From turkey to pie to leftover sandwiches, here's everything you need to satisfy your holiday cravings during these unprecedented times

By Shay Spence
November 18, 2020 09:00 AM
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With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, the chaotic energy of 2020 has perhaps never felt more palpable. In the before times, next week would mark the beginning of the traditional holiday season (unless you're Mariah Carey, who operates on her own private time-space continuum). There'd be mask-free air travel, half-hearted office parties, big family gatherings, and maybe a run-in with an old high school flame who's now a widowed carpenter selling hand-crafted nutcrackers at the local Christmas bazaar, if you were the protagonist in a Hallmark movie.

This year, things probably "look a little different," as they're saying. The annual Macy's parade will march without a crowd for the first time ever. Due to surging COVID-19 cases across the U.S., the CDC is recommending that people only celebrate Thanksgiving with those in their immediate household, and some states have even restricted the amount of guests people can have in their homes.

Credit: Getty

Whether or not the size of your typical Thanksgiving meal has been affected, perhaps the vibes have been affected. The holidays are usually a time of heightened emotions, whether it's joy, melancholy, or a lot of both, and this year we have much to be emotional about. Maybe you've been repressing all of your feelings for nine months and all it took was the Celine Dion cover of John Lennon's "Happy XMas (War Is Over)" to melt you into a puddle of tears in the car.

Anyway, enough about me. Let's talk about something we have more control over than our holiday emotions: our holiday menu. Thanksgiving is first and foremost a food-driven holiday, and they can't take that away from us.

Of course, nothing can virtually transport you to your childhood home faster than the smell and taste of something you grew up eating—but perhaps you want to cook something totally different for a year that's been totally different! That's where these recipes come in.

Here, I've put together a unique menu that is perfect for smaller gatherings (each serves about 4, with enough for leftovers), along with plenty of other delicious options we have in the PEOPLE recipe archives. And don't forget that now is a great time to lean on local restaurants and bakeries, so see what your favorite spots are offering and incorporate some store-bought items into the mix. It's easier on you and supports their business, so truly a win-win.

The Turkey

Perhaps the most intimidating aspect of Thanksgiving cooking is the turkey, a protein that has been unfairly put on a pedestal over the years. While I do live for the drama of a beautifully roasted, golden brown turkey coming out of the oven, the reality is that you're going to end up carving it into oblivion anyway. No matter what the magazine covers tell you, that whole turkey is not going to be served intact on a platter surrounded by bundles of herbs and citrus. Let's end unrealistic depictions of Thanksgiving turkeys and take it easy on ourselves, shall we?

With my Honey Butter Roasted Turkey Breasts (full recipe below), the only difficult step is remembering that you have to season at least one day (I prefer two!) ahead of time. This is called a dry brine, and it allows the salt to penetrate the meat and not only flavor it, but also keep it from drying out as it cooks.

These roast low and slow, which also ensures they stay juicy and the meat is tender. I serve them in big slices doused with my French Onion Gravy (recipe below), naturally thickened with sweet caramelized onions so it's totally safe for those who adhere to a gluten-free diet. You can make it ahead of time and then add any turkey drippings from the pan as you're warming it up!

Or, to scale down while maintaining the pomp and circumstance of a whole bird, a roast chicken is always a beautiful thing. Ina Garten's classic version is famous for a reason, or you can spice things up with Jesse Tyler Ferguson's lemon-pepper rubbed chicken baked on a bed of fennel and onions, which get sweet and caramelized as they cook.

Credit: Victor Protasio

Finally, if you really want to go for it and make a full turkey, I cannot recommend Ayesha Curry's jerk-seasoned version enough. Think about all the leftovers! We'll get to that later.

The Sides

This is the part where things get competitive, and difficult decisions must be made. Sure, if you're having a 15-person Thanksgiving, it's easy to justify serving eight sides. With just your immediate household, that might be a tougher sell, even to yourself (but no judgment either way.) Think about what you and your family actually like, and don't serve anything just because you feel like you need to.

In an effort to consolidate my menu this year, a hybrid side was born: Stuffing Mac and Cheese (full recipe below.) Mac and cheese on the bottom; stuffing on top.

I know, I know, this should be illegal. It might be. But trust me when I say it's incredible—like the most comforting, crispy-yet-pillowy breadcrumb topping you could ever imagine. I want to take a nap in this dish.

And to triple down on the carbs, try my One-Pot Creamy Mashed Potatoes (recipe below), in which Yukon gold potatoes get slowly simmered in milk instead of boiled in water, so that when they're super soft and tender you can mash them right in the pot! The results are silky-smooth, and you'll only have one dish to clean up afterward.

Finally, this menu needs a fresh vegetable dish to round it out. For you, that might be roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta. For me, green beans are a must, but I prefer fresh, crisp green beans to the canned soup jacuzzi version we've become accustomed to on this holiday.

Credit: Victor Protasio

If you're on the same page, try Nik Sharma's Green Beans with Crispy Shallots & Crème Fraîche, which are absolutely perfect. The beans are crisp-tender, and the brightness from the preserved lemons and crème fraîche gives your palate a respite from all of the heavier dishes on the plate.

The Dessert

Here's where I'm going to cop out and say that, unless you really love baking projects, buy something from a local bakery! They are probably better at baking than you are.

Otherwise, my go-to dessert is a simple Italian affogato, which is a scoop of ice cream doused in hot espresso. It's the perfect ending to a meal, and so simple. For Thanksgiving, you can make Pecan or Pumpkin Pie Affogatos by using a scoop of Pralines and Cream or Pumpkin Spice ice cream. Serve with a shortbread cookie for the full pie effect.

