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Thanksgiving to go: Plan ahead and pack smart

Make-ahead succotash. (Courtesy

Make-ahead succotash. (Courtesy

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Updated: November 23, 2010 1:18PM

‘Over the river and through the woods ... ” Chances are, you aren’t eating Thanksgiving dinner at home, but heading somewhere else: If not Grandma’s house, then Auntie’s, your brother-in-law’s, a friend’s.

According to a recent survey by Butterball, just over half of Baby Boomers will host Thanksgiving this year, and fewer than 40 percent of people ages 30 and younger will do so.

Many of us wind up carrying a single dish or several to somebody else’s dining table. More than half of the group most likely to host the dinner told Butterball they’d ask guests to bring food to the feast.

“People do everything from taking food on airplanes to driving for hours to taking it on a rolling cart across the neighborhood,” says Mary Clingman, director of the Downers Grove-based Butterball Turkey Talk-Line.

What to bring

At most Thanksgiving gatherings, the host prepares the turkey — a proceeding Clingman recommends.

“If you have a choice, I would transport side dishes,” she says. However, it is eminently possible to roast a turkey and travel with it.

“Cook it a day ahead, carve it and get it cold,” Clingman advises. Then reheat it, covered, with a little broth or gravy, in the microwave at 70-percent power for about 10 minutes, or in a warm oven for about 30 minutes. “It’s much easier than trying to transport a whole, hot turkey.”

“It’s easiest to bring things that can be served at room temperature, like salads or desserts,” says Molly Schemper of Pilsen-based Fig Catering. She also suggests sticking to dishes that you can pretty well complete at home: “Nothing that needs to be assembled when you get there.”

Schemper says casseroles work well “because you can wrap them hot and put them in an insulated carrier.”

Before deciding what to bring, “ask the host if there’s a place to heat it up,” says Shelley Young, owner of the Chopping Block cooking school in Chicago.

If the range is going to be fully occupied, you should bring food hot, if travel distance permits, or bring dishes that don’t need to be heated.

Also ask your host how many people are coming, and plan to make enough to accommodate last-minute guests, extra helpings and maybe some leftovers for folks to take home.

Think unfussy. Save the gorgeous presentations for parties at home — concentrate on flavor rather than looks that might be hard to maintain during transport.

Also, avoid far-out foods. Thanksgiving is about tradition. Three out of four of the Butterball survey respondents said they want classic homemade recipes, just like their mom made them.

“Pick the more labor-intensive things,” suggests Young. After all, if you’re going to make just one thing, you can afford to spend time on it.

Young likes made-from-scratch dinner rolls. You can bake the bread to about 70-percent finished and slip it into a hot oven for just a few minutes before serving.

“People really appreciate homemade bread. Or pie,” Young says. “That’s kind of obvious, but people get very frustrated about it, if there isn’t good pie.”

If there’s some dish without which it just won’t be Thanksgiving for you, offer to bring it. Likewise, if you have dietary restrictions, you can ensure there will be some dishes that you can eat by offering to prepare them yourself.

Many traditional Thanksgiving dishes travel well, even foods like mashed potatoes. Schemper says they stay hot well and keep their texture if you make them with a bit more liquid — extra butter or cream — than usual. High-starch spuds such as Yukon Golds work best.

For dishes such as this, Schemper recommends placing a layer of plastic wrap right on the surface of the food to prevent a skin from forming, then overwrapping the container with foil. Keep it in a warm oven until you’re ready to leave.

Bring everything you need to finish preparing and serve your dish, from an instant-read thermometer to serving spoons to containers for taking home leftovers, Clingman says.

For the hosts

If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, ask different guests to bring specific categories of things — dressing, vegetables, salads, potatoes, desserts, etc. — and keep a list of who’s bringing what so you don’t wind up with a dozen desserts and no vegetables.

Evaluate how much space you’ll have in your oven and microwave and on your stove and ask guests how much reheating time they’ll need. Make a timetable and steer guests clear of bringing dishes that will take up too much cooking space at critical times.

Ask guests to bring food in slow cookers, electric roasters and chafing dishes, but plan where you’ll plug such devices in so you don’t overload circuits and blow a fuse.

If fridge space is tight, prepare some iced coolers where guests can stash items that need to be kept cold.

Ask guests about dietary restrictions and make sure that at least some of the dishes provided will accommodate them. It’s a big feast, so you don’t have to make everybody cook low-sodium or vegetarian fare; it’s easy to add, say, crumbled bacon or nuts at the table, instead of stirring them in.

Lay in a supply of disposable containers so you can pack leftovers to go home with your guests. For many of us, the downside of having Thanksgiving dinner at somebody else’s house is not being able to indulge in that late-night turkey-and-stuffing sandwich.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.

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