The whole point of Thanksgiving is to go big: a huge turkey surrounded by a bevy of sides and what's never too many pies, all devoured by relatives who may or may not be under the influence of free-flowing wine. That's the way the holiday usually goes.
Not so this year. Given the pandemic, current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rate small Thanksgiving dinners confined to members of your household as the lowest-risk way to celebrate the holiday. Tiny is the new big for Thanksgiving 2020, and, for many people, that means dinner for two.
But a Thanksgiving for two can be just as festive and delicious as a feast for 12 — with the distinct advantage that there's a lot less to clean up when it's over. It's simply a matter of scaling the proportions way down.
That's what I did in this menu, which delivers all of the autumnal charm and traditional flavors in a smaller package. And it still leaves room for a favorite family recipe, if you can't possibly live without Cousin Jessie's mac and cheese or Uncle Lou's jiggly salad, the one with the cream cheese and pecans.
The hardest thing about scaling the turkey was deciding whether to go with white meat or dark. I chose thighs, which are a lot easier and forgiving than the more finicky breast. But if you prefer white meat and would be happy for the extra leftovers, you can substitute a roasted breast. Pair the meat with quick-pickled onions and cranberries, which, with their fuchsia hue, add a welcome bit of color that could replace or brighten the usual jamlike cranberry sauce.
Stuffing is arguably the next most important dish on the table. This one, filled with sautéed shallots and plenty of herbs, is fairly classic buttery soft in the center; golden and crunchy on top.
You'll also need something sweet and orange and something spunky and green to round it all out. Here, I offer winter squash, doused in a mildly spicy maple glaze and roasted until velvety and browned at the edges, and sautéed greens, flavored with slivers of garlic and a dash of smoked paprika.
Personally, I don't see anything wrong with baking a pie for dessert and savoring the leftovers for a few days after. But if that seems excessive, try these rich little date and pumpkin sticky toffee puddings, imbued with a brown sugar toffee sauce and topped with crème fraîche for some much needed tang.
Even if it's just the two of you, you can still eat until your stomach aches and the only sensible course of action is a bracing walk or a cozy nap (or both). Because even if we are celebrating a little differently this year, some holiday traditions remain sacred.
Turkey Thighs With Pickled Cranberries and Onions for Two
Yield: 2 servings
Total time: 1 hour, plus at least 2 hours' marinating
2 garlic cloves, finely grated, pressed or minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves, preferably lemon thyme
1 1/2 pounds bone-in, skin-on turkey thighs (2 medium thighs)
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh or frozen cranberries
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, basil or parsley leaves, for serving
Finely grate 1/2 teaspoon zest from the lemon, and put it in a small bowl with the garlic and thyme. Halve the lemon, and squeeze 1 tablespoon of the juice into the bowl. Mix everything into a paste.
Pat the turkey thighs dry, and season with salt and pepper. Smear turkey with the paste, and place thighs on a plate. Refrigerate, uncovered, so the skin can dry out, for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
Meanwhile, squeeze the remaining juice from the lemon halves into a medium bowl. Add the onion, cranberries, lime juice, sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt, tossing well. Let the mixture sit at room temperature, tossing occasionally, until the onions wilt and turn pink, 1 hour. Cover, and refrigerate until serving. (These can be made up to 3 days in advance.)
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Put turkey thighs on a baking pan, and dot with butter. Roast the thighs for 40 to 50 minutes, until the skin is crisp, the meat is cooked through and the juices run clear. (No need to rest here.)
Serve turkey with a little of the cranberries and pickles on top, with herbs scattered over everything.
Herby Bread-and-Butter Stuffing for Two
Yield: 2 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
1 large or 2 small shallots, diced
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus a large pinch
1 teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram or thyme leaves (or use a large pinch of dried)
1/2 to 3/4 cup turkey, chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup chopped fresh soft herbs (use 2 or 3 of the following: parsley, tarragon, chives, mint, basil, cilantro, dill or celery leaves)
About 2 1/2 cups torn-up stale white or whole-wheat bread, not too crusty (3 ounces)
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a small, shallow gratin dish, casserole dish or loaf pan with a 3- to 4-cup capacity.
