The Ultimate Thanksgiving Prep Guide

It’s the day after Canadian Thanksgiving, and I’m slowly coming out of my turkey-stuffing-cranberry-sauce-gravy-induced coma.

I spent the three days before Thanksgiving Monday prepping and cooking for the big meal, so as not to end up with a disaster like I did when attempting my first turkey day back in 2012. The hard work paid off, and I had the pleasure of seeing my guests lounging about the living room in a happy stupor after the meal.

The Critical Prep Period

So what is my secret? Organization. Planning, planning, planning.

First, make your menu. I did mine on Thursday. Choose recipes that you know (or at least that you’ve seen made), and that have relatively simple ingredients and processes. Don’t make life harder for yourself.

Second, plan to make everything in advance. I started cooking on Friday, and that helped keep things from getting overwhelming. By the time Monday came around, the only cooking I actually had to do was the turkey!

So here is a breakdown of my Thanksgiving-prep period, complete with recipes. For those of you who celebrate American Thanksgiving, feel free to use this as a guide!

Friday: Shopping & Sauces

Photo cred: roadstories.ca

Photo cred: roadstories.ca

With your menu (and hence, your shopping list) done on Thursday, you can hit the stores on Friday.

I visited Montréal’s Marché Jean Talon for all my fresh ingredients. Apples, pears, cranberries, sweet potatoes, etc.

Next, I visited les Volailles et Gibiers Fernando on rue Roy and picked up a 4.8kg (10.8lbs) turkey. I went for fresh because we’ve never done frozen turkeys in my family, but that’s up to you.

After my experience in 2012, I had learned the importance of picking up your turkey ahead of time!

Next, on to the sauces:

Homemade Applesauce

  • A ton of apples (2lbs perhaps?) – I used “lobo” apples as per the recommendation from the dude at Jean Talon market. They were delicious
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Cinnamon, to taste
  • Nutmeg, to taste
  • Pinch of salt

Coarsely slice your apples (no need to core or peel) and toss them into your largest pot. Add the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and turn on the heat. Cook the apples down, stirring occasionally, until they’re nice and mushy. It took about 30 minutes for me.

Place your food mill over a bowl and spoon your apple goop into the food mill. Leave it to sit and drain into the bowl. This might take a couple of batches if your food mill doesn’t fit all your apples (alternatively you can use a fine strainer). Reserve the runoff liquid.

Pass your apple goop through the food mill, making sure to get every last bit of delicious moisture. If you find your applesauce is too dry, add some of the reserved liquid to help moisten it up.

fresh-cranberries-600x399Homemade Cranberry Sauce

  • 1 bag of Ocean Spray cranberries (about 340g of fresh cranberries)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt

Combine the water, sugar and salt in a saucepan and heat until the sugar is melted in the water. Add the cranberries, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, so that the cranberries start EXPLODING (that’s the fun part).

More prep tip: See my stuffing recipe later for more info, but it’s a good idea to buy a couple of loaves of bread and dice them up at this point to let them get good and stale. You want stale bread for stuffing because fresh bread gets too soggy.

Saturday: Muffins & Broth

You can find my delicious spiced pumpkin muffin recipe right here. Once cooled, I put them in the freezer to keep them fresh.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you’re cooking both sweet and savory things in one day, always do the sweet stuff first and store it away from the smells of the savory cooking. You don’t want your muffins flavored with turkey broth!

Fresh Homemade Turkey Broth

This recipe is inspired from the “light stock from poultry” recipe from the Joy of Cooking, but with a couple of tweaks.

  • Turkey neck & giblets
  • Chicken carcass (like from a roast chicken)
  • Lotsa water
  • 8 peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 6 whole cloves
  • Parsley
  • 1 medium or 2 small onions
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 carrots

Bring the raw turkey neck & giblets to a boil and blanch for just 5 minutes. Pour off the water. Add the chicken carcass and enough water to cover everything and slowly bring to the boil. Simmer it, uncovered for 30 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients. Note: I don’t bother even removing the skin from the onion or peeling/chopping the celery and carrot. I just make sure it’s all clean.

Bring that all to the boil and let it simmer, partly covered, for 3 hours. Your house will smell divine.

Saturday is also a good day to get some prep done for your recipes for the next day. I did a lot of pre-chopping for Sunday in order to make life easier for myself on Sunday.

Sunday: A Marathon Day of Thanksgiving Cooking

Sunday was the day to get the bulk of the cooking done. First, I started with dessert. You can find the recipe I used for traditional apple crisp right here. I also made some whipped cream to go with it.

Plan to spend a lot of time making this crisp: you need to peel and chop all those apples. It’s a royal pain. PRO TIP: Remove the zest, and juice the orange and lemon first. Drizzle the juice over the apples as you peel and chop them, to keep them from turning brown. I only used half of the zest.

