Simple or show-stopping recipes for your holiday mealChoose your Thanksgiving menu

Simple or show-stopping recipes for your holiday mealChoose your Thanksgiving menu

Thanksgiving is the biggest food holiday in the country. As we face our second such holiday amid a pandemic, we may find ourselves in one of two camps: Eager to pull out all the stops, reinvigorating holiday traditions, or, perhaps, looking for ways to glide through with less hoopla and more relaxation. To that end, we at The Post wanted to give readers options for how to feed their families and friends with the desired vibes: fancy or simple.

Some are in search of a project to provide a sense of normalcy in these (shudders to type this) unprecedented times. That means recipes that require a bit more preparation and planning, and a menu that gives guests a reason to dress up a little and maybe even put on hard pants. If this sounds like you, grab a tablecloth, bust out the nice dishes and take a look at Aaron’s fancy-ish holiday menu.

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Others of us can’t fathom tackling anything close to the traditional Thanksgiving menu, but still want to find a way to express gratitude. In this instance, Becky’s simple and comforting Thanksgiving recipes are just what the doctor ordered. These recipes are designed to be hands-off, low-lift and full of clever tricks to make cooking as stress-free as possible — a holiday meal perfect for stretchy pants and a leisurely day.

If you find yourself somewhere in between, you can mix and match as you see fit. Aaron’s turkey and dessert with Becky’s focaccia and vegetables? Sounds like a winning combination to us. Just want to grab one of these recipes to add to your usual menu? In the words of Tabitha Brown, “That’s your business.” Because regardless of what you cook, we want it to be satisfying and low-stress.

Tarragon-Butter Roasted Spatchcocked (Butterflied) Turkey

Aaron: I’ve always wanted to brine a turkey, but as someone who usually travels for Thanksgiving, it’s always been out of reach. Now is the time. A simple dry brine with just salt and a couple of days in the fridge leads to more flavorful meat and incredibly crispy skin. A compound butter with fresh tarragon, garlic, lemon zest and black pepper gets rubbed underneath and on top of the skin to infuse the turkey with flavor as it cooks. Spatchcocking, a.k.a. removing the backbone and flattening the bird, and a hot oven allow the turkey to cook in a fraction of the time compared to when kept whole, which helps it stays nice and moist. (A probe thermometer that stays in the turkey while it roasts is great for monitoring doneness without having to constantly open the oven.) Last but certainly not least: put those delicious pan drippings to good use and make gravy.

Cider-Braised Turkey Thighs With Potatoes and Apples

Becky: For my turkey, I wanted something that was mostly hands-off (at least after the initial prep), a dish that could hang out in the oven, making the house smell amazing while I spent time with family or tackled some of my other simple dishes. Inspired by my recipes for wine-braised chicken thighs and sheet-pan-roasted turkey legs, I jumped into crafting these braised turkey thighs. To channel fall, I use hard cider as my braising liquid. Brightened with cider vinegar and thyme leaves, the liquid tenderizes and flavors a bed of potatoes, carrots and apples. On top of that sit four large, succulent turkey thighs that are pan-seared before braising, meaning they will even retain some crispness after cooking. Sealed inside a large Dutch oven (the lid comes off partway through), the dark meat turns meltingly tender and the braising liquid becomes a golden elixir that eliminates the need for a separate gravy. Bring the pot to the table for a homey, welcoming presentation, that invites people to gather 'round and serve themselves.

Mushroom and Leek Cornbread Dressing

Aaron: Cornbread dressing is a must on my Thanksgiving table. The version that my family typically prepares includes celery, onions, peppers, chicken and/or turkey stock, sometimes a few pieces of turkey meat mixed in, and a smattering of spices and herbs. This is a vegetarian spin on that standard version. Use whatever mushrooms you want to add earthy meatiness to the dressing, while the leeks add subtle onion flavor. Tarragon and garlic are included with this mixture as a nod to the compound butter used with the turkey. For an easier holiday, bake the cornbread one day, assemble the dressing the next, and then pop it in the oven just before serving and bake it until golden brown on top.

