Alternative Thanksgiving Menus for Nearly Every Situation
It crept up on you, didn't it? You lifted your head up from the work-a-day grindstone, and there it was: Thanksgiving, staring you right in the face. Grocery prices are up, you're completely out of time to plan, and people are starting to hint that they are expecting you to host something. You need to pull off a major holiday. On a budget.
Would I let you down?
Things are hectic at our house right now too. Full blown, traditional Thanksgiving meals are stressful enough under the best of circumstances. Add a few extra wrenches in the gears, and some serious choices need to be made regarding which things may need to go by the wayside. Following is a selection of suggested alternatives. (See also: 5 Themes Menus for a Merrier Holiday)
Lean and Mean
Hosting a smaller soirée of around two-to-six people and looking to control calories at the same time? Grab one of the turkey breasts that are going on sale right now. They are low fat and WAY easier to thaw than a giant full bird. They also won't require nearly as much time or oven space to cook. Season it with whatever dry rub or basting sauce trips your trigger. Afraid it won't be moist? Snag one of those marinade and injector kits all the stores are displaying next to the turkey case and poke away. Bonus: You'll have an injector tool to make your own mixture for Christmas.
For sides, serve a spaghetti squash tossed with reduced fat butter and loads of nutmeg or mace, and a three minute sauté of skinny French beans with sesame seeds, sesame oil, and some freshly grated ginger. You'll have lots of oven room to toss the spaghetti squash in next to the breast for the last hour. This squash doesn't need fluffing or mashing either. You just shred it out with a fork, and you are ready to go. For dessert, skip the pie crust and go with double the amount of pumpkin filling, using fat-free evaporated milk and slightly less sugar. Bake up the whole thing in a rectangular dish the night before. Scoop it out and serve with low-fat whipped topping. Wanna include a little something extra? Here's a recipe for a sugar-free cranberry sauce that doesn't look too taxing.
Now that you've saved all the calories on the meal, you can go nuts on your cocktails. I wanted something really unusual, so I contacted the folks at Partida Tequila. They came through with this drink recipe for pumpkin margaritas created by Crema Restaurante in New York City:
- 2 ounces Partida Reposado Tequila
- 1 ounce of fresh lime or lemon juice
- Splash of pumpkin puree
- Lime wedge
- Sesame seeds (You'll already have these if you are using the French bean recipe above.)
Rim the cocktail glass with lime juice and sesame seeds. Mix the ingredients well in a shaker with ice and strain into the glass. Garnish with the lime wedge on the side of the glass. I'm thinking this one is going in my personal “pumpkin archives,” an honor I reserve for only the most slamming pumpkin recipes I find.
Want to accommodate vegetarian guests, but really don't want to embrace Tofurky? I hear you. The biggest issues are replacing the meat centerpiece and gravy with alternatives. Traditional eaters tend to freak out when they hear there's a vegetarian holiday meal. You can combat this by making a more dramatic statement on your meat replacement with a nut roast, wild mushroom stroganoff, artichoke tart, stuffed acorn squash halves, chestnut casserole, or grilled pineapple with curried sweet potato filling. Some gravy suggestions: A red wine reduction, roasted garlic and pumpkin sauce, or mushroom gravy. Most everything else can be worked around regarding side dishes and desserts. Go as traditional or far out as you want. Consider pumpkin hummus with pita crisps or a brie and wild mushroom fondue as a pre-dinner snack and a meal beverage of cranberry mimosas. If you are really missing the meat, you can cook up a smaller meat dish in the slow cooker. Need a simple dessert? Here's a recipe for a vegan pumpkin snack cake that goes great with a dollop of whipped cream.
Dance to a Different Drumstick
A giant roasted turkey is the first thing that usually comes to mind for this holiday, but why not think outside of the box? You can skip the whole marathon thawing process and actually cook up a few other things in that oven. How about a meat-stuffed pumpkin with mixed green salad and a pumpkin vinaigrette? The pumpkin makes a nice layered entree when sliced in sections, and with a slammin' salad as the side, you can go nuts calorie wise on the cocktails and dessert. A note: The pumpkin vinaigrette recipe link is great, but I prefer it with cider vinegar instead of the rice vinegar they recommend. Then again, I like tangy dressing. Your call.
