Tips for getting through the Thanksgiving cooking marathon

Most cooks will agree: Thanksgiving dinner is the most difficult holiday meal to prepare. Remember the commercial of the woman who places the turkey on the table and then promptly collapses? A bit exaggerated perhaps but the point is: getting all the food to the table hot and at the same time isn't easy. Imagine doing just that not for a table of guests but for a dining room full of people?

Thomas Schaefer, executive chef at The Clare retirement community in Chicago, estimates that for Thanksgiving dinner The Clare will be cooking as much as 500-600 pounds of turkey for the well over 100 residents, including their friends and families who will join them.

Fish and red meat or chicken will also be available, as well as a number of sides.

"Side dishes will be traditional Thanksgiving fare with a few twists," says Eugene Chambers, lead cook at The Clare. "There are some standards that the residents all grew up with and will expect to be offered." These include stuffing, mashed root vegetable of some sort, cranberry sauce and more.

Chambers is a firm believer that side dishes are the best part of the Thanksgiving meal.

"They help to set the mood for the day and present a burst of color and shape and texture," he says. "Turkey is always pretty much the same. Side dishes are the fun part of the meal; the part that people really look forward to." 

Schaefer agrees. "Side dishes are what help the meal come together," he says.

What is especially fun about side dishes, he adds, is that people tend to have their own signature specialty of which they're very proud and somewhat possessive. "This is true in family Thanksgiving meals, as well as in the kitchen at The Clare," he says. 

Sharon Hill, also a lead cook at The Clare, recounts a time when she ran into a bit of "trouble" with a popular Thanksgiving side dish — cornbread stuffing.

For her first Thanksgiving as lead cook Hill prepared eight pans of her special cornbread stuffing. Careful calculations and reference to past events indicated that this would be enough. Her cornbread stuffing, however, was so well received by the residents they ran out midway through the celebration. Hill was happy to make more, but had to start from scratch, baking the cornbread first, "on the fly," she says. "I had numbers and knew how much we thought we needed to make, but they kept requesting more."

Schaefer and Hill offer these tips to forego trouble with your own Thanksgiving feast:

Prep is half the battle. Hill suggests you do as much preparation as possible ahead of time … well ahead of time. "There's a lot you can do in advance," she says. "If you need to cut vegetables, chop them in advance, put them in a zip-lock bag and put them aside." Brussels sprouts can be blanched hours if not a day or two in advance, and stored in the fridge.

Thaw early. If you're purchasing frozen turkey, start thawing early as there's no way to rush it. Schaefer is a big proponent of brining the turkey for flavor and tenderness. He recommends submerging it for a full 24 hours ahead of time, so take that into consideration while thawing the bird out.

Accept help. Schaefer also suggests you take people up on their offers to help.

"Don't cook the whole meal," he says. "Do component cooking. That's how meals should come together. Let people provide their own special touch. Everybody taking on a piece of the pie and putting it all together is the way to go. That's how we do it here in the kitchen at The Clare. Everyone has their specialty."

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