Want to make a seasonal and splurge-worthy Thanksgiving dinner for $400? Here's your menu for 4

Sure, it's a little more opulent than our $40 menu — but the focus remains on good food, wine and coffee

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 15, 2021 6:00PM (EST)

Family during Thanksgiving dinner (Getty Images/Aleksandar Nakic)
Family during Thanksgiving dinner (Getty Images/Aleksandar Nakic)

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a reader named Carl who lives in Austin. "Hi, Salon Food team," he wrote. "What Thanksgiving menu would you put together for a family of four for $40? What about $400?" 

Last Sunday, we published the answer to the first part of Carl's question. The $40 menu — well, actually the $38.64 menu — includes game hens with cornbread stuffing, a citrusy shaved Brussels sprout salad, twice-baked sweet potatoes with honey-glazed pecans and an easy-to-make cranberry trifle.

Something you should know about me is that I thrive under budgetary constraints. Between you and me, I think liberal arts degree holders have an inherent ability to do the most with the least (perhaps born from being constantly reminded by friends, foes and family that we're staring down a life of uncertain career opportunities?) and some of the best parties I've ever hosted or attended came in at $50, all totaled.

RELATED: Want to make a fun and festive Thanksgiving for $40? Here's your menu

Plus, budget-friendly items like tinned fish, good beans and mocktails are now part of the greater culinary zeitgeist. That's a godsend for cash-strapped hosts everywhere. 

All this to say, for me personally, the task of putting together a $40 menu for four was far less daunting than a $400 menu. 

Without a pressing budget, I was paralyzed by indecision for a few days. Where would I spend those additional $360? I eventually toyed around with a couple versions of this menu, some more decadent than others. I wanted something that played with the idea of luxury without turning into a caricature à la Salt Bae's Nusr-Et Steakhouse and its infamous $1,170 gold-leaf crusted steak and $16 Red Bulls. 

Ultimately though, the budget went to where it should always go — to good food, good wine and good coffee (with a few special touches thrown in along the way). This menu first appeared in The Bite, Salon Food's weekly newsletter. Be sure to subscribe for more special menus, recipes and collections from the Salon archives. If you have any questions about your own Thanksgiving plans, email us at 

Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.

* * *

$400 Thanksgiving for Four
Parsnip soup with caviar crostini and creme fraiche ($81.82) 

I think parsnips are one of the most underrated fall vegetables. They have this nice nutty, earthy flavor that makes for a really nuanced soup without too much work. Cook them down with a simple combination of leeks, garlic, butter, whole and chicken stock and use an immersion blender for a smooth, thick soup. 

The soup would be absolutely delicious as-is, but it would be even better with a generous swirl of Russ & Daughters creme fraiche — which you can order on Goldbelly and is absolutely worth it — and a crisp crostini topped with a tiny dollop of Baika caviar.

Here's the cost breakdown:

  • Leek ($1.99)
  • Unsalted butter ($0.80)
  • Garlic ($0.50)
  • Parsnips ($2.60)
  • Chicken stock ($2.49)
  • Whole milk ($2.99) 
  • Baika caviar ($62.00) 
  • Russ & Daughters creme fraiche ($5.50)
  • Crostini ($2.95) 

Pecan-crusted goat cheese, arugula, pomegranate molasses ($24.29)

Sometimes inspiration for a dish is born from really wanting to find a use for a special ingredient. That was the case here. I've wanted to play with pomegranate molasses, which is deeply concentrated pomegranate juice, for a while. I pair it with creamy and crispy pecan-crusted goat cheese medallions; make these by pulsing pecans with salt and pepper to taste into a coarse powder and pressing it gently into slices of firm goat cheese. Drizzle a sheet pan with olive oil and bake the medallions for about 12 minutes, flipping halfway through. 

Serve them on a bed of peppery arugula, dressed with pomegranate molasses. 

Here's the cost breakdown:

  • Arugula ($3.00) 
  • Goat cheese ($6.00; four ounces) 
  • Pecan ($2.00) 
  • Olive oil ($0.50; 2 ounces) 
  • Pomegranate molasses ($12.99) 

Maple and pink peppercorn brined heritage turkey ($45.78)

If you really wanted to, you could easily eat up over half your budget with a huge, gorgeous heritage turkey. I opted here for an equally gorgeous, though smaller (10-pound) organic turkey from a regional farm. We're keeping things simple with a flavorful brine made with sweet maple syrup, orange zest, fruity pink peppercorns, salt, onion and garlic powder. 

Dry brining is a method in which you coat a cut of meat — or a whole bird in this case — with a mixture of salt, spices and sometimes sugar and let it rest for a period of time. This both seasons the meat and ensures a moist final product because, during that resting period, the salt draws out the turkey's natural juices, which are eventually reabsorbed into the meat.

In this version, maple syrup stands in for sugar. While it's not technically a completely "dry" brine at that point, the resulting mixture has great flavor and is easier to spread all over the turkey.

The night before you're ready to roast your turkey, combine the brine ingredients a small bowl until the mixture takes on the consistency of wet sand and rub it all over the turkey. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, coat that turkey in a stick of softened butter and roast. 

