Thanksgiving dinner is loved by many, hated by some, feared by vegans, and approached by amateur chefs everywhere with some mixture of all of the above. Preparing an iconic feast is daunting, but some area pros have stepped up to demystify Turkey Day.
The Perfect Bird
The secret to the perfect turkey? In a word: Brine. Or soaking the bird overnight in a mixture of salt, water, sugar, and herbs in order to give it some flavor and — as Arlington Tavern chef Ron True points out — bank a little antibacterial benefit. Duo Catering’s Ashley Transki shares his recipe: one gallon water, one cup sugar, one cup salt, peppercorns, thyme, sage, three cups vinegar. “Use anything, cider, distilled, but stay away from the darker ones. You wouldn’t want to cut into a purple turkey.”
Of course, brining a big bird requires a big bucket or cooler, which won’t fit in a typical fridge. The pros’ fix? “This time of year, at night, it’s usually cold enough to just put the turkey in a bucket and put it in the garage,” Avery Hardin, chef of Arts & Letters Café, says. (While he’s tried brining his bird overnight in the bathtub, “I wouldn’t recommend that.”) If we’re having another heat wave, replace one gallon of water with eight pounds of ice.
Transki recommends stuffing it with fresh or preserved citrus, herbs, a couple of halved heads of garlic, and — drum roll — a pound of butter, and adding a couple of cups of stock to the pan.
When it comes to cooking a whole bird, you won’t find these guys setting their alarms for o’dark:30. They agree on starting with what Hardin calls “a ripping hot oven,” 450 degrees, for 15-30 minutes, depending on your oven. Once it’s started to brown, cover the breast in foil — called the “turkey triangle” — to keep it from drying out, and drop it down to 300 for about three hours, depending on the size of the bird.
Or, if you’re not tied to presenting the perfect bird on a platter to the oohs and ahs of an adoring crowd, consider the advice echoed by True and bouchon’s Greg Murphy: “Cut up the bird; cook parts differently,” Murphy says. “White and dark meat cook at different rates; why cook them together?” Um, Hallmark said so?
Stuff Happens (to Everyone)
“The first Thanksgiving I cooked for my parents, right out of culinary school, my dad got this huge, frozen prime rib; we thawed it for two days — and the thing just didn’t want to cook. My thermometer wouldn’t even go through the middle of it. We pulled it out and cut into it, and it was like, perfect, perfect, perfect, ice block. It was a couple-hundred-dollar piece of meat, and they’d just paid for my culinary education. I wanted to cry. Another time, I got too big of a bird, and it didn’t fit in the oven … That sucked.” —Avery Hardin, chef of Arts & Letters Café
“Last year, at the in-laws … My mother-in-law and I don’t see eye to eye in the kitchen; she’s a fantastic cook but has been doing it her way for years. So I brought in a rental oven and had it in the driveway; I had this amazing heritage bird, and I go inside to pour a drink, and forget about it. I’d spent all this time brining it, doing a special rub on it, and I walked away for a half hour and came back, and it looked like I blackened the whole thing. Much to the amusement of the family… I’m going to stand by the fact that it still tasted great. My mother-in-law, who got up and got hers in at 4 a.m., had the picture-perfect bird. So maybe there’s something to say for that.” —Ashley Transki, Duo Catering
“In Mexico, my mamá would spend days hand-making the most amazing tamales. My job, with my sister, was to transport this huge pot of tamales down the street to another house where we would gather for our celebration. The roads were dirt, and we were poor. So we set out with our tamale pot to the shack at the end of the street, very excited to celebrate and eat this wonderful food. My sis and I started to joke around and began swinging the pot of handmade tamales in a circle… and one of us (I said my sister, she said me) let go, and the tamales all came flying out all over the dirt and gravel! I will never forget the look on my mamá’s face … We came together, dusted off the ones we could, and had a magical dinner and Fiesta.” —Ramon Velazquez, Cielito
Regarding Animal Fat
“For gravy, start with a little bacon fat to make the roux, then use the drippings from the turkey pan … a perfect classic to pour over everything.” —James Saio, Coast
“I like my stuffing with a little crunch to it. Incorporating a fat (bacon fat, butter, duck fat, foie gras) would help keep it moist, then I like reheating it in the oven to create texture on top.” —Greg Murphy, bouchon
“I’m a fan of cooking my turkey in pig fat, confit-style.” —Alvaro Rojas, Spare Parts Bistro, Alcazar
“I love vegans. They’re great people. But they’re so hard to cook for.” —Avery Hardin, chef of Arts & Letters Café
“Shortcuts never work. If there were a faster way to get the same results, it would just be The Way. You can taste the time, effort, and love put into every dish. I had a chef in culinary school who would say ‘Never forget the love!’” —Weston Richards, Spare Parts Bistro
“I never want to finish Thanksgiving dinner without pumpkin pie. Whether it’s from Vons or Costco, I don’t care.” —Hardin
“I never make it myself, but I’m always thrilled when someone makes the old-school green-bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and crispy onions. I’ve always thought it was fantastic, and it cracks me up.” —Transki
“Sweet potatoes hold a special place in my heart; especially when they’re loaded with sugar and marshmallows. My wife’s grandmother [from the South] makes these sugar-filled candy sweet potatoes that I not only hold dear to my heart, but also as pounds to my tummy!” —Velasquez
What Can I Bring?
Ayda Robana’s (Om Sweet Mama) family recipe for Honeyed Carrots:
Sweet, garlicky, crispy carrots are a perfect foil to roasted or grilled meats or fowl.
1 tsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter
1 bunch organic, full-size carrots, washed, peeled, sliced thinly on the diagonal
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. minced fresh parsley or fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper
In a nonstick pan, heat oil and butter; add carrots. Sauté for about 6 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic, sauté for another minute, until carrots are tender but a bit crunchy. Add honey (and rosemary, if you’re using it), sauté for a few more minutes until carrots are golden. Season with salt and pepper; garnish with parsley.
Keep Calm and Gobble On
Don’t freak out! Think ahead, and, if you can, cook ahead. Failing that:
“Professional chefs rely on ‘mise en place’… French for ‘things in place.’ Having all your prep ready, everything lined up and ready to go, rather than looking for everything last second, is crucial. I wear a bracelet that reads ‘mis en place.’ It is everything to a cook.” —Richards
“A good glass of wine will help.” —Saio
“Go out to dinner!” —True
Still Stressed? Drink!
Patrick Reynolds (Farm to Bar at the Wildcat) offers this cocktail designed to pair with the traditional feast:
2 parts Sailor Jerry
TK part lime juice
TK part OJ
Cinnamon/clove/nutmeg (your choice)
TK part grilled persimmon
Muddle persimmon with simple syrup made with your choice of herb (which can also be used to make a sugared rim); add all remaining ingredients. Shake with ice or add hot water. Serve hot or cold. “I call it Persimmon to Come Aboard, because fall, to me, means coming home.”
The Morning After
“I like doing a sloppy shepherd’s pie with the turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and gravy.” —True
“Take the dark meat, even the white, and do a hash with potatoes, onions, turkey, corn, and sauté all of that until it gets crunchy and delicious, with a couple poached eggs on top.” —Hardin
“Turkey sandwiches with brie, cranberry sauce, and arugula salad.” —Murphy
Remember What It’s All About
“I really like the idea of mindful eating, especially at Thanksgiving since it’s the holiday about being grateful, for the people who grow our food, the resources it took to grow it, the people who cook it. Eat slower and savor every bite.” —Gerri French, nutritionist, registered dietician, founder S.B. Food and Farm Adventures Meetup