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This French Onion Chicken is even more delicious served over garlic mashed potatoes, making it the perfect Thanksgiving dinner alternative for smaller gatherings. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Stirs: Sample these savory Thanksgiving dinner alternatives for smaller gatherings

BUCKHANNON – It is hard to believe Thanksgiving is merely days away. At times it has felt as if 2020 has been at a complete standstill, yet here we are approaching the holidays. This has always been my absolute favorite time of the year, yet this year feels vastly different. The uncertainty in the air of safely gathering is real and unnerving.

Although nobody saw a pandemic coming it has given me (and I would imagine many others) more time alone.

When forced to slow down and stay in, it allowed for many things, an introduction to TikTok dancing, binge watching “Tiger King” on Netflix, rearranging furniture and deciding I liked the old way better, eating some really strange meals to avoid grocery shopping, but by far the most rewarding was the time I was gifted to reflect on self-awareness and what is truly important. This was a gradual realization, as things became clearer with extremely quiet and calm days.

The circle of people I was around shrank drastically, and my house became hushed as entertaining had come to an abrupt halt. I have always felt grateful for my two dogs, but this affection grew as quarantine prevailed. The innocence of animals and small children is similar; they are unaware of worldly concerns accompanied with unconditional love. A remarkable combination.

While I was unable to turn off my awareness of what had befallen the world, I was able to readjust my thinking to a simpler mindset. I found phone calls with family and friends eye-opening, as I became aware of my inattentiveness with in-person visits. More often than not when someone is visiting my house, I am in the kitchen working. After my company left, I found myself thinking “Now, I need to ask about that again.” This feeling fleeted during my phone call conversations, which was telling that I needed to focus on my in-person listening skills.

Another thought that gave me much pause was my carbon footprint impact. Running to the store for one ingredient was no longer an option. I became methodical about my outings and concluded that I was making many unnecessary trips. This knowledge has enabled me to become a more efficient shopper, therefore leading to an increase in positive meal planning and health benefits.

So, while COVID-19 has rocked our lives, I am choosing today to be thankful for the lessons I have learned this year. Family and friends are more important to me than ever, with a new found appreciation for the meaning of in person visits. It has been a perfect year for improving patience, which has helped aid in stress reduction. I have been educated that an uncomplicated life is a far more rewarding life. Although I look forward to the day life returns to normal, I will not forget what the pandemic has taught me.

With travel restrictions and precautions being taken, our Thanksgiving tables may not look the same. Perhaps fewer chairs, and this presents a new problem…how do you cook a small Thanksgiving dinner? It may feel as if there are rules for this yearly meal, but if there was ever a year for an alternative approach, it is now. A large turkey dinner is a laborious task, and not necessary for an intimate gathering.

I opt to spend more time around the table, and less time standing in the kitchen this year. Below you will find my recipe for French Onion chicken, a far easier poultry solution with a divine caramelized onion sauce that is lovely over garlic mashed potatoes. This chicken lends itself well to accompany traditional sides such as dressing or roasted veggies. It will feel just as cozy as classic Thanksgiving, but ease meal preparation substantially. An additional chicken option is a beautiful platter of chicken piccata, one of my favorites. The recipe is savory, rich, and certainly worthy of a special holiday. I envision this is an excellent time to step away from the normal and have a big pasta dinner with a beautiful fall salad as a change. Thanksgiving is about a time of reflection for gratitude, not what is gracing the table. Whether you gather with your loved ones in person or virtually, remember the simple side of life and stay safe.

Happy Thanksgiving. Peace.

French Onion Chicken


2 chicken breasts sliced lengthwise
3 ounces pancetta diced small
3 large onions thinly sliced
6-8 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups beef stock
1/2 cup flour
Salt and pepper
Fresh parsley for garnish


Crisp pancetta in a skillet then drain on paper towel, leave any dripping to use when browning chicken. Generously season chicken with salt, pepper and paprika.

Lightly coat in flour.

Pan sear in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet over medium heat until golden, remove from pan. (If the chicken isn’t fully cooked, it’s ok; it will go back in the skillet).

Add remaining oil and butter to skillet, reduce heat, add onions, herbs, salt and pepper to skillet.

Cook onions slow, gradually adding stock (a few tablespoons at a time) then allowing to reduce and repeat until onions become “jammy” (15-20 minutes).

There should be stock left; add remaining stock and chicken back to skillet simmer until sauce thickens and chicken finishes cooking.

Serve with mashed potatoes or egg noodles. Top with crispy pancetta and fresh parsley.

Chicken Piccata is another satisfying poultry option as a roasted turkey alternative. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Chicken Piccata


4 thin-sliced chicken breasts, pounded thinly
Salt and pepper

For the flour dredge, and skillet:
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons fresh thyme or lemon thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter

For the sauce:
2 thinly sliced shallots
1/2 a lemon sliced thinly
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup white wine or chicken stock
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
4 thyme sprigs (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1/4 cup fresh parsley or basil
5 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper


Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper.

Combine all flour dredge ingredients and coat each chicken piece with a thick layer.

Over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 3 tablespoons butter in a skillet and brown chicken on each side until crispy and remove.

Place on a wire rack, (if the chicken is not fully cooked it’s ok, it will finish cooking in the sauce).

Leave the flour bits in the skillet, reduce the heat to medium low and add 5 tablespoons of butter, the shallots and lemon slices.

Allow to cook slowly so that the shallots and lemon slices caramelize, and the butter browns.

Once the lemons have browned and become very soft, remove.

Now add choice of liquid to the skillet and capers.

Increase heat to medium high for 3 minutes, whisk until sauce thickens.

Chop lemon slices and either parsley or basil together finely.

Return this mixture along with lemon juice and chicken back to the skillet, reduce heat to medium and continue to cook an additional 5-7 minutes.

Serve immediately.

Sara Jeran is a culinary enthusiast, gardener, beekeeper and Buckhannon native. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

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