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These 5 cookbooks help keep Thanksgiving simple — and focused on family

Catie Dull

When it comes to Thanksgiving, some of us are habitually better at the "thanks" part than others. But this year, a heartwarming surge of true gratitude is primed to sweep the nation as many of us drive, fly, and ride to our first in-person extended family gatherings since before the pandemic began.

And while it may be tempting to pull out all the stops with a head-turning parade of culinary masterpieces, I'd vote for going simple this year: Get everybody fed with a spread that's ample, crowd-friendly and relatively unfussy — so you can actually spend time with each other.

With that in mind, here's a guide to a handful of foolproof cookbooks that can help steer you through both the day and the season — without setting off the smoke alarms, requiring last-minute trips to the store, or pitting you against the global supply-chain blues.

The Complete Autumn and Winter Cookbook

Reassuringly hefty and comprehensive, The Complete Autumn and Winter Cookbook by America's Test Kitchen has you covered with a seemingly endless array of seasonal fare. Whether you're hunting down a last-minute recipe for the big bird ("One-pan Roast Turkey Breast with Herb Stuffing"), or you want to make a whole lot of cocktails fast ("Big-Batch Boulevardiers"), or you need an entire chapter of pumpkin recipes you can safely ignore for the other 10 months of the year, this overstuffed compendium is guaranteed to warm you from the inside out. (Or possibly, if you overeat from November to February like I do, from the outside in.)

Milk Street Fast & Slow

When it comes to managing kitchen logistics at holiday time, every cook knows that oven and stovetop space is precious, especially for side dishes. Hence the value of a smart strategy for your secondary appliances: your slow cooker, pressure cooker, or the switch-hitting Instant Pot. Milk Street Fast & Slow by Christopher Kimball bills itself as an official Instant Pot cookbook, but there's no reason you can't use it for any countertop cooker. Every recipe offers a slow version (which will take care of itself while you sleep or make another batch of cookies) and a fast version (which will give you back those 90 minutes you lost somehow while peeling the sweet potatoes and catching up with your cousin.) Whether you make your Braised Red Cabbage with Apples, your Spicy Collard Greens with Tomatoes and Peanuts, your Black Beans with Bacon and Tequila in 20 minutes or 7 hours, this book will turn you into a Thanksgiving time ninja.

Grains for Every Season

The bigger your family, the greater the likelihood you'll need to accommodate a wide variety of diets. Hence one can't overestimate the value of a good plant-based cookbook. One of the year's most versatile is Grains for Every Season by Joshua McFadden and Martha Holmberg. Whether you've never quite figured out your way around farro or you just want more quinoa in your life, these whole grains can radically alter your definition of breakfast (Millet Morning Porridge), entrées (Meat Loaf with Barley and Mushrooms), breads (Spelt Buttermilk Biscuits), and sweets (Chocolate Rye Brownies with Cashew Swirl).

Baking with Dorie: Sweet, Salty & Simple

Surely holidays aren't holidays without a dessert spread that makes you groan at the very sight of it. This year's Dorie Greenspan book, Baking with Dorie: Sweet, Salty & Simple is an efficiently curated selection of confections in every shade of chocolate, cranberry, pecan and more. These are the most accessible of indulgences: low-fuss cakes (Apricot and Pistachio-Olive Oil Cake), generous pies (Apple Galette), cookies of all textures and to all tastes (Coffee-Anise Stars! Maple-Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies!), and only the easy pastries (cream puffs and meringues). There's even some useful savory sides (Asparagus-Lemon Quiche) and a passel of quickbreads for hungover morning snacking the day after.

All About Dinner

And finally, because before and after the big day you need lots of easy meals for yourself and any out-of-town guests who happen to be couch-surfing in your living room, there's Molly Stevens' All About Dinner, which takes what is usually a 20-page "Main Dishes" section of a cookbook and blows it up into a whole volume chock-full of one-pot suppers, from Cider-Braised Pork Ragout to Fettuccine with Cauliflower, Anchovies, Olives and Toasted Bread Crumbs to Roasted Halibut with Chile-Lime Butter Sauce. It also contains my now-favorite potluck side dish, Celery Salad with Apricots and Candied Almonds, and the best possible way I can think of to use up your leftover turkey: Turkey and Vegetable Potpie.

No matter what you make or who you make it for, go easy on yourself. If you forgot to reserve a turkey, nothing's wrong with your regular weekday roast chicken or a mushroom lasagna. One pie instead of four will do; the dishes can wait. Save your energy to spend with family and friends, because with any luck, this year your Thanksgiving and mine will be about literal face time — not FaceTime. How can one possibly not be thankful for that?

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T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.
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