Alternate Holiday Meals

The trouble that I have always had with the traditional turkey and all the side dishes - the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread stuffing of any ilk, the gravy and the cranberry relish, and the eternal pearl onions in cheese sauce peculiar to my own family table at Thanksgiving and Christmas - is that all of them are, to put it plainly, very heavy. Very starchy; a veritable carbohydrate orgy. That my mother also leavened our traditional meal with green peas and carrots, and that others add that version of green beans melded with a can of cream-o-mushroom soup, sprinkle with crunchy fried onions out of another can . . . well it just doesn't help much. Especially the green-bean casserole doesn't help much; by the time you are done with it, it's as carb-laden as anything else.

Second trouble: making it all in abundance means a certain quantity of leftovers. Even baking the smallest turkey possible and being careful about calculating how many servings that the side dishes will yield - still means at least three or four nights of leftovers, if you have shared the bounty of the season and your table with just a few other people. Quite honestly, I'm pretty tired of it all by the weekend after Thanksgiving anyway. The traditional Thanksgiving dishes do not warm over very well - there I said it. Heretical, I know, but it's the plain truth. By the third pass through the microwave, even my own rye-bread stuffing has lost considerable appeal. In some years I was so tired of eternal turkey that for Christmas dinner we had practically anything else; roast duck or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I've even flirted with trying out roast goose. Now, that's the proper, Dickensian holiday roast bird for you - and at least, it would be a different flavor of leftover.

Some years, when I have celebrated the holiday alone, (I just didn't want to go to someone elses' house, ‘kay?) I have made Thanksgiving dinner into a solitary feast. In San Antonio, I'd go to the Sun Harvest Grocery, HEB Central Market, or to Whole Foods in the Quarry, and splurge on buying something exotic, just enough for one or two servings; fingering potatoes from France, a single Rock Cornish game hen, a quarter of a pound of baby squashes, every one the size of a quarter, a tiny pecan or pumpkin tart from the bakery counter; always something tempting that I had never tasted before, something expensive and special. That and a bottle of nice exotic white wine that I had never tasted before . . . a blissful solitary Thanksgiving dinner of your own beats the heck out of an uncomfortable time at the house of someone you hardly know. Trust me - been there, done both. Solitary is better.

This year, I hit on another interesting culinary option for Thanksgiving dinner, which split the difference - so to speak, by drawing on our favorite recipe for roast chicken, which involves making a butterfied chicken baked on a bed of sautéed onions layered on top of slices of sturdy sourdough bread. I did a half-batch of my rye-bread stuffing - which came out to about three cups of finished stuffing - and mounded it in the middle of the roasting pan. Then I butterflied two Rock Cornish game hens. Snip out the backbones with heavy kitchen shears, open the bird and press it more or less flat with the palm of your hand, and use the reserved backbones to make the gravy stock. Rub the top and bottom of the flattened game hen with olive oil, salt and pepper, and drape them skin-side up over the mound of stuffing. Pour about two tablespoons of lemon juice over the birds and bake at 350° for about an hour and twenty minutes. The juices from the baking hens will trickle down and moisten the stuffing, and any extra juice standing in the pan can be poured off into the gravy. It was magnificent - and the leftovers from this only lasted a day or so.

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