Thanksgiving 101: How to make the cooking marathon (mostly) stress-free

From the guest list to the menu, these tips are sure to make your day a little easier.|

Thanksgiving is the biggest food holiday of the year, a joyful and fun-loving feast that celebrates our American roots along with fall harvest.

If you volunteered to cook for family and friends, however, the joy and the fun may be short-lived. Have you seen those sweatpants with the words “Cranky Pants” printed down the side? We just ordered some for you.

But not to worry. This year, we've got home cooks covered like a damask tablecloth, thanks to a handy cheat sheet of tips from the professionals.

By drawing up a menu of foods you enjoy cooking, outsourcing the dishes you don't like and creating a detailed shopping list and timeline for the cooking marathon, you can be confident that all of your dishes will cross the finish line together.

Then you can relax, spend time with your guests and actually enjoy the festivities.

Laci Sandoval, chef/owner of Wind & Rye Kitchen cooking school in Penngrove, was inspired to create a Thanksgiving 101 course this year after her best friend told her she wanted to learn how to execute all the different dishes at once.

Earlier this month, Sandoval enlisted the help of chef/owner Daniel Kedan of Backyard to teach the two-day workshop on “Hosting the Holiday Feast.”

Over the course of the weekend, the chefs ran a gaggle of home cooks through the Thanksgiving gamut, recipe by recipe, providing advice on everything from service style to shopping strategy.

The dishes shared below were all sourced from the Wind & Rye workshop, but we left out a few with the understanding that most home cooks will want to add some of their own favorites. Here's everything you need to know to get ready for the Turkey Day feast, from soup to nuts:

The guest list

Consider how much space you have, not just for sitting and serving but for moving around before and after dinner. Settle on a number that will fit comfortably. Keep in mind that making a meal for eight is about the same amount of work as four, Sandoval said, but moving from eight to 12 or 16 can drastically change the volume of food you need to prepare (two turkeys, two pies, etc.).

A time for dinner

Will your guests have eaten lunch, or will they be arriving hungry? “If it is being served on the early side, they likely will have skipped lunch,” Sandoval said. “If there are children invited, keep that in mind and serve the meal promptly on time. … Or provide a small meal for the kids earlier if that suits you.”

Your service style

Think about whether you want to plate each course, have guests serve themselves on a buffet, or pass around serving bowls and platters (difficult if you are using hot, heavy platters). You could also opt for a hybrid-style service.

“I usually serve a modified buffet, where one or two things are pre-plated (salad) and everything else is on the buffet,” Sandoval said. “I like the idea of leaving a soup in a crock pot on the buffet, with small mugs nearby.”

Deciding the menu

Where to start? Sandoval always begins by deciding on her entree, and this particular workshop centered on a traditional turkey made with traditional spices. As with any meal, she said, think about how heavy the protein is, then plan the number of your sides accordingly, erring on the side of generosity.

“Turkey is less heavy than prime rib or rack of lamb,” she said. “With turkey, people get palate fatigue. They don't pile their plate high with turkey.”

If you want to source from local turkey farms such as Tara Firma in Petaluma or suppliers such as Thistle Meats in Petaluma or the Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa, it's a good idea to order in advance, as supplies are limited, especially for small turkeys. Through most local grocery stores, you can order fresh birds from companies such as Willie Bird of Santa Rosa or Diestel of Sonora. If you end up with a frozen bird, you'll need to thaw it in advance.

“If it's frozen rock hard, thaw 24 hours in the fridge, and then 24 hours at room temperature,” Sandoval said. “I like to cook the bird at room temperature. It cooks more evenly that way.”

For the workshop, the chefs demonstrated how to spatchcock the bird (remove the wings and backbone, then flatten the breastbone). They used a wet brine with salt and honey - the same one Kedan uses for his fried chicken - to help flavor and tenderize the meat. The wet brine also helps with the browning of the skin. (Check YouTube for demonstrations of the spatchcock technique - a pair of poultry shears may come in handy for those lacking in knife skills.)

