Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Organizing Thanksgiving Dinner

Per a friend's request, I'm going to detail how to organize a large dinner if you are doing all the cooking.  Most families have large dinners pot luck style, or some assign dishes for each person/family to bring so they don't end up with 11 bowls of corn, but on occasion you have a very large dinner where all the cooking is done by one person or family. That's how it's done for my mom's side of the family. I/we have done all the cooking for that Thanksgiving, which happens to be our largest, for the past 14 years. Trust me when I say that all the planning, shopping, and the cooking for two days is easier than trying to get everyone in my family on the same page, or in the same place at anywhere near the same time. At least if I do it all I can eat when I want.
WARNING - this may seem very long and involved, and I guess it sort of is, but once you get to doing it, many parts of it become second nature and it gets much easier to bring it all together. It just sounds daunting when you have to spell it all out in detail.
I will add that this has become increasingly easier over the years since the girls have gotten old enough to help with the cooking, and we have purchased things like a roaster oven, two large crockpots and a large, 3 pot buffet server that have made getting it all cooked, and staying warm much easier. But it can be done without all that if you keep the menu fairly simple. Also, even if you don't have those things you may know people who do that would be glad to loan them to you. Maybe even someone who's planning on being at your dinner. And include those kids. My kids earliest jobs were peeling potatoes and scrubbing sweet potatoes and wrapping them in foil. They can also open cans, or pakages of frozen veggies and get those in the proper pots, fill the deviled eggs or help set up the extra seating or buffet line, or set the table if it's small enough to be a regular sit-down meal. As they get older you can teach them how to make certain foods during the course of the year and then let that be their job the next Thanksgiving. They love being able to tell everyone which dishes they made. The last thing to keep in mind is oven and stove top capacity. Like I said before, I have many items that make that less of an issue now, but when I didn't I cooked a smaller variety of food and had my mom bring the ham. I couldn't fit both the turkey and a ham in the oven, even though I needed both in order to serve so many, and I could trust my mom to get the ham there on time.

With all that said, on to the timeline.

I actually start several weeks in advance. I make a large batch of chicken stock (it's used in a couple of dishes) if I'm running low, and I start buying things that will keep in the pantry or freezer. It's much easier on your budget if you add a few things at a time during your regular grocery shopping. The week before the dinner I sit down with the menu and any recipe that I will be using and make out a grocery list of anything that I don't already have on hand. I go through each and every ingredient in every recipe and double check the freezer, fridge, pantry, and spice cabinet. Remember to keep a count on those ingredients. If several of your recipes call for butter or eggs, don't just put butter and eggs on your grocery list. Count up how much you will need, add in some extra, "just in case", and then put the number of boxes of butter or how many dozen eggs you'll need on your list. And though you may not think about it because you don't actually need a recipe for things like mashed potatoes, those need butter, or cream cheese, or cream, or whatever you put in them and those items will have to be included in the count as well. Butter is one of those things I start buying in advance because it can be frozen. I also let everyone in the house know about any ingredients that I'll need so they don't disappear over the course of the week. Finally, I pick which day I need to do the shopping. If you're getting a fresh bird, you don't want to keep it in the fridge for more than a few days. If you're getting a frozen one you can shop a bit earlier, but keep in mind the shelf life of any dairy or produce that you may be using. Then you start preparing your game plan for baking the day before and cooking the day of the dinner.
Game plan? Yes - most definately. The best way to manage it all is to sit down and make out an hour by hour list of everything that needs to be cooked. My list actually breaks it down into no less than 30 and sometimes 15 min increments for particulary busy portions of the day. Start by deciding how long everything needs to cook. Then, taking into account when you plan on serving, count backward, remembering to factor in things like rest time before carving the turkey, and the actual carving time. If you want to serve at 1:00, and your turkey will need to cook for 2 hrs., you need to start it around 10:15. 2 hr cook time, 20-30 min rest time, approx. 15 min to carve. = 2hrs 45min. If you want, you can factor in a little cushion time, that is, add up to an addtional 1/2 hr, just in case your turkey ends up needing a little extra time. Personally, I don't do this - if it happens, I just tell everyone they have to wait a bit because the turkey's not done. They may offer up a few (usually good-natured) protests, but you can tell them how close the nearest McDonald's is if they don't feel they can wait. :D I may have to beat shoo foragers out of the kitchen, but no-one has ever left, or even been angry because of it. Hey, if you're doing all the cooking, the least they can do is be graceful about a little delay. Do this for everything you're cooking, plotting out exactly when each thing needs to be started in order to be done on time. Don't forget to add in things like prep time. When able, fit prep time for things into cooking times for other things. As and example; it only takes about 30-40min for the stuffing to bake, so it doesn't need to go in until sometime nearer the end, but it can be prepared much earlier and left to sit until time to put it in the oven - of course, this is if you do it in a casserole dish instead of in the turkey (please don't do it in the turkey - that's just gross, and more likely to cause salmonella poisoning -okay, nuff said). Likewise, potatoes can be peeled, washed, chopped, and left to sit in their pot, covered with water until it's time to start them. You can do those things while the turkey cooks, or sometimes even before it goes in. Finally, think about things like setting up an area to eat, or getting everything on the buffet line. Our food is served buffet style. The kitchen counters are U shaped, so the regular food is all served in the kitchen. It starts beside the coffee maker and works around to the fridge, going right across the stove. Since I don't have to take it far, I only have to factor in a few minutes for getting the plates, utensils and napkins in place and serving spoons in the dishes. We do have to set up tables in the garage though so that everyone has a place to eat. We also set up the desserts and the drink table out there. Time has to be set aside to set all that up, but it's usually done well in advance of serving. So, now you have your ingredients, you have all the paper products, and you have your game plan stuck to the front of the refrigerator, along with a pencil somewhere nearby in order to check things off (somewhere as in the top of the fridge, where only your 6ft teenageer can see it - if you don't do this, your pencil will walk off). Now, get plenty of rest this week - you're going to be exhausted by Saturday evening.

