how to host thanksgiving (and not die)

Rockwell Freedom from Want

In just over a week, I will host Thanksgiving for the third time ever.

The first year, we had a couple of friends over who, like us, weren’t able to head home for the holiday.  I made many of the dishes, but our friends generously brought lots of food, as well.  I was a bit intimidated by my inaugural hostess gig, but the evening ended up being fantastic.  It was a team effort all around, and in the end we enjoyed the fruits of our labor paired with warm company and too many bottles of wine.  In fact, by far the most nerve-wracking part of the day was deep-frying a turkey on our tiny front steps.  (I’m happy to report that no human body parts were harmed that day, and that I have never fried a turkey since.)

Last November, we hosted my husband’s immediate family.  We’ll be doing the same this year.  And while I love my friends and want them to love me (and my stuffing) back, I admit the pressure of having my in-laws for Thanksgiving raised the stakes a bit.  However, with a bit of elbow grease, a whole lot of planning, and frequent wine breaks, it went off without a hitch.

Whether you’re cooking for two or for twelve, planning ahead is key.  So without further ado, here’s a planning guide to help you pull off a festive, tasty, fabulous Thanksgiving!

One month out:

Plan your menu. As soon as you know about how many people you’ll be hosting — as well as their delightful dietary restrictions — start to plan out your menu.  For a first-time host, I suggest sticking to simple recipes of the Thanksgiving classics.  (Now is perhaps not the time to make your first soufflé, even if it is pumpkin flavored.)  Ask your guests if they have any particular favorites so you know where to focus your efforts.  And if it’s appropriate, don’t hesitate to ask them to help you out by bringing a side or dessert.

This year, I plan to make a cranberry walnut salad, turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and my mother’s famous apple pie.  I’ll also serve cranberry sauce out of the can — I mix cans of jellied and whole cranberry Ocean Spray sauces for a more balanced sauce — and a small ham from the Honeybaked Ham store.  (Don’t judge me.  And don’t ask me how to make ham.)

Gather the essentials.  Take inventory of your cabinets and make sure you have enough flatware, water glasses, wine glasses, silverware, and napkins for the number of people you’ll be hosting.  Remember to take every course into account; you won’t want to spend the time between dinner and dessert washing plates or forks because you’ve run out.  (Like me. Have I mentioned we have a tiny apartment?)

table setting

And now that you’ve planned your menu, you can determine exactly what cooking essentials you’ll need.  Make sure you have pots, pie dishes, and baking pans to cook and serve all your dishes.  We love our turkey roaster, but anything sturdy, preferably nonstick, and big enough for your bird will do.  And don’t forget the accessories, like a meat thermometer, baster, measuring cups, serving spoons, etc.  Think through the steps of every single dish, write down what tools you’ll need, and stock up on whatever you’re missing.

Order your turkey.  Rather than dealing with thawing out 20 lbs of frozen bird, I much prefer pre-ordering a fresh turkey to be picked up a day or two before Thanksgiving.  We’ve used Whole Foods kosher or pre-brined turkeys for three years running, and they are consistently delicious.  We just schedule a pick-up so we can get it on our way home from work on Tuesday.  Easy as pumpkin pie.

You’ll want to buy around 1.5 lbs worth of turkey per person, if you want some leftovers.  I always round up to about 2 lbs each, because there is literally nothing better than leftover cranberry turkey sandwiches.  (OK, now I’m excited for Thanksgiving.)

p.s. — Butterball has some great calculators for turkey buying, thawing, and cooking!

One-two weeks out:

Make a game plan.  Confession: I have multiple Excel spreadsheets dedicated to this dang holiday.  One includes a list of all the foods I plan to serve, and all the ingredients that go into those foods.  That gets turned into a master shopping list.  I also make a calendar of the days leading up to Thanksgiving, and write out what activities I’ll accomplish on each day (which is pretty much the list you’re reading now).  You definitely cannot cook Thanksgiving in one day, so mapping it all out will help you from pulling out all your pretty hair.

Go shopping.  I start to stock up on non-perishables, like canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, flour, sugar, oil, wine, etc. in the couple of weeks leading up to the big day, just to save myself from having to do one enormous trip at the end.  I’ll usually do my last big shop, including all perishables, the Monday before Thanksgiving.  Grocery stores are still fully stocked, and there won’t be as big of a rush on Monday as there will on Sunday or Wednesday.  (And don’t forget to pick up your turkey!)