There are many advantages to cooking a flattened, whole bird, Sandoval said. First, you cut the cooking time from six hours to 45 minutes, creating more oven time for other dishes. You can also reserve the backbone and wings and use them to make stock for your gravy. While cooking, the flattened turkey gets roasted more evenly, with every inch of skin turning out nice and crisp. It's a win-win.

The savory sides

One of the best ways to start the meal, Sandoval said, is to serve a small cup of warm, vegetarian soup, such as roasted sunchoke or pumpkin soup. The soup can be made in advance.

“It's nice for leftovers,” she said. “And it's a nice way to fill the void if you have vegetarian guests.”

Next, she chooses just one dish that needs to be finished right before it goes on the table. That's often a fall salad that she can prep the day before, then dress at the last minute.

“It's essentially all the fall flavors together - pomegranates and persimmons, candied nuts and blue cheese,” she said. “It's dressed with a simple mustard vinaigrette: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, sea salt, black pepper.”

It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without an ample mound of stuffing, known as dressing when it is baked separately and put alongside the bird to “dress it up.”

For a fall feast, Sandoval shared a recipe for a Wild Mushroom and Hazelnut “Stuffing” made with maitakes, brioche, leeks, garlic, hazelnuts, fresh herbs, eggs and heavy cream. The dish can be prepped ahead of time, then cooked on the day of the feast.

“Maitakes make the house smell good and go great with butter,” she said. “I like it to hold together and stay moist. That's why I add eggs and cream.”

As a gluten-free alternative, she also suggested making a Rice and Fall Veggie “Stuffing” that blends wild rice with shallots, shaved Brussels sprouts, carrots and sausage.

As a vegetable side, Sandoval advises lightening up the menu with a Sweet Potato Gratin (made with broth and herbs instead of cheese and butter) and a Squash with Maple Bacon Glaze from Kedan (recipe featured in The Press Democrat's Oct. 23 Sonoma Feast and searchable at


Once the main meal is decided, Sandoval will turn her attention to the appetizers, necessary to stave off hunger and help occupy her guests while they wait for her to finish cooking.

“Make sure they don't need to be made ‘a la minute' or replenished,” she said. “I like to do a cheese plate with three options.”

Along with the cheeses, she suggests serving olives that have been dressed up with orange zest and warmed in olive oil; some homemade spiced nuts; and some homemade crackers, such as a savory Rosemary Parmesan Shortbread. Both the nuts and the crackers can be made a few weeks in advance.


As a trained pastry chef, Sandoval loves dessert, so she always sets up a dessert buffet with a few different choices on Thanksgiving.

“I use a small table for desserts and put out forks and plates,” she said. “I like to leave the main course out for people who don't eat dessert.”

Her favorite fall dessert, which she has spent years perfecting, is a Pecan Tart with a caramelized filling that she puts into a sturdy, pre-baked tart crust.

“I thought I hated pecan pie,” she said, “but this is more like a Snickers bar.”

Both the dough and the filling should be made in advance, so all you have to do is assemble on Thanksgiving and add some whipped cream.


In addition to wine, water and bottled drinks, it's nice to have a warm apple cider scenting the house with its autumnal spices. The key is to keep it in a separate area away from the kitchen, where you are trying to finish the meal in peace.

“You can do it in a small crock pot, and it will stay warm,” Sandoval said. “Source some mulling spices, dump it in, and done.”

Tools and equipment

If a recipe requires a special tool, make sure you already own it before putting the dish on your menu.

For baking the Pecan Tart, for example, you will need a kitchen scale, bench scraper, instant-read thermometer and a few tart pans.

If it's in your budget, you might also think about renting your dishes, cups and silverware from a company such as Encore Events in Healdsburg and Petaluma, because that way you don't have to wash them, Sandoval said. You simply scrape off the big debris and put them back in the plastic rack they came in.

“If you want to use your own china, find someone to wash dishes who loves to clean,” she said. “Allow people to help you.”

