A good shopping list is crucial to the forward-looking cook. After you plan the meal, and long before the big day, you’ll want to sit and consider what you’ll need.
Some items on the Thanksgiving shopping list are obvious: turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes. (About that turkey: Buy 1 pound per person, or a 1 1/2 pounds per person if you’d like to have leftovers.) But there are several other ingredients that will prove invaluable to have on hand. Buy them early if you can. Running out to the supermarket the night before Thanksgiving is the last thing any cook, novice or experienced, will want to do.
Butter, lots of it. Choose European-style high-fat butter for pie crusts, and regular unsalted butter for everything else.
Stock. If you haven’t made your own, look for homemade stock at the same butcher shop where you buy your turkey, or in the freezer section of your supermarket. The canned and boxed stuff should be a last resort. Buy at least 3 or 4 quarts. You’ll need it for gravy and deglazing your roasting pan; it’s also good to have on hand for braising vegetables. Make sure to get some good vegetarian stock for anyone who isn’t eating meat. Leftover stock freezes well.
Fresh herbs. Not only do they add freshness and flavor across your Thanksgiving table, but they’re also pretty, lending a touch of green to a meal heavy on earth tones. Choose soft herbs (parsley, dill, basil, mint) for garnish, and sturdy, branchy herbs (thyme, rosemary, bay leaves) to throw into your roasting pans, stocks and gravies.
Garlic, onions, leeks, fresh ginger, shallots. An assortment of aromatics keeps your cooking lively and interesting. You’ll need them for the stuffing, for stock and gravy, and for many side dishes. Grated fresh ginger and sautéed shallots are a nice, unexpected addition to cranberry sauce; simply stir them in with the berries while simmering. And you can perk up plain mashed potatoes by folding in sautéed garlic and leeks with the butter.
Fresh citrus. Lemon, lime and orange juice and zest contribute brightness to countless Thanksgiving dishes, from the turkey to the gravy to the cranberry sauce to the whipped cream for pie.
Nuts. These go a long way to give crunch to otherwise texturally boring dishes. (Ahem, sweet potato casserole.) Keep a variety on hand to throw into salads and side dishes, or simply to offer to your guests with drinks before the meal begins. They can also help bulk up your meatless offerings.
White wine/vermouth/beer. Even if you’re not drinking any of these spirits before or during the meal, they can be splashed into gravy or vegetable dishes, or used to deglaze the turkey roasting pan. (Bourbon and brandy work well as deglazers, too.)
Fresh spices. If you can’t remember when you bought your spices, now is a good time to replace them.
Light brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup. These sweeteners are more profoundly flavored than white sugar, and they have an autumnal richness. Try using them to sweeten whipped cream, your coffee-based beverages and pies.
Heavy cream, sour cream, crème fraîche, ice cream. You’ll need these for topping pies and cakes.
A pint of good sorbet. Just in case you end up with a gluten-intolerant or vegan guest you didn’t expect. Coconut sorbet is particularly creamy and lush, but any flavor works well.
What To Make Ahead
Turkey Gravy and Sides
Many cooks agree that, for best results, the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing must be started from scratch on the day itself. But even for those outliers, some tasks can be done beforehand to ease the last-minute work.
— Your first cooking task is making stock. Turkey stock is great, but chicken will do. You’re going to need a lot of it: for gravy, for warming the sliced turkey, for refreshing dressings, for deglazing pans. Stock freezes exceptionally well.
— Free the turkey from its packaging a day or two early,and use a simple dry brine, so it can go right into the roasting pan on the big morning.
— Mashed potatoes don’t usually refrigerate well. But they will if you mix them with chives, butter and sour cream, and bake them like a casserole. You will hear no complaints, though the texture will be smooth and dense, not fluffy.
— Most stuffings and dressings can be assembled in advance. If your stuffing is moist enough, it can even be cooked in advance and reheated without compromising flavor. Cover tightly when reheating, and add tablespoons of stock, as needed, to keep the dish soft and fragrant. (Drier stuffings and dressings should not be cooked in advance; they will dry out even more during reheating.)
— You can make traditional cranberry sauce up to a week ahead. Cover it well and store it in the fridge. Don’t be tempted to freeze cranberry sauce; the structure will break down, and you could lose the gelling. Raw cranberry sauce or relish can be made a day or two ahead.
— Make vinaigrette and wash salad greens, up to three days ahead.Wash the greens and dry them well, then wrap them loosely in paper towels, place in a plastic bag and put them in the crisper. If you’re serving butternut squash, peel, seed and cube it. You can also peel and cut up carrots, rutabagas and beets, and separate cauliflower florets.
