How to host a successful holiday meal

Cream of parsnip soup with crisp-fried pancetta
SUBTLE: Cream of parsnip soup.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Whenever I read one of those Thanksgiving stories about how wonderful it is to cook a fabulous meal for a huge crowd of friends and family, the first thing I think is, “How heartwarming! How generous!”

And then I wonder, “Don’t those people have jobs?”

Because the reality for most of us is that the Thanksgiving feast is no longer a one-cook show. Given our hectic schedules, it has to be a collaborative effort, one in which everybody pitches in and makes a contribution.

It’s a meal where everyone comes together to cook together. And actually, I think it’s a lot better that way, or at least it can be. Thanksgiving is one of our most communal holidays, probably for the simple reason that it’s one of the few that is defined by sharing food.

The key to any community is shared responsibility, and the dinner table is no exception. Of course, even in the most democratic of groups, there has to be one person who can keep everything organized, and in the case of Thanksgiving dinner, that is you, the host. Indeed, compared with this job, other traditional host tasks, such as making sure the house is spotless and roasting the turkey perfectly, are a breeze.

A holiday host is a combination greeter, psychologist, cook and traffic cop, with a little bit of efficiency expert thrown in. Remember: It is not possible to be too organized when you’re expecting a house full of cooks. Don’t be afraid to be a nerd; make as many lists and charts as it takes.

Assign dishes well in advance (in fact, you probably ought to do that by tonight, or Saturday morning at the latest). Ask the cooks not only what course they want to bring but what dish -- the more specific the description, the better.

Not only does this help avoid repetitions (parsnips in soup, parsnips as a side dish), it also subtly obliges the cooks to honor their promises. If you’ve been assigned something as general as “an appetizer,” it’s quite easy to justify sliding the definition over just a bit if at the last minute you decide you really want to make a salad. And that’s how you wind up with a dinner table loaded with variations on a single dish. That kind of switcheroo is a lot harder to alibi when you’ve promised to make, say, gougères.

And remember that, as a host, you’ve got a full menu to fill out. When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, cooks tend to think like Kobe Bryant with the clock winding down. Everybody wants to make the show-stopping centerpiece dish.

But the plain fact is not everyone can be a star, and the host has to be the grown-up who tells them that. Somebody’s got to make the soup, and somebody’s got to fix the green vegetable. Somebody else -- you probably know who -- is a lot better suited to bring wine or flowers than cook. You know: that whole “from each according to their ability” thing.

The host is the one who has to not only make those assignments but also juggle a half-dozen other menu-related issues at the same time. For example, some dishes simply are not appropriate for collaborative meals. That favorite pumpkin risotto may be a magnificent dish, but do you really want one cook commandeering the stove for an hour right before dinner?

Obviously, the more food that can be prepared in advance the better. That doesn’t mean reverting to the old potluck days of covered casseroles; plenty of great dishes can be prepared most of the way the day before except for a few last-minute finishing touches.

Map out the day

Once you’ve assigned all the dishes, take a realistic look at your kitchen and figure out how it’s all going to happen. Start with the most vital elements: time and space. Establish when dinner will begin and then count backward, allowing for how long each dish will need on the stove or in the oven and when they’ll need to be started.

Remember to allow 45 minutes to an hour for the turkey to rest after it comes out of the oven. This not only lets the cooking finish and the juices redistribute through the meat, it also frees up the oven for last-minute warm-ups.

Stove time is not the only resource you’ll need to coordinate. Figure out work spaces and make sure you have enough cutting boards for everyone. This may sound silly, but do you really want a kitchen full of people with knives fighting for a little room at the counter?

Speaking of knives, it can’t hurt to make sure you have enough for everyone or that folks know to bring their own. The same goes for serving dishes. Many times, food that’s prepared in advance will be served in the same dish in which it is cooked. But when that’s not the case (or if you’re particularly picky about presenting a perfectly coordinated table), you’ll want to be sure you’ve lined up your own pieces.

It should go without saying that if you’re inviting a crowd for dinner, you’ll want to make sure you have an adequate supply of linens, silverware, dishes and glassware. But these are the holidays, and sometimes the most obvious things slip by, so we’ll say it anyway.

Equally obvious, setting the table is not something that needs to be done at the last minute -- have everything laid out and in place the night before (and then keep the cat out of the dining room).

Think about how you’re going to get the food around. One of the best home cooks I know serves all of her dinner parties buffet-style. It’s a brilliant alternative to the cumbersome passing of the platters, particularly when one of them is likely to be loaded down with 20 pounds of carved turkey.

If you want to serve this way, take a couple of minutes to figure out in which order you want the dishes presented and make a chart. Here’s a hint, and I hope it doesn’t sound too mingy: Place the turkey at the end of the line. As people fill their plates, they’ll naturally take more of the items at the start when their plates are empty and then take less as they go along and run out of space. That’s when you want them taking turkey.

Not that playing traffic cop is all you’ll do this Thanksgiving. Oh, there’ll be cooking aplenty for you too. Being the host means you’ll almost certainly be doing the turkey (unless you’re inviting a complete turkey-obsessive such as Zuni Café's Judy Rodgers, who confessed to me that she once drove to her sister-in-law’s Thanksgiving dinner with a roast bird on her lap, swaddled in bath towels to keep it warm).

Rodgers probably won’t be at your dinner, but you can still serve her turkey. (See recipe on Page 2.) It couldn’t be easier -- just salt the bird several days in advance, seal it in a plastic bag and refrigerate. The salt will draw out the moisture from the bird, which will then reabsorb it. It roasts up moist and meaty and perfectly seasoned throughout.

That’s not the end of your cooking duties. One of the primary obligations of the host is making sure that everyone can keep cooking . . . and even more important, remain upright. If your house is anything like mine, where Champagne is the lubricant that keeps the holiday kitchen machinery moving, it’s good to have a variety of small bites on hand as soon as your co-cooks show up, in order to keep them standing up.

Small bowls of olives and almonds, a plate of sliced salumi, these are all good, but considering it’s the holidays, you’ll probably also want something a little more special. Pay due attention to the cheese selection, for instance.

And make Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (goi cuon) stuffed with a mix of Dungeness crab, slivered endive and toasted almonds bound together with a mustardy mayonnaise.

They can be made the evening before (if you’ve got kids, they’ll love rolling the sticky rice-paper wrappers). Refrigerate them and then bring the rolls to room temperature just before serving. Don’t be tempted to substitute blue crab for the Dungeness -- the flavors are very different.

A dish that travels

If you’re visiting someone else’s home for dinner, a creamy root vegetable soup is a great dish to bring along. The flavor is deep, the texture is mellow, and it is ideal for soothing nervous holiday stomachs. Even better, it can be prepared the night before and only needs to be reheated just before serving.

Over the weekend, simmer parsnips until they’re just about ready to fall apart, and then purée them until they’re perfectly smooth. Store the purée tightly covered in the refrigerator.

On Wednesday night, fry thinly sliced pancetta until it’s crisp and then leave it out on a paper towel (do not tell anyone where it is or it will vanish -- there are few things more delicious than fried pancetta).

Just before dinner, bring the soup to a simmer and whisk in a couple of egg yolks and a little cream. This will turn the smooth purée into something unbelievably velvety, despite adding only a little fat. Garnish each bowl with a sprinkling of crisp pancetta and serve.

No matter how busy our workaday lives might be, there’s no reason Thanksgiving dinner shouldn’t be a feast. It’s just that to make it happen we all need to pull together. But in a way, that’s just one more thing for which we can be thankful.