Thanksgiving dinner: More tips to help you succeed
Thinking up a dinner party menu can be a daunting task for a novice home cook. and the truth is that even people who are more experienced around the kitchen are often rattled by the prospect.
But here we are, a week away from Thanksgiving and racing toward Christmas and new Year’s Eve, when dinner parties take on even more importance. so, before you begin, consider these tips:
A good dinner party menu should reflect the season. Don’t wage war with the weather and the time of year. Everyone will be happier with foods that have a natural place for the moment.
Tomato salad may be one of your favorites and you may have a killer recipe for Strawberry Shortcake, but by mid-autumn you should skip the spring and summer vegetables and fruits and cook with more comforting winter squash, pumpkin, celeriac and dark, leafy greens (collards, mustard greens, and so on).
Find uses for pears, apples, oranges, grapefruit, dried fruits and nuts. Seasonal produce is more likely to be fresh and local, tastier and cheaper. It’s also easier to find, so shopping will be less of a chore.
The same goes for the style and substance of the dishes you’ll be serving. During a heat wave you might serve cold salads and chilled soup. but when the temperatures turn colder, you would naturally look to dishes that offer warmth and substance: a glamorous roast beef or festive looking chicken or more rustic braised lamb shanks or osso buco or nourishing vegetarian options such as eggplant parmesan or chili sans carne, all entrees that are reassuring and make everyone feel well nourished.
Keep it simple. Of course, you want to make a good impression, but that doesn’t mean the dishes you serve have to be complicated and time consuming. Nor is it necessary to create a multi-course tasting menu. That’s what restaurants are for.
Start the evening with three or four hors d’oeuvres — enough to satisfy with a cocktail or glass of wine, but without being too filling. after that, a three-course (including dessert) dinner is probably your best option.
Remember not to aim for extravagance with every dish. although you may be eager to cook several of your best recipes, save all but one of them for another day, another dinner party. Stick to one recipe in a starring role, complement with the others.
Try to keep the flavors from competing with one another. If one dish is redolent of fresh herbs or spices — roasted chicken with cumin and cinnamon, for example — the others should be milder or plainer — steamed couscous and sauteed spinach, for example — otherwise the meal could be confusing, with too many tastes.
And avoid repeating the same ingredient in too many courses. You wouldn’t want to plan a menu of cheese crusted onion soup followed by shrimp and cheese quesadillas and cheesecake for dessert.
Stick to what you know. Almost all the experts tell you to cook what you know, to keep the experiments for family dinners. That’s usually a good rule to follow, because it’s less likely that there will be any surprises. on the other hand, if you are an experienced cook, there’s nothing wrong with tweaking a recipe, even for company.
Your vegetable chowder, the one you’ve made dozens of times, could do with broccoli if you can’t find string beans and you could probably use vegetable stock if you don’t have chicken stock and include canned beans, rice or macaroni to bulk it up; the veal cutlet dish will taste just fine if you switch to chicken or turkey; you can always add peas to brighten up the rice and substitute Swiss chard in that spinach recipe.
You can’t please everyone. Don’t let a guest’s fussiness determine your menu. on the other hand, it’s smart to check with your guests for allergies or other special needs (such as for people who are vegetarian, diabetic or kosher).
You may not have to change your menu, but there may be simple ways of being accommodating — making an extra side dish, even as simple as a baked potato, for someone who doesn’t eat meat; having a piece of fresh fruit for the diabetic who can’t eat a slice of your chocolate cake.
Know your limits. Before deciding on any menu, it’s important to understand what is realistic. that means, consider how much time you have to cook; you don’t want to be so exhausted you don’t enjoy your own dinner party.
But also think about the size of your kitchen and the kinds of tools, utensils and pots and pans you have. If you don’t own a food processor, you probably don’t want to prepare a recipe that calls for large amounts of finely chopped vegetables.
Work ahead. If you plan the menu right you can make much of the food ahead; if not a whole recipe, at least some of its parts. not only will this give you more time with your company, but you’ll know before they show up that the dish came out OK. it also gives you time to clean up.
There are hundreds of hors d’oeuvres that you can make ahead. Vary textures a bit by serving a dip or spread (hummus, guacamole, tdaziki, salsa) as well as something crunchy (gougeres); a cold or room-temperature item (white bean Bruschetta; make the bean mixture ahead and spoon it onto the bread just before your guests arrive) as well as something hot (pancetta-wrapped scallops; sprinkle scallops with lemon juice, wrap the outside rim with the bacon, preheat the broiler and pop them into the oven just after your guests arrive).
It helps if you develop a collection of easy nibbles you can depend on as “old reliables”: blue cheese stuffed dates, prosciutto rolled with arugula leaves (sprinkle with balsamic vinegar), ham or smoked salmon rolls (spread slices of ham or smoked salmon with herbed cream cheese, roll around a cooked asparagus, cut into chunks).
You can prepare a soup, season a roast, put together the ingredients for casseroles, mash the potatoes, set aside the toppings for the vegetables, mix the vinaigrette for the salad, wash and trim the vegetables, lettuce or other salad ingredients, cut up and get ready any quick-to-cook vegetable (such as chard, snow peas) you might want to serve. Be sure to label the portions you set aside for the appropriate recipe (“1 tablespoon lemon peel/broccoli dish”).
Leave as little as possible to the last minute. that goes for Thanksgiving or any other holiday, too. Cranberry sauce, mashed white or sweet potatoes, vegetable gratins, stuffing, pies all can be done one or two days ahead. You can clean and season your turkey the day before the holiday. the only thing left to do is roast the bird, and even that should be cooked ahead so that you can give it 30 minutes to rest before carving.
Save a few tablespoons of the pan juices. Then, after you carve your turkey, spoon the reserved liquid onto the meat to keep it from drying out. Drape the turkey skin over the meat, then cover the platter with aluminum foil. keep the meat warm in a turned off oven that is still warm. while the turkey is resting or being kept warm you can make the gravy.
Buy some stuff. You don’t have to cook everything. Specialty stores and even most supermarkets today have a multitude of tasty items, especially hors d’oeuvres and desserts, that you can buy and offer to guests along with your home cooked dishes.
For cocktail nibbles there’s sopressata (cut into chunks and skewered with tiny chunks of Fontina cheese), smoked salmon (small slices on buttered cocktail pumpernickel bread), cold boiled shrimp, hummus, marinated olives, sun-dried tomatoes or roasted peppers.
Bakeries offer gorgeous cakes, mousses, custards and so on. Save your efforts for the appetizer and entree.
Enjoy your dinner. do it again.
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