Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving scheduling

I know a lot of you are preparing for the best holiday of the year next week. I love, love, love Thanksgiving and the planning is 2/3 of the battle here. A solid schedule will make things go pretty smoothly (although having an arsenal of recipes you trust is also helpful).

I approach every big project in life the same way. Identify the goals, figure out the steps to achieve them, decide what needs to happen when. Remember that you can't do everything at once, so you have to figure out what tasks must be completed at the last minute and which can be done ahead. Thanksgiving is no different.

the table, set

I save my schedules and notes each year and then just modify them accordingly. But somehow I completely lost all those papers when we moved the week after Thanksgiving last year. It's pretty heartbreaking, because setting up a new schedule feels intimidating. But it's not really that bad!

Assuming you've decided which dishes you're making and have the recipes handy, you can set up a schedule pretty quickly. Here is my earlier post about how I prep for this. Get your recipes ready, break them down into steps and make sure you include any baking times and temperatures. Now you're ready to schedule. Fill out a piece of paper with the time on one side, in half hour increments. The end time should be when you want to start eating, which I usually set for 30 minutes after I ask guests to arrive if it's family, an hour if it's friends and we're doing cocktails.

Oven space is at a premium. Start with the turkey and work backwards. I only ever use the Alton Brown roasting method, which is pretty quick. I set aside a total of 3 hours for roasting a 14 lb turkey and it often doesn't take that long. I aim to have the turkey coming out of the oven either when guests are scheduled to arrive or a half hour after, so I can tent it and just let it rest until we're ready to serve.

Everything else will need to get worked around the turkey. Rolls are usually best cooked last minute and they're quick, so I plan to do those while the turkey rests. If oven space permits, you can reheat a couple other dishes at the same time, or right after the rolls come out. I try to bake the dressing earlier in the morning and then just set it aside to get reheated right before serving. Ditto on the sweet potatoes except I usually do them the day before.

Do as much ahead of time as possible. That breakdown of steps you made? Go over it and figure out which recipes (or parts of recipes) can be done earlier in the week. I try to choose a few recipes that can be fully made ahead of time to ease up the crunch. Things that can be made a day ahead - these horseradish mashed potatoes, any cranberry sauce or relish, vegetarian gravy (I'll share my recipe tomorrow), sweet potatoes (I don't have a recipe but I roast them, chop them and then top them with a pecan crumble and bake it at 375 for about an hour - it can just get reheated later). I always, always, always make the pies a day or two before. Pumpkin pie in particular benefits from having a day for the flavors to meld, so it's win-win.

There are also pieces of recipes that can be done earlier. If you want freshly mashed potatoes, that's great. Wednesday night you can peel and chop the potatoes, cover them with water and leave them in their pot all ready to go on the counter. They'll be fine sitting like that at room temp for 24 hours, I promise, and then you just have to pop them on the stove when you're ready to boil them. I cube the bread for the dressing and dry it out in a low oven a few days before. I also sometimes wash and chop all the veg for the dressing so it's ready to saute. If you're planning on making gravy you can even just measure out your ingredients and have them waiting by the stove for you. I don't want to be hauling down the bin of flour in that last minute crunch time.

Build in a little more time than you think you need. I mean yes, I'm a huge advocate of scheduling but I want to enjoy the cooking, which means I don't expect myself to crank out dishes at warp speed. This is easier after you've hosted at least once and have an idea of how long things take. I wash my pots and pans as I go along, and then dry them and put them away. Along those lines, take the time to get yourself ready. People would rather show up and be greeted by a clean and pleasant host, even if it means waiting another 30 minutes to start eating, I'm almost positive.

Delegate specific dishes. I always ask people to bring veggie sides while I focus on the core dishes. But you can also delegate desserts, which can be a huge help. Whatever you do, make sure you let people know what to bring. Also, there is no shame in going store bought for things that are just cluttering up your schedule. Those brown and serve rolls will make everyone happy if you don't want to mess with yeasted dough along with everything else.

Remember that you are not a caterer! I have never managed to get everything piping hot and served at the same time. And that's fine. Your guests aren't there for a restaurant experience and you shouldn't feel pressured to provide one. Sure, I make every attempt to make the most delicious meal possible, but if things go wonky just open another bottle of champagne and take a deep breath.

This is just a theoretical example, because everyone will have a different schedule based on the recipes you're using and your start time, but this is an example of what my schedule usually looks like. This is for a late arrival time, so if we're doing a 2 pm dinner I bump it up by 2 hours.

TG schedule

The last half hour tends to be a bit of a flurry, especially if you're making gravy. There isn't really any way around this that I've discovered. You'll be pulling stuff out of the oven, whisking the gravy, hopefully delegating someone to carve the turkey. I just try to work quickly and stay relaxed.

