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A $100 Thanksgiving menu for eight

By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / November 18, 2009

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This Thanksgiving, we offer a modest proposal. Rather than groaning over too much work and too much food (you’ll do enough groaning over your uncle’s corny humor), why not truly enjoy the biggest food holiday of the year?

For hosts, Thanksgiving often means spending half the month’s food budget on a single meal, this despite the fact that the traditional ingredients - turkey, potatoes, root vegetables, squashes - aren’t all that expensive. What jacks up the bill is the abundance guests have come to expect: a big bird, an elaborate array of sides, pies galore, and, most flamboyant or silly or obnoxious of all, leftovers packed up in Tupperware.

We believe the holiday should revert to the kind of modest, affordable feast it once was, with plenty on the sideboard, but not an exaggerated amount of food. (Trust us, nobody’s going hungry here.) The centerpiece of this menu is a roast turkey, there are six sides, and dessert. The plan is simple: Make a little less. Folks selling turkeys will advise that you need one pound per person, which allows for turkey sandwiches later. Mashing eight potatoes for eight people is too much for even the heartiest appetites; it’s one side among many. Here’s how to keep a menu for eight under $100 and still feed all the guests very well.

In the past few weeks, we’ve roasted several birds and turkey parts and come to the conclusion that more important than breed, more important than how the bird was raised, is how the bird is cooked. Prepare it well - and time the turkey to come out about one hour before serving (reheat the sides while it rests) - and an ordinary supermarket bird will shine.

To give the meat lots of flavor, we sprinkle it inside and out with salt and pepper and slide butter and fresh herbs between the skin and flesh of the turkey; this protects the white meat from drying out and is easy to do since there’s a natural pocket there you can slip your hand into. Refrigerate the bird overnight so the seasonings and herbs penetrate the meat in the same way a dry rub does (no need for cumbersome brining). Before roasting, instead of filling the cavity with stuffing, bake the bready mixture separately so it gets crusty on top. Fill the turkey cavity with lemon wedges and onion slices to flavor the bird from the inside. The results are terrific.

That stuffing depends entirely on your choice of bread. We like a mixture of tender challah and French bread, along with crumbled sausage, apples, and sage, a recipe from Hi-Rise Bread Co. in Cambridge, which will sell many pans of this popular stuffing next week. Owner Rene Becker says he uses several of the bakery’s breads in his mix. He suggests cooking yours the night before, then reheating it after the turkey comes out.

Don’t spend precious kitchen time showing off your baby-food-making skills - one puree is plenty (choose from white potatoes, sweet potatoes, or squash). The rest of the meal should have a variety of textures. Instead of mashed potatoes, leave the spuds in their skins, boil until tender, and work them lightly with a fork to make something we call “dirty smash.’’ The dirty part is the skins, which add both fiber and texture to the dish. Six Yukon Golds mixed with one russet make enough for eight diners.

We like pureed butternut because it’s beautiful, though the flesh is bland if it’s only boiled and mashed. Roast two whole squash in their skins (whole are cheaper than peeled), then work the flesh into a buttery puree with maple syrup, cream, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

Except for the squash and dessert, there’s no cream in this menu. Onions (four plump Spanish ones) are roasted in wedges until they’re tender and lightly caramelized.

One of your only opportunities to add some kick to the plate is in the cranberry sauce. Simmer the fresh berries with a generous pinch of crushed red pepper, and plenty of orange rind and juice. To add greens to the menu, cut three big broccoli crowns into thick slices, steam them (this is a day-ahead task), then before serving, roast them with a drizzle of oil. Finish with toasted pine nuts and golden raisins.

Pie can be one of the feast’s most expensive elements. And with good reason: With a store-bought pie, you’re paying for the time it takes to make the crust and bake the filling. To do your own, spread out the tasks. Roll out the crust well in advance and store it in the freezer. Assemble the filling the day before. You can even bake the pie the night before (after all, if you bought a pie, you’d be picking it up the day before). For pumpkin puree, we empty a can and add gingerbread spices and cream. Home-roasted and -pureed sugar pumpkins are sweet things, but there’s no sense reinventing the wheel.

One pie makes eight wedges, which you can top with softly whipped cream. If you think you need more dessert, ask a willing guest to bring something. Better yet, roast the turkey and farm out all the sides and pies.

That will bring your budget way down.