Hosting is fun and rewarding on so many levels, and spending time with family is very high on my list of things I love. Our family celebrates Thanksgiving the traditional way, with the whole family gathered and eating turkey with lots of sides. It really can be quite an undertaking though, both to prepare the food and to clean up afterward, even with lots of help.
This year I decided to make some changes and to do in advance everything that I could. My goal was less stress during food preparation and less dishes to clean afterward, but still serving the wonderful turkey dinner my family has come to love so much. Simplify, simplify.
Here’s what I came up with:
The week before Thanksgiving:
Turkey: (Here’s a link to how I slow-roast my turkeys)
For the turkey, I baked it the week before, then carved it, saved the drippings, and cooked stock on the bones for yummy, delicious soup later (Turkey Stock). I put the meat into two 9×13 aluminum pans; white meat in one, and dark in another, covered them well with foil and plastic, then placed them in the freezer. I also saved a cup of drippings for each pan to use during heating. See below for heating and serving.
I made gravy ahead of time as soon as the turkey was done cooking. I used turkey drippings, some potato broth, corn starch (instead of flour to make it gluten free), some salt, and a little (secret ingredient!) soy sauce (also a gluten free variety). Cooked it up, cooled it, then put it into the freezer. See below for heating and serving.
Also made the week before. I peeled and boiled 20 large baking potatoes, then made mashed potatoes like I usually do: I drained the water but saved some for gravy and stuffing. Then I mashed, and after mashing I added a stick of real butter, an 8 oz package of cream cheese, a 16 oz container of whole sour cream (Daisy is my favorite as it is very clean with no additives), salt, and enough whole milk to make it a little bit softer than what I want the end result to be. Mashed potatoes always thicken a bit as they sit. Then I sprayed two 9×13 aluminum pans and divided the potatoes between them, and covered well with foil. Then straight into the freezer. (The potatoes can be loaded up more than I did this time; some will double the amounts of sour cream and cream cheese, which I think is a bit much, and some will also add Parmesan cheese.) See below for heating and serving.
I decided to prepare stuffing in a crock pot this year, and that worked wonderfully. I like to use ready-made dry stuffing mix; I love the taste and the convenience, and it’s one dish I don’t care to fiddle with. So this is what I did: The week before Thanksgiving I measured up all the liquid I would need for the number of boxes of stuffing mix I would be using. Instead of using water, I used potato broth and also some drippings from the turkey, and real butter. No margarine in this house (!!). I just measured everything, then put in a container and straight into the freezer. See below for on-the-day heating / mixing of the stuffing.
Green Bean Casserole: (This year I used a traditional recipe, but here are links to two absolutely wonderful gluten free recipes: Cheesy and Creamy, even homemade crisp onions, which can be made gluten free or regular.)
This casserole was prepared, but not baked, the day before Thanksgiving. It is possible that it can be made even earlier and placed in the freezer, but I’m not sure. I’ve never tried it. To simplify this year, especially since I tripled the recipe, I decided to use a crock pot for this as well. I prepared the casserole in a mixing bowl, then poured it into a crock pot with a liner in it to save on dish washing afterwards. Then I placed it in the refrigerator. See below for heating and serving.
Additional dishes were brought in by other family members.
Now for heating and serving:
A few years ago I purchased this Oster CKSTBSTW00 Buffet Server, which is a 3-tray warming unit that I use every time I serve big meals like these. There are other sizes and brands out there as well, and I find mine very handy. I used it again this year for the meat and the gravy. I’ll get back to that in a little bit.
The night before Thanksgiving I took out from the freezer the pans of meat, mashed potatoes, gravy, extra drippings for the turkey, and stuffing liquid, so that they would thaw out by the next morning. I figured that we would be eating by noon, so I timed everything accordingly. And I have to say, going into Thanksgiving this year I felt more relaxed than ever before after having taken these steps to prepare ahead and simplify. I felt so good about all the things that had been done, especially knowing there was no potato pot to get going or turkey to be carved and dealt with. I was looking forward to less stress, not be boggled down with as many dishes as before, and all in all more time to enjoy family. It made things so much easier!
On the Day of Thanksgiving:
First off, at 9 AM, I started the crock pot with the green bean casserole and set it on high, then lowered to low once they were good ‘n hot. The crisp onions were added immediately before serving, removing the lid to keep the onions crisp.
At 10 AM I put the two pans of turkey in the oven at 400 degrees, plastic removed (obviously), covered with aluminum foil and with a cup of drippings poured into each. I allotted one hour for this, turning the pieces over every 10 – 15 minutes or so until hot, then placed in two of the pans in the 3-dish warming buffet: white meat in one, dark in another.
While the meat was heating up in the oven, I had time to work on the stuffing and gravy:
I first brought to a boil the potato broth, drippings, and butter that I had set aside for the stuffing. While the liquid was heating up, I put a liner in my second crock pot, poured all the dry stuffing mix into the liner, and turned the crock pot to low. Shortly after, the liquid came to a boil. I poured it into the stuffing mix, gave it a good stir, then put the lid on. It would now stay hot until ready to serve.
As soon as the stuffing liquid was prepared, I got the gravy going in the same pot and brought it to a boil, whisking to get it nice and smooth, then poured it into the third tray in the warming unit. Washed the pot, done with that.
As soon as the meat was done heating, approximately one hour before serving, I put the two pans of mashed potatoes into the oven to warm up. I kept them covered with aluminum foil and stirred very well every 10-15 minutes. Note: When heating previously frozen mashed potatoes, they will be very runny and soggy in the beginning, and this is to be expected. No worries though; as soon as they get hot the starches will absorb the extra liquid and it will thicken right up. You might even have to add some extra milk as they may thicken too much, especially as they cool down after you’re done heating.
The potatoes were scheduled to finish heating right at noon, but in case of a delay in serving and in order to keep them hot, I had two extra aluminum pans ready to use as an insulator underneath. So this is what I did: I put one pan of potatoes inside the two empty ones, kept it covered with foil on top, then plopped the second pan of potatoes right on top, also covered. (If there is still a little wait before serving, a beach towel can be placed on top to keep this whole unit hot.) For serving, once one pan was empty, the other one was right underneath ready to use.
So now, serving the meal, I had plates set on the counter (serving buffet style), meat and gravy in the heating unit, mashed potatoes in aluminum pans, stuffing and green bean casserole in a crock pot each, and other sides brought in by helpful family members. Silverware and napkins were placed at the end so guests wouldn’t have to carry them along while helping themselves to food.
Taking care of the turkey, gravy, and potatoes in advance was a huge time saver! After the meal, the dish washing was a breeze; no potato pot to wash, no crock pots either since I used liners, and using aluminum pans saved me as well. All in all, clean up went faster than ever before, which gave me much more time to sit down and enjoy company.
Thanksgiving has never gone more smoothly; simplifying and preparing ahead to make things easier on the day was very well worth the effort. We were able to enjoy a delicious turkey dinner with far less fuss.