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Suggestions For A Smaller But Still Festive Thanksgiving From Chef Kathy Gunst

Turkey thighs in a skillet. (Cynthia Graubart)
Turkey thighs in a skillet. (Cynthia Graubart)

How do you celebrate a holiday during a pandemic? How do you maintain rituals and traditions when you can't safely be at the same table with the friends and family you traditionally celebrate with?

2020 is the year of thinking outside the box. We need to reinvent the holidays, focusing on safety and health. But how do we safely find the pleasures that so many of us look forward to each holiday season?

The Centers for Disease Control recommends very strict guidelines.

Although the guidelines vary from state by state, it's fair to say that if you're planning a holiday that includes more than just a few people in your immediate household or "pod" you are putting yourself and others at risk.

The key is to keep your holiday small. Very small. Forget normal and create the new normal.

I've been reading obsessively and talking to everyone I encounter about how they plan on celebrating Thanksgiving this year. And I've heard a wide range of responses. Some say: Just forget 2020, no holiday. Others tell me they will create an entirely new menu that has nothing to do with traditional foods like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie. (One friend is having lobster. Another is making dumplings and stir-fried noodles. And another will be creating a vegetable lasagna.)

Some people I spoke with told me they plan on eating alone or with one other household member and Zooming with loved ones, each at their own table in different houses, different cities, different states. And then there were those who told me they are cooking one dish and dropping off portions for each member of their extended Thanksgiving table. One person makes the mashed potatoes, another makes the turkey and stuffing, etc. Then they plan on Zooming and eating separately, but they will share the same food, experience the same tastes. And then a few friends reported: Forget it, I'm not cooking. We'll be ordering take out, trying to support our local restaurants.

There is no one right way to celebrate this very unusual holiday, in this very difficult year. The key is to find something that feels special to you and your family. Creativity. Inventiveness. Thinking outside the box.

I plan on creating a highly scaled-down Thanksgiving. I love cooking and eating the foods of this holiday: from roasting a turkey and mashing potatoes, to making creamed spinach and my annual batch of cranberry sauce. Even though there will traditional foods on my table, it won't look like a normal Thanksgiving. I will not make multiple types of potatoes, or two types of stuffing, or bake four desserts. My table this year will be very small and very simple.

My wish is that next year I am seated at a long table with my daughters (and their husband/partners) and extended family and friends. My wish is that we all get through this holiday time finding some spark of joy, some way to express gratitude and thanks.

These are tough times. But that doesn't mean we can't find a way to sit down and share a meal with whoever we live with and set out a special dish or two.

What follows are some new recipes—as well as old favorites– and tips for scaling down the traditional Thanksgiving feast:

  • Look for a smaller bird or buy a turkey breast or thigh and cook it slowly with lots of fresh herbs.
  • Make your favorite holiday recipe. No reason not to. You just don't need to make all of them. With smaller groups you don't need as many dishes to make your dinner feel like a special meal. Focus on one or two favorites.
  • Reduce recipes by half. This works well with savory foods but not as well with sweet baked goods. Remember, Thanksgiving leftovers are the best.
  • Instead of reducing dessert recipes by half, simply focus on one special dessert: a pie you've been wanting to bake or a simple cake. Forget multiple desserts.
  • Roasted Winter Squash with Maple-Cider Glaze

    Don't be deceived by the simplicity of this recipe. The sweet, earthy squash, with a maple syrup, ginger, and apple cider glaze is a perfect accompaniment to turkey, chicken, or any other vegetable dishes. Prepare the squash ahead of time and pop it in the oven as soon as you take out the turkey. Any leftover squash makes a great base for a seasonal salad.

    Serves 2 to 4.


  • 1 small to medium butternut squash, about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • About 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • About 1/3 cup apple cider
  • About 2 to 3 tablespoons maple syrup, a darker variety is better
  • Instructions

  • Peel the squash with a wide vegetable peeler. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Cut the squash into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place the squash slices on a baking sheet or shallow cookie tray. Drizzle the oil on top, and season liberally with the salt and pepper. You can make the squash hours ahead of time up to this point, cover and refrigerate.
  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Bake the squash on the middle shelf of the oven for 15 minutes. Remove and add the cider and syrup on top of the squash; if you want it super gooey and sweet add all 3 tablespoons of syrup, if you like it lighter, use 2. Roast another 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender when tested with a small, sharp knife and the syrup and cider is bubbling and slightly thickened.
  • Kale, Mushroom, Onion and Sharp Cheddar Cheese Savory Bread Pudding

    Many cooks won't bother with a whole turkey this year. You can buy a turkey breast or turkey thigh to serve a smaller gathering, but you won't have the traditional turkey cavity for your beloved stuffing. This savory bread pudding is a rich, gooey casserole of comfort. Let's call it the 2020 version of stuffing.

