I have to confess that if I’m having 2 or 20 people for Thanksgiving, I’m still going to spend days cooking up all my favorite foods. I can’t help myself.
Maybe you’re one of those people, too. Or maybe you’re one of those people thinking, “It’s just us for Thanksgiving this year? Why bother?”
As I said in my column last week, this might be a good year to let a professional cook Thanksgiving for you. Local restaurants are eager and willing to make you thankful that you didn’t have to cook this Thanksgiving. And with the strain the coronavirus pandemic has put on restaurants, they could use your support.
But if you do plan to cook, it is possible to cook a small feast, even if that sounds like an oxymoron. By scaling back and keeping the preparation simple, you can make a sumptuous supper for two to four people in just a couple of hours.
Below I outline how to make small meal that can still serve as a celebration. Maybe we can't see all our loved ones this year, but celebrating is just as important in bad times as good, maybe more so — we just need to do it safely.
So if, like me, you equate celebrations with cooking but you plan to have a small Thanksgiving group — as the CDC recommends — then read on.
For most of these dishes I’ve offered three options or levels, depending on the amount of time and work you want to put into them.
If you plan to have two to four people for Thanksgiving, you have several options — with or without leftovers.
If everyone in your group likes white meat, consider a turkey breast. A boneless turkey breast typically runs 2½ to 3 pounds, great for four people with some leftovers. If you have four to six people and want to have a fair amount of leftovers, graduate to a bone-in turkey breast, typically 5 or 6 pounds.
If you like dark meat or prefer a mix of white and dark, you can augment the breast with some turkey legs or drumsticks, sold separately at most supermarkets. Usually the legs are sold two to three to a package — enough for two large or four small appetites.
Another idea for a group that wants white and dark meat is to simply roast a chicken. A 4-pound whole chicken cooks up in about an hour and comfortably feeds four, usually with a bit of leftovers.
If it’s just two of you and you are adamant about not wanting leftovers, a Cornish hen in the way to go. They are not carried in every supermarket and often squirreled away in a freezer case. Cornish hens are like baby chickens and they make a perfect dinner for two where each person can enjoy some breast meat and some thigh and leg meat.
Level One: For a small Thanksgiving, you might want to just serve the turkey plain, without gravy, or just drizzled with melted butter. Deglaze the pan to create what the French call “jus” — meat drippings. All that entails is boiling a half cup or more of white wine or chicken or vegetable broth or even water and scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Boil down to a few tablespoons and pour the jus over the turkey.
Level Two: Into the deglazing liquid, add a few fresh or dried cranberries (or even canned cranberry sauce). Fresh berries will need a touch of sugar, honey or maple syrup, too. Boil until syrupy, then swirl in a pat of butter, if desired, and — voila! — you have cranberry glaze.
Level Three: Go for classic gravy, deglazing and adding a mixture of 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon water for each cup of broth. Simmer, whisking often, about 10 minutes, then taste for seasoning and serve.
You can apply the three levels to the sides, too.
The simplest potatoes are either baked whole or roasted — the latter are cubed, tossed with a dab of oil, salt and pepper and cooked 30 minutes at 425 degrees (ideally, while the turkey is cooking). Whole baked potatoes need about an hour at 350 to 400 degrees
Mashed potatoes, too, can be as simple as you want them to be: with butter, plus milk, plus garlic, plus herbs — you can decide how much or how little work you want to put into it.
The same goes for any green vegetables. At my house, we love green beans.
Level One: Steam or boil the beans and call it a day. Or maybe add a little melted butter.
Level Two: Mix the beans with some sauteed onion or onion and mushrooms.
Level Three: Mix the beans with onions and pimentos and top them with crispy bacon.
And if you want more than meat, starch and greens, you can add more a la carte options while still keeping the portions small.
Level One: Bake whole sweet potatoes while the turkey cooks. Serve plain or with melted butter.
Level Two: Melt some butter, honey or brown sugar, orange juice and cinnamon together in the microwave. Pour that over your baked and split-open whole potatoes, or toss with peeled cooked chunks.
Level three: Mashed the peeled, baked potatoes with butter, honey or brown sugar, orange juice and cinnamon plus one beaten egg for each cup of potato puree, sprinkle with pecans or marshmallows and divide into ramekins to be baked about 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Figure about 1 sweet potato for two people.
Ramekins also can be used for dressing on the fly. Take some salad croutons or make some toast — figure one to two slices person — and cube it. Sauté some onion and whatever else you might have — such as celery, carrot, fennel or red bell pepper. Stir in the toast, salt, pepper and a pinch of herbs. Thyme works great, or use any combination of thyme, sage, parsley and rosemary. Stir in broth to make it as moist as you like — taste and adjust the seasoning — then transfer to a ramekin and bake with the turkey until golden brown on top.
Finally — you probably saw this coming — you can even make individual pumpkin pies, or custards. If you want a crust, cut out rounds of store-bought pie dough and press into ramekins or muffin tins. Or save a step and skip the crust altogether while making the dessert gluten-free. Either way, for about 4 servings, take half a can (about 7 ounces or ¾ cup) of canned pure pumpkin, and mix with 1 beaten egg, 4 to 6 ounces milk, evaporated milk, half-and-half or cream. Stir in about ½ teaspoon cinnamon and ¼ to ⅓ cup sugar. If desired, add a pinch each of ginger, nutmeg and cloves. Divide among about four ramekins and bake until set, about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
Serve warm, room temperature or cold, with maybe some candied pecans or a dollop of whipped cream.
Feel free to mix and match all of these ideas with your favorite recipes, or with takeout from your favorite restaurant. Maybe you only want to bake pie. Maybe it’s the homemade sides that are most important to you and your family.
Also, don’t forget to make it festive. Garnish the plate. Be sure to pick up some fresh parsley, or orange or lemon slices, maybe some cherry tomatoes — something to give an extra pop of color to the plate.
Don’t skip the nice plates, silverware and tablecloths — they are all part of the celebration. And top if all off with some fresh flowers or another table centerpiece.