Thanksgiving ON ICE; Make-ahead dishes stored in the freezer are the secret to a no-hassle holiday meal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Chill out this Thanksgiving. After all, dinner is in the freezer. Or most of it, anyway.

With a little planning, we found the holiday meal doesn't have to be a marathon of chopping, stirring and cooking before the hordes arrive. This year, we managed to tuck into our freezer ahead of time a cheese-ball appetizer, stock for the gravy, the dressing, a zucchini casserole, a sweet-potato dish, green beans, pumpkin-molasses muffins, ginger-honey butter, cranberry relish and a pumpkin tart.

In a dress rehearsal, all we had to do was thaw out most of the dishes in the refrigerator overnight and pop them in the oven after the cooked turkey was removed.

The strategy really works, even with a standard freezer-top refrigerator and home oven. The key is organization. And we can give thanks to several cookbook authors who shared their expertise with us.

"Make a cooking timetable," urges Rick Rodgers, author of "Thanksgiving 101" (Broadway Books, 1998). "The secret of Thanksgiving is to get as much done ahead of time as you can."

Rodgers, a former caterer and spokesman for Salisbury-based Perdue turkeys, should know. His specialty is Thanksgiving dinner, which he makes about 30 times a year for cooking classes around the country. He realizes that Turkey Day is a once-a-year event for most of us.

"You haven't cooked this food in 364 days," he says. "You're starting from scratch every year. When was the last time you had this many people over?"

Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree, who entertains about 25 guests at a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner each year, knows from experience how hectic the November feast can be. She'll never forget the first time she cooked Thanksgiving dinner. She uses words like "frustrated" and "harried" to describe the topsy-turvy kitchen scene.

Now, she clears out the refrigerator, freezer and cabinets weeks ahead of time and makes a list of which foods go on which platters and bowls. "Have a plan in mind. It makes you look organized," she says. "Do your grocery shopping the week before and decide what can be made and frozen."

But perhaps her most innovative strategy is using a food cooler. She stores serving dishes in it days beforehand so she won't inadvertently use the pieces for other meals. Then, after emptying the cooler on Thanksgiving, she fills it with warm, soapy water and hides soiled pots and pans in it, freeing up sink and counter space.

"Thinking it through makes a difference," says Dupree, whose book "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining" (Viking, 1998) offers Thanksgiving tips and easy-to-follow recipes.

Marlene Sorosky, author of "Season's Greetings" (Harper & Row, 1986), is another list maker. She advises writing down what ingredients you will need for each recipe and noting if the dish can be frozen.

Sorosky, a California resident who has written numerous cookbooks, recommends asking each guest to bring something. She even gives out recipes so people won't have to worry about what to prepare. "Anybody can make one recipe," says Sorosky, who won't have to worry about chief-chef duties this year as a dinner guest at her daughter's house.

Sorosky also stresses the importance of putting the turkey in the oven earlier than the recommended cooking time. Once it's done, a 12-pound, or larger, bird can sit for an hour and still stay hot, she says. Then, the rest of the meal can be prepared or reheated.

"If you get yourself organized, things will flow smoothly and you will feel more relaxed," Sorosky says. "The advantage is you don't tire yourself out -- and you don't feel out of control."

Cranberry Relish

Makes about 5 cups

1 package (12 ounces, about 3 cups) fresh cranberries

2 medium pippin or Granny Smith apples, peeled, quartered and cored

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup orange marmalade

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons Grand Marnier

1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) chopped walnuts

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chop the cranberries fine in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Remove to a large bowl. Chop the apples in the food processor; add them to the cranberries. Stir in the sugar, marmalade, lemon juice, Grand Marnier, nuts and cinnamon. Cover tightly and freeze.

TO THAW: Take out of freezer the morning before serving and defrost overnight in refrigerator.

-- From "Season's Greetings" (Harper & Row, 1986) by Marlene Sorosky

Pumpkin-Molasses Muffins

Makes 18 2-inch muffins (see note)

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter or margarine, at room temperature

3/4 cup golden brown sugar, packed

1 large egg

1 cup canned pumpkin

1/4 cup molasses

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon powdered ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup finely chopped pecans

Ginger-Honey Butter for serving, if desired (see recipe)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease 18 2-inch muffin cups. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade or in a medium-size mixing bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar until well blended. Add the egg, pumpkin and molasses, mixing well. The mixture will be grainy. Add the flour, baking soda, ginger and salt, mixing until they are incorporated. Mix in the pecans. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling them half full. Bake for 15 minutes or until the tops are puffed and spring back when lightly pressed with the fingertips. Wrap airtight and freeze.

Note: A 12-cup (2 3/4 -inch each) muffin pan also can be used.

TO THAW: Defrost, wrapped, at room temperature for several hours.

