It’s been a long time since I have had to cook the whole meal at Thanksgiving. The fact that I am not afraid to make gravy generally proves to be contribution enough. At my mother’s house, we provide the main courses and our guests provide most of the sides and desserts. If I were advising someone about hosting a Thanksgiving dinner party this would be my first suggestion. Ordinarily, I like to be in charge of the whole menu, but a cover dish is more in the spirit of this holiday. Ask people to bring a favorite dish and don’t worry about whether things go together or not.
Make a time line of the things that you intend to do, especially if you don’t cook for crowds as a rule. There are a lot of things that are fine to do in advance. Baking may be done a day ahead. Plan your cooking schedule since most home stoves aren’t big enough to cook everything at once. Certainly do shopping early. You avoid crowds and there is less risk that stores will be out of things that you were counting on. Plates, silverware and serving pieces can be rounded up ahead of time. Make sure you have enough chairs. Try to get a fresh turkey, but if you do get a frozen one you will want several days to thaw it slowly in your refrigerator. It is unsafe to roast such a large bird if it is icy at its center.
The less done to a turkey, the better in my opinion–salt, pepper, butter. That’s all. In France, they put thin slices of truffle under the skin, and while I am sure that this is delicious, truffles are hard to find here and you have then obliged people to talk about them all night. In the foodie culture that we now inhabit, you need to beware of what you might stir up. Season the cavity with salt and pepper. Stuff in a whole head of garlic and a whole onion. Truss the bird with kitchen twine to help it keep its shape. Pull the legs up over the breast as much as possible to slow its cooking. It will be less dry. It should be roasted up on a rack so that the heat can get underneath. Generally, since they take so long to cook, turkeys are covered to start with. There are several theories on the best way to do this. An old fashioned covered roasting pan is probably the most common. Some people use a baking bag. I have one friend who soaks cheese cloth in melted butter and drapes this over the top of the bird. The oven starts out at a lower temperature, 325 degrees, so that the outside isn’t overcooked before the inside is done. Uncover the turkey for the last hour of cooking so that it will brown nicely. Save all of the juices that collect in the roasting pan. That’s the beginning of your gravy.
It’s important to not let this project drive you crazy. Remember that most people don’t cook like this anymore with any regularity. Holiday parties are the exception. People will view your invitation as a treat. And if they have any breeding at all, they will find, as my great grandmother often instructed us, that what you offer is delicious. And of course, it will be.
Bill Smith, the author of Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home, has served as chef at Crook’s Corner for more than a decade. His essays have been featured in newspapers and on radio and television, and his recipes have been selected for 150 Best American Recipes and Food & Wine Magazine’s Best of the Best.