From Elizabeth Moon*, reprinted with permission:
Pursuant to a thread on another newsgroup…and speaking as someone who’s been doing T-day dinners a long time…here’s some advice for those who are facing their first “big” one. (You know as well as I do that making a little dinner for you and your significant other or another couple is not the same thing as your first big turkey dinner for a family.)
1) Avoid all expert shows. Ignore Martha Stewart (she has staff) and all the chefs on TV who want you to do something new! creative! different! fantastico! for your turkey dinner. Just turn them off, tune them out, and pretend they don’t exist. You aren’t cooking for a TV audience: you’re cooking for friends and family (if you’re cooking for enemies and strangers…well…I can’t help you).
2) Make it as easy as possible. Your first is not the time to try to combine a free-range or wild turkey, brined and basted with a homemade specialty sauce, all fresh organic vegetables prepared in special ways, homemade rolls, home-churned butter from your own cows, cranberry jelly made from cranberries you personally picked from your own bog…and so on. The point is the people around the table, and abundance: that’s it.
So it’s OK to use: an injected commercial turkey, commercial stuffing mixes, bottled gravy, commercial pastry dough, commercial pies and other desserts, canned cranberry sauce, canned or frozen veggies of choice, etc. It’s also OK to make, or let family and friends bring, more “home-made” side dishes and sauces and stuff, but it’s not worth getting yourself exhausted and cranky. People first, then abundance. Simplicity.
3) Share the load. As above, you don’t have to do it all yourself. Ask people to bring things you don’t want (or don’t know how) to make. They will feel part of the deal, and are less likely to carp (and—anticipating the hint about guests—if you get a carper one year, don’t invite that one again). I have friends who have brought homemade cranberry sauce (good stuff!) and pecan pies (also good stuff!) for years, and others who regularly bring the green bean casserole or another veggie. Friends who don’t cook can bring a sack of ice (you always need more ice) or a tub of ice cream or container of whipping cream for the pies or a sack of store-bought rolls (unless you’re a baking genius who likes to make rolls the morning of…)
MOST IMPORTANT on sharing the load is making it policy, from the first time you do this, that *you* do not clean up. You prepare ahead of time, you clean, you cook, you lay out the table, you hostess or host…but you don’t clean up. You get to sit around finishing dessert in peace because the cleanup is done by someone else. (Important note about that: if the cleaners-up break something, don’t throw a fit. And don’t critique them. Give them a large space on which to lay things out if they don’t know your storage means, but even if they put the gravy boat where the glasses should go…no comment. You got to sit and rest. They need praise and appreciation, not critiquing.)
4) Food: get enough. The guidelines in most books, etc. are not sufficient. This holiday is about abundance; you want enough so people can take home their favorite bits after they’ve stuffed themselves, and no one has to worry about taking another serving. This applies particularly to the turkey, dressing, and gravy, but also to desserts. I figure a pound of turkey per person…yes, howl if you wish, but remember it’s an injected turkey, so some of it is just juice and runs out. A 20 pound bird may be only 17 pounds of meat (2 pounds of injected fluid plus a pound of bones and gristly stuff.) Bread-type stuffings will stretch a turkey and so will potatoes and breads, but green beans or corn won’t (trust me, this is 37 years of T-day experience talking…).
5) The turkey. Baking a turkey is dead simple. Take your average commercial injected turkey, whichever one is on sale. Take out the package of giblets and the neck (usually these are in separate paper packets, one in the body cavity and one in the neck cavity.) Put these on to boil with some peppercorns and a bay leaf. They can simmer for hours without harm. Unless you have a bias against stuffing the turkey, stuff the turkey with a commercial bread-type stuffing that’s loaded with flavorful things: chopped celery, chopped onion, chopped parsley, and an extra dose of poultry seasoning and sage. The dry dressing mix should smell strongly of onion, sage, parsley, and less strongly of other herbs.
If using a baking pan, cover tightly with foil, making sure foil does not touch the turkey. Otherwise, use a roaster—just put it in, put the top on the roaster, set the dial, and leave it be. Bake at 350 degrees for hours and hours and hours…no basting, no peeking until near the end of its time. (Cookbooks will tell you. Big turkeys usually need less time per pound, but a turkey that’s full of stuffing should have a little more. I usually figure on 3 pounds per hour. The turkey is done when the drumstick falls out of the socket or there is no pink (NO pink) at the bone of the thigh and breast. Juices running out should be clear, not pinkish.
6) Dressing. The easiest dressing is a commercial mix: I use Pepperidge Farm mixes, and I mix them: 2 packages of one of the bread mixes and 1 of the cornbread. For each 3 packages of mix, chop one medium onion, about half of one bunch of celery (needs to have leaves, as many as possible; you want the chopped leaves in there as well as the celery), and at least half a bunch (depends on the size bunch) of parsley. Add “Italian” herb mix plus additional sage. This brand calls for adding butter and water—and I do use butter, but margarine is OK if you must.
