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Preparing For Thanksgiving Dinner

isn't easy. But it surely is worth it.

Over several days during the week of November 15, The Early Show joined with home furnishings retailer Williams-Sonoma to tell you how to create the "Perfect Thanksgiving," step by step.

The segments took place in the Williams-Sonoma store at New York City's Columbus Circle.

The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm worked with culinary expert Tori Ritchie, a San Francisco-based food writer, cooking teacher and host of the long-running "Ultimate Kitchens" on the Food Network. Her latest cookbook is "Party Appetizers: Small Bites, Big Flavors" (Chronicle Books, Fall 2004).

Ritchie pointed out that hosting a big dinner involves a lot of organization, but said it's well worth it. A little preparation can save you plenty of time and stress later.

Everything from cooking the turkey to setting the table will be much easier and efficient if you take time to plan.

Ritchie said there's a range of things to do in advance of the big day, from making shopping lists, to buying wine, to making sure you have all the kitchen tools you need.

Her specific suggestions:

One week ahead:

  • Finalize your guests and menu, and organize your shopping lists. The countdown is officially on! Consider pulling all of your recipes together and putting them into a notebook. Keeping all your shopping lists and other checklists in the notebook will insure that you stay organized.
  • Order the turkey. This is something that needs to be done first and foremost, at least a week in advance. You'll need about one pound of bird per person. If you want leftovers, Ritchie recommends ordering a-pound-and-a-half per person.
  • Take an inventory of your spice cabinet, and replace old spices. If you don't bake a lot, you may not have everything you need for the pumpkin pie, for instance. Also, spices do get old and lose their potency after awhile. In general, whole spices (such as whole cloves or nutmeg) keep about a year, while ground spices keep about six months.
  • Buy wines for the dinner. There is such a mix of flavors on the table that choosing a wine can be confusing. Pinot Noir is a good red wine choice, Ritchie believes, because it's very food-friendly and can really complement any dish. White wine drinkers should try a Sauvignon Blanc or even a Gewurztraminer. Although Americans love Chardonnay, stay away from this wine on Thanksgiving because, Ritchie says, Chardonnay is practically a meal itself; it's too overpowering. Ritchie's favorite choice for Thanksgiving dinner: champagne. She believes the bubbly favorite can take diners through the entire meal.
  • Get your knives sharpened. If you haven't had your knives sharpened in the past year, do that now. Having knives ready to go will ease and speed preparation.

    A few days ahead:

  • Make sure you have all tools you need. This is the time to take a look at all of your kitchen tools and see if you have everything to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. The food preparation will go much more smoothly if you have the correct tools.

    There are five items that Ritchie believes every chef needs on Thanksgiving:

    1. A roasting pan: You want a heavy-duty pan with high sides to contain splatters, sturdy handles that are easy to grasp and a nice roasting rack that allows your bird to cook more quickly and evenly.
    2. Metal turkey baster: This may be the only time of year you pull out the baster, but you want it to be a nice metal one. Lots of places sell heavy-duty plastic basters, but if you touch the bottom of a hot roasting pan with the plastic baster, it may melt.
    3. Thermometer: You need an accurate thermometer in order to cook the perfect turkey. Ritchie prefers the simple, instant-read variety. However, you can also buy a digital model that stays in your bird the whole time it's cooking and is attached to a display that attaches to the outside of your oven. This allows you to keep an eye on the temperature without opening the oven door.
    4. Microplane Zester/Grater: A big time saver, using this tool is an easy way to add a taste of orange to your cranberry relish, for example.
    5. Culinary torch: This is something many people may not have on hand, but if you want to be able to make the pumpkin brulee that Ritchie is going to show us later in the week, you'll need one.
  • Set out your tableware and serving dishes. Begin pulling out all of the settings and serving pieces you'll need for the big day. This includes linens; you want to check for spots on the placemats or napkins. Make sure you have enough dinner plates, salad plates, flatware, etc., for everyone you've invited. You can leave these things piled neatly on the dining room table. Be sure to store the wine glasses upside down so they don't become dusty inside.

    Think carefully about what you're serving for dinner and what you'll need to actually serve it; the kind of spoon you want for the cranberry relish. for the dressing, etc. When thinking about serving dishes, don't neglect your oven-to-table bakers. These look lovely and will save you from doing more dishes. You might even consider marking each serving dish with a Post-It note, so you don't forget which dish goes where. This will also enable other people to help you out on Thursday. They won't have to ask, for instance, where you want the potatoes, because it will be written out for them.

    The day before:

  • Make an appetizer such as cremini mushrooms stuffed with Spanish ham. At this point, you can begin actually preparing some of your Thanksgiving dinner. The cranberry relish, for example, tastes better if made ahead of time. Pie crusts and desserts will typically hold overnight as well. Many items can be made (at least in part) ahead of time.

    One thing you want to be sure and have prepared before Thanksgiving arrives is your appetizer. With so many other dishes to prepare on that day, the appetizer should be ready to go. Luckily, because you are serving a big dinner, you don't need too many appetizers on hand. A simple cheese plate and bowls of nuts will suffice.

    One of Ritchie's favorites is stuffed mushrooms.

    CREMINI MUSHROOMS STUFFED WITH SPANISH HAM

    Spanish serrano ham, like its more famous Italian cousin prosciutto, is salted and hung in drying halls to air-cure. It is made primarily in western Spain and is one of the country's classic tapas offerings. Traditionally cut thicker than prosciutto, serrano has a similar, but more earthy, flavor. Although not as widely available as prosciutto, Serrano ham is turning up more frequently in delicatessens and specialty-food stores.

    Steaming the mushrooms helps to rid them of excess moisture, creating a more concentrated mushroom flavor. Do not be surprised by how much they shrink, as they have a high moisture content.

    Ingredients:

    42 Fresh cremini or white button mushrooms,
    each 2 to 3 inches in diameter, brushed clean
    2 tbs. Fresh bread crumbs
    2 tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
    1 tsp. Minced fresh sage
    1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
    3 oz. Serrano ham or prosciutto, finely chopped
    3 tbs. Crème fraîche or sour cream, or as needed
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
    2 tbs. dry white wine or vermouth
    2 Tbs. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for garnish.

    Directions:

    Preheat an oven to 400°F. Lightly oil one heavy baking dish, or two large enough to accommodate the mushrooms snugly in a single layer.

    Trim off the rough base of each mushroom stem, then remove the stems and chop finely. In a large bowl, combine the chopped stems, the breadcrumbs, parsley, sage, garlic, ham, three tbs. crème fraîche, the salt and pepper. Mix together thoroughly. The mixture should hold together in clumps. If it seems dry, mix in another one to two tsp. of crème fraîche.

    Put the mushroom caps, stem sides up, in a steamer basket set over simmering water. Cover and steam until tender and glossy, about three minutes. Lift out the basket, allowing any moisture to drain and let cool.

    Spoon one generous tsp. of the ham mixture onto the stem side of each mushroom cap and smooth it into an even-rounded mound. Place the mushrooms, stuffing side up, in the prepared baking dish. Drizzle the wine around the edges of the dish and sprinkle each cap with about 1/8 tsp. of the cheese.

    Bake, uncovered, until golden, about 30 minutes. Let cool for five minutes, garnish with cheese and serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 42 bites.

    Make Ahead Tip: The steamed mushrooms and stuffing can be stored separately in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before stuffing.

    For soup-to-nuts guidance in making your Thanksgiving dinner perfect, with the help of The Early Show and Williams-Sonoma, click here.

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