Here’s something we can probably agree on: Holiday travel sucks. And when the journey takes you away from friends and family instead of toward them, the headaches and loneliness amount to a veritable banquet of bummers.
I’ve been there, folks. When you’re on the job, on the road, or left to your own devices, the fear of missing out becomes less of a concept and more a stark reality. However, given a few hours, some groceries, and basic cooking equipment, you can whip up a solo Thanksgiving feast that’ll outshine the cold gravy and lumpy mashed potatoes back home. Here are a few ideas to keep yourself (and your travel-weary soul) happy and fed.
To scale down the Thanksgiving meal, many suggest swapping the traditional turkey for a tiny, single-serve Cornish hen. And hey, if your goal is to avoid leftovers, there’s nothing wrong with these birds. But for my money, a whole chicken is the way to go. You’re going to get more meat for your dollar, with broader recipe potential.
Spatchcocking, for instance, is a great way to maximize juiciness and flavor while reducing cook time. Simply put, this is done by removing the spine so that the chicken lies flat. J. Kenji López-Alt provides an excellent walkthrough for this method, along with a method for making a quick gravy out of the bone removed from the chicken. No roasting pan is required, as the bird can be cooked on an oven-safe skillet or a simple sheet tray with a wire rack (or some wadded-up foil, providing air flow beneath).
There are many ways to elevate a simple roast chicken. In his Les Halles Cookbook (page 181), Anthony Bourdain recommends creating a compound butter out of honey, basil, parsley, rosemary, and thyme, and tucking these nuggets beneath the skin. You can adapt this technique to pretty much whatever herbs you’ve got on hand, and the basting effect of the honey and fat provides a magical boost of flavor.
But perhaps the simplest trick is also the best: Dry brine your chicken. This holds true for breasts, leg quarters, and wings in addition to whole birds. Any skin-on, bone-in piece benefits incredibly from a liberal coating of salt and an uncovered rest (two hours to overnight) in the fridge. And speaking of individual pieces…
You can still enjoy some turkey without roasting a whole bird. Many stores will sell turkey in its component parts—legs, thighs, and even wings.
But the humble tenderloin is one of the most flavorful cuts on the animal. And while white meat tends to dry out on a poorly roasted turkey, separating the tenderloin from the breast allows it to cook more quickly while maintaining its natural moisture.
Epicurious has a wonderful recipe for Thanksgiving dinner for one, utilizing a marinade and pan-sauce method for the gravy. It even includes a single-portion sweet potato, along with shallot and butter green beans.
You can always go for the ultimate in casual comfort: Head to the grocery store. Treat yourself to a half pound of the finest smoked or oven-roasted turkey in the deli case, and maybe some premium mustard. Swing through the dry goods aisle and pick up a box of stovetop stuffing, some French’s crispy fried onions, a jar of gravy, and a packet of instant mashed potatoes. Select a loaf of bread from the bakery (something wide and sturdy works best), and slink over to Produce for a bag of fresh spinach. Y’know, for health reasons.
Finally, retire to your hotel room or apartment, where no one will witness your crime. Assemble the components into a massive sandwich and feast while sipping from a can of wine as reruns of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives play in the background.
If you’re in an absolute pinch, you could heat a frozen Thanksgiving dinner and dump it between two slices of bread. But at that point you’re creating sadness, not deflecting it. Order a pizza instead, with a double side of chicken wings.
However you choose to spend your holiday alone, a little attention to what you’re eating goes a long way toward keeping your spirits up. Memories and familiar tastes can provide a comforting presence, even when friends and family simply can’t.