Thanksgiving_Stuffing_RecipeMy Mom’s Turkey Stuffing Recipe

  • 4 big stalks of celery
  • 2 onions
  • Lots of butter
  • 2 apples, peeled and chopped
  • 2 loaves of bread, chopped and left to get stale
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • Pepper
  • Turkey broth or chicken bouillon

If you’re preparing this recipe a day in advance, start by melting a lot of butter in a generous pan. Cook the celery and onion until just softened. Add the apples and cook for a couple of minutes more. At this point you can set that aside to cool and keep it in the fridge until the day of.

On the day: Bring the celery, onion and apple mixture back to room temperature. If you chopped your bread and let it get stale ahead of time, now’s the time to mix it all together into a large bowl with the raisins, walnuts and pepper. Moisten with a mix of the turkey broth you made and chicken bouillon. The benefit of using chicken bouillon from a cube is that it has some sodium. If you don’t want to use bouillon, you’ll have to add salt to the recipe. Add just enough broth to make the stuffing good and moist, but not soggy (perhaps 2+ cups–depends on how much bread you used).

Heat it all in the oven at 175°C (350°F). The best time to do that is when the turkey has come out of the oven and is resting before carving.

Optional: You can stuff the turkey with some of the stuffing, but that will mean it will take longer for your turkey to cook, and remember that the stuffing has to get to 160°F, which puts your turkey at risk of drying out.

Curried Lentils & Sweet Potatoes

I’m going to save this recipe for a later date because this article is getting huge, but this was a nice twist on a traditional Thanksgiving recipe. The spices gave it a different flavor and jazzed up the whole meal. I’ll share this recipe soon, promise.

Turkey Gravy Recipe

I was probably most nervous about the gravy. I had really failed at it the last time I tried, so this time I was determined to succeed. This YouTube video from Whole Foods was particularly helpful. My mom suggested some modifications, though.

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • Turkey broth
  • White wine (optional)
  • Turkey drippings
  • Seasoning (optional)

On Saturday, I made the velouté. Melt the butter and bouillon cube together in a saucepan and add the flour. Mix it well until it becomes a thick paste and cook for 1-2 minutes. Slowly whisk in your turkey broth, adding a bit at a time until it makes a nice liquid velouté. Simmer for 1-2 minutes. At this point you can remove from the heat, let it cool and put it in the fridge for tomorrow.

Turkey_Day_table_settingOn the day: Warm up the velouté in a saucepan. When you get the turkey out of the oven, place the roasting pan over two burners and get the drippings up and boiling on medium-high heat. Boil for about 5 minutes. If you don’t have a lot of liquid, here you can use some white wine to get the stuff un-stuck from the pan. Cook for a couple more minutes, then add the velouté. Cook for a couple more minutes, then season to taste. (Note: If you used the bouillon cube, taste first because the seasoning on your turkey and from the bouillon might be enough.) Pour it all into a gravy boat! Voilà! No lumpy gravy!

On Sunday, I also tidied the house and set the table for the next day. What can I say, I’m just *that* organized.

Monday: Thanksgiving Day!!

Because of all the prep work I’d done ahead of time, Monday was relatively easy. All I had to do was get the turkey into the oven at the right time and assemble the stuff I had prepared in the previous days.

Roast Thanksgiving Turkey à la BrainInJane’s Mom

  • She was a thing of beauty.

    She was a thing of beauty.

    Turkey – Take it out of the fridge an hour ahead of time to get to room temperature

  • Oven bag
  • 2 onions
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • Lots of olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 tbsp flour

Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Clean that turkey! Wash it thoroughly inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels. Chop the onions and lemon in half and shove ‘em into the cavities (there’s the main one, and the neck one!).

Combine the paprika, olive oil and garlic in a bowl and generously rub aaaaaall over the turkey. Really pour it on there! Finally, season generously all over with salt and pepper.

Toss the flour into the oven bag and shake it about to coat. Insert the turkey and close the bag with its tie. Place in your roasting pan, making sure that the bag doesn’t stick out of the pan. Cut six 1/2-inch slits in the top of the bag.

Put the whole thing in the oven and cook for the appropriate amount of time. My 10.8lb turkey took 2.5 hours (it’s good to check 1/2 hour before to see how you’re doing, temperature-wise. It needs to get to 165°F in the breast).

IMPORTANT: Your turkey must sit and rest for 30 minutes after coming out of the oven and before carving. That’s the perfect time to throw in your stuffing and casseroles to heat, while your guests are tantalized by the delicious smells emanating from the kitchen… Also, you can get your gravy ready now. Because I used the oven bag for the turkey, there was tons of liquid in the bag and I didn’t need to use the white wine to detach the drippings from the pan.

Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy!

Well done! You’ve just done a marathon of cooking and prep, and now you can sit back, relax, and enjoy your guests. Since everything was prepared in advance, I was not stressed at all on turkey day, and was able to have fun with my friends without having to worry about anything in the kitchen.