Here's a practical example of what we generally do, and just did this past Friday and Saturday for our big dinner.
Ham                                          Apple Pie
Turkey                                       Lemon Meringue Pie
Stuffing                                      Sweet Potato Pie
Gravy                                        Pumpkin Cheese Pie
Cranberry Sauce                        Chocolate Pie                     
Pinto Beans                                Lemon Pound Cake
Mashed Potatoes                       Chocolate Pistachio Cake
Baked Sweet Potatoes               Carrot Cake w/ Cream Cheese Icing     
Macaroni and Cheese                 Pumpkin Roll     
Green Beans w/ New Potatoes    Brownies
Lima Beans                                 Brown Sugar Brownies
Deviled Eggs
Olive, Pickles, Baby Carrots        Sweet Tea
Biscuts                                         Unsweet Tea (brought by a guest)
Cornbread                                   Assorted Soft Drinks (brought by guest)

I don't really map out every hour for Friday, I just think about/jot down everything that can be prepared the day before so that Saturday runs much smoother. I don't serve any dessert that requires last minute preparation or cooking, so I make all my desserts on Friday. We also make the cranberry sauce , deviled eggs, and at least 2 gallons of sweet tea, put the pinto beans on to soak, and prepare the brine and get the turkey in it. The first thing you should do is lay out any ingredients that need to come to room temperature. Baking usually requires butter and cream cheese to be soft and many cake recipes tell you to have other ingredients like milk, sour cream or eggs at room temp., so go ahead and get them out to warm. Since I only have one 9"x13" pan, and we do two batches of brownies, the first thing I cook is a batch of brownies. They cut with much less mess when they are completely cooled, so cooking one first means that they'll have time to cool properly before you need the pan for the second batch. While they are cooking I get my pie shells out to thaw.  Yes, I use premade, frozen pie shells for this dinner - hey, everything else is homemade,  this one convience won't hurt anyone. I also put the eggs on to boil for the deviled eggs and scrub and wrap the sweet potatoes that I'll need for the pie. I slip those in the oven as soon as they are wrapped and ready (before the brownies are done). They'll cook while other things are coming in and out of the oven. When the brownies are done, I begin cooking the pie shells that need to be completely pre-baked (remember to prick those crusts with a fork). I even cook the ones for the apple and sweet potato pie for a few min., just to keep the crust from getting soggy under all the filling. While those are in, I make up the next cake or pie, usually trying to get a couple of things that require the same baking temperature in at the same time. When there is something in the oven that takes a good while to bake, like a pound cake, which requires at least an hour, I can make the chocolate pies because the filling is cooked on the stove top. We can also get the cranberry sauce prepared since that's done on the stove too. Using the actual bake time of one thing to prepare others keeps everything moving along. Just remember that anything that uses levening should not sit for very long before going in to bake. There are plenty of other things to do though, like deviling the eggs, making the sauce, mashing the sweet potatoes (for the pie), or even washing up some of the dishes, then when something is ready, or just about ready to come out of the oven, you can mix up the next item. Just don't get too harried. Remember, nothing will be served tonight. You're just doing all this today so that you will have less to do the next day. Try to relax - you probably won't be able to tomorrow.

