Perhaps more than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is associated with big family gatherings. But that doesn't mean you need a house full of in-laws, uncles and cousins to celebrate in a meaningful way.
Newlyweds, empty-nesters, young adults on their own, even a couple of friends can create a day that resonates with their phase of life.
"It really is a time for celebrating," says Martin Novell, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist. "It's a time for giving thanks for the dreams that have been achieved, recognizing the disappointments and refocusing on the future by creating new adventures." And none of that requires a crowd.
Here are a few expert tips for creating a festive and memorable holiday for two:
• KEEP IT SIMPLE
Take the cooking down a notch, but don't skimp on flavor or tradition. Roast a turkey breast instead of the whole bird, says Betty Crocker Kitchens cookbook editor Grace Wells, or even Rock Cornish game hens for a more elegant presentation. Buy dishes -- rolls, mashed potatoes, stuffing -- at a gourmet shop or supermarket. And don't make a mess. "Why would you use three pans to make turkey and gravy?" asks Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of America's Test Kitchen books. "If you can do it in one, why not?"
• RESTRAIN YOURSELF
Remember there are only two of you. Which doesn't mean you have to cut out the side dishes you love, says Davison. It just means you have to make them in smaller portions, even if you have to buy wee new casserole dishes to do it. Buy vegetables in small amounts too, not in bulk bags. And perhaps most important, Davison says, prepare only what you'll really eat. "It's one thing to use up a leftover dish, like mashed butternut squash. But you have more options if you don't cook the whole vegetable to begin with," she says. "Two people don't really need a whole puréed butternut squash."
• BE CREATIVE
Pomegranate molasses on the turkey? Coconut milk in the gravy? Go for it. It's just the two of you, so who's going to complain? "You're not cooking for a crowd, so you can take some chances," Davison says.
Ditto for the leftovers. "I always love the leftover Thanksgiving meal the next day, the plate you shove in the microwave," she says. "But that's good for one day." Branch out after that with turkey curry, turkey soba noodle salad or a turkey gratin, a creamy stew topped with big hunks of leftover baguette.
• MAKE IT FESTIVE
Go full force on the holiday trappings, says Betty Crocker's Wells. Pull out the beautiful
tablecloth and matching napkins, the china and the crystal. "If you're newlyweds or baby boomers or somewhere in between, you probably have nice dishes," she says. Create a centerpiece with candles and gourds, or buy a beautiful flower arrangement. Maybe even have a favor at each place setting -- a favorite treat, a small book or gift of some kind. And do something special that you know the other person will love. "I love to make what people like," Wells says. "I love people to say, 'Oh, you made this just for me.'"
• HAVE FUN
You're not busy pleasing 15 relatives, so use that extra time for leisure, not for cooking or washing dishes. Go for a walk, take a hike, listen to some favorite music or go to a movie. When you're not prepping a dozen side dishes and three or four pies, you even get the days leading up to the holiday back. "One of the things a good marriage does is they spend a lot of together time," says Novell, who recommends, for instance, using the days before Thanksgiving to search for a great new wine to have with the meal. "So Thanksgiving isn't only the holiday that's on Nov. 22."
• START NEW TRADITIONS
Yes, when the clan is together there's football in the yard. Now, create rituals for two. Consider visiting your favorite park with a bagel breakfast, taking a long hike, or collecting leaves and other flora from your neighborhood to make a centerpiece together.
A well-executed dinner for two can require as much planning as a feast for a crowd. Our intimate take on the traditional Thanksgiving -- to feed two instead of a large family -- is constructed so the entire meal is assembled and cooked together in one pan.
We make the stuffing from dinner rolls; use the same variety you buy to serve with the meal. We season the roasted vegetables and stuffing with a sage compound butter that also can be served at the table. The turkey tenderloin, though not as impressive as a full bird, gets a flavorful quick brine and a Parmesan crust. Best of all, you won't have a mountain of dishes to clean up.
So why does our dinner for two make four servings? Because it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without leftovers.
One-Pan Thanksgiving Dinner
Start to finish: 1½ hours (45 minutes active). Servings: 4
For the sage compound butter:
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
¼ cup (½ stick) salted butter, softened
½ teaspoon lemon zest
For the turkey:
1½ pounds turkey tenderloin
2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup maple syrup
½ cup apple cider
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ cup panko bread crumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
For the stuffing:
4 dinner rolls, diced
1 small carrot, grated
2 tablespoons dried cranberries
¼ cup chopped toasted pecans, optional
½ cup chicken or turkey broth
Salt and ground black pepper
For the roasted vegetables:
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, diced
1 cup diced butternut squash
1 small red onion, cut into wedges
1 cup Brussels sprouts, halved
Salt and ground black pepper
For the gravy:
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
Salt and ground black pepper
Compound the butter. In a small bowl, stir together the sage, butter and lemon zest. Set aside.
Brine the turkey. In a large zip-close plastic bag, combine the turkey tenderloin, soy sauce, maple syrup, cider and black pepper. Refrigerate for 1 hour (or up to overnight) while preparing the rest of the dinner.
Make the stuffing. Heat the oven to 400 F. In a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, spread the diced dinner rolls in an even layer. Place in the oven to toast for 10 minutes.
Transfer the toasted diced rolls to a medium bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the sage butter so that it melts into the hot bread. Toss in the grated carrot, cranberries, pecans and broth. Season with salt and pepper. Coat the 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray, then spoon the stuffing into an even layer in half of the pan.
Prepare the vegetables. In the bowl you used for the stuffing, toss together the diced potatoes, squash, red onion and Brussels sprouts. Add 1 tablespoon of sage butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss together, then spoon the vegetables into the other half of the prepared pan.
Finish preparing the turkey. In a shallow dish, such as a pie plate, stir together the panko and the Parmesan. Remove the turkey from the brine, discarding the brine. Dredge the turkey through the panko-Parmesan mixture, pressing it into the meat. Place the turkey over the stuffing. Roast for 1 hour, or until the vegetables are browned and tender and the turkey reaches 160 F.
Prepare the gravy. During the final 15 minutes of roasting, heat the broth until boiling in a small saucepan over medium-high. In a small bowl, mix the butter and flour to form a paste. Whisk the butter mixture into the boiling broth, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, or until thickened. Whisk in the balsamic vinegar and poultry seasoning, then season with salt and pepper.
Per serving: 590 calories; 180 calories from fat (31 percent of total calories); 21 g fat (11 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 110 mg cholesterol; 52 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 12 g sugar; 53 g protein; 640 mg sodium.