Thanksgiving Recipe Testing: Pear & Beet Salad, Freezable Biscuits, and Pumpkin Mousse Parfait

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This year, I am cooking Thanksgiving dinner for sixteen people. Let me say that again. This year, I am cooking Thanksgiving dinner for sixteen people. Pardon my French, but holy s**t what the f**k am I thinking?

Sorry for cursing (do you say cursing or cussing? I say cursing) but this is a bit scary. Last year was the first time I ever cooked a Thanksgiving dinner (remember?) and this year the guests have TRIPLED. It’s as if I wrote a book on food or something and all of a sudden people expect me to know what I’m doing. Hello! Did you read the title? Amateur Gourmet… not Competent Gourmet. Not “Cooks For 16 People” Gourmet.

Ok, ok, so it’s not all that bad. I leave for Florida on Saturday (this dinner will take place in Boca Raton, where my parents live) and I have five whole days to get things ready before the big night on Thursday. I’m already coordinating a game plan, a carefully scheduled program that I plan to follow to the letter in order to get things done ahead of time. When I finish it, I’ll post it as a PDF to the site: it’ll have a full menu and all the recipes typed out. My strategy is to do as much ahead as possible so that the only thing I’ll have to do on Thursday is cook the turkey, heat up the soup and side dishes and prepare a salad.

In anticipation of all this, I’ve started testing recipes here in Brooklyn to see how they’ll fare next week. Tonight I share with you my conclusions and seek your feedback on my plan thus far.

Subject #1: Beet Salad with Pears, Walnuts and Blue Cheese

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Logic: A beet salad is autumnal; it’s easy to prepare the components ahead, especially if I use canned beets as I did tonight.

Canned beets? Are you kidding?: No–I’ve often found that canned beets are a fine substitute, though not nearly as good as the real deal. But when you’re cooking for 16 people you make concessions.

What went in the salad?: Beets from a can sliced in half, some slivers of red onion, a Bartlett pear sliced thinly all tossed with olive oil and red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Then, once on the plate, I added chopped toasted walnuts and pieces of good blue cheese.

How did it taste? Craig and I both really enjoyed this salad though we both agreed it’d be better with real beets. The question then arises: can I roast beets a day ahead and store them for the next day? How does one store beets once they’ve been roasted? And how many beets per person?

Prognosis: This will likely be the salad I serve with Thanksgiving dinner.

Subject #2: Freezable Biscuits from Food & Wine

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Logic: Last year it was popovers, this year it’s biscuits. People love something hot, bready and buttery at the top of the meal and this should put a smile on everyone’s face. The recipe comes with three variations: Sweet Lemon Poppy, Herb-Gruyere, Savory Cranberry-Walnut. The best part is, the recipe (which is on pg. 202 of this month’s Food & Wine) says: “The unbaked biscuits can be frozen: Freeze biscuits in a single layer and transfer to a re-sealable plastic bag for up to one month. Bake straight from the freezer, adding a few minutes to the cooking time.” So my plan is to make all three versions, freeze them and bake them just before people sit down to dinner.

Tonight’s experiment: Tonight I made one batch of plain biscuits and froze half. I baked the half I didn’t freeze and I’ll bake the frozen ones tomorrow straight from the freezer to see how that goes.

How did they taste tonight? Super buttery and super good. I think it’ll be nice to have the various flavors since Craig and I were both reaching for jam and honey to give the biscuits a sweet boost.

Verdict: These are a sure thing unless the ones I bake from the freezer tomorrow are deeply flawed. Note to self: you’ll need lots of cookie sheets for Thanksgiving to get all these biscuits baked at the same time.

Subject #3: The Barefoot Contessa’s Pumpkin Mousse Parfait

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Logic: The first idea was to make a huge assortment of pies and cakes (and I still plan to make some), but I think it’d be nice to serve everyone an individual dessert at the table after the turkey. This, at least to my mind, is a perfect solution: an ice cream sundae like parfait with pumpkin mousse, whipped cream and crushed up ginger cookies. To quote The Barefoot Contessa, “How bad could that be?”

My experiment: I made one batch on Tuesday and tasted one cupful on Tuesday night and then, to see how it survived a night in the fridge, I had one on Wednesday. It was so good that–

Hey, that’s the verdict. I didn’t ask for the verdict yet. Oh, sorry.