Here's the cost breakdown:

  • Organic whole young turkey ($41.34)
  • Maple syrup ($0.70)
  • Orange zest ($0.79)
  • Pink peppercorns ($1.25) 
  • Onion powder ($0.26)
  • Garlic powder ($0.24) 
  • Kosher salt ($0.40) 
  • Butter ($0.80) 

Wild mushroom and apple-sage sausage dressing ($53.04)

Etsy is absolutely underrated when it comes to sourcing special ingredients; I used it to buy ramps earlier this year when they were in season from a small farm a few states over. It's also a great place to find foraged items, like wild chanterelle mushrooms, which make for a tremendously flavorful base for this stuffing. 

Sauté them along with minced shallots and celery in a tablespoon of butter, followed by crumbled apple-sage sausage. It's a popular variety that you can find at most grocery stores and butcher shops this time of year. 

Mix in torn, toasty country loaves from a local bakery (you can also order from some stellar bakeries, like Tartine, online) along with melted butter, a little chicken stock and a beaten egg. Arrange the dressing in a baking dish and zhush it up with some parsley. 

Here's the cost breakdown:

  • Fresh-baked country loaves ($19.50) 
  • Foraged wild chanterelle mushrooms ($20.00; 1 pound) 
  • Parsley ($1.00)
  • Shallots ($1.80) 
  • Celery ($1.49) 
  • Apple-sage sausage ($4.49) 
  • Butter ($0.80) 
  • Chicken stock ($2.49)
  • Eggs ($1.47) 

Herby hasselback potatoes ($7.84)

Potatoes are a must on the Thanksgiving table and you could, of course, substitute in the typical mashed variety here, but I personally like a little crispiness. Bonus: Hasselback potatoes are really impressive looking, despite not requiring too much effort. Dress them up with rosemary and thyme before baking. Once they are out of the oven and slightly cooled, hit them with a handful of fresh parsley (a little smoked flaky sea salt wouldn't hurt, either). 

Here's the cost breakdown: 

  • Potatoes ($2.36; 4 potatoes)
  • Olive oil ($0.50)
  • Rosemary ($1.99)
  • Thyme ($1.99)
  • Parsley ($1.00) 

Green beans tossed with horseradish cream and panko breadcrumbs ($6.58) 

I like the idea of green bean casserole, even if I don't always like the execution. It has almost everything going for it — the luxe texture from the "cream of whatever" soup, the crispiness of the French's fried onions and the verdance of the green beans. However, there's definitely room for improvement. When everything is tossed in a single casserole dish, the texture can become a little gloopy and the green beans lose a lot of their flavor. 

This dish is really simple. Blanch the green beans and toss them in ice water so they stay crisp and green. Meanwhile, whip together a quick béchamel — from the butter, flour and heavy cream — spiced with a little fresh, grated horseradish and a pinch of salt. The resulting sauce is velvety, punchy and a little funky. Fold it over the green beans until they are coated. 

Top each individual serving off with crispy panko breadcrumbs, toasted with olive oil and lemon zest. The brightness of the citrus plays really well against the creamy sauce. 

Here's the cost breakdown: 

  • Green beans ($1.69)
  • Heavy cream ($1.99) 
  • Butter ($0.10)
  • Flour ($0.05) 
  • Horseradish ($0.42)
  • Lemon zest ($0.89) 
  • Panko breadcrumbs ($0.94) 
  • Olive oil ($0.50)

Bakery-bought Basque cheesecake with gold leaf ($84.95) 

One of the things that a bigger budget affords you as a host is the ability to outsource certain courses. For you, that may mean getting the turkey and dressing from a local restaurant or cocktail mixers from your favorite bar. For me, that means not having to dirty a pan making dessert. A friend of mine makes stunning Basque cheesecakes — which in the midst of holiday prepping I have no desire to even attempt to make myself. I will, however, sprinkle it with a little edible gold leaf upon its arrival just for an added sparkle. 

By the way, if you want to make your own simple Basque cheesecake, try your hand at Mary Elizabeth Williams' version. It only requires seven ingredients and works without a springform pan. 

Here's the cost breakdown:

  • Basque cheesecake ($75) 
  • Edible gold leaf ($9.95) 

Artisan coffee ($58) 

I will always pay good money for good coffee and Big Shoulders' Gesha — sometimes called Geisha — coffee from Panama's Hacienda La Esmeralda is some of the best. Make a pot to go with dinner and bag up any remaining beans for your guests to have the next morning. Before you do, sure to check out Maggie Hennessy's guide to making better French press coffee.

Here's the cost breakdown:

  • Big Shoulders' Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Gesha coffee ($58) 

Wine  ($35)

Lily's Pet Nat, made with Chardonnay, has these tiny bubbles that burst into flavors of citrus, little hints of vanilla and honeysuckle and a touch of sweet brioche. It doesn't overpower the more delicate courses like the parsnip soup, but it also cuts through the more decadent courses like the cheesecake and green beans with horseradish cream. Even if you don't go with this wine, choosing something versatile and easy-to-sip is the way to go for a multi-course dinner.

Here's the cost breakdown: 

  • 2020 Lily's Pet Nat, Sparkling Chardonnay ($35)

Total cost: $397.30

There it is. A $400 Thanksgiving for four — likely with some leftovers for both you and your guests — that honestly feels really special. The food is wholesome and seasonal, with a few surprises thrown in. For more Thanksgiving advice, answers and tips, be sure to subscribe to The Bite and follow along here at Salon Food.

More of our favorite holiday dishes: 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Holiday Menu Recipe Thanksgiving