Thanksgiving Sunday

Deep clean your house.  Pick up your dang Honeybaked Ham.

Thanksgiving Monday

Go on your last big grocery trip.

Thanksgiving Tuesday

Pick up your fresh turkey, and some fresh flowers while you’re at it.  Make your pie dough and refrigerate overnight.  If you’re making cornbread stuffing, bake your cornbread, cut it into 1 inch cubes, and let them sit on your counter overnight underneath a dry dish towel.apple pie

Thanksgiving Wednesday

Bake your pies — they will stay perfectly fresh in your fridge overnight, and you will be so glad you made them in advance.  Make your gravy base, if you’re doing gravy from scratch.  Feel free to prepare anything else that will keep overnight, like your cranberry sauce or stuffing.  Clean any last small items, like dusty wine glasses or candle sticks, and set your Thanksgiving table.

Thanksgiving Day

Today’s the big day!  Basically, wake up early and never stop cooking until your guests arrive (and even then, probably keep cooking for a while). Don’t forget to take regular breaks to stretch, breathe deeply, and gulp wine.  At some point, also shower.  You’ve got this!!

Thanksgiving Turkey
hair clip optional, but encouraged.

Do you have any Thanksgiving must-do’s I’m forgetting?  Let me know in the comments below!  Wishing you and yours a beautiful Turkey Day full of gratitude, joy, and love.  (And wine.  So much wine.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

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must-read: all the light we cannot see

Hitler Youth

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” 

For our Greatest Generation, the Second World War was absolutely defining.  Life, culture, and innocence were lost on a scale so grand that it is a wonder to know that anything survived at all.

My own grandmother and her parents left Paris in 1939, never to return.  I often think about how different her life would have been, had they stayed.  But despite spending the last 76 years tucked safely away in American suburbia, the injustice wreaked on her homeland still boils in her blood.

Marie-Laure, the young, blind protagonist of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, also flees Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion, with only her father, her cane, and a 133-carat diamond.

 All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The stories of Marie-Laure and her newfound family persevering within the ancient, sea-sprayed ramparts of Saint-Malo; of Werner and Jutta, towheaded, precocious orphans yearning to escape their colorless German coal town and entranced by a mysterious children’s radio program; of a dying sergeant major hell-bent on claiming the world’s treasures for his führer; of stargazing Hitler Youth, and resistant bakers’ wives, and old and young lives severed by violence; all intertwine in a tapestry of language, love, and light that will leave you wishing Doerr had written just one more beautiful chapter.

As the war’s last survivors approach the twilight of their years, this book is an enchanting reminder of all that they lost, and all that we continue to live for.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  Happy reading!

how to celebrate the 4th of july like a true patriot

4th of July parade

The 4th of July — or Independence Day, if you’re Bill Pullman (#chills) — is a joyful day for all Americans.  Patriotism gets everyone a little hyped up, but I daresay in this country especially we don’t hold back when it comes to celebrating our existence on this planet.  (On this national holiday, or ever.)  We fought for our independence…we earned ourselves a country!…and therefore, we shall drink beer and blow stuff up.

If you find yourself wondering, “How can I best celebrate this great nation?” and/or, “I’m not from here — what the hell is going on and how do I get in on the action?”, well, I’m here to help.  Without further ado, here’s a list of 4th of July essentials that would make George W. Bush declare, “Mission Accomplished.”

  1. Wear a patriotic cutoff sleeve Walmart t-shirt
    This is the first item because it is the most important.  An absolutely essential element of Independence Day patriotism is the red, white, and blue outfit.  But not just any outfit will do.  If you wish to fully communicate to the world your warm blooded Americanness, look no further than the t-shirt section at your nearest Walmart.  Identify a shirt that features at least two of the following: the American flag, a bald eagle, the Bud Lite logo, a NASCAR vehicle, the word “America,” and/or an unironic patriotic saying.  Immediately cut off the sleeves, pair with jean shorts, and be on your merry way.

