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Thanksgiving happens every year. Every year. Yet this big holiday manages to sneak up on us sometimes. Yes, it's a little early this year (November's fourth Thursday falls on the 22nd rather than, say, the 28th), and maybe those couple of extra shopping days before Christmas will be a good thing. But if you're hosting Thanksgiving dinner, it's scramble time.
So, we're racking our brains and our extensive archives for recipes and tips to help ease your mind amid the time crunch. Here are our top five suggestions on pulling it all together:
1. Don't Fear The Turkey: All those great expectations for a picture-perfect bird — bronzed and juicy, stuffed and trussed — can be overwhelming. Chef Alton Brown sums it up: Take a bite, he says, and "you should be like, 'Oh, my dear Lord, WOW!' " But don't let the pressure get to you. A simple step like brining imparts moisture and flavor. Also, basting just isn't necessary, Brown says — and a great way to avoid overdone, dry turkey? Cook the stuffing separately. Chris Kimball of America's Test Kitchen has other ideas: smearing an herb paste under the skin, or roasting a bird that's already carved. And Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa, suggests thinking small: "If you think about a Thanksgiving dinner, it's really like making a large chicken," says the chef whose mantra is "How easy is that?" Her recipe for bone-in turkey breast serves 6 to 8 people and takes less than 2 hours in the oven.
2. Go Easy On The Appetizers: That's not diet advice — heck, eat all you want! That's a tip for the cook to keep it simple. Garten suggests simply arranging "salamis and caperberries and different kinds of cheeses" on a big platter. These "special tastes of things" require no cooking, and when served with champagne, she says, "you've got a fabulous appetizer." Kimball's tip is to cut the top off a wheel of brie, drizzle with honey and fresh thyme, heat — for just a couple of minutes in the microwave! — and serve with crackers.
3. Dietary Opportunities, Not Restrictions: So, it's days before the big meal and you think you're all set. Then your sister calls to say she's bringing her boyfriend — and he doesn't eat meat. Or you find out your nephew has gluten intolerance. Sure, you could just let these guests pick out the few things they can eat. But it's not hard to whip up something special to accommodate them. For the boyfriend, how 'bout stuffed acorn squash and meatless gravy? For those who can't eat gluten, stuffing and even pie are easily adapted with a few readily available gluten-free ingredients. Or maybe you just want to lighten up the menu this year: A few tweaks to traditional dishes can cut fats and boost nutrition, as food writer Nicole Spiridakis explains.
4. Dessert Makes Everything Better: Let's face it: A lot could go wrong in the kitchen on Thanksgiving. But provide a delicious flourish at the end, and all could be forgiven. One key advantage: Most desserts can be made at least a day in advance. You could go traditional: Kimball of America's Test Kitchen suggests classic recipes like Cranberry Chiffon or Skillet Apple Pie, or an Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie that leaves out the corn syrup. He also has a tip for a twist on tradition: Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake. NPR's Linda Wertheimer insists her family's (bourbon-soaked) version of the much-maligned fruitcake is a truly great option: "lemon flavored, golden colored, with only the good kinds of fruit — none of that bitter, break your tooth kind." But if those seem complicated or too old hat, reach for Garten's bright and sweet Easy Cranberry and Apple Cake instead. (For more pie recipes than you might imagine — and a pie crust primer — check out Morning Edition's "Pie Week.")
5. Change It Up: Turkey, potatoes, pumpkin pie — they're practically synonymous with Thanksgiving in America. But go to almost any home, and you'll find other dishes reflecting our many cultures. At my house, it's as simple as smoked and pickled fish on crackers to honor our Scottish and Nordic roots (this falls under tip No. 2, above). So you forgot to buy the fixings for your signature green-bean casserole? Start a new tradition. Mix spicy kimchi into the mashed potatoes, or add a dash of Latin flavor. Food writer Michele Kayal suggests Portuguese sausage stuffing, Middle Eastern kibbeh or Indian samosas. We've offered up a "Tiki Thanksgiving," too (Flaming Upside-Down Pie Cake, anyone?). A quick trip to the international aisle for a ready-made treat could work just as well.
Bonus Tip: Don't Fret The Fussy Guests: It's a lesson we learned from NPR's Susan Stamberg, courtesy of her enduring, chunky, Pepto-pink favorite, Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish. Modern Manners author Thomas Blaikie told Susan, "I think it's good manners ... to do your best to eat what you're given." Even if it's a dish that mixes cranberries, sour cream and horseradish, Blaikie said, "I don't think guests should be expressing their dislike of your food — outrageous!" (Susan assures us, "It sounds terrible but tastes terrific.")
Of course, if there are any complaints at your Thanksgiving table, there's one other thing everyone could make next year: reservations.
Amy Morgan produces Kitchen Window and is an editor for NPR Digital News.