It had to happen: Thanksgiving dinner gets downsized

It had to happen: Thanksgiving dinner gets downsized
By serving Cornish hens, you can avoid the logistical hassles of the more traditional Thanksgiving turkey. And they're cute. (istockphoto)

On Thanksgiving, one blessing for some of us is a large-group feast that we plan and prepare in stages for several days, if not weeks. Regardless of whether some of the guests are bringing a variety of side dishes, the head chef still has to wrestle with a turkey or two. Depending on the size this usually requires getting ol' Tom into the oven in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning.

Others of us are thankful for a smaller party. And it is to those November celebrants we proffer this petite menu of seasonal dishes that, while "lavish," can allow us to sleep in on Turkey Day, at least till it's light out.


It may seem to flaunt tradition, but this somewhat free-form menu is designed for six (but there's plenty for eight) and eschews turkey for another type of poultry: Cornish game hens, which are a lot easier to handle and a lot quicker to roast than that 20-pound behemoth so many home cooks traditionally deal with on the fourth Thursday in November.

Seafood canapés

Some of the rye toasts are topped with marinated herring, some smoked salmon and some caviar. This offering is rather Nordic in nature, but provides an interesting contrast to our all-American main-course approach. Another plus is that you can do the toppings and toast the rye bread ahead, then put them together at the last minute.

Herb butter

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

3 tablespoons reduced-fat sour cream

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons each, minced fresh chives and dill


1 jar (about 8 ounces) marinated herring, drained and cut into 16 pieces

Half of a red onion, sliced paper thin

1/3 cup thinly sliced small mushrooms (no stems)

White vinegar

3 ounces smoked salmon, chopped finely


2 tablespoons finely chopped red onions

1 ounce good-quality black caviar

1/2 ounce salmon roe

Canapés, garnishes

16 large slices rye bread or two-tone pumpernickel

Fresh chives and dill

For the butter, in a bowl, with electric mixer, cream butter, then gradually beat in sour cream and lemon juice. Beat until light and smooth, than beat in chives and dill. Add some pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate if not using right away, bring to warm room temperature for spreading on toasts.

For the seafoods, in a bowl, combine marinated herring, sliced red onion and mushrooms. Add about 1/4 cup of vinegar and pepper to taste and stir well. Cover and let marinate a couple of hours.

In another bowl, combine smoked salmon and chopped red onion. Chill.

Chill caviars.

For canapés, heat oven to 350 degrees. On a work surface, use cookie cutters to cut each bread slice into 3 decorative shapes. Place on baking sheet(s) and toast just until they're pale gold, about 4 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool.

To finish, spread each toast with some of the herb butter. Remove herring from marinate and pat very dry with paper towels. Arrange some herring, mushroom and onion on 16 of the toasts. Arrange the smoked salmon and chopped red onion on 16 more toasts. Spoon some black caviar on 16 toasts and top with some of the salmon roe. Arrange canapés on a pretty serving platter and garnish each with some chives and dill. Makes about 48 canapés.

Cornish hens, plus

What most of us like best about Thanksgiving turkey is the leftovers. Well, we build leftovers into this meal by providing a whole game hen per person. Use kitchen shears to cut each hen in half along the breast bone. Guests have the option of eating the whole thing or saving half for another time. If more than six accept your invitation, the hens can be halved before you serve them, and you can keep the remaining 4 halves for yourself.

Make the stuffing ahead; bring to room temperature before applying to the hens.

If you must have something green, do a spinach salad. Or some Brussels sprouts.


