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A classic Thanksgiving meal is the cheapest

There's no such thing as a free feast.

So for this year's Thanksgiving, we decided to shop smarter and pare down wherever possible.

Before deciding on a menu, we looked at numbers released by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has tracked the cost of a "classic" Thanksgiving dinner for the past 24 years.

The average cost of a feast for a family of 10 in 2008 (the latest numbers available) rang in at $44.61, up $2.35 over the previous year. Perhaps not surprisingly, turkey gobbled up the biggest portion of that price increase, probably because of higher feed and fuel costs. The federation figured the average cost was $1.19 per pound, up about 9 cents a pound from 2007.

The economic news is not all bad: Taking into consideration the cost of inflation over time, the real dollar cost of the meal is down 8 percent since 1988.

But like nervous Wall Street investors, the home cook's mood is swinging toward a new frugality. Thumb through glossy food magazines, and the platters seem less laden, the table settings reflect a minimalist's perspective and the menu ingredients tend to be less extravagant.

As America's holiday meal has ever-so-slowly drifted through fascinations with chipotle pepper mashed potatoes or Brussels sprouts plucked straight from the stalk, maybe the gourmet enthusiasts among us have tried a little too hard to put their own quirky stamp on the holiday.

This year, use the traditional menu as inspiration. Instead of larding the stuffing with pricey pancetta and pine nuts, turn to celery to offer classic crunch and cost-cutting cachet. Find a Thanksgiving menu that includes slightly updated classics: peas with bacon, a sweet potato mash, fresh cranberry relish and made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits.

WORTH ITS SALT

Brining the bird has become all the rage with home cooks. Fans insist submerging the bird under salted water for 12 to 18 hours locks in moisture.

But the process of maneuvering the bird into a vessel large enough to submerge it under salt water is cumbersome. Kudos to the wise marketer who created plastic bags big enough to hold the bird. Still, a recipe for dry brining seemed worth investigation.

Simply put, just rub the turkey with the salt mixture and let it sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, overnight. The skin will look a bit dehydrated when it comes out of the fridge, but the results coming out of the oven are prettier and delicious.

The salt it takes to dry brine ( 1/4 cup) is less expensive than those silly brining "kits," and although brining can never be a low-sodium recipe, the sodium is manageable for most.

Keep in mind that turkey is one of the most inexpensive meats you can buy, so it makes sense to buy a huge one and make casseroles to freeze with the extra meat. But if convenience is important, you might not want to get up at 5 a.m. to put a Humvee bird in the oven.

The general rule of thumb: 1 pound of turkey per person. Add a half pound per person if you want loads of leftovers. A 12- to 14-pound bird is our favorite size because it's not too heavy to hoist and it doesn't take all day to cook.

RELYING ON STAPLES

Flipping through the November 2008 issue of Martha Stewart Living, we found an unusual stuffing featuring canned peaches. Now, how clever is that?

Canned peaches are a pantry staple in many households, and they are an inexpensive ingredient. And the average kid would surely vote for peaches over fresh chestnuts or exotic mushrooms.

Forget the pancetta, pine nuts, goat cheese and chestnuts. These gourmet ingredients can add up fast. Peaches, on the other hand, are pretty straightforward. At least until you read the ingredient list.

High-fructose corn syrup?

We did a side-by-side taste test comparing peaches in heavy syrup to "lite" peaches packed in a solution of pear concentrate and sugar. We couldn't discern a difference, so while lite cost a few cents more per ounce, we felt obliged to skip the added calories.

Opting to go with fresh herbs rather than dry is another slightly higher expense but one that made a world of difference in the flavor. Find a friend with a garden, and barter for a few sprigs. You'll save a bunch.

POTATO MASHUP

For a thifty cook, potatoes are about possibilities: They can be paired with whatever you happen to have on hand. A simple pat of butter will do, or add snips of chives and fresh herbs if you're feeling flush.

A clever two-potato mash is a delicious way to satisfy the starch controversy that inevitably pops up at most Thanksgiving tables. Sweet potatoes are not only higher in overall nutrition than regular potatoes, but they also lend a lovely light orange color and make a milder, kid-friendly side dish.

Instead of letting the leftovers languish in the refrigerator, mold them into patties and sizzle in the skillet for breakfast the next morning.

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