    Here cubes of leftover bread—use a combination of whatever you have on hand—are tossed with sautéed onions, mushrooms, and kale (or Swiss Chard or spinach) and tossed with an egg-cream-cheese batter. You could also add 1/2 to 1 pound spicy or sweet sausage (out of the casing) and sauté it with the onion to make a more substantial main course dish. The pudding should sit for at least 45 minutes to an hour to soak up all the custard so plan your time accordingly.

    Serves 4 to 8.


  • 15 ounces bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups thinly sliced onions
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage, or 1 tablespoon dried
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or rosemary, optional
  • 8 ounces mushrooms (I like to use shiitake, but cremini or portabella or your favorite variety will work), sliced 1/2-inch thick
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped kale (ribs removed) or Swiss Chard, or spinach, or your favorite green
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups light or heavy cream
  • 1 1/3 cups packed cheese, sharp cheddar or your favorite hard cheese
  • 2 scallions, white and green parts very thinly sliced
  • Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Place the bread cubes in a 13 x 9 x 2-inch gratin dish, or a shallow 2 1/2-to-3-quart casserole. Place in the oven and bake to dry the bread out for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven.
  • Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the onions, salt, pepper, half the sage, parsley, and basil and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and the remaining tablespoon of oil and cook, stirring, for another 5 minutes. Add the kale and cook another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  • In a large bowl whisk the eggs, cream, 1 cup of the cheese, remaining herbs, salt, pepper, and the scallions.
  • Stir the mushroom mixture into the bread cubes. Add the egg/cheese mixture and gently toss to make sure all the bread is coated. Let sit for 45 minutes to an hour so the bread can absorb the custard mixture. The mixture can be covered and refrigerated for several hours ahead of time if you like.
  • Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1/3 cup cheese. Bake on the middle shelf for 30 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling. Serve hot.
  • Cynthia Graubart's Skillet Turkey Thighs in Sage Mushroom Gravy

    Cynthia Graubart is an award-winning cookbook author based in Atlanta who has just published an ebook specifically for pandemic holiday cooking. This recipe comes from her book “ Thanksgiving for Two (or Four).” Copywright © Cynthia Graubart.

    Preparation Time: 15 minutes

    Start to Finish Time: 2 hours

    Serves 2 (or 4).

    This satisfying dish works any time of year, but is lovely during the holidays with its luscious, meaty gravy. Thighs can be quite large, so one large thigh may serve two people.


  • 1 (2) tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 (4) tablespoons butter, divided
  • 2 (4) turkey thighs
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ (1) small onion, chopped
  • 1 (2) small stalk celery, chopped
  • 8 (16) ounces mushrooms, halved and quartered
  • ½ (1) cup white wine
  • 4 – 6 (8 – 12) fresh sage leaves, chopped, plus more for garnish
  • 1 – 2 (2 – 3) cups chicken or turkey stock or broth
  • 2 (3) tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 (3) tablespoons water
  • Instructions

  • Heat a large skillet with a lid over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil and butter. Season the turkey thighs on both sides with salt and pepper. Brown the thighs in the hot fat skin side down first, until golden. Turn and brown the second side about 3 minutes. Remove thighs to a plate.
  • Add onion and celery to the same skillet and cook 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the mushrooms and cook about 4 minutes to lightly cook the mushrooms. Stir in the wine and sage and scrape up any bits in the pan. Return the thighs to the pan, skin side up.
  • Pour enough stock into the pan to come halfway up the side of the thighs. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook about 90 minutes, until the thickest part of the thigh reaches 175°F on an instant reads thermometer. Remove the thighs to a clean platter.
  • Whisk together the cornstarch and water in a small bowl to form a slurry. Stir this slurry into the remaining sauce. Increase the heat to medium high. Stir the sauce until it boils. Remove from heat and return thighs to the skillet or pour the sauce into a serving vessel and serve alongside the thighs. Garnish with extra sage leaves if desired.
  • More Thanksgiving favorites that can be reduced by half:

  • Roast Turkey with Pan Dripping Gravy
  • Brining Tips
  • Creamed Spinach
  • Cranberry Sauce with Orange, Ginger, Pineapple and Pecans
  • Side Dishes:

  • Roasted Vegetables with a Pomegranate Vinaigrette and Pomegranate Seeds
  • Squash and Leek Gratin with Maple Syrup and Pistachio Crumble
  • Bread-Oyster-Celery-Herb Stuffing
  • Vegetarian And Vegan Ideas:

  • Green Beans with Brown Butter and Roasted Chestnuts
  • Watch on YouTube.

    This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.