Some additional tips: Have someone bring a green salad and some wine, and make sure you’ve got plenty of coffee and tea to offer to people as a digestif. And of course, a post-Thanksgiving meal walk on a nice day is always a good way to wind things up.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

The Guilt of a Stay-at-Home (Expectant) Mom

Mom_guiltYou’ve heard it before: working moms feel guilty they’re not spending enough time with their kids. But did you know that stay at home moms share that guilt? And what about stay at home EXPECTANT moms? Yeah. The guilt of a stay at home mom is pervasive.

I finished a contract position, went on holiday, and came back pregnant. Parental leave in Canada can last for up to a year. By the time I was showing, I knew that no would-be employer would be willing to hire me only to have to find a replacement for me six months later.

And you know what? I was okay with that.

I was alright with taking some time to figure things out, do a little training on my own at home, some freelance work, and get ready to welcome this little person into our lives.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

That’s when guilt strikes.

It’s like being a woman is a black and white thing. You’re a mother or you’re not. You’re working or you’re not. You’re staying at home with the kids or you’re not.

No matter what decision we make, we’re judged for it. We’re judged by society, by other women, and, most devastatingly, by ourselves.

“I should be at work. I should be contributing. I should be saving money. I should be a productive member of society. I shouldn’t leach off my Chico…”

“I have a master’s degree. I should be using it.”

Those are the kinds of thoughts that enter my head some days. The days when my to-do list seems too long. Somehow I manage to spend hours doing something else entirely, and I ask myself how on earth I managed to get anything done while I was working.

Then I remember the money my parents paid for my university education, and the money I invested in my master’s degree. Has that all been wasted? Why did I take an MA if it wasn’t to use it in a profession? What am I doing with my mind, my talents, and my time?

So what am I doing? Am I just lazy?

No. I’m not lying around all day eating bonbons (though, I have to confess, I have been baking a bit more since being unemployed…).

SAHMHow to get out of the funk

When I’m on the verge of tears because I’m feeling like a total waste of space, it’s time to sit down and think about what I AM doing, rather than what I’m NOT doing.

I am: Learning new skills like knitting and sewing.

I am: Reading incredible books in three different languages.

I am: Keeping up-to-date on current events, news in my industry, and listening, watching and reading news analysis from various media sources.

I am: Making an effort to keep writing, no matter how sporadically, and keep that creative muscle in shape.

It may not sound like much, and if I’m honest I’m still judging myself pretty harshly for being so seemingly idle (and for still hiring a cleaning lady).

You gotta let go of the guilt.

If I don’t let go of it now, it will eat me up when this baby arrives. Because if I feel unproductive now, just wait until all I have time to do is change diapers, feed, and devote all my attention to a tiny little person. You can bet we’ll be caught without any milk in the fridge on a regular basis when that happens.

This image isn't entirely relevant, but I loved it.

This image isn’t entirely relevant, but I loved it.

No matter what decision you make when it comes to raising your children (or, in my case, making your children), the important thing is to make it freely and with understanding. Read about other women’s experiences and ask yourself how you would feel in their situations.

Understand what you’re getting into, and then take steps to make sure that you continue to push yourself in ways, no matter how small, that will keep your body and your mind open and in shape.

And when people raise their eyebrows after you’ve answered the “What do you do?” question? Well, what can I say? Haters gonna hate. Own it. And tell yourself that in some, small way, they’re probably jealous of you.

Give yourself an intellectual challenge.

The pitfall about staying at home is the lethargy and inactivity you can slip into (unless, of course, you are an exceptionally motivated person). Keep yourself engaged. Keep writing, keep reading, keep listening and searching. Go out and meet people, or learn something new.

Whatever it is, do it to ward off the guilt. Because our children, especially our daughters, need to grow up free from the unreasonable expectations of perfection that society puts on us that cause this guilt.

And most of all because all any of us can really do is our best.

On the Montreal Metro

STM_LogoIt was the week after Labor Day and the hottest day of the summer. The heat and humidity felt like one of those warm towels they hand out on airplanes. But instead of rapidly cooling off like those towels do, it just stayed hot, sitting heavily on her shoulders and making her hair stick to her back.

The sun beat into the third floor apartment, the cheap linen Ikea curtains doing nothing to lessen its intensity. The open doors at the front and back of the house helped create a cross-breeze of sticky air that slid by slowly, like mud. The little soul in her belly kicked furiously, unhappy with her extended period of inactivity.

“Okay, okay. I’ll move,” she groaned. But where?

Even the dog looked deflated. Her brown, round eyes sluggishly gazed up at her as she stood up, her actions barely registering curiosity.

“Want to go for a walk?” The dog hesitated. Nature was calling, but the thought of going outside was unappealing even to her.

