Help me perform an expatriat culinary miracle.
November 24, 2009 7:07 AM   Subscribe

How can I best approximate a real Thanksgiving turkey— with chicken, a gas burner, and toaster oven? What other kinds of traditional fare can I make, given the limited ingredients available where I live? Help me have a real Thanksgiving far from home!

I'm studying in India for the year, and my fellow American students and I want to put on a Thanksgiving dinner. One girl is making cornbread, using corn meal she brought with her from home. There will be mashed potatoes. There will be mulled wine. But what else, and how?

I really would like something turkey-like, but there is no way I can find turkey meat. Chicken is my best bet. This is a pretty vegetarian city, but there are some butchers, and I could probably find basically any part of the bird I need (or the whole bird, but I don't think that will fit in the toaster oven). I'm not really sure how to go about cooking it though— I've never cooked a turkey and, having been a vegetarian for much of my life, I don't really have experience cooking meat in general. I need major help.

I would also like to fill out the selection of side dishes. Again, there are ingredient constraints. I can get fresh carrots, peas, potatoes, beets, white radishes, cauliflower, okra, green beas, cabbage, tomatoes, onions and garlic. I can get green bell peppers, but not red or yellow. I can get a variety of squashes, but they're all a little different than the varieties I'm used to. There are also yam-like things, but they're not the sweet potatoes of home. I can get corn, but only frozen. No broccoli, mushrooms, cranberries, celery.

No prepared convenience ingredients like chicken broth, cream of mushroom soup, pie crust. Cheese is possible but difficult, expensive, and comes in a very limited range. Flour, butter, eggs are go. Cooking oil, but not olive oil or anything fancy like that. European spices are of very limited availability, with the exception of those used in Indian food (coriander, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon). I have some dried basil and oregano, and may be able to find rosemary and thyme if I'm lucky.

I don't have any fancy kitchen equipment either— a few assorted pots and pans, a few knives, spatulas, spoons. I have a countertop gas range with two burners and a toaster oven to bake (smallish) things in.

If you have any ideas for Thanksgiving food that I could pull off using what I've got, please tell me. We're all homesick and really looking forward to putting on a delicious, heartwarming feast.
posted by bookish to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you get sage? Sage really makes Thanksgiving dishes taste like Thanksgiving to me.
posted by xingcat at 7:15 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't try to cook a chicken in a toaster oven. You'll probably want to go for chicken breasts, since you can slice those thin enough that they'll cook through in a pan on the stove. Thyme, rosemary, and sage would be the best spices to have, but basil and oregano could work fine.

It wouldn't be very similar to a turkey, but could be delicious (and American) nonetheless: with flour, butter, and eggs, you can pan-fry that chicken (just use cooking oil instead of olive, and be flexible with spices).
posted by oinopaponton at 7:21 AM on November 24, 2009

Green beans with sauteed onions and garlic.


squash soup- if you can, halve and roast off the squash, peel the skin off. Saute onion and garlic. Add the squash and some liquid to cover, broth would be best, but water will work in a pinch. Simmer and blend together. Add cream if you can.

Mashed potatoes with the yam-like things (more than likely they are real yams, here we call sweet potatoes yams, when actually they are not even close). If you can get cream, use cream, butter, salt and pepper.

Chicken's gonna be tough. You could always butterfly it, or ask the butcher to butterfly it for you. That should allow it to fit.
posted by TheBones at 7:21 AM on November 24, 2009

I did Christmas turkey one year with a similar range of options to you, except I had a half-sized oven. My solution was to do chicken legs, baked in the oven, propped up around a mound of stuffing like sticks of wood on a campfire.

Assuming you want a traditional meal, what would I do were I you? Measure the inside dimensions of your toaster oven to see what it can accommodate. Then go have a talk with that butcher and see if he can get you a couple of deboned chicken breasts. Stuff these with the simplest stuffing you can manage, which is basically bread, onion, butter, sage (or thyme), salt and pepper, chopped up (butter melted) and mixed together. Like the chicken breast out flat, between sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper, and beat flat with a heavy pot. Put the stuffing in the middle of the inside of the breast, then roll up like a quesadilla. Tie with some string to keep it closed. These will take about 40-45 minutes to cook at 350F in your toaster oven. To check for doneness without a thermometer, cut the thing open in an inconspicuous place and check for pink. Pink means not done. White means done.