Verdict? It’s so good, I’ve already eaten three. I served this to guests for the premiere of “Project Runway” and everyone loved it. And it survives beautifully in the fridge so you can make it a day ahead. Your guests will love it.

I bet you want the recipes! Don’t worry, they’re coming tomorrow with my PDF. Stay tuned for that. Any tips, advice, and/or warnings thus far would be most welcome in the comments…. now I’m going to go put a bag over my head and practice my lamaze.

25 comments

  1. hey, if *i* had dinner with frank bruni, i would definitely call myself something other than an amateur gourmet.

  2. I roast beets all the time. Super easy. I just chop the ends off the beets, wrap them in a double layer of foil and put them on a cookie sheet in the oven, 350-400, depending on how impatient I am. It usually takes about 30-45 minutes, I think. When you can feel that they’re getting soft, there done. Once they’ve cooled some, they are really easy to peel, and it’s almost as easy to wash all the beet juice stains off your hands. I then usually chop them and dress with olive oil, balsamic, and salt and pepper. I generally do about 6 or 8 beets at a time and then have them on my salad all week. Tons better than canned.

  3. Adam:

    When you said you were going to Boca Raton for Thanksgiving, my curiosity got to me and I found the following farmers/green markets in the area, in case you were curious as well. It may be unnecessary information, but I know all about game plans and the such like, and my local markets are on my game plan list for quality ingredients…

    Saturdays, 8am-1pm, Boca Raton Green Market

    The Boys Farmers Market in Delray Beach

    Woolbright Farmers Market in Boynton Beach

    Pompano State Farmers Market in Pompano Beach

    And Florida’s Dept of Ag has this link for more markets: Florida Markets

    Also, I love those pumpkin parfaits…hmmm…I still haven’t finalized my menu, but I am slightly jealous that you’re cooking for 16…I only have about 7 people coming and my vegetarian bagged out, so no testing Tofurky this year…

    Have a good one (love the blog!)

    Rose

  4. Yes, you can roast beets ahead. Store them in the fridge. Easy. I would say one or two beets per person. It’s Thanksgiving – nobody wants to waste valuable stomach space on salad.

  5. Definitely use fresh beats. As the previous two people said, they keep fine for a few days in the fridge, so you should be able to do them in advance, leaving you ample opportunity to fret over more important things — like turkey.

    Just be sure to peel them while they’re hot.

  6. I store them in the fridge in the foil that I baked them in (maybe I’ll put that it a bowl to collect any leaking juices). They taste just as good the next day.

  7. A great alternative to canned beets is the vacuum-packed beets available from sold at Fairway and Whole Foods.

    I can’t wait to hear the rest of the menu.

  8. Adam, I am cooking for sixteen also! But, this is the third year in a row so far cooking for this many so I have experience on my side. My two best tips for you are to make the mashed potatoes (if you are making them) ahead and keep them warm in a crock pot, and buy two small/medium turkeys instead of one giant one. They are easier to handle, will fit better in your pans, and will cook quicker.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your menu!

  9. When I make similar salads I use 1/2 red wine and 1/2 balsamic vinegar. Seems to kick it up a bit.

  10. I’m jumping on the baked beets bandwagon as well – go for it AG, I think it would be well worth the extra effort. Also, depending on how thin you slice the beets, you could probably do three salads (maybe even four) from one large beet – the taste of oven roasted beets is sublime and should really work well the other ingredients you’ve got going in the salad.

  11. Adam, the biggest Thanksgiving I’ve ever done (with the help of my wonderful family) was for THIRTY-FIVE PEOPLE. Total insanity. My Dad used Microsoft Project to create a thouroughly detailed schedule of tasks (which began the week before), that we hung on the fridge. Even with several major disasters (i.e. one of the ovens broke the day before thanksgiving!) we got through it. I’m sure your dinner will be delicious and can’t wait to read about it!

  12. The only things I’d be concerned about as regards the salad is the pears browning, unless you cut them immediately before you serve. You can certainly prep them ahead, but I would recommend doing the acidulated water thing (and even then they may still brown a little).

    I too am interested to hear how this meal turns out. We have 16 coming, but I’m not hostessing, just providing a salad (and in a total quandry as to what salad to make…and I am not a beet fan, and my salad will likely have to sit for a good 45 mins before its served, so it needs to hold really well…hm decisions, decisions).

    Enjoy!

  13. I agree with everyone else – roast the beets ahead of time and store them in the fridge in the foil you cooked ’em in. Should be pretty easy! Good luck with the festivities!