-- From "Season's Greetings" (Harper & Row, 1986) by Marlene Sorosky

Ginger-Honey Butter

Makes about 3/4 cup

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 cup) butter or margarine, at room temperature

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger

Stir the ingredients in a small bowl until blended. Spoon the mixture into a serving bowl or make butter molds by spreading the butter into candy molds. Freeze the butter until solid; pop out. Store in refrigerator up to two days or freeze in plastic bag.

TO THAW: Bring to room temperature 15 minutes before serving.

-- From "Season's Greetings" (Harper & Row, 1986) by Marlene Sorosky

Moist Dressing

Serves 6 to 8

1 large (1 1/2 pound) loaf white bread, stale or day-old, torn into 1-inch pieces

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter

2 onions, chopped

1 cup chopped celery

1 to 2 tablespoons poultry seasoning

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups Chicken Stock plus additional for cooking (see recipe) (see note)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2-inch oven-proof serving dish or spray with nonstick spray.Place bread in a large bowl. In a large skillet on medium-high heat, heat the butter until it sings (is foamy). Add the onions and celery, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add to bread.

Stir in the poultry seasoning, parsley, salt and pepper, and enough stock to moisten the mixture, about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups all together.

Toss thoroughly and pour the dressing into the prepared dish. Bake about 20 minutes, adding more stock as needed to keep the dressing moist.

The dressing can be refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

TO THAW: Defrost in the refrigerator overnight.

To reheat, cover with foil (if not already foil-wrapped) and cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Note: Turkey stock can be substituted for chicken stock.

-- Adapted from "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining" (Viking, 1998)

Chicken Stock

Makes 3 quarts

6 pounds chicken (carcasses, feet, necks, backs, hearts and other parts) cut into small pieces, or use a large stewing hen

5 quarts water

2 stalks celery

3 medium carrots, washed and sliced

2 leeks, most of the green part cut off, washed and split lengthwise

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 medium onions, quartered

2 teaspoons salt

12 black peppercorns, cracked

1 bay leaf

sprig of thyme

Put chicken and water into a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to boil for 20 minutes, skimming the liquid frequently with a spoon.

Add the rest of the ingredients. When the liquid returns to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the stock, for about 3 hours, skimming periodically.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth.

Return to the stockpot and boil vigorously for another 1/2 hour. (This makes for a richer, more concentrated stock).

Let cool, cover and refrigerate. When the stock has chilled, use a large spoon to remove and discard the fat from the surface.

The stock can be made 3 days in advance or frozen (freeze in small containers or zip-lock bags so you don't have to defrost the entire batch to use only a few cups).

TO THAW: Defrost stock overnight in refrigerator.

-- From "Thanksgiving Dinner" (HarperCollins, 1990) by Anthony Dias Blue and Kathryn K. Blue

Zucchini and Sausage Casserole

Serves 10 as a side dish, 6 as a main course

2 pounds zucchini or yellow squash, coarsely grated

3/4 pound sage sausage

3/4 pound hot sausage

2 onions, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

5 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 to 3 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese

2 cups chopped pecans

salt

freshly ground black pepper

hot sauce

TOPPING:

6 tablespoons butter, melted

3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

3/4 cup chopped pecans

1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a wide, 2-quart baking dish or spray it with nonstick spray.

Put the zucchini in a colander to drain for about 30 minutes or wrap it in a clean tea towel and gently squeeze it to remove the excess liquid. Put the zucchini in a large mixing bowl.

Heat a large skillet and add the sage sausage and hot sausage. Cook until the sausage starts to brown, stirring to break it up. Pour off all but about 3 tablespoons grease.

Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook 1 more minute. Combine the sausage and onions with the zucchini.

Stir in the cream, the 1 cup bread crumbs, the eggs, 2 to 3 cups cheese and 2 cups pecans. Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. Pour this mixture into the baking dish. The casserole may be refrigerated at this point for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

TO THAW: Defrost overnight in the refrigerator.

For the topping, combine the butter, the 3/4 cup bread crumbs and the 3/4 cup pecans. Sprinkle evenly over the casserole. Bake, uncovered, until hot through, about 30 minutes.

Sprinkle the top with the 1/2 cup cheese and return to the oven just until the cheese is melted and lightly browned.

-- From "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining" (Viking, 1998)

Turkey help

Butterball Turkey Talk-Line

800-323-4848

www.butterball.com

Perdue Consumer Hotline

800-4PERDUE (473-7383)

www.perdue.com

Shady Brook Farms' Dial-a-Chef

888-SBF-Hint (723-4468)

www.dialachef.com

Reynolds Turkey Tips Line

800-745-4000

www.reynoldskitchens.com

Better Homes and Gardens Online's Thanksgiving Survival Guide

www.bhg.com/food/holiday

National Turkey Federation

www.eatturkey.com

Star Chefs' Holiday 1999 Turkey Tips

www.starchefs.com

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