Here at Serious Eats, we've made no secret of our fascination with fast food. So when we found out about Popeye's annual turkey special—a Cajun-roasted beast of a bird—we knew we had to have it. But what's a fast food turkey without a slew of fast food Thanksgiving sides?
Now, you could take the "throw some things together and slap on a clever name" approach, but we're also interested in squeezing some serious flavor out of our food, fast or otherwise.
Our mission: Start with fast food staples. Add some real ingredients and technique. Deliver rigorously tested recipes, dosed with just the right amount of saturated fats and happy meal toys to create an epic Thanksgiving fast food meal that isn't just clever, but actually looks and tastes GREAT.
Each of our sides calls for a central ingredient from a fast food icon, gussied up with easy-to-find, easy-to-prep supermarket ingredients. And you know what? There's not a single one I wouldn't happily serve to my family and friends come Thanksgiving. So, without further ado, meet our fast food spread. We're pretty darn proud.
Popeye's Whole Cajun Turkey
Before you get too excited, no. Popeye's does not make a golden-brown, fresh out of the fryer, deep-fried turkey to-go. What they do sell is a par-cooked and frozen Cajun-style roast turkey. Which may sound sorta gross, and doesn't exactly look stunning, but frankly tastes kind of great.
After a nice, long defrost, we followed the package instructions, which call for reheating the turkey in a roasting pan over a puddle of water, all tented with tinfoil. After the recommended hour and a half inside its silver invisibility cloak, it was definitely nice and hot—unfortunately, there was no trademark burnished skin to be had. We unwrapped the bird and continued roasting for another 30 minutes and then, in a final act of desperation, blasted it at 500°F for another 10. The skin was definitely crisper, but we think removing the foil from the start would've been a more successful, aesthetically pleasing approach.
Regardless, we were really pleasantly surprised. The splotches of darkened spices didn't make it the most stunning specimen we've ever seen, but they tasted warm and spicy. Most importantly, the meat itself was actually moist and juicy, with a dark poultry flavor, even in the breast. For the secretly lazy cook, this is a godsend.
McDonald's Hash Brown Potato Gratin
Crispy, greasy McDonald's hash browns aren't my go-to breakfast food, but they're one helluva a game-changer in this potato gratin. I was inspired by Kenji's far more highbrow Hasselback potato gratin, which showcases the perfect knife cut to maximize crispy edges while preserving a rich, starchy, creamy interior.
To get a similar effect, I slice the hash browns and lay them vertically in the thick, cheesy sauce—a combination of heavy cream, Gruyère, and Parmesan, seasoned with raw garlic, thyme, and a hefty dose of black pepper. It's the perfect bath for the already-fatty potatoes to soak in as their tops crisp up in the oven.
Be sure to pour most of the sauce into the baking dish before adding the potatoes—for our ideal texture and presentation, we want hash browns peeking out from the liquid, not soggy and mired beneath it. I also sprinkle on some old-school fried onion topping for some extra crunch and a dash of nostalgia. This cheesy, gooey, fat kid concoction totally hits the sweet spot between the best spaghetti alla Carbonara and the fast food breakfast my parents never let me have, except for that one time...in the car, in France, when I was seven.
Popeye's Buttermilk Biscuit Stuffing
It's not Thanksgiving without stuffing. At least, that's what most people say. But honestly, stuffing isn't my favorite dish on the holiday table. To make a stuffing worthy of my praise, it must be filled out with savory browned meats, studded with tender vegetables, and made from bread with enough texture to recall its original form—no mushiness here, if you please.
Since Popeye's flaky, tender biscuits are one of our all-time favorites, I knew they had excellent potential. And sure enough, once dehydrated in the oven, the biscuit-croutons stand up beautifully to the stock, cream, and egg mixture that gives this stuffing its decidedly custardy texture.
We also opted to beef up (actually, pork up) the recipe with sweet Italian sausage, cooking our vegetables—onion, celery, carrots, and fennel—in the meaty rendered fat. These additions can be left out or adjusted according to preference, but the seasonings of garlic, thyme, and particularly sage are essential for that classic stuffing flavor. Other than the effort of buying, cutting, and toasting the biscuits, this recipe comes together just like most stuffing assemblies—easy, moist, fluffy, savory, and delicious.
Chipotle Corn Salsa Creamed Corn
I think it must be a regional thing to have corn at Thanksgiving. Sure, Native Americans shared their knowledge of maize with the pilgrims, but corn certainly isn't in season come late November. Lucky for us, corn is always in season at Chipotle! In the form of chili, cilantro, and red onion-flecked salsa.
The obvious move was to take these flavors a little bit north of the border and translate them into a Southwestern-style Thanksgiving staple. Bacon adds a salty-smoky flavor to the final product, plus enough grease to soften a handful of chopped red onion and a healthy dose of garlic. Depending on your tolerance for spice, a pinch of cayenne or even some chopped jalapeño contributes a bold kick to the dish. Once the aromatics have softened, the corn joins the party along with our finishing elements: sour cream for tang and, of course, a hefty pour of heavy cream. The only effort required for this recipe is time—be patient and reduce the cream over low heat so neither the corn nor dairy overcooks.
To finish the dish, just remove it from the heat, add chopped bacon, a touch of lime zest and juice, and a final flourish of cilantro or scallions to cut through the creamy, fatty sauce. Olé!
Domino's CinnaStix Apple Crisp
The combination of apples and cinnamon is a classic for a reason. It delivers the comforting warmth of toasty autumnal spices and the hearty sweetness of still-tart apples. To fast foodify dessert, we turned to Domino's CinnaStix: a bready, pizza dough byproduct topped with cinnamon and sugar and accompanied by a small well of sticky-sweet icing for optimal dunkage. Then, it just took some tinkering with Max's apple crisp recipe to balance the sweetness of a CinnaStix topping with a base of tart, boozy apples.
For this rendition, rich turbinado sugar is combined with flour, butter, spices, and chopped CinnaStix with their icing, while apples marinate in cornstarch for viscosity, and brown booze. Scotch provides a nice, smoky contrast to the profound sweetness of seasonal apples and commercial high fructose corn syrup, but we tried it out with bourbon as well, and it was similarly superb (rum or rye would be great options too). And the otherwise gluey icing actually helps the topping come together and form a solid crust on the apples.
I bake the whole mess together until the topping is browned and beginning to harden. The CinnaStix crisp up into sweet croutons that provide a perfect contrast to the luscious, almost caramelized apples beneath. This may not be the traditional Thanksgiving apple crisp you've put up in years past, but it will certainly be a conversation piece—how on earth did you get marvelously crispy topping on those perfectly cooked apples?? Just think twice before revealing your secret ingredient...