Part I of Chef Howe’s Potluck Thanksgiving series explains how to give the non-cooking guests helpful tasks—there’s the Greeter, for instance, the Bar Baron, the Table Setters, the Clean-up Crew. Now for the cooks’ contributions.
At last we get to the heart of the matter: the Thanksgiving menu and the food. This is where we consider the cooks and their culinary strengths and desires. (They are usually identical: Everyone likes to make what she—or he—is good at.) So, first step: Discuss with the cooks what they like to make.
But there are two sides to this process: the cooks (and their skills) and the guests (their preferences and/or their respective cultures). Some of the best Thanksgivings I have attended have had delicious multi-culti menus. Designing a successful menu is a daunting task, but as with the non-cooking responsibilities, if you break it down into small sections you’ll see a clear path through the clutter of possibilities to a wonderful meal and a happy celebration.
Traditional or Multi-Culti?
Designing any menu, even for dinner at your local restaurant down the block, starts with the center of the meal. After considering all your cooks and their abilities, decide what the heart of the meal should be: Will it be traditional roast turkey, or do you want to add other proteins because you have guests who are not partial to turkey or eat only fish? Do you want to be strictly traditional, or would you like to incorporate the culinary cultures of some of your guests? This early decision will be the important steel rod on which you hang your success.
For ease of illustration and argument’s sake, let us say you have decided on a traditional roast turkey-stuffing-gravy dinner. Having sketched out your menu—not specifics, and with the knowledge of what your guests like to cook and their culinary ability—request that each take on a cooking task. The most practical choice is to have the host cook the turkey, so it doesn’t have to travel wrapped in many layers of tinfoil and burning a hole in someone’s thighs on the bus across town.
Enticing the Cooks
Then, gently and enticingly, assign cooks to their task, letting them know the number of people the recipe is feeding: “Gloria, would you like to make one of the vegetables? Vanderbilt is doing the sweet potatoes.” Specifics are important: You don’t need two green-bean dishes or two purées or three pommes pavés, no matter how sumptuous! After the main-course protein, vegetables, and starch, consider the first course. Is there anyone on the cooking crew who particularly likes to make soup? Request that the soup master make a vegetable soup that does not repeat any of the main-course vegetable dishes.
Perhaps you’d like a simple salad to clear the palate after all the rich wonderments of the turkey? This is, perhaps, the job for the proto-cook on the team. Provide a basic recipe with instructions so he (or she) arrives with a totally clean, fresh, vibrant salad and a simple, bright, not too acidic dressing to accompany it.
Next comes dessert. Here one can be more expansive and generous. “What’s your favorite dessert to make, Miranda?” and “How about your wonderful French apple pie, Ferdinand?”
Once the menu for the dinner is arranged, you can start thinking about the frilly bits before the dinner. Remember, the traditional menu is meat, carb, and fat-driven, so focus on lighter, more piquant aspects that stimulate, not slake, the palate. If there are cooks who like to make crudités with a delightful dip, or take on the slight labors of shrimp cocktail, or hummus with pita bread or vegetable summer rolls, then you’ve got yourself quite a team of hors d’oeuvre demons.
Filling in Gaps in the Menu
There is also a role for those non-cook contributors to play in the menu. How about having someone supply some cheese, fruit, and crackers as a nibble? In a menu in which people are assigned a specific task, there are always, small pinhole gaps. Here are the non-specific items that need to be considered. Though small, their absence will be noticed: bread to accompany the meal; coffee, tea, sugar, milk, lemon for the after-dinner beverages; sodas, juices, mixers, bar fruit, ice for the bar. Again—don’t let the contributors guess how much of each thing. Tell them how many guests, so they know how much to bring.
Kitchens become a de facto clutter magnet, with bits and pieces that gather over time that have no place there. This occasion is a perfect opportunity to throw away or re-home the unused yogurt maker, the basket of Chinese takeout fliers on the counter, or the cracked vase you’ve been meaning to fix for the last three years. It is the various cooks’ job to plan the kitchen management beforehand (the host having cleared away all clutter).
It will be clear by now that the potluck aspect doesn’t just cover the food, but covers all the extraneous organizational aspects. (See previous article on planning.) All the cooks should be responsible for their plates and platters and serving implements. The host shall be the “keeper of the flame” and designate what goes into the oven or on the stove, and when. When all that is arranged, it is time to hand over to the sanitation team the task of organizing the areas for the breakdown process that happens throughout the gathering.
The Role of the Host
And now—your role! You have done all the thinking and worrying and emailing and planning. You will have kept detailed notes, so you know what each person’s assignment is, what each is contributing, how much, and when each will be arriving. It’s pointless for Uncle Vanya to arrive at 3 p.m. with the hors d’oeuvre pirogis from Brighton Beach when everyone else is coming at 2 p.m. Ask him to bring the baba cake instead. Yes, be prepared for changes, and make notes of them all. Damian has to work at the hospital that evening so won’t be able to attend after all, but Hirst said he’s more than happy to take over the cranberry sauce. Yes, of course Eliza can bring her friend Doolittle, who can’t make it home to London, Minnesota.
So treat potluck with respect, banish stress, plan, organize, share the tasks, and you’ll be surprised how easily and smoothly the meal comes together through your gift of coordinating the celebration so it doesn’t drift into disarray or crumble into a small calamity. And sharing responsibilities makes everyone belong to the occasion as much as the occasion belongs to them.
Your guests will give you thanks, and you will receive the blessing you’ve bestowed on yourself.
Ro’s Roasted Haricots Verts (or Green Beans)
With Maple Pancetta
Yield: 8 portions as a vegetable accompaniment
1 medium sauté pan, measuring cups and spoons, small sauté pan.
1 pound haricots verts or green beans
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ pound sliced pancetta
¼ cup water
¼ cup maple syrup
Align a small bunch of beans and trim both ends.
Heat a medium sized skillet. Add two teaspoons oil and heat till shimmering but not smoking. Immediately toss in a handful of beans and toss to cover all in oil. Sprinkle with a little salt and grind a twist or two of pepper. Keeping the heat high, toss the beans till they start charring and roasting. Remove to sheet tray and start again with another batch. Repeat until all the beans are roasted.
For the pancetta, slice the pancetta into strips about an inch long. Place in small sauté pan with water and start rendering over low heat. Allow the water to evaporate slowly and the bacon to render to golden and a little crispy. Remove the pancetta with the rendered fat to a bowl. Add the maple syrup.
To serve, put the maple pancetta in the large sauté pan, add the beans, and reheat, tossing together.