I can’t believe another year has passed and I’m talking about Thanksgiving again! Wasn’t it just a month or so ago I was making black-eyed peas for good luck for the coming year? (Which, by the way, has been pretty good, so I’m going to continue the tradition!).
We are coming upon the biggest cooking day of the year (and since the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving Day this year, this makes it doubly so!), and as has been my custom, I’m going to give you my tips for making it relatively stress-free and fun. Some of these tips may seem elementary, although to me they make the actual battle of getting everything ready all at once easier. Some of these tips are mine and some are other cook’s tips I’ve collected through the years that work for me. Whether you’re cooking Thanksgiving for ten or having a dinner party at another time of the year, I find these tips are good to have in your back pocket.
My Vermont Kitchen’s Thanksgiving Cooking Tips
• This goes without saying, but prepare some items the day before or even two or three days before. Make this weekend your friend; rolls can be made and frozen until Thursday morning. Squash can be made Monday or Tuesday, make and bake your pies late Wednesday evening, that way you’re not trying to jockey for space in the oven with your turkey the next day.
• Make sure your knives are sharp! I made this tip last year when my dad found my knives were less than sharp when he was carving the turkey. (He has since given me a hand-held knife sharpener.) If you don’t have one, find a kitchen shop that does sharpening and take them in this weekend. This will make carving the turkey all that much easier–and everything else for months to come!
• On Wednesday, take out all serving bowls and utensils and assign dishes to each one. This saves a lot on the “what bowl is the stuffing going into?” questions when you have some ravenous people hovering at your elbow in the kitchen. I put the assignments on scraps of paper and place them inside each bowl or plate, which I find helps my memory immensely the next day. Make sure all china, glasses, and linens also are cleaned and ready to go, so all I have to do Thursday morning is set the table. If necessary, do the wash this weekend so it’s not a last-minute chore during the week.
• For me, the most important piece of paper in the kitchen will be my timeline. I take my menu, figured out how long the turkey was going to cook and what I have to do when it comes out of the oven. So I have everything down to the time, “10 a.m., turkey in the oven; at 12:45 see if it’s almost done and start the potatoes” etc. This allows me to easily whisk around the kitchen and for everything to be done pretty much at the same time (fingers crossed!). This method also is good for any meal you’re cooking while entertaining, as I have a habit of forgetting things once the door opens and the guests arrive!
• Since almost all of us have one oven, prime real estate in the kitchen is small. Last year, at the suggestion of “America’s Test Kitchen,” I pulled out my crock pot for an additional burner! Set to low, it warmed my squash wonderfully and freed up an extra burner.
• A small, old-fashioned relish plate as an appetizer. So many times I’ve made a couple of appetizers, which fill up your guests before the meal. How about some carrots and celery sticks, a bowl of black olives, and cornchicons? Just a little something light to tide everyone over before dinner. Sliced fennel with a little bit of olive oil and salt and pepper is another tasty treat. Serve with toothpicks
• Instead of putting all the dishes on the table, finding room among the arms and elbows, I set up the kitchen table as a buffet, so people can fill their plates and return to an uncluttered table. While it doesn’t paint the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving feast, I find this to be a much nicer way to eat, so you aren’t surrounded by people plus dishes!
• If you want some additional quick recipes, check out Mark Bittman’s fantastic “101 Tips for the Big Day” from the New York Times. This is well worth reading and printing out; I always refer to it this time of year; Bittman is the king of quick tips and simplicity and is always so helpful.
Week Night Dinner Series #5: Chicken (or Tofu) Stir Fry with Spicy Peanut Sauce
You can serve this over rice or another grain, but I like the simpleness of just veggies and meat.
I know I’ve mentioned before, but Monday dinners have to be pronto, with a capital P; I get home from the gym long after 7 p.m. and I’m famished. So dinner has to be made quickly or I may find myself stopping at the grocery store before I leave town for something unhealthy to eat. Stir fry is my go-to meal, but lately I’ve getting bored with my usual hoisen sauce mixture. This is my latest creation, a delicious spicy, peanutty sauce that makes you want to lick the plate and go back for seconds!
If you chop your chicken the night before, one step is already done. I chop the veggies when I get home, everything tossed into a hot skillet, and the sauce whisked together while everything is cooking. In actuality, everything can be prepped ahead of time, making this an even quicker meal!
Veggies are whatever are in the vegetable bin, but my favorite combination these days are red peppers, zucchini, onions, broccoli (can this possibly be becoming a favorite vegetable?), and carrots. A small chicken breast or some tofu are what I use as protein. I don’t measure, but I’d say the ratio is 3:1, veggies to protein.
1. Warm a couple of teaspoons of oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the vegetables and cook until barely done. Remove from heat and put the mixture in a large bowl.
2. Return the skillet to the stove, add a little bit more oil, and add your chicken or tofu and cook until done. While this is cooking, mix up the peanut sauce.
3. When the chicken or tofu is done cooking, mix in the vegetables. Add the peanut sauce, make sure everything is covered evenly, and serve!
Spicy Peanut Sauce
2 Tablespoons peanut butter
2-3 Tablespoons hot water
1 teaspoon soy sauce (or tamari)
1 generous teaspoon sambal oelek (or less if you like things less spicy)
In a small bowl, add the peanut butter and hot water. Whisk together until it make a thin paste (the amount of water you add will depend on the oilness of your peanut butter). Whisk in the soy sauce and sambal oelek. Taste test to make sure all the flavors meld well together and adjust accordingly.
Cook’s Note: Sambal oelek is a garlicky chili sauce you can find in the supermarket in the ethnic foods section. But if you can’t find it, you can substitute red chili pepper flakes; start with 1/2 teaspoon and work your way up to the desired heat.