How to do Thanksgiving the easy way

Local chefs give their tips on how to pull together a fall feast without falling over from last-minute preparation stress

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      It’s 7 o’ clock, the candles are lit, and all of your relatives have arrived. You walk into the dining room, presenting a perfectly golden turkey atop a silver platter to go along with the dozen other dishes you’ve prepared—hand-mashed potatoes, honey-glazed ham, roasted vegetables, real stuffing. The Thanksgiving dinner you’ve spent the last 12 hours toiling over is a success. Everyone’s complimenting you on your cooking skills, and even your very opinionated grandmother seems pleased. Later, once everyone is awash in their tryptophan-induced comas in the living room, you sneak into the kitchen to warm up the pumpkin pie you’ve baked from scratch—freshly roasted, puréed pumpkin included—oh, and whipped crème fraîche, of course.

      If this sounds like a fantasy, it’s because it is. It never happens—unless you’re Martha Stewart, Paula Deen, or Ina Garten. It doesn’t even happen for professional chefs, like the Oakwood Canadian Bistro’s (2741 West 4th Avenue) executive chef, Mike Robbins, because most people just don’t have that kind of time.

      “I spend all year in the kitchen, so Thanksgiving is a time for me to just relax with my family,” Robbins tells the Georgia Straight when reached by phone at his recently opened restaurant. “My brother is a chef, and it’s always on him. He’s my older brother. We have turducken every year. He’s the master.”

      While Robbins doesn’t advise that someone short on time—or butchering skills—attempt to make the turkey-duck-chicken monstrosity from scratch, roasting a regular turkey can be simple, stress-free, and relatively foolproof.

      “Put the turkey in [the oven] first thing in the morning, at like 7 [a.m.], so it’s done by 3 or 4 [p.m.] for dinner, pre-carving it and maybe soaking the white meat in gravy, and then having the dark meat separate,” Robbins suggests. “So when you reheat it, it’s ready to go, and you’re not carving into any 7 o’clock mistakes that you’re not aware of.”

      If you’re really short on time, Robbins says deep-frying a bird only takes about 45 minutes; however, he doesn’t recommend trying this without an outdoor cooking space—or a fire extinguisher.

      “The reason why you see so many houses exploding is because they’re dropping frozen turkey into boiling oil, which is a pretty obvious mistake,” he says. “What you really want to do if you’re deep-frying a turkey is salt it, cure it, and pull all the moisture first, so when you drop it into oil, you’re dropping it into something a bit safer.”

      Andrea Carlson, who has been the executive chef at Bishop’s restaurant (2183 West 4th Avenue) for four years, is convinced that a Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to include a turkey at all.

      “One thing they could do to make their life easier is to avoid the turkey altogether,” she says on the phone with the Straight. “A turkey takes a huge amount of time.”

      Carlson says her mother usually makes the family’s Thanksgiving dinner, but when the chef, who’d rather spend her Sunday mornings browsing the Kitsilano farmers market than prepping a roast, is in charge, she usually makes ham.

      “I tend to get a ham from Oyama [Sausage Co. (17–1689 Johnston Street)]—the Swedish ham, because it’s super easy and I tend to be super last-minute by nature,” she says of the brined ham. “You don’t have to do anything to it. You just throw it in the oven and that’s it. It just takes a few hours, so it’s super simple. With turkey you have to do the stuffing and all that stuff, which you have to commit a day to.”

      When it comes to making side dishes, both Carlson and Robbins prefer to stick to the classics, but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring.

      Carlson suggests buying new potatoes, such as fingerlings, which have a soft, thin skin, for easy mashed potatoes.

      “You don’t need to peel them—just make sure they’re scrubbed, add lots of butter, lots of cream, and if you’re so inclined, throw in some nice sharp cheese, like an aged Cheddar or Parmesan, something like that to make it tangy,” she says.

      Meanwhile, Robbins recommends a quick and tasty recipe for Brussels sprouts he picked up while working for the Glowbal Group of restaurants for five years.

      “Put the Brussels sprouts in a mixing bowl with lemon juice and a cheese—Parmesan, for example—and pepper and a fresh herb, like parsley or chives. Then, get a decent amount of olive oil in a pan and really crisp up the Brussels sprouts,” he says. “The acidity in the lemon juice and the cheese play off each other well and take away from that classic Brussels-sprout taste that nobody likes.”

      While Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes show up on almost every Thanksgiving table, Jonathan Chovancek, chef and co-owner of Kale & Nori Culinary Arts, a veggie-minded catering company that started in June, hopes that people will think outside the box.

      “People at Thanksgiving usually think about yams and root vegetables and Brussels sprouts, but there’s so much more going on right now,” he says by phone. “Just the way the weather has been this year, summer is lasting right through to October, so we’re still seeing tons of peppers and amazing varieties of carrots and beans.”

      Chovancek suggests a raw vegetable salad, which can be prepared ahead of time and topped with dressing right before serving, as a lighter, easy-to-make side dish.

      “Take beans, radishes, and beautiful sweet hot peppers that are out right now, shave them and cut them super thin, and then toss them with a light citrus vinaigrette, before mixing that with a grain, like red or black quinoa, to create a complex salad,” he says. “You can get it done in the morning, put it in the fridge, and just pull it together at the last minute. So when you are doing things like focusing on carving the turkey or making sure that your dad’s got the drumstick, you can have some things that are done ahead of time. Vegetables are great for that.”

      If there is a vegetarian at your table, Chovancek recommends making a simple baked gratin with chanterelles, hazelnuts, caramelized apples, kale, and quinoa, topped with Piave cheese.

      “I’d sauté the chanterelles with a little bit of shallots and garlic, and hit it with a little bit of sherry. Then separately, have your raw kale chopped up, add that, and your precooked quinoa, so you fold all that in together nice and loose and put it into a casserole. Top it with the grated cheese, throw it in the oven for an hour, and then leave it on the counter. It would be beautiful with thyme, with sage and rosemary. Finish it off with a little squeeze of lemon juice over the top,” Chovancek instructs. “By mixing, you’ve got proteins from the nuts and proteins from the quinoa mixed with the kale, so you’re providing an entrée-type dish in the form of a side.”

      Chovancek says that whatever you decide to make for Thanksgiving dinner, keeping the number of dishes to a minimum will make your life easier.

      “There’s just way too much to juggle for the home cook, and between the gravy and the four other sauces that they need for their proteins, and three starches, and four vegetable dishes, and salad, and two desserts, it’s just a mountain of food,” he says. “Focus on one principal protein, whatever that’s going to be—if it’s a turkey, if it’s a beautiful pink salmon, just whatever it is, focus on that. Then keep the sides simple, keep it to two or three. Have one beautiful starch, and a little dessert that’s light on the sugar.”



      M. MacNeill

      Oct 6, 2011 at 11:09am

      We host friends and family for Turkey dinner three times a year and worked out a pot=luck protocol that means no one works too hard. Everyone brings their party dish, we provide turkey, stuffing, gravy and a place to eat. I can understand chef's not wanting to spend any more time in the kitchen than necessary but most people only cook for a crowd, at most a couple times in a year or never.