    Walmart tee
    true patriots at work. (literally.)
  2. Watch a parade
    The parade is the most underrated element of a perfect 4th of July.  Yes, fireworks are awesome.  But so is watching your neighbors walk or ride by, dressed to the nines in their cutoff sleeve Walmart tees, celebrating your community’s place in the United States of America.  Who doesn’t love dogs wearing American flag bandanas, fire trucks honking their horns, high school marching bands playing terribly,  and low-rent politicians waving from Chrysler Sebring convertibles?  The parade is the spice of small town American life!  Don’t miss it.
  3. BBQ some meat
    When the parade is over, we all know what time it is: barbecue time.  Fire up that grill — charcoal, if you’re a real man — and dump on the burgers, dogs, and ribs.  Oh, did I just say ribs?  Why yes, I did.  Ribs are the Filet Mignon of the backyard barbecue.  And they actually resemble real parts of an animal, so they are terrifyingly awesome, just like this country.  This recipe looks both delicious and terrible for you.  Perfect.  Get on it!

    bbq ribs
    mmmmm currently adding ribs to the grocery list.
  4. Drink good beer
    Look.  I know your Walmart cutoff sleeve t-shirt says “Bud Lite” on it.  But that does not — I repeat, does not — mean you have to drink terrible beer.  Be a good citizen this year by filling up your cooler with a variety of delicious beers from a local brewery.  You might find a new favorite.  (Hint: it probably won’t have “light” in the name.)
  5. Watch — and use — fireworks
    OK, so this item is obvious.  Fireworks are the pinnacle of any proper 4th of July celebration.  Find your nearest show here.  But you can add to the pyro fun (if you can in your state) by safely setting off a firework or two of your own.  At least sparklers are legal just about everywhere.  There’s nothing more American than having the power to blow stuff up, am I right?!
  6. Celebrate your country
    In all seriousness (not that this post hasn’t been serious), Independence Day is a big deal.  Around 200 years ago, we defeated a seriously powerful nation (now our besties) with some wig-toting militias (okay, and the help of some other powerful friends) and have since gone on to become the most powerful nation on Earth.  This country has flaws.  (Many, many flaws. Dear God, the flaws.)  But we have a lot to be proud of.  So this 4th of July, rock that Walmart cutoff sleeve t-shirt, celebrate your community, stuff your fat American face with grilled meat, toast your friends and family with some cold local brews, light things on fire, ooh and ahh at the pretty explosions, and do it all with pride.  This much, at least, we have earned.

Cheers, ‘Murica!

fine wine of the month: double pinot grigio

Spring moved fast.  So fast that it’s almost the end of June already, and I have neglected to do a fine (but affordable!) wine of the month for this month…or last month.

So to make it up to you, let’s talk about two wines!
…Two wines, because I missed last month.
…White wine, because it’s officially summer.
…And pinot grigio, because it’s my favorite.

I like pinot grigio because it’s crisp, refreshing, a bit citrusy, and not too sweet, which is exactly what I’m looking for in a summer drink.  Both these bottles are now in regular circulation at our house, along with one other that I’ll feature later on.  (Gotta keep you coming back for more, right?)

The first wine is from Sterling, the same winery I featured in April.  This crisp and delicious bottle goes for around $13, but I found it on sale for about $10.

Sterling pinot grigio
anyone for an afternoon tipple?

The second is from Smoking Loon, a reasonably priced winery I haven’t featured yet but one I’m growing to like very much.  This bottle goes for a cool $10, and is perfectly refreshing on a hot and humid East Coast evening.

Smoking Loon pinot grigio
who needs air conditioning?

So next time you need a light and summery pick-me-up, head to the wine aisle and take home one of these beauties.  You’ll feel cool as a cucumber in no time.

Cheers!

fine wine of the month: sterling syrah

April is almost over.  How did that happen?

Before we run out of time, let’s talk about wine.  This month’s delicious, affordable wine is a syrah from Sterling Vineyards.

Sterling Syrah

I love syrah.  It’s bold, but balanced.  It’s versatile without being boring.  (Sometimes, secretly, I think it might be the perfect cheap wine.  Don’t tell.)

I also love Sterling Vineyards.  Next time you’re in California’s Sonoma Valley, hop on a gondola and take a tour.  It’s not the cheapest winery in the area, but the views from the top are spectacular.

Sterling gondola

 

Sterling Vineyards

When it comes to this type of wine, we don’t discriminate.  We sip shiraz (from Australia) or syrah (from the U.S., or France if you’re feeling fancy) at least once a week.  I’ll definitely be featuring more syrahs in the future.  But for only about $10 a bottle, Sterling is a great place to start.

Stay tuned in May for a sure sign that spring is here: a white wine of the month!

Happy sipping!

