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The smaller Thanksgiving table is set with dishes familiar and new

I love the largesse of Thanksgiving. In the past, when I have had a dozen or more people at the table, the checklist was easy: turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes (we weren't a sweet potato family), vegetable casserole (generally ignored), cranberry sauce, rolls and pie — apple, pecan and pumpkin (also generally ignored).

In recent years, the table has become smaller. It took a while for my portions to adjust to the population. A defining moment was the Thanksgiving that a dear friend spent with friends in Chicago. He came home miserable, appalled that he had been served a deli spread of meats and cheeses instead of his beloved turkey dinner. I invited him over for a post-Thanksgiving dinner which he relished. But I had enough leftovers for eight people.

From that experience, I learned we can have all the familiar dishes on your table, just scaled down. Instead of turkey, little chickens, for example. I always like to add something new, too; it sparks conversation. The Brussels sprouts gratin would serve that purpose as would the roasted butternut squash. They could also be substitutes for a green bean casserole or mashed sweet potatoes. There is no dishonor in using a packaged stuffing mix; my go-to is Pepperidge Farm Original Herb Blend. Or refrigerated mashed potatoes to which I add a bit of butter and swirl of cream while they're heating. I always make the cranberry sauce; it's so easy. If I'm in the mood, I'll bake pies, but I have often bought one, or even tarts, from a bakery. Predinner, you don't need much. I serve seasoned mixed nuts and pack some in jars for takeaway gifts.

I splurge on flowers. My friend Brian Redman of Redman-Steele Floral Design Studio creates the most gorgeous arrangements, and I commissioned him to do one for this photo shoot. It has all my favorite flowers. And, as usual, it's the star of the table.

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com.

>>EASY

Roasted Cornish Game Hens

The Cornish game hen goes by several names but is neither a game bird nor hen; it's a chicken bred to be small and given a fancy title. Its skin is much thinner than that of other poultry and there are fewer fat deposits. Handle the little birds with care. You don't have to truss them; it's for visual appeal only. Reports about washing your poultry before cooking warn of possible cross-contamination. Still, I like to rinse out the inside of a whole bird and then blast kitchen cleaner with bleach all over my sink and countertops afterward.

4 Cornish game hens

String or trussing twine

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon salt

Herbs for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Truss legs by tying twine around each end and tightening to bring them together, then knot twine. Brush hens with about half the butter and sprinkle each with salt. Place on a rack in a roasting pan (or two — don't crowd them) and bake for 20 minutes, turning pans halfway through for even browning. Continue baking, basting with reserved butter once or twice. The birds should be nicely browned. Check temperature of the birds at 45 minutes using an instant-read thermometer; their internal temperature should be 165 to 175 degrees in the thigh. If not, continue cooking for another 15 minutes or so. Remove from oven and let rest about 10 minutes.

To serve: If you trussed the birds, cut twine from legs. If you didn't and don't like the look of the yawning maw of the cavity, stuff it with fresh herbs or do what I did and stuff them with already-baked dressing. If you are serving half a bird to each guest, use kitchen shears to cut them. The skin is so thin that a knife will probably shred it and make for a less attractive appearance.

Strain fat from pan juices and serve.

Serves 4 very generously and 6 to 8 nicely.

Source: Lennie Bennett, Tampa Bay Times

>>MODERATE

Brussels Sprouts Gratin

Potatoes, my usual go-to vegetable for gratins, don't need precooking or a thickened sauce, just a pour of heavy cream. Brussels sprouts aren't as absorbent so they need both. The usual precook methods are steaming and boiling but I bake mine for a little toasty flavor. I don't roast them to the point of charred edges for this dish.

2 cups Brussels sprouts

2 teaspoons olive oil

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

For the bechamel sauce:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 shallot or small onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

Sprinkle of red pepper flakes (optional)

Sprinkle of nutmeg (optional)

½ teaspoon salt or to taste

½ cup unseasoned bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut tough ends off sprouts and reserve outer leaves that fall off. (That step's optional but the crispy individual leaves are nice in the casserole.) Cut each sprout in half. Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Pile sprouts onto it, toss with olive oil so all are covered evenly and toss with about ½ teaspoon salt or to taste. Spread them in an even layer, cut side down. Bake for about 15 minutes, checking to see that they aren't browning too quickly. If so, reduce temperature to 350 degrees. When they are beginning to brown on their cut sides, toss in reserved leaves, if using, and sprinkle over the sprouts. Return to oven and bake 5 more minutes. The vegetables should still be al dente. Remove from oven.

Make the bechamel sauce: Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add shallot or onion and stir until it becomes opaque and soft. Add flour and stir for several minutes until they're well blended and the flour smells cooked. Increase heat to medium and add cream. Stir to incorporate and continue cooking until sauce begins to bubble. Add cheese and stir to melt. Add pepper flakes and nutmeg if using. Remove from heat. Taste for seasoning and add salt to taste.

Assembly: In a casserole dish (I used a quiche pan with about a 2-cup capacity), arrange Brussels sprouts in a single layer. Pour sauce over them. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes or until bubbly.

Serves 4.

Source: Lennie Bennett, Tampa Bay Times

>>EASY

Roasted Butternut Squash

This is so easy. The only annoyance is peeling the squash. I do so using a vegetable peeler with force and conviction. I also only use the neck part; wrestling down the round bulb is not worth the yield. You can make this really easy by buying peeled and chunked squash in the produce section. One squash serves two, so halve the quantities below. But it does make nice leftovers in omelets or with pasta, for example. If you want a bit of sweetness, after it's done, remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little maple syrup and return for a few minutes..

2 butternut squash, bulbs removed, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher or coarse salt

A sprinkle of cayenne pepper (optional)

1 tablespoon maple syrup (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

On a parchment-lined, rimmed baking sheet, toss everything together except maple syrup and spread squash in a single layer. Roast until tender, stirring once, and check for tenderness after 15 minutes. Return to oven if needed. At this point, add the syrup and bake for a few minutes. Add more salt if needed.

Serves 4.

Source: Lennie Bennett, Tampa Bay Times

The smaller Thanksgiving table is set with dishes familiar and new 11/14/16 [Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2016 9:42am]
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