No holiday puts on the do-it-all-from-scratch pressure quite like Thanksgiving.
Which is fine if you have the time and talent to pull together an entire feast. The rest of us need to focus and put our energies where they count, making those personally traditional dishes our families couldn't live without. For the rest, you can rely on shortcuts.
But some shortcuts are less obvious than others.Here are some ideas for from-scratch, easier and easiest versions of holiday must-haves.
• From scratch: Real cranberry sauce even the fancy stuff isn't hard to make.
Betty Crocker senior cookbook editor Cheri Olerud suggests dropping raw cranberries, a chopped whole orange, sugar and crystallized ginger into the food processor for a fresh relish.
Rick Rodgers, author of the cookbook "Thanksgiving 101," simmers cranberries, a chopped lemon, garlic, diced onion, jalapeno pepper and crystallized ginger for about 20 minutes. Both taste best if made a day or two ahead.
• Easier: Combine a bag of fresh cranberries, brown sugar and water, then simmer until the berries pop. Chill and serve. For zing, add some finely chopped orange, rind and all, or some orange liqueur.
• Easiest: Dress up the canned stuff. Olerud suggests slicing it and drizzling it with melted orange marmalade and a little grated orange zest. If you're really feeling fancy, substitute orange liqueur for the marmalade.Lori Powell, food director at Real Simple magazine, suggests picking up a can of chunky cranberry sauce (not jellied), adding chopped fresh apples or even kumquats. A few browned pearl onions (frozen, of course) make it fancy.
• From scratch: For a stuffing rich in flavor, Olerud says to simmer the turkey giblets for a couple of hours, then chop them and add to your bread mixture, using the broth to moisten it.
Rodgers favors a corn bread stuffing with ham, fresh fennel, roasted chestnuts and fresh sage. He suggests vacuum-packed chestnuts rather than roasting them yourself but insists the cornbread be homemade because packaged is too sweet.
• Easier: Chop up a few stale bakery baguettes, then toss with sauteed onions, leeks, celery, fennel, dried fruit, chestnuts or any combination of contrasting tastes and textures. Moisten with melted butter and low-sodium chicken broth and bake.
Rodgers' favorite quick stuffing involves pumpernickel and rye bread, sauteed celery and onions, dried apples, golden raisins, toasted walnuts and apple cider for moistening. And don't forget the fresh herbs; in this case, thyme works best.
• Easiest: Fresh herbs are the key to giving life to packaged stuffings. Mix chopped fresh thyme, chives and sage with packaged stuffing, then put it in a casserole dish, dot with butter and brown under the broiler for a minute.Or try adding sauteed produce (such as celery, onion, apples and raisins) and a bit of chorizo to fool anyone into thinking your stuffing is homemade.
• From scratch: Whipping boiled russet potatoes (which are light and fluffy when mashed) with mascarpone cheese, garlic that has been simmered in milk then pureed with it, and caramelized leeks won Rodgers the adoration of his guests.
For a handy make-ahead dish, he recommends a mashed potato casserole: mashed potatoes drenched with cream cheese, butter, sour cream and milk that can be stored in a baking dish and heated in the oven on the big day.
• Easier: Boil Yukon Gold potatoes whole, then mash them with butter, salt, milk or heavy cream, and chives, says Rodgers. For extra tang, substitute yogurt for milk and add a couple tablespoons of fresh lemon zest and chopped dill or parsley.
• Easiest: Skip the boxed potato buds and head straight for the refrigerated aisle where many grocery stores stock real, pre-mashed potatoes, Powell says. Snazz them up with fresh herbs such as chives or dill, spices such as nutmeg, and extra butter."No one will ever know the difference," she says. Fresh raw garlic or cheese cheddar and Parmesan work well help, too.
• From scratch: For elaborate sweet potatoes, Olerud says roast them whole, then scoop out the insides keeping the skins intact. Puree the potato with maple syrup, butter and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ground clove, then pipe the mixture back into the skins using a pastry bag with a decorative tip. Bake them again until they get brown on top.
If you're really ambitious, try Rodgers' scalloped sweet potatoes. Slice peeled sweet potatoes into rounds, blanche for a few minutes to barely soften, then place in a buttered dish and cover with heavy cream. Bake them until the cream is evaporated. About halfway through, add a streusel topping of flour, sugar, butter and toasted pecans.
• Easier: Hit the freezer aisle for frozen, pureed sweet potatoes, which can be topped with toasted pecans and drizzled with maple syrup, says Powell. Rodgers adds frozen juice concentrate, which gives flavor without making the potatoes watery.
Or top them with a mix of whole-wheat bread crumbs, chopped pecans and grated Parmesan cheese and briefly bake.
For spicy whole sweet potatoes, roast until tender, split with a knife, score the flesh and top with a mixture of melted butter, grated fresh ginger, orange zest, a squeeze of orange juice and brown sugar. Broil until the tops are caramelized.
• Easy: Reach for the can opener. Pour canned yams into a baking dish, sprinkle with cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves, then top with those iconic tiny marshmallows. You can brown them in the oven or even warm them in the microwave.For a fresher taste, Rodgers suggests replacing the canned syrup with fresh maple syrup. Sprinkle with dried cranberries and toasted pecans for a tart version.
• From scratch: Hate the cans but love the casserole? Rodgers says the ultimate ironic extravagance is a green bean casserole made from scratch. Start with fresh green beans, then top them with a homemade white sauce with sauteed shallots and cremini mushrooms. Top the casserole with fresh bread crumbs spiked with Parmesan and bake.
If that's too much hassle, Olerud says to rough chop some seasonal vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, parsnips, beets, even squash and roast with butter or nut oil and some nutmeg and walnuts.
• Easier: Many fresh vegetables come already cleaned and trimmed in a package. Boil baby carrots, then drain and toss with butter and honey, maple syrup or brown sugar.
The same goes for bags of mixed vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, which can get the sweet treatment or take a hit of olive oil, lemon juice and a shave of Parmesan.
Pre-trimmed green beans can be blanched in water and topped with butter-browned almond slivers.
• Easiest: Think green bean casserole with Durkee onions, but use frozen vegetables for your shortcut.
Spruce up frozen baby Brussels sprouts with butter, orange marmalade and slivered almonds, Olerud says. Or douse them with browned butter and toasted pine nuts.
Powell favors frozen turnips spiked with nutmeg and cream or frozen spinach cooked with garlic, pine nuts and butter.