PUBLISHED: 2:49 PM on Wednesday, November 15, 2006
'Round the Thanksgiving table
Turkey banter much more fun when all is under control

Photo by Abby LaForce
  A Bourbon-Pecan Tart with Honey and Dark Chocolate is a sinfully decadent dessert for your Thanksgiving feast.
It seems like every year as Thanksgiving rolls around, we all start rolling around in our holiday-cheer mode, a.k.a. "happy-stress mode." The turkey holiday represents various good elements, yet it also signifies time-consuming projects such as: decorating, shopping, cleaning, planning, extensive baking and very serious cooking. At this special holiday, we don't mess around when it comes to food. There are new and modern recipes floating around in every magazine and cookbook, but face it, they're just knock-offs of the original recipes. There's nothing wrong with making Aunt Betty's sweet potato casserole, because that's what everyone expects each year (even though no one else would be caught dead serving it in their own kitchen!), and there's nothing wrong with trying roasted sweet potatoes with chipotle, cumin and lime--it's your table. All in all, Thanksgiving represents tradition, fun and communal bonding for family, friends, loved ones and everyone else through the pilgrim's gluttonous yet celebratory banquet. America's mouth waters as it contemplates the overindulgent and glorious idea of stuffing oneself to extremities, and then basking in multitudes of blissful satisfaction or better known as Naptime for the Stomach.

However, as the host sits at their Thanksgiving table, listening to the tinkle of glasses, laughter and "oohs and aughs," carefully watching as each person takes their last sweet bite of creamy, pumpkin pie goodness--their brain is frantically calculating exactly how late into the night the dishwasher will hum away. Last of all, as the last fork is nestled away in its drawer they ponder, while sipping on an indecently large glass of good wine, "What can I do to make this easier on myself next year?"

It isn't a cool, nifty gadget or 20 people swarming around your kitchen asking to help that makes Thanksgiving Day easier, but something even more simple--preparation. As a cook in a restaurant, I've learned preparation is crucial to the smooth conductivity of a busy night. Believe it or not, the last finishing touches you thought would take five minutes often turn into 15-30 minutes, especially when the green beans are sautéing, the apple pie is over-flowing and the turkey is still waiting to be carved under its foil pup-tent. So, after many years of frantic holiday cooking, and not being able to enjoy my lovely dinner due to the frazzled buzz of my caffeine-induced brain, and jumping like a frog to refill the fashionable gravy boat every 10 minutes (I learned that a large pitcher works just fine), I realized it's more than okay to be an anal-retentive planner. Here's a few tips to get you through the blessed day:

Write out your entire menu, from main dishes to condiments.

Write a grocery list of every item you'll need, from celery to salt, and then double check it against all your pantry and refrigerator staples.

Begin shopping no later than a week ahead; therefore, you won't be staring at the choice of either an eight-pound turkey or a 25-pound honker (purchase perishable items, such as salad greens, etc., three to four days ahead).

Write out a battle plan, giving yourself realistic goals beginning one week before the Day.

Make as many items from start to finish ahead of time that will keep in the refrigerator: relishes, chutney, salad dressings or dips, desserts, turkey or vegetable stock, etc.

For vegetables and side dishes, prepare what you can. For example: Clean and chop your salad greens and or vegetables, storing in Ziplock bags or bowls covered with damp, clean towels; peel and dice potatoes, cover them completely with water in a large container, and keep refrigerated; mise en place your last-minute side dishes, etc.

Look through your serving ware, and pick out dishes for each entrée.

Set your Thanksgiving table the night before, so you can focus on cooking the next day (Who needs breakfast anyway?).

When guests want to help, give them duties that don't need detailed explanation and are in their capability, or just hand them a glass of wine!

Don't be afraid to welcome guests' contributions, such as beverages, salads or desserts; it saves you time, and Thanksgiving can be very expensive.

Last of all, take a deep breath and acknowledge you have everything under control, and focus on what you really are thankful for this year!

I've included some old but slightly new recipes that are easy and delicious. The Apple, Cranberry and Pear Chutney keeps for up to a month in an air-tight container, so add that to your "to-do" list. The Bourbon-Pecan Tart with Honey and Dark Chocolate is elegantly scrumptious and can be made two days ahead. Plus, there is no painstaking crust-rolling for a tart--simply make the dough and pat into your pan.