Dining & Entertaining

Essentials for a Newbie Thanksgiving

By David Leite, Leite's Culinaria

Essentials for a Newbie Thanksgiving Host

First time hosting? Fear not, pilgrim! Riverbend has teamed up with Leite's Culinaria to make sure you knock dinner out of the park.

The first step to making a great dinner is having the right equipment. I'm a firm believer in using as few tools as possible, so here's a barebones list of the must-haves. And before you object that these are just once-a-year tools, they're the core of my kitchen, and I use most of them throughout the week.

Say Hello to Your Basic Cooking Set

Roasting Pan

Regardless of whether you'll be making an old-fashioned behemoth turkey, a smaller bird such as chicken, or even just poultry parts, you'll need a roasting pan. A good roasting pan will hold you in good stead the whole year for holiday hams, spring lambs, prime ribs--you name it. You'll want a sizable pan with high sides to keep all those delicious pan drippings where they belong. The pan should have sturdy handles that are wide enough to allow plenty of room for cushy oven mitts to slip through. And make sure the pan comes with a roasting rack. It raises the meat off the bottom so hot air can circulate, creating even cooking. Last, don't even think about getting one of those flimsy disposable foil pans from the supermarket, or you might find your bird sliding across the floor, leaving a fat slick you know your mother-in-law's sure to find.

Turkey Fork Set

Once that turkey is perfectly roasted, you don't want it acting more like a greased pig as you try to lift it. A set of turkey forks allows you to easily and securely cradle the bird while you transfer it to a cutting board to rest. You can also use one of the forks to hold the bird in place while carving. And don't put these away after the holidays. They work year-round with any hunk o'meat you cook.

Carving Knife and Chef's Knife

Speaking of carving, you want a great carving knife. They're long and slender, making them a bit flexible, which is ideal for slicing every last bit of breast and thigh from the bird. Don't even think of using a chef's knife. It's too much of a bullish workhorse for this more delicate work. Save your chef's knife for chopping, dicing, slicing, mincing, of vegetables, herbs, and some meats like ham or bacon.

Wusthof Carving Set

Potato Ricer

Yes, yes, I know. You can make serviceable mashed potatoes with your hand mixer. But between us, they'll never be as silken and velvety as those that come out of a potato ricer. Fact. I love mine and it's indestructible. I've been using it for almost 30 years. And don't think this tool is a slacker. It can puree cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, and carrots; make homemade baby food; and squeeze cooked greens or grated potatoes to remove excess water. Tip: Resist the lure of a food processor, as it can blitz through a pile of cooked spuds in no time, you'll end up with gummy, gloppy potatoes.

Rimmed Baking Sheets

This seems like a no-brainer, but the last thing you want on the Holiest of Foodie Holy Days is to come up short. These rimmed baking sheets are useful for baking dinner rolls and cookies (or warming the store-bought kind because, let's face it, sometime you need to cut a corner or two), roasting vegetables, holding a butterflied bird, or even wrapping it in foil and placing it on the bottom oven rack to save yourself from scrubbing spillover drips and splatters after everyone's left.

Rimmed Baking Sheet

Casserole Dishes

Casserole dishes are as indispensable as rimmed baking sheets. Basically, pretty much everything except the turkey is roasted and/or served in a casserole dish on Thanksgiving. So having a few on hand for green bean casserole, potato gratin, mashed potatoes, puréed sweet potatoes. A little decorating advice, choose white and they'll go with every centerpiece and design idea you come up with over the years.

Glass Pie Plates

Whether dessert is classic pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, or a killer spiced maple pecan pie, you'll need a pie plate. But not just any pie plate. A glass pie plate. Why, you ask? First, glass is a superb conductor of heat, so your pie will bake more evenly. But more important, glass allows you to see just how brown the bottom crust is—or isn't. There's nothing worse than a pasty, pale bottom crust that causes the pie to slump on your plate. Tip: If you find the bottom crust isn't browning sufficiently, place the plate on the floor of the oven for the rest of its baking time. Works like a dream.

Electronic Meat Thermometer

So, everything is running like clockwork. You've read every chart on the Internet about exactly how long to roast your beautifully basted turkey. You've juggled thing so your side dishes are done at the same time the bird comes out of the oven. And you've carried it aloft to the table...only to discover it's undercooked, and everyone has to wait an extra hour for dinner, munching on the dwindling hors d'oeuvre platter. (Confession: Yup, it happened to me.) A meat thermometer features a long metal probe that you insert into the turkey (or chicken or pork roast or ham) at the start of cooking and a long cord leading to a readout, so you can monitor your creation every step of the way. It makes sure your bird is perfectly cooked and safe to serve. Which short circuits any heaving sighs and rolling of the eyes from your mother-in-law, who you wished would've slipped on that grease slick.

Oven Thermometer

An oven thermometer can make sure that your oven is blasting at the proper temperature. I have four. Excessive? Not really. I hang two from the top rack and two from the bottom rack to make sure I know if there are any cold or hot spots in my oven. The only way you'll get a properly cooked bird in the correct amount of time is to have a properly heated oven.

Fat Separator

It sounds like some medieval contraption for separating a bird from its padding, doesn't it? It's actually an ingenious tool I use every time I make gravy for turkey, chicken, roast beef, ham, and lamb. You simply pour the juices and fat that collected in the bottom of your roasting pan into the separator. Then let it all sit for a few minutes while the fat, which is lighter than the cooking juices, floats to the top. A spout in the bottom allows you to pour out just the juices while leaving the fat behind.

Your No-Fuss, Foolproof First Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Essential How-Tos

Here's wishing you a happy, delicious, and memorable (in a good way) Thanksgiving from all of us at Riverbend and Leite's Culinaria!