NEW YORK - "When's dinner? What are we having?" one of my kids will ask as I get home from work.
About once a month, the answer is, "Thanksgiving. It'll be ready in a half-hour."
In our house, Thanksgiving is not a once-a-year event that requires eight hours of cooking. It's a simple meal that I can have on the table in 30 minutes.
It includes all the main components of a traditional Thanksgiving, without all the fuss. I use turkey breast cutlets instead of a whole bird, canned cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy from mixes, and microwaved potatoes. Enough food for four people costs less than $20.
I came up with the meal because my kids are picky eaters, but they love Thanksgiving food. As a busy working mother, however, I don't have time to spend hours cooking dinner each night.
One day, I spotted turkey breast cutlets in the supermarket and decided to try them. To go with them, I made the stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce from scratch.
The cutlets were great, but it seemed silly to spend all that time on the sides when the turkey was ready in minutes. Each time I made the cutlets after that, I took another shortcut with the sides, first adding the packet gravy, then the canned cranberry sauce, then a box of stuffing.
I was pleasantly surprised by how good they all were. Now that I could pull the meal together in a half-hour, it was pointless to bake the potatoes for 90 minutes when you can microwave one in five. Gradually, this instant Thanksgiving became a staple as a weeknight family meal.
Is it as delicious as a whole bird, roasted for hours, with sides from scratch? Of course not, and the portions never leave leftovers. That's why I still enjoy a whole bird on Thanksgiving Day and save the trimmed-down version for the rest of the year.
Here's a step-by-step plan for preparing a scaled-down Thanksgiving dinner in less than 30 minutes.
4 medium white potatoes
4 turkey breast cutlets
1 stick butter
Box of prepared heat-and-eat stuffing
Packet of just-add-water gravy mix
14-ounce can cranberry sauce
WITH 30 MINUTES UNTIL SUPPER: Turn on the oven broiler.
Clean the potatoes and cut away any eyes or other imperfections. One at a time, start microwaving the potatoes. They're ready when a fork can be inserted easily. Medium potatoes take about 5 minutes; add a minute or two for larger potatoes (times might vary by microwave).
While the potatoes cook, heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the cutlets to the pan and cook 2 minutes per side, then set aside. Wrap cooked potatoes in foil to keep them warm.
WITH 20 MINUTES UNTIL SUPPER: Make the stuffing according to package directions. This usually involves adding the stuffing mix to a bit of boiling water and letting it stand several minutes.
WITH 15 MINUTES UNTIL SUPPER: Arrange the cutlets in a roasting pan (or disposable rectangular aluminum pan), along with any extra butter from the frying pan. Spoon the stuffing over the cutlets, covering them well to prevent them from drying out while broiling.
Place the pan under the broiler. Once the stuffing has browned, about 1 minute, remove the pan and cover with foil. Return the pan to the broiler for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the turkey is cooked through.
WITH 10 MINUTES UNTIL SUPPER: Final potato should be in the microwave.
Make the gravy according to package directions. This usually involves combining the mix with cold water and heating it in a small saucepan. Transfer the finished gravy to a pitcher or boat.
Open the can of cranberry sauce and spoon into a serving bowl.
FIVE MINUTES LEFT: Set the table and arrange the turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes and cranberry sauce for serving.
If you have an extra 10 minutes, consider the following additions:
- Before starting other preparations, prepare a box of corn-bread mix according to (often very simple) package directions. Baking time is about 20 minutes, so you want to put that in the oven before anything else. Consider baking it in a greased cast-iron frying pan. It will turn golden-brown, and removes easily from the pan if cut into pie-shape wedges.
It cooks up even faster if you preheat the frying pan on top of the stove or in the oven before putting the corn-bread mixture in.
- Prepare a simple salad of bagged greens, cherry tomato and cucumber with bottled dressing.
- Enhance your out-of-the-box stuffing. Chop up half an onion, a couple of mushrooms and a stalk of celery. Saute the vegetables in butter with teaspoon of dried thyme, then add the water and stuffing mix.