Ten Fabulous Not-Turkey Thanksgiving Mains
Turkey. It’s so lovable, but kind of a pain. I think I am going to make a turkey this year, but I'm taking a sort of unusual route, the recipe for which will appear here later this week. Nonetheless, I know there are some of you who are thinking, a whole turkey, AGAIN? Or, a whole turkey, FOR TWO OF US? This post is dedicated to you, the turkey-haters, the couples making their own Thanksgiving dinner, and the people with small fridges and small ovens. There are many delicious, exciting alternatives to turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Here are ten of my favorites:
1. Duck. If you’re stuck on the whole bird thing, and you’re having fewer people, why not try roasting a duck? A slow roasted duck is a thing of beauty and it’s much easier to prepare than most people think. You can marinate the duck 24 hours before- or just dust it liberally with salt the night before- and roast it in a 300 degree oven for 3-4 hours. The benefits? Easier carving, shorter roasting time, and you get all that beautiful duck fat rendered out into the pan that you can use to roast potatoes. Note: cut slashes or prick the breasts lightly with a fork to allow the skin to crisp and the most fat to render. Also, be sure to have the ducks on a rack or elevated in some way from the surface of the pan, so they don’t get soggy in all that delicious duck fat.
2. Game Hens. Again, the bird thing. When I was a child, my favorite thing to eat was a tiny game hen that my mom rubbed liberally with seasoning salt. I liked it because I got my own little hen, and didn’t have to share with my brothers. For smaller Thanksgiving celebrations, game hens are a wonderful alternative because there’s no carving, a short cooking time and, for a slightly larger time investment, you can stuff the individual birds. Because they’re smaller, the stuffing cooks faster than it does in a big turkey and, in fact, it keeps the birds moist while they cook.
3. Ham. Ham is an affordable option for Thanksgiving, and makes equally exciting leftovers for sandwiches. I think some people are intimidated by buying and cooking a ham, so here’s what you should know: When choosing a ham, you have a couple options. The most traditional and probably the easiest to prepare is a bone-in, skin-off ham. If you’re doing Thanksgiving for two, a ham steak will work fine, as well. Next, don’t expect it to taste like a honey-baked ham. Those hams are injected full of brine containing salt and nitrites, and then smoked. They’re delicious, of course, but impossible to replicate at home. You can choose a fresh ham and expect to brine it or rub it on Wednesday before Thanksgiving. OR you may be able to find a nice smoked ham that you’ll only need to reheat and glaze.
4. Pork Standing Rib Roast. This is a section of the pork loin that is adjacent to the shoulder, or pork butt. That means it has more fat than the center of the loin where center cut roasts and many pork chops originate. Think of it this way: a standing rib roast is a bunch of fatty pork chops stuck together. If you have a nice butcher, they’ll French the end of the bones for you, so they stick out and help you know where to cut each piece. The roast is great because no one wants to cook a bunch of pork chops separately and, again, it takes less time and effort than a turkey. Obviously, as with a ham, the results are improved if you’re able to brine it or salt it the night before but, if not, just roast it low and slow with liberal seasoning, and you’ll have a great main course to serve. Also, FYI, good quality pork can be served slightly pink in the center, so don’t overcook it!
5. Porchetta. I would only serve a porchetta if you have an intrepid set of guests and you like rich, fatty cuts of meat. Personally, I love them, but I have encountered many individuals who can’t handle the amount of fat in a porchetta. That said, please don’t insult porchetta by making it with center cut loin, ham, or pork shoulder. A good porchetta can be made at home by asking your butcher for this: a skin-on, deboned section of the loin with the belly still attached. Then, ask them to score the skin for you. Typically, this can’t be done for a section less than 6-8 pounds, and bigger will make a nicer looking porchetta. There are lots of recipes online for how to season and cook a porchetta so I won’t go into too much detail, but remember that you’ll need to uncover the porchetta in the last hour of cooking- more or less- so that the skin can crisp.
(Side note: pork is also exceptional with cranberry sauce so no one will be complaining about missing that if you choose to make a pork dish.)
6. Short Ribs. Everybody likes short ribs now, after their run in the culinary spotlight a few years ago. Oddly, people are always impressed by short ribs too, as if it’s something that can only be made in a restaurant. Of course, short ribs are quite easy to make and have the major advantage of actually improving if you braise them one or two days ahead. So, no main course cooking on Thanksgiving day. (By the way, I’m putting that in italics because if, like me, you live in an apartment, then you don’t have a dual oven situation where your turkey can comfortably cook while your sides cook in the other oven.) Short ribs are great for a one-oven home because you can make them ahead, and reheat them the day of Thanksgiving. The tricks to making restaurant quality short ribs? Salt them liberally, brown them well on all sides, and cook for a long time at a low temperature.
7. Beef Standing Rib Roast. I really think this is the most luxurious of cuts, not beef tenderloin, as many people assume. If you want a classy, luxurious meal that surprises and delights, a rib roast is the way to go. This is, essentially, the exact same cut as the pork standing rib roast, which means that it is a bunch of rib-eye steaks not yet steak-ed. Ask your butcher to French the roast for you, and salt it liberally the night before roasting. As with the short ribs, the key to an excellent rib roast is to brown it well on all sides before roasting at a low temperature until it reaches around 135 degrees. Pan sauces always intimidate me so if you don’t want to make one, just pour the juices over the roast after you slice it, and make a side of crème fraiche spiked with fresh horseradish, salt, and pepper. Trust me, no one will miss the turkey.
8. Beef cheeks. I think beef cheeks are a beautiful option for a smaller Thanksgiving dinner party. Not only are they unique, and adventurous, but they make a beautiful sauce as they cook that will be perfect to drizzle over mashed potatoes and stuffing. There is a very simple way to prepare beef cheeks that I love. Here’s what you do: salt the cheeks liberally, and brown them very well in a heavy pan. Pour over enough dry red wine to cover, and add in black pepper, bay, and thyme. Braise for 4-6 hours at 300, until very tender. Allow the cheeks to cool in the liquid, then remove them and reduce the liquid to a sauce-like consistency. Like short ribs, beef cheeks only taste better if you braise them the day before the event.
9. Whole Fish. I’m thinking of that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Deborah wants to create her own Thanksgiving tradition that is different from her mother-in-law, Marie’s. Even though her effort to make a whole roasted fish isn’t totally successful, I really loved her intention. I think the lesson is that if you have an open-minded crowd that isn’t tied to turkey as a necessary part of their meal, then try a roasted fish. A few whole roasted branzino or a red snapper roasted in a salt crust would be a startling and elegant centerpiece at any Thanksgiving table especially, I think, an evening Thanksgiving dinner.
10. Not A Whole Turkey. Ok, I know I’m back at turkey here but I felt it was important to remind everyone that you don’t have to roast a whole turkey. You can brine and roast a whole bone-in breast. You can fry turkey legs with much more success and a significantly reduced risk of causing a fire at your Thanksgiving dinner. Best of all, you can ask your butcher to butterfly the turkey breasts, and then you can stuff them with sautéed kale, cranberries, parmesan, breadcrumbs, sausage, caramelized onions- take your pick! Tie it up and roast slowly; no one will miss that old dry turkey hogging up the center of the table.