The recipe for a good Thanksgiving

Mashed potatoes, stuffing and a turkey on the Thanksgiving table

Chef Mark Molinaro, associate executive director and associate teaching professor in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, knows a thing or two about the pressure of cooking the perfect Thanksgiving dinner. His secret? Throwing out the “perfect” and making the kind of meal that feeds his people and doesn’t run him and the other chefs in his kitchen ragged. The NAU Review asked Chef Mark to share some of the ways his family makes the day fun for everyone.

Cooking for thousands of people a day can be thrilling … if that is your profession. Cooking for 8-10 people once or twice a year can cause even the strongest family members to silently weep into their pillows. Here are a few tips and tricks of the culinary trade that will hopefully make your thanksgiving/holiday cooking more manageable and dare I say … more enjoyable?! 

No. 1: Plan your work, then work your plan.  

My dad drilled this saying into my sister’s and my head for decades … and he was right. During the planning stages, you decide what to cook, which dictates

The Molinaro family
The Molinaros out of the kitchen: Mark, Christina, Luke and Shane.

how the time will unfold before your guests arrive. Here are some things to consider: 

  • Do you really need six different side dishes? (My beautiful wife, Christina, would say “absolutely!” but maybe either mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes would be fine this year.) 
  • Consider your cooking surfaces: One oven, four burners, maybe a Crock or Instant Pot.  Saving all the preparing and cooking tasks until the morning of the event is a recipe for going out for Chinese food that evening! The trick here is to map out what can be made ahead without sacrificing quality. You can also think about sharing the load with other family members or even local businesses. Perhaps you could get your cooked, sliced turkey from a local restaurant and just make the gravy at home.  
  • Try out the dishes before the holiday so you have some comfort level with the ingredients and techniques. Slide in the Martha Stewart green bean casserole in early November as a test run, and on the big day you will have much more confidence in how to prepare and keep this wonderful, healthy dish warm and fresh! 
  • Break the day up. This year, Christina decided that we are going to have our main meal at our house at about 1 p.m. with grandparents and then take a couple-hour break to clean up, reset and go for a much-needed walk. At 6 p.m. our little family will then go over to the grandparents’ house for pie and coffee. This is a neat way to share the load and spread out the impact on the taste buds and tummy!  
  • Here is my general timeline for Thanksgiving: 
  • Gather ingredients for starch and vegetable dishes: Two days out  
  • Clean and prep vegetables: One day out 
  • Make pies: One day out 

Read more tips for a perfect Thanksgiving turkey. 

No. 2: Divide and celebrate!  

Putting the workload on one person can add unnecessary stress, so including other family members and/or friends (or even other businesses, as mentioned above) can help share the load. Maybe you order the soft, buttery rolls from Little America this year and focus more on that pecan pie that you’ve always wanted to perfect. And put some work on the young ones—they also need to have shared experiences in the kitchen! When I ask our HRM students about their food memories, it often begins with Mom, Dad or a grandparent. Get them trimming green beans or peeling potatoes. Let them master a dish as a way to feel a part of contributing to the harvest meal.  

No. 3: Find your meaning in the meal.  

What to cook for Thanksgiving is a personal decision and can reflect part of what you believe to be important this time of year. Make that part of your family/friend story. The dishes we prepare and serve at Thanksgiving now are not the same as when I was a boy. I imagine my sons, Luke (12) and Shane (9), will have a different story for their Thanksgiving meal. Do you buy local/organic? Do you buy a turkey from a local-ish grower? Do you include some food dishes from the past and some new ones? I just hope our boys invite us over!   

Happy Thanksgiving from the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management! 

Top photo: Pro Church Media via Unsplash

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