Turkey looms over Thanksgiving for weeks ahead of the big day. For many people, it’s simply a question of how to snag and cook the perfect 18-pounder. But for vegetarians and anyone not hosting a crowd, a big turkey is simply not fit for purpose.
Still, it is the iconic thing, so what to do if it doesn’t work for you?
One way forward is to probe the idea of turkey as an icon. It wasn’t really always so utterly and exclusively so.
Its star status derives from Gov. William Bradford, who noted that at that first Massachusetts Thanksgiving in 1621, “Beside waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys.” We know that Native Americans showed up with venison and that the governor had arranged for waterfowl because one of the diners Edward Winslow wrote: “Our harvest being gotten in our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might in a special manner rejoice together.” The birds in the bag aren’t identified, but it’s a good guess that they included the geese and ducks that migrate over Massachusetts.
Since these water birds — all smaller than turkeys — were part of that first Thanksgiving, they equal turkey as historically authentic. While geese can be hard to find, duck is easier. Other small birds are Thanksgiving possibilities too. Cornish game hens or a pheasant look appetizing presented on a bed of vegetables or rice pilaf. And a sweet little flock of quail looks festive, tastes delicious, and is super-quick to prepare. (Speed of preparation cannot be claimed for turkey.)
It was natural for Gov. Bradford to order “fowling” because back in England, which the colonists had just left, feasts of every kind always featured birds. Swans and herons, were valued for their size, and wild turkeys were a welcome addition to their ranks. But feasts had other meats as well, and New Englanders followed this tradition at Thanksgiving. In 1823 Joseph Anthony of New Bedford reported having roasted mutton. Pork was common because it was hog-slaughtering season. Chicken pie was a standard. Recalling Thanksgiving in the 1860s, Grace Wheeler of Stonington extolled: “The big turkey, brown and shining accompanied by two big pans of chicken pie and roast pork, crisp and brown, and clove-studded.” In her 1896 “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” Fannie Farmer had chicken pie as well as turkey on her Thanksgiving menu.
But none of these options work for vegetarians, whose advantage is that there is no icon nagging them into a particular choice. Still, a major point about any feast, Thanksgiving included, is that there must be a big centerpiece dish supported by a regiment of relishes, sauces, salads and vegetables.
A large rice dish such as a biryani or a risotto studded with vegetables is one vegetarian option. And if you want to keep the focus on seasonal local crops, a handsome winter squash with a colorful and tasty stuffing is eye-catching, as is a dish of seasonal of mixed orange-hued vegetables.
Supermarkets go overboard to persuade us that we must buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. But we don’t. We just need a star and a supporting cast of other good things. Here are some possible show-stoppers.
Humita is a delicious corn dish from Argentina. Recipes vary but the basics are grated or puréed fresh corn kernels with cheese and eggs plus flavorings. Vegetables may be added, or an egg cracked on top before baking. It can be cooked in a shallow baking dish, but for Thanksgiving is looks terrific in a pretty winter squash such as acorn.
2 large acorn squash (about 2 -2½ pounds each)
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 teaspoons cornstarch
½ cup milk
2 teaspoons fennel seeds or few drops of anise flavoring
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons snipped chives
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Grated nutmeg to taste
¾ teaspoon salt
3 basil leaves, cut into thin ribbons
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Garnish: cherry tomatoes or tomato pieces, apple slices, snipped chives
Cut the squash in half across the middle (not down from the stem to the tip). Scoop out the seeds and fibers. Microwave for about 7 minutes (or bake in a 350-degree for over for about 25 minutes) or until the flesh is tender but the squash still holds its shape. Set aside.
You should get 2 cups of corn kernels from three or four large ears of corn, or a 10.8-ounce frozen package. If using fresh corn, grate the kernels off the cob; if using frozen corn process briefly in a blender or food processor. Set aside. Mix the cornstarch to a thin paste with a little of the milk; set aside. If you are using fennel seeds, pound them briefly in a mortar or in a plastic bag. Set aside. Turn the oven to 375 degrees and grease a shallow baking dish with a little of the butter.
Heat the rest of the butter in a large pan, and gently cook the onion in it for 4-5 minutes. Do not let it brown. Stir in half the chives, and then the corn and the cheese. Finally, stir in the eggs, the cornstarch mixture, the rest of the milk, the anise or fennel seeds and a little salt. Grate nutmeg into the mixture. (If you use powdered nutmeg add just a pinch.) Cook for just one minute, then remove from the heat and stir in the basil. Taste and add more salt, spices or herbs if you like.
Set the prepared squash on the greased dish, open side up. Using a fork, scrape and mash some of the flesh from the sides into the middle, but leave a strong “wall.” Fill the cavities with the corn mixture, and sprinkle the Parmesan and breadcrumbs on top. If using tomatoes as a garnish add them. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the top looks puffy and a little browned. Serve immediately sprinkled with the rest of the chives as garnish and vegetables on the side. (If you have leftover filling, turn it into a greased baking dish and serve as extras.)
