I'm a last-minute cook, the type who decides that it would be super-fun to have a proper Thanksgiving spread, with turkey and mashed potatoes and all the fixings... at 5:30 on Thanksgiving day. So when I was presented with the challenge of pulling off an entire turkey dinner in thirty minutes, I was all over it.
Thanks to the miracle of prepared food (and a little ingenuity), it is absolutely possible to whip up a delicious meal made entirely from boxed products in under half an hour. Serve it all up in your own beautiful dishes, and no one will know that you had help in the kitchen. Promise.
The Turkey: The Deli Counter is your Friend
The real sticking point of a 30-minute Thanksgiving is, of course, the turkey. We all know that you can't cook a turkey -- even a turkey breast -- in half an hour. But you can bring one home from the grocery store! This time of year, most local and chain groceries are offering pre-roasted turkeys for late afternoon carry-out. Call on your way home from the office and make sure your neighborhood market has a bird for you.
The Stuffing: Stove Top or Pepperidge Farms?
Packaged stuffing has come a long way in the past few years -- you can find a whole range of options in the grocery. Cornbread, gluten free, pork -- you name it, you can buy it in a box (or a bag). For Thanksgiving dinner, stick with turkey stuffing; use chicken broth, rather than water, to give your box stuffing more flavor.
Gravy: Skip the Microwave
When you're speed cooking, the temptation is always to go directly to the microwave -- but don't. Gravy from a jar tastes better when you warm it on the stove. Heat until simmering, stirring occasionally, then serve in your best gravy boat. My family is partial to the basic Heinz turkey gravy, but if you find yourself at the mall, Williams Sonoma has a fancy jar option that tastes like homemade; just add milk or broth and whisk until warmed through. (Total cook time: 10 minutes)
The Rolls: Pop a Can of Crescents
Crescent rolls are a kid favorite; they're fun to put together, and with a bake time of 11 to 13 minutes, they cook up fast. Total time from preheating the oven to serving the rolls is still well under the 30 minute mark. (Total cook time: 25 minutes, including preheating the oven)
Potatoes: Mashed or Hashed?
What's Thanksgiving without potatoes? In under half an hour, you've got two choices: Instant mashed potatoes, which essentially just require hot water and a little butter, or frozen hashed potatoes, which required minimal heating in the oven. Box mashed potatoes can be fancied up with a teaspoon of horseradish or some bleu cheese or precooked bacon, for a more fanciful side; follow the box directions and then add your extras just before serving. Hashed potatoes, on the other hand, are a kid staple. Serve with spicy or Dijon mustard for the adults and ketchup for the kids. Tater Tots take about 18 minutes in the oven; put them in with the rolls, but pay attention to your timer. (Total cook time: 30 minutes, including preheating the oven)
Cranberry Sauce: From a Can, of Course
The thought of cranberry sauce from a can -- that gelatinous log of wiggly red goo, sitting untouched on a parsley-edged plate in the middle of the table -- is a scary thought for most of us. Fortunately, canned cranberry sauce has come a long way since the 1970s. Today, Ocean Spray makes a whole cranberry option, also in a can, that looks -- and tastes -- more like cranberries and less like can. The trick is to mix it up in the bowl before you bring it to the table; the can shape may be kitschy, but it's not appetizing, and even dinner from a box should look like food you want to eat. (Total prep time: Depends on how fast you can open a can)
The Finishing Touch: Pie
Oh sure, you could pick up a pie at the grocery, but wouldn't it be more fun to pull one out of the oven at the end of the meal? I say opt for the latter, even though it will take a little more than half an hour: A Mrs. Smith's pumpkin or apple pie bakes from frozen in about 40 minutes, which means that you can pop it in the oven just before you sit down to dinner and have it fresh and hot when you're ready to clear the dishes. (Total prep time: 50 minutes, including preheating the oven)