Most nights, Chris Swenson has as many as 200 people over for dinner.

So, when Thanksgiving rolls around, the Walkers Grill executive chef happily cooks for his family of four.

With a short guest list consisting of his wife, Amy; 5-year-old daughter, Mia; and 9-month-old son, Truman, Swenson doesn’t need to cook a 20-pound turkey, a mountain of potatoes or gallons of gravy.

Downsizing the menu doesn’t mean cutting back on flavor or tradition.

Swenson’s dinner embraces all of the contrasts that make the holiday meal so enjoyable: rich-tasting gravy to accent neutral-flavored turkey; savory pepper-infused dressing; sweet-tart cranberry sauce; and creamy herbed sweet potatoes.

Swenson recently demonstrated preparing a smaller, but still delicious, version of the standard Thanksgiving feast.

Although one turkey breast is just right for a dinner for four people, he suggests getting a whole turkey — a small one if possible — because the meat costs less per pound. The extra meat and stock also can produce another three or four economical meals.

Swenson completed a dinner of roast turkey breast, blond gravy, fresh cranberry sauce, stuffing and sweet potatoes in about two hours, not counting the time to prepare the ingredients.

To cut down on cooking time on Thanksgiving Day, make the turkey stock the day before.

“I don’t get a lot of time with my family, and I don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen,” he said.

Turkey stock is well worth the effort. It adds rich flavor to the turkey breast, gravy and stuffing as well as post-Thanksgiving turkey soup.

“This is the wow element that most people don’t do,” Swenson said.

Small details of the dinner make a big difference.

Swenson shuns canned ingredients in favor of fresh cranberry sauce and fresh sweet potatoes.

He uses fresh sage liberally in several dishes, including sweet potatoes.

“It’s not Thanksgiving without sage,” he said.

He also prefers kosher salt for cooking because it has a cleaner flavor.

Because his children are young, one turkey breast will feed his whole family. If he had teenagers in the house, he would roast both breasts.

Even small cuts of turkey can carry harmful bacteria. Keep food-borne illnesses at bay by wiping down surfaces that have touched raw turkey with a solution of a half-gallon of water and 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach.

To prepare turkey:

If you are making stock, do this step the day before Thanksgiving.

Starting with a defrosted 14-pound turkey, remove giblets and neck from cavity. Thoroughly rinse the inside of the bird with cold water. Cut away extra skin around neck.

Cut up the turkey:

Locate the bone running down the center of the breast. Start on the left or right of the bone.

With a sharp knife, make one long cut all the way along the side of the breast bone. Then slice down along the carcass, cutting the breast away from the surrounding bone.

Cut off tabs of extra skin on the breast, but leave enough skin to cover the top of the breast.

Repeat to remove the other breast.

Remove the leg and thigh, keeping them in one piece. First pop the joint where the thigh attaches to the carcass. Then cut through the joint.

Repeat for the other leg-thigh piece.

Turkey stock

  • Turkey carcass with wings attached
  • Turkey legs and thighs
  • Two stalks celery, cut in large pieces
  • 2 carrots, cut in large pieces
  • 1 onion, cut in large pieces
  • A couple of springs of fresh thyme
  • 2 tbsp. whole peppercorns (Swenson likes to use a mix of different types of peppercorns.)
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt

Put carcass and legs in large stockpot. Cover with cold water. Add celery, carrots, onion, thyme and peppercorns.

Put on high heat and bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, lower heat until stock is barely simmering. Simmer for 4 hours.

Remove turkey carcass and legs. Pick off meat and keep for soup.

Add kosher salt.

Strain off liquid and place in refrigerator to cool. After stock has cooled, remove fat that has hardened on the surface.

Roasted turkey breast

  • 1 turkey breast, about 3-1/2 lb.
  • 1 oz. thin slices of red onion
  • Whole fresh sage leaves
  • 3 sticks each of 4-inch-long carrots and celery
  • 1 shallot, chopped in large pieces
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 8 oz. turkey stock plus 4 to 6 oz. stock

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Slip fingers under the skin of turkey breast to form a pocket without releasing all of skin from the breast. Push slices of red onion and sage under the skin and smooth skin over the top.

Sprinkle skin side with salt and pepper.

Pour a little olive oil in oven-proof skillet and heat on stove until hot. Place breast skin side down in pan.

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To prevent turkey from sticking, pick up pan and tilt it from side to side to distribute oil. Gently shake pan to keep the turkey from burning.

Cook 1 to 2 minutes until the skin is golden. Turn turkey to the other side. Salt and pepper that side.

Add carrots, celery, shallot and bay leaf to pan.

Allow to cook a few more minutes, moving the turkey and vegetabels around the pan so they don’t stick.

Pour turkey stock into pan and place, uncovered, in 400-degree oven.

Roast 30 minutes. Add another 4 to 6 oz. of turkey stock and return to oven for another 15 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.

After the turkey is removed from the oven and allowed to rest, the temperature will rise to the recommended 165 degrees.

Reserve drippings for gravy.

Cranberry sauce

  • 2 cups fresh or frozen whole cranberries
  • 1 orange, cut in half
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp. real vanilla extract

With sharp knife, cut some of the peel off one orange half. Slice peel into thin strips.

In saucepan, put sliced peel, cranberries, sugar and vanilla. Squeeze juice from both orange halves and add to the pan.

Start on high heat, then reduce to medium high and cook until cranberries pop and sauce thickens.

Sweet potatoes

  • 2 large sweet potatoes or yams
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 tbsp. maple syrup
  • 1 oz. chopped, toasted pecans
  • 1 tbsp. fresh sliced sage leaves
  • 2 oz. heavy cream or milk

Wash sweet potatoes and scrub clean of dirt and grit. Pierce skin with tip of knife several places.

Place in 400-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until potatoes are soft.

Cut each potato lengthwise and scoop out flesh into a bowl. Remove stem end.

While still hot, add rest of ingredients and mix. Put mixture into pan on stove and heat to boiling. Allow to boil for a few seconds.

Put back into bowl and whisk to incorporate ingredients, allowing lumps to remain.

Add more butter or cream if needed.


Swenson prefers sourdough bread for this recipe because it holds up well and has a chewy texture. He generously uses black pepper for an extra kick.

  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup celery chopped
  • 1/4 cup minced yellow onion
  • 4 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 cup turkey stock
  • 3 cups bread (cornbread or sourdough baguette) cut into large cubes
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. black pepper

Melt butter in pan. Add onions, celery and sage. Sauté on high heat for 1 to 2 minutes, but don’t allow to brown.

Remove from heat and add turkey stock. Put back on heat and bring to a boil to reduce liquid a little bit.

Put bread cubes in bowl and pour liquid over them. Add salt and black pepper. Toss to coat bread with liquid.

Grease baking pan with butter and add stuffing. Put in 400-degree oven and bake 10 minutes. Stir and bake another 15 minutes.

Blond gravy

This is lighter in color than traditional giblet gravy.

  • 3 sage leaves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 to 2 tbsp. Bisquick — enough to thicken milk
  • Salt and pepper

Drippings from roasted turkey breast

Strain drippings into pan on stove.

Turn on heat. Add sage.

In small bowl, mix milk and Bisquick. Add this “slurry” to drippings, a little at a time, whisking constantly.

Add more salt and pepper to taste.

Turkey soup

  • Turkey stock
  • Turkey meat
  • Fresh thyme
  • Carrots, sliced
  • Celery, chopped
  • Onions, chopped
  • Cooked pasta or rice

Add all ingredients and simmer until vegetables are tender.

If needed, add salt and pepper.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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