Perhaps more than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is associated with big family gatherings. But that doesn't mean you need a house full of in-laws, uncles and cousins to celebrate in a meaningful way.
Newlyweds, empty nesters, young adults on their own, even a couple of friends can have their turkey and eat it, too, creating a day that resonates with their new phase of life and leaves behind the muss, fuss and hassle of the ginormous family blow out.
"It really is a time for celebrating," says Martin Novell, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist. "It's a time for giving thanks for the dreams that have been achieved, recognizing the disappointments and refocusing on the future by creating new adventures." And none of that requires a crowd.
Here are a few expert tips for creating a festive and memorable holiday for two:
-- KEEP IT SIMPLE
When it comes to cooking, take it down a notch. But don't skimp on taste or tradition. Roast a turkey breast instead of the whole bird, says Betty Crocker Kitchens cookbook editor Grace Wells, or even Rock Cornish game hens for a more elegant presentation. Buy what you can -- rolls, mashed potatoes, stuffing -- at a gourmet shop or supermarket. And above all, don't make a mess. "Why would you use three pans to make turkey and gravy?" says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of America's Test Kitchen books. "If you can do it in one, why not?"
-- RESTRAIN YOURSELF
Remember there are only two of you. Which doesn't mean you have to cut out the side dishes you love, says Davison. It just means you have to make them in smaller portions, even if you have to buy the casserole dishes to do it. Buy your vegetables in small amounts too, not in bulk bags. And perhaps most important, Davison says, prepare only what you're really going to eat. "It's one thing to use up a leftover dish, like mashed butternut squash. But you have more options if you don't cook the whole vegetable to begin with," Julia says. "Two people don't really need a whole pureed butternut squash."
-- BE CREATIVE
Pomegranate molasses on the turkey? Coconut milk in the gravy? Go for it. It's just the two of you, so who's going to complain? "You're not cooking for a crowd, so you can take some chances," Davison says. "You can push the limits a little bit."
Ditto for the leftovers. "I always love the leftover Thanksgiving meal the next day, the plate you shove in the microwave," she says. "But that's good for one day."
Branch out with your leftovers and make turkey curry, turkey soba noodle salad or a turkey gratin, a creamy stew topped with big hunks of your leftover baguette.
-- MAKE IT FESTIVE
Go full force on the holiday trappings, says Betty Crocker's Wells. Pull out the beautiful tablecloth and matching napkins, the china and the crystal. "If you're newlyweds or baby boomers or somewhere in between, you probably have nice dishes," she says. Create a centerpiece with candles and gourds, or buy a beautiful flower arrangement. Maybe even have a favor at each of your place settings -- a favorite treat, a small book or gift of some kind. And do something special that you know the other person will love. "I love to make what people like," Wells says. "I love people to say, 'Oh you made this just for me.'"
-- HAVE FUN
You're not busy pleasing 15 relatives, so use that extra time for leisure, not for cooking or washing dishes. Go for a walk, take a hike, listen to some favorite music or go to a movie. Because you're not prepping a dozen side dishes and three or four pies, you can even use the days leading up to the holiday for exciting activities. "One of the things a good marriage does is they spend a lot of together time," says Novell, who recommends, for instance, using the days before Thanksgiving to search for a great new wine to have with the meal. "So Thanksgiving isn't only the holiday that's on Nov. 22, but it's a holiday that starts way before that."
-- START NEW TRADITIONS
Yes, when the clan is together there's football in the yard. But there can be lots of rituals for two, as well. Consider visiting your favorite park with a bagel breakfast, taking a long hike, or collecting leaves and other flora from your neighborhood to make a centerpiece together. "It's an easy activity that feels special to the day," Davison says. "My parents go on a long hike with the dogs that's a little further away than they usually go. And they have a nice bottle of wine. Those two things make it feel different than your every day."
ONE-PAN THANKSGIVING DINNER
A well-executed dinner for two can require as much planning as a feast for a crowd. Our intimate take on the traditional Thanksgiving -- to feed two instead of a large family -- is constructed so the entire meal is assembled and cooked together in one pan.
We make the stuffing from dinner rolls; use the same variety you buy to serve with the meal. We season the roasted vegetables and stuffing with a sage compound butter that also can be served at the table. The turkey tenderloin, though not as impressive as a full bird, gets a flavorful quick brine and a Parmesan crust. Best of all, you won't have a mountain of dishes to clean up.
So why does our dinner for two make four servings? Because it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without leftovers.
Start to finish: 1 1/2 (45 minutes active)
For the sage compound butter:
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
For the turkey:
1 1/2 pounds turkey tenderloin
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup apple cider
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 grated Parmesan cheese
For the stuffing:
4 dinner rolls, diced
1 small carrot, grated
2 tablespoons dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans, optional
1/2 cup chicken or turkey broth
Salt and ground black pepper
For the roasted vegetables:
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, diced
1 cup diced butternut squash
1 small red onion, cut into wedges
1 cup Brussels sprouts, halved
Salt and ground black pepper
For the gravy:
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
Salt and ground black pepper
First, prepare the butter. In a small bowl, stir together the sage, butter and lemon zest. Set aside.
Second, brine the turkey while preparing the rest of the dinner. In a large zip-close plastic bag, combine the turkey tenderloin, soy sauce, maple syrup, cider and black pepper. Refrigerate for 1 hour (or up to overnight).
Heat the oven to 400 F.
Next, make the stuffing. In a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, spread the diced dinner rolls in an even layer. Place in the oven to toast for 10 minutes.
Transfer the toasted diced dinner rolls to a medium bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the reserved sage butter so that it melts into the hot bread. Toss in the grated carrot, cranberries, pecans and broth. Season with salt and pepper. Coat the 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray, then spoon the stuffing into one half of the pan, arranging it in an even layer.
In the bowl that you made the stuffing, prepare the vegetables. Toss together the diced potatoes, squash, red onion and Brussels sprouts. Add 1 tablespoon more of the reserved sage butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss together, then spoon the vegetables into the other half of the prepared pan.
To finish preparing the turkey, in a shallow dish, such as a pie plate, stir together the panko and the Parmesan. Remove the turkey from the brine, discarding the brine. Dredge the turkey through the panko-Parmesan mixture, pressing it into the the meat. Place the turkey over the stuffing. Roast for 1 hour, or until the vegetables are browned and tender and the turkey reaches 160 F.
During the final 15 minutes of roasting, prepare the gravy. In a small saucepan over medium-high, heat the broth until boiling. In a small bowl, mix the butter and flour to form a paste. Whisk the butter mixture into the boiling broth, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, or until thickened. Whisk in the balsamic vinegar and poultry seasoning, then season with salt and pepper.
Nutrition information per serving: 590 calories; 180 calories from fat (31 percent of total calories); 21 g fat (11 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 110 mg cholesterol; 52 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 12 g sugar; 53 g protein; 640 mg sodium.
(Recipe by Alison Ladman)