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We asked the pros for their key to large-scale Thanksgiving success

Kally and Bill Harvard serve about 100 people every Thanksgiving at their home in Snell Isle in St. Petersburg. And no, a caterer is not involved. They’ve been at it for many, many years.

Courtesy of Kally Harvard

Kally and Bill Harvard serve about 100 people every Thanksgiving at their home in Snell Isle in St. Petersburg. And no, a caterer is not involved. They’ve been at it for many, many years.

On the last Thursday in November, Kally Harvard and her husband, Bill, do the nearly impossible at their Snell Isle home. They serve Thanksgiving dinner to around 100 people, no caterer. They do it with real linens and plates and silverware. They do it with five turkeys and multiple hams, with a range of hors d'oeuvres and a phalanx of pies. They do it with grace and without freaking out.

The secret? It's just like how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

The Harvards have been married for 47 years. They started hosting big crowds for Thanksgiving 41 years ago when daughter Maria was less than 1. That first year it was fewer than 25 people.

"I took over doing it from my aunt. The kids would invite their friends and one thing led to another. We usually do it outside with a bar and hors d'oeuvres, then set up tables inside and outside," Kally, 72, said. "We did have one year when it rained. Talk about adapting — we had people eating in our garage."

Everyone has a job. Butterballs get picked up on Monday. Neighbor David Cox grills one and Bill grills another, two go in the oven on Thanksgiving morning and the biggest one gets roasted the night before. Oh, and daughter-in-law Augusta Harvard's parents send a smoked one for good measure.

Son Billy Harvard makes a cheese ball in the shape of an alligator with a feather in its mouth ("because we're all Gators," explains Kally), while daughter Maria Rawls has taken over washing all the turkeys. Sister-in-law Susan Harvard is in charge of inside decorations, Augusta Harvard does the green bean casseroles and sister-in-law Shirley Miaoulis does the cranberry relishes.

Aunt Kally Lulias comes on Tuesday and boils the yams. She makes the bread stuffing on Wednesday. (The traditional Greek rice stuffing goes in the big bird.) Sister Evelyn Bilirakis arrives Tuesday or Wednesday to prep the salad. Mary Evertz and Carmen Moore roll silverware and help with decorations. Friends bring corn souffle, mashed potatoes, fish dip and trifle.

There are traditions. Someone wears the apron Kally made for her aunt 44 years ago, and ancient turkeys made out of plastic flowers are incorporated into the decor. But perhaps the biggest tradition is this: serious planning.

"I am a listmaker and I double-check them," said Kally. "I start two weeks in advance and order the rentals. A week in advance I order the turkeys and hams and I plan out what all the jobs are. Then I have very detailed lists for Monday to Thursday."

Even the pros agree. Benito D'Azzo is the executive chef of Trinity Cafe in St. Petersburg, which serves nutritious meals to the homeless, hungry and working poor. With two locations, they will serve 500 on Thanksgiving.

"Really, writing everything down is key. When you're serving a big crowd, time and budget are your two keys for the whole thing."

D'Azzo says make as much as you can ahead of time, but engaging your guests to do some of the easy stuff is helpful as well as providing introverts or single folks a focus and a stress-free way to mingle.

"Having guests making the salad, tossing the vegetables with olive oil or plating up desserts — it's better than Match.com."

Jeffrey Hileman, executive chef of Locale Market in St. Petersburg, says, "it's very important to go into Thanksgiving Day with a plan. First, you have to have lots of room in the fridge, so try and clear out some space. And don't forget about your beach coolers with ice as extra storage."

You have to have an oven schedule. Start with items that require the longest oven time, Hileman says, but you can pair things that are baking at the same temperature but not necessarily the same amount of time. And in order to serve hot food hot, employ things like your slow cooker for mashed potatoes and encourage guests to bring dishes that can be served at room temperature.

For Kally, some of the most essential preparation is making sure you have enough rest before the big day, "and if something is ruined or someone forgets something, it doesn't matter. Just relax."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

>>Easy

Jeffrey Hileman's Gram's Cranberry Relish

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup hot water

12 ounces fresh cranberries

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and medium diced

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Zest of 1 orange

Dissolve sugar in water over low heat. Add cranberries and apples and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Once cranberries have "popped," stir in cinnamon and orange zest and remove from heat. Relish will thicken as it cools.

Source: Jeffrey Hileman

Tip time: Cooking for a large group

• Pare back your offerings. It doesn't need to be eight or nine different sides. Just makes sure the handful you do make provide good juxtapositions of color and texture. "Limit it to a couple vegetables (a green and something else), a couple of starches and a couple relishes," said Benito D'Azzo, executive chef of Trinity Cafe in St. Petersburg. "But then don't all of a sudden do sweet potato jalapeno hash or something that requires a lot of effort. Everyone wants mashed potatoes, so stick with those."

• Starches like potatoes or even polenta, rice and pasta are filling and inexpensive for groups, and they are sturdy enough to accommodate an indefinite "holding period" while the rest of the meal comes together.

• For proteins, D'Azzo says figure about a pound a person, with 6 ounces per person on vegetables and starches. Since big crowds often mean some guests will be strangers, stick a salmon fillet or two in the refrigerator for anyone who might not eat turkey, and make sure there are gluten-free and vegan items on offer.

• Don't be afraid of things that can be served at room temperature. Try an antipasti platter to start, a tray of cheese and charcuterie for a cocktail hour. And serve nibbles in rooms other than the kitchen so people don't congregate in the dreaded Bermuda Triangle between you and the oven door. Jefffrey Hileman, executive chef of Locale Market in St. Petersburg, suggests serving crudites, olives or pickles as nibbles that don't fill guests up.

• Buffet or family style are the ways to go for a big crowd. If you're opting for buffet, consider having a double-sided line so there isn't a traffic jam. For the Harvards, some dishes are arrayed on ceramic oval platters while others are in more utilitarian disposable aluminum.

• When prepping for a large group, complete each task before moving to the next. Peel all the potatoes, then chop all the potatoes, then put them all in water. Bang out all of one task before moving on to the next.

• Make ahead. Phyllo dough and puff pastry lend themselves to freezable hors d'oeuvres. Make a couple in the weeks before Thanksgiving and the freezer will be full of bake-and-serves.

• At the beginning of a gathering there's a bottleneck at the bar. Premixing batches of "signature" mixed drinks or punch can get a drink in everyone's hand in no time. Once your pitchers are empty, people seem content to mix their own drinks or switch to wine.

• To minimize confusion, when you invite guests let them know when to come as well as when dinner will be served.

• Engage kids at the gathering to make place cards, decorative napkin rings or other decorations. They can also be employed to take coats and bag or walk sequestered pets.

• Although inelegant, it's important to have garbage cans in an obvious place near any buffet station and the drinks station (with recycling bins for bottles and cans).

We asked the pros for their key to large-scale Thanksgiving success 11/14/16 [Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2016 3:59pm]
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