Planning a really good menu is the stealth approach to being a really good cook. What leaves an impression is not only the dishes you can make, but also how they taste, look and feel when assembled into a meal.
— Avoid repeating ingredients.
If you are serving pecan pie for dessert, don’t put out spiced pecans as an hors d’oeuvre. Both may be delicious, but the pie just won’t be as appealing by the time dessert rolls around.
— Variety is important at Thanksgiving.
You’re likely to be collecting guests with different tastes, allergies and aversions. If vegetarians and vegans are present, you can and must plan for them. (See the Special Diets section below.)
— Think about colors.
The basic palette for Thanksgiving is heavy on dishes that are white (mashed potatoes, creamed onions) and brown (turkey, stuffing, gravy). It needs the ruby red of cranberry sauce, the warm orange of pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes, or a rosemary squash casserole to make it interesting. Add something green and snappy, like a lemon-garlic kale salad.
— Think about texture.
If you have a creamy vegetable side dish, add one that’s roasted or caramelized.
— Finally, throw in a surprising flavor.
Be daring and add a seriously spicy dish. Pickles and relishes like piccalilli or chutney add a puckery note.
Feeding a big gang has its challenges.
Most Thanksgiving recipes are tailored for eight to 12 guests. But what if you’re having 25?
Roasting two whole turkeys at the same time demands a giant oven. Carving those birds is a daunting task requiring at least several helpers if you want to get the meat onto the table while it’s still hot.
Instead, try roasting one bird to use as your centerpiece for the big Norman Rockwell moment (get your cameras ready), while simultaneously roasting a tray of turkey parts on a separate rack underneath. The parts cook quickly, are incredibly easy to carve, and you can let your guests choose which they like best, eliminating any fights over dark meat or white.
Think of it as the Thanksgiving analogue to the wedding-cake trick: At large affairs, there’s always one tiered cake done up for show, and several other plain sheet pans full of cake that are easy for the caterers to slice and quickly serve.
For a smaller group — say, closer to eight people — count yourself lucky.
You get to make a much more interesting meal. Since you don’t have to cook in bulk, try out recipes that are a little more creative than classic. Have a guest bring the mashed potatoes, so you can make a sweet potato gratin instead. Buy some puff pastry and play around with it to make cheese straws, pumpkin turnovers or an apple tarte Tatin.
Roast a turkey breast and use the extra oven space to bake a dressing that’s new to you. (If you have a signature dressing, make both — having two is a Thanksgiving dream.) Take the opportunity to fuss over the table and the guests a little more than usual. Get out the linen napkins, polish the candlesticks, dust off the ramekins and serve individual stuffing cups or vanilla custards to each guest.
Strike a Balance and Assess Your Skills
It’s not easy to please everyone in a country where those who insist on a hard-core traditional Thanksgiving meal and those who flirt each year with different dishes are more polarized than Republicans and Democrats. It is possible for one cook to satisfy both camps, but it requires some ingenuity. Adding new ingredients to the old favorites is not the way; instead, add one or more new dishes to perennials on the table, and make sure they have modern, fresh flavors. Here’s how to proceed.
— Some things shouldn’t be messed with.
Glazing a turkey with pomegranate or rubbing it with chipotle won’t change anyone’s mind; people either like turkey or they don’t. Adding celery root, Cheddar and the like to the classic mashed potatoes is risky. These days, plain, buttery, homemade mashed potatoes are a treat that everyone seems to look forward to at the holiday.
— Get a creamed vegetable on the table.
It doesn’t have to be onions. Also have a jellied cranberry sauce (canned is fine), so the reactionaries will be happy.
— Look for recipes that use ingredients from different culinary traditions.
Asian condiments, Moroccan spices, Middle Eastern syrups: These can add a welcome note of surprise to an all-too-familiar menu.
— Consider the casserole.
Thanksgiving dinner can feel like a high-stakes race among the cook, the guests and the turkey. In this sprint, the casserole is your greatest friend. Just think of it as a roasting pan where almost anything can be assembled and even cooked well in advance, then left in the refrigerator until you remember its existence about an hour before Thanksgiving dinner.
— If you’re a novice, stick to the basics.
Don’t stray too far from the essentials: turkey, dressing, a cranberry sauce, potatoes, gravy and a vegetable of some kind. To tamp down any anxiety about multitasking, think of yourself as making a simple roast chicken dinner with a couple of extra sides. There is no need to bake a pie. Ask someone to bring one, or buy a good one the day before the feast.
