I love making Thanksgiving dinner. It's a pleasurable ritual -- one my family looks forward to, and frets if I threaten to change. So mostly I don't. I don't serve appetizers either, except for cut-up raw vegetables and occasionally olives or nuts. With so much good food to come, I don't see the point.
But pleasurable or not, there are challenges to preparing the meal. So for all of us who want to enjoy making the meal, here are my own personal guidelines:
Getting all the food ready at the same time: Decide on your menu. Make a specific plan, including shopping and cooking times for each dish. Follow it.
Buying the right size turkey: Be realistic and know your audience. Do they love turkey? Do you want leftovers? If you do, about 1 pound (before cooking, that is) per person should do it and will leave you plenty for seconds or leftovers.
Defrosting the turkey: It takes longer than you think. A good rule of thumb is 24 hours in the refrigerator for each 5 pounds of turkey. Therefore, you'll need three 24-hour periods to thaw a 15-pound turkey.
Before roasting: For the record, it's probably worth reminding you to remove the bag of turkey giblets and neck inside the turkey cavity (sometimes there's a bag in the throat cavity too).
Brining: If you want to, have time to and are not cooking a kosher turkey or one that's already been injected with a salty solution, do it. The process adds flavor. Look in last Wednesday's food section (or go to it via www.washingtonpost.com) for a great apple cider brine recipe.
Roasting the turkey: I'm going for broke here, since there are dozens of theories on how best to roast a turkey. I like a juicy bird and consistently have found a high-temperature method reliable. The recipe printed on your turkey wrapping, the recipe in Food last Wednesday and any of the turkey hotlines will use a different method. Feel free to follow their directions. I cook my turkey in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for half an hour, reducing the heat to 375 for the remainder of the cooking time. Once the outside of the turkey starts to brown, I tent the bird with foil. How long do I cook it? Until a meat thermometer in the breast of the turkey reaches 160. A 12-pound turkey usually takes me a little over two hours. At that point, I take the turkey out of the oven and check the temperature of the thigh, which takes longer to cook. If the thigh registers less than 160, I cover the turkey breast tightly with a layer of foil beneath the tent and return the turkey to the oven, checking it every 15 minutes. I also baste. A lot.
Stuffing: In recent years, food scientists have urged home cooks not to stuff their turkeys, for fear those cooks will remove the bird from the oven before the stuffing (and the raw egg that may be holding it together) is safely cooked. There are other solutions, such as cooking it in a casserole dish. Or if you really like the flavor of stuffing cooked inside the turkey (and I do), think of spooning it into a microwave-safe dish after roasting, and nuking it before serving.
Turkey stock: You'll simplify your life by buying extra turkey parts in advance and making the stock ahead of time. (Again, check out last Wednesday's Food section for a good turkey stock recipe.)
Gravy (that's what you need the stock for): If you want to avoid lumpy gravy, do that my way too. I try to spoon out the fat, and then deglaze the roasting pan drippings with a little stock, gradually adding more liquid until I have enough (about one-quarter to one-half cup per person). I usually add the chopped-up giblets and sometimes chopped-up meat from the turkey neck.
Carving: Let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes before you carve. (This is probably the time to pass those raw vegetables.) The juices will settle back into the meat, and the turkey will be much easier to cut.
Handling a turkey catastrophe if you can't reach your mother: Fortunately you have some options here: there's the USDA meat and poultry hotline (800-535-4555, Thanksgiving Day hours: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. EST); and the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line (800-BUTTERBALL, Thanksgiving Day hours: 6 a.m.-6 p.m. CST