Bye-Bye, Big Bird

This Thanksgiving, give turkey a miss.

Remember that scene in Pieces of April (yes, I confess to renting it—I was a closet Dawson's Creek sap, too) when Katie Holmes wrestles with a raw turkey? She's cooking her first Thanksgiving meal, and the turkey ends up dropping to the floor with a thud not unlike that of a dead body. That movie had plenty of painful moments, but the only time I winced was when I saw that turkey fall. I was experiencing a post-traumatic flashback to last year's Thanksgiving. (Don't even ask.) Turkey is the diva of the Thanksgiving table. Stubborn, demanding, occasionally transcendent—often impossible. Despite butter injections, obsessive basting, and diligent brining, it still never ends up tasting that great. So this year, I've begun to wonder: Why can't Thanksgiving be more like Passover? Why does the holiday have to be dominated by turkey? After all, if you jettison the overgrown chicken, you could focus on the traditional dishes that people actually like to eat. And for those who'd feel adrift at the thought of a Turkey Day meal without turkey, we asked some of our favorite chefs to come up with some more rewarding ideas. Most agree that you need some kind of roast in the middle of the table for the side dishes to revolve around, like the sun and its planets. Robin Leventhal of Crave is a fan of the other white meat: For her, a roasted, spice-rubbed pork loin jibes perfectly with traditional Thanksgiving sides, as well as her nontraditional, chutney-style cranberry sauce. Scott Carsberg of Lampreia always eschews the big bird come Thanksgiving; he makes the traditional Portuguese feast dish of roasted sea bass instead. Ethan Stowell at Union plumps for a real Smithfield Virginia ham: It comes already cooked, so you just throw it in the oven for a half-hour and you're done. At the vegetarian Carmelita, Andrew Will lets turkey (and Tofurkey) fall by the wayside; instead, he suggests a centerpiece cream-laden gratin of potato, yam, and pear. According to the no-turkey paradigm, there's time to take full advantage of the fresh seasonal vegetables at the market. Dented cans, vacuum-sealed bags, and freezer-proof cartons no longer need be the shameful source of Thanksgiving vegetable sides. Chad Krauss of 5 Spot makes a from-scratch incarnation of the love-it-or-hate-it green-bean casserole: homemade wild mushroom soup mixed with freshly cooked green beans and topped with home-fried onions. For the mandatory sugar fix, he bakes yams with corn syrup, brown sugar, and those cute mini marshmallows. Carmelita's Will does his mama proud, cooking up the more unpopular winter vegetables: Beets are marinated with vinegar and herbs, and brussels sprouts are simmered in vegetable stock with a whole bunch of butter. Carnivores might find brussels sprouts even better sautéed with bacon, as Stowell does them. He also braises "dino" kale in butter and chicken stock rather than go the tired green-bean route. And Kenyetta Carter at Kingfish tosses roasted beets and turnips with a mustard vinaigrette—another clever way to get people to eat their ordinarily unlovable vegetables. Of course, to get the traditional sleep-inducing effect of the Thanksgiving meal without the turkey's tryptophan, you need a heavy dose of carbs. Leventhal roasts chestnuts and just sets them out plain on the table. Carsberg likes his chestnuts sweeter (simmered in sugar syrup all day). Alongside, he makes an unconventional version of Swiss rösti—layers of shredded potatoes, fontina cheese, and sautéed zucchini baked together and eaten in wedges like a pie. Stowell prefers his potatoes in fingerling form, roasted with rosemary and garlic. Carter hates ultrasweet candied yams, so she mixes plain yams into regular mashed potatoes instead. If you're feeling chef-y, you could even bake your own bread and whip up homemade butter as Krauss and his sons did last year, or try something more exotic, like Carsberg's Portuguese polenta topped with salt-and-pepper crabmeat. If you feel you're already too far down the slippery slope to change course this year, don't worry; use your Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah holiday meal to experiment with birdless celebration. Bottom line: However much thought and effort you put into your turkeyless Thanksgiving table, it's all bound to yield more reward for less effort than the big bird itself. And the next day, if you find yourself craving a leftover turkey sandwich (understandable), there's no need for panic or regret. Just take a walk to the deli, where turkey rightfully belongs.

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