Credit: Victor Protasio

If you do want to try something more ambitious, go for Cathy Barrow's Pecan-Chocolate Galette, which takes a shortcut by using store-bought crust in a freeform shape that's more forgiving than your typical pie.

The Leftovers

We've reached the final chapter of this saga, and perhaps the most important one, particularly when you don't have as many guests to feed on the big day. While many of you are diehard leftover turkey sandwich fans—and we have plenty of ideas for that—the thing I look forward to most each year is the Thanksgiving Leftovers Eggs Benedict.

This is great because it uses up three leftovers in one: patties made out of the stuffing as the base, followed by seared turkey slices, and leftover gravy in lieu of traditional hollandaise.

Another favorite is my 5-Ingredient BBQ Cornbread Turkey Pie—it's not exactly a light day-after-Thanksgiving meal, but come on, this is 2020.

And when an abundance of pie is your burden, it would be criminal negligence for you not to try one of these pie milkshakes.

For those who have stayed for this long, congratulations on your attention span! You will now be rewarded with all of the previously mentioned recipes below. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Recipes

Honey Butter Roasted Turkey Breasts

2 tsp. kosher salt

1 ½ tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. ground mustard

1 tsp. ground sage

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. paprika

½ tsp. cayenne

2 (3 ½-lb.) turkey breast halves

3 Tbsp. olive oil

4 Tbsp. salted butter, softened

2 Tbsp. honey

1. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a wire rack over it. In a small bowl, mix together salt, pepper, ground mustard, sage, garlic powder, paprika and cayenne.

2. Place turkey breasts on wire rack and season all over with the dry rub. Transfer to the refrigerator, uncovered, overnight or for up to two days.

3. Preheat the oven to 325°. Remove turkey from the refrigerator and let sit on the counter for 30 minutes. Brush with olive oil and roast, skin side up, in preheated oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

4. In a bowl, stir together softened butter and honey. Remove turkey from the oven and brush the skin with the honey butter. Return to oven for another 20 minutes, until skin is golden brown and a meat thermometer reads 165° in the thickest part of the breast.

5. Let turkey rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Serves: 4-5

French Onion Gravy

4 Tbsp. salted butter

3 large onions, thinly sliced (about 5 cups)

10-12 garlic cloves, peeled

4 cups chicken, turkey or vegetable broth

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 tsp. black pepper

1. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt butter and add onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until they are lightly browned.

2. Add garlic cloves and a splash of water and cover the pot with a lid. Cook, lifting the lid occasionally to stir, for another 15 minutes, until the onions are dark and caramelized and the garlic is softened.

3. Deglaze with about 1 cup of the broth, scraping any brown bits from the bottom of the pot, and then transfer to a blender with the remaining broth. Blend until smooth. (If you have an immersion blender, you can use that to blend directly in the pot.)

4. Return mixture to the pot over medium heat and add soy sauce, mustard and black pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes. Store the in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, and reheat when ready to serve, adding any juices from the turkey if desired.

Serves: 4-5

Stuffing Mac and Cheese

6 slices white bread, cubed

5 Tbsp. salted butter, divided

1 onion, diced

2 tsp. chopped fresh sage

1 ½ tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. poultry seasoning

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 ¼ cups low-sodium chicken, turkey or vegetable broth, divided

8 oz. cavatappi (or other short pasta)

1 (12-oz.) can evaporated milk

6 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups)

4 oz. fontina cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)

2 oz. Velveeta or American cheese

¾ tsp. seasoned salt or Creole seasoning

1. Spread the bread cubes evenly on a baking tray and let them sit out for at least one day so the bread gets stale. (If you need to do this quicker, you can place the tray in a 250° oven for about an hour, or until the bread has dried out.)

2. Preheat the oven to 325°. In a small skillet over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter and add onion. Cook for about 10 minutes, until onions have softened.

3. In a large bowl, add stale bread cubes, onion, sage, salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and garlic powder, and stir to combine. Evenly pour over remaining butter and ¾ cup of the broth and gently stir together. Set aside.

4. To make the mac and cheese, fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Season generously with salt and add pasta. Cook for about 8 minutes, until pasta is shy of al dente (it will finish cooking in the oven). Save ½ cup of pasta water and drain.

5. Return pasta to the pot over low heat with evaporated milk, cheeses, and seasoning salt. Stir until sauce is thickened and creamy. Turn off the heat. (Note: if it looks a little watery, don’t worry, it will thicken as it cooks in the oven. Conversely, if it seems like it needs more liquid, add the reserved pasta water.)

6. Transfer to a casserole dish and spread in an even layer, then top with the stuffing topping. The stuffing cubes should feel slightly softened but not soggy—if some are still stale you can use the remaining chicken broth to pour over before baking.

7. Cover with tin foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove tin foil and increase temperature to 375°. Bake another 15-20 minutes until bubbly and slightly browned on top. For extra crispiness and cheesiness, switch your oven to broil and sprinkle with more shredded cheese. Broil for 3 minutes or until crispy on top, watching carefully. Let the dish cool for about 5 minutes before serving.

Serves: 4-6

One-Pot Creamy Mashed Potatoes

2 ½ lbs. Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 ¼ cups whole milk

5 garlic cloves, peeled

4 Tbsp. salted butter

1 ½ tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. black pepper

1. Add potatoes, milk and garlic cloves to a medium saucepan. Heat over medium until simmering, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are fork-tender.

2. Turn off the heat and use a potato masher to mash directly in the pot until very smooth. Add butter, one tablespoon at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper, then taste and add more seasoning if necessary.

Serves: 4-5