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Appetites: Get a head start on Thanksgiving cooking

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Frozen Italian Trifle.
Photo courtesy Mette Nielsen

The thought of the big Thanksgiving dinner, with all of the shimmering side dishes, can be overwhelming for many.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of the Splendid Table, told MPR's Tom Crann that it is not too early to start planning, and even cooking, parts of your Thanksgiving dinner.  

TOM CRANN: Here we are, a little more than two weeks out from Thanksgiving, and you're here to tell us we can get started today. And this will relieve our stress -- how?  

LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER: Let's face it, this holiday -- with this huge thing that everybody tries to cook -- it can be a little nerve-wracking. But, here's the deal.  You can strategize in a way that easily, when you're going to enjoy doing it, you can do a lot of stuff ahead, so when it comes to that last day, or that actual big day, you're not suddenly realizing you have a million little things to do.  

CRANN: Let's talk about some of the basic strategies. When you think about the meal, what should we be thinking about that you can get done ahead?

ROSSETTO KASPER: This is my standard thing about any big special meal: if the recipe ends with the words "serve immediately," you're not going to use it.

Think about this: you want to have very simple dishes. If you're going to do a lot of side dishes, at least three of them should be dead simple. For instance: sweet potatoes. If you bake them and scoop them and puree them, you can freeze those right now and you can spice them any way you want.  And then before you actually heat them up for Thanksgiving, puree them in the food processor again because they throw off some liquid. That you can do now. Green beans, you're going to cook two days ahead. 

The other strategy is, buy everything you can ahead. If it comes in a can, if it comes in a freezer pack, if it's a root vegetable it will hold, and of course, any drinks.  Every beverage you can think of.

Sicilian cauliflower
Sicilian cauliflower is steamed, whole cauliflower covered with colorful salsa of green, and red, and orange sweet peppers.
Photo courtesy of The Splendid Table

CRANN: There are some specific items that you say can be done ahead, and work really well.  And these are in your new e-book in the Eating In series, it's called "Italian Holidays."  

ROSSETTO KASPER: We have a fabulous cauliflower recipe, it's called Sicilian cauliflower. Steam the cauliflower ahead, heat it up, it's the whole cauliflower covered with this incredibly colorful sort of salsa -- of green, and red, and orange -- it's all sweet peppers. And it's a little spicy.  And you put that out and you slice it like a cake.  It's gorgeous. You can make the salsa three days ahead, and you can steam the cauliflower ahead. The salsa is room temperature and the cauliflower can be room temperature. 

CRANN: And then there is this Italian trifle recipe, that you say you can make ahead now. 

ROSSETTO KASPER:  A trifle is a layering of something creamy and delicious and sensual, and some cake, and if you want fruit and whatever. It can be store-bought cake. But the creaminess is an old classic parfait recipe.  You're making a custard.  You know how custard is usually done with milk or cream and eggs? Instead, it's eggs and sugar syrup and flavoring.  And it has this fabulous texture when it's frozen.  And this you make this weekend and put it in the freezer. You pull it out Thanksgiving morning and you serve it sort of semi-frozen.  It's the anti-Thanksgiving recipe for dessert.

CRANN: When it comes to the bird itself, if you're doing a traditional turkey, there's not a whole lot you can do ahead, right?  That needs to be done on the day?

ROSSETTO KASPER: You want to roast the turkey on the day.  But any kind of seasoning or filling can be done ahead. The idea of doing anything that's cooked in the stuffing, anything that's sauteed, that can be done ahead and frozen, and then you mix everything together.

But the other thing about the bird is, when you're looking at the budgets we're all facing, think about looking at that cheapest of cheap birds in the supermarket freezer case (yes, you may want the organic or heritage bird but it may not be the thing that's going to happen this year). It's one day out of the year, and if you brine that sucker, it will taste fabulous slow-roasted or fast-roasted, and you're there.