If you're hosting Thanksgiving I can't give you a formula to guarantee a perfect meal. I can, however, share the method to the madness of my own Thanksgiving preparations. I start by taking a moment to focus on the meaning of the holiday. The Pilgrims and Indians broke bread at the first Thanksgiving to celebrate both the bounty of the fall harvest and the things in life that are good. They had no way of knowing that the table they set would become an icon of the what is now the oldest American holiday.
Still, Thanksgiving is a diner party -- an event where good food, timing, and a little flair are the keys to success. It's imperative that the host be present for the meal. This means that your game plan needs to minimize your time in the kitchen after the guests arrive.
Start your Thanksgiving checklist by making an all-inclusive menu. List everything from drinks to hors d'oeuvre to dessert. Put the list away for a day then look at it again. Remove everything that's on there twice. Trust me, Thanksgiving without two kinds of sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce is still a feast. The exception: More than one kind of dessert is actually good.
Next, get over the idea that you have to make everything yourself. If baking is not your strong suit order pies and rolls (or mini croissants) from a bakery you like. Good bakeries stay in business because their expertise makes our tables better places to be. If you tell me that my sweet potatoes are the best in the world I'd be flattered, and would be happy to take on the responsibility of bringing them to your house. Be sure to tell me how many people they need to feed.
When the meal turns into a night of great food and good memories you'll get the kudos since it was at your house. If you make some of the guests look good - because they contributed to the meal - then you look even better.
Last, make the rest of the food yourself. Thanksgiving is about enjoying the bounty of the land. Sweet potatoes grow in the ground, not in a can. It takes 5 minutes to put all the ingredients for homemade cranberry sauce in the pot - the recipe is on the bag (to which I add a half teaspoon kosher salt and a little black pepper - or I make my Cosmo Cranberry Sauce). Assemble the stuffing in a large casserole Wednesday night and bake it the next day.
Thanksgiving is an art; it's a blend of many recipes, friends and family, and a whole lot of details. God is in those details, but free choice means that how you assemble them is up to you.
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Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.