Planning tips

When you write your menu out, leave room on either side of each dish for writing notes about when you will prep it and when you will finish it.

“Based on that menu, I write my timeline for a week in advance,” Sandoval said. The timeline includes when to shop and what can be prepped ahead and put in the freezer, as well as what's already in the freezer that you may be able to use.

If there are five dishes that need to be completed in the last 30 minutes, she said, change your menu.

Shopping list

Sandoval is methodical about her list, making both a digital and a hard copy so she can check things off. She starts with the first recipe and writes down all the items she needs to buy for it, then moves to the rest of the recipes. If another recipe has the same ingredient, she adds that to the first amount (e.g., “12 onions + 6 more”).

“If you already have an ingredient … write it on the list so that you know you will need it,” she said. “It will remind you to pick the sage from the garden.”


Here's where you need to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, your expectations vs. reality. If you don't like to bake, simply purchase all of your desserts from someone who bakes better than you.

“I hate cranberry sauce, so I buy a jar of sauce from Della Fattoria,” Sandoval said. “I love to serve quince paste with my cheese course - Oliver's has a delicious quince paste.”

Although outsourcing to family and friends is tempting, Sandoval avoids it for two reasons: “They will want to use your kitchen to finish it,” she said. “And they might forget it.”

Instead, she suggests asking family and friends to bring wine, or some really good coffee, to serve with the meal. That can cut your costs in half and makes people feel good about contributing.

Tasks for the helpers

When her guests arrive and want to know what they can do to help, Sandoval is already prepared. She always draws a list of small chores that make people feel useful while cannily keeping them out of her hair.

These tasks include writing out menu cards for the buffet table, putting out serving utensils and lighting candles.

It's go time!

Here are some general tips for cooks making their final approach to the feast:

Get the serving plates out the night before, and put sticky notes on them labeling what they will hold.

The day of the feast, set up your work station with your timeline and menu, an easy-to-read clock and personal drinks in spill-proof containers. You will need one wet towel and a couple of dry towels, a bench scraper, a cutting board with a wet cloth under it, hand tools, measuring cups and spoons, garbage container with double-lined garbage bags, small bowls of chopped herbs, and salt and pepper containers that have been refilled.

If you have multiple dishes with onions, celery and garlic (see your shopping list for the overlaps), chop them all at once for all the dishes.

Plan ahead to have something healthy to sustain you in the midst of cooking. It should be ready-to-go, like sushi or a burrito. Stay hydrated.

Put on comfortable clothes. Find an apron that you love. Crank up your favorite tunes.

Don't forget to schedule a shower in the middle of the day, long before your guests arrive.

Clean as you go, and as often as you can, but don't overdo it and get distracted. “Every time I wash my hands, I wash two dishes,” Sandoval said.

Make sure the dishwasher is empty so that after the dinner, guests can scrape their plates and put them in the dishwasher themselves.

Pat yourself on the back and have another piece of pie. Sleep, and repeat. You earned it!


The following recipes are from Laci Sandoval of Wine & Rye Kitchen and Daniel Kedan of Backyard. The nuts and the shortbread can be made a few weeks in advance.

Spiced Candied Nuts

Makes 2 cups

1 cup raw pecans

1 cup raw walnuts

1½ tablespoons coconut oil

2 tablespoons coconut sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 large pinch cayenne pepper

1 small pinch nutmeg

¼ teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

On a parchment-lined baking sheet, combine nuts, oil, coconut sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne and half of the maple syrup. Toss to coat.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant. Stir frequently to ensure even cooking.

Remove from the oven and drizzle remaining maple syrup on top.

Serve warm, or allow to cool completely on pan to ensure crispness.

Store in an airtight container for 2-3 weeks. Serve with cheese platter and olives.


These savory cookies and nuts can be made in advance and stored in an airtight container. Serve the cookies and nuts with a cheese board and warmed olives.

