A delicious menu of traditional yet elegant dishes, along with a make-ahead strategy for making it all happen smoothly
My mother makes the best Thanksgiving dinner in the world, and last year, I was finally able to enjoy it for the first time in ages. As usual, my mom turned out a delicious meal for a crowd of twenty all by herself in a tiny kitchen, equipped with just a cutting board and a paring knife. And not a single dish was cold when it reached the table. In the past, I haven’t been able to join my family because I’ve been cooking dinner for a slightly bigger crowd—600 people—at 1789 Restaurant in Washington, DC, where I was the chef for many years. I used a few more tools, but for both of us, the key to a great meal has always been in the planning. With a good make-ahead strategy, preparing an impressive Thanksgiving spread without a lot of last-minute stress is easier than you think.
This menu, which takes inspiration from dishes I made at the restaurant as well as from some of my mother’s favorite recipes, is designed to be prepared in steps. If you follow the timeline below, you’ll have a stunning dinner ready by the time your guests gather around the table—and you’ll be able to enjoy it, too.
The star of the menu is, of course, the turkey. Mine is slathered with a delicious herb butter that makes it incredibly flavorful and succulent. But to make sure that it’s as moist and juicy as possible (especially the breast meat, which tends to dry out in the oven), I find that brining it for several hours in water, salt, and lots of aromatics works wonders.
When it comes to side dishes and gravy, I like to keep things straightforward, so I opt for tradition over experimentation. That’s not to say I don’t throw in an unexpected ingredient here and there. My cranberry sauce has vanilla to mellow the cranberries’ tartness, and I stir in a bit of crème de cassis (a black-currant-flavored liqueur) to enhance their fruitiness. For the gravy, I reduce a little Pinot Noir in the roasting pan before I add the broth and drippings to give it an elegance reminiscent of French sauces. I also take a dish like broccoli polonaise a step further. It’s traditionally topped with chopped hard-boiled eggs, breadcrumbs, and parsley, but I enrich the breadcrumbs with lemon zest for brightness and Parmigiano for extra flavor. And because no Thanksgiving menu should be without sweet potatoes, I bake a sumptuous sweet potato gratin, spiked with cayenne and perfumed with orange zest. My mashed potatoes, on the other hand, are as traditional—and rich—as they can be; nothing but potatoes and lots of butter and heavy cream. And my sausage-maple stuffing is homey and comforting, with a crunchy top and a soft, moist interior.
I know what you’re thinking now: This is a lot to manage. But trust me, it’s all doable. Just read through my prep strategy below and start getting organized. And don’t forget to have some fun in the process.