From the White House to Your House: Easy Thanksgiving Tips

It’s that time of year again – time to begin your Thanksgiving dinner planning!

Whether this will be your first time preparing a Thanksgiving dinner or your twentieth, nothing is worse than cooking a Thanksgiving dinner and running out of food. How many of us would love to be able to cook for a large group of people without the fear of something going wrong? It is important to be prepared and avoid a Thanksgiving disaster. How much food is enough? When should I start preparing my menu? The questions and worries are endless.

There is no exact formula for cooking for a large crowd, and the most important reminder is to consider who your guests are and be prepared.

Lucky for us, we have former White House Certified Executive Chef, Martin Mongiello to put our fears to rest. Chef Martin ‘CJ’ Mongiello, MBA, CFE, CEC, CPFM, a United States Navy veteran and member of the BuyVeteran movement, was called to serve as the Executive Chef at Camp David and later as the Sous Chef to the White House. Chef Marti has served celebrities and Presidents including Clinton, Bush, and Obama. So needless to say, Chef Marti is experienced in cooking under pressure and for large groups of people, including troops. Chef Marti shares some of his Thanksgiving tips as well as his favorite recipes for your dinner table.

Tips for Military Spouses Cooking a Large Thanksgiving meal for the first time:

The most problematic thing is not examining the time required for a frozen turkey to thaw. Check the instructions based on weight and do the math, or examine the weight and cooking time on the small paper instructions that come with your turkey. If you don’t do this a few days ahead of time, you’ll be quite sorry you didn’t plan ahead of time.

Make sure to check all the cavities (the inside) of your turkey. One year I cleared out the whole cavity of the turkey and made gravy with it, but forgot to clear out the front cavity (much smaller). I did not know that they hid items in two cavities of a turkey all the time! President Clinton asked me as he was cutting the bird, “Hey Marti, what is this?!”

When planning your menu, always take into consideration your favorite recipes that you have mastered and have made famous. These are your main strengths. From there you can branch out to include respectful dishes of guests visiting; focus on your strengths first or only.

To determine how much food to serve for a large group, I typically use a small fist to demonstrate about how much starch or vegetable a single person will eat. I visually estimate and calculate what I will need and then add in four more portions for an event. Better to have enough than run out! It is always helpful to do your shopping ahead of time, to make sure that you can get the best deals and save time. Click here for a great plan of attack!

Chances are there will be leftovers. If there are, it is always easiest to make turkey sandwiches complete with a smattering of cranberry sauce on the bread. This makes a great leftover meal the next day. Some folks even put a little stuffing in it.

Do’s and Don’ts When Cooking a Thanksgiving Meal for a Large Group:

Do offer several kinds of stuffing to please different people. There are many kinds like wet, dry, cornbread, sausage, or oyster stuffing.

Don’t wait until two days before Thanksgiving to begin prepping your items! I often complete all shopping six days before. The sooner you begin, the more prepared you will be. Yams, sweet potatoes, and vegetables are great to prep a few days before. There are so many items you can have prepped and ready or even cooked starting at the four day mark; overall, it becomes extremely helpful to have it all done beforehand.

If you are cooking for over 20 people, it is best to make your pies four days out and pop them into the refrigerator and then heat them or serve room temperature on Thanksgiving Day. I prepare and decorate my cranberry sauces and cranberry jelly servings; next, I cover the sauces with saran wrap and have them ready in the fridge.

Wow your guests at the dinner table with some of Chef Marti’s Thanksgiving Recipes:

Dolly Madison Ginger Pound Cake with Cardamom Syrup:


3-cups cake flour

2-teaspoons ground ginger

½-teaspoon baking powder

½-teaspoon baking soda

½-teaspoon salt

1-cup, two sticks, unsalted butter softened

1 ½- cups granulated sugar

3 Large Eggs

1 ½- tablespoons peeled and grated ginger root

1-teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1-cup milk


¼-cup water

½-cup granulated sugar

3-cardamom pods or ½ teaspoon of ground cardamom

½ in thick slice ginger root

6-black peppercorns

Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter and flour the inside of a Bundt or Tube pan, or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Sift together flour, ground ginger, baking powder, baking soda and salt. With an electric beater beat the butter for two minutes at medium until creamy – add the sugar and continue to beat for two more minutes, or until mixture is light in texture and color.

Beat in the eggs one at a time beating for 30 to 40 seconds after each egg is added. Scrape down the side of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula to keep the batter even. Beat in the grated ginger root and lemon juice. On low speed, alternately add the sifted mixture in three additions with the milk in two additions beginning and ending with the sifted mixture. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Bake the cake for 50 to 55 minutes until raised and a wooden toothpick inserted into the cake withdraws cleanly.

To make the syrup: Combine the water, sugar, cardamom, ginger and peppercorns in a small non-reactive saucepan. Set over medium heat, and warm the mixture stirring frequently until the sugar melts 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the stove and let mixture stand for 10 minutes allowing the flavors to infuse into the syrup. Strain this the syrup through a medium sieve and into a small bowl. Use a pastry brush and dab the syrup over the surface of the warm cake allowing it to sink in before reapplying in the same area.  Let the cake cool completely. Garnish with fresh fruit, mint sprigs and confectioners’ sugar. This can also be served with strawberry ice cream aside it.

