Swapping food for Thanksgiving is the safe, smart way to have more but cook less
To be honest, I was just about ready to give up on the expected Thanksgiving food this year and do something like a giant sheet-pan pizza. I was already feeling spent by holiday recipe testing -- so many turkey legs! -- and I felt like maybe I didn't want to be reminded of how much we were going to be missing this year without the big family to-do. It was only going to be three of us anyway, including a toddler who isn't interested in our traditional dishes.
But then my mom had an idea. Why not swap dishes during one of our regular outdoor visits so that we can still feel like we're sharing a family meal, even if we're not sitting down together? Less work, more food and a taste of nostalgia? Plus, with a surging pandemic, it felt like the responsible thing to do. I was immediately on board. If that sounds like something you'd like to try, too, here are some tips for pulling it off.
• Be safe. Transmission of coronavirus by food is unlikely, as experts have been telling us since the beginning of the pandemic. However, you should still use common sense when preparing food for others. Wash your hands before, during and after cooking. Wash your produce, and be sure to cook food to a safe internal temperature. You may wish to wear a mask or food-safe gloves as an extra layer of protection, although don't let that lull you into a false sense of security and lead you to disregard at least one very important piece of advice: If you are sick, with anything, do not make food for anyone else.
• Pick the right dishes. So many Thanksgiving dishes are perfect for making ahead, which means they're great candidates for sharing with family and friends. Cranberry sauce (or, in my family, the classic Jell-O mold!), bread and pies/desserts are the easiest, as they need zero to very little reheating. Many classic casserole-style sides can be assembled and divided up, to be cooked or reheated by the recipient. Think sweet potatoes and mac and cheese. Soups are simple to reheat, and roasted vegetables can be enjoyed cold, at room temp or warm.
One thing to avoid: Fried foods, advises Ben Lin of Washington's B. Lin Catering. They won't hold up well. Meat can be a little tricky, though not impossible, to share. Should you have the right equipment and inclination, sous vide turkey will retain its moisture well and can even be passed off to the recipient still sealed for a gentle reheat in a water bath. Other moist-cooking methods, such as pressure cooking in a multicooker/Instant Pot, are helpful. Lin says extending your brining time to up to 48 hours (cut back the amount of sugar and salt 10 to 20%) can also prevent turkey from drying out.
Keep in mind that plenty of meat requires and benefits from a post-roasting rest, so if you're exchanging food with someone nearby who plans to dig in promptly, you can hand it off tented under foil. Carry-over cooking, when the internal temperature of food continues to rise after it's removed from the oven (hence that meat resting period), can apply to vegetables as well. Lin says you may want to slightly undercook them until they're just shy of tender, so that they reach perfection while hanging out warm and covered.
• How to pack. My mom and I already have plans to exchange pans the weekend before so that her sweet potato casserole can go into a baking dish and the cranberry mold into a loaf tin. If you're sharing food with family or other people you trust, aim to use actual cookware rather than something disposable. Lin recommends ceramic or Pyrex, which can help cooked dishes stay warm or can be popped into the oven or microwave for reheating. Plus, they can be brought straight to the table for serving. If you're handing out food and would rather not have to worry about tracking down dishes, use disposable aluminum, though Lin suggests buying in bulk from a restaurant supply store or Costco for the best deal. The cost can add up if you're purchasing a large amount from the grocery store.
If salads are on the menu, pack greens or vegetables separate from the dressing. Crispy toppings, such as fried onions for the green beans or nuts for the sweet potatoes, should also be set aside for the recipient to add at the last minute.
Foil, or a layer of plastic wrap followed by foil, can help keep food warm. If your dish has a lid, even better.
For food safety purposes, the U.S. Agriculture Department recommends that food should be stored within two hours of cooking, so pay attention to that time frame should you be planning on handing off already-cooked dishes.
• Reheating. Lin generally thinks the oven is your best bet for bringing food back up to a warm serving temperature (again, look to the government's food safety advice on leftovers, which is an internal temp of 165 degrees). For foods you want to keep moist, such as mac and cheese and meats, cover them. Roasted vegetables or other foods you want drier or crisper should be uncovered. Aim for an oven temperature of 325 to 350 degrees, checking every 10 minutes until the food is ready.
The microwave is an option, with some caveats. The danger there, Lin says, is that you risk overcooking the outside before the inside is ready. You may want to reduce the power to guarantee more even cooking.
A little extra liquid can go a long way if you're reheating certain foods on stovetops. Broth for pureed vegetable soups can smooth them out into a more slurpable consistency. Adding moisture back into rice or mashed potatoes as they're being warmed is another way to return them to form.
• Give thanks. It's been quite a year, and now's the time to appreciate what we have, when we can. Be effusive in your appreciation for the people you're sharing food with, even if it's virtually. Savor each bite -- and wash those dishes well if you're returning them.