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Countdown to Thanksgiving!
cap, captain miss america

I asked on my LiveJournal for people to give me questions to answer or write about this Thanksgiving. [info]dootsie asked a question so good I was surprised I’d never thought of answering it myself, and this is totally the right time for me to answer it– yes, three weeks in advance!

[info]dootsie asked me how I organize to cook on Thanksgiving. I actually started yesterday! You could start anytime in the next two weeks, but I’ll be away next weekend, and you do really want everything ready to go the weekend before Thanksgiving, so you’re not trying to organize and prep all at once.

This is really mainly for people who do the feast themselves, but it might even help those of you who make a few dishes to bring to a potluck, or who are in charge of desserts, or whatever. But I cook everything except the desserts (and the squash– there is a rule in my house, that since squash and sweet potatoes are two of the few foods I don’t like, if anyone wants them at Thanksgiving, they have to do the cooking themselves.), so I need to be super on top of things if I want to get everything done.

How do I do it? Part of the reason I have to be hyper-organized is because I pick new recipes every year. There are a couple recipes I stick with (like this mashed potatoes recipe from epicurious), but with the exception of one or two recipes that are family favorites, I make everything new every year. This means I have to:

1) Pick out my recipes
I start by getting all of my cooking magazines from November of whatever year it is. Right now, the list is Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Food Network Magazine, Saveur, Cucina Italiana, and Cook’s Illustrated. I look through them, and put a post-it on each page that has a recipe I think I like. I’ll mark it “Turkey” or “vegetable” or “salad” or whatever the general category of recipe is. Then, when I’m finished looking through on the first go-round, I find all the recipes of the same category, and compare them, and pick out my favorites.  The ones I don’t choose lose their post-its.  The ones I do choose get a post-it upgrade: I add what the recipe is to the post it.  So, for example, “Vegetable” becomes “Vegetable Roast Carrots.”

Once I have my recipes chosen, I

2) Start a Spreadsheet
I made a blank version of my spreadsheet for any of you who want to use it. Get it here!
Notice that the first page has a list of dish descriptions, such as “Turkey,” “Gravy,” “Vegetable #1.” You can rename these and add or subtract to fit your meal, but this is the number of dishes I would recommend for a sit-down dinner for 6-10 people. I do two or three appetizers (usually one vegetable, one meat) that are served while last-minute prep is still happening, along with one cocktail. Then, I do a soup, followed by a salad, and the main course. The main course consists of turkey, gravy, and stuffing, mashed potatoes, two kinds of cranberry sauce, and two to four vegetables. The cranberry sauces are always one made with fresh cranberries, and one made with cooked cranberries (which may be warm or cold). The vegetables usually include at least one starchy root vegetable dish, like carrots, parsnips, or beets, and one leafy green vegetable dish, like kale or collards or spinach. The other one or two can be whatever else. For example, this year my starchy vegetable will be roasted carrots with fennel, and my green leafy vegetable will be skillet-cooked kale. I am also doing a cauliflower dish with dates and pine nuts, and a brussels sprouts dish with smoked ham. I added a space for a squash/sweet potato dish and two desserts to the spreadsheet, since those aren’t my responsibility, but they may be yours.

I fill in my chosen dishes in the “Name” column next to the appropriate dish category, and list what their source is (which magazine) and what page number they are on. These go in the “Source” column on the spreadsheet. Then I look for holes. I also check to make sure I haven’t made too heavy a meal– say, too many gratin dishes or casseroles– or a meal with too much of one ingredient– like, say, four recipes with artichokes in them.

If there are any holes, I

3) Go to the cookbooks. I get out previous years’ Thanksgiving magazine issues, any cookbooks that might have the right kinds of recipes, and I do online searches on websites like epicurious or Bon Appetit, who both have Thanksgiving guides. I add the recipes I find there to the spreadsheet, and if I am pulling it off a website, I put the URL for the recipe in the “Source” column.

Okay, so now we have our recipes all listed. The next step is to

4) Make a shopping list.
I make the shopping list early (like, this week), so that if I need to buy anything online, I have the time to do that. To make a shopping list, go to page two of the spreadsheet, labeled “Shopping List.” Go through all your recipes in order. Read the ingredient list, and fill out the shopping list with the name of the recipe that the ingredient is for, the ingredient you need, with any qualifiers. For example, I would do “Onions, Red” and “Onions, Vidalia” so that I can sort my list, print it out, and get all the onions in one go when I am in the produce section. I fill out what store I need to buy the item at, and what section of the store it is likely to be in– so, for example, if I need to go to the butcher for some things and the greenmarket for others, I can sort the list by section, and then by store, and have everything sorted by where I need to buy it. You can also list which things you need to order online or from catalogs, so you can take care of those right away. Many cooking magazines will recommend a website to purchase more difficult-to-get ingredients, so put those URLs in this section if you need to order them that way.

Once you have your shopping list together, you can plan when you will go to each store. Some things, you might want to buy a full two weeks ahead of time; others, you might not want until the day before so they are nice and fresh. I don’t write out my shopping plan anywhere, but I do keep it in the back of my mind.

5)Make the to-do list
Go back to the first page of the spreadsheet. See how there are columns for “Ahead” and then “Sunday” through “Thursday”? This is where you’re going to fill out what gets done when. Read through every recipe carefully and figure out which parts have to be done ahead of time. For example, if you’ve got a frozen turkey, you will need to start thawing it several days before Thanksgiving. Likewise, if you’re pickling anything, that needs to be done several days in advance. Then take note of what things can be done ahead, and what things must be done the day of. Many tasks, like chopping herbs or vegetables, can be done ahead of time. Fill in which tasks need to be done on which day. Always front-load the beginning of the week: if it CAN be done on Monday, put it on Monday. You might need to put it off till Tuesday, but you don’t want to be stuck Tuesday with more than you can do. It’s much better to be finished with things ahead of time than to be rushed later because something took longer than you thought it would.