***

The walk helped refresh them both, but the thought of sitting in front of her computer all afternoon in the heat of that apartment made her balk. That’s when his text message arrived.

“Hello… I left my office drawer key on the dresser in the bedroom. Can you do me a big favor?”

Saved! Delighted by the thought of the air conditioned lobby of his office building, she found the key, tried to make herself presentable (in vain) and left the house. The heat seemed to radiate up from the pavement as she walked to the metro station. The non-air conditioned oppression of the underground made her doubt the wisdom of her excursion, without a water bottle to boot.

She left the metro downtown and took the underground passage to his office building. The swinging doors opened into the food court and she was all at once in the refreshing embrace of the cool, air conditioned environment. Bliss.

A bottle of water and cold tea later, sitting in the lobby, waiting for him to come collect his key, her natural good humor had almost returned. Her book of short stories keeping her company, she sat on the cool faux leather couch, looking out the floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the poor saps trudging along under the beating sun. Ah… Life was good again. It really took so little.

***

After an hour’s delay, he had collected his key and their short chat had further brightened her mood. She didn’t resent the wait. In fact, once her errand was run, she missed the excuse to sit in the air conditioning. Feeling she had outstayed her welcome, judging by the look the security guard was giving her, she reluctantly closed her book and made her way back down to the metro.

Like the air conditioning had seemed to eagerly welcome her upon her arrival, the heat and humidity seemed doubly enthusiastic about her return upon her departure. It hit her with a force that surprised her.

Her mood remained buoyant, though, as she took the tunnel to the metro and passed a pair of buskers playing Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca on clarinet and bassoon. She smiled as she dropped a loonie into a hat in front of the musicians, and the smile lingered as she headed down the hallway, the music trailing after her.

On the platform, her courage faltered somewhat. A train delay meant that quite a crowd of early Friday afternoon commuters was accumulating. She glanced up from her book and noted looks of frustration and determination to get on the very next train. Luckily, she was well positioned to get on.

***

STM_Priority_SeatingWhen the train finally pulled up, it was already packed. The doors opened, and if anyone had wanted to get off, they were out of luck. The crowd eagerly lunged forward, pushing her onto the train faster than those inside could rearrange themselves for the onslaught. She glanced around for a priority seat, only to find that there were none near the doors she had chosen and there was no chance of moving down the car.

She made an effort to move across the train to the opposite wall, since she wasn’t getting off right away. As she moved she felt a sharp elbow to the gut, right where her little bundle of joy had been calmly dozing, lulled by her movement. She gave a sharp yelp, and the woman who had elbowed her turned on her with a look of anger that quickly transformed to horror and shame when she saw her pregnant belly.

Finally at the opposite wall, she hesitated to ask a seated commuter to give up a spot. She didn’t have that far to go, and she felt self-conscious about asking someone to get up. She stood right next to a seated teenager, the tight crowd causing her belly to knock against the teen’s shoulder. The teen looked up, looking her right in the eye, looked at her belly, and looked back down at her iPhone, not moving.

The young businessman seated opposite looked at her too, and when their eyes met, he quickly glanced back down at his phone, hoping she hadn’t seen him looking. An elderly woman with a cane sitting next to him looked at her with pity, but her own condition prevented her from offering her seat.

So she stood, her pregnant tummy hitting the teen as the train rocked, and cursing the lack of air conditioning in the Montreal metro system.

***

Priority-seating-STMShe tried to read her book to distract herself from the discomfort, but the rising heat and the crowd pressed around her made it hard.

Her earlier good mood nearly failed her entirely and she froze stiff when she felt at first one, then several large beads of sweat trickle down the back of her legs. The sensation made her skin crawl.

The horrible dripping feeling made her look up from her book, directly into the eyes of a woman standing opposite her, behind the seated young businessman. Something in her glance must have spoken to the woman because she immediately tapped the young businessman on the shoulder.

Indicating towards her, she said, “Could you please give this pregnant woman your seat? It really is far too warm for her to be standing.”

In his confusion the businessman made a move to stand up, and offered her his seat, someone flustered. By then, though, the train was pulling into her station and she refused his offer. The look of embarrassment and guilt on his face almost made her pity him, though she knew he had seen her when she first got on.

The woman behind him said, “It’s just too hot to let a pregnant woman stay standing up. I don’t care that you’re not sitting in a priority seat. You should have let her sit earlier.”

She looked at the woman and a smile started to spread across her lips. The two women looked at each other, in a moment of mutual understanding and empathy. Then, the train stopped, the doors opened, and she had to muscle her way off and on to the platform. She looked back through the train window and made eye contact with the woman.

She mouthed, “Thank you.” The woman nodded a lopsided grin at her as the train pulled away.

***

Walking back out into the sunshine and heat, with sweat sticking her dress to her back and running down her legs, she couldn’t help but smile.