11/16/12

Top 5 Tips for Vegan Thanksgiving Bliss


Even if you won't be joining us here at Chow for your Thanksgiving meal, we still want you to have a delicious holiday. Regardless of how big your crowd is, we have noticed a couple of things that help things go smoothly. Hopefully, they will be of help to you too.
1) Do not try something new for the first time when you have company coming. With dishes that you cook infrequently, you have less confidence in the final product. You haven't seen how the food will react to your situation, to your skills, and to your kitchen. Something that worked great in my kitchen may not work so great in yours if you've never made it before. This is why whenever I am about to try a new recipe for a big day, I'll make a small test batch first to see how the mechanics of the recipe work. This way, if things go belly-up, I'll not have wasted too many ingredients. Furthermore, with my smaller batch, I can make tweaks without using up huge amounts of ingredients.
What am I talking about? Imagine that you have about a cup or so of a gravy. You made it because the recipe looked good. Now imagine that you did like I said, and decided to make only about half that amount, because you're not sure how the recipe will work. You half all the ingredients, and measure them out ahead of time. You survey all your ingredients in front of you, and they look to be reasonable for what you're making. (Yesterday, Bossman came up to me and said, "I'm making a single cheesecake. 2 TB of salt doesn't seem right, does it?" I agreed with his assessment. It turns out that the TB was a typo. In other words, look at each ingredient in the context of the whole recipe and ask yourself if such an amount makes sense for what you're making.)
You go to make the recipe exactly as stated. Midway through, you realise that the recipe never mentioned that you're to turn down the heat. You didn't think to do so, because you're following the damned recipe. All of a sudden, your gravy gets burned, and you're furious. Since it is a tiny amount, you're not that bothered. You can try again, and this time, turn down the heat a bit. Suppose that you did make the gravy, and it turned out great. You taste it. SALT BOMB. You're gasping for water, and the thing tastes just awful. Now imagine what would happen if this is a random mid-week meal. You quietly bin the gravy, and decide to have that dinner with ketchup instead. Again. (Yes, this is personal experience talking.) Imagine the same scenario if you've got guests coming in less than 20 minutes. They won't be as forgiving as your husband, or your dog.
Suppose you make everything as stated, but the end result seems really bland. This frequently happens with pressure cooker or slow cooker recipes. The extreme cooking seems to dull out the flavours. Again, suppose you only have a small batch to fix. A few drops of lemon will brighten any dull tasting dish. A fresh bunch of herbs will do the same. Sometimes it'll take a combination of the two. Either way, if you're dealing with large quantities, you may not have all the ingredients you need to fix the mistake. In small quantities, the small amounts of ingredients you add to tweak something will make a huge difference. All this leads to the second tenet.
2) When you change a recipe, make a note of it. In fact, make frequent notes. Why? Because if it took a few things to tweak a recipe that was otherwise great, you'll want to remember what it is you did to make it work. If you make something truly great, you'll want to recreate it. A piece of paper and a sharpie will work wonders for you.
3) Do as much preparation work ahead of time as is feasible. Or cheat. We're all busy. We have a thousand things to get done in an average day. And I'm sorry, but that cute kitty video isn't going to watch itself. For whatever reason, there will be times when you have time consuming prep work (peeling onions or garlic, chopping root veggies, chopping potatoes, etc) that you'll put off until the last minute. Then the day of comes, and you're about to wind up serving everyone a pizza. Don't do this.
If you go to many Supermarkets now, you'll see pre-diced vegetables of every shape and size. I want you to go to that store, look at what they're charging for those things, and then resolve to do it yourself. If you're a wealthy type, who's getting paid enough at work that your time is worth more than the cost difference of buying pre-prepped versus whole vegetables, go ahead and buy the jars. Either way, figure out what you've got more of, be it time or money, and reach a compromise.
If the time is what you have plenty of, go ahead and set aside about four days before the major event to do the boring prep. Peel and chop your onions. Peel your garlic. Dice the carrots and celery. All these can be done up to four days in advance with no problems. Three days ahead, go ahead and slice or chop the garlic. Dice your potatoes or other root veggies, and leave them to sit in cold water. Soak your beans and brown rice (brown rice cooks much more quickly when soaked ahead of time). Two days ahead of time, drain the soaked beans, and boil them. Cook your root veggies and/or potatoes. They take a long time to cook, so it's great if you can have them pre-cooked. Wash and chop your dark leafy greens. Wash and chop your cauliflower/broccoli.  Drain the brown rice, and let it sit in the fridge. On the day of, bring all the magic together.  
All these little tasks, when taken separately, take no more than 30 - 45 minutes or so to do at the very most. Then, on the day of, when all your ingredients are prepared, you can generally knock out any major cooking in about 1 - 2 hours or so. This also makes it easy for you to do your dishes as you're working.
If you have more money than time, go ahead and buy the pre-chopped aromatics (carrots, celery, onions), the pre-peeled garlic, the frozen chopped kale, the broccoli crowns (some stores even sell florets all chopped neatly), or whatever other ingredient you don't feel like prepping. Heck, Trader Joe even sells these cooked lentils in a vacuum pack. They don't come with all that gooey liquid, so you can totally use them in salads or purees. They cost more than dried beans, but they're still not prohibitively expensive.
Or, if you're like most people, find a happy medium. Do as much prep work as you're comfortable with, and then buy the rest prepped already.
4) If you have the option, delegate as much as you can. If you're standing there over a blazing hot stove, and a screaming hot oven, you're likely going to need some help with the cleanup. Recruit anyone who's willing to help to start clearing up the prep dishes as you use them up. Recruit people who are willing, to chop herbs or keep an eye on the pot. Recruit someone to keep your wineglass replenished. Recruit someone to taste (and if you're making anything with kale, or anything fried, you'll have plenty of volunteers). Treat your kitchen helpers to extra little treats. Anyone who helps me in the kitchen always gets first dibs on the fried food. Only after we've eaten our fill do we call anyone else in to try some.
5) Taste. Frequently. Why? Because the food will change as it cooks. And unlike meat foods, which try to kill you back, there isn't likely to be that much harm in tasting a piece of vegetable halfway through its cooking process. Taste that soup liquid as it begins to cook, and then throughout the cooking process. Not only will it alert you to problems as they occur (such as the soup sticking to the bottom of the pot when you're using ingredients like split peas), it will also get you used to knowing what something should taste like at various points during the cooking. This knowledge will help you to gauge how anything in the pot should taste.
Don't just rely on your own taste either. Ask for feedback from others who are around while the food cooks. If you get multiple opinions, you can tweak the food as  necessary. Or, in some cases, you can beam with pride when everyone raves about how delicious something is, on a one-on-one basis. When someone piles his or her plate with food, and eats it with great gusto, you don't know what they love about each and every dish. When they have a little taste of each thing as it's prepared, you know that they love each thing. OK, so I do enjoy a little ego boost once in a while.

Most of all, relax. People aren't necessarily here for your food (although it is a nice bonus). They're here to see you. The food is secondary. I have had wonderful times with friends when the food was nothing more than a bowl of nuts, some piping hot mugs of hot chocolate, and some fine conversation. That fills me up just as much as a fancy meal in a nice restaurant. If someone takes all that effort to come out and see you, they'll be happy that you made the effort to bring something nice to the table, even if it really is delivery or take out from a restaurant. The meal is the excuse to share the warm feelings and good times.
We love you all, and wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

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