Oddly enough, this is the first year in forever that I'm not doing Thanksgiving. We had some scheduling issues that were going to make it really difficult so I cried uncle. We had some friends over on Saturday so I got my hosting fix and I'm going to relax this year (but also look forward to next year!). I'll share a couple recipes tomorrow and Wednesday and live vicariously through you.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Coming soon!

I really, really wanted to get a breakdown on Thanksgiving scheduling up today, but it's taking longer than anticipated to write it. I'm going to get it up early next week, promise. Hopefully it will be helpful.

persimmons and crocheted lace

In the meantime, there are lots of other Thanksgiving posts. I think it's obvious that it's my favorite holiday.

My Thanksgiving planning process
Thanksgiving 2013
Friendsgiving 2013
Thanksgiving 2012
Friendsgiving 2012
2011 prep + recap
2010 prep + recap (the one where we got engaged)
Thanksgiving 2009

Printable napkin rings
Leaf garland template

Cranberry margaritas

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Afternoon snack

Every single day for the last several weeks. 

afternoon snack

1 oz cheese + 5 crackers + 1/2 apple. Although it's usually packed in a to go container. 

I used to convince myself that my afternoon snack should be super healthy, like carrot sticks, even though all I really want in the afternoon (always, really) is cheese and crackers. 

I try to avoid eating wheat on a daily basis because too much of it makes my joints swell like crazy. If we have pasta and bread for dinner, I'm resigned to the fact that I'll wake up with "pasta knuckles" the next morning. I choose to work around this because I'm not interested in giving up gluten. So we don't keep bread in the house on a regular basis anymore and I try to keep my pasta intake low(ish) even though I'm in no way gluten-free.

But I've decided that 5 little crackers a day aren't going to kill me and it's been lovely. I'll admit that the first time I brought home a box I ended up eating half of it on the bus, but I blame that on terrible traffic combined with post work hunger. Now that I have them around all the time I don't have an issue sticking to my small serving each day and my joints seem fine, knock on wood.

Speaking of cheese (we were, weren't we?) - am I the only one who gets excited for the holidays in large part because of the cheese platters? Trader Joe's caramelized onion cheddar, I am coming for you. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black bean burgers revisited

I'm still using my standard recipe for black bean burgers but I've gotten a little better about making them so I'm jotting down my notes.

peppers and onions

black beans

burger mix

I use the pastry cutter for mashing the beans. The original recipe called for a fork, but mashing things with a fork is not a lot of fun. I used to use the food processor, but it does TOO good a job and can make it smoother than you want. The pastry cutter is perfect. (I also use it for guacamole and for egg salad, but not for pastry, oddly enough).

The dough (batter?) is still really soft, and shaping it was always a pain. I now treat these like pancakes and just use my largest scoop (it's a #12 which is 1/3 cup) to put the batter directly on the griddle. I flatten out the mounds a bit with a spatula. They're delicate, so you have to be careful on the first flip, but they'll firm up a bit as they cook. I don't use a non-stick skillet anymore, just my cast iron griddle with some oil on it.

In addition to the cumin and the coriander (about 1 - 2 teaspoons of each), I also add in a bit of chili powder.

I've also tested out a couple of variations that were good. Sometimes I'll finely dice sweet potatoes and saute them with the onion mixture to get them tender. If you happen to have leftover caramelized onions on hand, those are a great addition. I'm planning to do a version with diced jalapenos for some extra heat. It's a good recipe to play around with.

** I have a lot of information about the kitchen equipment I use the most in this post, if you're ever wondering. **

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pitcher palomas

I love margaritas as much as the next person (okay, maybe more) but there are times when all I want is a paloma. Palomas are sort of like stripped down margaritas, consisting mainly of grapefruit and tequila. You can make them in various ways, the least fancy of which is just silver tequila and Squirt.

On Saturday we were going to a party so I wanted something relatively quick that I could pack up and take as a pitcher cocktail. I started with this Rick Bayless recipe but because we were using fresh grapefruit juice (I get it from the Trader Joe's refrigerated section) that has basically no sweetness, I knew we'd need to play with it. I swapped in a little bit of tangerine juice to balance out the grapefruit juice and then made a basil simple syrup instead of just using regular sugar, which I find never dissolves well.

pitcher palomas
{pitcher palomas}

This cocktail will take a bit of adjusting because so much depends on your juice. Have a tasting glass nearby and take tiny sips as you go along so you can get it where you want it.

