It’s an odd thought, but Thanksgiving is overwhelmingly vegetarian. I mean, think about it. Except for the turkey, everything is basically and definitely vegetarian (or appears that way); even the gravy and the stuffing could be if you so wanted. Mashed potatoes, broccoli casserole, buttery rolls, pumpkin pie; it’s all on that side of the equation. Skip the turkey or duck-duck-goose stuff, as well chicken broth in the various sides, and there you’d be at a nearly totally vegetarian meal.
The appetizers, sides, and soups in this post certainly lean that way because I was raised to be nuts about vegetables. They’re also original recipes unless so-noted. I’m proud of them. Make some and you will be, too. I’ve included info on which of them can be made ahead and frozen and which dishes are better fresh. The “better fresh” doesn’t mean they need be cooked at 2:30 on Thanksgiving Day, but at least within a day or so of the big event–and then quickly reheated while the turkey rests. Cooks and books generally say 30 minutes for resting, but I’m here to tell you that if you wrap that bird well–say in foil and then tightly in big fluffy bath towels with a lid on top, you can give yourself an hour or more. I once roasted mine early in the morning, wrapped it thus, stuck it back in the roasting pan, and then rolled that baby up in a clean, worn comforter, and stored it in the trunk of the car. We drove 20 minutes to a park, went to an outdoor church service, and then served dinner. That bird was hot to trot. It’s a good story, but it’s also true.
below: my Spicy Cranberry Sauce getting started
NOTE: There is a lot of information in this one post. Scroll through to see what you need or what catches your fancy. Way at the bottom are notes along with an abbreviated schedule for Thanksgiving day and for a few days just before. There are basic ideas for gravy, stuffing, and so on, as well. Included are some options for cooking the turkey other than roasting it in your oven on Thanksgiving Day. Think having your cousin smoke it at her house, make it a day ahead, or use your neighbor’s oven!
Now anyone can throw a turkey in an oven. (see above) That’s the easiest part of the day. In fact, you can give that chore to a strong, tall kid or your non-cooking partner. If you’re the cook, it’s best for you to concentrate on the planning, of course, but especially on all those crispy outside and soft inside, browned all over dishes that everyone goes home talking about, patting their stomachs saying, “I shouldn’t have eaten all that.” Oh, and the pumpkin pie, too. Have at it and happy cooking!
There’s no way in heaven you want to be arranging a tray of snacks for anyone who peeks around the kitchen door about 2:30 in the afternoon to say, “We’re getting hungry in there. Do you have anything for us to munch on ’til dinner’s ready?” Have thing 1 and thing 2 made ahead, arranged on a tray if possible, and maybe on the coffee table when folks arrive if you’re sure the dogs won’t eat it all.
At least mostly healthy and on the light and simple side is what the appetizers should be. A tray of sliced cheese and sausage might work and be welcome, but it won’t stimulate appetites or give an indication of a super meal to come. It’ll just make people full.
DRINKS: For before dinner, do include white wine or sparklers, a big pitcher of water, and glasses somewhere outside the kitchen so that people aren’t standing in front of your sink all day long. Thanksgiving Day, to my mind, isn’t the time for cocktails; it’s too long of an affair and we don’t want anyone snockered at 1pm.
For during dinner, as long as we’re talking drinks– here’s an article on basic wines for Thanksgiving Day. My own simple advice about wine for the meal, if you have no strict plan of your own, is 4-fold: 1. American wines only. 2. one white (Riesling from Washington, Oregon, or NY and not too sweet) 3. one red (Pinot Noir from Oregon.) Go to the wine shop and give them your budget and the number of guests; trust them. 4. Don’t forget some local fall craft beer for the beer-only people. A big pitcher of water is a necessity. Assign someone to be in charge of filling and refilling it, providing ice for those who like it, and staying on top of empty glasses during the meal.
For after dinner: It’s definitely the day for your best wines–above– and a selection of digestifs for after dinner and before dessert. Think port, brandy, armagnac, etc. Here’s a short list from FOOD AND WINE.