The key to making desserts in advance is to seek out recipes that a few days later taste as good as or better than they do on the day they were made.
— Chocolate cakes and tortes hold up well. So do cheesecakes, like a sweet potato version; flans; puddings; ice cream; parfaits; and mousses. A general rule of thumb is that if your dessert needs thorough chilling before serving, it can probably sit for a day or two in the freezer or refrigerator.
— Generally speaking, denser, heavier cakes hold up better than lighter, fluffier ones.(The light ones are prone to drying out.) Frosting, fondant or syrupy glazes act as a preservative, keeping the cake fresher longer.
— The one traditional Thanksgiving dessert that will suffer if made more than 24 hours ahead is pie. But you can make the dough up to a month ahead and store it in the freezer, or store it in the refrigerator for up to three days.
By SAM SIFTON
TIME: 45 minutes
YIELD: 6 to 8 servings
Cornbread goes with chili and in dressing during the holidays. This recipe isn’t dressed up with cheese or chiles (though you could add some). It’s basic, made in a cast-iron pan to create a crunchy crust. Keep this recipe on file and make it whenever you need a good sturdy cornbread.
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 3/4 cups buttermilk (or whole milk with a tablespoon or so of lemon juice stirred into it, left to sit for 5 minutes)
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and put it in the oven to heat.
2. In a large bowl, sift together the cornmeal, salt and baking powder. In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and eggs. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients, add the melted butter and stir together until just mixed.
3. Remove the hot cast-iron skillet from the oven and pour the batter into it, then give the pan a smack on the countertop to even it out. Return pan to oven and bake, approximately 30 to 40 minutes, until the cornbread is browned on top and a toothpick or a thin knife inserted into the top comes out clean.
Basic Chicken Stock
By JACQUES PÉPIN
TIME: 2 1/2 hours
YIELD: 13 cups
If you’ve never made your own stock, you’re really missing out. This recipe from the legendary Jacques Pépin takes a few hours but very little effort, and you’ll never go back to those cardboard cartons of oversalted stock again.
3 pounds chicken bones (neck, backs and gizzards, skinless or with as little skin as possible)
6 quarts lukewarm water
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (NOTE: If you do not have herbes de Provence, substitute equal amounts of at least 3 of the following: dried marjoram, thyme, summer savory, sage, fennel, basil, rosemary and lavender.)
1 large onion, peeled and cut into 4 pieces
12 whole cloves
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1. Place the bones and the water in a large stockpot, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and boil gently for 30 minutes. Most of the fat and impurities will come to the surface during this time; skim off and discard as much of them as you can.
2. Add the remainder of the ingredients, return the liquid to a boil and boil gently for 2 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve or through a colander lined with a dampened cloth kitchen towel or dampened paper towels.
3. Allow the stock to cool. Then remove the surface fat and freeze the stock in plastic containers with tightfitting lids. Use as needed.
Galatoire’s Sweet Potato Cheesecake
By R.W. APPLE Jr.
TIME: 1 1/4 hours, plus chilling
YIELD: 12 servings
This recipe is adapted from a popular dessert served at Galatoire’s, the famed New Orleans restaurant founded on Bourbon Street in 1905. A simple graham cracker crust is filled with cinnamon-spiced sweet potato cheesecake then topped with a lightly sweetened layer of sour cream.
FOR THE CRUST
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (from about 12 whole graham crackers)
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
FOR THE CHEESECAKE FILLING
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 3/4 cups mashed sweet potatoes (see note)
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
2/3 cup evaporated milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
FOR THE TOPPING
2 cups sour cream, room temperature (1 16-ounce container)
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter until combined. Press evenly onto bottom and 1 inch up the side of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake until set but not brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from oven, and cool.
2. Beat cream cheese with electric mixer until smooth. Add sugar and brown sugar, beating until completely smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add sweet potatoes, eggs, evaporated milk, cornstarch, cinnamon and nutmeg, beating until well combined. Pour into crust. Bake until edge is set, 45 to 55 minutes.
3. Whisk sour cream, sugar and vanilla to combine. Spread over warm cheesecake. Return to oven, and bake until just set, 5 minutes. Cool completely on wire rack. Remove side of pan, and chill at least 5 hours and preferably overnight.
NOTE: For 1 1/2 cups mashed sweet potatoes, you’ll need to roast 1 pound sweet potatoes (about 2 medium sweet potatoes). Using a fork, pierce the potatoes in several places and roast in a 400-degree oven until tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Once the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half, scoop out the flesh and mash until smooth.