Saturday - dinner @ 1:00
7:00am - Start pintos.
*When I used to have to do all the cooking I'd make sure I already had my shower and everything else done before this so that I could use the whole day for cooking. Now that the kids can cook, I start the beans and then let someone else keep an eye on them while I go take a shower and get ready.*
After the beans are started, feed the crew breakfast, make sure they are all dressed and ready, etc.
8:00 - 9:20 - Go ahead and start peeling the white potatoes (cover them in water once they are cubed), scrub and wrap the sweet potatoes in foil, get out your crock pot(s), and set up any buffet servers you may have. Other examples of things you could potentially do during this time would be chop onions or other veggies, prepare any cold plate, unwrap the paper products, prep the coffee maker, or fill the butter dishes, salt and pepper shakers and the sugar bowl, and get them in place. Preheat your oven. Put water on to heat for the macaroni noodles.
9:20 - Get your roaster pan ready and get the turkey out. I use roasting bags to cook my turkey, so I get that out and get the flour in it. Then, since I brine our turkeys, I bring the turkey in and get it rinsed off and in the bag. Remember to keep and eye on the beans. Check your list.
9:30 - Start the turkey (ours was pretty big, so it needed at least 2 1/2hrs. They do cook quicker in the bags.)
Then make the macaroni and get it in the crock pot. I just prepare it plain for this dinner - no bacon.
10:00 - Put the turkey necks on to boil (for the turkey gravy - I really prefer to use smoked turkey necks; it makes a great gravy).
Check that the chicken stock was completely thawed in the refigerator and if not, put it in a pot to melt.
Remember to keep an eye on the beans.
Put ham in the second crock pot. It can be turned to warm once it's cooked.
If any of the above suggestions haven't been done, work on those, or set up the eating area and start putting out any desserts that don't require refrigeration. Set up drink table.Check your list!
10:30 - Put in sweet potatoes (I choose small ones because the larger ones just get cut in half anyway, and they cook quicker. I place the wrapped potatoes in a shallow baking dish and slide them in under the turkey, on the lowest rack.) 
Prepare the stuffing. For me this includes time for frying bacon and onions to mix in with the stuffing. Have it ready to go in the oven as soon as the potatoes are done. Get the corn, lima beans and green beans in the buffet server and get the lima beans cooking. The limas take longer to cook and the buffet server won't bring things to a boil as quickly as the stove, so I keep this in mind. If I didn't have the server I would jockey pots around on the stove. I've also used the rice cooker to cook veggies before. Just keep an eye on the water level. Mix the shortening or lard into the self-rising flour for your biscuts. Get your baskets ready for the biscuts and cornbread. Check your pintos!
This is a good time to double check your check list. Anything else that can be done in advance should be done.
11:30 - Start boiling potatoes. We fix a really big pot of potatoes (about 10lbs), so it takes quite awhile to get it boiling.
Start the corn and green beans. They can be held on warm once they are heated through.
11:45 - Grab your biscut flour (with the shortening already in it), add the buttermilk and start forming your biscuts. You'll need a little extra time to do this because you'll keep having to stop to check other things.
Check your list!
12:00 - Pull turkey necks out so the meat can be picked off the bones.
I have to admit that someone else (a dear friend of the familiy, who always shows up and hour early to help) has always done this for me.
Pull the sweet potatoes out of the oven and put in the stuffing.
Pintos are done - just keep them warm.
Finish any last minute set up - ex: put the plates, napkins, and utensils out and bring the deviled eggs, cranberry sauce, and the pickle, olive, and baby carrot plate out of the fridge.
12:15 - Turkey comes out and a pan of biscuts goes in.
12:25 - Mix a batch of cornbread
12:30 - Stuffing comes out and cornbread goes in.
Start the rue for your gravy and have a strong man take that extra large stock pot of potatoes to the sink and pour them into a strainer (or two strainers). Save some of the potato water! Pour the potatoes back in the pot. Keep an eye on the rue (better not have your stove on very high) and throw some butter and cream cheese in with the potatoes to start melting. Add your turkey neck stock and chicken stock to your rue to form the gravy. When the consistency is right, add the meat from your turkey necks.
12:45 - Hunt down your older brother so he can carve the turkey. Of course he may be one of the ones you've been trying to kick out of the kitchen for the last 20 min., so that might not be hard. In my case, hunt down means holler, because I'm busy making the gravy. Check biscuts because they're probably done, and get them in the serving basket.
Mash the potatoes and grab any handy person (there will be many vultures in the immediate vicinity) to remove covers and place spoons/tongs in dishes.
Take cornbread out and get it in it's basket.
1:00 - If everything went well (and yes, sometimes it does :D) hunt down your husband so he can ask the blessing. This may literally require hunting.
1:02 - Run interception in the buffet line
Grandma first, then all the littles (who can't hold their own plates) with their parent, or another, older relative next, then everyone else.
Once you know no one is actually going to get hurt in the fracas that has become the buffet line, jump in front of one of your own kids who has made it near the front of the line.

Now go enjoy the meal and make other people clean up.

You may note that I did not include any dish washing time into this, but never fear; constant dish washing is mandatory. I usually try to keep things washed up as I go, but the last hour or so is always so busy I never actually have time to wash any dishes myself. The aforementioned, dear family friend has always stepped in to help during that last hour and keeps the dishes washed up, and now that my kids are older, there is always someone who can be called in for that task.

I think that's all. At least, I hope that's all. It makes me tired just looking at it all.

Meal will serve 25-30, or 6 teenagers.
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