Claire’s 5 Rules of Thanksgiving Cooking

Rise, people, and rejoice!

Those of us reading this have survived the bulk of a horrendous election and emerged with a clear (you hear me? CLEAR) new president. There is still a lot of work to do. A hell of a lot. Looming larger at every turn of this tragic rock a lot. But if the holidays are for anything, they’re for resting and reflecting. As much as you can, try to do that the next couple of months.

Those who know me well know that, in a normal year, I begin planning my Thanksgiving menu in June. Whether we’re spending the actual holiday with family or hosting coworkers and friends, at some point I go all out on a JentschHaus dinner. A whole free-range turkey with herbed butter tucked under the skin. Cornbread dressing with turkey giblets. Sage sausage white bread dressing. Green bean casserole. Grits. Macaroni and cheese. Grilled brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar. Homemade rolls. Pumpkin pie. Pecan pie. Apple cider. I clean out my fridge a week advance and map out day-of schedules for when everything needs to go in the oven. I rearrange our dining room. I make Alex clean our ENTIRE apartment.

This year, needless to say, is different. Back in June I wasn’t thinking about anything further in the future than Cuomo’s next COVID email update. (Were those still happening in June? Who even knows.) Five months later I’m crawling out of the depths of mug cake desperation with enough energy to shout at you share with you my most passionately felt expert advice for Thanksgiving cooking, even if, like us, you’re only cooking for two people.

Rule #1: Start with Pie

Whether it’s a normal year or, well, 2020, there is only so much room in your oven for baking things. The brilliance of the types of pies we usually eat at this time (or any pies, really) is that they keep well when made ahead. Save yourself the headache of maneuvering pies around bulky sheet pans or casseroles (and forego the risk of green-bean tinged desserts) by making your pies the day before. My Gingersnap Pumpkin Pie gets even better in the fridge overnight, anyway.

Rule #2: Set a Day-of Time Limit

If we’re not absolute chaos monsters, it makes sense to set a time on Thanksgiving when the food should be ready for everyone to eat. In a normal year it’s an hour or two after you tell your most chronically late relatives to arrive.

What’s even better than a set eating time, though, is setting a time limit within which you’re willing to cook. Before you even make your menu, decide if you’re willing to cook for three hours. Four hours. Two hours. Screw it, you’re using that Boston Market gift card someone gave you last year. The point of the exercise is to prioritize yourself as a host, especially since you won’t get much help this year. It’s a holiday for you, too, and you should pick things to serve that won’t keep you chained to the oven for any longer than you want to be. That’s why this year I’m opting for this quick, mostly stovetop Shrimp Cornbread Dressing.

Rule #3: Don’t Ambrosia Salad Your Sweet Potatoes

Non-southerners might scratch their heads at this, so I’ll try to quickly explain. Ambrosia salad is a concoction of whipped cream, jello, canned fruit, marshmallows, and other objectively dessert items that are mixed together, called a salad, and served alongside the entrees at a potluck. Ambrosia will always appear among the savory items, and if you try to move it to the dessert table it will grow legs and make its way back to sit between the chicken and rice casserole and the crock pot meatballs. I think it is the marshmallows that so desperately want to be food of substance, and that’s why you shouldn’t put them on your sweet potatoes.

You can roast sweet potatoes. You can fry them. You can stuff them with all kinds of savory goodness. Just don’t make them be the only dessert among their savory friends. It will embarrass them. If you MUST give them a little sweetness, try my Pepper Jelly Glazed Sweet Potatoes with Goat Cheese. (And please admire my new Skull and Cross Bones serving plate, thank you.)

Rule #4: You Need Something Green Other Than The Casserole

I’m all for stuffing my body so full of carbs that I turn into a giant lump of dough and roll myself up in a pie crust blanket to hibernate until Thanksgiving next year, but I’m also an aggressive advocate for flavor and texture balance in every meal I eat. If I’m going to pile my plate high with a fatty turkey leg, heavy cornbread dressing, and probably also mac and cheese, I want a sharper, cleaner taste to cut through that. And no, creamy green bean casserole does not count.

The green vegetable is a part of the meal that’s easy and satisfying because you can simply pick your favorite one (not lettuce, this isn’t July) roast or toss it in a skillet with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then top it with the same crispy onions you put on The Casserole and call it done. For this Thanksgiving test run I roasted frozen okra at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes, then tossed it in hot sauce for an extra kick.

Rule #5: Cook the Turkey You Actually Want to Eat

Yes, I implied it. Turkey is the centerpiece of Thanksgiving food, but a lot of people don’t like it. Usually that’s because it’s dry, and while there are a lot of ways to fix that problem in a whole turkey, this year may be the year to just cook the pieces you actually like. They sell legs, thighs, breasts, and even turkey necks at a lot of stores. A couple of packs of any of those will still be far less expensive than a whole turkey, especially if you usually find yourself tossing out pieces no one will eat.

Alex and I will be grilling a whole turkey on Thanksgiving Day since we’re enthusiastic grillers and leftover-eaters, but for this test run I bought a pack of large turkey wings to bake (I used this I Heart Recipes gem for reference), as well as a pack of chopped turkey necks. I used half of those for gravy and stuck the other half in the freezer for later use in stock-making, which isn’t as hard as you think it is.

A few notes to wrap up:

  • I don’t have specific recommendations for bready sides, other than to pair the flavors you’re going for with the type of bread. This test run tilted towards the southern/Cajun side, so I made cornbread muffins. I might switch to biscuits on Thanksgiving day for more gravy sopping power.
  • Where is the mac and cheese, you ask? I didn’t feel the need to create my own recipe to share when The Kitchenista has already shown us the way. Follow her recipe and be well in your soul.
  • I don’t want you to travel. I really, really don’t. The risk to yourselves and your family members and friends is simply too great. IF YOU MUST, please get tested before you leave. DO NOT host huge family gatherings, for the love of all that is holy. In the words of this incredible TikTok-er, the pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it. Don’t be a dumbass.
  • I love you. Please be safe and get some rest.

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