In our last discussion, we evaluated our turkey options (turkey breast or a whole bird, fresh or frozen) and, hopefully, made your choice. Now, it’s time to start filling out the menu. As tempting as it is to want to make everything traditionally served on a “normal” Thanksgiving, it’s time to remember that this isn’t a normal Thanksgiving. There won’t be a kitchen full of cooks (no Mom, no Grandma, no Aunt Susan, no sisters). No one will be bringing covered dishes. No, this year isn’t normal. This year, our intimate (a more endearing term than “small”) Thanksgiving is just the peeps in our bubble – that could range from 2 – 8, and YOU will be doing most, if not all, of the cooking.
Of course, we want our time-honored favorites on the table – just not all of them! The easiest way to keep our menu manageable is by limiting the number of side dishes. This can be done in two ways. The first way is choosing dishes that incorporate two sides in one. This way, you cut down on cooking while your family still enjoys the benefits of a plentitude of flavors. The second way is to eliminate “fluff” dishes. You know, the ones that no one (at least, no one in your bubble) really eats anyway.
Let’s start by looking at the options for potatoes, gravy, and stuffing. Below are the options, advantages, and disadvantages for each of these staples. To help you make an educated decision on which you want to go, I included a Stress Rating and an Impress Quotient (1-lowest; 10 highest) for each option so you can weigh out the effort with the expected compliments that each option will deliver.
Mashed potatoes and gravy are traditional Thanksgiving fare and a personal favorite. Plain (as in nothing fancy) mashed potatoes aren’t hard to make. However, they do require some coordination/timing and some last-minute effort. Roasted potatoes take little effort and can be done on a sheet pad with a couple veggies. This cuts down on side dishes and ups your impress quotient. You can use any variety of potato (white, russet, red, yellow); there is little difference in quality with these preparation methods. TIP: I highly recommend yellow potatoes (Yukon Gold) as they are always a winner.
It is a personal preference if you choose to peel your potatoes or leave them skin-on. The skin is crammed full of great nutrients and tastes good. I rarely peel potatoes. I like the “rustic” look of having the peel in my mashed potatoes and on my roasted potatoes. Just make sure that you wash and scrub your spuds. No one wants to eat dirt!
Option 1: Basic Mashed potatoes (Stress rating: 7; Impress Quotient: 8)
Advantages: Mashed potatoes are very traditional and a comfort food. Everybody likes mashed potatoes! Plain mashed potatoes aren’t complicated: cut up raw potatoes, add to boiling water, drain, add milk and butter, mash. NOTE: No fancy potato masher is necessary. I often do mine with a handheld mixer. A large fork also does the job. Mashed potatoes aren’t complete without gravy. Gravy (covered in another section) from a jar is an easy option to increase the mashed potato experience.
Downside: There are a couple of ingredients and steps involved in making mashed potatoes. Besides cutting, soaking, and boiling, there is the last-minute effort of mashing. This can get a little dicey in a small kitchen while trying to get the turkey carved and everything out on the table. While store-bought gravy doesn’t require much effort, it does add one more item to coordinate. It’s the little things that can make rob you of your holiday serenity.
Option 3: Roasted Potatoes (Stress rating: 2; Impress Quotient: 9)
Advantages: Go from Basic to Impressive with a little prep work by adding your favorite veggies or dried fruits and nuts to your prepared stuffing. Add as many or few as you want. Anything goes! The prep work can be done the day before. If you need stuffing that can double as a main course for non-turkey eaters, add browned sausage, and it’s now a very hearty dish. TIP: Chopped apple tastes great in stuffing, but apples will go brown if chopped in advance. Instead of apples, dried fruit (raisins, dates, apricots, craisins) will add a yummy hint of sweetness.
Advantages: Simply prep and pop in the oven! All you need is a sheet pan to roast all your favorite root veggies (sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, carrots, onions, peppers). No additional work is needed, nor is the gravy. You just eliminated an entire task! Roasted potatoes and veggies have excellent plate appeal. They look very impressive on a serving platter or in a serving bowl. NOTE: This can be the least stressful component of your dinner!
Downside: Mashed potato lovers aren’t going to be happy – especially since you also eliminated the gravy. Roasted potatoes and veggies may not appeal to kids.
Watching my Mom make gravy using the drippings from the turkey pan intimidated the daylights out of me! Needless to say, she didn’t use a disposable turkey roaster for cooking her turkey — which was the perfect excuse for me not to even attempt making gravy. For years, I was all about gravy from a jar/can. To zhoosh it up, I would add some additional seasoning or a couple of spoonfuls of the roaster’s juice. As my family wasn’t big on gravy, this was fine. In hindsight, I don’t think anyone would have missed the gravy if it wasn’t on the table. I never did learn to make gravy from pan drippings, but I did find an easy gravy recipe that I can make in a saucepan with minimal effort. Regardless, if it’s straight from the jar or Almost Home-Cooked, serving gravy out of a pretty bowl or pouring vessel will raise the impress quotient!
Option 1) Jar or can gravy with some zhoosh (Stress rating: 1; Impress Quotient : 3)
Advantages: The consistency, color, and flavor are very presentable. It takes just a minute or two to heat up in the microwave (do not heat in the original container!) If gravy isn’t a big deal, but you have to have it on the table – it’s the right choice. Another plus, you get your feelings hurt if no one eats it!
Downside: The taste is very bland; even zhooshing doesn’t help a lot.
Option 2) Mostly Home-Cooked Gravy (Stress rating: 4; Impress Quotient: 7)
Advantages: This easy (basic) gravy is THREE ingredients! You can’t go wrong. There’s no prep (no chopping or dicing anything!). It will look and taste homemade.
Downside: Stirring and timing are involved in getting the sauce to the right consistency. It’s easy but not foolproof (not that you’re a fool, but it doesn’t stir itself). While it’s definitely a step up from a jar or can, with three ingredients, don’t expect it to taste like fancy/fussy gravy. It is what it is!
Stuffing, called dressing in some parts of the country, is a requirement for a traditional Thanksgiving. In the day, this concoction of dried bread, butter, and moisture was “stuffed” and cooked inside the turkey cavity. Stuffing is no longer cooked inside the turkey, as it is a leading cause of food poisoning because it messes with the meat reaching a safe internal temperature. SAFETY NOTE: Regardless if your Mom or Granny stuffed her turkey, and “no one ever got sick,” – don’t do it! You are risking salmonella. It’s just not worth it (just think about the stress!!). Stuffing is hugely versatile. You can make it as simple or elegant as you want, all while keeping it stress-free by using a boxed stuffing mix as the base. TIP: I only use Stove Top. The bread and seasonings are already measured and combined in the same sealed bag, heat water, add butter, and package contents. Hello Stuffing! Stuffing can do double duty as your vegetable if you pack it full of carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, dried fruit, nuts – whatever your flavor profile desires! Add browned ground sausage, and you have a hearty main course for the non-turkey eater. The leftovers will fly out of your fridge.
Option 1: Box stuffing mix– as is (Stress rating: 1; Impress Quotient: 5)
Advantages: Make in less than 15 minutes, mistake-proof, always good. For extra flavor, use chicken broth instead of water.
Downside: Box stuffing, as is, adds very little to your holiday meal. It’s nothing special.
Option 2: Mostly Home-Cooked Stuffing Upgrade (Stress rating: 3; Impress Quotient: 10)
Downside: Zhooshing it up adds extra steps. Chopping, dicing, slicing takes time and effort. (Stress reducer: Prep veggies/dried fruit the day before so all you have to do is open a bag or plastic container and stir them in before baking in the oven.)