Whether choosing the right wines, preparing place settings or finding a proper host gift, getting the details right will make sitting down to dinner all the merrier.
Setting the Table
If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, you hopefully enjoy the role. It certainly comes with its share of rules, especially when it comes to setting the table. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when it comes to preparing the space you’ll gather around.
▪ A well-set table doesn’t require covering. You can simply use place mats. But if you want to use a tablecloth, make sure it’s generous enough to fit. Even a bedsheet can work in a pinch.
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▪ Forks on the left, knives on the right. The knife edge should be facing the plate. That is only polite.
▪ As for plates, you don’t need a separate plate for bread, a plate for salad and whatever else. One generous china plate will do.
▪ Don’t worry about different kinds of glasses for different drinks either — even for bubbly. It’s the Champagne that makes it fancy.
▪ As for napkins, as big as possible, and cloth — please, cloth. A paper napkin will tear apart and be a sticky mess by the end of the meal.
▪ You can decorate your table in any style you want. Just make sure any centerpiece is not so big that it interferes with your guests’ eating or conversing.
▪ Before the guests arrive, empty the dishwasher to make cleanup easier.
▪ And while you’re at it, empty a coat closet for guests. Better that your coats are piled on a bed than theirs.
▪ Once everyone has gathered at the table, clink a glass, ask for quiet and thank your guests for joining you.
▪ Of course, there can be disasters. Just let it go. Clean it up quickly and deal with it later. The whole object is to entertain and make your guests feel happy they are gathered together.
Keeping It All Warm
No matter how large or intimate the group, Thanksgiving requires you to serve many dishes at the same time. A pressing concern is how to keep them all hot.
Food need not be piping hot, particularly when the table is large, but it should never be cold. Here are some tricks for keeping everything warm.
▪ Heat plates and platters before putting food on them. Stack them in a low-temperature oven for a few minutes, or on a shelf above the stove if you have one. Some dishwashers have a plate-warming function. In a pinch, run hot water from the sink over them to heat, then towel them dry.
▪ Keep a quantity of hot turkey stock going on the stove. Use a ladleful of it to refresh and reheat sliced turkey on a warmed platter before sending it out to the table. You can do the same with dressing.
▪ Put that slow cooker to work. There is no better ersatz chafing dish for mashed vegetables or dressing. Set it on “warm” and forget it.
What to Drink
Thanksgiving hosts must obey two important rules in providing wine.
First, do not run out! It’s a feast of plenty, and the wine should reflect the same spirit of generosity and gratitude. A good rule of thumb is one bottle per drinking guest. It might sound like a lot, and you might well have leftovers. But too much wine is just fine. Not enough is not.
The second rule is one of courtesy: Provide both reds and whites. Many people will enjoy both. But at least one guest will claim that red wine gives him headaches, and another believes that whites give her heartburn. This is not the time for a debate on the matter. Plan to have both.
Otherwise, wine is the easiest chore you will have. All will go well, because it almost always does. But certain characteristics in the wines you select can help to enhance the meal. Here are some tips for choosing wines and serving them. And you need not serve wine, of course — cider and beer are good alternatives.
▪ With a meal this large and varied, painstakingly matching specific wines to particular foods is virtually impossible. So don’t sweat it. Instead, look for limber, versatile wines that will go with many different flavors. You want fresh and lively rather than heavy, tannic and oaky. Wines with generous acidity will be more refreshing than low-acid wines, which tend toward flat and enervating.
▪ Over the years, The Times has recommended a variety of whites and reds: bottles from the Loire Valley, cru Beaujolais, California red field-blends, Oregon pinot noir and pinot gris, dry, earthy Lambruscos, Muscadet and Chablis, reds and whites from Mount Etna in Sicily, Spanish reds from Ribeira Sacra, Finger Lakes rieslings and syrahs from the northern Rhône and California. But these aren’t the only wines that will work. Don’t hesitate to seek guidance at your local wine shop. That, by the way, is an excellent piece of general advice: Cultivate the merchants at the best wine shop nearby.
▪ Avoid high-alcohol wines at a long and tiring feast. It’s best not to serve wines that are more than 14.5 percent alcohol for Thanksgiving. Such powerful wines are no problem if you are just having a glass or two, but if you like to drink more than that, you’ll want wines that won’t be fatiguing. Moderately sweet wines like German kabinett and spätlese rieslings can be wonderful Thanksgiving accompaniments, and they may be as low as 8 percent alcohol.
▪ Add wineglasses to the list of things not to worry about. If you have enough stemware, go ahead and use it.But if you don’t, juice glasses, tumblers or whatever will do just fine. Glass beats plastic every time. Better for the wine, better for the environment. But if you must use disposable vessels, avoid any with cheap plastic stems. They will fall apart, the wine will spill, things will be stained, and you will be unhappy.
▪ Serving temperature is worth controlling if possible. Whites should be cold, but not icy. Reds should be cool rather than room temperature. If refrigerator space is precious, you can store the wines outdoors, assuming it’s cool enough. No outdoor space? Perhaps an ice chest.
▪ Are there good alternatives to wine? Of course. Cider, in both its hard and nonalcoholic guises, is a natural, seasonal and historic. The United States is making some great dry ciders these days. Beer, too, is fine, though, as with red and white wines, you’ll want to provide some choices, say a crisp pilsner and a dark porter, or a pale ale and a stout.
Being a Better Guest
You might not have to keep vigil over the turkey or worry about the construction of a lattice crust, but as a guest, you still have work to do. The altruistic way of looking at this is that you should try to make the host’s job easier. Here are a few tips from The Times’s restaurant critic, Pete Wells.
▪ If you have food allergies, let the host know immediately upon accepting the invitation, so he or she has plenty of time to accommodate you.
▪ By the day before the holiday, the host has a much better idea of what’s missing, so call and ask if anything is needed: cocktail napkins, folding chairs, ice or piles of plastic containers for sending guests home with leftovers.
▪ If you’re bringing chilled wine, make sure you have a way to keep the bottles cold while you’re getting there.
▪ If you’ve been asked to bring a dish (no unsolicited dishes, please), make sure it’s prepared and ready to serve when you arrive. Don’t count on extra counter space to make it.
▪ Bring a small thank-you gift. A bottle of good wine or liquor to savor after guests have gone, a box of nice stationery or a potted flower or plant are all good choices.
▪ As your grandmother might say, “Make yourself useful.” Ask if you can help, but if you’re shooed away, appoint yourself coat-check clerk, bartender or baby sitter. Or talk to the stray great-aunt who’s on her own.
▪ Don’t drink too much. That can lead to all manner of trouble.
▪ Don’t give unsolicited advice to the cook. Bite your tongue if you notice the gravy hasn’t been degreased as thoroughly as you think it should be.
▪ Take modest portions until everyone has been served.
▪ Praise the cook and praise some more. Remember that no dish in the American canon provokes more performance anxiety than roast turkey, and the host needs to hear that all the effort was worth it.