For some reason, Finnish Top Chef runner-up Stefan Richter is an expert on this uniquely American celebration. "The first thing you have to realize is that Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving; you can't change the classic foods," the notoriously blunt cook says. "The second thing is that it's not brain surgery." Here, Richter's straight-from-the-stove tips:
Keep the menu simple. "If you make 18 different items, you're going to serve a bunch of shit," he says. "Make five really well rather than 20 half-crappy ones."
Use fresh herbs. "The dried ones are no good. Buy fresh thyme, rosemary, and sage."
Zap the beans. To save time—and burner space—blanch the string beans a few days in advance; right before dinner, microwave them for four minutes, and you'll have "perfectly cooked beans. And no fried onions on top!"
Don't cook the bird all day. Instead of the typical 275 degrees for eight hours for a 12- to 16-pound turkey, which makes the bird "dry as shoe leather," says Richter, "cook it at 500 degrees for 30 minutes to get some nice color, and then bring it down to 350 for two-and-a-half hours. You'll have the perfect turkey."
Think cheap. "Find a wine for $3 a bottle, like Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck," says Richter. "I drink it—it's the runoff of a beautiful winery. You know what else I drink? Milwaukee's Best. It's 30 cents a can. I never buy European stuff."