go ahead and make them early. Prepare the mashed potatoes and dot the top with pats of butter before refrigerating. Before reheating, allow the dish to stand at room temperature for at least an hour to prevent a cold center. (A tip: After cooking and draining potatoes, return to the pot over low heat and mash. The heat allows steam to escape, which prevents mushy potatoes.)

If you prefer to make these the day of, mashed potatoes can be prepared early in the day then transferred to a slow cooker set on low for up to four hours. Butter the bottom of the cooker first and pour in a small amount of milk or cream before spooning in potatoes.

Dinner rolls: If you didn't make them earlier in the month, there's still time. For yeasted rolls, prepare the recipe through shaping, then cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer. This will stop the dough from rising. After two to four hours, move the dough to the refrigerator and leave overnight. Proceed with recipe the following day.

THANKSGIVING DAY:

In the morning: Set the table and pull out and label the serving dishes you plan to use. This will alleviate last-minute scrambling.

Turkey: Before adding any herbs, spices, butters or rubs, pat the bird dry and truss the legs. Season as desired, then cover the breast with tinfoil to prevent the thin skin from burning, LeVine said. Cook the turkey breast-side up; "if you put the breast side down, you push the moisture out of it from the weight of the bird," he said.
After the turkey is cooked, let it sit while you reheat and prepare side dishes. Gravy: Unfortunately, there is no shortcut here: You need the drippings from your turkey to make gravy. But as a recent convert from jarred gravy to fresh, I can tell you it is worth the wait – and the work. Be sure to use Wondra flour, which easily thickens gravies.

Eat!: Take a seat and enjoy all your hard work – you earned it!

Copyright 2016 KUSA


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