If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, it’s not too early to start planning, especially if you’re determined not to repeat the burned turkeys and cold sides of Thanksgivings past.
New York Times columnist and bestselling author Alison Roman is a pro at making unfussy, craveable meals. In fact, it’s the subject of her new book titled “Nothing Fancy.”
Roman and Good Food host Evan Kleiman team up to answer listener questions about hosting and prepping for the big feast.
This is going to be my first Thanksgiving as a vegetarian. I was wondering if you had any main dish recommendations that don't have meat in it.
Alison Roman: Turkey secretly is overrated. So you won't be missing much. As long as you get the stuffing and mashed potatoes, you're all set. But for me… something really beautiful made with mushrooms. And that can be baked pasta that feels dramatic and presented to feel celebratory.
Evan Kleiman: I've relied on one of Dorie Greenspan's recipes for years. That is to take a pumpkin or kabocha squash, bake it with bread pudding inside that is soaked in cream or vegetable stock. Then you could add greens if you want. It’s gorgeous. It rises out of the top [of the pumpkin] with the little cap.
Also this year, I learned about a traditional Armenian stuffed pumpkin, where it's stuffed with a very flavorful rice pilaf. There are nuts, fruit and cinnamon. It's all put in the pumpkin and then baked.
With several vegetarians in our clan, I always struggle with making a savory "unstuffed" stuffing that isn't overly dry. Any tips?
Evan Kleiman: The best way to be sure the dressing (if it’s not in the bird, it’s a dressing) isn’t dry is to use a huge amount of mirepoix sauteed in a ton of butter or olive oil. And a good vegetable broth to moisten. By mirepoix, I mean chopped onion/celery/carrot. It can be cut anywhere from dice to mince, depending on your preference. Prep each vegetable separately, then you may cook them together until very soft over medium heat. The object is to soften and sweeten the vegetables without too much browning. Trader Joe’s sells a quart of mirepoix already prepared cut in a large dice. I would use a full quart of the mixed raw vegetables for every bag of packaged “stuffing,” or for two loaves of fresh bread you will dry yourself.
Saute the seasoned mirepoix (don’t forget the salt and pepper) in butter or oil. Add to dry bread product along with broth to moisten. You can control the amount of broth you add, remembering to add the amount of fat/liquid that would go into the stuffing if it were in the bird.
To brine or not to brine? When it comes to the turkey, what do you prefer to do? And if you do brine, how many days in advance and what ingredients/ratios do you use?
- Kristin Smith
Evan Kleiman: I dry brine, which simply means salting the bird with Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt three days before roasting. Use the same amount of salt you would use to season the bird. If you don’t want to do this, then buy a kosher bird which is pre-brined. I refer you to Russ Parson’s excellent explanation here.
What is the best way to celebrate a Thanksgiving meal with only two people?
Evan Kleiman: See if Lawry’s has any reservations left! Or if you must do it yourself, make a great dinner without any preconceived notions of what it should be. Take the time to have a cocktail hour with a couple of nibbles before you sit down to the table. Alison Roman’s new book, “Nothing Fancy,” has a craveable list of ideas that are absolutely do-able. Splurge on the dessert of your dreams. Buy it!
As for the turkey, you could butterfly and stuff a turkey breast and roast it. If you want to spend more time, you can confit a couple thighs/legs.
Evan’s Turkey Leg Confit
- 4 Turkey legs with thighs attached
- 1 tablespoon Kosher Salt
- 1 teaspoon peppercorns
- 10 fresh sage leaves
- 5 fresh thyme sprigs
- 1 quarts rendered duck fat
1. Salt the turkey legs all over then place them in a dutch oven just big enough to hold them in one layer. Sprinkle the peppercorns over them then tuck the fresh herbs under, around and on the legs. Refrigerate overnight, uncovered.
2. The next day, remove the pot of “cured” legs from the refigerator.
3. Preheat the oven to 325º.
4. Slowly heat the duck fat over low heat until it liquifies. Carefully pour duck fat over the legs until they are completely covered. Bring to a very gentle simmer on the stove. You want to see tiny bubbles just below the surface.
5. Carefully remove the pot and place it on the middle shelf of the oven, uncovered. Let bake for a minimum of 3 hours and up to 5 hours. Occasionally check the pot to make sure the fat isn’t boiling.
6. You want it to be just below the simmer. When done, remove the pan from the oven and let the legs cool in the fat. Store them in the pot in the refrigerator. You can make these up to a week in advance.
7. When ready to serve reheat the confit in a 450º oven so that the fat liquifies. Remove the legs from the fat and place on baking sheet with the skin side up. Return them to the oven and bake until the skin crisps. Serve.
8. You can strain the duck fat and use it again for another purpose (ike a savory pie crust). It’s easy to store in the freezer.
Or you could buy the best prime rib eye steak ever. It’s your meal. Have what you want. One year, we were only three and I made Dorie Greenspan’s pumpkin stuffed with everything good. It’s festive and so so good.
This year, I will be attempting to cook a turkey dinner for the first time for a small group of people. Can a turkey breast be cooked the same way as an entire bird? Also, out of all the fabulous side dishes, what key ones can you recommend to make it very authentic?
Evan Kleiman: The only thing authentic about Thanksgiving is its sheer eclectic and customized nature, depending on where your family comes from and what traditions have evolved. I’ve heard from folks for whom a baked pasta dish is a must-have or folks who prefer chicken or seafood to turkey. Make the holiday your own. Several years ago, I interviewed Diep Tran whose family viewed the turkey as a side dish.