Navy Egg Nog Chicken while out to Sea

I used to make this as a young Navy chef onboard my submarine. We would stock up on Egg Nog while inport, just before the holidays, and when fried chicken came up on the menu I figured, “Hey, why dredge in milk when we could dredge in Egg Nog!” Ha, ha! A touch of cinnamon and maybe a wee pinch of nutmeg drove people crazy around the holidays. Of course, we still had turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas – but I did this in between and sailors loved it 🙂

When we came back to port, I would whip it up for my wife, Missi, who always came down to eat dinner with me – while I cooked for the crew on Duty Nights. Seemed like a whole bunch of wives would come down the days I had duty…and the mess decks would be packed. Guess it doesn’t take long for the word to get out that the young chef “Mongiello” really cared about his cooking and care for the crew.

Makes 10 servings


5 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves – cut into strips

5 chicken drumsticks

5 chicken thighs or wings (which do you like?)

1 quart egg nog

1 pinch (or more?) of nutmeg

1 pinch (or more?) of cinnamon

2 cup all-purpose flour

2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon chicken base or bouillon (powdered) – like Wylers

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 quart oil for frying


1. In a large bowl, mix the eggnog. Add in chicken pieces. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours.

2. In another large bowl, mix together the nutmeg, cinnamon, flour, bread crumbs, bouillon powder and baking powder. Remove chicken from refrigerator. One piece at a time, drip drain, and then coat in dry mixture.

3. Heat oil in a large, pot to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). This is the few times a year that using a deep frying thermometer helps keep the kitchen safe! Otherwise it just sits in the drawer all year long.

4. Carefully put chicken pieces into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown and the juices running out of it are clear. You can always poke the piece with the tip of a knife (just don’t do that while holding it over the hot oil). Drip-dry and drain on plenty of paper towels.

For the guys “winter time NFL tailgate parties,” put some E and J Brandy with Pure Vanilla into a spray bottle and mist pieces to your liking just before eating. Some guys like to drench their piece with a whole bunch of mists! Or just get nutty with it at a home party. Keep the spray bottle under control.

On the elegant entertaining side – This can also be done with baby sized pieces of chicken for hors de oeuvres.

Outrageous Coca-Cola Bing Cherry Jell-O Mold

Oh yes, indeedy, prepare yourself for the outrageous and tasty flavor of everyone’s favorite – Coca-Cola! Now, who ever heard of using Coca-Cola to make a holiday Jell-O ring? Only a few who dared to play with CO2 and carmel coloring. And why not put in some Hawaiian pineapple, Georgia pecans, Bing Cherries (butta-bing!) and deep down black cherry Jell-O mix. This recipe was a favorite at the Arkansas capitol when President Clinton was there and a variation of it was published in “Cooking at the Mansion.” I’ve got my own twist to it and it seems to be the ultimate version. Of course, that’s what I would think! We all dream our recipe is the best, don’t we?


1 (12 fluid ounce) can of Coca-Cola

1 (16.5-ounce) can of pitted Bing cherries

1/2 teaspoon of fresh zested (tiny, miniscule pieces) orange

1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple with juice

1 (6 ounce) package black cherry flavored gelatin mix

1 cup chopped pecans

1 block of Cream cheese for decorating and garnishing

1 pastry bag with a simple star tip in it (at Wal-Mart they always sell these two items in the decorating section, in the cake decorating aisle.

1 bag of fresh mesclun greens or designer greens for platter


1. Drain pineapple juice right down the drain, save pineapple. Drain off the cherry juice but save all of IT in a separate bowl. Just let the drained cherries sit in the can, right there on the counter.

2. In a saucepan mix the cherry juice with the Coke. Heat to boiling then stir in the Jell-O mix. Stir until the Jell-O is dissolved. Take it off of the heat and fold in the drained pineapple, drained cherries and chopped pecans. Spray your Jell-O ring or pan with a quick shot of Pam spray. Go on ahead and pour the mixture into a nice mold that you have and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving. Make sure that it is in there for at least a full day to ensure its real solid. It would not have made anyone sad, if you had chilled the empty mold pan before hand, either. But that’s between you and your pans – relationship stuff, you know…

3. When it comes time to UN-mold it, it helps to just hold the whole ring in a hot, hot water bath bowl. Don’t let any water actually touch the Jell-O. A quick dip in the “pool,” like this, helps to loosen the whole mold up – just around the edges.  We are talking, like, a 10-second dip here. Then place your platter on top of the mold and flip. Beware of running, red juices! You could very well flip them all over your beautiful, white Christmas blouse or shirt.  Best to flip slowly and steadily – don’t be a maniac with it or ensure you have the ole apron on. Lift off mold, slowly.

4. Garnish with pastry bag filled with cream cheese. Gotta make sure you drop the star tip in first – then fill it up with softened cream cheese. If it’s not soft yet, then work it up with your hands until it is. Or leave on the counter for an hour. Any type of neat designs looks great! There is no “correct” way to do it. The right way is what you think looks good! Then put some nice lettuce leaves around the bottom and in the center.  Put back in fridge for later.


Cooking Thanksgiving dinner is a big endeavor, but you can take most of the stress out of the kitchen by preparing your foods in advance and using these simple tips from Chef Marti. Allow yourself the time needed for planning over your menu, organizing your ingredients, and determining which ones you can make ahead of time. Most of all, enjoy the food, good company and the traditions of your family.

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