With 20 days to go before Thanksgiving, I’m starting to feel a little edgy. There’s no point planning the menu, because I will change my mind about it a dozen times before Turkey Day arrives. It’s too soon to start much of the cooking, but I can’t sit still either. It’s just my nature, and so I have to focus my effort. And because this will be the first full table since 2019, getting organized feels more important than ever before.
But what can I do, this far ahead?
Spiff Up the Dining Room
To a good degree, we have already done this by having the room professionally painted and replacing the dated, builder-basic chandelier with a beautiful, recycled glass fixture that complements our kitchen remodel. It looks great, and we have a few more upgrades coming soon.
Table wise, I will be washing platters and serving dishes to knock a year’s worth of dust off them. I’ll inspect the table linens and press the napkins if they need it. I’ll wash all the wine glasses in the corner cabinet to be sure they are spot-free and gleaming. I’ll double-check our wine selection and attend a few tastings to be sure we have something for everyone.
Dust the chandelier and the window blinds and tidy up the bar. Clean and fill all the salt and pepper shakers because we don’t want to find an empty one when the meal is on the table.
Refresh the Kitchen
A few weeks before Thanksgiving each year, I pack up my favorite knives and take them to Chef Larry, my sharpening guy, and he will get them in tip-top condition for me. I’ve noticed a little greasy film on the cabinet doors nearest the stove, so I’ll be filling a bucket of hot soapy water to knock that down. It’s time for a deep clean of the gas range and the oven, too, and then the kitchen will be ready!
Restock the Essentials
This is one area that I tend to keep in order throughout the year, and much of that is attributed to my regular baking. I have more than enough flour, sugar and spices. But there are some ingredients I use more during holiday cooking, so I’ll be stocking up— especially nuts, because they are best when they are fresh. While I’m at it, I’ll clean out canned goods that we aren’t using and get them ready for donation.
OK, Now What?
I’ll be wringing my hands with too much time ahead to really start any cooking. Except for one thing— by this weekend, I will at least have my turkey stock in the done column. I don’t know at this point exactly what side dishes we’ll be serving on Thanksgiving— those decisions are always up for grabs until a few days before— but I do know for sure that there will be turkey and mashed potatoes, and that means we will need gravy (My husband, Les, will be making the turkey this year, because we alternate and he does the even-numbered years. He felt I needed to share that, while also noting that he “allows me” to make stock for him).
I am a big fan of store-bought broth, and I use it regularly throughout the year. But for a meal as special as Thanksgiving, it absolutely must be homemade. The holiday week will be busy enough without me taking up a burner all day to simmer down my ingredients, so my solution is to make the stock now and stash it in the freezer for a few weeks to make the best homemade gravy to accompany our meal.
My stock cannot be salty, because we brine our bird, and the drippings can be quite salty on their own; having a stock that doesn’t amplify the sodium is very important. So, as odd as it seems for me to not suggest “season every layer,” in this particular case, I advise against it if you are also a brine enthusiast.
What does go into my stock is some roasted turkey flavor, and I get that by oven roasting a few turkey wings, seasoned only with black pepper and the slightest touch of salt. Let them go until they are golden brown all over, and then strip some of the meat off the bones—these turkey bits are excellent for spoiling any good dog or kitty you have around the house—and then simmer them down with a pile of chopped aromatic vegetables and some chicken parts.
I like to roast a whole chicken around the same time I make my stock, because I can spatchcock the chicken to remove the backbone and also use that, plus the giblet packet, in my stock mix. Wait— have you ever spatchcocked a chicken? It’s sooo easy to do; just grab a pair of kitchen scissors.
Next week, I’ll share the wonderful recipe I made with the spatchcocked chicken. For now, let’s just take the backbone and get back to the homemade stock.
Load up the roasted wings, chicken parts, vegetables and spices into your stock pot and add enough water to cover it all, which should be about two quarts (or roughly two liters). Bring it to a slight boil and then put a lid on the pot and reduce the heat to a low simmer, checking on it occasionally to be sure it isn’t boiling down too quickly. It takes time to extract all the flavor from the poultry parts, so don’t rush it.
After about five hours, the vegetables will be nearly mushy and the turkey will have literally fallen apart—this ensures the most flavorful, collagen-rich stock, and it’s exponentially better than any store-bought stock you’d find. Pick out and discard the solids, and then strain the stock through a mesh strainer into a pitcher bowl. Let it cool for a few minutes, and transfer the stock to freezer-safe containers for storage up to two months. We rarely have more than eight people at our table, so this four-cup batch of stock is enough for our brood, including some gravy left over. Obviously, if you are cooking for a crowd, double all your ingredients for a larger batch.
One day before you’re ready to use the stock, transfer it to the refrigerator to thaw. Warm it in a sauce pan, and add it to thickened roast turkey drippings to make the best homemade gravy your Thanksgiving table has ever seen!
Make-ahead Stock for Thanksgiving Gravy
This is one of the most important make-ahead items for Thanksgiving, and you can get it done this weekend! Make the stock now and freeze it for a truly amazing homemade Thanksgiving Day gravy. Did I mention that it's also easy to do?
- 2 fresh turkey wings, sprinkled with pepper and only a small amount of salt
- Spine, neck and giblet packet from a fresh, whole chicken (see recipe notes about the spine)
- 1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
- 3 ribs celery (plus leaves), cut into large chunks
- 2 medium carrots, unpeeled and cut into large chunks
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns
- 2 dried bay leaves
- Cold, filtered water
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a small baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the turkey wings on it. Roast the wings for about an hour, until the skin is golden all over. You’ll know they’re done when the kitchen smells wonderful! Cool the wings to room temperature, then shred some of the meat off the bones for any other purpose you choose. Keep about 1/3 of the meat intact on the bones.
- Place turkey wings and all other ingredients in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add enough cold water to just cover everything.
- Bring the pot to a slight boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot. Allow the stock to simmer on low heat (no boiling) for about 5 hours, or until the meat pulls easily from the bones. Cool for about an hour.
- Remove and discard the large solids, and then strain the remaining stock through a mesh strainer into a pitcher bowl. Double strain as needed, to remove any fine bits of bone or solid pieces. Transfer to freezer-safe containers and freeze for up to two months. Thaw in refrigerator before using.