My Crispy Thanksgiving Main Has All the Hallmarks of the Holiday—Minus the Meat
Skip the turkey (and the drama).
My husband Adam and I were elbow-deep in the renovation of our home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn in 2011 when Thanksgiving rolled around. In the years since Adam and I had been together, this holiday had become a pain point for our combined families. We both come from a long line of party planners (my mother in law can rightly take credit for the most legendary Orange County bar and bat mitzvahs of the 1980s). Our respective matriarchs are located on opposite ends of the country, but they both pride themselves on their turkeys (one smoked and served with a rich bread stuffing, the other encrusted with bacon and paired with a healthy mushroom and wild rice breadless alternative). The formidable women that they are, neither is willing to relinquish their role as host on this holiday, or any other one, really. Which is unfortunate, since they both managed to pass the hosting gene on to their children (my husband and I both plan parties for a living). In an effort to be as equitable as possible, we have ping-ponged between California and New York, never imagining we would have the chance to define Thanksgiving for ourselves.
The year in question, however, felt like a rare but reasonable opportunity to propose that the party come to us. We were laying the foundation, figuratively and literally, of the home that would be the backdrop to our own family traditions for years to come, and what better way to christen a construction site than with a family meal? While neither of our parents were exactly thrilled by the idea, they did concede. With the crew off for the holiday, we propped an unfinished wooden door atop our contractor’s sawhorses and went long on candles, since the only other lighting in place was from bare bulbs dangling by exposed wires from the ceiling. We spared ourselves the lion’s share of house clean up, since the floors were already covered in brown paper.
I’m a very confident cook. It’s what I do. But turkey is a whole other thing. Ungainly and mysterious, it can look crispy and delicious on the outside, while concealing undercooked flesh beneath its glossy exterior. As we all gathered around the bird in our unfinished kitchen, the tension was palpable. I had talked myself up into taking it on, but soon realized that amidst this surfeit of type-A energy, I was deluding myself thinking I was in charge. We disagreed on everything through gritted teeth and tense smiles, from the dry-versus-wet brine, to the seasoning and the cook time. I clutched my meat thermometer and insisted that I had it covered. I pretended not to be ruffled by the constant debate over whether the oven temperature was too high, or if the turkey needed basting. After three hours, my mother and mother-in-law finally could agree on something: the bird had to be taken out of the oven. Now. Their gloves were off—they would no longer feign faith in my hosting abilities, not when the Thanksgiving showpiece was at stake. I was sure this was a premature move, but I relinquished. We set the bird to rest and dove into the last-minute preparations, tossing the salad, warming bread, and filling wine glasses.
With our soup and salad course underway, I snuck into the kitchen to make that revealing first cut. The crispy skin gave way to reveal a minefield of undercooked flesh lurking at the bone. Swallowing a big, juicy “I told you so,” I broke the bird down into pieces and finished it off on a sheet tray, forfeiting my Norman Rockwell moment in the name of food safety.
I never did get another chance to host my family for Thanksgiving, but we have embraced a different tradition in “Friendsgiving,” a much less pressured affair. I decided to liberate myself from the turkey altogether, turning instead to the hearty vegetarian main, one that can be just as decadent and substantial, without requiring any advance ordering or day-of stress. This year, we are pulling a page from my new cookbook, Arty Parties: An Entertaining Cookbook, with a recipe for crispy broccoli-laden polenta topped with roasted maitake mushrooms. The polenta can be made days ahead, molded in a loaf pan, and sliced and crisped just moments before serving without the stress of potentially sickening your fellow revelers (just try that easy breezy approach with your turkey). The mushrooms take minutes to cook, and all together, it’s a balanced main course without any unwanted surprises (or drama).