Rosemary Parmesan Shortbread

Makes about 50 cookies

492 grams all-purpose flour

328 grams butter

164 grams superfine sugar

8 grams salt

- Fresh rosemary, to taste

½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Sift flour.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the paddle attachment to blend room-temperature butter, sugar and salt.

Mix until light and fluffy.

Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add in flour, rosemary and cheese on slowest speed, and mix until fully incorporated.

Form the dough into a tightly packed rectangle or square log using parchment paper.

Wrap the dough and chill until firm.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking trays with parchment paper. Slice the cookie dough into ¼-inch-thick cookies and arrange on baking sheet.

Bake until lightly firm to the touch and golden brown on the edges, rotating in the oven to ensure even baking, about 13 to 15 minutes.

Serve with cheese platter and olives.


Sandoval uses a simple salt-and-pepper pork sausage for this dish, but an Italian or another slightly spicy sausage would do well, as long as it's loose ground sausage, not cased. The Brussels sprouts can be swapped out for green beans, broccoli, Romanesco or squash. The vegetables can be chopped the day before and wrapped in parchment paper, twisted like a Tootsie roll.

Rice and Fall Veggie “Stuffing”

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 pound ground pork sausage

2 cups wild rice blend (from Lundberg)

5-6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 shallot

2 cloves garlic

4 large stalks celery

2 large carrots

½ tablespoon butter

¾ cup dried cranberries

1 pound Brussels sprouts

- Fresh herbs, to taste (flat-leaf parsley, thyme and/or oregano)

- Pecans, chopped and roasted, to finish (optional)

- Fresh orange zest, to finish (optional)

Cook sausage over medium heat in a large, cast-iron Dutch oven until browned. Remove sausage from pan, leaving the fat.

Chop shallots, garlic, celery and carrots into small, uniform pieces. Remove outer leaves of Brussels sprouts, and shave sprouts into thin slices. Roughly chop dried cranberries and assorted fresh herbs.

If needed, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of butter to the remaining sausage fat in the pan and warm over medium heat. Add in the shallots, garlic, celery and carrots. Season with salt and pepper and cook until softened. Add in Brussels sprouts and additional butter, salt or pepper, if needed.

Once all the veggies are tender, remove from the pan and reserve with the cooked sausage.

Add wild rice and 5 cups of broth to the pan, cover and cook over medium heat until rice is tender, adding more broth if necessary.

When rice is tender, add sausage and cooked veggies back into the pot, mixing until well combined.

Toss in the dried cranberries and fresh herbs, and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper to taste. Finish with orange zest and pecans, if desired.

Keep warm in a casserole dish to serve.


To prep ahead: Cut the bread the night before, chop all the vegetables, and toast the nuts.

Wild Mushroom and Hazelnut “Stuffing”

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 loaf brioche bread

1 pound wild or cultivated mushrooms (such as maitake)

½ cup toasted hazelnuts

1 small leek

3 cloves garlic

3 large stalks celery

- Fresh herbs, such as parsley, rosemary, thyme and oregano, to taste

3-5 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 eggs

- Heavy cream (optional)

4 tablespoons butter

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice or tear the brioche into roughly 1-inch cubes. Spread onto a sheet pan and set out overnight to dry out slightly.

Roughly chop mushrooms and hazelnuts. Finely slice leeks, garlic and celery. Chop fresh herbs.

Place broth in a small saucepan and gently warm on the stovetop, but do not allow to simmer.

In a large saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add in leeks, garlic, celery and mushrooms, and cook until tender. Season with salt and cracked black pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, toss together chopped hazelnuts, cooked mushroom mixture and bread cubes.

In a separate container, crack eggs and whisk together with 1 cup of the warmed broth.

Pour egg and broth mixture over the bread mixture, and mix together by hand. Continue adding in additional broth and/or cream in small amounts until desired moisture level is achieved. Mixture should be thoroughly wet but not soupy or pooling in liquid.

Add in chopped herbs, salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer mixture to a large baking dish, and bake until bread is browning, top edges are crisp and center is not soggy. Serve warm.