When you get to Thursday on the to-do list, your list should mostly say things like “roast,” “bake,” “reheat,” or “assemble.” Only the things that absolutely MUST be done at the very last minute should be on the Thursday list. If you can bake something ahead of time, do! Oven space is always at a premium on Thanksgiving. You will inevitably have other things you need to do on Thursday, but try to keep your day as clear as possible so you’re not scrambling at the last minute. If you have kitchen helpers, you can put who does what on the Thursday list. Also, take note of which things have to be in the oven or on the stovetop, and for how long, at what temperature, on the actual day of. I usually just write up a little schedule Wednesday night with all of that information on it. Remember that a Turkey usually comes out of the oven a while before you actually will be eating it, so you will have at least a half-hour, and maybe up to a full hour, that you can use to cook casseroles and other baked dishes once the turkey is done.

6) Start Doing!
Now you have your lists, so it’s time to start putting them to use. Once you’ve done your shopping, you can start prepping. I usually start with prepwork on Sunday night before Thanksgiving, save the few things that need to be done well in advance, if there are any. I get all of my ingredients into the state they need to be in to work with before I do anything else. I put all the prepared ingredients in containers or plastic bags, and label them with how much, of what, and what recipe(s) it is for. This way, when I get to the parts where I have to combine ingredients, everything is all ready for me to grab out of the fridge or off the shelf.

Then I just work through my list, crossing things off as a I go. That part is pretty straightforward!

I hope this is helpful! It is probably much more than most of you need, but I think it is easy to downsize this kind of big organization for smaller projects. If anyone has more questions, I will be happy to try to answer them!

Mirrored from Antagonia.net.

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What's funny about this is that my Thanksgiving advice is almost directly the opposite from yours. Though I spend most of the year trying out exotic recipes from foreign lands, when it comes to Thanksgiving, I pull out my list from past years and re-use it. I have three brothers and all are married with children. My brother Ben and I are the ones who cook. So the list is a chart with who will bring the turkey, who will bring the pies, etc. We typically all drive 3 - 5 hours to get to our family cabin. The one year neither Ben nor I were going to be there, Ben and I got on the phone and had a little chuckle about who would be doing the cooking. Too bad for them! Our family is me, Ben, Mike, Jim, and my father Roger.)
We usually do:
Ben: turkey and stuffing
Mike's daughter: garlic mashed potatoes
Me: salad, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, green beans, fruit salad
Mike's wife: pumpkin pies
Jim's wife: fudge

Jim will make cottage cheese pancakes one morning, Mike will make burritos one evening, and Roger will bring cantaloupe and eggs from his chickens for breakfast. I usually master mind the operations in the kitchen the day of. My husband master minds the clean-up afterwards.

I don't know if you can tell, but it's a little lopsided!

We-- I should say I-- started doing the entire meal about five years ago. Before that, we did Thanksgiving with a lot of cousins and everyone being in charge of one or two dishes. Now, Thanksgiving is my gift to my grandparents, and we really pull out all the stops and buy the best quality ingredients and try to do something different every year since my grandparents are 90 and 83, and we feel like they should be spoiled. In exchange for me doing all the cooking, my mother pays for all the food. I make everything ahead of time as best as possible, and then we drive it all down to Delaware on Thursday morning, really early in the morning. My dad is the only one who sometimes gets fussy about not having the old tried-and-true recipes from past years.

I hate how my Thanksgiving is a month before yours, causing me to forget how wonderful your Thanksgiving posts are and meaning I miss your tutorials! Next year, next year...

Aw, I am sorry! You can bookmark for next year!

Oh, this is good. I can't wait to see the spread from your table this year - I still remember how good last year's photos looked!

Hee, I am excited! I can't wait to cook it!

This is fascinating :)

I don't usually do the whole thanksgiving, since we have an extended family potluck thing that goes on now, but when it comes to be my turn again to do main dishes and my usual desserts, your run down might make my Wednesday-before marathon cooking day a bit easier.

Yeah, we used to do the extended family potluck thing, but I actually LOVE doing all the work myself. And yeah, I think the organization can work even for doing a few dishes. It's just that there's no way I could do 16-20 dishes a year without it!

Granted, I can do dessert the day before and all, but I'll nevertheless need to make at least two emergency runs to the grocery store. Your organization skills make my sad little post it note with the six desserts I'm making on it look positively plebeian in comparison. :)

We usually need to make an emergency run or two, too! Nothing is ever perfect, and as soon as there are more cooks involved (that is, Thursday), something always gets messed up :-P

Y'know, I never thought of using a spreadsheet for Thanksgiving, and it makes so much sense!! We always forget to make something or end up scrambling to make something we've not thought of. We don't get too exotic with our cooking, but even the smallest of Thanksgiving celebrations takes a little coordination.

Thanks so much for the insight! I definitely took away some new ideas.

Yeah. Actually, a lot of the recipes I'm using this year are simpler than in previous years. But that was just luck of the draw. I do think the spreadsheet helps a lot for the stuff you were talking about-- trying to check things like oven and stovetop time to maximize efficiency. And making sure you remember all your ingredients and the right amounts of each, and how much gets chopped to what size, and things like that.

I have just downloaded your spreadsheet and am so glad I did--it's helping me see the holes in our menu and has given me a list of items that our guests can bring (since they're all clamoring to know what they can contribute). This is the first time autifon and I have done T-giving on our own in years, and we're having some friends come for dinner, so I'm a bit rusty and slightly freaked. Thanks!

Eee, awesome! Good luck! I am glad the spreadsheet is helping.

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