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10 ways to approach 2020’s scaled-back Thanksgiving

Addie Broyles
What will Thanksgiving during the coronavirus pandemic look like? Some people are hosting smaller dinners outside, while others are cooking only for the people in their household. No matter what your plan is, take time to acknowledge both the losses and the unexpected lessons of this year.

In a year of can’ts, what can we do about this year’s Thanksgiving?

It’s looking less and less reasonable to host a holiday that looks like those of yore with guests sitting elbow-to-elbow around the table or out-of-town visitors sleeping all over the house.

COVID-19 rates are skyrocketing, not because of large gatherings but because of small ones. Outdoor gatherings are seen as a safer option, but how do we share a meal without also sharing hugs and serving utensils?

I hoped to host a backyard Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle and cousins, where we’d all bring our own plates, food and chairs, but even that felt too complicated, so we’re all now hosting our own holiday dinners with the people we’ve been quarantining with.

It’s a change we’re all grappling with, and where there is change, there is grief. If I’ve learned anything about grief work, it’s that we need to name the losses rather than pretend they aren’t there. And this year, we’ve had a lot of loss, starting with the almost 250,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 so far. People have lost jobs and businesses and a sense of personal freedom to go where they want in the manner they choose.

But we also have a lot to be grateful for. During the first months of the shutdown, we found new ways to support our neighbors. Compassionate folks organized quickly to distribute meals to people who need them. The food bank expanded operations and continues to set up drive-thru distribution sites benefiting thousands of families.

Virtual meetings at first seemed scary and strange, and now I count Zoom technology as one of this year’s many unexpected blessings as it allows me to feel part of a community without getting in my car.

As I found myself living in an extended state of hypervigilance, I learned more about self-care and mutual care. When things outside my house were changing faster than I could keep up with, I had to slow down and focus on even the smallest silver linings. Extra time with my kids, less time in traffic, a new appreciation for a fully stocked grocery store.

When considering the toll of this year’s economic and emotional losses, being able to host a Thanksgiving at all feels like something worth celebrating.

So, here are 10 ways we can think differently about this year’s celebration of abundance, even if you’re enjoying the day in the company of one.

1. Start with a good attitude. In last week’s food section, “Pie Camp” author Kate McDermott suggested treating this quarantine as an opportunity to learn new skills that you can use for the rest of your life. For Thanksgiving, we can decide what to cook based on asking ourselves, “What culinary skills do I want to learn that I can use well past the holiday?”

If it’s roasting a whole bird, then focus on making a really good turkey. If it’s learning how to cook more vegetable-based meals, find some plant-based recipes that look interesting, and you’ll likely learn some new techniques to bring out the flavors in produce. If it’s baking a pie from scratch, turn the task into a mini-workshop for yourself. Take notes like you’re a student in the first week of class. Embrace the beginner’s mind, and feed your curiosity rather than your doubts.

2. Try something new. Without the pressure of meeting others’ expectations for dinner, this is the perfect year to experiment. Make a beer can chicken instead of a turkey or an asparagus gratin instead of green bean casserole. Not really into turkey? Try marinating a block of tofu or tempeh in tamari, vinegar, olive oil and herbs and then roast or air-fry.

3. Buy something, anything, from a local restaurant or bakery. If you have the resources, buy a pie (or rolls or a side dish) from a local shop, even if you don’t need it. Freeze it for later or give it to a neighbor. Countless local businesses are counting on an influx of sales during these last six weeks of the year in order to make it through the notoriously slow months of January and February.

4. Use your freezer. Because most of us are making smaller dinners this year, we’ll likely have more leftovers, so prepare your fridge and freezer for the extras. Make a pie on Sunday, but don’t bake it. Put it in the freezer and bake it first thing on Thursday morning. Clear out bricks of broth from last year’s Thanksgiving and use them up or get rid of them.

5. Use those appliances you got for Christmas last year. Haven’t used your air fryer in a while? Make Brussels sprouts or fried turkey legs. Instant Pot gathering dust? Save time on Thanksgiving morning by quick-cooking potatoes. You can make both turkey breast and green beans in a slow cooker, saving room in your oven for something else.