Do not add eggs. Zero eggs. Thus zero chance of salmonella from the stuffing (from the turkey…well, that’s what well done is for.) The strong herb flavoring of the stuffing helps flavor the turkey, but it does get milder with cooking. Inevitably people want more stuffing…so make enough to have an out-of-turkey pan to bake (it goes in the oven when you pull the turkey out.)
7) Gravy. I’m a dud at gravy. My mother was good; I’m not. So I use jar gravies. Here the trick to making them seem homemade is: take the giblets, about an hour before you serve, cut them up, and be ready to put them in your commercial gravy. The gravy goes on to warm 30 minutes before you serve—add the giblets, and when the turkey comes out, add some pan juices from the turkey itself. The commercial gravies will keep the gravy thick and smooth; the stuff you add gives it a homemade flavor once it’s been sitting together awhile. Make enough gravy. People who like gravy will want a lot of gravy. Have extra jars of gravy ready to add in as needed…there is not a gravy boat in the world big enough for the people at my table…
8) Table. Set the table the night before. Thus no scurrying around on the day trying to remember where the whatsit is. Use the good stuff, if you have good stuff. Use a tablecloth, if you have one. Enjoy it—that’s what it’s for. If you have more people than you have plates/silverware/glasses of one pattern, alternate them.
Use colorful fruits and nuts for a centerpiece, along with bread. When guests arrive and see a table already set, it lowers their anxieties and convinces them you’re all organized (heh-heh-heh), and when they see the rich colors of different fruits and a few nuts, it sets up the expectation that there will be abundant good food. Make sure the centerpiece includes red, yellow, purple, and green…food colors. You can certainly use vegetables as well (one year I set one table with fruits, and the other with colorful vegetables—squashes, gourds, etc.)
9) Guests. Here’s the absolute key to a good T-day dinner: the people who come. Now sometimes you have to invite so-and-so because he’s an in-law or she’s a relative or something…but as much as possible, invite people who like you already, who want to be there, who can hold up their end, who don’t irritate everyone around them. It’s YOUR table; you get to choose who sits at it. It’s the guest’s responsibility to enjoy what you offer, just as you’ve worked to provide something enjoyable. Crabby, cranky, critical people are no help to the hostess.
If you have enough good guests, though, they’ll help you deal with a difficult one (whom you won’t invite back, right? Right.) Children are partially exempt from all this, because all mothers know that even an ordinarily polite child may come unglued in a big gathering. It’s not necessarily the fault of the parents *or* the child (though a note to parents-as-guests…this is not the place to insist that the child eat everything, clean his/her plate, or forego dessert…you’re not just punishing your child, but everyone else when the child has a meltdown).
If you know you’re going to have a houseful that includes children, then pre-dinner discussion with the other parents is a good idea, setting strategies that will defuse potential problems. The alternative of mac-and-cheese or a bowl of soup or peanut-butter sandwiches can save the dinner for everyone else.
10) Guilt. Some of us are prone to feeling guilty when we look at our own abundant table and remember that others aren’t that lucky. Guilt does not make for happy hostesses/hosts, and happy hostesses/hosts are one of the best gifts you can give your guests…even more than a perfect dinner is the knowledge that you, the guest, are wanted and appreciated. So, defuse that potential guilt attack: contribute ahead of time to whatever organization in your area serves the poor. Pack boxes at the food pantry, give time as well as money, if you can, and give the equivalent to the cost of the dinner you fix, as a minimum, to the cause. That doesn’t really fix things, but it may get you through the preparation and enjoyment of a big T-day dinner with less guilt.
Then there’s the guilt from something going wrong (you spilled gravy on the tablecloth, you forgot that X doesn’t like butter on the mashed potatoes…) It’s a big production, and something will go wrong. It is not a disaster if you don’t act like it’s a disaster. Seriously. Guests look to the host/ess to determine if it’s a disaster…some of them will start to get upset because they think you’re about to…so remember dear Mr. Rogers and the Neighborhood…”everybody makes mistakes sometimes…” Everybody spills the gravy, dumps the beans, drops a crystal glass, splashes someone else with cranberry juice *sometime*…and that’s normal. You aren’t going to get perfect-like-Martha-Stewart. You don’t WANT perfect-like-Martha-Stewart. What you can get is a lovely abundant meal shared with good friends. That’s doable. Everything else is sprinkles on top.
And the final unnumbered rule: if you don’t like any of these, dump them and do it your way.
See also: Jon Singer’s Turkey Algorithm