Photography by Stephen Sullivan; food and prop styling by Roscoe BetsillHosting your first holiday feast? It can be daunting: A menu of familiar dishes for which everyone will have expectations, plus the pressure of executing a complicated meal in a timely manner, can make even the most experienced cook wish someone else would take over.
But there's really no need for this trepidation. Armed with good planning and some delicious, dependable recipes, you can calmly serve a wonderful holiday meal to friends and family. I've put together this menu of solid classics, plus I've shared tips drawn from my years of cooking, teaching, and writing about Thanksgiving. Finally, I've added a shopping list and a timeline to help you pull everything off with ease. Who knows -- even seasoned cooks might pick up a few pointers here.
Easy Thanksgiving Menu for Eight
Assorted Cheese and Crackers
For soup: 2006 Beringer Pinot Noir ( Napa Valley ) or dry sherry such as Hildalgo Napoleon Fino Superior
Mashed Potatoes (optional)
For entrées: spiced-peach Viognier such as 2006 Bridlewood Reserve ( Central Coast ) or full-bodied Pinot Noir such as 2005 Goldeneye ( Anderson Valley )
For desserts: medium-sweet Riesling such as 2006 Chateau Lafayette Reneau ( New York )
Tips for a Smooth Thanksgiving:
Build Your Skills Gradually
How do you think Grandma got so good at cooking Thanksgiving? Practice! If you're just starting out, there's absolutely no reason that every item on your menu has to be made by you, from scratch. Your first year, focus on just the turkey, stuffing, and gravy -- have guests bring the other dishes (be sure to coordinate what everyone's bringing so you end up with enough of everything). Once you feel that you've mastered these three essentials, the next year branch out to some other dishes. Before you know it, you'll have experience with the entire menu.
Supplement From the Store
In addition to having guests bring some dishes, don't be afraid to purchase things to round out the meal. The key to make it/buy it success is getting top-quality items: Ask your cheesemonger to recommend an assortment of interesting cheeses for a simple, delicious hors d'oeuvre. Find a good local bakery to supply crusty rolls for the main course and a fresh pumpkin pie to accompany the simple homemade apple cake. You may spend a bit more, but you'll save your sanity and, if you find good sources, the bought items can be as good as homemade. Eventually, as you build your skills, you'll be able to branch out to making pies and breads from scratch.
Rein In an Unruly Menu
In my humble opinion, there is just too much food on the typical Thanksgiving table. If I have spent hours in the kitchen, I want my guests to be able to savor the fare, not groan at the sight of food heaped on their plates. With both stuffing and sweet potatoes on the table, I see no need to serve mashed potatoes as well. But if you can't bear to give them up, feel free to add your favorite recipe to this menu. Another tip to bear in mind: Be careful not to have too many casseroles and other baked dishes that need last-minute time in the oven. A sautéed green vegetable, such as the green beans in this menu, can be cooked entirely on the stovetop, and will be a welcome contrast to all the baked carbs.
Rely on Lists, Not Your Memory
There's no such thing as too many lists when it comes to a holiday meal. For this menu, I've put together a grocery list and a timetable, but you'll also want to decide which beverages to serve (wine writer Linda Murphy has provided suggestions in the menu) and add them to the list, along with any sundries (candles, guest towels, camera batteries or film, etc.). If you can, buy all nonperishables in the weeks before the holiday to avoid a last-minute dash. Other organizational tricks that will make things easier: Label serving dishes with the items they'll hold, and tape up a complete menu in the kitchen so you don't forget to serve something. (I'm famous for forgetting the cranberry sauce in the refrigerator!)
Exercise Crowd Control
Thanksgiving is about hospitality, and sometimes the guest list can get pretty big. But this doesn't need to cause panic. Just be sure that you have enough plates and utensils, and if you don't have room for a seated meal, do the menu as a buffet. I've offered recipes for eight servings, but, with the exception of the cake, everything on the menu can easily be scaled up simply by multiplying the ingredients and using larger serving dishes. For more than 12 guests, make a second cake, or add another dessert.
Tighten Up Your Bar Selection
It takes time to make individual cocktails, and time is not something you'll have a lot of if you're hosting Thanksgiving. Consider serving a single "house" cocktail. Murphy's suggestion, a Neo-Politan, uses an infused syrup that can be made well ahead of time and is easy to mix up. For nondrinkers, replace the vodka with seltzer. Or simplify things by just combining vodka (or seltzer) with cranberry juice. With the meal, the wines recommended for each course will keep things interesting, but you could also serve the same wine throughout the entire meal -- a full-bodied Pinot Noir or Chardonnay would pair perfectly well with everything on the menu.
Drink pairings chosen by Linda Murphy
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