As for your sides, here's a trick I learned. Get yourself some glass or metal bowls. Fill one pot with water and get the potatoes going. Green beans go in the bowl, with a bit of water, and on top of the pot with the potatoes. Cover with a plate. Another pot with carrots in, and a bowl on top of that with a veg that takes less time to cook than carrots. Voila, by the time the spuds and carrots are cooked, the others are steamed! Four sides and a main.

Cranberry sauce being hard to come by, you have two options: either adapt something else to the task (like red currants), or go in a completely different direction. What about carmelized onions to go with your "turkey"? Peach-mango chutney, since you're in India?

I hope this helps, good luck!
posted by LN at 7:28 AM on November 24, 2009

Make individual pumpkin pie custards (basically pumpkin pies without shells). You can do them in the toaster oven, or maybe in a steam bath in ramekins or any sort of oven safe cups or dishes. Steam or boil the squash/pumpkin in big chunks and then puree it as best you can. A strainer might be the way to go here. Mix it with some eggs, sugar and evaporated milk (can you get that? I think I've seen it in Indian stores stateside). Then season with mostly cinnamon and ginger, plus cloves and nutmeg. It'll be very runny before cooking but will set up nicely.

Also, if the whole bird is important (and it sort of is) and you have the means and gumption, you could try to smoke the bird. Think slow cooking BBQ.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:30 AM on November 24, 2009

Stuffing? There are many different recipes online so you should find something that works (being able to get hold of sage here would open up a lot more options and is certainly more traditional, but not actually required).

There's no need to actually stuff the bird with it -- cook the stuffing first, keep it as warm as possible, but basically just fix it up at the end by pouring lots of hot gravy over the top.

Disclaimer: I'm a Brit, but googling seems to show that (some?) Americans do eat stuffing for Thanksgiving
posted by robtoo at 7:32 AM on November 24, 2009

There's a technique I picked up from someone's grandma's chicken adobo recipe that might be helpful here. Get a bunch of chicken thighs or drumsticks with the skin on, simmer them in something tasty* for half an hour or so, and then put them skin-side-up in the broiler toaster oven on its highest setting for a few minutes until the skin is nice and brown. You get tender meat, crispy skin, and there's no oven required.

There's the added bonus, for a recent carnivore like yourself, that dark meat chicken is basically impossible to overcook with moist heat. If you simmer the chicken legs for an extra ten or twenty minutes, it makes no difference — they'll still be nice and juicy, totally unlike the dry cottony blech that you get if you overcook white meat.

*The canonical Something Tasty for chicken adobo is a mixture of vinegar and soy sauce (I use a 2:1 ratio) plus bay leaves, garlic and maybe some other spices. But this is a seriously adaptable recipe. Whatever tasty broth and spices you can score will work great. Chicken broth and sage — xingcat's right, sage is what Thanksgiving tastes like — would be lovely. Some people like the Something Tasty over rice as a side dish. It's usually too salty and greasy for me — a lot of the fat from the chicken skins renders out into it, and I'm too impatient to skim it off again — but YMMV.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:35 AM on November 24, 2009

Sorry, but smoking turkey doesn't work too well. The reason for smoking pig is because of the high fat content. The only way you will get good results from smoking a turkey is to impart the flavor of the smoke (cold smoke/indirect smoke) and then roast as you would a regular turkey. This is much more complicated than cooking a turkey "regularly," and with the setup they have, I wouldn't suggest it, especially for a first timer.

I really like the pumpkin pie custards idea!
posted by TheBones at 7:36 AM on November 24, 2009

I wouldn't bother trying to make a whole chicken Thanksgiving-style. You can make chicken wholesome and heartwarming without making the whole bird in the oven. I would do something like this: buy some chicken breasts, 2-4, depending on how big your pan is. If you can get some smoked or salted pork as well that'd be great. Fry the chicken in the pan in oil, toss the pieces around so they get all browned on all sides. Maybe 5-10 minutes. Put in salt pork if you have it, some chopped onions and garlic, maybe some chopped bell peppers, fry up all that shit a few more minutes, then add water, salt and pepper...hopefully you can fit enough water in to cover the chicken pieces. Don't splatter oil all over yourself. Cook everything for a good 15-20 minutes. Now add rice, cover the pan if you can, and keep cooking until the rice is done... keep adding more water as needed and stirring so all the rice gets evenly cooked. I don't know any exact way of doing this, I always cook ad hoc, but basically your goal is to fry up the meat and vegetables, then boil it all together to get a broth with all the delicious fried taste and the meat gets cooked through, then cook the rice in the broth together with all the fried stuff. It's the basic principle behind paella.