Sterling Vineyards view

4 podcasts for happy ears

podcast

If you live on the planet Earth, you know that podcasts are hot.  It seems like a new hit show comes out every week!  Whether you’re looking to laugh, cry, learn, or just spice up your commute, there is a podcast out there for you.

Here are a few of my must-listen favorites:

1. Planet Money

The hubs, who is both an NPR nerd and an econ nerd (soul mate), introduced me to this fabulous podcast on all things money.  As of today Planet Money has pumped out more than six hundred episodes, ranging from the cerebral (Ep. 411: Don’t Believe the Hype) to the inspiring (Ep. 610: The Prisoner’s Solution) to the whimsical (Ep. 600: The People Inside Your Machine).  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a bad episode.  And I guarantee you will learn something every single time.

2. Call Your Girlfriend

This is the most lighthearted podcast on the list, but that’s not to say you won’t learn something here, too.  In this “podcast for long distance besties everywhere,” real life long distance besties Aminatou Sow (New York) and Ann Friedman (Los Angeles) spend about 40 minutes every week talking about topics as asinine as celebrity ridiculousness and period sex and as serious as abortion, The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Shine Theory.  (Dear God, Shine Theory! My lifeblood!)  Bonus: After every episode, you’ll want nothing more than to catch up with your beautiful, brilliant, long distance besties (California).

3. 99% Invisible

The website says it best: “99% Invisible is a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.”  The humble description belies a show that is endlessly varied and entertaining: episodes explain the long forgotten Los Angeles streetcar system, the science of the buzzer-beater, why Penn Station is the worst, and China’s knock-off cities.  New York Times design columnist Allison Arieff called show creator Roman Mars “the Ira Glass of design.”  And Ira Glass called the show “completely wonderful and entertaining and beautifully produced.”  That’s proof enough for me.  You won’t be disappointed.

Honorable Mention: Serial

You’ve probably heard of Serial, the podcast from the folks at This American Life that attempts to determine the guilt of Adnan Syed, a man sentenced to life without parole at age seventeen for allegedly murdering his ex-girlfriend.  This podcast is undeniably addictive, although — spoiler alert — the last episode left a bit to be desired.  But don’t let that stop you; Serial weaves a fascinating, complicated story and you’ll find yourself playing detective right alongside creator and narrator Sarah Koenig.  It’s been renewed for a second season, and Serial fans everywhere can’t wait for what comes next.

Okay friends, those are my top four!  What are yours?

Happy listening!

st. patrick’s day treats: green jello shots and guinness brownies

clovers

We went over to our friends’ house last night to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so I decided to get the party going with a couple of lazy, boozy treats: lime green jello shots and semi-homemade Guinness brownies.

Want to make your own?  Here’s how.

 

Lime Green Jello Shots

Yields 24 small jello shots.

jello shots

Ingredients:

  • 2 boxes Lime Jell-O (with sugar)
  • 2 1/4 cups water
  • 1 2/3 cups citrus vodka (I used Smirnoff Citron)

Tools:

  • Pot for boiling water
  • Pitcher
  • Dixie cups

Directions:

  1. Bring the water to a full boil.
    • While the water is heating up, set out 24 Dixie cups.
  2. Take boiling water off the heat, and immediately pour in the jello packets.  Stir until the jello has completely dissolved.
  3. Add citrus vodka to the pot, and stir.
  4. Transfer jello mixture to a pitcher, and pour into Dixie cups.  You should have enough liquid to fill 24 cups about 3/4 inch.
  5. Refrigerate at least four hours, or overnight.

 

If you want to make more boxes, or different flavors, jello shots have a magic ratio that you really can’t mess up:

  • Take the number of boxes you’re using (say, 3 boxes)
  • Boil a bit more than that many cups of water (about 3 1/3 cups)
  • And measure out a bit less than that many cups of vodka or rum (about 2 1/2 cups)

 

Semi-Homemade Guinness Brownies

I normally make baked goods from scratch, but after a full day of work, a happy hour, and trips to the mall and the grocery store, I needed some help from the boxed dessert gods.  So I adapted this excellent Guinness Brownies recipe from Lessie at Modern Christian Homemaker.  Hey, if she can feel okay about making boozy brownies from a box, then surely so can I.

