In my book, there is very that little isn't improved with a KISS (Keep It Simple Sweetie) strategy. Simple saves time and money, and makes it easier to stick to an organic menu—after all, why give thanks for pesticides, preservatives and trans fats? Here are some ways to simplify and organi-fy your Thanksgiving workload, making a happier holiday for everyone.
#1: Go fresh and local. To start your Thanksgiving planning, draw up a simple harvest menu using what's fresh in your local area in mid-November. Yes, there are some T-day staples that you won't want to give up no matter where they came from. But choose as many fresh, local, organic ingredients as you can; they'll taste great, and it's a great reason to check out area farmer's markets before they all close down for the season. As an added bonus, you'll probably be able to source your ingredients for less than you could at a grocery store.
#2: Spread out the work. Start shopping and cooking now (and cleaning, too; funny how I almost forgot to mention my least-favorite part). Make your piecrusts now, put them in the pie pans, wrap tightly, and freeze them. Buy all the nonperishable foods you'll need, and take it easy on yourself. Things like cranberry sauce, gravy, pie shells, and even complete pies, come pre-made—you can often find organic versions, too. Just stick with pre-made foods in glass jars, since cans are lined with bisphenol A. Also, dig out any necessary supplies, including extra plates and cutlery (Not enough plates? Don't buy paper. Use my simple tip for The Cheapest, Greenest Way to Set a Holiday Table), napkins, even bed linens for overnight guests. A few days prior to the meal, go shopping for the perishable foodstuffs and start doing the prep work: Scrub, peel, and cut up veggies and put them back in the fridge all ready to go. Make pie fillings and put them in the fridge. You can even measure out dry ingredients and seasonings and put them in marked, covered containers so all you have to do is dump and stir at the last minute.
#3: Spread out the cooking. Thankfully, most side dishes taste just as fine made the day before as they do cooked fresh, and a few even benefit from sitting in the fridge overnight. Once you have your menu set, make a list of which dishes you can cook beforehand. Keep your recipes simple, so you spend less time in the kitchen and the good taste of the food can shine.
• Mashed potatoes are fine made a day or two ahead, seasoning and all, and then reheated, covered, in a 350-degree F oven for about 50 minutes before serving. You can heat them up with your reheated turkey to save energy. Add fresh herbs and a bit more butter after reheating.
• Bread stuffing gets better and better with age—if you like a moist stuffing. If you like a dry, crumbly dressing, it's best to save that for Thanksgiving Day. My favorite is bread stuffing made with from local bread seasoned with apples, fresh sage, onions, and homemade turkey stock.
• Cranberry sauce or relish can be prepared a few days ahead—raw relishes will get better with time.
• Gravy doesn't really improve or get worse with time, so if you are cooking the turkey beforehand, go ahead and make the gravy, too.
Save Thanksgiving Day cooking for roasting veggies—sweet potatoes, white beets, and parsnips with fresh rosemary are my favorites—and your oven-fresh pies, which you can serve with fresh small-batch vanilla ice cream from the local ice creamery.
#4: Delegate, delegate, delegate. It works at the office and it works at home, too. Assign guests and family members to take care of specific dishes and tasks. Send out your assignments this week, and don’t be a purist: query the cooks on your guest list to see if they're up for making something or would prefer to grab something at the store.
#5: Make room in the fridge. Work on eating up (or composting) as much as possible out of your refrigerator from now till Thanksgiving Day, to allow room for all the ingredients, prepared dishes, and, eventually, leftovers.
#6: Procure and/or thaw your turkey NOW. When shopping, plan for about 1.3 pounds of turkey per person at the meal, and look for organic or heritage-breed birds, which are getting easier to find in regular grocery stores. If you can't find one, check localharvest.org to see if any turkey breeders in your area have birds available for local pickup. And, one highly important turkey tip: If your bird is frozen, put it into the fridge to start thawing 4 or 5 days before you plan to eat it. Yes, it really will take that long!
#7: Roast—and carve—your turkey on Wednesday, not Thursday. At my house, I roast my turkey the day before I plan to serve it, partly because I detest worrying about the timing of getting the turkey done just right and on the table with everything else, and partly because of stress from my childhood. My father was a wonderful, talented man, but carving a turkey wasn’t one of those talents. And yet, he came from a time when the man of the house carved at the table. Period. My mother and I suffered through his painful (sometimes literally so) and colorfully narrated attempts every year, so perhaps I’m extrasensitive about carving at the table.
• After roasting my turkey in the oven (forget time calculations: I roast it until the thermometer says it's heated to the USDA-recommended 165 degrees F in the thigh), I let the bird sit on the stovetop until it cools a bit—30 minutes is good—and then I carefully cut off the breasts, legs, and any other parts I want to serve. I put the pieces in an ovenproof dish, cover it tightly, and put it in the fridge.
• Any bits of meat left on the carcass get picked off the carcass (it's really easy when it is warm and fresh) and put them in the fridge for soup.
• Then I put the bones into a stockpot (seasonings are optional), cover them with water, bring the water to a boil, let it simmer on the stove for at least two hours, cool, and strain. Now I have lots of stock for making gravy and dressing on the day of the event.
• On Turkey Day, about an hour before everything else is ready, I simply take the ovenproof dish out of the fridge, and reheat it for an hour in a 350-degree oven. Voilà! No-stress turkey-roasting.
In addition to saving my sanity, pre-roasting my turkey means that after-dinner cleanup is super-easy and stress-free, and there's no need to cram the partially eaten thing into the fridge.
Wondering what to do with all your leftovers? I've got that covered, too.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around spendthrift Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every week with Rodale News.