That's personally what I would do. Because there's no way you can replicate the bird-in-the-oven feeling with a toaster oven, but you can still make some delicious fucking hearty chicken dinner with very basic means.
posted by creasy boy at 7:37 AM on November 24, 2009

Just read the list of spices up top. Thyme is also a nice autumnal flavor too, and a good dose of thyme plus a teensy bit of cinnamon and clove strikes me as a perfectly thanksgiving-y flavor combination.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:37 AM on November 24, 2009

Also, if you want to use stock, IT IS REALLY EASY! 1 part onion, 1/2 part carrot, 1/2 part celery and chicken bones if you can get them from the butcher you mentioned. Simmer for 45 minutes with peppercorns and a little salt (some herbs if you can get your hands on them like thyme, parsley, etc). Strain, you have chicken stock. Take out the chicken and you have vegetable stock.
posted by TheBones at 7:40 AM on November 24, 2009

Sorry, but smoking turkey doesn't work too well.

Lots of people disagree. I'm with you though - it would be a tricky thing to get up and running, especially if you've never done that sort of thing, but if having a whole bird is important it would be possible to do in a juryrigged smoker.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:47 AM on November 24, 2009

I have successfully made thanksgiving dinner with the exact amenities you describe. I managed to make the entire chicken in the toaster oven (yes, it fit!) along with some stuffing inside the bird, and some extra quickly baked afterward with some of the juices that were in the pan.

I'd roasted some carrots potatoes in with the chicken (albeit no so much, given the lack of room), and just boiled the remainder of my root veggies and a yam. The key to good stuffing is rosemary and sage, if you can manage! Voila! It was really one of the best thanksgivings ever because it was so bare-bones, and I am proud to this day that I was able to do it with just a hot plate and a toaster oven.

Check out your grocer for a foil pain that will fit the chicken into the oven, and you should be golllllden.

Best of luck. Happy thanksgiving!
posted by sunshinesky at 7:57 AM on November 24, 2009

How big is your toaster oven? I ask because I've done Thanksgiving for the past three years with a 9"x9" toaster oven, with about maybe five inches of clearance. Either way, if you're going the chicken route, you could bake chicken pieces (breasts, for instance) in the toaster oven. Or, you could try a chicken stew, which might not scream Thanksgiving, it could very well push some buttons that say "home."

Do you have one burner, or two? That makes things kind of important. Can you control the temperature on your toaster oven, as in actual degrees, rather one heating element on/off?

If you've got two burners, you could make mashed potatoes on one, and, say, fried chicken in the other. Or you could braise chicken thighs (I can't fit the turkey in the oven, so I braise the thighs and legs in beer). Stuffing in the oven, a salad, and you're set. For the stuffing, do you have access to western style bread? Like, say, sandwich bread? That would be best, though I wonder how a naan based stuffing would be.

For stuffing, rip the bread into little bits, between pea-sized and cashew sized. You will need stock for this! Follow the really handy guide from TheBones above. Are you sure you can't get consome cubes anywhere? In a pinch, they're fine, and vegetable stock would work, I think. Dice onions, celery, and sautee them in butter until limp. Add diced apples, basil, parsely, oregano (thyme? can you get thyme?), and add a lot more butter. Add the bread, and mix well. Then add the stock, so it's all nice and wet. Then you bake it.

Damn. Just saw the no celery. You'll be fine.

One thing to think about is trial runs. Granted, you don't have time now, but going forward, be experimental when it comes to preparing food. See what you can do, and be prepared to suffer through finding out what you find out you can't do. That way, you'll be ready for anything. I've been cooking like this for nearly ten years, and just got gifted a 30liter convection oven, and I now have three burners. I'm kind of nervous about all of my new options, but I'm excited to find out what I can do. Don't be worried, and just try to have fun. You'll have a great thanksgiving, mostly because hey, it's you, and you're making it. That makes it snazzy.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:11 AM on November 24, 2009

Do you have a friend's oven you can use? Also, cook/prep everything you can the day before. That way you only have to heat things up.
posted by TheBones at 8:26 AM on November 24, 2009

Some wonderful ideas so far guys, thanks so much. I particularly like the pumpkin custard and the squash soup... And so many chicken ideas I don't know where to start!

I just ran out to one of the stores I thought might have western seasonings... all I found was a bottle of "mixed herbs": oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, and parsley. On the basis of all the exuberant recommendations, I'll scour the city for sage tomorrow. I would say there's maybe a 50% chance I'll find some.

