Battle stations, people. • Just four days from now, troops — some hostile and others friendly — will infiltrate the perimeter of the kitchen, demanding perfectly roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes and lump-free gravy. They'll fight for stuffing and pumpkin pie, armed with hearty appetites and stories of victorious meals from Thanksgivings gone by. • Are you up for it? Or are you considering going AWOL? • Don't worry. Not all Thanksgiving Day preparations need to be done on Thanksgiving. In fact, much of the work can done before T-Day, leaving you free to watch the feats of strength on TV. (That would be football.) • Don't make a tactical error by waiting until Wednesday night to piece together your plan. Remember, an army travels on its stomach, and you don't want to hear any grumbling. • Whether you're feeding a battalion or a small-but-mighty unit, the following 20 tips will march you toward victory. Don't tarry. For this battle, patience is not a virtue.
1 Figure out your menu, be it potluck or a solo-chef show. Now.
2 Give potluck guests a call to ask them to bring food or drink. Everyone deserves fair warning.
3 Check your pantry. Do you have the spices you need? How old are they? Make sure you have enough staples — sugar, flour, baking soda and power. Hardened brown sugar can be brought back to life by a minute in the microwave, but if you can't remember when you used it last, buy new.
4 Once you've got the menu down, write a detailed list and go grocery shopping. Yes, it will be crowded, but unless you're on midnight maneuvers, it's not going to get better as the week progresses.
5 Move the frozen turkey into the refrigerator if it weighs more than 15 pounds. It will take 24 hours per 5 pounds for a turkey to thaw in the fridge. Need to get rid of food to make room? Check out Stir Crazy on 2T for ideas.
6 Sketch out a timetable for cooking. We know some of you will bristle at this level of detail, but it does help to know that you've planned too many dishes that need 30 minutes in the oven just before mealtime.
7 Make Cabernet-Tangerine Cranberry Sauce this evening. Homemade cranberry sauce is impressive and the easiest thing you'll make for the holiday. Prepare extra for sandwiches. Use the recipe that accompanies this story.
8 Consider the dining table setup and decide if you want centerpieces. Make arrangements for those.
9 Need extra chairs or another card table? How about ice coolers or buffet heating trays? Pick up what you are borrowing from family or friends.
10 Order special desserts from the grocery store. You might be too late for some bakeries, but you can try.
11 If you're preparing a fresh turkey, pick it up. Fresh turkeys should be cooked within a couple days of purchase.
12 Surely you've forgotten something. Assess where you are and what else you need. Promise yourself that this will be the last day you go to the grocery store. If you have house guests, you'll need food for other meals. Get it.
13 Read the recipes you are planning to tackle at least twice. Make sure you understand the techniques and ingredients.
14 Go through that mess of plastic containers and match tops to bottoms. You'll need them for leftovers. Recycle the pairs that don't close tightly.
15 Stop at the liquor store and get wine and spirits. Colette and John Bancroft give suggestions on Page 5T.
16 Set the table.
17 Cut up bread for stuffing if you aren't using a bag of prepared cubes. You want the bread dried for stuffing so day-old is perfect.
18 Warning! Warning! Frozen pies often taken 90 minutes to bake and need added cooling time. Plan accordingly.
19 Prep vegetables for casseroles or aromatics for stuffing. You can even saute the aromatics today. (If you're lucky enough to be invited to a potluck, consider bringing Baked Spinach and Gruyere. Recipe included here.)
20 Make the mashed potatoes and store in the refrigerator. They'll reheat wonderfully right before the meal. If they appear dry, add more warmed milk.
Time to roast the turkey and put the rest of the meal together.