In a small skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Stir in shallots and a large pinch of salt. Cook until soft and just starting to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in marjoram, and cook for 1 minute longer.
In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup broth, egg, chopped herbs and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Fold in bread and shallots, letting the bread absorb the liquid. It should be very moist. (If the mixture seems dry, add more stock a little at a time, using up to another 1/4 cup.)
Spoon stuffing into the prepared baking dish, and grind some black pepper onto the top. Cut the remaining tablespoon butter into small pieces, and scatter over the top. Bake until golden brown and firm, about 30 minutes. Serve hot or warm.
Maple-Roasted Squash With Sage and Lime for Two
Yield: 2 servings
Total time: 35 minutes
3 tablespoons maple syrup
Large pinch of ground cayenne or chile powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Large pinch of coriander seeds
1 pound winter squash, such as dumpling, delicata or butternut, halved, seeded and sliced into 1/2-inch thick (you don't have to peel it)
Fresh lime juice, for serving
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves, for serving
Heat oven to 425 degrees. If you like, line a rimmed baking pan with parchment paper or foil. (It's not necessary but will prove helpful when cleaning up.)
In a small pot over medium-high heat, combine maple syrup and cayenne in a small pot. Bring to a simmer, and let cook until it reduces by a third, 1 to 3 minutes. Add butter, and let it melt. Turn off heat, and mix in salt, pepper and coriander.
Spread the squash out on the pan, and spoon maple mixture over the pieces, turning them to coat. Roast until the pieces begin to soften, 15 minutes. Turn the squash pieces over, and roast until glazed and tender, 10 to 20 minutes more. Drizzle lime juice, and scatter sage leaves over the top for serving.
Sautéed Greens With Smoked Paprika for Two
Yield: 2 servings
Total time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the greens
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 small bunch greens, such as kale, chard, spinach or mustard greens, torn into bite-size pieces (about 6 cups)
1/4 cup turkey, chicken or vegetable broth, or use water, plus more as needed
Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, and let it heat up for about 20 seconds. It will thin out to coat the pan. Stir in shallot slices and garlic, and cook until pale golden at the edges and softened, about 2 minutes. Add a big pinch of salt and the paprika. Give everything a stir.
Add the greens to the pan, using tongs to toss everything well. Add broth, and let greens simmer, until very soft, about 3 minutes for tender greens, and up to 15 minutes for tougher, mature greens. If the greens still seem tough but the pan is dry, splash in a little water and let cook for another few minutes.
Taste, and adjust seasoning, if needed. Squeeze on a little lemon juice, if you like, then serve hot or warm.
Pumpkin Sticky Toffee Puddings for Two
Yield: 2 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
For the puddings:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus more for greasing
1/4 cup pitted, chopped dates
3/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons boiling water
1/2 cup pumpkin purée (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom or ginger
Pinch of ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Flaky sea salt, for serving
Crème fraîche, sour cream or plain yogurt, for serving
For the sauce:
1/4 cups dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons pumpkin purée (not pumpkin pie filling)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Large pinch of fine sea salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick), cubed
1 tablespoon bourbon or brandy (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 (8-ounce) ramekins or a small, shallow gratin dish with a 2- to 3-cup capacity (see tip below).
Prepare the puddings: In a large, heatproof bowl, combine the dates, butter, lemon zest and baking soda. Stir in the boiling water. Let sit for 10 minutes or until cool.
Whisk in pumpkin purée, brown sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and fine sea salt until well combined, then whisk in the flour.
Scrape batter into the prepared ramekins, and bake until just firm when pressed in the center, 28 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a rack until ready to serve. (Pudding can be baked up to 8 hours ahead.)
Prepare the sauce: In a medium pot over medium heat, combine the sugar, pumpkin puree, heavy cream and salt. Bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat. Whisk in the butter and bourbon (if using). If the sauce separates, use an immersion or regular blender to blend it together.
Just before serving, heat the broiler. Pour a little of the sauce over each pudding. Broil until the puddings bubble, 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle tops with flaky sea salt, and serve at once, with more sauce and crème fraîche dolloped on top.