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you’re not getting together with friends and family, reach out to one another to connect. If you are attending a small Thanksgiving, communicate clearly with the host (or guests) about exactly what people are expected to bring and what COVID-19 related protocols will be in place. Be specific. Ask questions. No detail is too small to ask or to share this year. As Brene Brown says, clear is kind, and “no” is a full sentence.

7. Share, share, share. Although it’s entirely possible to scale down recipes to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for exactly one or two people, you also can bake casseroles — like the baked mac and cheese or vegan lentil shepherd’s pie shared here — and divide into single-serve portions. Find out who in your community could use a drop-off. It’s not the same as eating that meal together, but sharing food is always a good use of your time and ingredients.

8. Use your body. Go on a walk. Work in the yard. Stretch in a chair. We think of Thanksgiving as a holiday that’s all about food, but one of my very favorite parts of the holiday is going on a walk after the big meal. That physical activity is as important to our mental well-being as the rituals of cooking and eating.

9. “Small is good. Small is all.” I recently read this principle from Adrienne Maree Brown’s excellent book about social change called “Emergent Strategy,” and I’m applying it to so many aspects of my life right now, especially the holiday season. I used to think that bigger was always better. Big ideas, big gatherings, big projects. Those are necessary and important, but it’s what happens on the small level, in between two people or around a small dinner table or in between the ears on my head, that has the most significance. Those small interactions, small moments, small gratitudes add up over time and contribute to something much larger than their sum. Brown writes: “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.”

10. Take time to smell the rosemary. Cultivate an appreciation for whatever is abundant in your life. Read Daniel Halpern’s poem “How to Eat Alone” and raise a glass to yourself, the best quarantine partner you’ll ever have.

Slow Cooker Garlic and Sage Turkey Breast with Green Beans

I love cooking turkey, and not just at Thanksgiving! While this would make an excellent holiday meal, it is also perfect for any day of the week. When I have a stock of turkey in my freezer, this recipe is a quick way to make a delicious dinner. The first time I made this recipe, my family was very skeptical. They thought that the only good turkey was one that came out of the oven. They were happily mistaken, though, and this recipe quickly became an often-requested favorite.

— Alli Kelley

1 medium yellow onion, quartered

6 cloves garlic, crushed

3 sprigs sage

1 sprig rosemary

1 cup chicken broth

1 tablespoon honey

1 skin-on turkey breast (between 4 and 8 pounds)

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

12 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed

Place the onion, garlic, sage, rosemary, chicken broth and honey in the slow cooker. Season the turkey breast with the salt and pepper. Place the turkey breast in the slow cooker, nestling it into the liquid.

Cook on high for 3 hours or low for 7 hours. If possible, baste the turkey with the liquid in the bottom of the slow cooker every few hours. Add the green beans for the last hour of the cooking time, nestling them down around the turkey breast. If you would like crisp skin on the turkey, place it on a sheet tray after it is done cooking and broil it for about 5 minutes, until it is lightly golden brown. Serves 4 to 6.

— From “Rustic Farmhouse Slow Cooker: 75 Hands-Off Recipes for Hearty, Homestyle Meals” by Alli Kelley (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)

Herb-Roasted Turkey Legs

Turkey isn’t just for Thanksgiving! I grew up eating turkey legs all year. They are inexpensive and delicious. Deliciously seasoned and roasted in the air fryer, these turkey legs are perfect for entertaining.

— Parrish Ritchie

2 teaspoons ground sage

1 1/2 teaspoons ground thyme

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon paprika

4 turkey legs

4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

In a small bowl, mix together the sage, thyme, black pepper, garlic salt, onion powder and paprika.

Brush the turkey legs with the butter and rub each leg with the seasoning mix.

Place the turkey legs in the air fryer in a single layer and air-fry them at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Flip the turkey legs and air-fry them at 400 degrees for another 20 minutes. Serves 4.