Do try a couple of these appetizers:
Tapenade can be made several days ahead and stored in the fridge, as can fresh ricotta. You can get away with grilling bread on Wednesday (store in freezer bags at room temperature), but you’ll need to put the crostini together on platters Thanksgiving day. (2 photos below)
Garlic-Dill Salmon Spread (photo below)
Shrimp Cocktail needs no introduction, though if you’d like a little different sauce, try this one from epicurious.com. Another fun dip for shrimp is aioli. This appetizer makes many, many people very happy indeed. All I know is it always disappears tootie sweetie. (photo below)
More Time’s Pizza Kebabs (for the big game) This little ditty is a hit on the blog and at any party. Think of it as pizza without the crust.
Cook up the Italian sausage up to two days ahead, wrap closely and store in the fridge. The kebabs themselves (photo below) need to be assembled right before they’re served, though you can do one and let someone else do the rest. I buy Rao’s Marinara for this appetizer’s dip. Photo below.
These savory cookies can be made ahead and frozen for at least a couple of months. They’ll keep on the counter for a week or so as shortbread has no eggs and eggs help cookies go stale. Store them in a sturdy plastic container and divide layers with sheets of waxed or parchment paper to protect the nuts. Thaw overnight on counter if you’ve frozen them. I’d hide them. Otherwise you might eat them. Photo below.
Pimento Cheese and Vegetables— Old school happiness.
Pimento Cheese can be stored in the freezer for up to two weeks and thawed overnight in the fridge. Otherwise, it can be made and stored in the fridge for one week. Photo below.
PUMPKIN OR BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP (below): My favorite choice for a first course. Make up to 3 months ahead, cool totally, ladle into freezer containers and freeze until a day or two ahead. Unthaw in fridge. More Time’s Curried Pumpkin Soup. More Time’s Squash-Parsnip Soup. You could also make this up to 3 days ahead and refrigerate. This is not my recipe, but I’ve used it countless times to rave reviews: Cauliflower Soup with Seared Scallops and Lemon Oil (includes caviar, which I skip).
SIDE DISHES–Made Ahead and Frozen or Made a Day or Two Ahead and tucked into the fridge until time to bake or serve–
This is where the “we ALWAYS have ______” comes in. No matter what happens, make your own favorite Thanksgiving side dish. The one it’s not Thanksgiving without. You’re cooking; have it your way. (I grew up with a dish of mostaccioli on the table, brought by my Aunt Georgie, who as a young bride, lived above an Italian restaurant in Chicago. When I made my first Thanksgiving dinner at age 22, there was a bowl of mostaccioli (ziti) on the table.) Tell everyone to bring THEIR favorite Thanksgiving dish, too, even it’s sauerkraut or stewed-apple and pineapple stuffing with pine nuts. Make everyone happy. Well, at least for the moment. It’s also very cool, enjoyable, and educational to always make something new–well, at least every year or two. That’s where I come in. Try these:
Cranberry Sauce–Mine is not too sweet and is just on the spicy side due to just a little crushed red pepper. Make your own, however you’d like. It’s a pretty fast dish to cook–no more than maybe 20 minutes total–and it’s as much better than canned as homemade chocolate cake is better than a Hostess Cupcake. Even easier is the fresh kind made in the food processor. Look for the recipe on the bag of fresh cranberries. Store extra cranberries in the freezer almost a year for cranberry muffins or pancakes anytime.
You can make this up to 7-10 days ahead and store it tightly covered in the refrigerator. If you’d like to freeze it, it can be frozen for 1-2 months. Thaw overnight in the fridge if frozen.
This is one of those “I have to have seconds” sides flavored with curry that just also happens to also fit the GF and Vegan profile. For that reason, I often take it to big pot lucks. Make a day ahead, refrigerate, and remove an hour or two early on Thanksgiving Day so that the salad comes to room temperature. Moisten with a little olive oil, if necessary.
Cauliflower Casserole with Gruyere. (photo below)
Make, don’t bake; freeze for up to a month. Thaw, covered in fridge overnight. Take out an hour or or two ahead to speed baking. Sprinkle with cheese and bake while turkey rests. Make two; everyone will want leftovers.
