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Boy, did Thanksgiving sneak up on me. Maybe I was in denial as I noticed the already-fully-decorated Christmas trees in Home Depot, or the abundance of turkeys lining the cases at local grocery stores, or the signs encouraging us to order our holiday pies now. Despite the fact that it's November, it was still 87 degrees outside and I was making chopped salads and barbecue chicken.

Still, this is the time for everything pumpkin, apple cider, creamy, buttery mashed potatoes and all those wonderful pies--pecan, custard and my all-time love, homemade apple pie.

If you are planning on dining out there are many options listed here. If you are planning on cooking and need some simple tips to make your holiday turkey moist and keep the kitchen stress down to a minimum, you can follow these tips--and leave a comment with any questions!

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Without further ado:

Get up early enough to take a good power walk and mentally plan out the day.

Butter is king on the holidays. I use Irish butter and truffle butter--and yes, a lot of it.

Remember, roasting the whole turkey upside down for the first hour allows all the juices to drip into the breast. 

Always start your mashed potatoes in cold water, with a hefty amount of kosher salt. (I use red-skinned potatoes so I don’t have to peel so many.) When they are tender, drain, rinse and add light cream, sour cream, butter, salt and pepper, fresh minced chives and goat cheese. You can hand-mash or use your hand mixer. (Note: little kids probably won’t like the tang of goat cheese; I remove some plain mashed potatoes before making them more gourmet-style.) And yes, I use lots of butter!

Yoder’s produce market sells butternut squash already cut up; for a great side, peel two parsnips, two turnips and six organic carrots the day before. Go ahead and cut them the same size as the pre-cut butternut squash. Toss the vegetables with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, a pinch of crushed red pepper or turmeric and fresh thyme. Roast in the oven a shallow pan until tender. These can be served room temp; put the leftovers in your blender the next day with turkey stock and cream for a smooth roasted root veg soup.

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Don’t even think about making a turkey if you don't have a good meat thermometer. Hitting the correct temperature is key; if you buy one, get a quality one that goes into the bird at the thickest part of the leg. Do take into account that once it's out of the oven, the turkey will continue to cook about 5-7 degrees more. Dark meat takes longer to cook, so for a small group you may want to opt for bone-in turkey breast to make your life easier.

Use poultry seasoning liberally, both inside and outside the turkey.

Keeping all your sides warm while finishing the gravy can be daunting, so I suggest purchasing a warming plate.

If your pies are not homemade, pour a quart of fresh cider into a pot and simmer with two cinnamon sticks. The aroma will make it smell as if Granny herself was in your kitchen.

Cranberry sauce is easy to make, but if you bought a can already, mash it up with grated ginger and zest of orange. As long as it doesn’t look like a congealed can, guests will never know!

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And here is my most important tip: take time to enjoy your family and friends. The world will not end if the turkey is dry, and yes, I have bombed a few times myself. (Just try to limit the impulse to add three more side dishes.) Think about what you can let go of, and what you can do to make sure you enjoy the meaning of the holiday.

I continue to be thankful for delicious food in my home and friends and family that gather there. I am thankful to our loyal readers, and I am truly thankful for each day on the Suncoast.

May your turkey be moist and may your spirits be bright. And remember: don’t skimp on the butter!

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