Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A No Panic Guide To Hosting Thanksgiving Dinner

So you volunteered to host Thanksgiving this year, cook the dinner, prepare the hor d'ourves, decorate the table, make sure snacks, drinks and dessert are all in order, plus provide the entertainment to keep the celebration from becoming stale. Right about now, as you gaze longingly at the buffet restaurant you're driving by, wishing you had suggested that instead, don't worry yourself one bit. Just follow the directions here and your guests will gobble up everything in sight with gusto, complimenting you on your absolute brilliant party.

Before you even think about cooking or preparing food, you must decide upon the type of atmosphere you intend to surround your guests in while they dine. Buying a few holiday cut outs and pinning them strategically around your home will lend that warm and fuzzy feel to any room. If you're the informal type, a simple tablecloth with a small pumpkin set in the middle of the table will do just fine. The plates and cups that sit in your cupboard can be safely used, no special place settings need adhere.

If, however, you'd like to impress those (such as your mother in law) who are coming over with your knowledge of culinary flair, a more relaxed formality is probably the key to your success. You can still go with a plain white tablecloth, but in order to set the tone for the meal, a centerpiece of flowers in a vase is ok, but why no put some ooomph into your fall theme by taking some of the fall leaves from around your home, washing them of dirt, and spreading them in a single line down the middle of your tablecloth? In the center of the table and on top of the leaves, place a small pumpkin or a fall squash. On either side of the pumpkin/squash a candle in a plain clear holder adds a classy touch to the setting.

When setting the table, you should always place forks to the left of the plate with a napkin on that side also. Salad forks go to the outside, dinner forks inside. Place the knife on the right side of the plate with the blade facing toward the plate. Then put your spoons to the right of the knife. Your soup spoon goes on the outside, the tea spoon closest to the knife. Wine and cider glasses should be placed to the right of each plate, about three inches from the top corner to avoid spillages. An extra nice touch to avoid the confusion of who sits where would be to write the names of each guest on a holiday themed card and place them on each plate. Now your table is properly set.

If you intend to have more than just a few people over, then it is usually a good idea to go with the buffet table idea if you ever intend to get a plate of food for yourself. That being the case, and for all intents and purposes of this article we'll assume that position, go ahead and set up your buffet table the same way as your dining table or tables. ( Depending upon your flexibility, you may need a couple of television trays for the die hard football fans).

As your guests arrive hours before dinner, snacks are going to be needed, but of course, you don't wish to fill everyone up before the main meal. Strategically placed bowls of mixed nuts, mints and hard candy, chocolates, and potato chips and dip should be plenty for guests to munch on while they breathe in the aroma of roasting turkey. Always make sure you have enough wine, beer, soda, cider, milk and juice on hand, both before, during, and after the meal.

It is very important that you have enough serving forks, spoons and ladles for each dish to be presented, especially if you're going with a serve yourself buffet style. (Parents should always make the plates for the kids or you're going to have mashed potatoes all over everything else. A platter for the turkey, serving bowls, a gravy boat, salad tongs, and pie slice servers are all necessary and should be set near each separate dish.

Here's a few tips to remember as you prepare your perfect feast. A salad before the meal in addition to the various snacks, will help to keep your guests' stomachs happy as you busily hop around in the kitchen. On a side table, set some salad plates out along with extra salad forks. Place bowls of shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumber, sliced onion, shredded cheese, sliced boiled eggs, chopped ham, chopped walnuts, potato salad, macaroni salad, or whatever else you usually place in your favorite salad. Make sure you have at least three different salad dressings available for variety's sake. A safe bet here would be to go with Ranch, French, and Italian.

Here's a few tips to remember while preparing your meal.

Dark roasting pans cook faster than bright shiny ones.
Stuffed birds take longer to cook.
Perfect cooking temperature is 350 degrees.
Make sure turkey is completely thawed. (If need be, set the turkey in a sink full of cold water overnight)
Place bird breast side up in a shallow baking pan about 2-3 inches deep.
Add about one cup of water to pan. Do not salt the turkey before cooking. ( But you may rub sage, onion powder, garlic powder, and a little Italian seasoning all over the outside of the turkey)
Even if you buy a turkey with a pop up to tell you when it's done, poke it deeply and make sure the juices are clear.
After cooking, it's always a good idea to let the turkey stand for 15 minutes before carving.
A good guide to cooking a turkey is to remember the 20 minute per pound rule. So a 20 lb. bird will take 4 1/2 to 5 hours at 350 degrees.

Side dishes:
Mashed potato ideas:
Use sour cream instead of milk for creamy heavenly potatoes.
Mix some parsley flakes into the potatoes to give them that gourmet look and taste.

Things to add to your stuffing that will make your guests swoon are chopped celery, cooked ground Italian sausage, chopped onion, a pinch of sage and black pepper, a can of chunky cranberry sauce, or anything else you think might be tasty.

Sweet potatoes:
Use canned!
Place potatoes in baking dish, shake in enough brown sugar to cover, top with marshmallows, then bake it for 15 minutes alongside the stuffing while the turkey is setting.

More side dishes:
Oh, the possibilities. Be smart though and save yourself some trouble. Your guests are there for the turkey. Side dishes, while nice, are mostly irrelevant. But, of course, you have to serve something, so go with frozen vegetables. Not canned, due to the tinny flavor.

Frozen corn is always a must as are frozen green beans. You can add some sauteed red pepper to the corn if you like, and sliced almonds to the green beans. There's no right or wrong to the vegetables you pick, and there's also no limit as to how many sides you can put out. They even have frozen squash that's easy to heat these days.

Pies: Buy them from your grocer's bakery section. Unless you really, really, really want to bake as well as roast, buy them. A good selection would be a couple of pumpkin pies, an apple, a cherry, and even a carrot cake. Make sure you have whipped cream on hand, and dessert is all taken care of.

What wine do you serve to those with different tastes? Wine that will go nicely with turkey and satisfy everyone? Follow these guidelines and all will be well.

For those who prefer red wines, serve a Pinot Noir.

Dry white wine lovers will enjoy a Chardonnay.

For those whose palates like the tang of a sweet white wine, pick a White Zinfandel.

(Buy plenty of apple cider for the kids. Sparking cider makes the little ones feel all grown up.)

If you need to figure out how to make something, don't panic. Use your keyboard and Google it! The odds are very good indeed that any recipe you need is on the web. Most of all, just relax and enjoy the day, your family and friends, and of course, all day football! keep in mind that hosting Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to be fun, and it's your moment to shine, so use your imagination, tweak things around to your liking, and most of all, have fun while you do it.

Hopefully this little guide will help jump start your thinking process. happy Thanksgiving to one and all, and may the Good Lord watch over us, one and all................................

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