A collection of 20 faster, shorter, and make-ahead recipes for the ultimate stress-free and delicious Thanksgiving
October 17, 2013
1 of 22Photo: Johnny Miller
Have a Stress-Free Thanksgiving
The Thanksgiving meal, for a number of families, is the most important of the year. Many cooks relish the whole ritual of planning and preparing: It's an act of love. Which isn't to say that a few shortcuts don't come in handy. The day can feel overstuffed, work-wise, for the person who toils in the kitchen. Most of us can use some help.
In that spirit, we laid out a challenge to our Test Kitchen: Create the easiest Turkey Day recipes ever, ones that hold close to the flavors and traditions we cherish but take a few items off the cook's list of duties. We shortened ingredient lists, leaned on convenience products (where their supporting role would not stick out), developed make-ahead dishes, and called on every trick in our playbook to produce 20 time-saving Thanksgiving recipes.
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How to Plan
There's only so much oven space. So plan your menu accordingly, knowing that the turkey will hog the space for a few hours. While it rests, another dish or two can bake—but don't plan for more than that. In our sample menu, shown at left, the muffins and soufflé bake together at the same temperature, and everything else is made ahead or cooked on the stovetop.
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Star of the Show
As the centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving meal, the turkey has caused more than its fair share of holiday stress. But never fear! We have a couple of techniques to make sure you get a terrific turkey.
For example, try this Foolproof Brined Turkey.
Brining a turkey is well worth the day-ahead time investment. It removes all guesswork, producing an incredibly moist bird that's more forgiving of being slightly overcooked. If you can't find an organic turkey, look for a fresh one without "added solution."
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Oil-Basted Parmesan Turkey with Walnut Gravy
Nine ingredients (not counting salt, pepper, and cooking spray) come together for a grand holiday centerpiece with deep nutty essence from toasted walnut oil and chopped nuts. Let your turkey come to room temperature before it goes in the oven; it will cook more evenly and more quickly.
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When guests arrive, they're ready to eat. So have these small bites prepped and ready to go.
Start off with an impressive Brie with Jeweled Fruit Compote.
This lovely appetizer is about as quick and easy as it gets—and tasty, too. You don't even need to let the cheese come to room temperature first; the warm fruit that goes on top will soften it up. Serve with crostini or crackers.
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Slow-Cooker Blood Orange Fizzy Mulled Wine
The slow cooker offers great convenience here, keeping the stovetop open for meal prep. Pouring the soda into the hot wine right at the time of service brings the temperature down enough to drink immediately. Change out the orange slices for fresh when serving to punch up the look.
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Creamed Spinach Phyllo Cups
Turn a beloved side dish into a cute and savory appetizer. Frozen phyllo shells speed prep time, as does bagged baby spinach (rather than frozen). Toasting the phyllo cups keeps them crisp longer after being filled.
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Anything you can prep in advance helps on the big day. Even if a dish can't be completed, you can at least make certain components in advance.
Such is the case with this autumn-inspired White Bean and Pumpkin Bisque with Sage Pesto.
Start with canned pumpkin (for rich, smooth flavor) and canned white beans (for body), and you end up with a speedy first course that's crowned with a flavor-packed pesto. Make the soup a few days ahead, but do the pesto only shortly before serving so its color stays vibrant.
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Smoky Bell Pepper Soup
Inspired by the flavors of Spanish romesco sauce, this starter soup gussies up bottled roasted bell peppers with Marcona almonds (already toasted, saving a step), lots of garlic, and sherry vinegar.
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Set Up the Sideboard
Remove clutter from the dining table by setting out all the dishes on a sideboard and letting people serve themselves. It's OK to put everything out together. Seeing all the offerings—even dessert—helps folks pace themselves. Also, make sure your menu includes serveral fresh vegetable side dishes. You need those lighter bitess to help balance the plate.
For example, try this Sweet and Sour Brussels Sprout Salad.
We love Brussels sprout salads but wanted a quicker approach than the tedium of pulling apart the leaves. The food processor slices each sprout nice and thin with lightning-fast speed.
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Corn Bread Stuffing Muffins
Here is a great shortcut to this favorite Thanksgiving side dish. It just may convince you to make stuffing more than once a year.
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In place of traditional cranberry sauce, try a faster relish. The flavor is bright, crisp, not too sweet, and ideal with turkey and trimmings. Make up to 3 days ahead.
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Speedy Apple-Beet Salad
Hooray for the food processor, which makes this crisp, refreshing salad a snap to make. Honeycrisp apples have peel that ranges in color from bright red to golden--pick the redder ones, as they tend to be sweeter. Don't make this dish too far ahead, as it might discolor; aim for no more than 30 minutes before you plan to serve it.
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Green Beans with Sherried Mushroom Sauce
Here's a faster, fresher take on green bean casserole that's done all on the stovetop—one less thing to try to work into oven rotation on the big day. Although we use fresh beans and make our own creamy sauce, we've kept the French-fried onions (arguably the best part of traditional green bean casserole). To speed prep, you can purchase bags of fresh, pretrimmed green beans from the produce section.
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Make-Ahead Layered Salad
Prechopped veggies and precooked bacon and eggs help you pull this charmingly retro dish together in a flash. You can assemble the salad, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
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Use store-bought refrigerated bread dough to make pretty knotted rolls that you can gussy up with your favorite toppings.
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We were skeptical of the supermarket potato products used here but found ourselves delighted with the results: Instant potato flakes make for a soufflé with concentrated potato flavor, presliced spuds are simply made for gratins, and canned sweets yield a deliciously gooey casserole. All offer significant time savings, too.
Just take a look at this Easy, Cheesy Potato Gratin.
Refrigerated presliced potatoes slash tons of prep and cook time. The combo of Gruyère and Parm-Regg cheeses is delicious, but you can use all one type if you prefer.
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Mashed Potato Soufflé
Who knew instant potato flakes could be the basis of such an amazing dish? It's really something of a faux-fflé--technically not a soufflé, but you get the same puff-tacular results without even having to whip egg whites.
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Quick Traditional Sweet Potato Casserole
This side is ridiculously easy and goes into the oven in only 10 minutes, thanks to sweet canned yams. To boost flavor and add richness, we counter the canned spuds with luscious crème fraiche; chunks of almonds bring big crunch.
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We've created ways for you to have the sweets you crave with less effort, making it easy to offer at least two (or maybe three) desserts. That's part of the fun of the holiday, after all: the joy of the dessert plate. Just make it easy for people to serve themselves smaller portions.
With this Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream, set out sample-sized amounts—mini scoops of ice cream in little cordial glasses.
A few easy additions to store-bought ice cream create a custom flavor that simply tastes like Thanksgiving.
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No-Bake Cheesecake with Pecan Caramel
Since we've nixed the baking (even of the crust), you save tons of time; you don't have to wait for the cheesecake to cool out of the oven. Make the cheesecake up to 3 days ahead, but prepare the caramel shortly before serving. It hardens quickly to a yummy praline-like texture.
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Carrot-Apple Spice Cake with Browned-Butter Glaze
We challenged ourselves to come up with a showstopping dessert that uses boxed cake mix as a starting point--and we succeeded. Fresh carrot and apple plus a splash of bourbon boost the flavor of the layers, while the browned-butter glaze is, well, the wildly delicious icing on the cake.