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Three Ideas for a Small Thanksgiving

Whether you’re cooking for a small crowd or just a couple of friends, chef Tom Douglas has you covered

Fine Cooking Issue 81

For a crowd of up to 12 people, try a small turkey, here rubbed with fennel seed and smoked paprika.


I grew up with six sisters and a brother, so it never occurred to me that Thanksgiving dinner could be for fewer than 20 people. Only later on, when I moved across the country and got married, did my favorite food holiday turn into an affair for two—or maybe four.


Smaller turkeys are easier to cook than 25-pound behemoths, and their meat is more likely to stay moist while the skin crisps up nicely. In fact, even if you’re cooking for a large group, you’re better off roasting two medium turkeys than the biggest turkey you can find. My first “small” Thanksgiving turkey was about 18 pounds—much smaller than my mother’s usual 25-pound monsters—but obviously way too big for two, even counting leftovers. By our second Thanksgiving together, my wife and I were down to a 12-pound bird, which is the turkey size I stick to when I don’t have many people coming over. One of my current favorites is a 12-pound  turkey rubbed with smoked paprika and toasted fennel seeds , then roasted over a bed of onions, which become the base of a flavorful gravy.


But there are other delicious options for a soul-satisfying turkey supper for small groups. If you’re having only a couple of people over, my Dried Apricot & Date Stuffed Turkey Breast with Marsala Glaze  is a perfect solution; it feels special, keeps with the turkey tradition, and cooks quickly. . And if your gathering grows to six, try roasting a large  chicken brushed with cranberry-honey glaze  during the last half hour of roasting. The sugar in the honey and the red color from the cranberries help the chicken brown to a beautiful burnished glow, and the slightly sweet skin is a nice complement to the juicy chicken meat.

A boneless turkey breast stuffed with sweet, nutty flavors is perfect for just two or four people.The breast is wrapped in bacon, which adds flavor helps keep the meat moist. Instead of gravy, a simple Marsala wine reduction is easy and quite delicious.


A large roasted chicken with a honey-cranberry glaze serves six nicely. I serve the chicken with a fresh-tasting uncooked cranberry relish. Rice vinegar adds tang and keeps the relish from being cloying.


Turkey Tips


I roast all my birds untrussed and unstuffed because they cook more quickly and evenly. Aromatics, such as lemon zest, garlic cloves, and thyme sprigs can go into the cavity, but in my house, the stuffing goes into a dish to be baked separately. This way, I get a far superior stuffing: moist inside, with a crunchy surface. I also prefer not to truss my turkeys and chickens so the heat circulates better, but for a neater look, it’s fine to tie the legs loosely. Don’t forget to let your roasted bird rest 10 to 20 minutes before carving to give the juices time to settle.


I prefer to buy organic, free-range birds and, if frozen, thaw them in the fridge. I’ve made a choice to use organic ingredients in my restaurant and home kitchens to be a little easier on the earth. I also find that when animals roam freely, the meat has more intense flavor and better texture. If you buy a frozen bird, make sure you get it at least three days ahead and thaw it in the refrigerator rather than under cold running water. The fridge maintains a consistent and safe temperature throughout the bird, and slow thawing helps preserve its texture.

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