Illustration by Matthew BrennanWith the economy in a major slump, a lavish Thanksgiving might not be on the table this year. But we can still -- and should -- feast. We just have to squeeze our fistful of dollars a little harder. Our menu and six creative and practical tips will help you extract the most from your money and feed eight with a lavish meal.
Our menu covers the high points of a Thanksgiving spread. If you feel flush with cash, $20 more will buy you the ingredients for your favorite mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and candied yams. And while the soup and pie might seem extravagant, first and last impressions linger longer than remembrances of the turkey and trimmings. In more luxe times, serving soup to start would run the risk of making everyone too full for the main event, but this year that is actually a good thing. You can count on leftovers.
The pumpkin-pecan pie is meant to be two favorite holiday desserts in one, with one outlay for the crust ($3.48). But you could certainly be more restrained and make two with plain old pumpkin.
The shopping list breakout below each menu item presumes you will already have on hand regular pantry and refrigerator items: salt, pepper, cider vinegar, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, poppy or sesame seeds, olive oil, vegetable oil, whole milk, all-purpose flour, and baking powder.
Go for What's in Season
When planning your meal, first consult the calendar. This is no time for asparagus and artichokes. Buy produce in season, and you will get much more for your money, not to mention livelier flavors. Brussels sprouts are at their peak in late November; farmers' markets should have them in huge quantities, still on their stalks. (Serving them sliced rather than whole not only makes them more tantalizing but also helps them go further.) Fresh herbs have become available all year round, so it can be a better deal to buy a bunch rather than an expensive jar of the dried kind -- fresh sage might be $1.99 compared with $6.50 for half an ounce dried, which could go stale by the next time you need it.
Buy a Supermarket Bird
In an ideal world we would all be eating heritage turkeys. They have outstanding texture and flavor, and when we buy them, we help preserve unique breeds. But they are anything but a bargain: A 12- to 14-pound bird -- which feeds eight -- from Heritage Foods USA goes for $159 including shipping, or more than $10 a pound.
Supermarket turkeys can be fine alternatives for less than $2 a pound. Just be sure to buy a free-range or organic turkey rather than an industrial one injected with flavored oil. (See our Supermarket Turkey Taste Test for more information.) Plus, brining will add flavor and improve texture in even the least expensive birds, all for about $2.29 for a big box of kosher salt, an ingredient that can be used to season the rest of the meal.
Start From Scratch
Some convenience foods are often ridiculously cheap, loaded as they are with high-fructose corn syrup and chemicals, yet they rarely taste better than homemade. To cut costs and ensure the tastiest of feasts, make your own pie crust, cranberry sauce, and gravy rather than opening up a box or can. Instead of paying $8 for a single loaf from an artisanal bakery, bake up some dinner rolls with yeast, butter, and flour for a little over $7. A bakery-bought pecan pumpkin pie can go for upwards of $50, but a homemade version will run you $15 -- and $5 less if you omit the pecans.
Know When to Buy Canned or Frozen
Some canned and frozen foods are fine alternatives to fresh. Canned pumpkin is one of the great American ingredients, and the generic brands are as good as premium labels. You could make a pie using a fresh cheese pumpkin for $5, but you would wind up with a more watery filling than one made from a $2.49 can. And frozen vegetables can be both superior to and cheaper than out-of-season fresh ones; a bag of Cascadian Farms flash-frozen baby peas is $2.69, compared with $3.99 a pound or more for fresh snow peas, the only kind you are likely to find in November.
Don't Be a Slave to a Recipe
If you don't want to spring for three kinds of herbs in your soup or stuffing, choose one. Or none. Nothing but salt and pepper is ever really indispensable. Substitute water for canned stock in a soup; use a slurry of flour and water to thicken your pan gravy rather than making turkey stock. Instead of investing in a can of shortening for a pie crust, substitute butter for the two tablespoons needed in the recipe. The great thing about Thanksgiving is that the whole really is much more than the parts. Cut corners where you have to, and all anyone will notice in the end is a heaping plate.
Make It a Potluck
Don't be embarrassed to ask for help. People are happy to pitch in and bring a dish or two, and potlucks are trendy right now (see our guide to hosting or attending a Potluck Thanksgiving). Wine is not included in the budget here, so be open about suggesting a suitable-for-turkey California Zinfandel, like Rancho Zabaco Dancing Bull, which is less than $10. Also check out our suggestions on great-value boxed wines.
Thanksgiving for 8 for Under $80: Make This Feast for $79.79
Butternut Squash Soup with Cider Cream
Squash, $3.25; leeks, $1.99; carrot, 25 cents; celery, $1.69; apples, $2; fresh thyme, sage, and chives, $5.97; apple cider, $2.50; sour cream, 99 cents; heavy cream, $1.29. (Use water instead of canned stock for better flavor. Using dried herbs you already own will cut the price by $6.)
Roast Turkey with Oranges, Bay Leaves, Red Onions, and Pan Gravy
14-pound turkey, $16; 2 navel oranges, $2.50; 3 small red onions, $1.30; bay leaves, $1.99; butter, $1: (If you make regular pan gravy using a slurry of flour and water, you do not need turkey stock. Add $2.29 more for a box of kosher salt if you plan to brine.)
Herbed Bread Stuffing
1 pound country-style bread, $2.99; 3 onions, $1.30; celery -- used from soup recipe; dried herbs -- use fresh sage and fresh thyme from turkey recipe; 1 stick butter, $1; chicken broth, $1.99.
Brussels Sprout Hash with Caramelized Shallots
1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, $4; butter, $1; shallots, $1.50.
Yeast, $1.89; 1 stick butter, $1; egg, 25 cents; whole milk, $1; bread flour, $4 for a 5-pound bag
Pecan Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin, $2.50 for a 15-ounce can; brown sugar, $1.09; light corn syrup, $2.69; pecans, $4.49; eggs, $1; lemon, 89 cents. Crust: 2-pound bag flour, $2.49; butter, $1.
Regina Schrambling is best known for her acerbic Web site, gastropoda.com, and blog, gastriques.blogspot.com, but proudest of being a two-time refugee from The New York Times. She left the national desk in 1983 to enroll in the New York Restaurant School and was lured back as deputy editor of the Dining section, from which she resigned in 2002 to become a contract writer for the Los Angeles Times food section. She writes for magazines including Metropolitan Home, New York, Real Food, and Edible Brooklyn, as well as Slate and Salon.
Illustration by Matthew Brennan
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