Cooking Thanksgiving dinner? Relax, plan and keep it simple.

Nov. 8, 2022
if you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner then get organized first, like with this mirepoix—a mix of celery, carrots and onions—may be chopped before you start cooking thanksgiving dinner.
Mirepoix — a mix of celery, carrots and onions — may be chopped large or small, depending on how the cook uses it. Getting organized before cooking Thanksgiving dinner will help the day run smoother. Photos: Bill St. John.

In a typical year — three of which we haven’t seen of late — Thanksgiving Day dinner is often the largest annual family meal that a cook prepares. The most daunting; the most complex; the most fussed-about.

It needn’t be any of that — well, except still the largest. It might be rather everyday, in truth; it just requires planning.

“Mise en place” is kitchen-French for “planning.” (It’s French-French for “put in place” or “everything in its place.”) It truly is the greatest gift from France to the kitchen since butter.

“Mise en place “means having a well-stocked pantry and freezer. Or shopping ahead to fill them. It means cutting up, prior to cooking, all the vegetables and other foods to be cooked. It means portioning out and having at the ready, in small bowls or on plates, all the foodstuffs, fats, flavorings, seasonings, liquids and the like, everything destined for the heat. Before you turn on the flame.

“Mise en place” means “everything out on the counter, where I can see it, ready to go.” So that, if all the mise en place is, well, in place, all that’s to be done is the cooking, the eating, the cleaning. And the relaxing. That’s the point.

“What I find that people do when cooking for a group, like on Thanksgiving,” says Jamey Fader, longtime Denver chef and culinary director at Marczyk Fine Foods, “is worrying about so many fine details that it all catches up with them.

“Keep it simple,” he reminds. “Focus on ‘Tastes great.’ Cook just five dishes, for instance, not 14.”

“Get in the right headspace,” Fader says, “which means to be relaxed and organized.” He and I both agree that “organized” is just plain English for “mise en place.”

Read more great articles and get cooking advice from Bill St. John.

Fader takes special pride in cleaning up as he goes, so that “in the end, after everyone’s eaten, all you have to do is put the dinner plates in the washer.” As an example, he says that, after mashing the potatoes, “put them in a serving dish that you’ll keep warm, and then right away wash out the pot you boiled them in and put that away.” In a sense, the serving dish of mashed potatoes then becomes part of that dinner’s “mise en place.”

“Mirepoix [a mix of celery, carrots and onions] can be cut up ahead in different sizes depending on different uses,” Fader says. “I rest my roasting turkey on large chunks of mirepoix and use smaller cuts in the stuffing.”

Other Fader suggestions for Thanksgiving mise en place: “Peel the potatoes and put them in water.” (Can be done days ahead if using the refrigerator.) “Never throw away the scraps from vegetable peelings; they go into stocks, either for right away or, if you freeze them, for the future.” (That includes onion skins which will lend their light brown color to lighter stocks such as those made from fish or fowl.)

As do some cooks, Fader prepares two turkeys on Thanksgiving. “One is for that day,” he says, “and the other is for both leftovers to send home with others,” as well as for future stocks. Anthony Bourdain was well-known for preparing double turkeys, too, a “stunt” one for the table, dressed “like a showgirl,” and the second in the kitchen, already carved and ready to be served.

Additional Fader feast-day ideas: “I like to make sweet potatoes glazed in butter and orange,” he says, “and always cook the stuffing outside the bird.” (As with the mashed potatoes, after the stuffing is cooked, ideally in its serving container, “just keep it warm and it’s one less worry.”)

I asked Fader about a common concern of mine, that of adding too much salt to a dish, something that cannot be removed. “Always season [add salt and freshly ground pepper] at the end,” he says, the practiced chef’s way to prevent oversalting from the start.

“The only fix for oversalting is volume,” he says. “If there’s too much salt in the stuffing, tear up some Parker House rolls and stretch the stuffing. Too much salt in the gravy? Add more stock or broth. Nothing can mask too much salt. Adding volume is all that works.”

