Shoppers wend their ways amid displays of cranberry sauce, green beans and soups set up for Thanksgiving Day feasts in a grocery store Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in southeast Denver. Although supply chain issues are hampering distribution of some Thanksgiving staples, local chefs and nutritionists offer ideas to create a special meal. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Talkin’ turkey substitutions: New takes on Thanksgiving fare

How to find substitutes, add local flavor

One week from today, most of America will be sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast. If supply chain issues have you worried about sourcing dinner, local chefs and nutritionists have plenty of ideas to make your meal special.

According to the University of Illinois Extension office, Americans eat 46 million turkeys each Thanksgiving. But, like many items this autumn, turkeys may be tougher to come by than in the past.

According to Sarah Lewis, family and community development agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks cooperative extension service, Juneau and Sitka District, that means shoppers may need to be flexible.

At the end of the summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the inventory of frozen turkeys and turkey parts was down 24% compared to the three-year average.

Add in slower-than-average supply movement across the country and the typical supply chain issues that can strike Juneau, and it could be more difficult to source the exact bird you want this Thanksgiving.

“If you insist on an heirloom, free-range turkey, you may need to lower your expectations,” Lewis said in a Monday morning phone call with the Empire. “You may need to go with a Butterball.”

She said turkey breasts or turkey legs can offer tasty solutions that may be easier to source and lighter on the budget.

She suggests determining what’s most important for the occasion and considering substitutions if needed.

[Local florists are blooming with Thanksgiving table ideas]

“If having an organic protein is most important to you, look for something different like cornish game hens or go for a wonderful roast chicken. See what’s available,” she said.

According to the University of Illinois, Alaska is the only state without wild turkey, so sourcing your own wild bird is off the table.

But, Marc Wheeler, owner of Coppa downtown, said that locally harvested ducks and geese can make tasty Thanksgiving main dishes and add a local twist to your feast.

“I think it’s fun to change things up,” Wheeler said, noting that turkeys can be challenging to prepare because the breast and thigh meat cooks at different rates.

Lewis said it’s OK to think beyond poultry, too.

“Go with a lamb roast, or a beef roast or try different central meat,” she said, joking that there’s no requirement to serve poultry on Thanksgiving.

Pick sides

According to Newsweek, hash brown casserole is the most popular Thanksgiving side dish in Alaska. Other states put mashed potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese or green bean casserole in the top spot.

Lewis and Wheeler agree that Thanksgiving side dishes can offer a wide variety of options.

“I’m more of a traditionalist with sides,” Wheeler said.

He said that he likes green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup. He also suggests Brussels sprouts roasted with apples or pears for contrast.

“It’s pretty decadent, but you can braise them in heavy cream,” he said.

Lewis said the budget is a key consideration when thinking about sides. She said that choosing frozen or canned fruits and vegetables is an excellent way to save cash and increase the nutritional value of produce.

She said that long travel times to Alaska result in fresh produce losing some nutrients. Because canned and frozen produce is processed near the source, nutrients last longer.

“Canned and frozen vegetables are done in big batches and tend to be more economical,” she said. “You are not downgrading your food by selecting canned and frozen.”

She suggested swapping roasted potatoes for mashed this Thanksgiving.

“It’s easy to overdo mashed potatoes. Roasted potatoes are just as good,” she said, calling them a “win, win, win,” because they cost less, are just as satisfying and make it easier to consume fewer calories.

[A big change from the Big Easy]

Think local

If hash brown casserole isn’t your thing, but you’d still like to add local flavor, Lewis and Wheeler both suggest harvesting some high bush cranberries to make a relish.

“You can find different pockets of them around town,” Wheeler said. “It’s best to pick them after it freezes, that mutes some of the heavy tartness. You can usually smell them before you see them. If you get into a patch of them, they are thick and you can pick a bunch quickly.”

If harvesting cranberries feels like too much, Lewis suggests purchasing some wild fruit jams from local producers to use instead of cranberries.

She said that Panhandle Produce in Lemon Creek often has jams and jellies from local producers and that the Salt & Soil also offers a good selection.

Lewis suggested adding local flavor to stuffing by starting with Wild Oven bread and adding reindeer sausage or oysters for a dose of local flavor. She also suggested mixes from local herb growers and driers or adding kelp-based products from Barnacle Foods.

She said that adding high bush cranberries or spruce tips and clover are additional ways to add flavor to the stuffing.

Finish strong

When it comes to dessert, pumpkin pie is the classic pick.

Lewis said there’s no shame in cutting a few corners and using a canned pumpkin puree as a base or buying ready-to-bake pies to serve at the end of the meal.

“Time is a finite resource, especially around the holiday,” she said.

Lewis said spreading preserves from local berries such as wild blueberries on top of cheesecake can add local flavor.

Ordering dessert is the easiest way to save time.

Wheeler said he’s taking orders for goodies such as baked Cardamom dutch apple pie, brown butter and bourbon pecan pie, candy cane ice cream pie on a chocolate crust, or pumpkin ice cream on a gingersnap crust pie.

Visit and get your order in by Friday, Nov. 19.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at or 907-308-4891.

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