Also, picnic pork roasts are on sale all over the place right now for ninety-nine cents or less per pound and are great with spiced apple sauce instead of gravy. Save yourself the aggravation and calories and dump some apple sauce with cinnamon and apple pie spice in a mini crock and ladle it over your Thanksgiving roast pork. Plus it can be tossed in the crockpot and forgotten about while you get the rest of the meal ready. A pot roast with horseradish sauce would also be a bold flavor choice and can be cooked in the slow cooker as well. Still feel like poultry but not wanting to wait for turkey? Roast a chicken or two. You can still have as many of the traditional sides as you want, and you'll have way less oven time, cost, and stress.
Usually guests will ask what they can bring. Desserts and appetizers are easy things to assign and will take the stress off you the night before. Select a type of wine that will go with your meat of choice for your holiday beverage option, and perhaps set up a coffee bar for after dinner. Here are some simple ideas for wine pairings to get you started.
Whip Up Something Nice — Anything
An Italian friend of mine does homemade ravioli with her family every Christmas. This may not give you less time in the kitchen, but you have to admit the overall price is right. We have been stocking up our pantry for the winter, but I have yet to make an official holiday meal plan. We'll either be dancing to a different meat drummer as I mentioned above, or whipping up something completely nontraditional...just a nice dinner that I can throw on without running errands or stressing out. Linguini Alfredo, roast ham with a pumpkin casserole, stuffed peppers...you get the picture. You can make a nice low stress dinner and reflect upon what you are thankful for. Finish off the meal with pumpkin pie lattes and some homemade biscotti or an uber-decadent chocolate cake.
Hit the Road
If waiting forever to get your stuffing refilled at a pre-reserved restaurant event is your idea of annoying (Guess who did this one year and found it was not all she dreamed of?), consider one that has a buffet option for the Thanksgiving meal. Or go again with the nontraditional, using any two-for-one or other coupon from the paper. Find a chain restaurant that's open, sit and down and relax with your meal, and skip the stress and clean up. If you really want a small taste of the holiday, put this slow cooker pumpkin pie on before you head out the door. You can enjoy it when you get back with a hot chocolate cocktail.
The Backyard Bash
This is the easiest way I can think of to host a crowd on the fly. Granted, you'll need to live in more southern latitudes to pull it off without freezing. But since that includes a fair number of you, I'm tossing this one out there as an idea for serious consideration. Let the guys guard the iced-down pumpkin microbrew and deep fry the turkey outside. Assign side dishes like you would for a pot luck, and put out one of those multi-sectioned warming trays and a few extra crock pots on your picnic table. (Just back it up to an outside wall that has an exterior electrical outlet.) Keep dessert casual with things like pumpkin whoopie pies or other simple finger foods like brownie bars. Have a vat of mulled cider with a bottle of rum standing by throughout the day. Keep it casual, and plan some sort of outdoor game or talent show.
All of these suggested menu plans provide a fair amount of flexibility for budget, availability, and recipe selection. A few other budget tips:
- Keep an eye on the ingredient lists of the recipes you select. If your main meat event calls for a few things you don't normally buy, consider cutting out the gazillion-ingredient fruitcake recipe from Grandma Jane.
- Fewer sides in general is a good idea as well, and you might want to keep the dessert to one if you are having only a few people over.
- Several bread thrift shops sell cheap stuffing mixes, gravy mixes, and other things.
- Shopping right now can be tricky if you have your heart set on the whole traditional shebang. Certain things like baking ingredients are on sale, but cranberries are through the roof.
Bottom line? There are a few different ways to celebrate Thanksgiving that still provide holiday style while keeping you from spending countless hours in the kitchen and major bucks in the checkout line. Got another great idea for pulling Thanksgiving out of thin air? I'm all ears.