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Turkey for two? A rookie’s guide to a homemade Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in normal times means getting together with family and friends to celebrate the many blessings of the past year. Tradition calls for a giant turkey with all the fixings, spirited conversation around the dinner table and a fight over leftovers.

These are not normal times.

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With the coronavirus still spreading, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising small in-person gatherings this year to protect individuals and families from the virus. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci is famously skipping spending the holiday with his three adult daughters, and according to recent surveys, almost 30% of Americans will host only immediate family on Nov. 26.

That means a lot of young adults and others who might otherwise have gone home or to a friend's house to enjoy home cooking on Thanksgiving will instead be preparing dinner for themselves this year — even if they aren't particularly well-versed in the kitchen.

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The holiday meal has so many moving parts that it's no wonder some cooks are consumed by fear. It's even worse if you're doing it for the first time, without the gadgets, cookware, dinnerware and knife skills a seasoned cook has at the ready.

To those rookie chefs, we say: Take a breath. With equal measures of preparation, convenience and courage, a tasty Turkey Day still is within reach.

Gaynor Grant, director of Gaynor's School of Cooking on the South Side, said learning to cook is like learning a new language. "The older you are when you start doing it, the harder it is."

"I find it relaxing after a full day," said Grant, who started her culinary training in 1973. "But for others it's a chore that takes a long time if you haven't been taught the basics."

An apple tart made with puff pastry is an easy and elegant Thanksgiving dessert.
An apple tart made with puff pastry is an easy and elegant Thanksgiving dessert. (Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

What you've got to your advantage on Thanksgiving, she noted, is that the traditional meal of roast turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes is not difficult, even for beginners. It's more an issue of timing and planning than culinary expertise.

"If you've only got one oven, you really have to plan well for what you're going to make," she said.

Also on the plus side: You probably have at least a little cooking know-how. Nearly 20% of people in a recent Butterball survey said they feel more confident about preparing the holiday dinner this year, thanks to all the meal prep we've had to do during the pandemic. You're also more comfortable than ever about accepting help. Some 55% surveyed said they're open to having pre-made sides to make Thanksgiving as simple and convenient as possible.

In other words, it's perfectly OK to serve your homemade turkey with Pepperidge Farm stuffing and instant or frozen mashed potatoes.

For the dishes you insist on making from scratch, Grant suggests making whatever you can a few days in advance. Brussels sprouts and potatoes, for example, can be blanched beforehand and stored in the fridge, so all you have to do is throw them in hot water on that Thursday. Also, if you're tackling a new recipe, practice it a couples of times beforehand until you've got it down pat.

"Do a spreadsheet and get things planned out," she suggested. Do you have the ability to safely store everything you buy for the meal? Do you have all the pots and pans you need?

If you're cooking a frozen turkey, give it enough time to properly thaw in the refrigerator, a process that can take days depending on the size.

A whole turkey is probably not a great idea for small crowds unless you have a big oven and want a ton of leftovers. Maybe go with a more manageable whole or split turkey breast. They take up less space, cook in a flash (15 minutes per pound), and are much easier to carve. Plan upon 1-1 1/4 pounds of turkey and 3/4 cup of stuffing per guest.

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Grant's basic rules for roast turkey are to always preheat the oven, use a rack if you've got one, don't go any higher than 350 degrees and baste the bird (breast side up) with fat or melted butter every 15-20 minutes. Don't worry about covering it with foil unless it starts to brown too quickly. Then gently lay the foil on top rather than wrapping it tightly to avoid trapping moisture.

While the breast will probably come with a pre-inserted timer, chances are you won't know when it pops so rely on a meat thermometer instead. You'll know it's done when the juices start to run clear and the meat registers 165 degrees.

"Then let it rest before you carve it," she said.

When it comes to planning the rest of the menu, registered dietitian Caroline West Passerrello, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests restricting your options to things that add value and satisfaction if you have limited resources. Do you really need rolls if there's mashed potatoes and stuffing?

"Don't make things you can easily have on other days," she said.

This might be the time to ask Grandma about that recipe you've always wanted to learn to make. For moral support, you could even ask her to cook along with you virtually on Thanksgiving day via Zoom or Facebook Live.

Hosts also need to be vigilant about food safety. Wash your hands frequently in hot, soapy water and keep raw and cooked foods separate during preparation. Once dinner is on the table, don't leave cooked food out any longer than two hours, she said, and refrigerate it in a shallow dish so it quickly gets to 40 degrees.

"You don't want to overstuff the fridge," she said, because it prevents cool air from circulating around food and maintaining its proper temperature. Also, the longer you plan on storing something, the more robust the container should be.

A full or split turkey breast is a great option for smaller crowds and inexperienced cooks on Thanksgiving.
A full or split turkey breast is a great option for smaller crowds and inexperienced cooks on Thanksgiving. (Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

If this is your first time preparing Thanksgiving, keep it simple: a pan-roasted turkey breast slathered in herb butter, Brussels sprouts roasted with craisins and balsamic vinegar and for dessert, a flaky apple tart made with frozen puff pastry.

For sides, go with packaged stuffing and instant mashed potatoes. Or, if you're feelilng a little more confident, here's how to dish up homemade mashed potatoes: Cook peeled and quartered potatoes in boiling water until tender, drain, place in a bowl with butter, salt and a little warm milk or cream and mash with a potato masher or electric beater until smooth and creamy.

Homemade cranberry sauce is easier still, and can be made a day or two in advance. Simply combine a 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries with 1 cup of orange juice, 1 cup of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until cranberries start to pop, about 10 minutes, then remove from heat and place sauce in a bowl. It will thicken as it cools.

The goal of this year's Thanksgiving dinner, said Passerello, should not be perfection. "It's not going to be the cover of a magazine."

Settle for the joy of safely gathering for a meal with people who love you and whatever you serve.

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