Getting Thanksgiving dinner – or any holiday feast – on the table can seem like a math word problem gone awry.
Question: If it takes four hours to cook a 15-pound turkey, and three of the side dishes need something done to them “just before serving,” how many times will the cook wish there were an easier way without resorting to boxed or “instant” imposters of traditional favorites?
Answer: Probably countless times, and each of them unnecessary because many side dishes can be prepared or partially prepared a day or more in advance. And certain freezer-friendly recipes can be made weeks or months in advance and still taste fresh come mealtime.
“When it comes to a traditional Thanksgiving meal, everything but a green salad and the turkey can be made ahead, frozen and reheated on the holiday,” says Michele Borboa, a personal chef from Bozeman, Mont., and author of Make-ahead Meals Made Healthy (Fair Winds Press, 2011). “Bread-based stuffings are especially easy to fix and freeze, but you can also freeze cranberry sauce and rice dishes, so all you have to do is thaw or reheat and serve.”
It’s simply math: An earlier start plus Borboa’s step-by-step instructions equals more time for friends and family over the holidays.
Two months in advance
Bread-based and rice stuffings can be fully assembled, baked, cooled and frozen. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat in the oven.
Or, start two days ahead to save time without freezing. Cube and bake bread until lightly toasted, cool and store at room temperature in an airtight container. For rice stuffings, steam the rice, let it cool completely and store in the refrigerator.
Chop onions, celery, carrots and other vegetables your recipe calls for. Store them in the refrigerator to sauté on the holiday, or sauté them in advance, cool and refrigerate until you assemble the stuffing. If your recipe calls for nuts, toast and store them in an airtight container.
“On Thanksgiving Day, all you have to do is assemble the prepped ingredients along with broth and any other ingredients” such as herbs and spices, and then follow instructions for cooking, Borboa says.
Cranberry sauce can be made up to two months in advance, cooled completely and frozen.
Two weeks in advance
“I prefer fresh-baked breads and rolls since freezing them can take away from their taste and texture, but if frozen properly, they can be made two to three weeks in advance and reheated on Thanksgiving Day,” Borboa says.
Allow fresh-baked rolls to cool completely, and then place them on a baking sheet. Place in the freezer until just solid. Place rolls in heavy-duty freezer bags, squeeze the air out, seal and freeze. You can simply let them thaw at room temperature overnight and serve them or warm them in the oven.
A better method, according to IT food columnist Julianne Glatz, is to make a refrigerator dough – one specifically designed for holidng in the refrigerator until baking, and usually very good. The dough could be formed into rolls several days in advance and put into the refrigerator, then pulled out on Thanksgiving Day, allowed to rise and then baked with no more trouble than turning on the oven.
Two days in advance
“You can’t cook an entire turkey and reheat it without ruining quality and increasing your chances of food poisoning,” Borboa warns, “but you can prep a few ingredients to save time.”
A day or two ahead, cut oranges, onions, celery, carrots, herbs and other ingredients you plan to use to flavor the turkey. “I don’t like soggy stuffing so I bake stuffing in the oven and fill the cavity of the turkey with aromatics and shove herbs, spices, citrus, onions and garlic beneath the skin of the turkey,” Borboa says. “I prep the ingredients ahead of time so all I have to do on Thanksgiving Day is put them in place in the turkey before putting it in the oven.”
One day in advance
“When it comes to salads, I say fresh is best, but you can certainly chop vegetables and other salad ingredients a day in advance and then assemble them on Thanksgiving Day and allow them to chill before serving,” Borboa says. “Always put the dressing on right before serving since vinegar and other acidic ingredients will wilt salad greens.”
“It’s best to prep fruit salads the day you serve them because the fruit tends to turn brown,” Borboa says. “Even when you have citrus juice mixed with them, they don’t have the vibrancy of being just sliced or diced. I’d wait until right before serving to add bananas since they tend to get soggy when mixed with juicy fruit.”
Mouthwatering Mini Crab Cakes
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 small onion, minced
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1 pound lump crab, picked over, finely chopped
• 2/3 cup light mayonnaise made with olive oil
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
• 1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
• 5 cups whole wheat bread crumbs, divided
• 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
• 4 eggs, beaten
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.
Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Transfer to a large bowl.
Add crab, mayonnaise, herbs, Old Bay, mustard and 1 cup bread crumbs, stirring well to combine.
Form mixture into 32 crab cakes.
Place flour, eggs and remaining bread crumbs in three separate shallow bowls.
Dip crab cakes in flour, shaking off excess. Dip in eggs, allowing excess to drip off. Dip in bread crumbs to coat.
Set crab cakes on a greased baking sheet and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Spray crab cakes with olive oil.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned.
Let cool completely on a wire rack.
To freeze, place crab cakes in a single layer on a baking sheet until firm.
Transfer crab cakes to a large freezer bag or freezer container.
To reheat, place frozen crab cakes on a greased baking sheet in a 375-degree oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until heated through. Serve warm. Yield: 32 crab cakes. Make up to one month ahead and freeze until ready to reheat.
Source: Make-Ahead Meals Made Healthy by Michele Borboa