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Thanksgiving playbook is built on family tradition

It’s been a few years since I’ve drafted a playbook for the home cook’s Super Bowl.

I learned from one of the game’s greats, in my humble opinion. My mom puts on the Thanksgiving feast with the confidence of any other day in the kitchen. Decades of catering and managing a restaurant certainly gave her an edge on the competition. And years into retirement, she deftly coordinates a diverse team of dishes that makes a fan of everyone at the table.

Mom’s strategy basically assigns all the action to herself. She shops several weeks in advance, preps some dishes ahead for fridge and freezer storage and rises before dawn to put the turkey in the oven. It’s a lot to pull off. But to suggestions of paring down the menu or simplifying some of the dishes, Mom replies that green-bean casserole topped with french-fried onions only takes minutes to mix up from seven cans.

Given that our family menu has its origins in the 1970s, it contains no fewer than three casseroles: traditional dressing, sweet potato-praline and the aforementioned green beans in cream of mushroom soup. To that, add mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and yeast rolls to accentuate the turkey.

Suggest that one or more of those could be reconfigured or — heaven forbid — eliminated, and much debate ensues. In the end, we only ever add — never subtract — from this decadent display of Mom’s penchant for people-pleasing, including herself.

Among the nonnegotiables is 24-Hour Fruit Salad, a dish lifted from a 1960s cookbook of special-occasion recipes. The book title eludes Mom’s memory, but the dish has been integral to her holiday experience since her mother, for whom the salad was a favorite, died a week before Christmas in 1971.

The basic method or even the precise recipe may be familiar to many cooks. The dressing starts with a cider vinegar-infused sabayon that, when combined with some mini marshmallows, becomes an airy, fluffy pillow cushioning a melange of fruit. The dish is much lighter than pie after a turkey dinner and keeps for several days to dress up plates of leftovers.

Over time, the recipe has become imbued with ritual beyond the fairly simple instructions on the stained and creased card in Mom’s recipe box. The cut-up fruit must drain in a colander and be stirred periodically for at least an hour, she says, because the latent liquid would thin the dressing.

True to its origins, the recipe calls for some canned fruit, which I don’t believe could be so easily swapped for fresh produce. Cutting up pineapple tidbits simply wouldn’t be worth it, and fresh Royal Ann cherries just aren’t available this time of year. In fact, we’ve taken to substituting canned mandarin oranges in juice because they’re so much sweeter than navels.

Although Mom’s Thanksgiving aesthetic references decades past, her sanitation methods are modern, if not cutting-edge. Her food-industry experience bred an abhorrence of any move that doesn’t strictly adhere to science-based safety measures.

Mom never allows a raw turkey to warm the bench for hours prior to roasting. And forget a halftime for the feast, when the leftovers could cool for an hour or so before diners come back for more. Everything must be hustled into the fridge lest bacterial growth claims a foothold. Mom sets her ticking clock against food in the “danger zone” — 40 to 140 degrees.

Indeed, temperature — not a spotless kitchen — is the most significant factor in preventing food-borne illness, which depending on the type can arise between two and six hours after eating contaminated food. It’s most problematic, of course, for the very young, elderly, pregnant women and anyone in poor health.

People tend to point all their fingers at raw poultry and then leave their cooked birds out on the counter for hours. Cooks have a little leeway, but 20 minutes is the point at which bacteria rapidly start to multiply in the danger zone.

So before you start cooking, it pays to have a plan for packaging up all those leftovers and cooling them appropriately. If the outside temperature is below 40 degrees, simply placing wrapped food outside on a deck, porch or in an unheated garage — secure from animals — may be easier than trying to cram it all back in the fridge.

If you or someone in your family could use a food-safety refresher, consult the tips accompanying this column. A digital probe thermometer makes a nice hostess gift, particularly for the American holiday when poultry’s temperature is paramount.

With family scattered among other obligations this Thanksgiving, my mom’s house won’t play host to four generations of diners. But if I know Mom, she won’t be sidelined and simply will prepare the same menu for herself and my dad in much-reduced portions. This column applauds the work of so many dedicated home cooks and food-industry professionals for whom we give thanks.

24-Hour Fruit Salad

2 (20-ounce) cans pineapple tidbits

2 (15-ounce) cans Royal Ann cherries

2 oranges, peeled and cut into pieces, may substitute 2 (15-ounce) cans mandarin oranges

3 cups grapes, halved and, if necessary, seeded

6 egg yolks

4 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons butter

Dash salt

4 cups mini marshmallows

2 cups heavy cream

Open the cans of fruit and drain, reserving pineapple juice. Allow drained fruit, oranges and grapes to rest in a colander while you make sauce.

In top of a double boiler over medium-low heat, whisk the egg yolks. Add the sugar, vinegar, butter, salt and 4 tablespoons reserved pineapple juice. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking continuously and making sure it doesn’t boil, until sauce is thick and opaque. Cool.

Put the marshmallows in a large mixing bowl, add drained fruit and stir until combined.

Using an electric mixer with whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream. Fold whipped cream into dressing, then gently combine with marshmallows and fruit.

Chill in refrigerator overnight or for several hours, allowing marshmallows to meld with sauce.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Tips for a healthy holiday

1. Wash hands with soap and warm, running water for at least 15 to 20 seconds before preparing any foods, and especially after handling raw meat, poultry, fish or eggs.

2. Use separate cutting boards for meats, poultry and fish.

3. Wash utensils between each use.

4. Store raw food below cooked food in the refrigerator so raw food cannot drip into cooked food and contaminate it.

5. Use a meat thermometer to confirm that meat and poultry are properly cooked.

6. Keep preparation and storage areas clean; this includes countertops, stovetops and refrigerators.

7. Do not prepare food if you are sick or have any type of nose or eye infection.