1 cup coarse bulgur (health food store if your supermarket doesn't have it)

2 1/2 cups reduced-sodium/fat chicken broth (or turkey broth)

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 pound bacon, cooked until crisp, fat reserved, bacon chopped fine

Two vidalia onions, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 large stalk celery, finely chopped

2/3 cup dried apricots, chopped

1 teaspoon rubbed sage

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper


6 Cornish game hens (about 1 1/2 pounds each)

About 1 stick unsalted butter, melted

4 teaspoons sweet paprika

2 teaspoon dried thyme

One-half teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon coarse pepper

Additional warmed chicken broth, for basting

Parsley sprigs and/or curly kale pieces, garnishes for platter


3 large russet potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

8 ounces button mushrooms (small), rubbed, stem tips removed

12 shallots, peeled, halved

12 large garlic cloves, peeled

3 large carrots, cut diagonally into 3/4 inch pieces

1 large celery root (a.k.a. celeriac), peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon coarse pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 tablespoons peanut oil, if needed

For the stuffing, in a large, non-stick skillet, over medium high, toast bulgur, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes, until it makes a popping sound and is lightly browned. Transfer to a bowl and cool slightly.

In a saucepan, bring chicken (or turkey) broth and 1 teaspoon salt to boil. Stir in toasted bulgur. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain bulgur in a strainer when tender if there's still some cooking liquid in pan. Spread cooked bulgur into a baking sheet to cool.

While bulgur cools, in a large, non-stick skillet, over medium, heat 2 teaspoons of the reserved bacon fat. Add onions and celery, stirring until onions are softened Transfer to a large bowl. Add apricots, sage, pepper, cooked bacon and cooled bulgur. Taste for seasonings.

For the hens, heat oven 350 degrees. Rinse hens inside and out; remove giblets, if any, and discard. Pat dry. Use about 3/4 cup of the stuffing for each bird. Use kitchen twine to tie up wings and legs, if desired. Arrange hens, breast side up, in large roasting pan. Brush generously with some of the melted butter. Combine paprika, thyme, garlic powder and pepper. Sprinkle some onto each hen. Tent roasting pan with foil. Place in oven and roast for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat some chicken broth and when hens have roasted for 30 minutes, baste with warm broth. Re-cover, return to oven, and roast 30 minutes longer. Baste again. Roast 20 minutes longer. Remove from oven, remove foil, baste with pan juices and roast about 20 minutes longer to brown. Thermometer inserted in thickest part of a thigh should read 175 degrees. Remove hens from pan to a large platter, cover with a damp kitchen cloth, then the foil tent you used for roasting. This will keep them moist as they cool enough to cut.

For the vegetables, raise oven temperature to 400 degrees. Pour off (and save) all but a thin film of the roasting pan juices. Arrange vegetables in pan. Combine salt, black pepper, garlic powder and cayenne and sprinkle over vegetables. Roast, turning gently, but often, for about 45 minutes, until tender. If they are sticking to the pan, move the veggies aside and use a paper towel to wipe some peanut oil onto the bottom of the pan. If they are becoming overbrown, add some of the pan juices and tent with foil until about 5 minutes before they're done. Remove foil for last minutes of roasting.

To serve, on one or two platters, arrange hens (cut in half lengthwise) and surround with roasted vegetables. Garnish with parsley sprigs or pieces of curly kale.


Apple crisp

We use McIntosh apples because they're sweeter than a lot of apples, and they become meltingly tender in the oven. If you wish, try galas instead. You can do the crisp the morning of, then gently reheat after the hens and veggies are out of the oven.

1 1/2 cups dried cranberries

1 large cinnamon stick

1 1/4 cups water

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup firmly-packed light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into bits

12 McIntosh apples

Whipped cream, ice cream, warm caramel sauce, etc., for serving, optional

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray-coat or butter a 9- x 13-inch baking dish.

In a small saucepan, simmer dried cranberries and cinnamon stick in water for 10 minutes. Drain cranberries; remove cinnamon stick.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, brown and salt. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or two knives, until mixture resembles coarse meal, toss well.

Peel, core and slice apples thinly. Toss apples with cranberries and arrange in prepared baking dish. Sprinkle brown sugar over apples/cranberries. Bake about 25 minutes, until apples are tender and top is golden. Cool somewhat on a wire rack. Serve as is or with suggested goodies. Makes about 8 servings.