I have a confession to make: I don’t like turkey. I’ll eat it, but it’s certainly not a favorite. Despite having hosted Thanksgiving celebrations since cramming my extended family into my grad school apartment back in 2008, I have never actually roasted a turkey! If you’re similarly ambivalent about turkey, concerned about tripling turkey prices, or just want to change it up, here’s what I have enjoying making (and eating) over the years:
Capon – This is generally my Thanksgiving go-to. It’s a milder flavor overall than turkey, but distinct from run-of-the-mill chicken. To its detriment, this is a difficult thing to find. Apparently, these birds were poised to be an ubiquitous supermarket staple during the Baby Boom, but a declining birth rate with fewer mouths to feed per family tanked the fledgling capon industry. I find that a capon can generally serve up to 15 people if you’re generous with side dishes. I order mine ahead at our local market. If you’re local, I’ve had great luck with Dorothy Lane Market and the Bellbrook Dot’s Market.
Pheasant – After years of writing characters who are obsessed with a day’s pheasant shooting, I got curious. Last year, I served pheasant on Thanksgiving, and it was a complete showstopper. This might very well be the new capon. Unfortunately, pheasants are also difficult to find if you’re like me and have never actually been pheasant hunting. I do all my pheasant hunting online at the D’Artagnan website. I ordered four pheasants to serve eight people, and we didn’t really have leftovers. Generally, I feel like meat stretches further on Thanksgiving because people are in it for the sides, but my guests devoured the pheasants!
Cornish Game Hens – I feel like these are a bit retro, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe a Preppy Handbook dish? We had these when I was growing up, and they seem in the same vein as our other holiday favorites like Beef Wellington and Crab Louis. These are a nice alternative to roasting a massive bird, particularly if you have a smaller crowd.
Chicken – We roasted an organic chicken during Thanksgiving 2020 when it was just our little family for dinner. It’s worth considering just roasting a couple of chickens. Smaller birds (like all the ones I’ve listed) are going to cook faster with less chance of the white meat drying out.
After years of Thanksgivings, I’ve gotten the cooking process down to a stress-free science. It only took 13 years. Catering is always a valid option (Honeybaked Ham makes a great turkey), but maybe you’re hosting because you want to cook.
My ultimate hack is that you can roast the bird the day before. Trust me. It is so liberating. You have the entire oven free, and no one is waiting on capricious dark meat juices to finally run clear while the mashed potatoes grow cold. No ‘crispy skin’ is worth the stress of roasting poultry with a houseful of guests. Roast it the day before. Carve it. Put it in the fridge. Add chicken or turkey stock, cover with foil, and warm in the oven while you prep other food and interact with your guests. The flavor is still great, and the stock keeps it from drying out.
In fact, almost everything can be made ahead of time. The only thing I typically make the day of is dressing/stuffing, whatever your region calls the delicious breadcrumb dish. Otherwise, mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry relish, even gravy – make a mess of your kitchen on Wednesday and clean it up before the guests arrive the next day! My goal on Thanksgiving is to use as few prep dishes as humanly possible. The table is plenty to clean up after the feast.
Every family has its favorite food traditions, of course. I have printouts from the Williams-Sonoma website that are time-stamped November 2006! That said, sometimes a tradition becomes a rut, and it’s fun to try something new. After years of cornbread-apricot stuffing/dressing, I’ve been making a brioche chestnut stuffing. Both are delicious, so enjoy. I think I’ve made this cranberry relish every year since 2006. It smells a bit like a Yankee Candle store, but is very popular on the Thanksgiving table. Parker House rolls are also a must.
We live in the Midwest, but our New England roots are pretty obvious on the Thanksgiving table. I like a New England Root Casserole made from 2 cups of carrots, 1 cup of LL Bean slippers that ‘still have some life left,’ and a dash of rosemary. Mix well and refuse to turn on the oven because the casserole can just bundle up, it’s only November.
I feel like I have more Thanksgiving cooking advice than I can possibly splash across one blog post. If you have specific questions, of course drop them below!