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Plan Ahead for a Delicious Thanksgiving

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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.

Menu Timeline

One month ahead:

  • Plan the guest list.
  • Assess refrigerator space and equipment needs (remember, the outdoors can be a great fridge if the temperature is below 40°F).
  • Decide on your turkey: fresh or frozen? If you opt for an organic or heritage turkey, you may need to order it early.

The week ahead:

  • Make your shopping list and divide it between Saturday and Tuesday shopping. You might want to add store-bought dinner rolls to your list.


  • Buy the turkey, if frozen.
  • Buy bread for the stuffing and ingredients for Sunday’s prep.


  • Make the cranberry sauce.
  • Make the turkey broth.
  • Make the herb butter.
  • Cut up and dry the bread for the stuffing.


  • Buy the remaining ingredients.
  • Make the brine.
  • Make the stuffing (but don’t bake it).


  • Prep the broccoli: Trim, cut, and parcook the broccoli; cook the eggs; chop the parsley and combine with the eggs; make, toast, and season the breadcrumbs; grate the Parmigiano and combine with breadcrumbs; zest and juice the lemon and combine.
  • Make the caramelized onions for the gratin.
  • Brine the turkey.
  • Chill the white wines.
  • Set the table.

Thanksgiving morning:

  • Pull the herb butter from refrigerator.
  • Make and bake the sweet potato gratin.
  • Transfer the stuffing to the baking dish.
  • Peel and cut the potatoes; cover with cold water.

Four hours before dinner:

  • Prep the turkey: pull from the brine, rinse, butter, and season.
  • Roast the turkey.
  • Make roux for the gravy.

One hour before dinner:

  • Take the stuffing and gratin out of the fridge.
  • Assemble the broccoli dish and let it sit at room temperature.
  • Make the mashed potatoes and keep warm.
  • Plate butter for the dinner rolls, if serving.
  • Put the cranberry sauce in a serving dish.

Half-hour before dinner:

  • Allow the turkey to rest.
  • Raise the oven temp to 375°F and heat the stuffing, broccoli, and potato gratin.
  • Heat dinner rolls, if serving.
  • Make the gravy.

Shopping List

Shopping List for Saturday:

Fresh produce

  • 1 large onion
  • 4 oz. shallots
  • 1 bunch celery (at least 10 large stalks)
  • 2 small carrots
  • 1 small bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 small bunch fresh thyme
  • 1 small bunch fresh sage
  • 6 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 1 orange

Meat, Eggs & Dairy

  • 14- to 16-lb. natural turkey (if you’re using frozen; if you’re using fresh, wait until Tuesday to buy it)
  • 1 lb. unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 to 2 lb. turkey parts, such as backs, wings, or legs

Other Groceries

  • 1-1/2-lb. loaf dense, chewy bread
  • 6 cups low-salt chicken broth
  • 1 bottle dry white wine
  • 1/3 cup crème de cassis
  • 1-3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 vanilla bean

Pantry Staples:

  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 30 bay leaves
  • 1 Tbs. whole black peppercorns

Wine Choices: Young, fruity white wines with crisp acidity and little oak, and red wines with forward fruit, medium acidity, and soft tannins are ideal mates to the sweet, tangy, and zesty flavors of this menu.
Look for crisp Sauvignon Blancs, fruity off-dry Rieslings, and lightly oaked Viogniers. I like the 2006 Babich Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, the 2006 Mönchhof Estate Riesling, Germany, and the 2006 Zaca Mesa Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley. For reds, look for Pinot Noirs, Gamays, or lightly oaked Merlots, such as the 2005 Edna Valley Pinot Noir, the 2005 Chateau de la Chaize Brouilly, or the 2005 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Cabernet Merlot, Australia.

-Tim Gaiser, contributing editor

The Menu


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