Stock of Rotisserie Chicken Carcasses

Make this well ahead of Thanksgiving Day dinner, for use in a soup, as a moistener for stuffing and as the basis for gravies. Or, alternatively, use that day’s turkey carcass in place of the recipe’s chickens to make stock that you will use in the future. Makes 2-3 quarts.

Ingredients

2 carcasses from rotisserie (not raw) chickens, browned skin OK

2 medium onions, peels left on, sliced in halves along their “equators”

3 stalks celery (leaves OK), cut in halves

2 medium carrots, scrubbed and cut in halves

4 cloves garlic, unpeeled but smashed

6 parsley stems

2 sprigs fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

Directions

Break apart or cut the roast chicken carcasses into pieces, especially at the joints, the more pieces the better. Set aside. Sear the 4 onion halves over medium-low heat in the (unoiled) pot that you will use to make the stock until the cut sides are very nicely browned.

Add back the chicken pieces and all the remaining ingredients and cover everything with water by 2 inches. Bring to a soft boil, then simmer, partially covered, for 3-4 hours, skimming fat or foam that might rise and replenishing with boiling water, if necessary, to keep everything submerged.

Strain the stock, through cheesecloth if you wish it clearer. When cool enough to handle, remove any meat from the bones to use for other preparations. Chill it in the pot overnight so that any rising fat congeals and can be skimmed off. Portion the stock as you wish and refrigerate it for use within a week or freeze it for use long-term.

When cooking Thanksgiving dinner, don’t toss vegetable peelings, even onion skins. Instead, save them for broths or stocks. Photo: Bill St. John.
Don’t toss vegetable peelings, even onion skins when cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, save them for broths or stocks.

Gene Amole, the late and much-beloved Denver native, radio DJ and Rocky Mountain News columnist, wrote many dozens of columns for that sadly departed newspaper, but the one with his recipe for turkey stuffing was the sizzler. According to an editor’s note in the November 4, 1982, edition, the recipe was “the most-requested column from the Rocky Mountain News files.”

His recipe is here, with the directions in his words.

Gene Amole’s Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffing

Ingredients

17 slices of white bread (or use a package of dried bread cubes)

3 slices of dark, Jewish pumpernickel (don’t leave this out)

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon sage, thyme or poultry seasoning

1/2 pound breakfast sausage

1/2 pound Italian sausage

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 cups thick-sliced mushrooms

1 tart apple (such as Granny Smith), peeled, cored and chopped

1 cube unsalted butter

2 cups chicken or turkey broth

3 tablespoons cream sherry

Directions

First, open a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry. Actually, any brand will do, but Harvey’s is the best. Have yourself a little nip and then pour exactly 8 ounces into a measuring cup. Put it aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

Take the bread slices and cut into crouton-size cubes and place in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the pepper, salt and sage or poultry seasoning. Brown and crumble in a skillet the two sausages, out of their casings if applicable. After thoroughly mixing the sausage, remove with slotted spoon and put in the big bowl.

Add the celery, onion and walnuts; throw in the parsley and mushrooms. Add the apple pieces. I know what you are thinking. You are concerned about the pumpernickel and the Italian sausage. Just seems out of character, doesn’t it? Trust me. And you probably want to sauté the onions and celery. Don’t.

Every time I make this stuffing, I am reminded of Chinese philosopher Lao-tze’s observation about bean sprouts. “They should be firm but yielding,” he wrote. So should the celery and onions in this dressing. The nuts and apple will retain a nice crispness, too.

Heat the butter and broth together until the butter melts. Pour the liquid into the bowl. Do not mix yet. There is one more important ingredient. Right you are! It is the sherry. Never forget the sherry. Very carefully pour 3 tablespoons of sherry into the bowl. Sip away at the sherry you have reserved in the measuring cup.

Carefully toss the stuffing with two wooden spoons until all ingredients are evenly mixed. Do not bruise the sausage! If mixture is too dry, add warm water. Food science no longer recommends stuffing the bird. We make up the recipe and bake it in a ceramic casserole dish. I guess that makes it dressing as opposed to stuffing—whatever you call it, it’s good.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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