Thanksgiving made a little easier with these tips and tricks

Share The Grio Share The Grio
An African-American family enjoying Thanksgiving dinner

An African-American family enjoying Thanksgiving dinner. (Photo: © Monkey Business - Fotolia.com)

Thanksgiving is supposed to be day of gratitude, spent lovingly breaking bread with family, not a day to lose your mind trying to pull off multiple side dishes, and seasoning a turkey, all while hunting high and low for an extra chair or place setting.

Take a deep breath. Thanksgiving can be quite sane – if you know what you are doing. Getting a jump start can make a world of difference. We spoke to two experts for ways to create a big day you and your family can be truly thankful for without making more stress in the process.

Start with a cocktail

Having a refreshing cocktail on hand can make any celebration into a relaxing, memorable event. Karl Franz Williams, owner and beverage director of the Harlem hotspot 67 Orange Street, says that the secret to a good drink is not to overthink it. “Focus on using quality ingredients, use the best you can afford, and then add smart, interesting twists, or an element of surprise.”

Begin with something to warm the soul, such as Williams’ Hard Wine. “It’s a take on mulled wine,” he told theGrio. “I call it hard wine and I do it with a Côtes du Rhône which is fruity, but not too sweet, and hard apple cider. I add cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom and warm it up slowly; you can’t do it too fast, or you burn the wine and kill the flavor.”

When it is fully warmed, “then add simple syrup and lemon, and a fig bitter, or just toss a few figs in and steep them. You can also add a little fresh ginger. This is not super-sweet as some mulled wines are. It’s an adult drink. It has balance.”

Hard Wine (serves 8)

2 Bottles of quality red wine

24 ounces of hard cider

14 ounces of simple syrup*

*Simple Syrup (makes about  1 1/2 cups)

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and simmer over medium heat, then stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Add a dash of vanilla and almond extract. Let mixture cool, and then store in a container with a tight-fitting lid. This can be made well ahead of time and keeps for several weeks in the fridge.

4 ounces of lemon juice

2 spice bags*

*Spice Bag

4 Cinnamon sticks broken in half

Piece of nutmeg

10 cloves

10 cracked cardamom seeds

Place all ingredients in an empty tea bag or a piece of muslin sack, and close.

Several dried figs, for steeping (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a hot pot. Bring to a warm temperature slowly, and let sit for 30 minutes, bringing back up to a warm temperature when it gets cold. Serve in mugs with either a ½ ounce (light) or 1 ounce (hard) serving of Apple Jack Brandy per mug.

Not a drinking bunch? Serve warm apple cider with spices. That will certainly calm anyone’s overstimulated holiday nerves.

The easier feast: It’s all in the preparation 

According to Norma Jean Darden, owner of Spoonbread Catering and the restaurant Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too restaurant in Manhattan, an easier holiday feast is all in the pre-day preparation.

When it comes to the turkey: save the time, don’t bother to brine, an elaborate technique that has become all the rage. “Honestly, I haven’t noticed a big difference,” Darden said. She does, however, suggest an overnight rub of fresh herbs, like rosemary, chopped garlic, salt and pepper, and a little olive oil. “I also like to take an onion, put a few cloves in it, and place it in the bird, because who wants a flavorless bird?” Not us, Norma Jean.

Now for the side dishes. How can you shave off a little time?

“While it takes very little time to cook string beans,” Darden told theGrio, “it’s the prep work that can be time consuming, especially if you are cooking for a big group. String beans, a popular dish at Thanksgiving, can be cleaned the day before, placed in cold water, and stored in the fridge until the day of.”

Treat potatoes the same way; peel them the day before and place them in cold water. That’s two fewer things to do on the big day.

Collard greens, another vegetable staple, should be cooked the day before. “That way the flavor really soaks in,” Darden said.

Cranberry sauce, which we hope you are making from scratch, can also be made ahead. Give it a little extra zip by adding some cut fresh strawberries at the end of cooking time, and reduce the sugar by using a few splashes of orange juice instead.

“Stuffing can also be made a day or so before,” said the Southern cooking expert. “Just bring it back to life with a little bit of hot broth.”

For a new treat, try Darden’s delicious corn bread stuffing from her cook book Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Recipes & Reminiscences of a Familyrecipe below.

Corn Bread Stuffing  (serves 10 to 12)

1 cup chopped onion 4 cups white bread crumbs or cubes

I cup chopped celery 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

3 teaspoons poultry seasoning ½ teaspoon of salt

½ cup margarine or vegetable oil ½- ¾ cup water or turkey giblet broth

4 cups corn bread crumbs

Sauté onion, celery, and poultry seasoning in melted margarine or vegetable oil or vegetable oil until tender. Do not brown. Combine with corn bread crumbs, white bread crumbs or cubes, and parsley. Add salt and water or turkey giblet broth, and toss lightly with a fork until well mixed.

This recipe yields eight cups or enough stuffing for a 15-pound turkey. If oyster stuffing is desired, one pint of shucked oysters, drained well and coarsely chopped, maybe added to recipe.

Geting organized 

Lists are the best way to keep the crazy at bay. Use them to keep track of everything from your menu, to your guest list, and refer to them as needed.

Get your head count at least a week before and ask yourself:  Do you have enough chairs, plates, cutlery and glasses for all? Don’t cramp your hostess style by having to run around at the last minute trying to find these items. Know what needs borrowing or purchasing well in advance.

Another headache-eraser is to set the table the night before. This will give you more time to make it beautiful on Thanksgiving and grant more wriggle room for hunting down missing items once they are recognized.

The most important advice for making Thanksgiving an easy, rather than enervating, day? Enlist help!

Even young kids can assist with washing and drying salad, or setting the table, so delegate:  You don’t have to go it alone. If Aunt Mary offers to bring her famous brussels sprouts, or your cousin offers to make the pies, just say yes. And if you have to supplement a dish with something store bought, don’t serve yourself a side of guilt — your plate is already full enough.

What are your favorite Thanksgiving shortcuts? Leave your favorite tips and tricks in the comments below.

Suzanne Rust is a writer, lifestyle expert, on-air talent, and a native New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter at @SuzanneRust.