— From “The Big Book of Air Fryer Recipes” by Parrish Ritchie (Page Street Publishing, $32)

Creamy Baked Four-Cheese Pasta

This sophisticated Italian iteration of macaroni and cheese, known as pasta ai quattro formaggi, is made with four cheeses and heavy cream. We wanted ours to have a richly creamy sauce, properly cooked pasta, and a crisp breadcrumb topping. We started with a classic roux-based béchamel sauce — cooking butter with flour until smooth, and then adding cream and simmering until thickened. Unlike a Creole-style roux, the French style of roux in this recipe is not cooked to a dark color, so we cooked it for only a minute to reach the proper consistency. For the best flavor and texture, we used Italian fontina, Gorgonzola, Pecorino Romano and Parmesan cheeses. Combining the hot sauce and pasta with the cheese (rather than cooking the cheese directly in the sauce) preserved the flavors of the different cheeses. Knowing the pasta would spend some time in the oven, we drained it before it was al dente so it wouldn't turn to mush when baked under its topping of breadcrumbs and more Parmesan. Make sure your baking dish is oven safe to 500 degrees.

— America’s Test Kitchen

2 slices high-quality white sandwich bread, torn into quarters

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (1/2 cup), divided

1/2 teaspoon table salt, divided, plus salt for cooking pasta

1/2 teaspoon pepper, divided

4 ounces Italian fontina cheese, rind removed, shredded (1 cup)

3 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled (3/4 cup)

1 ounce Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (1/2 cup)

1 pound penne

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Pulse bread in food processor to coarse crumbs, about 10 pulses. Transfer to bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; set aside.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees.

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Meanwhile, combine remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan, fontina, Gorgonzola and Pecorino in large bowl; set aside. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta to boiling water and cook, stirring often.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter in small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in flour until no lumps remain, about 30 seconds. Gradually whisk in cream, increase heat to medium, and bring to boil, stirring occasionally; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 1 minute longer. Stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cover and set aside.

When pasta is just shy of al dente, drain, leaving it slightly wet. Add pasta to bowl with cheeses; immediately pour cream mixture over, then cover bowl and let stand for 3 minutes. Uncover and stir with rubber spatula, scraping bottom of bowl, until cheeses are melted and mixture is thoroughly combined.

Transfer pasta to 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish, then sprinkle evenly with reserved breadcrumbs, pressing down lightly. Bake until topping is golden brown, about 7 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

— From “100 Techniques: Master a Lifetime of Cooking Skills, From Basic to Bucket List" by America's Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, $40)

Lentil Shepherd’s Pie

This hearty plant-based casserole dish is a crowd-pleaser in my house. This is comfort food of the healthy variety, with protein-packed lentils and plenty of fiber and flavor. Oh, and who doesn’t love a one-dish recipe for quick cleanup?

— Andrea Hannemann

3 medium russet potatoes

2 tablespoons vegan butter or extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup unsweetened plant milk

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

4 medium carrots, finely diced

2 large cloves garlic, minced

3 cups cooked brown or green lentils

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons all-purpose gluten-free flour

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 cup vegetable stock

1 teaspoon vegan Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried) 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch chunks. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Set over high heat, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil.

Remove the lid, lower the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until you can easily smash a potato with a fork. Drain well.

In the same saucepan, melt the vegan butter over medium-low heat and mix in the plant milk. Return the potatoes to the saucepan and mash with a fork or potato masher until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

While the potatoes simmer, prepare the filling. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and carrots and cook until the onion begins to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for an additional 1 minute.

Add the cooked lentils, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, the turmeric and cumin, and stir well. Add the flour, tomato paste, vegetable stock, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary and thyme, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat, add the peas, and stir to combine.

Spread the filling evenly into an 11-inch-by-7-inch baking dish. Top with the mashed potatoes, spreading them evenly to the edges of the dish and forking across the top so you have some rough edges that will crisp up in the oven.

Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until the potatoes just begin to brown. To crisp the top, turn the oven to broil and broil for an additional 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. Serves 6.