No-Knead Focaccia With Sausage, Apple and Shallots

Becky: Stuffing and dressing are often mostly bread anyway, so I asked myself whether I could channel those flavors into an actual loaf. Answer: Yes. Even better, this no-knead focaccia is based on a make-ahead dough that will last as long as two weeks in the refrigerator. It uses the dough and concept of our popular Fast Focaccia from the “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” team of Zoe François and Jeff Hertzberg, but instead of small round loaves, you get a whole sheet pan’s worth. In keeping with the stuffing/dressing theme, I embedded signature elements into the dough. (The beauty of this recipe is you can use pretty much any topping you want.) The end result is an eye-catching focaccia that’s thick, plush and large enough to serve a crowd and have plenty of extras for the beloved leftovers sandwiches. Of course, it’s ideal for sopping up the braising liquid from my turkey and can be baked at the same time as my broccolini below, should you choose.

Vegan Braised Collard Greens With Miso and Smoked Paprika

Aaron: Braised collard greens are a staple in Black foodways and are typically seasoned with smoked pork or turkey parts to imbue the greens and the potlikker with tons of flavor. Reflecting on my own evolving consciousness concerning meat consumption, I wanted to make a vegan version with a similar flavor profile. Enter these braised collard greens. Miso, a fermented seasoning agent most popular in Japanese cuisine, provides the umami that would have otherwise come from meat. There are countless varieties of miso, and any can be used in this recipe, but I typically prefer a darker, more flavorful red miso. Smoked paprika lends a smokiness reminiscent of the version of the dish I grew up eating.

Roasted Broccolini With Lemon and Chile Flakes

Becky: With the bulk of my work focused on my other dishes, I knew my side had to be quick and easy. Ideally, it would also be a lighter, brighter and leaner counterpoint to some of the heavier, richer courses. Enter this lemony, quick-roasted broccolini. I designed this enticing green dish to be slipped into the oven at the same time as the focaccia, with the high heat creating wonderfully crispy edges — the best part, in my opinion. My favorite little innovation, though, might be the mix of lemon zest and salt the stalks are dusted with before and after cooking. Save lemon wedges for serving. That juice and a hit of pepper flakes add a kick that makes for a memorable side.

Cranberry Tart With Gingersnap Cookie Crust

Aaron: In a nod to the canned jellied cranberry sauce that usually graces my Thanksgiving table, I present you with this cranberry tart that ends the meal with dramatic flair. Its lustrous red filling is ringed with almost iridescent golden and orange dried fruit for a show-stopping dessert. Still, it’s completely accessible. To save you from the finnickiness of pie crust, I use a press-in cookie crust with ginger, cinnamon, allspice and molasses — all the flavors of a gingersnap cookie. Orange and (more) ginger add flavor to the tart cranberry filling. (And when I say tart, I do mean tart, which can be a refreshing way to end a filling meal.) Diced crystallized ginger and candied orange peel — which look like tiny jewels — mixed with crushed gingersnap cookies form a beautiful crumble to garnish the dessert (if you so desire). Otherwise, a dollop of whipped cream would do for a simple adornment and can help sweeten it up a bit, if that’s more your thing.

No-Bake Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake

Becky: I’m with Aaron on pie crusts. They can be such a source of stress for so many people, myself included, that I decided to just punt on the pastry and go a different direction entirely. That direction took me right to the graham cracker crusts on the grocery store shelf. This is one shortcut I can get fully behind, and it makes my make-ahead pumpkin pie cheesecake an even lower, but no less delicious, lift. You start by microwaving pumpkin puree until it’s darkened and nutty. I found that was the key to helping it incorporate into a creamy, fluffy blend of cream cheese and whipped cream. Part cheesecake, part pie, part mousse, it’s a compelling dessert that won’t weigh you down and will more likely leave you wanting more.

About this story

Photos by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post, food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post, props by Limonata Creative for The Washington Post, photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory, design and art direction by Lizzie Hart, development by Leo Dominguez. Editing by Joe Yonan, Ann Maloney, Matt Brooks, Jim Webster and Olga Massov.

Aaron Hutcherson is a writer and recipe developer for Voraciously at The Washington Post. He is a culinary school graduate and has worked professionally in the food and media worlds in various capacities for nearly a decade.
Becky Krystal is a food reporter and staff writer for Voraciously. After several years as a general assignment reporter in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, she came to The Washington Post in 2007 to work for TV Week and Sunday Source. Her time at The Post also includes a five-year stint in the Travel section.