Pitcher palomas (makes enough for a crowd, about 15 large drinks)
1 1/2 cups lime juice
3 cups fresh grapefruit juice
1 cup tangerine juice (or OJ, or just more grapefruit juice)
4 cups silver tequila (basically a full 750 ml bottle)
~ 1/3 cup basil simple syrup, or regular simple syrup
~ 24 oz sparkling water (I used Le Croix grapefruit flavored water)
Ice, for serving
:: Mix the juice and the tequila together. Add simple syrup to taste. I think I ended up using about 1/3 cup, just enough to take the edge off the grapefruit. If you are using bottled grapefruit juice, which is sweeter, you might not need any syrup at all. If you prefer a sweeter drink, you may need quite a bit more.

:: You can either top with the sparkling water or have it available for people to add to their liking. How much water you add will mostly be determined by the setting. If I were pouring a round of cocktails pre-dinner at home, I might add just a splash of water. But when I make pitcher drinks for parties I tend to use more. People drink more at a party and they drink faster so I find it's better to make the drinks a little lighter so they can sip longer. If you taste as you mix and stick with flavored water, you'll ensure that it doesn't end up tasting watered down, just refreshing.

Basil simple syrup (makes about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Large handful of basil leaves
:: Bring the water and sugar to a gentle boil, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves. Toss in the basil leaves, stir, and turn off the heat. Allow to cool before straining.

You can keep the leftovers in the fridge for a week or two. If you don't have basil, leave it out and just make regular simple syrup.

I always use my flip top bottles when I bring drinks to a party. I write on them with a black sharpie, including a short description of the drink so that people hunting through the cooler can decide if it appeals to them The sharpie will come off with soap and water when you're ready to wash it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fall meal planning update

I'm still mostly using my meal planning system, although the actual cooking definitely fell by the wayside for most of the summer due to the heat. Instead I tried to plan as many fast, preferably oven-less, meals as possible.

meal planning tweaks

Now that it's starting to cool down I tweaked our meal planning a bit. Soup is sounding more appealing, so I'm subbing out our usual large salad meal for a hearty soup meal. I've also reduced the total servings I aim for each week from 16 to 12. This is because I've been cooking my lunches separately so I don't need to factor them into our planning. When my cooking was sporadic during the summer I couldn't rely on leftovers (quesadillas aren't great the next day) and I kept purchasing lunch, which I hate to do. So much money, so little enjoyment. If I could actually go out to eat I might see it differently but I don't like paying $7 for a lackluster sandwich to eat at my desk.

So, new lunch plan: brown rice + frozen stir fry veg + protein (usually tofu a few times a week and fish or meat a couple times) + stir fry sauce. It's a fake stir fry. And yes, the microwaved frozen vegetables are not nearly as good as fresh would be but this is the fastest, most consistent lunch I've been able to come up with. It takes virtually no effort and hits all the key nutritional groups I need to feel good. All I really have to do is remember to cook a batch of brown rice on Sunday evening and purchase some tofu. I don't even bother pre-cooking the tofu most of the time. This is where it really comes in handy that I can eat the same lunch every day and not get bored.

And my new meal planning structure looks like this:
Soup - 1x per week, 4 - 6 servings
Meat/lentils/pasta - 1x per week, 4 - 6 servings
Easy meal - 1x per week, 2 - 4 servings

I just need to round up some hearty soup recipes, preferably including a few that can be done in the crockpot. I've been searching around and hopefully I can share some as I try them. I love the crockpot, but the most common recipes you find are usually meat based and we try not to eat meat all the time. I'm hunting for vegetarian recipes as well and there are some that look pretty awesome.

More meal planning posts here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The weekend

If I had realized it was going to be 90 degrees on Saturday I probably wouldn't have committed myself to spending all day in the kitchen.

kitchen saturday
{kitchen saturday}

sundried tomato pesto
{sundried tomato pesto}

pumpkin ginger bread
{pumpkin ginger bread}



It was still nice to get back in there so I won't complain. We had a family birthday party on Sunday (not pictured, because it was a whirlwind) so I was prepping for that by making carrot cake cupcakes and my favorite picnic food, pressed sandwiches (grilled veg + pesto and prosciutto + mozzarella + sundried tomato pesto). Since I was already in there I tested out a pumpkin bread recipe I hadn't tried before. It had a lot of pumpkin flavor but not nearly enough spice for me. I'll hunt out a new one.

Saturday evening we were veritable social butterflies, at least compared to our usual standards. We went to Brendan Ravenhill's new studio opening and ogled over light fixtures. Then we headed to Lily's gallery opening and ogled over her gorgeous paintings. Then we went to a party at our friends' house and hung out until midnight at which point I cried uncle. My stamina has gone way down, guys.