9 Go-To Thanksgiving Main Dishes (Turkey and Beyond)

The first time an editor asked me, “What are we going to run for Thanksgiving?” was in the early eighties. No way do I remember specifics, but I was undoubtedly excited to be presented with an opportunity to do a cover story for a food section. (This would have been the Hartford Courant, in which case thank you, Linda; or the New Haven Register, in which case thank you, Louise.)

I tired of it within five years: the same thing, every November? And centered on one of the least interesting animal products there is?

Thankfully, by then I had enough latitude to be writing pieces like “Alternatives to Turkey” (crown roast of pork, standing beef rib, side dishes only) and, five years later, I had enough backbone to begin to do turkey in less traditional ways, some of which are actually good, and are featured below. (Then come leftovers!) In 1997 Rick Flaste (who first assigned me the Minimalist column) suggested doing “The Minimalist’s Thanksgiving,” which was a start-to-finish meal in three hours. (I think there are more interesting collections out there, by me and others, but here’s the original, which I think stands the test of time pretty well.)

I’m doing “Thanksgiving” with most of my family this Saturday. Because no one who raises real turkeys around here is “ready” yet, I’m making beef, in the form of a corned tongue—beloved by some family members and hated by others—and a brisket. There will be other interesting dishes as well; I’ll report. Clearly, I’m not an ultra-traditionalist, but the whole Thanksgiving idea is deeply flawed—I mean, the original celebrants were invaders—and I see it as mostly an excuse to cook for my loved ones en masse.

There are always the advice questions, the equivalent of the Butterball Hotline. Mine is pretty simple: Don’t kill yourself. Bear in mind that on any given semi-ambitious day you might cook three things for four people: That’s twelve servings. If on Thanksgiving you're going to cook ten things for twenty people, that’s two hundred servings: A Big Leap. So, my most fundamental advice is to either potluck it, get people to commit to seriously help in advance, or (my theory and practice) make a small number of those dishes you know you make well. This is probably not the time to experiment with that turkey-shaped quinoa thing you’ve wanted to try.

Over the next few newsletters I’ll share some of my other favorite, let’s say “mid-November,” recipes, a roster of beloved (or, in the case of roast turkey, semi-mandatory) dishes I turn to time and again. Today is turkey (and turkey alternatives, including vegetarian ones), side dishes are next Tuesday, and desserts will be next Friday. Maybe we’ll even do leftovers. And away we go.

— Mark


Melina Hammer for the New York Times

This novel approach to roasting the Thanksgiving turkey allows you to cut the cooking time of the average turkey by about 75 percent while still presenting an attractive bird. Simply cut out the backbone (it’s not that difficult, but you can ask your butcher or anyone who’s handy with a butcher’s knife to do it for you) and spread the bird out flat before roasting.

The technique, known as “spatchcocking,” is commonly used with chickens. Roasted at 450 degrees, a 10-pound bird will be done in about 45 minutes. Really. It will also be more evenly browned (all of the skin is exposed to the heat), more evenly cooked, and moister than birds cooked conventionally. Simply put, it's the best way to roast a turkey.

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Photo: Sam Kaplan for the New York Times

Squash is usually relegated to side dish territory (especially on Thanksgiving), but here it's the main event (plus, it yields extra stuffing that you can serve on the side).

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Photo: Romulo Yanes

I've tried "traditional" Thanksgiving roast turkeys countless ways. Not only does this one really work, but it's simple enough for novice home cooks to nail on the first try.

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Photo: Romulo Yanes

This departure from the classic roast bird will have your guests first thinking that you're weird, and then thanking you. It's one of the few turkey dishes that I actually cook and serve throughout the rest of the year.

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Photo: Christina Holmes

Grilling a whole turkey for Thanksgiving is a wonderful break with tradition, with the added benefit of freeing up the oven.

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It’s been about five years since Danny showed me how to make this pastrami: It’s awesome, and a fantastic alternative (or addition) to a turkey.

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Evan Sung for the New York Times

I’ve adapted this recipe a bit, but it remains little changed from the one generously shared with me many years ago by the family of my friend Peter Blasini. It remains among my favorite treatments for pork shoulder, is a huge crowd pleaser, and is almost no work.

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Photo: Burcu Avsar & Zach DeSart

Mole is a group of classic slow-cooked Mexican sauces that get their rich, deep flavor from a long list of ingredients (including chocolate, nuts, seeds, herbs, chiles, and more). It isn’t time-consuming once everything is assembled, but I’d still consider this a special occasion dish.

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Photo: Craig Lee for the New York Times

Here, a whole head of cauliflower is boiled, roasted until gloriously browned, and served with a rich romesco sauce. It can definitely command center stage, but would also make an an impressive Thanksgiving side dish.

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Talk To Me, Goose!

Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.