Ok, Thanksgiving is over. In true ex-Navy fashion, it is now time for the “lessons learned” discussion.
Did you have a bunch of relatives over for Thanksgiving? Did it go smoothly? Did something get burnt? Did you get to the end of the meal and suddenly realize that you’d completely forgotten to make your mother-in-law’s favorite casserole? Did you finish the meal exhausted and frustrated and facing a pile of non-dishwasher-approved crystal and china with dried-on food?
Well, I have the solution for you! It’s…
THE POLITICAL HOUSEWYF’S HOLIDAY MEAL CHECKLIST
1. Plan ahead. Sounds like a no-brainer, but think about this meal and write it down. When I stripped and refinished my kitchen cabinets, I decided to do something different on the inside of the doors. Instead of just revarnishing them, I used the frame of the cabinet to create a magnetic chalkboard area inside each door (both paints are available at home centers; put the magnetic paint on first, then the chalkboard paint. The magnetic paint isn’t perfect; thin, strong magnets do best.). I keep chalk tucked in the corners of the cabinets, and I use one of the doors for a to-do list, others for quotes, another for one of those magnetic poetry sets, etc. One door is usually the menu list door for complicated dinners, like Thanksgiving. Then, I can check things off as they are partially or totally finished, sent to the table, etc.
So, consider what your family loves as “old favorites.” Is there a new member of the family who might like something different? Does anyone have a dietary allergy or preference that needs to be considered (vegetarian, kosher, etc.)? Would you like to add something new? (Careful with that at holidays; some families are more sensitive than others about holiday meals being something specific, and nothing more nor less. However, if you cover the favorite dishes, it’s easier to add something new. And then, if it doesn’t turn out so well, you’re covered anyways.) Make sure you cover meat, sides, vegetable/greens, bread, dessert, and drinks.
A few years ago, I scrapped the traditional sweet-potatoes-covered-in-marshmallows for a roasted sweet potato chunks recipe. Very yummy. And healthier (which is not something I can usually say about my cooking). My family doesn’t seem to miss the marshmallows. (Recipe: peel sweet potatoes and cut into bite-sized chunks. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and something spicy. (I use Penzey’s Northwoods Fire Seasoning; the person I got the recipe from used cayenne pepper.) Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet or baking pan. Roast at 400 degrees until potaotes are tender, at least thirty minutes.)
2. Pull out the recipes and check the pantry. Do you have everything you need? Look at the recipes; you may have forgotten an odd ingredient here or there. “Oops, that’s in there? I forgot about that…” isn’t something you want to say the morning of the big meal. (My incident was missing heavy cream for quiche for breakfast Christmas morning… I ended up with half-and-half from the 7-eleven after trying three different grocery stores that were closed.) Add up how many eggs and how much butter you’ll need. (Usually, I have more butter and eggs from my weekly dairy delivery than I can keep up with, but I had to get extra butter and eggs for holiday baking. Pies and cookies take up a lot of both.) Make a list and go shopping early, not the night before.
3. Determine what you can do ahead of time. I spent several nights earlier this week baking Christmas cookies. The night before Thanksgiving, I baked the pumpkin pie (which always takes longer than the recipe predicts, tying up my oven), the jello and fruit mold, the crust for the honey tart, and the cornbread for eating and for the stuffing. I also cooked the sausage and sauteed the celery, raisins, and Craisins (cranberries dried like raisins) for the stuffing, eliminating another spatter-likely process for the next day.
4. Set the table. Yes, the night before. Make sure everyone has a seat. Make sure your glasses are clean. Take the time to fold the napkins. Set out dishes and serving utensils for the dishes you’re planning to serve; that way, you know if you have to run the dishwasher or clean a platter before it becomes a last-minute problem.
5. Run the dishwasher, wash the non-dishwasher items, and load anything that’s left into the dishwasher. The goal is to have as much cleaned up as possible the actual day of the meal. Trust me, clear counters and empty sinks make post-meal clean-up much, much faster. And, while you’re at it, try to clear out the fridge, so that leftovers will be easier to stow without time-consuming fridge reorganization after the meal.
6. The day of the meal, start yourself off right. Eat rumballs for breakfast. 🙂 I know I enjoyed the cooking process a lot more than usual after a relaxing meal of cranberry juice and three or four chocolate rum balls rolled in confectioners’ sugar, scarfed in between chopping potatoes and filling pots with water. Ah, the benefits of starting the Christmas cookies ahead of time.
7. Determine what is left to do. What will take the longest? What dishes can be easily covered and left in the oven to stay warm (I use the oven’s lowest setting, about 150 degrees)? Potatoes are good candidates for this, just make sure they’re covered, so that they stay moist. Thanksgiving is pretty easy for this; I had mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, a rice/broccoli dish, and stuffing, all of which did well holding in the oven. The honey tart I experimented with for this holiday was supposed to be served hot out of the oven, so I finished the filling, poured it into the prepared crust, and put it in the oven to cook as other things headed out to the table. It finished about as we finished dinner.
Continue to get dirty dishes into the dishwasher and/or cleaned and put away. Leave one pot or bowl, filled with soapy water, in the sink for silverware at the end of the meal.
8. Once the dishes are starting to head to the table (room temp dishes first, then cold, then warm), clear a counter for dessert. Set aside plates, forks, pie servers and/or knives, coffee cups, cream and sugar, and the coffee maker (set up before the meal; run it right before dessert). Arrange the cookie plate, if applicable. The idea is to be able to have everything in one spot, for an easy, quick dessert set-up with minimal futzing.
9. Get people to the table. Preferably, get assistance with this. (My family usually takes multiple calls to actually get up from playing with the grandkids and come to the table.) Start pouring drinks. Make sure salt, pepper, and butter or margarine are on the table. Does everything have the proper serving utensil with it? Pull out your list and check it while looking at the table. Did everything make it to the table? I’ve been half-way through big holiday meals, when I suddenly realized that some dish hadn’t made it out of the fridge.
10. Sit down, say grace, and enjoy!
11. At the end of the meal (but not too quickly), clear all dishes to the kitchen and turn on the coffee maker. Scrape scraps off the plates and stack dishes in the sink to soak. (See? I told you those empty sinks were important.) Soak silverware in the bowl of soapy water. Rinse glasses and leave in a safe spot next to the sink. Do not start washing. You worked hard for this meal; keep enjoying it. The dishes will wait. Clean all of the dinner stuff off the table, clean up crumbs and spills, but don’t sweat it, because there’s still dessert. Pack leftovers away. Whisk out the dessert stuff from its gathering point on the counter, grab your finished coffee, and settle in for dessert.
See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?