The stress-free pleasure of Thanksgiving for two
Friday, November 19, 2010; 6:00 PM
In the eight years I lived blissfully alone, my Thanksgiving dinner usually was just a baked sweet potato with lots of butter and salt, because the alternative was suffering other people's families and vile candied yams. But when I took up with my consort, he had this bizarre idea that real people ate real meals. And so our first November together found us wandering the supermarket the night before the great American feast day, rounding up turkey and trimmings for two.
That was 29 Thanksgivings ago, and it remains one of my favorites. We couldn't have a crowd because I was new at my newspaper job and had to get to my desk for the brutal 6-to-2 night shift. And because we were as new to cooking as we were to each other, we spent the day mostly opening up cans and boxes: seasoning packaged stuffing with Bell's musty mixture, glopping out gelatinous cranberry sauce with the can's ring imprints intact. Our appetizer was California ripe olives, and I'm pretty sure dessert was a pumpkin pie from the freezer case.
Still, we sat at a card table and ate ourselves almost into a Tom Jones state before I toddled off to the New York Times, about as happy as I'd ever been.
We had to muddle through, but I'd be even mellower today in starting everything from scratch. Thanksgiving is really the easiest meal of the year, especially for two people who want to spend time together in the kitchen, pressure-free.
The turkey is just a big chicken. The stuffing will be good no matter what you put in it (or leave out). The side dishes just have to be copious; if one isn't perfect, the assemblage will save them all. And because leftovers are half the point, you can follow just about any recipe with any yield and make it work for two.
The best part of a two-chair Thanksgiving, though, is that you can leave out the company's-coming stress. You have to make only what you want to eat, not what anyone expects. (On one of the rare turkey days when we agreed to go to a creative friend's, I ruined everything by insisting on bringing mashed potatoes.) You don't have to apologize if the gravy is lumpy. You can eat when you and the turkey are ready, not when the guests are. And you know your company will be congenial.
I think our first turkey weighed all of eight pounds, which is reasonable for leftovers (and turkey gumbo and a winter's freezerful of stock). But if you don't want the whole tom, you can track down a guinea hen, which is like chicken from another, better planet. And you can stuff it, as you can't a turkey breast (which is also missing its dark meat). Duck is trickier, but we often cook it for just the two of us on Christmas.
Because you're pleasing yourselves, you can go beyond the expected: Add Tuscan kale to the mashed potatoes, and some garlic, and hit them with Aleppo pepper. (Aggressive seasonings generally are in criminally short supply on the fourth Thursday in November.) Instead of cooking predictable broccoli or obligatory Brussels sprouts, you can make a salad with Broccolini, conveniently sold in bunches that serve two, and dress it up with Gorgonzola and pistachios. (Cheese is also absurdly undervalued as a Thanksgiving ingredient.)
In this ours-alone mood, you can take the time to put together a diversion to pick at while you cook, something satisfying but not satiating; the last thing you want to do is fill up before you get out the carving knife, let alone the potato masher. Crab salad, juiced up with lime and jalapeno, is just enough, mounded on sliced kohlrabi (or endive leaves or crackers or tortilla chips).
As we learned with our can of jellied cranberry all those decades ago, the leftover sauce lasts just short of eternity. But if you need that flavor to make it "Thanksgiving," save it for dessert. A crisp made with fresh cranberries, crystallized ginger and a spicy-crunchy almond topping is like the best of two courses. (And you bypass what I always refer to as the heartbreak of pie crust.) If company were coming, you might feel compelled to go out and buy a proper baking dish for it. But when it's just two of you, you can use a nine-inch skillet or saute pan. And serve from it, too.
Whatever you do, it's better than going out for dinner. A friend swears that was her best Thanksgiving, the year just the two of them headed to a relatively swanky place in the neighborhood, ordered the turkey alternative on the menu and left the dishwashing to the professionals.
But Thanksgiving is as much about the cooking as the eating. And there's no place like home. Even with one sweet potato.