— If you’re a seasoned cook, stretch your skills on a dish or two.
The highest-impact change you can make to Thanksgiving dinner may be mastering a new recipe for turkey. But because smoking, spatchcocking and deep-frying all require at least one test run, and many cooks are busy from now until Thanksgiving, these are some alternatives: a more sophisticated vegetable side, a fancier pie crust or a snappy modern touch like an herb salad.
For a group with many dietary restrictions, don’t assume you’ll have to cook separate meals. What you want to do is bring unity to the table and offer as many dishes as possible that everyone can eat and enjoy.
— Optics can send a powerful message.
If you’re not going to have a turkey on the table, take care to serve a main dish that has some of the visual and sensory firepower of a roast. Something demonstrably large, like a roasted cauliflower or two, or a platter of stuffed squash is sure to please. Many vegetarians may be happy to fill their plates with all the vegetable side dishes, but you could serve macaroni and cheese and declare that you made it just for them.
— Dressing can fill many needs.
You can make a version with meat, and one without. At nytcooking.com is an excellent gluten-free dressing made with wild rice, cranberries and sausage, and another that’s entirely vegan. Both could live in harmony. Melissa Clark’s recipe for stuffing with mushrooms and bacon can be adapted to use gluten-free cornbread. Leave out the bacon and use vegetable stock, and that recipe could also be vegetarian.
— Avoid arcane ingredients, or ones you’re uncomfortable cooking with.
Some cooks don’t want to use tempeh, textured vegetable protein or xanthan gum, and that’s fine. Chances are, that vegan gravy recipe with nutritional yeast, mushroom powder and Marmite isn’t half as good as a simple homemade version. Our vegan gravy recipe relies on real mushrooms and can be made well ahead of the big day.
Whole-Roasted Stuffed Delicata Squash
By SAM SIFTON
TIME: 1 1/2 hours
YIELD: 6 to 12 servings
Here’s a vegetarian dinner of impressive size and heft. You could use small sugar pumpkins, or any sweet-fleshed winter squash, but delicata squash is our favorite for reasons of taste and beauty.
6 small delicata squash, about 1 pound each
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Olive oil, for the baking sheet
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, diced
1 bunch red kale (about 1 pound), trimmed and chopped
6 ounces whole-grain bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes (about 3 cups), from a good-quality loaf
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup pecans, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
1. Cut 1 inch off the top and bottom of each squash. Use a melon baller or small spoon to scrape out the seeds. Sprinkle the inside of the squash with salt and pepper, then stand them upright on an oiled baking sheet.
2. Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. When it foams, add onions to pan and sauté, stirring often, until they begin to soften and turn translucent, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add kale to pan and continue to cook, tossing, until kale begins to wilt, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat and put vegetables in a large bowl.
3. Place bread cubes on a sheet pan and toast in the oven until they begin to crisp, about 7 to 9 minutes. Add bread cubes to the bowl with the vegetables, and add blue cheese and cranberries. Stir to combine.
4. Put pecans in a dry sauté pan set over medium heat and toast until nuts begin to darken and turn fragrant, about 4 to 6 minutes. Stir in maple syrup and cook for 1 minute, then scrape into the bowl with the rest of the stuffing and toss to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
5. Lower oven temperature to 400 degrees. Divide stuffing among the squash. Cut remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into 6 pieces, and top each squash with a dot of butter. Roast squash until you can easily pierce it with a fork, about 45 minutes. If squash is browning too quickly, lay a sheet of aluminum foil over it.
6. Sprinkle parsley over the squash. Serve 1 whole squash per person as a main course, or 1/2 squash or less as a side dish.
Vegan Mushroom Make-Ahead Gravy
By MELISSA CLARK
TIME: 30 minutes
YIELD: 3 1/2 cups
This vegan gravy features caramelized mushrooms and a little soy sauce for depth of flavor. You can simmer the gravy up to five days ahead and store it in the fridge. Reheat just before serving.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
4 ounces baby portobello mushrooms, finely chopped (1 cup)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 to 5 cups vegetable stock, preferably homemade, as needed
1 teaspoon soy sauce, more to taste
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and mushrooms; cook, stirring, until well browned, 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Sprinkle in flour and cook, stirring, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in vegetable stock, a little at a time, until a smooth sauce forms. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes until thickened. Season with soy sauce, salt and pepper. Serve as is, or pass it through a fine mesh strainer.