Quails are tiny birds, best served one per person for an appetizer or two as a main course. They make a pretty presentation nestled into rice or a big dish of vegetables such as Cider-roasted Fall Vegetables (recipe below). Quail are super popular among Italians, and this recipe comes from “Felidia,” a new book by Lidia Bastianich published by Alfred A. Knopf. “Quail is a great alternative for those who choose not to do a big turkey,” Bastianich wrote. “The seasonal version of a typical Tuscan bread salad makes a great stuffing.” Quail are available on the internet and also in the freezer section of Whole Foods in Hadley.
For the panzanella
1½ cups peeled, cubed butternut squash
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup cubed day-old bread
½ cup half-and-half
½ cup chopped red onion
1 cup cooked, peeled chestnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
For the quail
8 semi-boneless quail
Freshly ground black pepper
16 small fresh sage leaves
8 very thin slices prosciutto or speck
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup chopped red onion
½ cup Marsala
2 cups chicken stock
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. For the panzanella, toss the squash with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium bowl, and season with salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet, and roast until very tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let the squash cool, and increase oven temperature to 425 degrees.
Put the bread cubes in a large bowl, and pour the half-and-half over them. Let sit until softened, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and chestnuts, and cook until the onion is softened, about 8 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and let cool. Put the squash, the bread with the half-and-half, and the onion mixture in a food processor, along with the vinegar and chives. Season with salt and pepper, and process to make a smooth mixture.
Transfer the mixture to a piping bag. Pipe some of the mixture into the cavity of each quail, but don’t overfill. Season the filled quail with salt and pepper. Lay a sage leaf on the breast of each quail. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around the breast of each quail, and tie the legs closed with twine, making a tight bundle. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Brown the quail on all sides, about 4 minutes per quail, and set them on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until the quail are cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, reduce the heat under the skillet to medium, and add the red onion. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the Marsala, and cook until it’s syrupy, about 2 minutes. Add the stock, and cook until the sauce is reduced to about ½ cup and just coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Remove the quail to a platter, and brush with the sauce to serve.
Most recipes for duck include fruit because its tartness highlights the rich meat. This recipe has local apples.
1 duck, 5-6 pounds
About 2 tablespoons salt
5 apples, such as Cortland or Empire
3-4 large sage leaves
2 bay leaves
Stem of fresh thyme
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2-3 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1½-2 cups chicken stock or vegetable broth
Have the duck at room temperature for half an hour before working on it. Turn the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a roasting pan large enough to hold the duck but not so large that it slides around. Tear an 8-inch wide strip of foil and fold it in four longways so you have a 2-inch band to be used to protect the legs.
Wash the duck. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of salt inside and rub it in. Sprinkle a little more on the outside. Leave for 4-5 minutes, then rinse inside and out again and pat dry.
Peel, core and halve two of the apples; put them inside the duck along with a couple of sage leaves, the bay leaves, and a thyme sprig. Prick the duck all over with a trussing or darning needle. Arrange your foil strip across the bottom of the pan and up the sides. Put the duck on top so the foil band is protecting the legs from the edge of the pan. Place in the oven and roast for 20 minutes per pound – roughly 1½ to 2 hours depending on the size. Baste often.
While the duck is in the oven, peel, core and slice the remaining apples. Put them in a small pan with ¼ cup of water and the remaining sage leaves. Cover and simmer until the apples have fallen into a mushy sauce. Discard the sage. Taste and add sugar, to taste.
The duck is cooked when the internal temperature tested by sticking a meat thermometer through the thickest part of the thigh into the breast is 160 degrees (less if you prefer a pink breast). Let the duck rest in a draft-free spot, covered with a kitchen towel, for 15-20 minutes before carving.
Make gravy while the duck is resting. Pour off all except 2 tablespoons of the fat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of flour into the fat in the pan. Return it to a low heat and stir for 30 seconds then add about ¼ cup of the stock or vegetable broth. Keep stirring and adding the liquid gradually until the gravy is the thickness you like. Stir in 1 teaspoon dried thyme, and simmer for 3 minutes adding salt if necessary
Carve the duck and serve with the hot gravy and the room-temperature apple sauce.
This dish celebrating local crops can accompany any Thanksgiving dinner. Exact quantities of ingredients are not crucial here.
1 pound baby carrots
½ small rutabaga, peeled and cut in bite-size chunks
Salt to taste
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut in 4 pieces each
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in big chunks
Half a honey nut or other squash, peeled and sliced in half-inch pieces
2 Cortland or Red Delicious apples, peeled, cored and cut in thick slices
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ cups cider
1 teaspoon dried thyme plus sprigs for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375. Grease a large shallow pan.
Put the carrots and rutabaga in a pan. Put the parsnips in another pan, and the sweet potatoes in a third pan. Add salt to taste, cover with water, and cook for roughly 8-10 minutes, testing to ascertain the vegetables have softened but are not cooked through. Drain and put them in the prepared dish. Add the sliced squash and apples and toss together.
While the vegetables are cooking, heat the oil in a frying pan and gently cook the onion and garlic in it for 3 minutes. Add the cider and dried thyme, and simmer for 3 more minutes. Pour this over the vegetables. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.