Come Thanksgiving Eve, what the average home cook needs most is something that can't be picked up at the store or crossed off the to-do list.
More than anything else -- the extra leaf for the dining room table, the platter brought out of storage, the spare pair of hands or one more pint of cream -- you'll need something that it's too late to get.
You will need more time.
Thanksgiving makes even novice cooks concoct elaborate menus of time-consuming side dishes -- recipes that they've never made before -- to accompany the turkey. In a moment of idyllic calm, weeks before Thanksgiving, novice or veteran cooks will dog-ear magazine and cookbook pages, singling out recipes with little thought as to whether they can be made in advance, require too many last-minute touches, take up too much space on the stove top or call for odd-size baking dishes that cannot coexist in the same oven as the turkey.
Only when the cook is standing with ingredients raw and canned spilling across the counter, plastic grocery bags flung across the floor, assessing the number of pots and pans and looking nervously at the clock, does reality sink in.
There is a very simple way to avoid these inflated expectations, unrealistic goals and not-so-fond Thanksgiving memories. And it lies not in making the recipes, but in selecting them.
Establish priorities about where to allocate your time. If potatoes are your thing, allow yourself to spend the extra effort on that side dish, perhaps a rich gratin that requires a substantial amount of slicing, simmering and baking rather than basic mashed potatoes. But then go easy on the cranberry effort.
For this Thanksgiving, we've taken four common categories of side dishes -- a first course, cranberries, potatoes and green beens -- and provided three different recipes in each category. The three recipes rely on similar ingredients and are organized in ascending order of the effort and time it will take to put them together. (How many pots will be dirtied, how much oven space will be taken, and how much kitchen know-how is required.) And for each, we've outlined those components that can be prepared in advance.
The first recipe in each category is a basic one that can be completed in about 15 minutes of active time; use these recipes to gain precious minutes so that you'll have time to make labor-intensive family favorites. The second recipe in each category is slightly more time-consuming but not too daring. Then there is the third level: These recipes take more time -- and they're worth it. And because the recipes in each category rely on almost the exact same ingredients, you can change your mind as often as you want, as late as you want, as to which recipe you have the time to make.
Don't feel required to make one from each category. Choose the ones that look like a safe, easy haven, quickly accomplished if that's what your schedule needs. Or choose the ones that might require a little more effort but will give your traditional menu a little flair.
Balancing the Thanksgiving menu is sort of like playing Twister. There are moves that you intend to make and moves that just sort of happen. You want to minimize the latter. And the only way to do that is to think before you act.