A “Minimalist” Thanksgiving in Three Hours
A throwback to 1997: "You can do more work if you like ... but I don't see the point"
In September 1997, the New York Times created a food section, irrationally titled “Dining In/Dining Out.” (It’s now, thankfully, called “Food.” Imagine if the Business section had been called “Making Money/Losing Money.”) After a few weeks of producing The Minimalist, my editor—the great Rick Flaste—had a brainstorm: Why not do “The Minimalist’s Thanksgiving,” all the recipes you need and want, done in the same amount of time it takes to roast a turkey: three hours.
A year or two later, we went one step better, splitting that turkey down the middle (“spatchcocking”) and cutting the roasting time in half. The whole dinner still takes about three hours to make, but the turkey is faster, tastier, more evenly cooked, and easier to carve at the table.
Accompaniments are a Pierre Franey-inspired stuffing; sherry gravy; sweet potato home fries; green beans; cranberry orange relish; a salad of gorgonzola and mesclun; and for dessert, there’s pumpkin parfait. As I said in the original story, “You can do more work if you like … but I don't see the point.” I’ve done this meal, or something very much like it, for at least half of my Thanksgivings in the intervening 25 years, and never been disappointed.
The original article appears below, which includes the all-important backwards timeline to dinner. (Updates are flagged in itals; the recipes are now written in my slightly more detailed 2023 style.) For fewer or more than 12 guests, the quantities—except for the turkey—are easily divided or multiplied. And if you’re hosting a huge gathering, consider asking others to bring something from their vintage recipe box.
Give Thanks: In Three Hours, From Scratch
By Mark Bittman
Nov. 19, 1997
If a minimalist approach to satisfying food makes sense on most ordinary days, a holiday like Thanksgiving demands it in the name of survival. This year, I vowed to minimize everything but my expectation for a great meal: time, number of ingredients and, most of all, work. Heretical as it may seem, I thought it might be fun for the cook to have enough energy to enjoy the meal for a change.
My idea was to buy all the food for a sumptuous meal in one trip and prepare the entire feast for 12 in the time it took to roast my 15-pound turkey—roughly three hours. Two rehearsal meals demonstrated that, with one minor exception, the plan works, producing as traditional a Thanksgiving dinner as you can get without spending an entire day—or more—in the kitchen.
And there are no convenience foods—even the stuffing and the cranberry sauce were made from scratch, each in less than 10 minutes. If I didn't stand over a hot stove for two days, as my grandmothers always did, I still prepared more food than anyone could possibly finish; and with all due respect to my ancestors, there were many aspects of this meal—thanks to the high-quality ingredients we now have available—that were fresher and better tasting than any Thanksgiving food I ate as a child.
Turkey with bread stuffing and sherry gravy: To get good-tasting turkey, you have to start with a decent bird. This, I admit, I learned from my maternal grandmother. Like her, I use kosher turkey, available at nearly every supermarket in the New York metropolitan area. It's tastier and moister than other commercial turkey. A high-heat boost at the beginning gets the bird cooking fast, ensures browning and keeps roasting time well under three hours. (Here the turkey is cut open and roasted in about 45 minutes.)
The stuffing was inspired by a recipe from Pierre Franey, the late celebrated chef and food columnist, who often roasted a chicken stuffed with a ''sandwich'' of bread, liver, and parsley. I've tinkered with it to suit my own taste; the result is a light, somewhat unconventional stuffing that resembles a smooth pate. Conventional or not, it was eaten even by the kids at my two mock Thanksgivings, in October . You can make it and stuff the bird in less time than it takes to heat the oven. (With no cavity to fill, we adjusted the stuffing recipe so there’s a little more, the crusts stay on the bread, and it roasts in a pan next to the turkey.)
The gravy relies on pan drippings but is finished with nothing more than water; good, relatively dry sherry, and butter. It's made in 10 minutes or so, as the turkey rests before carving.
Sweet potato home fries with garlic and parsley: There's no room in the average home's oven for both a 15-pound turkey and a sweet-potato casserole, or even baked sweet potatoes, so preparing either of those would have stretched the cooking time by at least an hour. I got around that problem by starting the potatoes in boiling water, then transferring them to a roasting pan to finish cooking after the turkey comes out of the oven. Garlic and extra virgin olive oil add punch, and parsley makes the colors pop. Peeling, parboiling, and roasting add up to about 40 minutes.
Green beans with lemon: The green beans are precooked in boiling water (you can use the same water for both sweet potatoes and green beans), then finished at the last minute with both juice and zest of lemon. Total time, including picking over three pounds of beans: about 20 minutes.
No-cook cranberry-orange relish: A handful of mint and a couple of pinches of cayenne take the now-classic recipe a step further. Start to finish, 5 minutes, including washing the food processor.
A lemony pear, mesclun, and Gorgonzola salad: A far cry from the ordinary, but not much more work. Peel and slice some pears, wash and dry some mesclun, crumble some Gorgonzola. Dress with bottled dressing if you must, but I prefer extra virgin olive oil and sherry or balsamic vinegar, or a homemade vinaigrette. This will take 15 to 20 minutes to put together.
Pumpkin parfait: I wanted a no-bake dessert, but still had to compromise on my three-hour rule a little, because this dessert—inspired by an idea from my colleague Suzanne Hamlin—needs a few hours in the freezer. Still, the active working time is about 20 minutes. You start with canned pumpkin puree, stir in cream, milk and spices, and freeze. Several hours (or days) later—when you're ready for dessert—you cut up the frozen puree and put it into the food processor, which makes it smooth and creamy. Layer this ingenious creation with lightly whipped cream if you like—or not. (To make this even more like pumpkin pie, we’ve added a sprinkling of maple-spiked graham cracker crumbs, which only add a couple minutes. There’s also a trifle-style assembly option now.)
I start my guests off with cheese and crackers, and pass mixed nuts and fresh fruit after the meal.
Ready, Set, Countdown To Dinner
Timing is never exact, but it's still wise to have a Thanksgiving Day battle plan. If you're the nervous type, allow an extra half-hour. But in any case, do not begin roasting the turkey more than three-and-a-half-hours before you plan to serve it.
A day or two before Thanksgiving: Mix and freeze the pumpkin puree.
Zero minus 3 hours: Heat the oven. Rinse the turkey. Prepare the stuffing, stuff the bird and put it in oven.
Zero minus 2 1/2 hours: Peel, cut and boil the potatoes. Turn down the oven heat, and check the turkey. Make the cranberry relish.
Zero minus 2 hours: Drain and cool the potatoes; toss them in a roasting pan with the garlic and oil. Trim and boil string beans. Check the turkey.
Zero minus 1 1/2 hours: Drain and cool the string beans. Zest and juice the lemons. Check the turkey.
Zero minus 1 hour: Crumble the Gorgonzola; wash and dry the mesclun; make the vinaigrette. Pick over and chop the parsley for the potatoes. Check the turkey.
Zero minus 30 minutes: Assemble the salad, but don't dress it. Ready the ingredients for the sherry gravy. Check the turkey with an instant-read thermometer. Remove it when ready.
Zero minus 15 minutes: After removing the turkey, crank up the oven heat and put in the potatoes. Heat a skillet, and finish the green beans.
Zero Hour: Force someone else (an in-law is good) to carve the turkey while you make the sauce and finish the string beans. Put everything on the table except the salad, which you can dress and serve after or during the main part of the meal.
Afterward: While dinner plates are cleared, prepare the pumpkin mousse and serve.