For the fledgling cook, Thanksgiving dinner can seem like the most intimidating meal to make. It’s not often that a civilian is asked to knock out a long succession of dishes, including a giant bird, for a crowd with fixed ideas of how it should all be done.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. I set out to devise a scaled-down menu for beginners — or anyone who wants to achieve the same flavor touchstones without doing more work than necessary.
Most of the dishes can be prepared with little more than a sheet pan and a large skillet. Everything cooks at one temperature — 350 degrees — so you’re not performing mental or physical gymnastics with the oven.
The shopping is easy because these recipes call for a limited number of essential ingredients, many of which are shared across the menu. Forget the fresh herbs — they’re just one more thing you’d have to wash. Instead, rely on a single dried herb (oregano, thyme or sage are all fair game) to act as a flavor motif throughout the meal.
And avoid the last-minute cooking sprint. Much of this menu can, and should, be made the day before, when you’re less stressed. (It should take about three to four hours.) Roll up your sleeves, put on a podcast and enjoy the cooking. Leave Thanksgiving Day for roasting the turkey.
A bone-in turkey breast is much easier to cook than a whole bird; it takes a small fraction of the time and still comfortably feeds a crowd. I like to roast my turkey the way I roast my chicken: slathered in butter, showered with salt and pepper and popped into a moderately hot oven to get crispy.
The last thing you want to do on Thanksgiving Day is rush just before dinnertime to make gravy from the turkey’s hot pan drippings. This make-ahead version relies on a base of caramelized red onion, with nutritional yeast as an optional umami enhancer to add nuance and depth.
They may seem out of place on Thanksgiving, but the red-sauce flavors of pizza work exceptionally well as a custardy stuffing bound by cheese. Tomato paste and dried oregano, bloomed in the buttery onions, do the heavy lifting in this comforting dish, aided by an ivory shower of shredded mozzarella that melts and turns lushly gooey in spots.
There’s no reason we can’t treat sweet potatoes like regular potatoes — mashed with butter, cream, roasted garlic and lots of salt. Baking sweet potatoes in the oven, avoiding large pots of boiling water, is not just a hands-off way to cook them; it also concentrates their flavor.
Snappy cooked green beans make a gorgeous salad with radicchio and canned artichokes. All you need for this zinger of a side dish is a generous glug of olive oil, a heavy hand with salt and pepper and an electric spritz of lemon.
Cranberry-and-orange relish is a classic, but here, a whole lemon — pith and all — acts as the bitter, acerbic edge that your Thanksgiving plate needs. This confetti of a condiment also looks so beautiful, almost like stained glass, with its jeweled, ruby gleam.
The particular joy of this pudding lies in the voluptuous softness it takes on as it sits in the refrigerator overnight. With time, the layers cohere: vanilla cookies, caramel-fried apples and salted cinnamon whipped cream, an airy dream in fall-dessert form.