Tips for being a stress-free host this Thanksgiving
Hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year? Here, three leading Chicago chefs give their top insider tips to ensure the most enjoyable and hassle-free holiday.
Culinary 101: Mise en place (pronounced: mise-zahn-plahs). Sounds fancy, but this French phrase, which literally means “to put in place,” is one of the first things a young apprentice or cook learns out of cooking school. “In professional kitchens, it refers to organizing and arranging your ingredients, but it’s also very instrumental when cooking a big dinner at home like Thanksgiving,” says Shawn Doolin, executive chef at Entertaining Company, a Chicago-based event planning and catering firm, whose client list includes Oprah Winfrey, President Obama and former Mayor Daley. Take a cue from professional cooks and avoid stress by writing out your complete menu and to-do list, Doolin says, including where you’re going to shop and on what day — and don’t forget important steps like pre-ordering pies if you’re not baking. “Get organized so that the day of, you’re not freaking out,” he says. “My experience with people who don’t know how to entertain is that they’re trying to do too much on the day of.”
Think traditional, yet tasty: Not sure what to serve? Chefs agree that you can never go wrong with quintessential Thanksgiving dishes like a perfectly roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing and pumpkin pie. “It’s the one time of year when no one wants to do anything fun and creative,” Doolin says. “Even if someone brought some lemon soufflé, everyone will migrate to the pumpkin pie.” If you do want to add creative flair, try subtle variations such as celery root mashed potatoes, for a soft floral accent, or apple cobbler, in addition to pie, says Ritz-Carlton executive chef Mark Payne. Really want to impress your guests? Whip up a homemade pumpkin soup — perfect for the holiday and surprisingly easy. “Most people would not take the time to make a soup from scratch when actually it’s very simple,” Payne says. “It’s a real crowd-pleaser.”
By Monday, start checking off your to-do list: If you have the refrigerator and kitchen space, buy more — not less. “People tend to eat more on this day than any other holiday,” says chef Randy Reed of the InterContinental Chicago Hotel. “And who doesn’t love stuffing, turkey and gravy as leftovers?” If serving turkey, a good rule of thumb is the one-pound per one-person rule. That said, a 10-pound bird will feed around eight to 10 people, and a 20-pound bird will feed 16 to 20 people. Doolin suggests having all of your shopping done by Tuesday at the latest to start the prep work. Things like peeling potatoes and baking a pie can be done in advance — like a real restaurant does. “You want to prepare as much as possible on Tuesday and Wednesday so that Thursday is all about cooking and the final touches,” he says. If space is an issue, try a potluck dinner. But “you don’t want to leave it to chance and then have someone bring something that does not fit in with your meal,” Payne says.
Set the scene! Wine and … tree branches. No, really. Doolin suggests gathering leafless branches from your backyard for a contemporary chic (and cheap) tabletop look — it’s also a decorating trick event planners use. Need more inspiration? “Pinterest has great craft ideas that are easy and inexpensive,” he adds. Sparkling wine complements all of the complex flavors of the meal, Reed says, and is a festive way to celebrate the day. “What better time to have a sparkling wine then on a holiday dinner?” he says. For red and white wines, he suggests a Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, and a Pinot Noir or Syrah.
Say “Om”: Doolin swears by yoga to relax before a big event — followed by a nice glass of wine. Most importantly, don’t fuss over the details — the holiday is about family and friends, conversation and food. “Just enjoy the moment and the people you’re with,” Doolin says. “If you have everything organized in advance, you’ll avoid running around like a bat out of hell.” Forgot to prepare? Still stressed out? You can always dine out. Reed suggests arriving early or late. “If a restaurant starts seating at 5, you’ll want to be the first ones there,” he says.