Thanksgiving is a holiday of many traditions, and cherished as they may be, they can also lead to lots of stress. If you need to take it easy this year but you still want to take part in the main event (that’d be the bird), why not make a simpler turkey dinner that’s still festive, but way less work?
Or maybe you have other motivations for being wary of wrestling with an entire turkey. They can be expensive, that’s for sure, and no matter what they cost, they take quite a bit of time to prep, from defrosting to brining to roasting for several hours, before you even get to all the sides, not to mention dessert. And if you only have a couple people or a small group to feed, even tinier turkeys tend to yield a lot of meat. It can seem like overkill on the table at a smaller gathering, and while leftovers are great, too many of those become daunting in their own right.
Then again, perhaps you’re just someone who likes to buck convention, and the idea of an alternative to a Rockwellian roasted turkey is more appealing, while part of you feels simultaneously bound to the iconic bird as the focal point of a Turkey Day feast.
Whatever the reason for not feeling like dealing with an entire roast turkey, there are plenty of alternatives. Obviously, you can simply buy parts of the bird—just a breast, or only drumsticks—and still treat them as you would the whole intact turkey, then pick and choose from the vast array of classic sides to go with them. You could also opt for a smaller-scale bird and make a roast Thanksgiving Cornish hen, duck, or quail with all the trimmings. But here, we’re looking at recipes a bit farther afield from the Pilgrims, and believe that one-pot meals are always a bonus.
That said, none of these preparations seem too casual, let alone lazy, because while we don’t want to be totally locked into tradition, we do still want things to feel a little special—so no turkey burgers here, although there is a fairly fancy turkey meatloaf (even if that sounds like an oxymoron). And there are some slightly more involved preparations too, but nothing remotely approaching the multi-day labor of putting together a traditional Thanksgiving feast.
Of course, we can still appreciate the bounty of a classic holiday table, and even enjoy the process of cooking such a spread, but sometimes it’s just not what we want, or need (or can realistically achieve).
If you, for whatever reason, are refraining from roasting an entire bird this Thanksgiving, yet still feel compelled to fulfill the turkey requirement on the big day, these nontraditional turkey recipes are all fit to be gobbled up. But if you do cook a big, beautiful, bronzed bird to serve with all the fixings, many of these dishes would still be great ways to transform your Thanksgiving leftovers once you’re bored with sandwiches.
This hits all the targets: interesting, impressive, delicious, and just a fraction of the work of your average Thanksgiving dinner. A boneless turkey breast is butterflied, flattened, and stuffed with a mix of sticky rice, fresh chestnuts, jujube dates, butternut squash, garlic, soy, and honey, then tightly rolled and tied before being braised on the stovetop in a fragrant mix of onions, red chilies, soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar, garlic, and ginger. Serve with roasted vegetables and a simple dessert and you’re all set. Get the recipe.
Tender turkey with Moroccan spices like coriander and turmeric is further enhanced with briny olives, crunchy almonds, and sticky-sweet dates. Served with couscous, this is a festive, filling meal fit for a celebration. The richer flavor of the legs and thighs work well with all the bold ingredients here, but if you’re not a fan of dark meat, cook a turkey breast or other white meat cut instead and it’ll still be delicious. Get the recipe.
Italian for “jumps in the mouth,” saltimbocca is usually made with veal, but here turkey takes the starring role. The key supporting players, sage and prosciutto, remain the same, and white wine and butter add extra savor. You could also make the meatball version of turkey saltimbocca, but these cutlets are a more elegant option. Get the recipe.
For something super simple yet packed with flavor, slow cooked turkey leg is a sure bet. Aside from a few minutes of initial sautéing and occasional basting, it asks very little of you while it cooks low and slow in a Sriracha, garlic, and honey sauce. Nevertheless, you’re richly rewarded with shreddable, succulent, flavorful meat, in need of nothing more than a simple mash and maybe a green vegetable on the side. Or just rice, for that matter. Get the recipe.
The humble meatloaf can be made company-worthy by adding a stuffing, which also seems especially appropriate for Thanksgiving. You can use bacon jam and Fontina cheese, or Jarlsberg and cranberry for a more autumnal take, but this cheddar-stuffed loaf with a sticky BBQ glaze is hard to resist. Shredded sweet potato mixed with the meat keeps it moist and adds its own flavor. While we’re on the subject of gussying up meatloaf, there’s also the bacon-wrapped route—or, you could always do both! Get the recipe.
B’stilla is a sweet, savory, richly spiced Moroccan pie traditionally made with squab or pigeon, and a crisp pastry called warqa, though phyllo is often used instead, since it’s similarly thin and flaky. Turkey is a great stand-in for squab (or the usual chicken substitute), whether you cook it fresh for this express purpose, or use leftover meat. This site has an illustration of the pie assembly if you need it. Get the recipe.
Baked turkey meatballs drenched in a luscious red curry coconut sauce are a snap to make, and will disappear about as quickly as they come together. Serve over rice or baked spaghetti squash for a simple yet deeply satisfying dinner. Get the recipe.
A one-pot stunner, this tamale pie with polenta is saucy, cheesy, and nicely spiced. Freshly cooked turkey (white or dark meat, or a mix of both) works just as well as leftovers, and a bright pomegranate salsa adds an extra-special touch. Get the recipe.
For a hearty, party-appropriate casserole, try turkey Tetrazini; you can make it with leftovers, of course, but it’s not much extra work to sauté (or bake, if you prefer) pieces of turkey cutlets, turkey tenderloin, or turkey breasts before making the rest of the recipe. Rich with mushrooms, bacon, butter, garlic, herbs, and toasty brown breadcrumbs, this pasta is a crowd pleaser. Get our Turkey Tetrazini recipe.
Tender acorn squash stuffed with fluffy quinoa, ground turkey, crunchy pecans, and sweet-tart cranberries is an easy twist on the usual stuffed Thanksgiving bird. Before being mounded high with the tasty yet healthy stuffing, the squash is roasted with maple syrup, cinnamon, and savory spices to add even more fall flavor. Get the recipe.
Since turkey has a slightly stronger flavor, it makes a great partner to robust mole sauce, as this turkey leg mole attests—but making it from scratch is fairly labor intensive. Enter this quick-to-make chili flavored with the chocolate and spices of Mexican mole, with steamed sweet potato blended into the sauce to add body and extra earthy sweetness. Although ground turkey is called for here, you could certainly use shredded roasted meat if you prefer (or if you happen to have leftovers from another meal). Set up a bountiful toppings bar to make the chili feel more festive, and maybe offer pumpkin cornbread on the side as well. Get the recipe.