Thankfully for us, James Beard award-winning Atlanta cookbook author Cynthia Graubart is a planner. This fall, in less time than it takes some of us to change a printer cartridge, Graubart has written “Thanksgiving for Two (Or Four): 20 Easy Holiday Favorites,” (Empire Press, $9.99 paperback, $3.99 for the digital download), a cookbook created specifically for these nerve-rattling COVID-19 inflicted times.
By summer’s end with coronavirus numbers still spiking, Graubart realized Thanksgiving 2020 would be unlike any other Americans have ever celebrated. So, she got to work in the kitchen, reconfiguring seasonal favorites, taking an online food photography course and even yanking a dusty digital camera down off a closet shelf and teaching herself how to take her own photographs for the book.
“I kept thinking about the folks who are used to bringing one big dish to a group Thanksgiving,” says Graubart. “These people have never made a Thanksgiving dinner before. They’re not going to have any idea what to do. And on top of the feeling of loss not being able to gather with family and friends as usual, you have the added stress of doing something you haven’t done before. I wanted to create a cookbook that would make Thanksgiving feel less daunting but still highlight the tastes of the holiday we love.”
“Thanksgiving for Two (Or Four)” is brimming with recipes and flavors long associated with the occasion (“You’ll see tons of recipes with sage, rosemary and thyme — the three sisters of Thanksgiving for me. That’s going to bring you the familiarity of a great Thanksgiving meal. Use them liberally.”), along with great tips to alleviate anxiety in these very anxious times.
And it’s a cookbook Graubart herself will be using this Thanksgiving. On Friday, as new CDC warnings were issued against holiday travel in an attempt to curtail COVID community spread, the author had to have a difficult conversation with her son and daughter in law, Cleveland residents, who have now opted to stay home this year.
“It’s disappointing but we’re all feeling that way right now,” she says. “But don’t sit alone this year. Pick up the phone and call the people that you miss. Just because we can’t be together physically, doesn’t mean we can’t express our love and our good wishes to the people we’re normally with.”
Below, are some timely COVID-19 era culinary tips from Graubart to get us all through Thanksgiving (and brace yourself — very likely, Christmas and New Year’s Day as well). Says Graubart: “I call the recipes ‘right-sized’. I avoided that phrase ‘down-sized’. That doesn’t sound fun. Anyone can make these recipes and feel accomplished and satisfied that they’ve put a taste of Thanksgiving on the table.”
Rethink Turkey This Year
For once, no one has to wrestle with an oven-hogging 22-pound bird. In “Thanksgiving for Two (Or Four)” Graubart offers up turkey cooked five ways, from Dijon turkey tenderloin to roast turkey legs (you can pretend you’re at a Renaissance festival!). There’s even a bone-in breast option that’s perfect for gravy. Says Graubart: “These are options that offer satisfying flavor without all of the anxiety. And you’re not going to have a refrigerator full of turkey leftovers so you’re not staring at them for a week. If you do, turn them into assets for the freezer. And if you opt for the bone-in breast recipe, it automatically provides the pan drippings for gravy and you’ll have enough leftovers so you can enjoy that turkey sandwich with your slice of jellied cranberry sauce on top of the next day.”
Embrace Your Toaster Oven
Laughs Graubart: “I can almost guarantee that’s never been written in any other Thanksgiving cookbook! Again, it’s all about minimizing anxiety this year. Less experienced cooks may not realize they may not have all that much room in their oven. So even using the toaster oven for overflow is a great option. My oven actually broke while I was writing this cookbook this fall so I literally proved you can make these recipes in the toaster oven!”
Foil is Your Friend
While the handy sheets of aluminum traditionally help with tenting turkey, this year foil will play an even bigger role with preventing smaller cuts from drying out and protecting scaled down sides. “Remember to cook to temperature, use your meat thermometer and have that roll of foil handy,” says Graubart. “There is nothing worse than dried out turkey. But let’s face it, if you put enough gravy on anything, it’s still going to taste great. But moist turkey is always best.”
Redesign Your Dessert Course
Making pies from scratch for a crowd is always a chore. This year, leave those Pyrex pie plates on the top shelf of the pantry. Think three words: mini pecan pies. “If you’re serving dessert for a smaller group, I’m here to tell you these smaller pies are fun to make,” says Graubart. “Things in miniature have a sense of whimsy to them and are perfect for these times.”
Reconfigure That Casserole
When you always lug that beloved 16-serving family favorite to your mom’s each year and want to keep that tradition this year on a smaller scale, trying dividing by two. “Most recipes that serve 12 to 16 people can be safely cut in half,” says Graubart. “But remember, you will also have to downsize the pan you make it in, especially if it’s a casserole. You will want it to be approximately the same thickness. Signs for doneness will be similar but the time it takes to cook will be shorter.” But if it’s a casserole you truly love and if you have the freezer space, Graubart says go ahead and make it as usual. “In the middle of a pandemic, there’s nothing more comforting than pulling out that favorite casserole from the freezer and treating yourself,” she says. “If I have great comforting meals in my freezer, I feel rich.”
Adjust Your Mindset
Let’s face it, this Thanksgiving isn’t going to resemble the traditional big, loud food-a-thon most of us are used to. That’s OK. Embrace smaller and quieter this year. “It’s not going to be the same but you’re still going to derive pleasure and comfort from these dishes,” says Graubart. “It even surprised me. Things looked so small but the truth is, it’s plenty, more than plenty. But you have to adjust your expectations, just for this year.”
Feel Free to Re-Imagine
While it’s hard, try and embrace the gifts of this COVID-challenging year. So many of us are married to stressing ourselves out, trying to plan and host a huge holiday extravaganza, we never stop to contemplate whether the dishes and the hoopla are worth it. “Many people are going to experience Thanksgiving in a completely new way that may change them forever,” says Graubart. “It’s OK to break from tradition, it’s OK to start a new tradition. This year may be pivotal for many people who have wanted to break free from maybe something that was stressful or a lot of work. This is the year to try something different. It can be incredibly freeing.”
Remember the Goal — Gathering at the Table
While everything else has changed this year, the priority of family and friends gathered at a holiday table (whether in person or via Zoom) should remain most important. Says Graubart: “Find a way to find joy in what you’re doing. Don’t fret so much about the food this year. Keep it simple, cook things you like and just get it to the table. That’s where the magic happens.”
To download a copy of Cynthia Graubart’s “Thanksgiving for Two (Or Four): 20 Easy Holiday Favorites,” click here.
To read other life-saving Thanksgiving tips from Graubart and her James Beard award-winning cookbook co-author Nathalie Dupree, click here.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.