The following brine will be enough for a 12-pound bird.

Poultry Brine and Roasted Turkey

Makes 9 quarts

3 lemons, halved

¾ cup honey

1½ bunches parsley

1½ bunches thyme

18 cloves garlic, whole

3 teaspoons peppercorns

2 cups salt

3 bay leaves

9 quarts water

1 12- to 15-pound turkey

- Butter, fresh herbs and citrus zest for basting (optional)

To brine turkey: Combine first eight ingredients in a large pot. Pour 1 quart water over ingredients and bring to a boil to dissolve honey and salt.

Remove from heat. Add remaining water. Pour over turkey, cover and put in fridge. Leave bird in liquid for 12 hours. Turkey can be left in refrigerator after that to dry skin.

To roast turkey: If you did not spatchcock the bird before brining, do it before cooking. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the turkey on a baking pan with a shallow wire rack, to help with air flow and even cooking.

Turn down the oven to 350-375 when the turkey goes in. Cook about 45 minutes, until skin is golden and crispy and internal temperature is 163-165 degrees. If you want to baste during cooking, melt some grass-fed butter and add fresh chopped herbs or citrus zest, and baste every 15 minutes.

Cover the turkey lightly with foil, and let rest for 25-45 minutes while you make the gravy.


To make this Pecan Tart, you need an instant-read thermometer for the filling, a kitchen scale for the dough and two rectangular tart pans. The leftover filling can be stored in an airtight container and used for Christmas baking. The leftover dough can be wrapped frozen.

Pecan Tart Filling

Makes 2 10- by 4-inch tarts, with leftovers

226 grams butter

240 grams honey

56 grams sugar

226 grams brown sugar

963 grams pecans

56 grams heavy cream, at room temperature

4 grams salt

Chop the pecans and sift out any excess dust.

Place butter, honey, sugar and brown sugar in a large pot. Warm over medium heat to 265 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, stirring constantly. (The caramel will start to get small bubbles, which will turn into bigger bubbles when it is close to caramelizing.)

Add the pecans, give it a stir, then add the room-temperature cream to the pot, being careful not to get splashed.

Add salt, remove from heat and transfer to a large container to cool.

Place plastic wrap directly on surface and, once cooled, store in an airtight container for up to 30 days.

Pecan Tart Dough

Makes 2 10- by 4-inch tarts, with leftovers

107 grams powdered sugar

54 grams almond flour

258 grams butter

4 grams salt

54 grams sugar

86 grams eggs

9 grams vanilla paste

107 grams all-purpose flour

322 grams all-purpose flour

Sift together almond flour and powdered sugar.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter, salt and regular sugar, and paddle until light and smooth.

Add in sifted powdered sugar and almond flour and mix again until well combined.

Add in eggs and vanilla paste and mix until eggs are fully incorporated.

Add in 107 grams of all-purpose flour and mix until fully combined. Add in 322 grams of all-purpose flour and mix until just combined, being careful not to overmix.

Form dough into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours and up to 4 days, or put in a sealable bag and freeze up to 1 month ahead.

To pre-bake tart shells: Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a tart pan or pans. Roll cold (but not frozen) dough out between two pieces of parchment paper until ¼ to ? inch thick. Chill dough between parchment paper until semi-firm. Cut dough to shape of pan and gently lay across surface of tart pan. Press dough flush against bottom, into bottom corners, and lastly up inside of pan.

Use your thumb to brush dough even with rim. If you have any cracks or holes, you can patch with the extra dough left from the rim.

Lay a piece of parchment paper into pan over dough, cutting to fit as needed. Fill parchment with dried beans or pie weights.

Bake tart shell until edges are light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Carefully remove parchment with beans and transfer to a plate or bowl. Bake tart shell until center looks dry and is starting to turn deep golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Let cool completely, then remove pan rim and fill shell with Pecan Pie Filling.

Serve with whipped cream flavored with orange zest, vanilla bean or cardamom.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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