Light Winter Vegetable Gratin with Savory Granola (photo below) Layered carrots, celery, parsnips, and fennel all cooked together with a satisfying crunchy-nutty topping.
Follow recipe directions up to baking. Cover tightly with aluminum foil after making. Bake 30 minutes. Cool and freeze up to one month. Thaw overnight in fridge. Uncover to bake the last 30 minutes until granola is crispy and vegetables are tender.
Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?
Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.
~Henry David Thoreau
Lemon Green Beans (photo below) This might be my most-asked for “recipe.” (Cook beans in lots of salted/peppered water, drain, drizzle with olive oil, kosher salt, black pepper, a little crushed red pepper to taste, and tons of freshly grated lemon zest. Serve hot, warm at room temp, cold…)
Make a day or two ahead, but do not add grated lemon. Store in freezer bags in fridge. Warm on the stove, adding a little olive oil, and season with lemon just before serving.
Cumin Carrots (photo below)
Make the day before, but don’t roast until totally tender; leave them a tad crispy. If possible, store on half-sheet pan you baked them on and then reheat in oven while turkey rests.
Crispy Parmesan Cauliflower (photo below)
Make 1-2 days ahead and store in freezer bags in fridge. Heat on a baking sheet or in skillet on the stove–wherever there’s more space. Emergency: reheat in microwave.
Cook beets a day or two ahead and store tightly covered in refrigerator. Make salad Thanksgiving morning or (OH NO!) right before serving.
Roasted Potato-Asparagus Salad with Mushrooms and Sweet Onions In case you’re not making mashed potatoes this time, or even if you are. (photo below)
Make 1 day ahead. Follow directions in recipe, but do not add dressing before storing in the fridge. Take out an hour or two to warm to room temperature. Just before serving, toss with dressing and serve. No need to heat unless you want to.
Follow directions in recipe but cook the Israeli couscous a day ahead and store well-covered in fridge. Make salad Thanksgiving morning, put back in fridge until an hour or so before dinner. This would be an attractive first course on the table when guests sit down.
MAKE A DAY OR TWO AHEAD TURKEY GRAVY: Skip the last minute hassle. Make your gravy a day or two ahead and simply heat well right before dinner; don’t forget to bring it to a boil for a couple of minutes, thinning with a little broth or water if needed. You can even add the drippings or juices from the freshly roasted turkey at that point. This is not something I’ve done, so I include these recipes: From Noble Pig. From Southern Living. Sara Moulton.
THANKSGIVING DAY GRAVY: I just make gravy, or Dave does. I’ve never measured or written a recipe. Because you might need one, I checked around and this is pretty much how I do it, though I make gravy right in the roasting pan itself. My best advice is that you take a little time with it. There’s no rush. Taste it a few times and give it time to come to a boil and thicken. Too thick? Add more broth or water. Too thin? If you’ve already added the flour and boiled it and it’s still too thin, you can whisk 2 tablespoons flour into a 1/2 cup cold water or broth and slowly pour that mixture (a slurry) into the pan, whisking/stirring until thickened as you like. Or mash 1 tablespoon flour into 1 tablespoon butter and add that, letting it melt and thicken. Do taste and season a last time after thinning or thickening. Critical: Remember that it should taste a bit spicier than you like when you’re just tasting it. Gravy gets way dumbed down on top of potatoes, turkey, and stuffing.
PAN SAUCE INSTEAD OF GRAVY–Why not? Yum! You’ll need to increase the amounts in this recipe, but the process will be the same. This is just about what I do whenever I roast a chicken, though I rarely bother with the aromatics.
STUFF ABOUT STUFFING (Dressing?): Stuffing gets stuffed into both ends of the turkey. Dressing gets baked in a greased pan. Same difference. Ingredients can be prepped a day or two ahead and stored in separate containers, but stuffing/dressing must typically be made fresh, stuffed into the bird immediately before it’s roasted, or baked in a pan or casserole dish right after the turkey comes out of the oven. (Unless you’ve tried the make-ahead frozen version, which I haven’t.) It shouldn’t take more than 30 -40 minutes baking on its own. Chopping onions and celery, cubing bread, etc. are the things to do ahead. Don’t mix until the day it’s needed, particularly if you’re stuffing the turkey. You’ll need your homemade stock, if possible.