  14. Hey, I’ve got a biscuit tip for you. Instead of rolling the dough out and cutting with a cutter, you can flour a 1/4 cup measuring cup and press the dough lightly into that. Also helps in not overworking the dough. Good luck with the holidays!

  15. With the trend towards “healthy” eating, you may want to have a light seasonal meal-ender. Unless I knew everyone very well when I had lots of guests (I’d have to serve 16 in shifts nowadays), I would make a “lite” dish. There always seems to be someone who says they’re watching their weight.

    As for me, I, too, await the recipe for your parfait. What fun!

  16. Hi Adam,

    As far as your beet questions go, I think I can offer some advice:

    Definitely get whole, fresh beets. I’d say you can probably figure 3-4 slices a person (since it is a salad and you are presumably serving many other things) – so for 16 people you’ll probably need only 4 large or 5 medium sized fresh beets at most.

    Scrub the beets well – don’t bother taking off the skin, when the beets are roasted it will become soft and mellow, like the skin of a potato.

    Now, how to roast ’em:

    So turn your oven up to 400. Then take your scrubbed whole beets and arrange them on a large piece of tinfoil. Season the beets with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then fold the tinfoil around them so you have a nice little closed up beet package. Toss this in the oven and leave it there for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of your beets. Take them out (be careful of the steam!) and stab them with a fork: if the fork slides in, they’re done. If not, chuck ’em back in for a few more minutes. If this sounds like roasting potatoes, it should; it’s basically the same exact process.

    Then you can toss your lovely roasted beets, either whole or sliced, into a tupperware and keep them refrigerated until you need them. You can definitely refrigerate them for a few days, and if you leave them whole, you could probably leave them refrigerated for a whole week.

    The difference in flavor will amaze you and your guests and roasting beets is so easy there’s no reason to buy the sad, soggy beets that come canned.

    Good luck and happy thanksgiving!

    -Rebecca

    http://www.bringingdownthecool.blogspot.com

  17. Please, Adam, we’re begging you–ROAST THE BEETS! Fwiw, I don’t use the foil method b/c I like every bite to be roasted. I leave about 2″ of the stems on to use as a ‘handle,’ then peel the raw beets, and then dice ’em up. Spread them out on a jelly roll pan, toss with olive oil, Kosher salt, and pepper, and roast at 400 for about 40 mins (depending on the size of the chunks). Once they’ve cooled, you can reheat as many as needed on a piece of foil in a low oven. Fantastic flavor–of that you can be assured. And of course, if you can get yellow, orange and red beets, it’s a lot prettier on the plate!

    I’m actually jealous that you’re hosting that many. This year I’m resigned to being a guest of some non-food people. SIGH. Enjoy!

  18. I agree with what everyone said re: roasting the beets and that they will certainly keep for a few days after they’ve been roasted. You could even toss your beets with half the vinaigrette and let them marinate overnight – just let them come up to room temperature before putting the salad together.

  19. I feel your pain. I somehow volunteered to cook dinner for 15 TOMORROW night; it’s a very high-end thank you dinner. I talked five friends into coming for a trial-run dinner on Tuesday and I’ve been prepping the rest ever since. My real idiocy was deciding to roast a beef tenderloin for the first time ever — it’s a breeze to cook but the prep is pretty mysterious.

    One tip: in a sea of complicated flavors, I’m having a very simple second veg — roasted green beans with olive oil, salt and pepper. They take no time to prep, 15 minutes or so to cook while you’re letting the turkey rest, and they taste amazing.

  20. I’m actually jealous. I love the thrill of preparing a game plan and running around the kitchen at the last minute trying to get all of the dishes out.

    I agree with the others, why ruin the gourmet feel of your feast by not roasting the beets?

    The pumpkin parfait sounds amazing. I’m going to have to try that, I love pumpkin anything.

    Good luck

    Cheyanne

  21. I’m working on my Thanksgiving menu. Going to start with Champagne/Triopitas, a Butternut squash soup with creme fraiche, multi-colored buttered carots, brussel sprouts with pancetta, blistered green beans with peppercorns, upside down pineapple sweet potatoes, my Mom’s stuffing, heritage Turkey with regular gravy and mole, Linzer torte cookies and expresso. Start with a sparkling wine, pinot noir with the main course and a rasberry wine with desert. My “made up” recipes are the sweet potatoes and green beans. Start cooking wednesday.

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