Ingredient clarifications: no chicken broth and no celery. Apples are available, I forgot to mention that. Also, all sorts of tropical and semi-tropical fruit, but those don't really scream "thanksgiving" to me. Sandwich bread is all over.

I don't know how big the toaster oven is, since it belongs to a friend who's bringing it over on Thursday. It's not huge, if memory serves. It has multiple settings and gets quite hot, but I recall that the temperature settings don't tend to correspond precisely to the actual temperature of the thing. And I don't have a cooking thermometer. I have two burners on the stove, but multiple people will be trying to cook things at once.
posted by bookish at 8:52 AM on November 24, 2009

I butterflied a small turkey and cooked it on foil in a large toaster oven. had to use a few wooden chopsticks to keep it flat, but it was magnificent and delicious.
posted by luriete at 12:07 PM on November 24, 2009

Depending on the size of the toaster oven, I would maybe get a cut-up chicken and roast it in the oven. I've cooked a whole chicken in a big toaster oven, though; it worked fine with a drippings pan, and you can stuff a chicken.

Caveat: I'm a pretty good cook. But if I were aping Thanksgiving under your circumstances as given, here's what I'd do:

Stuff and roast a chicken in your toaster oven, if possible. If not, roast a cut-up chicken and cook stuffing separately.

Beg, borrow, steal, or import a can of cranberry sauce. This is the single thing that is most uniquely Thanksgiving to me.

Cook some sort of wintry green vegetable -- broccoli, brussels sprouts -- in a steamer over your burner.

Can you get sweet potatoes? If so, you can cook those with butter and brown sugar over the burner along with veggie stock to make glazed sweet potatoes.

Oh also, sage might go under the name "salvia" if you can find it.
posted by KathrynT at 12:13 PM on November 24, 2009

I bet you could roast the cauliflower in your toaster oven if you chunk it into small florets and brush lightly with oil first. Not that it's Thanksgiving-y, but seeing "cauliflower," "Thanksgiving," and "India" in this post made me laugh a bit because just last holiday I randomly dusted oiled cauliflower florets in curry powder and roasted them. Was quite good.

Maybe one approach would be to focus on everything non-main-course--beverages, snacks/nibbles, dessert...

Can you get nuts? If you're able to find certain spices--cayenne or something similarly fiery which shouldn't be hard where you are, plus rosemary or maybe sage--you could toast the nuts on the stovetop, and once warm toss them in fresh holiday spices and cayenne plus brown sugar. So good, and feels very winter holiday-ish to me.

You can make rice pudding on the stovetop, and add wintery spices--cinnamon, nutmeg, whatever you can manage to find.

You could also sear some meat on the stovetop, then add liquid and deglaze your pan to make a sauce. Rich, real sauce/gravy feels really Thanksgiving-ish to me, no matter what it's being poured on.

You could maybe make polenta with wintery herbs--again, rosemary, sage, etc.--with that cornmeal, and fry it up on the stovetop.

Another fast route to holiday cheer is tackling beverages if possible. Think of some wintery beverages you might enjoy and if you're able to get any seasonings necessary those are pretty much all stovetop affairs. Homemade boiled custard/nog, mulled cider, hot rum (or brandy)-plumped raisin punch, hot toddies, cocoa, things like that...

If you have access to crackers/toast/pita/naan/etc. spread breads, you could whip up compote or jelly or salsa or whatever else on the stove, to feel festive--it'll signal it's a party, even if it's not Thanksgiving-specific. Some dip recipes don't even involve cooking.
posted by ifjuly at 11:11 AM on November 25, 2009

Also: you may be able to marinade your chicken in yogurt (which of course is pretty easy to find in India :), to make cooking it in pieces in the toaster oven or on the stovetop quicker/more feasible. It should tenderize the meat.
posted by ifjuly at 11:12 AM on November 25, 2009

Thanks for the help guys; Thanksgiving turned out really wonderful.

Because everybody wanted to be using the toaster oven, I decided to take creasyboy's suggestion and make a chicken stew-style dish. I never did manage to find sage, but I got rosemary and thyme which was enough to make it taste like home. Big chunks of potatoes, yams, and carrots, peas and onion and garlic, and some white wine. It was a big hit with the non-veg among us.

As robtoo suggested, we made a stuffing even though there was nothing to stuff. We managed to find a supplier of mushrooms, which, sauteed with buckets of onions and baked with bits of bread hit the spot.

Creamy soup with squash and carrots was also wonderful. And mashed potatoes are, apparently, amazing when made with rich buffalo milk.

Hope you and yours had a great holiday stateside.
posted by bookish at 4:01 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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