My mom collected ends of bread or other stale pieces for a couple of months before Thanksgiving and stored them in a uncovered (yikes) big bowl on top of the refrigerator. A crispy pan of corn bread, made a few days ahead and allowed to dry, often supplemented that effort. Stuffing (Dressing?) Recipes: Food and Wine’s Basic Sausage and Bread Stuffing by Grace Parisi. New York Times Cornbread Stuffing by Martha Rose Shulman. I don’t use a recipe, but 1. make an easy sausage and bread stuffing flavored with lots of black pepper, sage, and thyme and then 2. Make a second similar one with oysters. If I think of it, I’ll measure things out this year.
TAKING STOCK: To make an easy, use-today stock, I fill a 4-quart sauce pan or small pot 3/4 full of water, add the turkey neck, gizzards, and heart (not the liver–cook that for the dog), along with a cut-in half onion (leave skin on), a stalk or two of celery cut in half, a carrot cut in half, a tablespoon of peppercorns, 4 sage leaves (or a teaspoon of dried rubbed sage), sprig of thyme (or a teaspoon of dried thyme), a handful of fresh parsley, and a heaping teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cook at least a couple of hours–or until it’s turkey stock, adding water as needed. Strain before using. Sometimes mine goes for hours. Then you have stock to moisten your dressing and to make your gravy. Make ahead turkey stock: You can do this exact same thing several months or weeks in advance. Buy some turkey wings and follow above directions. Store in quart containers in the freezer; unthaw a day ahead in the fridge.
SLOW COOKER WARMED MAKE AHEAD MASHED POTATOES or SWEET POTATO CASSEROLE: In our house, someone–usually someone ELSE–washes, peels, chops, cooks (on the stove), and mashes all those potatoes a couple of days ahead. Cool and refrigerate, well-covered. Thanksgiving day: spray or butter your slow cooker and warm the mashes potatoes on LOW for 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally, and adding a pat of butter or some warm milk, if needed, to moisten. Another family member or friend could easily bring these and plug them in the dining or living room. The kitchen is probably full!
The recipe I’ve used for many years for mashed sweet potatoes is this one: Sweet Potato Souffle with Sherry and Walnuts. Follow directions, but do not bake. Cool and cover well. Refrigerate for a day or so, add walnuts, and bake for 30 minutes when the turkey comes out of the oven.
MAKE AHEAD (SOMEWHAT) SALAD– ACORN SQUASH SALAD WITH PUMPKIN SEEDS AND CUMIN VINAIGRETTE. Follow directions for salad as written, but clean greens, roast and slice the squash, and make the cumin vinaigrette 1-2 days ahead–storing all tightly covered in the fridge. While you’re at it, chill the plates should you be so very blessed by the kitchens that be and have that much extra room in your fridge.
MAKE AHEAD SALAD DRESSING OR VINAIGRETTE: Whatever salad you’re making, do make the dressing a couple of days ahead and store in the fridge.
MAKE AHEAD AND FREEZE STUFFING/DRESSING: I’ve never tried this, but some folks swear by it. Here’s Food Network’s version that looks like it might work. You still have to bake it after the turkey comes out of the oven.
OTHER OPTIONS FOR COOKING TURKEY: A turkey roasted on a gas grill tastes very much like a turkey roasted in the oven, unlike a turkey cooked on a charcoal grill–which tastes grilled, but delicious! (Gas or charcoal grill directions.) Have a smoker or a relative with one who’d like to do that? It’s a luscious opportunity for a different piece of poultry. (Smoked turkey directions.) Do make turkey stock or gravy ahead for any of these (see below for instructions), as there’s not usually any juices. (A gas-grilled turkey can sometimes, however, be roasted in a pan and have some juices.) A counter-top roaster (Rival makes these) is another option for cooking the turkey. I have tried this and my turkey was moist and cooked nicely, but I missed the crispy skin of oven-roasted turkey. You may feel it’s worth it to save the oven space. (Counter top roaster directions.) One other idea is to use a neighbor’s oven for the turkey only, especially if they’re invited for dinner and you trust them to baste it!
