How to Cook for Thanksgiving Without Making Turkey
A turkey, roasted to a burnished brown, is the time-honored centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, true, but what if you or your guests are vegetarian or vegan? What if you don’t have the time, energy, or oven space to deal with wrangling a large bird and all the trimmings? What if your celebration must be tailored to a romantic twosome instead of the usual crowd?
Or what if you and yours just don’t like turkey? I happen to genuinely love it, as well as the leftovers, which are a springboard to other delicious meals, but many people couldn’t care less. It is perfectly OK to admit this.
“It is hard to divorce the turkey from the expectations of the family table, the sibling rivalries, the unspoken resentments, the secret rages that occur even in the happiest families. Add to this the exhaustion of travel or the exhaustion of preparing to welcome traveling relatives, and even the juiciest, tenderest turkey may be as sawdust,” wrote Laurie Colwin for Gourmet back in the day. (You can find the essay in the posthumous collection of her columns titled More Home Cooking, published in 1993.) “Of course, it is possible in the most harmonious of families to produce a turkey that may well be sawdust, just as it is possible to produce a magnificent turkey in the middle of a family psychodrama. Either way you slice it, it may be easier to blame the turkey.”
Well, not to worry. Traditions grow and change over the years, after all, and are the richer and more profound for it. There are plenty of non-turkey main courses out there that still feel festive and right on this most American of holidays, and here are some good ones.
Non-turkey (but still meat-based) options
Turkey, schmurkey—a crown roast of pork, in which the rib portions of the loins are joined to form a circle, is one of the most splendid cuts of meats imaginable. Although you’ll have to special-order it from your butcher, it is utterly worth it, especially if it’s from a flavorful, sustainably raised heritage-breed hog, such as Berkshire or Tamworth. You can substitute your mom’s stuffing (or cook it separately), or go in a different direction entirely with dirty rice and a Creole mustard sauce.
Up the drama quotient of a pork loin (from a heritage-breed hog if possible; see above) with brilliant orange persimmons, a fabulous fall fruit that is at its peak now. The most common ones you’ll find are the squat Fuyu type, which are not astringent, even when firm and crisp. They’re delicious when roasted. Sautéed mustard greens, which are pleasantly sharp and spicy, cut the richness.
Your typical Thanksgiving turkey takes hours in the oven, but a one-pound tenderloin (which will serve four) takes an active time of 10 minutes and a total time of 40 minutes. This is absolutely delicious with sweet potatoes any which way, or apple slices sautéed in butter until browned and a little crisp on the outside and creamy inside.
This recipe comes from the cookbook Summerland by Anne Stiles Quatrano, the James Beard award–winning chef-restaurateur and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement in Atlanta. Another fall-forward recipe, for quail roasted with grapes and red onions, is from seasonal cooking advocate David Tanis via The New York Times. Plump, juicy quail have dark meat and rich flavor; they’re also a quick, easy, and impressive bird to cook, and each one is an individual portion. Look for them at farmers markets, butcher shops, and some supermarkets.
A duck breast (technically, a breast half) or two is easier to cook than a whole duck, and there is almost no waste. I wrote about my favorite way to cook it in a 2011 blog post (the link is in the recipe title, above), and the stovetop technique, which I learned from chef Floyd Cardoz, is one for the ages. Without the skin, duck is leaner than chicken or turkey but is still luxurious and celebratory. It’s delicious with nothing more than mashed potatoes, a wild-rice salad, or farro studded with dried cherries, cranberries, or sautéed chestnuts, as well as something green—an endive and frisée salad, maybe, or sautéed brussels sprouts or spinach.
Vegetarian and vegan options
I wrote a column on vegetarian main courses and side dishes for Thanksgiving three years ago, but here are a few more options.
Rich and fragrant with a stew of autumn vegetables and a robust red-wine sauce, a whole roasted pumpkin is a showstopper if there ever was one. And as the headnote says, if you’ve ever carved a jack-o’-lantern, you have the skills to prepare this dish.
Butternut squash gets a toasty flavor from hazelnuts here, and you can make both the filling and sauce a day ahead. Oven-ready (“no-boil”) lasagne sheets are a great invention; thinner than the regular kind, they are beautifully tender in the end result. I’ve used them instead of fresh pasta in a butternut-and-sage rendition as well.
Sure, you could make cauliflower steaks (again) or even roast a whole head of cauliflower, but the bubbling, bold richness of a gratin is always a crowd-pleaser. Belgian endive, which is crisp and slightly bitter when raw, becomes sweet, mellow, and silky when cooked.
Those big “horse carrots” you see at farmers markets this time of year are full of sweet, deep flavor. In this inventive spin on braised veal shanks, award-winning chef Richard Blais braises them in red wine and earthy mushroom broth. Just add artisanal stone-ground polenta or grits, and yum.