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Relax – it’s just a dinner

There’s something about Thanksgiving that can bring panic to even the most experienced cook. Will the potatoes be lumpy? Do I have everything I need? Can I get everything on the table at the same time? How can I do it with just one oven?

This last problem came to my attention recently when my stepmother called about Thanksgiving dinner. She’s hosting the whole family, and that’s a lot of us. We’d decided to cook two turkeys instead of one, because her oven isn’t big enough to cook one of those mondo birds. She suggested cooking one turkey ahead of time and freezing it. I, worrying about the effects of freezing a bird that already tends to be dry, suggested that we cook one turkey in her electric roaster and the other in her oven.

“But where will we cook the sides?” she then asked.

I reminded her that people have been cooking Thanksgiving dinner in single-oven homes for eons. Soon, our conversation got me thinking about strategies for making the feast’s preparation less stressful.

That’s where the cooking magazines come in. This time of year, foodie mags are filled with articles on best Thanksgiving menus and no-stress guides to hosting a crowd. So here, culled from the pages of my favorite magazines and cookbooks over the years, are five tips to take the edge off this Thanksgiving.

1. Plan a menu. Read recipes carefully. Make sure you have all the ingredients. OK, that’s three things, but it’s all a part of “be prepared.” If you’re making a new dish, make sure you’ve read the recipe at least a couple of times. There’s nothing worse than realizing you’ve skipped a step when it’s too late to fix it … except for realizing that you don’t have a key ingredient. Last-minute treks to the store are no fun.

2. If a recipe tells you the dish can be prepared in advance, do it. Many desserts, the cranberry sauce and other holiday favorites can be made the day before, if not earlier. Take advantage when you can.

3. Remember your stovetop. This is a chance to think outside the casserole dish. Not every side dish has to be baked in the oven.

4. Remember you have other appliances that can help. Make mashed potatoes a couple hours in advance and keep them warm in the slow cooker – just thin them out with warm milk or cream if needed. A toaster oven can roast the walnuts you need for your salad. If you have an electric roaster, think about cooking your turkey in it, or using it to bake your casseroles. An electric skillet also can help free-up stovetop space.

5. Prepare any vegetable ingredients as soon as practical. Roast garlic for the mashed potatoes as much as a couple days in advance. Chop the onions, carrots and celery you’ll need for the dressing the night before. Wash and spin dry the salad greens the night before or early in the day.

Here’s a bonus tip: Relax. Your family and friends aren’t going to hate you if dinner isn’t perfect. As long as you remember to defrost the turkey well in advance and get it in the oven at the proper time, you’ll be good to go.

Here are a couple recipes to help you out. The carrots are easy to put together. I’d get them on the stove about 30 to 45 minutes before you pull the turkey out of the oven to rest.

The squash soup is something I’ve adapted over the years. I don’t know why soup isn’t more popular on the Thanksgiving table, but I think it should be. It also serves as a nice course for any vegetarian guests you may have, provided you substitute vegetable broth for the chicken stock. You can make this the day before and warm it up in your slow-cooker before the meal.

Sticky Saucepan Carrots

From “Cook With Jamie” by Jamie Oliver

1 3/4 pounds medium carrots, peeled

A large knob of butter (2 tablespoons or so)

A few bay leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chop the carrots across into 2 1/4-inch lengths, then find yourself an appropriately sized pan in which the carrots will fit snugly when they stand up side by side, like pencils in a cup. Once the carrots are snugly packed in, put the butter on top of the carrots, stick the bay leaf between them and season well with salt and pepper. Add enough water to come halfway up the carrots and put them on the heat. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low and cover the pot with a lid. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until the carrots are cooked.

Take the lid off and let the liquid reduce until there isn’t any left, turning the heat to medium-high if you need to speed things along; this will take about half an hour. Let the carrots sizzle gently in the butter for about 5 minutes until the bottoms of the carrots are sticky brown. Turn them out on to a plate and serve – watch out for the hot butter.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 140 calories, 6 grams fat (3 grams saturated, 37 percent fat calories), 2 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrate, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams dietary fiber, 334 milligrams sodium.

Squash Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large shallot, sliced

3 cloves of garlic, chopped or minced

2 delicata squash or 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes

2 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into wedges

1 1/2 to 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

4 cups chicken stock or vegetable broth

1 to 2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

6 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stems

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup milk or sour cream (or combination), optional

In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, heat oil over medium heat, add shallots and garlic and cook until just golden, 5 minutes or so. Add squash, apples and ginger. Stir, and let vegetables steam for 3 minutes or so, being careful not to let them burn.

Add broth or stock, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, thyme and salt and pepper and stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pot and cook until the squash is very soft, about 30 minutes.

Fish out the bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Puree soup using a food mill, stick blender or standard blender. Adjust seasonings and add milk and/or sour cream, if using.

Yield: 8 servings

Note: The dairy adds a nice creaminess to the soup, but it’s not essential. If you plan to make the soup in advance and reheat it the next day, wait to add the dairy until just before serving.

Yield: 8 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving, using milk: 87 calories, 3 grams fat (1 gram saturated, 31 percent fat calories, 3 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrate, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 144 milligrams sodium.