Originally created 11/19/02

A matter of time



Like comedy, getting Thanksgiving dinner to the table takes impeccable timing ... and planning ... and a little creativity.

When Marie Almeter runs short on stove-top space, she throws a few bricks in the oven.

It's a cheap-o trick, but it will keep your casseroles warm, she said.

In a pinch, the bricks make an easy substitute for hot plates. Mrs. Almeter wraps them in aluminum foil, bakes them at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, then lays them on a newspaper-covered counter. Set food containers on top and, voila!

Little tricks such as this can be lifesavers, or at the very least dinner-savers, when trying to pull together a meal for a large group. For Thanksgiving, even a kitchen veteran may need an extra hand to get everything ready on time.

The Almeter family has perfected their tradition and alleviated most of the last-minute challenges of getting the turkey to the table.

"We have six kids ourselves, but we also come from a big family," she said.

One household serves as host and is responsible for cooking the turkey and gravy. Everyone else concentrates on one side dish or dessert. Warming everything up is the only thing to do after the family gathers.

This also allows the hostess to spend more time visiting than cooking, Mrs. Almeter said.

Karin Calloway, food columnist for The Augusta Chronicle, advises making as much ahead of time as possible.

"Casseroles freeze really well," she said. "But make sure you allow extra time for thawing everything."

Her other secret weapon - a crock pot.

You can keep mashed potatoes or gravies warm that way while making room on the stove, she said.

Deborah Moreno, a culinary instructor at Augusta Technical College, said professional chefs always work ahead.

"Actually, that planning starts 2 to 3 weeks ahead of time," she said. "A chef never chops or cuts as they cook."

Ms. Moreno said a week or two before Thanksgiving, compile your guest list, plan your menu and check supplies, such as bake ware, serving dishes and extra seating.

"Between now and Thanksgiving, you can even make your pies and cakes and freeze them. Refrigeration stales; never put them in the refrigerator," she said.

The weekend before, clean out your fridge to make room for the feast. The day of, you can take out sodas and juice and put them in a cooler if you need more room.

Ms. Moreno also suggests purchasing all your nonperishables the weekend before.

"And, if you have a frozen turkey, at that point it needs to be in the fridge," she said. "Never thaw anything on a countertop."

A couple days before, you could start setting your table.

Ms. Moreno has even gone as far as putting out empty serving bowls to make sure there is enough room on the table.

"Also, chop all your vegetables for casseroles or stuffing. Baggies stack nicely in the refrigerator," she said.

Many side dishes can be made ahead, some even get better with a little age, said Kathleen Fervar, director of the Culinary Arts Department at Augusta Tech. But don't add the toppings until you reheat, otherwise they'll get soggy.

Also start taking premade foods out of the freezer and put them into the fridge.

The morning of Thanksgiving, do your whipped cream and frost your cakes. You will want those things to be fresh.

And don't dawdle when it comes to the turkey.

"You want to have your oven free for about 1 1/2 hours before serving time. So it's free to reheat everything else," Ms. Moreno said. During that time, it's OK for the turkey to sit on the counter.

"There's a four-hour rule for safety, but sitting out an hour and a half is OK. The meat has to rest anyway," Ms. Moreno said.

Letting the turkey sit for about an hour allows the juices to settle into the meat so they don't run out as soon as you cut into it.

Juggling the oven is the most difficult thing, Ms. Fervar said.

Don't hesitate to utilize your grill or deep frier. And delegation is always a good idea, she said.

And when reheating everything, if you don't have a good set of bricks handy, you can reheat most things together, even if the recipes call for different temperatures.

"For your casseroles, if one recipe called for 375 and one for 350, you can basically heat them together. Find a happy medium. And put the dish that calls for the higher temperature in the back, where there is more heat," Ms. Moreno said.

But don't try this when baking, breads and cakes are more temperature sensitive, Ms. Moreno said.

NEED HELP?

For general cooking questions:

Kroger Information Line

(800) 632-6900.

For turkey-cooking questions:

Butterball Turkey Talkline

(800) 288-8372 or (800) BUTTERBALL. After hours, visit www.butterball.com.

For safety questions:

USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline

(800) 535-4555

For baking questions:

Land O'Lakes Baking Hot line

(800) 782-9606

Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or lisalohr@augustachronicle.com