By Natalie Lariccia


Planning ahead can help make your Thanksgiving dinner a meal to remember, rather than one you’d rather forget.

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and the big event is at your house. Life is busy, and the time is rapidly ticking away, leaving you feeling a bit stressed, rapidly searching for recipes and making multiple trips to the store to stock up on ingredients.

Whether it’s your first or your 50th time hosting and preparing Thanksgiving dinner, pinning down all the details can make for a tiresome and hectic day.

Area chefs and caterers, meanwhile, offer insight and a few helpful tips and ideas to make your Thanksgiving as successful and stress-free as possible.

Ellen Whitaker Conrad, chef and creator of Ellen’s Country Cuisine Cooking School in Salem, said timing and organization are the keys to preparing a big meal like Thanksgiving.

Conrad suggests choosing a menu and figuring out the quanity of food items needed based on the number of people attending. From there, the cook can put together a grocery list of all necessary items.

Work in advance

Most side dishes can be prepared ahead of time, so preparing the turkey can be the main activity. The table can also be set a day in advance to free up some extra time.

As a good rule of thumb, frozen turkeys should be purchased about five days in advance of the meal and should be kept in the refrigerator to thaw. The turkey should be washed thoroughly, and the innards will need to be removed. Conrad stressed the importance of washing hands and countertops thoroughly during the turkey preparation process to prevent any food-borne illnesses.

To make a tasty turkey, Conrad recommends the turkey be cooked in chicken stock, water or wine using a foil “tent” to cover the turkey to create a steaming and moisture-inducing environment.

“You don’t want it [the turkey] to dry out. You want it to be succulent and delicious,” she said. The foil tent should be removed during the final 30 to 45 minutes of cooking so the turkey browns evenly, and she recommends that the turkey remain uncut for least 15 minutes after cooking and before carving. Conrad said Web sites that offer turkey cooking tips like can also offer some helpful hints.

Colorful complements

When it comes to side dishes, Conrad recommends making colorful, textured dishes to offer an interesting contrast to the bland color of turkey and mashed potatoes.

“You have to think of the color and texture of your food because you are eating with your eyes as well as your palate,” she said. Some examples of colorful side dishes include steamed broccoli, cranberry and orange relish and colorful gelatin molds.

Michelle Dubas, owner of the Youngstown-based SassyPants Catering, also offered a few time-saving hints.

Since making desserts can be one of the most time-consuming and tedious Thanksgiving tasks, Dubas suggested ordering dessert items ahead of time or preparing them in advance.

Preparing a fresh turkey, instead of a frozen turkey that typically requires at least a few days thawing time, can also save valuable cooking time and refrigerator storage space.

Dubas also said it’s helpful to buy precut vegetables such as chopped celery to save valuable chopping time. Using disposal pans also saves clean-up time.

“Foil disposable pans are your friend. Invest in a foil turkey roasting pan and roast your turkey in that and toss it away when you are done,” she said.

Mark Fusillo, executive chef at Fusillo Catering, said some ready-made food items can be substituted for homemade items.

For example, store-bought gravy or prepackaged stuffing mixes can be quick and easy to prepare, and roasted redskin potatoes can be a more timely alternative to mashed potatoes.

Fusillo said preparing a turkey breast instead of full-sized bird can be a huge time- and space saver. Turkey breasts also don’t require stuffing and can also be a good choice for families that prefer white meat to dark meat.

Acorn Squash with Apples, Cranberries & Nuts

Makes 4 servings

2 acorn squash, cut in half, remove seeds and pulp

11‚Ñ2 cups water or apple juice


2 apples, peeled and sliced

1‚Ñ2 cup dried cranberries

1‚Ñ2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1‚Ñ2 cup brown sugar

3‚Ñ4 cup quick oats

1‚Ñ4 cup butter

Place squash, cut side down, in a large glass baking dish. Add approximately 11‚Ñ2 cups hot water or apple juice (for sweetness) to cover the bottom of the dish. Cover the pan with foil. Cook at 350 degrees for about one hour or until fork tender.

Remove from oven. Mix topping ingredients together and place into the cavity of each squash.

Return to oven, cooking for 30 additional minutes, or until the strudel topping is brown and the apple mixture is fork tender.

Spiced Pumpkin Pie

2‚Ñ3 cup packed brown sugar

1‚Ñ2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1‚Ñ2 teaspoon salt

1‚Ñ2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1‚Ñ8 teaspoon ground allspice

1‚Ñ8 teaspoon ground cloves

1‚Ñ8 teaspoon ginger

11‚Ñ2 cups packed pumpkin

2 tablespoons molasses

3 large eggs

1 cup half and half

Place baking sheet in oven preheated to 450 degrees. Whisk first 8 ingredients together in a large bowl. Whisk in pumpkin, molasses and eggs, then half and half. Pour mixture into unbaked pie crust. Place on baking sheet, reduce temperature in oven to 325 degrees after 10 minutes. Bake for about 40 minutes or until set. Serve at room temperature with whipped cream, if desired.

Cranberry-Orange Relish

2 cups fresh cranberries

1 large orange

3‚Ñ4 cup sugar

Finely chop the cranberries in the food processor. Peel orange, reserving peel; remove seeds and white membrane. Put orange and peel through the food processor. Mix all ingredients and store in a covered container in the refrigerator. Refrigerate several hours before serving. A delicious accompaniment to the holiday bird, or serve as a relish with pork.

Source: Ellen Whitaker Conrad, chef,

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