Tips: If your ramekins hold less than 1 cup (8 ounces) each, you can divide the batter among 3 or 4 of them and reduce the baking time. This recipe makes two very substantial servings, with leftovers. You can also double or triple the recipe. If doubling, bake in an 8-inch pan; if tripling, use a 9-inch pan. If you make any of these adjustments, start checking for doneness after 20 minutes.
How To Scale Down Your Favorite Thanksgiving Recipes
Just because you may be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a smaller group this year doesn't mean you have to give up your tried-and-true holiday recipes. Here are some guidelines and strategies for adapting your favorites to feed fewer people.
The smallest whole bird you'll probably find will weigh 8 to 10 pounds, serving 6 to 12. Using parts gives you more flexibility. For dark meat, thighs are the most forgiving; throw them in a 375-degree oven, drizzled with a little oil and seasoned with salt, until the skin is golden brown and crisp and the juices run clear when the thighs are pierced with a fork. Timing depends on size, but anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes should do it.
For white-meat lovers, choose breast meat, either turkey breast halves for roasting or preparing sous vide, or some thin cutlets that are perfect for sautéing. But take care not to overcook. A standard turkey breast half weighs about 2 pounds and will feed 4 to 6, so consider the cutlets if you're not a fan of leftovers.
You'll need 3/4 pound to 1 1/2 pounds of bone-in meat per person (depending on your fondness for leftovers) and 6 to 12 ounces of boneless meat.
Halve the recipe on the bag, cooking for 3 to 5 minutes less than called for, until you see the cranberries pop and the liquid boil vigorously. Or, since you usually have to buy a 12-ounce bag of berries, you may as well cook them all into sauce, and use the leftovers instead in jam bars or thumbprint cookies. The sauce will keep for at least 3 weeks in the fridge.
Most stuffing recipes call for 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of bread and are baked in a 9- by 13-inch pan to feed 6 to 12. Halve or quarter the recipe, then measure the volume of your uncooked stuffing, and find a dish where it will fit snugly. You want to fill the baking dish nearly to the top, so the surface of the stuffing browns. (If the stuffing mixture is too low in the pan, it's harder to get a crisp top.) Small skillets, loaf pans and small gratin dishes are all viable options. And note: You'll want to shave 5 to 10 minutes off the baking time.
Since you won't be roasting a whole bird, a make-ahead gravy, fortified with good turkey or chicken stock, is the way to go. You can halve or quarter most gravy recipes, but they will thicken a lot faster, so go by the recipe's visual cues rather than timing.
It's pretty easy to halve or quarter most mashed potato recipes, though they can get cold quickly. Make them just before serving, or reheat them in the microwave or in a double boiler over simmering water. Or keep them warm in an insulated coffee cup: A small amount of mashed potatoes should fit in one quite nicely.
CASSEROLES (SWEET POTATO, GREEN BEAN, SPOONBREAD, MAC AND CHEESE)
You can apply the same logic here as you would for stuffing: quarter or halve the recipe, then find a smaller dish in which to bake it. Note that if you're not trying to brown the top of your casserole, the depth of the pan becomes less important.
OTHER VEGETABLE SIDES
It's harder to generalize here, but for most vegetable side dishes, halving or quartering the recipe should do it. You'll want take note of cook time and pan size. As for pan sizes, it probably won't matter when sautéing, steaming or boiling. But when roasting, make sure not to crowd the pan. Vegetables need space so they can brown.
If you want to bake a cute, diminutive pie, halve most standard pie recipes and bake it in 6- or 7-inch pie tin. Just watch the time: A smaller pie will probably take less time to cook through.
For pumpkin and pecan pies, choose a recipe with a blind-baked crust, so you'll know the crust will be crisp, even if the small amount of filling takes a lot less time to firm up in the oven.
You can also just bake a regular-size pie and enjoy the leftovers for a few days — or freeze them. Fruit and nut pies (including apple and pecan) freeze better than cream pies like pumpkin, whose silky texture can turn grainy when defrosted. Wrap leftovers tightly in plastic wrap or foil, and place in a resealable freezer bag before freezing for up to 3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours.