Vancouver chefs talk turkey in advance of Christmas dinner

They have plenty of ideas on how to save time and conquer stress while preparing that monumental holiday meal

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      When it comes to cooking a traditional Christmas turkey dinner, home cooks and professional chefs will have all the usual culinary tools on hand: chopping board, meat thermometer, kitchen string, baster, and carving knife. For Ryan McDonald, though, the one utensil he cannot do without is a melon baller.

      The executive chef of Urban Fare uses the gadget to make his mom’s “golf-ball potatoes”, a recipe that has become a family mainstay and annual holiday hit.

      “You peel russet potatoes, then take a melon baller to make little balls,” McDonald says in an interview at the store’s Alberni Street location. “Keep the rest for mashed potatoes, and cook them with the turkey and the drippings; add them in about halfway through. They take on the flavour of the turkey, and they get crispy on the bottom. When you take the turkey out and let it rest, turn the oven up to 425, baste the potatoes with the drippings, and crisp them up some more. Everyone who tries them loves them.”

      McDonald, who was born in Toronto and grew up in Surrey, was in elementary school when he began helping his mom in the kitchen. (His mother, a cancer survivor, is “an amazing cook”, he says.) By 15, he was working at McDonald’s; he loved the fast pace and public interaction. Not long after, he got a job as sauté cook at the White Rock Boathouse. That led to his first head-chef title at the chain’s Horseshoe Bay location. McDonald worked there for four years before joining Urban Fare a decade ago.

      McDonald loves the creativity involved in his work and the access he has to all sorts of ingredients, from quail eggs and truffle oil to Australian wagyu and prosciutto di Parma. Yet although he loves experimenting with food, the Christmas dinner he makes for his family’s gathering of about 20 people is centred on the flavours he grew up with, including those golf-ball potatoes.

      “It’s traditional, turkey, ham, all the fixings: roasted root vegetables, garlic mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Baileys and coffee, and mulled wine,” he says. “I still use my mom’s stuffing recipe. I will never change it. It’s so simple: ground sausage, garlic, sage, salt, pepper, bread crumbs, and fresh parsley.”

      Along with several other Vancouver chefs, McDonald shares other tips for a successful, delicious holiday meal.

      For starters, he’s a firm believer in brining the bird. It’s a simple step that he highly recommends for people who may find cooking a turkey intimidating. “If you screw up your turkey on a regular basis, try brining,” he says. “It’s a little more forgiving. It’s going to retain water….You don’t want to overbrine; it takes on a terrible texture if you do.” He soaks the bird in the saltwater solution overnight; he says never to brine longer than 24 hours.

      The next secret to a mouthwatering meal, according to McDonald, is probably no secret at all: butter. After he rinses the bird, McDonald whips butter and fresh herbs like sage, thyme, and oregano in a food processor along with salt and pepper. Then he takes that herb butter and rubs it under the skin.

      “The butter is going to get into the breasts and crisp up the skin; it keeps that breast flavourful and drips down into the bottom of the pan, so the basting fluid is better, with all the turkey fat and herbs,” he says. “It’s like heaven.”

      He roasts garlic for the mashed potatoes and adds in salt, pepper, heavy cream, and… butter. Yams, turnips, carrots, and red onion get roasted too, with thyme, rosemary, brown sugar, and olive or truffle oil. McDonald also loves carrot-and-turnip mash: “You boil the two together, then mash it all up and top with butter and brown sugar,” he says. “My mom told me it was cake when we were kids. It kinda stuck.”

      McDonald cuts Brussels sprouts in half, blanches them, and pan-fries them with bacon, adding a squeeze of lemon juice afterward; some people throw in walnuts. He reduces the turkey drippings with red wine for gravy, skipping the flour, as he prefers a looser sauce.

      On top of all that, he makes a bone-in ham as well; this year he’s trying a pineapple-rum glaze.

      His ideal dessert selections include banana-cream pie and mincemeat tarts; this Christmas, he’s bringing home a salted-caramel cheesecake from Small Victory. (Urban Fare carries products from the Homer Street bakery.) Then there are butter tarts: “My mom still has to make those, because I can’t do them like she does.”

      McDonald's most important piece of advice is to prepare and plan ahead. Don’t leave grocery shopping to the last minute, when items such as fresh sage may be sold-out. Do as much prep as you can the day before so that Christmas Day isn’t so overwhelming.

      “The day before, I’m having a glass of wine, watching Christmas shows, and I’m prepping. I wake up in the morning and I’m ready to go. And tell everyone they’re not allowed in the kitchen until you’re done. When there’s people in the kitchen opening ovens, and looking at stuff, that’s what stresses me out.”

      Joey executive chef Chris Mills says one of his secrets is cooking certain items earlier and then reheating them.

      Keeping the tension from rising in the kitchen is possibly the most important goal of all in preparing Christmas dinner, according to Joey executive chef Chris Mills. He suggests cooking the turkey, along with the rest of the dinner, earlier than you might think.