— From “Plant Over Processed: 75 Simple & Delicious Plant-Based Recipes for Nourishing Your Body and Eating From the Earth" by Andrea Hannemann (Dey Street Books, $26.99)

Asparagus and Potato Chip Gratin

You might be blown away by this. While Brooke thought the potato chip’s best friend was chardonnay, it turns out asparagus is its rock-star pairing. The compounds pyrroles and pyrazines are responsible for the hunger-inducing roasted and toasted aromas present in cooked — particularly fried — foods like potato chips. While writing “The Flavor Matrix,” we discovered that these compounds are naturally present in asparagus, and we knew that we had to find a way to marry these two ingredients in one dish. Bet you can’t bake just one.

— James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst

2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

1 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered

2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1 shallot, chopped

3 or 4 branches fresh thyme

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, or a gluten-free alternative

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 bunches asparagus

1/2 cup sour cream or crème fraîche

2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or dill

1 cup grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese

2 cups crushed potato chips

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Line a baking sheet with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the mushrooms and stir briefly. Allow the mushrooms to cook undisturbed for 1 minute, then add the garlic, shallot and thyme. Reduce the heat to medium-high. Stir well and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When the mushrooms are tender and browned and all the liquid has evaporated from the pan, deglaze the pan with the soy sauce and vinegar. Cook until the liquid has again evaporated.

Stir in the butter. When the butter has melted, scatter the flour over the mushrooms and stir well to create a roux. Cook the roux until thickened, about 2 minutes.

Stir the chicken stock into the mushrooms and roux. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a simmer. Cook for about 2 minutes, until bubbling and thickened. Turn the heat off and whisk in the Parmesan. Set the mushroom sauce aside to cool slightly.

Trim the tough ends from the asparagus and drop them into the boiling water. You may have to do this in batches, depending on the size of the pot. Cook the asparagus until nearly tender: 1 1/2 to 2 minutes for thin asparagus, 2 minutes for standard, or 3 minutes for jumbo asparagus.

You will need to peel the stalk ends of jumbo asparagus. Don’t shock asparagus in ice water; the leaves and tips tend to trap water, which dilutes the flavor.

When the asparagus have finished cooking, carefully remove them from the pot and allow them to drain in a single layer on the baking sheet. (Stacking or piling the asparagus will cause them to overcook.)

Assemble the gratin immediately, or refrigerate the asparagus and mushroom sauce separately for up to 1 day and assemble when you’re ready to bake.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Arrange the asparagus in a large oval or 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish so that they cover the entire dish in even layers. Whisk the sour cream, chives and tarragon into the mushroom sauce. Pour the sauce over the asparagus and gently spread to distribute evenly.

Scatter the Gruyère over the gratin, then the potato chips. Bake until golden brown on top and bubbling on the sides, about 12 minutes. Let cool for about 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

— From “Flavor for All: Everyday Recipes and Creative Pairings" by James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)

Thanksgiving recommendations for Central Texas

With more than 10,000 people a day in Texas testing positive for the coronavirus, state and local health officials are discouraging people gathering with anyone outside their home for Thanksgiving.

Travis County is on the brink of moving back to Stage 4 guidelines, which suggest that high-risk people do not interact with any more than one other person. Stage 3 guidelines allow gatherings of up to 10 people, but that’s still unwise, experts say, because of skyrocketing numbers across the country.

A new tool from researchers at Georgia Tech can determine the risk of someone having COVID-19 based on group size. As of publication, in Travis County, if you have a group of 10 people, there is a 7% chance that someone in that group has COVID-19. In Williamson County, that number is 13%. In El Paso County, it’s 65%.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer guidelines to help determine the risks for gathering, depending on the setting, size of the group and the exposure potential before and during the event. Staying 6 feet apart, wearing masks, not sharing objects and sticking geographically close to home are all ways to reduce the risk of transmission at small gatherings.

You can use a slow cooker to make this turkey breast with green beans from "Rustic Farmhouse Slow Cooker," which will open up your oven for other dishes.