Guinness brownies

These were a huge hit.  You can’t really taste the Guinness, but it does lend the brownies an extra warm, earthy flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 1 box Ghirardelli Chocolate Supreme brownie mix
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1/3 cup Guinness Draft beer

guinness brownies ingredients

Directions:

  1. Heat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. In a bowl or mixer, mix the egg and oil.
  3. Stir in the Guinness.
  4. Add the brownie mix and chocolate syrup pouch. Mix well.
  5. Grease and flour an 8×8″ baking pan.
  6. Pour and spread the batter in the pan.
  7. Sprinkle the top with semi-sweet chocolate chips.
  8. Bake 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Do not overcook; underdone is better than overdone.
  9. Allow to cool, cut into squares, and enjoy!

Wishing you a very happy and slightly boozy St. Patrick’s Day!

Dublin rainbow
rainbow over Dublin, Ireland

Sláinte!

fine wine of the month: gnarly head pinot

Dear friends, it is that time again … to sing the praises of a yummy wine that won’t break the bank.

This month’s pick is another well-rounded red.  Gnarly Head makes delicious red wines — we love their cab — but tonight we are making chicken pesto pasta so we cracked open a bottle of something a bit smoother: the pinot noir.

gnarly head pinot noir

Gnarly Head’s version is pretty bold for a pinot, but that’s okay with us.  This versatile wine would be delicious with just about anything.  (Or with nothing at all.)  And for about $9 a bottle, we suggest popping this one early and often.

Happy sipping!

paprika chicken in white wine butter thyme sauce

Is there anything better than the smell of white wine, butter, and garlic in a hot pan?

Nah.

butter thyme chicken

Last night we cooked up some delicious Paprika Chicken & Spinach with White Wine Butter Thyme Sauce, created by Mary over at The Kitchen Paper.

Here’s how we did it:

PREP TIME: 5 mins
COOK TIME: 30 mins
TOTAL TIME: 35 mins
INGREDIENTS
  • 2 large chicken breasts (we used 3 breasts for leftovers)
  • 1 tsp paprika (I’m sure we used more — just shake liberally)
  • salt & pepper
  • 5 Tbsp butter
  • ¼ cup fresh thyme leaves (we used a more, since we used more chicken)
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced (we used five small cloves)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 handfuls spinach (we used more, and cheated using frozen spinach!)
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Season the chicken breasts with the paprika, rubbing it evenly over both sides. Also season with salt and pepper — about ¼ tsp each.
  2. Melt 1 Tbsp butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the chicken breasts. Cook on the first side for three minutes (or until crisping and golden), flip, and turn the heat down to medium, or slightly less. Let cook for another three minutes before adding the remaining butter, thyme and garlic.
  3. Cook, stirring the thyme and garlic around, for about 2 minutes before adding the wine.
  4. Bring the wine to a gentle simmer and let cook for 20 minutes. It will reduce, so add more if necessary.
  5. Add the spinach, and let wilt fully. Season with salt and pepper, make sure the chicken is done, and serve with a grain of your choice.  (We served over rice, which soaked up the sauce really nicely.)

This dish reminded us of our time living in France: the flavors were subtle — you may want to add more salt and pepper in the end — but so delicious.  How can you go wrong with that much wine, butter, and garlic?  (Answer: You can’t.)

Bon appétit!

fine wine of the month: rex goliath cab

If there’s one thing that can soothe my soul after a long day of work, it’s a warm, fuzzy glass (or two) of red wine.  But my husband and I work five days a week, so that glass or two (times two) can really add up.  So we’re always on the lookout for a good wine that won’t break the bank.  And now, dear friends, I shall pass on the results of this tireless research to you.

This month’s big red is Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon.  This wine came recommended by some friends of ours, and it does not disappoint.  In fact, it won first prize at a recent blind wine tasting party.  At around $8 per bottle (or two for $10 at your local Harris Teeter!), you really can’t ask for more than that.

Rex Goliath
The Rex Goliath website describes this cab as one of their “bold” wines, and for a cheap wine they aren’t wrong.  It doesn’t have as much oomph as a more expensive cab, but that actually makes it more versatile.  We’ve sipped this alongside the typically prescribed beef or brie, but it would pair just fine with whatever you’re making for dinner.  (Mac ‘n’ cheese, anyone?)

If you’re hesitant, it’s even sold in a 500mL carton.  But at about $2 a glass, we think the full bottle is worth a fair try.  (Plus, like, antioxidants.  You know?)

Happy sipping!

disclaimer: Rex Goliath did not ask me to review their product and I am not receiving compensation for this review in any way.  We just really love wine. Enjoy!