What You Should Do the Last Few Days Before Holiday Dinners

What You Should Do the Last Few Days Before Holiday Dinners
Photo: Candice Bell, Shutterstock

After weeks of preparation and planning, we are just days away from cooking The Bird, as well as all the other sides and pies required by the holiday. I, for one, am excited.

Before we move on to this week’s tasks, take a minute to review our guides for weeks one, two, and three, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. You should already have your ingredients gathered, any needed serving ware purchased, and your oven and stove usage mapped out, but if you don’t: Don’t panic. You’ve still got nearly three whole days to grab last-minute ingredients and supplies.

Take your turkey out of the damn freezer

I hope you have done this already. If you haven’t, I hope you have a smaller turkey, because frozen turkeys need a full 24 hours of thaw time in the fridge for every four pounds of mass. I usually give my turkey an extra day so it’s fully thawed by the time I plunk it in the brine, so mine has been in the fridge since Saturday.

If your turkey is still a little icy on Wednesday, you can let it finish thawing in a wet brine, or you can speed up the last bit of defrosting by filling your sink with cold water, setting the still-wrapped bird inside the sink, and changing the water every half hour. If you have an immersion circulator, you can do this even faster: Set the bath temperature to around 18°C (add ice if your tap water doesn’t get that cold), then add the turkey and let the cool water circulate around the bird.

Oh and — please — make sure your meat thermometer has batteries and is working. I still have not recovered from the Watch Battery Reckoning of 2018.

Make your Turkey Day timeline

If you haven’t done so already, go ahead and pull out your serving dishes, and give each one a job. Write the name of each dish on a sticky note, along with where they will be cooked (e.g., stove, oven, grill), at what temp it will be cooked, and for how long it will be cooked, then stick the note right in the dish (or on the Instant Pot, air fryer, or whatever specialised appliance you may be using).

Next, take a piece of paper, write down your ideal dinner time, and work backwards from there. Figure out a rough estimate for how long your turkey is going to take to cook, then plan the rest of your timeline around the bird. (Keep in mind that butchery can massively affect your timeline — a spatchcocked bird is going to be ready to serve a lot faster than a whole one.)

Once you have your day planned, tell everyone when they need to arrive, and ask if they plan to use your oven/stove/kitchen, so that you may incorporate their dish into your timeline, if needed.

Pre-cook as much as you can

You can make your cranberry sauce and gravy and pop ‘em in the fridge, but those aren’t the only dishes you can cook ahead of time. Look through your recipes and see if they have any components that can be made right now. I, for example, have already made a three batches of this vegan mushroom base — which fucks harder than it has any right to — as I plan to use it in my green bean soup and cornbread dressing (and I wanted a little extra, just for fun).

Make your pie crusts if you haven’t already, and keep them in the fridge until Wednesday, the day on which you should bake your pies. Wednesday is also a good day to boil eggs for deviled eggs, soak your butter beans, and assemble — but not bake — your casseroles.

Figure out your seating (and serving) plan

Check your headcount one more time, and make sure that number of people will fit around your table. If not, get another table, as well as any needed chairs. Once you know where you’re going to put the people, figure out where you are going to put the food. My table is not big enough to accommodate eating and serving, so I will be setting up a buffet on my butcher block, and clearing off my bar cart to use as a drink station. Figure this out now, and start clearing off any needed surfaces, so you don’t have to scramble, bird in hand, to find a place to carve the turkey.

In addition to tables and chairs, make sure you have a couple of table cloths and enough cloth napkins (if you’re using them). Then do one final plate/flatware/wine glass/water glass check, and make sure you have enough for everyone. If your wine glasses are dusty, wash them. If your silver is tarnished, who cares.

If you are going to assign seats — and, as a control freak, I always do — make it cute and write everyone’s name on a Mandarin orange, then arrange the citrus fruits in a way that is conducive to pleasurable conversation. (Use the kind that come with the leaves attached, if you can find them.)

Clean

I am sorry to tell you this, but you need to clean your house. Start with the least trafficked areas (guest rooms and formal dining rooms), then work your way to the common spaces, ending with the living room, kitchen, and bathroom (so they have less time to get dirty again).

Make sure your bathroom is stocked with a candle and matches (or air freshener), soap, fresh hand towels, and plenty of toilet paper — put it where people can see it so they don’t have to ask.

Make a playlist

This is a fun, seemingly frivolous no-cook activity, but you’re going to need some sounds. Even if your playlist is “the sound of the Macy’s parade,” followed by “the sound of Mississippi State losing a football game,” it helps to plan your noise to avoid awkward silences.

If you’re going with music, pick tunes that are one level up from easy listening, and don’t try and get fancy and obscure. I also try to limit to profanity on my playlist, for my own comfort more than anyone else’s. (My father and I are both big Stones fans, but I would die if “Star Star” came on while we were trying to enjoy pie as a family.) When in doubt, just throw on The Last Waltz and be done with it; it was filmed on Thanksgiving, after all. (You can also use my 2020 playlist, which is pretty decent and very boomer-friendly, though not sequenced in any way. Play it on shuffle for best results.)

Don’t worry so much

No matter what happens, you will get food on the table, and most of it will taste good. (And even if some of it doesn’t taste good, everyone will tell you it does.) Opening up your home to your (hopefully vaccinated) family and friends after nearly two years of isolating is a big deal, but one you should be excited about, not dreading.

You are, I’m guessing, not a professionally trained chef with years of restaurant experience, and no one is expecting you to be one. Ask for help if you need it, assign tasks to your family members, and enjoy the people around you. Then enjoy lots of pie. You deserve lots of pie.

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