Food for Thought: Advance prep is key to stress-free Thanksgiving

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If you are anything like me, you’re probably excited that summer has gone and fall is here. Saying goodbye to Halloween can mean only one thing — the holidays are here. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” isn’t just a song lyric for people like us. This is the best two months of the year for people who love food. And Thanksgiving is the stand-alone winner in the culinary battle of the year. This holiday surpasses all others, as far as I’m concerned. There is no expectation of presents. We celebrate being with family and friends; we put tradition and family values on the table for all to see.
People are starting to get in the spirit of the season. We have more patience with others, and goodwill to all is extended. For the last two months of the year, we act like society should all the time — caring about others, a giving spirit, and a focus on what’s really important: family, friends, being thankful that, no matter our current circumstances, we are surrounded by loved ones over the best meal of the year.
Sadly, however, we know that, in most cases, Thanksgiving dinner is stressful. And most of the time it means a small portion of family works all day long in the kitchen to prepare the feast. This year can be different, though. How does a stress-free Thanksgiving sound to you? Is that even possible? I’m going to show you how you can prepare a couple of dishes each night over the week so you can actually sit down and enjoy your family for the day. Here is the plan:
• Step one: Plan your menu and get your shopping done early. This helps you find the elusive turkey of correct proportions. It will give you time to defrost it properly in the refrigerator and not have to use the bathtub or sink in a last-minute effort to be prepared.
• Step two: Decide what dishes can be prepared ahead of time. Cranberry sauce gets better with time as the flavors meld together, so do this dish early.
Sunday night:  Make cranberry sauce and the dough for the rolls. The dough can be chilled for up to five days. Pull it out and shape two hours before baking.
Monday night: Make your sweet-potato casserole and get it into your oven-ready dish. Also make the green bean casserole — just don’t add your crispy onions or fried shallots to it. They will get soggy.
Tuesday night: Make desserts. Get them out of your way and free your oven on the big day. You will need all the space you have. Cut all of your veggies for dressing and turkey stock for gravy. You will love having the veggies prepared; it makes things simpler.
Wednesday night: Prep the turkey — brine, season, rub, however you like — and put it back in the refrigerator uncovered to dry out the skin. This trick will give you wonderfully crispy skin. Also make turkey stock for your gravy. Use the neck and giblets along with a mire poix to season your stock. Last but not least, cut your potatoes for the mash and put them into a pot, cover with water and add a touch of salt. This way on Thursday you can just turn on the heat and mash them up with no stress.
Thursday:  Make your dressing. That’s right — dressing — not stuffing. If you want a perfect bird, you can’t add more mass to it. By the time the stuffing is hot, your beautiful turkey is dry, dead and a tragic offering at the table. Cook the dressing separately! Now that most of your work is done, all you have to do is manage the space in the oven and your cooking times for your menu.
So, all of the prep work is done, and it’s only 10 a.m. Now what? Maybe a glass of wine and some family time is in order. Enjoy your day! It only happens once a year — try relaxing for a change. I hope these ideas help you tame an otherwise stressful day for those spending time in the kitchen.

Kris Busk of Littleton is the chef at Smoke and Spice, at GI Jodi’s Bar & Grill. He has been a professional cook for three years.