Roast the turkey a day ahead and reheat it on Thanksgiving. I’ve never tried this, but here you are!
Need a timetable? Try this:
3 – 4 DAYS AHEAD:
- Thaw turkey in fridge if using this method of unthawing. (Will need more time if larger than 12 pounds.) When you buy your turkey, look at the ingredients on the wrapper. If it says anything other than just TURKEY, you may want to check out another brand.
- Clean out fridge.
- Do last “minute” shopping. (Don’t wait until Wednesday, the store is crazy and you should be cooking or baking!)
- Make sure tablecloths, napkins, dishes, glasses, silverware, and serving pieces are located and clean.
- Last minute check of equipment. No baster? Add it to the list for shopping.
- Chop anything that can be chopped ahead such as onions, celery, etc.
- Make anything that can be made 3-4 days ahead.
- Do some basic cleaning so that you can just dust and vacuum Wednesday.
1-2 DAYS AHEAD
- Thaw turkey in water and refrigerate if you don’t already have it thawing in the fridge.
- Make any unmade casseroles or side dishes, including mashed potatoes and gravy, if making early. Thaw frozen dishes in fridge.
- Make appetizers.
- Chill white or rosé wine, sparkling wine, sparkling water, beer, and soda.
- Finish cleaning.
- Bake any pies you froze or make those you froze crust for except for pumpkin or any custard pie, which should be served at room temperature the day it’s made, if at all possible. Defrost other desserts and breads.
- Set table. Put glasses on table upside down or even cover table with a clean sheet if you’re really coordinated. I’m not.
- Early morning: make sure your turkey is totally unthawed. Still icy? Fill your clean sink with water and put the naked bird right in the bathtub. Work on it to pull legs away from the body and to get the bag with the neck, gizzard, heart, and liver out of neck and back end openings. Store in fridge or in iced cooler until time to roast. (About 3 hours for a 12-pound bird, unstuffed.)
- Start your turkey stock (see above: TAKING STOCK.)
- Put music on.
- Make some room. Clear your counters as much as possible even if you have to take a box, collect things, and put it all in the garage until next week. That last idea is from my sister-in-law, Carolyn.
- Make bloody marys for the cooks. Scramble some eggs and make toast. You won’t eat again for a long time.
- Make a list with a timetable on it. You may not stick to it, but it will help. Think about what others can do and make a list of those things.
- Bake pies or rolls.
- Finish setting table. Ok, I mean set the table. Don’t forget to put out butter to soften.
- Send someone to the store for something.
- Make stuffing. Chill until needed to stuff bird or to bake after turkey comes out of oven.
- Roast turkey. 350 F is basic; 325F for convection. (Convection: put turkey right down on a rimmed half-sheet pan without a rack. Will take perhaps an 1/2 – 1 hour less for a 10-12 pound bird) No need to baste the first hour. Need more?
- Put cooked-ahead mashed potatoes in a buttered slow cooker on low to heat. Stir occasionally. Add in warmed milk or butter if needed. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.
- Arrange drinks, appetizers, desserts. Set up coffee maker. Toys? Games?
- Remove turkey from oven when it’s at 165 degrees F in the thickest part of the thigh. Wrap and rest. Get cutting board and carving utensils set up. Snag a carver.
- Bake casseroles and stuffing. Warm rolls. Make gravy. Take cold dishes out of the fridge. Yell about something you forgot.
- Carve turkey, set up buffet or place food on table. Start the coffee maker.
- GIVE THANKS 🙂 Enjoy a wonderful meal.
- After dinner drinks, coffee, and dessert. Store leftovers.
- Someone else cleans the kitchen.
- Friday: Pumpkin pie for breakfast. Yell about what’s still in the fridge you forgot to serve yesterday.
all photos and text copyright Alyce Morgan, 2017
Sing a new song; be ever-thankful,