A turkey breast cooked separately from a whole bird is quite easy. If you can get a butcher to butterfly it for you do that. If not, watch YouTube videos and do it yourself. Then decide on a stuffing. It can be as simple as a flavorful compound butter or as complex as a stuffing. Roll it up, slather it with butter and herbs, wrap in aluminum foil and bake. Make sure you have an instant thermometer to prevent a raw or an overcooked result.
Here’s one example of how to do it. Or you could just roast the breast as it is. I would make a compound butter to put under the skin and slather it over the skin as well.
I'll be helping to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for a smaller group than usual this year. So what is the appropriate amount of food for five adults? I'm trying to avoid having 72 different dishes on the table. There's the bird and dessert, but how many sides do you really need?
Evan Kleiman: Is there really a limit to the sides? On my table there was always mashed potatoes, baked baby yams, a big crunchy salad with a nice sharp dressing, and two to four more vegetable dishes, plus the cranberry sauce or other condiment accompaniments and stuffing/dressing. I believe that’s less than 72. The problem is leaving out someone’s favorite, so if you’re not making it, have them bring it and take the leftovers home.
What are your thoughts on spatchcocking a turkey?
Evan Kleiman: Spatchcocking is when you cut out the backbone of the bird. You can do it with chicken or turkey. You flatten it out by pressing it down.
Alison Roman: This year for Thanksgiving, I did test spatchcocking, and I also tested a smaller bird, done sort of low and slow, and then crisped at the end at a higher temperature. I actually found that the second method was a better turkey -- and easier.
I love spatchcocking because I love how brown the thighs get. But for the average person… those backbones are really firm. And unless you have really good scissors or a really sharp knife and you know what you're doing, it is a bit trickier than just a chicken.
Evan: Or if you're really committed to spatchcocking, you could go to a poultry butcher. I would ask the butcher to do it and give me the backbone.
Alison: For me, with a 22 pounder, even spatchcocked you're going to have uneven cooking. Find the right size (of the turkey) and go low and slow. What is the right size? For me, I'm looking at 12 to 14 lbs.
Evan: I actually just obviate this whole thing by confiting thighs and legs that I buy separately a week or two weeks ahead. And then I get a nice turkey breast, and I butterfly it and roll it up with something delicious inside.
The thing that I struggle with on the actual day of Thanksgiving is getting everything done in time, while still being able to spend time with my guests. Generally, I end up super stressed in the kitchen, wishing everyone would leave me alone. What kind of tips do you have on dishes that are a little simpler, easier to prepare ahead, just to avoid that day-of stress and panic in the kitchen?
Evan Kleiman: Just invite your friends into the kitchen to help you. It's so much more fun, and you can do things like ask, “Could you empty out the trash for me?”
Alison Roman: When you treat your guests like participants, then it changes the entire dynamic of your experience cooking, but also their experience attending that Thanksgiving. And it's less about you serving them, and then about participating in the meal, and you kind of all cooked together.
If I'm making stuffing from scratch, and I'm making the bread first, I need to leave it out overnight. But should I cut up the bread into bite sized pieces first, or should I leave the whole loaf on the counter?
Alison Roman: You want to expose the inside to dry out. It's not just about the outside. And I'm a big fan of tearing, not cubing. Exposing the inside is the key there, not just drying out the outside.
Evan Kleiman: I would put out a sheet on a large table, and I would just take your bread, tear it up, put it on the sheet, and you know, don't let a cat walk across it, basically. Or you could just put it on sheet pans and put it in the oven overnight, with the oven off.
I struggle to find acidic components in my meal. Not a fan of cranberry sauce. It seems simple and excessive, like the unnecessary aunt invited to dinner. Aside from lemony veggies, what else can I add to the mix?
Alison Roman: I have a perfect herby salad. A spicy green like arugula, mizuna, or watercress. And then torn herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, tarragon mixed with a ton of flaky salt and fresh lemon juice. And to the point where when you pick up a leaf and you put in your mouth, you kind of pucker a little bit. Just a little scattering of that all over your plate or just in a corner to nibble on between bites of other things -- it's such a welcome palate cleanser.
Evan Kleiman: Dorie Greenspan has a recipe for a cut-up and roasted pineapple that has jam on it. So she mixes it with jam and I think some cloves. And then you bake it. I made it one year and it's delicious.
Spicy Tomato-Marinated Feta
Serves 6 to 8
- ½ cup olive oil, plus more as needed
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 small-ish (or 1 medium) ripe tomatoes (4 to 6 ounces total), coarsely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons harissa paste, or
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- 8 ounces feta cheese, sliced into
- ¼-inch slabs or ½-inch cubes
1. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, swirling the skillet occasionally, until the garlic is tender and nearly golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they’ve broken down into a thick, chunky sauce, 5 to 8 minutes.
3. Add the harissa and continue to cook until the sauce is a bit more paste-like, another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, then add the vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Add more olive oil until it becomes savory and spoonable.
4. Place the feta in a serving dish or bowl and pour the tomato mixture over. Let sit at least 10 minutes, or up to a week in advance, refrigerated. Drizzle with more olive oil before serving.
5. DO AHEAD Feta can be marinated up to 1 week ahead, tightly wrapped, and refrigerated.