My daughter called the other day to tell me of her Thanksgiving plans, as she does each year, since she lives thousands of miles away. This time her project was bigger than usual, as she cast her net for the "orphans" of the holiday, students and faculty at her university who also wouldn't be traveling home to family gatherings.
Her invitation list? 100. Her reasoning, she explained after I gasped, was true to my kitchen spirit: "Thanksgiving is the easiest holiday for the cook." (Most of the invitees will be heading home; the large number was because she didn't want to leave anyone out.)
She's right about the holiday feast. At its heart, Thanksgiving may be the easiest spread to make for a crowd. The trepidation for the novice cook comes not with the effort, but with the size of the bird, the burden of tradition and the notion of "enough." What do you do with a chunk of meat bigger than your head? Do we really need to serve four starches at a single dinner simply because someone did so long ago? And does a good meal require a half-dozen or more sides? (Answers: See the recipe. No. And, no.)
After decades of cooking my favorite meal of the year, let me assure the newcomer that Thanksgiving not only is doable, but should be fun for the one in charge. (Just ask my daughter.) Here's how: First, pare the meal down to its essence (turkey or vegetarian main dish, a starch, salad and another vegetable and, of course, dessert). Then add only the dishes that accommodate your available time in the kitchen.
The key to a stressless meal lies in the planning: a menu that has some elements that can be done in advance or that can be easily pulled together (no need for a roster of complicated dishes). If you're pressed for time, handle only the main course and ask your guests to bring the sides, especially for traditional dishes they want to see at the table.
That's what my daughter will be doing. Let's hope there aren't 100 of them.