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How to have a safe but still special Thanksgiving dinner

This year is going to look different, but that’s okay.

In years past, when people asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving, I never had anything too exciting to say. It was usually spent with my nuclear family or my husband’s family, who all live in Florida. No travel plans, no 20-person gathering.

It was lovely and festive, if on the small side. This year, it’s even smaller.

We’re being extra cautious during the pandemic. Personally, I can’t imagine enjoying my stuffing while worrying that I’m going to get a family member I otherwise haven’t seen in months sick. So my husband and I will be making dinner for ourselves at home, then video chatting with family members while we eat.

We briefly considered the idea of swapping menu items with those family members. You take the mashed potatoes, we’ll take the turkey. But my dad quickly pointed out that most of the food would have to be made days before actual Thanksgiving for that to work.

So a virtual dinner together will have to do. There is still so much to be thankful for.

I’m using this low-key holiday as an opportunity to figure out what exactly I want to eat, then making that and eating it while enjoying the quiet in the house.

Aside from the size of the gathering, another thing will be different this year: I’m not going to an actual store to buy the groceries. I’ve been doing grocery pickups via Instacart for months, and while I am grateful to have that option amid the pandemic, I will really miss perusing the aisles full of boxed stuffing and cranberry sauce and all the fixings for pumpkin pie.

It also means more planning, as I won’t have those usual signifiers in the store to remind me that, Oh yeah! We need crunchy onions for the green bean casserole! It should help with scaling back on my purchases, which I’m trying to be mindful of with our smaller crowd.

We’re still making the classics, and if anything leaning more in that direction. There will be no yams or sweet potato casserole, because we never eat more than a spoonful of those. I will likely halve my cranberry sauce recipe. Here are our must-haves this year.

Turkey: My husband loves to do a wet brine on the bird; I think this is a good year to try a dry brine. We’ll see where we end up. For his brine, he submerges the turkey in a large pot filled with water at least 24 hours before cooking. Before the turkey goes in, he seasons the water with tons of salt, some black pepper, whole smashed garlic cloves and usually some halved and squeezed citrus like orange or lemon. For mine, I’d like to try a simple salt-pepper-sage combination. Both methods should be done about a day before you’re cooking, and the bird should chill in the refrigerator.

We do still plan on cooking an entire turkey. It tastes better than something like a turkey breast on its own, plus a smaller turkey, like an 8-pounder or so, will yield just the right amount of Thanksgiving Day fixings and leftovers.

Green bean casserole: I cannot, will not, go without a green bean casserole on Thanksgiving. I make a few modifications to the one I ate growing up, mainly using fresh green beans instead of canned ones. I like a snappier bean in the casserole, and fresh ones still taste fresher even after they’ve been cooked multiple times and with a creamy soup. For that soup, sometimes I get Campbell’s, sometimes I get a fancier organic cream of mushroom soup, sometimes I make my own. This year I’m leaning toward Campbell’s, or really, whatever is on sale at the grocery store.

Mashed potatoes: I will miss my dad’s mashed potatoes, which are a very simple mixture of soft-boiled potatoes, milk, butter and lots of salt and pepper. He’s always the designated masher. This year we’ll make a smaller batch, but the recipe won’t change.

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