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Talking turkey about preparing your Thanksgiving meal

| Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
In this image taken on Oct. 8, 2012, cider brined turkey and sage gravy are shown in Concord, N.H. 
(AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
In this image taken on Oct. 8, 2012, cider brined turkey and sage gravy are shown in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
Time management for Thanskgiving dinner
Mark Brewer
Time management for Thanskgiving dinner

With Thanksgiving just a week away, it's time to talk turkey about planning the big meal.

While relishing the prospect of a time-honored feast, even veteran cooks will admit to pre-holiday jitters.

“It takes a lot of coordination,” says Carol Hallock of Greenfield, who has been hosting Thanksgiving dinner for 18 years.

A mental-health professional, Hallock and her husband, Michael, will feed 10 people next Thursday.

“We've been doing this for so long, we have a routine,” says Hallock, who takes a half-day off work to get ready. “But it's still nerve-racking to make sure things are all done at the same time and served hot.”

Her husband roasts the turkey, her sister makes the mashed potatoes and gravy, and her niece comes on Wednesday to bake pumpkin pies. Still, the day is seldom hassle-free, says Hallock, whose guests will include a vegetarian and a vegan.

“Most of our friends bring a dish, and some people come late,” she says, “so there's this last-minute chaos of needing to heat dishes and trying to get people seated.”

Although Hallock jokes about handing the reigns to someone else, “I wouldn't seriously consider it,” she admits. “Doing the dinner has become a tradition.”

Food professionals, who are themselves in the throes of a holiday cooking frenzy, say stress is inevitable, but careful planning can reduce the heat in the kitchen.

“If you want a hassle-free Thanksgiving dinner, buy it,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Big Burrito Restaurant Group, with a chuckle.

All of the eateries he oversees are closed on Thanksgiving, so Fuller gets to cook for family and friends.

“I'm so busy up until Thursday, being organized — having a system — is extremely important,” he says. “It lets me cook and still have time to hang with my guests.”

Jim Shones, chef and prepared-foods team leader at Whole Foods Market in Shadyside, agrees that preparation is the key.

“Doing as much as you can the day before will make a big difference,” he says. “Wash and chop vegetables. Clean and blanch the Brussels sprouts, so all you have to do on Thanksgiving Day is salt and roast them. Casseroles are more complex, so make those oven-ready and pop them in the fridge.”

Remind yourself that the holiday is a labor of love, and work within your skill set and comfort level, he suggests.

It's no gastronomic sin to serve canned cranberry sauce — “it's what a lot of us grew up with,” he says — but if you want something fancier, and don't feel confident about making it yourself, buy it prepared.

Many markets and restaurants offer dinners-to-go with turkey and all the trimmings, and a la carte items, such as gravy, stuffing and cranberry-orange relish.

Jennifer Daurora, business-development director for McGinnis Sisters Specialty Food Stores, has seen a steady increase in customer demand for prepared dishes.

“People still want to control the turkey-making, but they're buying ready-made peripheral items,” she says. “Some even bring their own serving bowls for us to put the ‘sides' in.”

Thanksgiving is not the time to experiment with new recipes, she says, recalling the year her curried vegetables were a Thanksgiving dud. “My father looked at me and said, ‘What were you thinking?' ”

Classic fare is what people crave.

“Maybe it's the state of the world right now, but nostalgic, ‘down home' dishes have never been more popular,” Daurora says. “You don't have to put truffles in your stuffing for it to be elegant. Just stick to dishes that people love.”

Daurora's mother, Bonnie Vello — one of the three McGinnis sisters — asks relatives to pitch in when she hosts Thanksgiving dinner.

“We're a big fan of potluck in our family,” Daurora says. “Assigning a dish to each of your guests takes pressure off the hostess and gives people a sense of pride in bringing something to share.”

If you're the guest, make sure that what you bring is table-ready so you're not creating more work for the host, she says. “Bring it in a warmer, so it doesn't have to be reheated.”

Gaynor Grant of Gaynor's School of Cooking on the South Side also delegates to her guests.

“But you have to orchestrate it,” she says, “or you'll wind up with four pumpkin pies and six bowls of baked yams,” says Grant, who has invited 18 to her Sewickley home this Thanksgiving.

Although she's a pro, she works from detailed shopping and preparation lists, and sets her table the night before. “If we're eating early, I'll get up at dawn to put the turkey in the oven, and go back to bed.”

Soup can be prepared weeks ahead of time and frozen, she says. “Soups taste better anyway when they're cooked in advance.”

Stick to French onion or another clear soup; creamed soups are so heavy, no one will have room for pie, she advises.

“Keep hors d'oeuvres light, too,” she says. “And plan to serve dinner no more than an hour after guests arrive, or they'll be ready to eat the furniture.”

Perhaps the most daunting challenge for cooks who roast a turkey just once or twice a year is ensuring that the bird is done but not dry. Shones doesn't trust pop-up timers, and uses a meat thermometer instead. “Insert it into the deepest part of the thigh, which cooks more slowly than the breast,” he says.

Another indication of doneness is that juices are running clear, not bloody, and thighs are separating from the body of the bird, says Fuller, who keeps the breast moist by cooking it covered with a clean, white towel soaked in goose fat or olive oil. “I baste right through the towel,” he says.

Fuller and Grant stuff their turkey; whereas, Shones seasons the cavity with sprigs of rosemary, sage and thyme, and makes dressing on top of the stove.

Although small families are trending toward buying just a breast, a whole bird means you can send guests home with great leftovers, Daurora says. “Just remember to buy plastic containers ahead of time.”

The only way to eliminate all fuss may be to let a restaurant do the cooking. Many are offering a holiday meal.

The Grand Concourse at Station Square has booked 2,600 reservations so far for its Thanksgiving buffet, and even more orders for its feast to-go, priced at $250 to feed 10 to 12 people generously, says Milo Boering, the restaurant's general manager. “If I weren't working on Thanksgiving, I'd buy it myself.”

Dining out works for Terry Stefl, a single, retired attorney who lives in Regent Square and recalls his last attempt to host Thanksgiving dinner.

“I ordered dinner for 12 from a local supermarket, and when I went to pick it up on Thanksgiving Day, they handed me a big box and everything in it was frozen,” he says. “It's a good thing my family is addicted to board games, because, needless to say, we ate very, very late that year.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

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