I am a culinary adventure-seeker; exploring new ingredients and preparations is something I’m prone to doing on a regular basis. My family is mostly amenable to this, even during holidays, with one major exception: Thanksgiving dinner. Because – as they would say – you simply don’t mess with the classics.

I don’t argue with them. I wouldn’t dare, lest Thanksgiving be yanked out from under me and placed in more trustworthy hands, but that’s not really why. Thanksgiving is hallowed – the most important food holiday of the year – steeped in so much tradition and nostalgia that I wouldn’t even think about replacing anything from our canon of recipes. There have been small adjustments over the years, yes: Mashed potatoes have given way to crispy roasted ones, and Brussels sprouts now sit proudly alongside green beans, returned from a decades-long exile. I fill in with bits and bites – roasted grapes and cheeses to snack on here, a wintery salad or festive cocktail there – as grace notes to a meal that needs no improvement but often benefits from a little excitement around the edges.

This year, the Thanksgiving meal adorning our dining room table will be the same meal that has adorned countless tables in my family before it, a meal that has traveled great distances to different states and through generations. For the first time, however, I have the pleasure of sharing some of these recipes right here, with you. Whether you’re beginning your own traditions or just looking to make small adjustments to your menu, you can’t miss with these timeless dishes.


Appetizers, Drinks and Desserts

This isn’t a cocktail party; this is probably the most massive meal you’ll serve in your home all year. Let the meal be the main event, and keep the surrounding snacks and sips low key.

Appetizers should be light: just enough to keep stragglers happy and out of your way as you wrap things up in the kitchen. I like to set out a few cheeses, nuts and crackers alongside fresh persimmons and roasted grapes.

Drinks should be unfussy and, ideally, ones guests can pour themselves – think wine, beer or batch cocktails – because no one needs to be mixing drinks and chopping garlic at the same time. If you want to serve mixed drinks, designate a guest as the bartender ahead of time to handle requests.

Desserts should be as easy as, well, you know what. Pies simply are Thanksgiving; they’re the perfect end to a harvest meal and can be made the day before when you aren’t pressed for time (or oven space). Save the show for another special occasion. Get five creative and gorgeous takes on the classic pumpkin pie here.


Shop Like a Pro

Strategize the Bird. This is just simple math: Calculate your number of guests, decide if you want leftovers and determine what size turkey you need from that information. Frozen birds can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to thaw, depending on your method, so plan accordingly (and leave time for the 24-hour turkey brine, which can be done during the last day of defrosting). Fresh birds are ready to go straight into the brine and can be reserved in the refrigerator up to four days before roasting.

Create a Master List. Have a master list of all the ingredients you’ll need for the meal, including any drinks and appetizers you plan to serve. Remember to include things like zip-close bags to store prechopped and measured vegetables, spice mixes and leftovers, and disposable small plates and/or napkins for appetizers and drinks, if desired.

Prepare Space. Clean out your pantry, refrigerator, freezer, everything: You don’t want to be midprep and realize that you’ve run out of room or that you’ve lost something in the shuffle.

Check Your Pantry. Run your pantry and spice cabinet against your grocery list to see what you might need to refill while you’re out shopping – I’m known for running out of staples like flour and butter during the holidays, so use Thanksgiving as an excuse to stock up.

Divide the List. Break out nonperishables, frozen goods or sturdy ingredients that will keep for the better part of a week from your list of “delicates” like herbs and fresh vegetables, which should be purchased just before you begin to prep for the meal. Buy the nonperishables no later than the weekend before. Markets are chaotic at the beginning of Thanksgiving week, and it’s much easier to focus on grabbing a few items rather than loading up a cart.


Timing is Everything

Ambitious cooks manage to create Thanksgiving dinners in cramped apartments, spacious Miele-outfitted dream homes and everything in between. If you have a fully equipped kitchen, you don’t need my help; this is for the rest of us just trying to get it done. I’ve made Thanksgiving dinner on a 20-inch apartment stove with microwave assistance, and I’ve also made it using a standard single oven and four-burner range. This year, I’ll get to execute our holiday meal using an induction stovetop and a vintage 1980s double-wall oven that suffers a kind of temperature-related anxiety when you turn both on at once; needless to say, things could get interesting.

No matter what you’re working with, remember: It will all be OK. You can do this; all you need is a plan – and I’m here to help.

 
PREP AND COOKING
ONE TO TWO DAYS OUT
DAY OF MEAL
ONE HOUR BEFORE MEAL
CLASSIC ROASTED TURKEY
  • Begin brine (24 hours before)
  • Chop vegetables
  • Measure spices
  • Remove turkey from brine; pat dry
  • Bring to room temperature
  • Stuff bird and cook
  • Rest turkey for 30 to 40 minutes
  • Carve turkey
 GIBLET PAN GRAVY
  • Simmer giblet broth
  • Chop giblets
 
  •  Make gravy
 APPLE-SAUSAGE STUFFING
  • Toast bread cubes
  • Chop vegetables
  • Cook sausage
 
  • Bake stuffing (partial to whole to warm later)
  • Warm stuffing through or finish baking
SMASHED GARLIC AND HERB POTATOES 
  • Prep and store herb-oil mixture
  • Boil potatoes
  • Assemble and roast potatoes for 30 to 40 minutes
ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH CRISPY PANCETTA AND PEARL ONIONS 
  • Toast almonds
  • Cook pancetta
  • Thaw onions
  • Prep sprouts
  •  Assemble and roast sprouts for 30 minutes
SWEET CORN AND GOAT CHEESE SPOONBREAD 
  • Assemble blender ingredients
  • Blend and store
  • Whip egg whites
  • Assemble and bake (early if needed)
  • Warm to serve or assemble and bake for 1 hour
 VINEGARY ROOT RIBBON SALAD WITH FRESH HERBS AND TOASTED WALNUTS
  •  Toast walnuts
  • Ribbon roots and store, covered, with a damp towel
  • Toss with dressing, nuts and herbs
 ORANGE-SCENTED CRANBERRY CONSERVE
  • Make cranberry conserve and store in refrigerator
 
  •  Serve chilled
 APPETIZERS, DRINKS AND DESSERTS
  • Prep appetizers
  • Make cocktail syrups
  • Make desserts
  •  Assemble and set out appetizers just before guests arrive
  •  Replenish drinks and ice as needed

 

Shannon Weber is the creator, author and photographer behind the award-winning blogaperiodictableblog.com, and her work has appeared on websites such as Bon Appétit, Serious Eats and America’s Test Kitchen.

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