Sometimes life throws you a curveball, and sometimes that curveball is a last-minute Thanksgiving dinner hosted by you. Perhaps plans changed and you volunteered to save the day, or maybe you just experienced a sudden rush of holiday spirit and domesticity. Whatever the case, Susan Spungen, the culinary queen behind The Modern Cook blog and author of two cookbooks, including What’s a Hostess to Do? ($14; amazon.com), has you covered. Read on for her pro tips for executing Thanksgiving dinner in a pinch.
1. Don't be afraid to ask for help. “Definitely delegate to your guests,” says Spungen. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” She encourages asking guests to bring side dishes and desserts because “they’re easy to transport, and you can always use more variety.”
2. Purchase pre-made ingredients. Buy trimmed and chopped vegetables, like squash and carrots, and items that don’t require preparation, like Brussels sprouts. Spungen says, “This cuts down on prep time and mess. I’m also a big fan of kale salad, which you can make ahead of time.”
3. Embrace store-bought items. “Nobody should be afraid of taking shortcuts,” says Spungen. “People are really there to be together, and it’s great if you have good food, but if you’re not a good cook, you might be better off ordering something in! Don’t drive yourself crazy.”
Spungen suggests picking up cooked shrimp for an appetizer and serving it with homemade cocktail sauce (ketchup mixed with horseradish, lemon, Tabasco, and pepper), canned cranberry sauce (which some people actually prefer) and gravy, which you can enhance using pan drippings or dried porcini mushrooms. To elevate canned gravy, like Heinz Home Style Turkey Gravy ($2; walmart.com), she says to “use any de-fatted pan drippings you might have, deglazed with some white wine. Pour 3/4 cup boiling water over 1/2 oz dried wild mushrooms like porcini, and let sit until soft. Chop finely, and add them to the gravy along with the soaking water (leaving any sand behind). Simmer it all together for a few minutes, until desired thickness is reached.” She also suggests purchasing a store-bought turkey breast. “Ask your butcher, even in the supermarket, to tie a boned turkey breast into a roll for you, with the skin on,” she says. “Sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and some fresh or dried herbs if you want. Roast at 375°F until it reaches 165°F at the center.”
4. Roast everything. “Everyone loves roasted vegetables,” says Spungen. “Squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli, green beans—there’s nothing you can’t cook that way that isn’t good. Toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast at 425°F.”
5. …Or mash it up. If you run out of oven space, “you can just steam or boil your vegetables and mash them up with some butter, salt, pepper, and herbs,” says Spungen.
6. Invest in a good pie. “Pumpkin is one of the safer pies to buy—it’s hard to mess it up and it’s reliable,” says Spungen. “You still want to buy it from a good place, but there’s nothing wrong with buying dessert. It’s the one thing I would ask people to bring if I don’t want to do everything myself.”
7. Keep the drinks simple. “Personally, I would just serve a full-bodied red wine, like a Bordeaux, but you could do something fun like a chilled, sparkly Lambrusco before the meal,” advises Spungen. One of her favorites is Fiorini "Becco Rosso" Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro ($17; drinkupny.com).
8. Keep the décor simple, too. Spungen swears by a monochromatic tablescape. “Pick a color scheme and stick with it," she says. "The easiest thing is to get cute miniature pumpkins, especially white, and white votive candles to intersperse. Sometimes I just go out in the yard and get some things! The key is to keep the décor low and small through the center of the table. Keeping it natural is a great way to go at Thanksgiving.”
For more nuggets of décor wisdom from Susan Spungen, follow her on Instagram at @susanspungen.