      “Learn how to reheat the items or keep them hot,” Mills says. “That’s a chef secret. Years of large-party planning and banquet-catering experience have taught me that in order to remove stress and make tastier food, you need to precook and become an expert at keeping it warm. Add the additional heat last-minute to make things piping hot. You’ll then have more time to adjust seasoning, make pretty plates, and, most importantly, enjoy a glass of wine with your loved ones when you would normally be a cooking stress ball.”

      Au Comptoir chef Daniel McGee grew up vegetarian, so his family’s Christmas dinner consisted of veggie versions “of every side dish you can imagine”. “Vegetable pot pie is the centrepiece of our holiday dinners, served with miso gravy from the Naam,” he says; potato gratin is another favourite.

      However, he has a suggestion for traditionalists who eat meat.

      “I’d highly recommend deboning your turkey,” McGee says. “You can ask your butcher to do this or do it yourself if you’re skilled with a knife. Deboning the turkey will allow you to cook the breast and legs at different times and temperatures. This really speeds up cooking and makes carving so much easier. You can even prepare a stock using the leftover bones in advance to use for your gravy.”

      Café Medina chef Adam Perrier says deboning the bird will reduce the amount of time it takes to cook.

      Café Medina chef Adam Perrier, who remembers having traditional Christmases at his grandma’s growing up, is also a fan of deboning, as he says it cuts cooking time in half.
      “After deboning,” he says, “I like to stuff the turkey with a mix of prosciutto and spinach, put butter under the skin, and tie the turkey together like a roast before putting it in the oven,” he says.

      “Stick to what you know,” Perrier adds, “and keep a bottle of Baileys and a bottle of whiskey on hand.”

      Two Rivers Specialty Meats co-owner Jason Pleym likes making confit turkey thighs at Christmas.

      Jason Pleym, co-owner along with his wife, Margot, of Two Rivers Specialty Meats, has another way of dealing with the turkey: if the breast meat is cooked but the legs aren’t, he’ll simply remove the latter and put them back in the oven on a cookie sheet. This also frees up the oven for side dishes, and it’s easy to put the turkey back in if it needs a quick flash of heat.

      The pièce de résistance, though, is his confit turkey thighs, which he began making for Thanksgiving a few years ago. “It’s done in the identical way as duck confit,” Pleym says. “They need to be somewhat cured to build some flavour profile up; that’s an 18- to 24- hour process. I take a mixture of whatever herbs I like; I would typically go traditional, but last year I did it with fruit to make it sweet and savoury. I took three different lemons for zest and a bunch of garlic, thyme, sage, and salt and rubbed it all over the thighs. It all sits in a tub overnight.”

      The next day, he rinses the thighs off and has his duck fat ready to go. “Then I just slip them under the fat and into the oven for a few hours,” he says. “I’ll crisp them up, pull all the meat, so you have a platter of confit turkey meat. It’s just incredible.”

      And gravy is essential: “In [my wife’s] family, they call it vitamin G, they love it so much.”

      Railtown Catering co-owner and chef Dan Olson advocates cooking stuffing separately.

      Dan Olson, co-owner and chef of Railtown Catering, recommends cooking your stuffing separately rather than in the turkey cavity. “Not only is this a safer option, but the unstuffed bird will cook faster and more evenly,” Olson says.

      “I try to use seasonal veggies as much as possible when preparing a big family dinner during the holidays: roasted Brussels sprouts with toasted almonds, buttered baby carrots, and maple-glazed sweet potatoes are a few of my favourites,” he adds. “I always make my own cranberry sauce. I infuse mine with fresh ginger, oranges, and natural wildflower honey. It’s a much healthier alternative to the store-bought sauce that includes refined sugars and syrups.”

      That store-bought cranberry sauce is something that Lazy Gourmet executive chef Jenny Hui remembers from one of her family dinners many years ago. Although they would have turkey, most of the dishes were Chinese. One year, her aunt decided to try adding cranberry sauce: “All I can remember was this jellylike substance that was shaped like the can,” she says with a laugh.

      These days, she loves serving stuffing and caramelized yams as sides, and desserts take a starring role too: three-layer chocolate mousse, lemon mousse, butter tarts, and cream puffs (“Kids love these,” she says of the last one).

      Hui has a few time- and stress-saving tips to share.

      “I rent dishes, glassware, and utensils so I won’t need to worry about the cleanup,” she says. “Sometimes there isn’t enough oven space, so I would use the BBQ or rent a convection oven.

      “Pick out your serving dish the night before and set it aside. Don’t worry if dinner won’t be on time and make sure to have a glass or two of wine while cooking.”

      The owner of Truffles Fine Foods, Nin Rai, says there's always enough food for everyone—and recognizing this can reduce the chef's anxiety.
      Allison Kuhl

      Nin Rai, owner and chef of Truffles Fine Foods, suggests writing things down.

      “I always like to start about six hours before the actual dinner with a glass of rum and eggnog as I lay out my menu and prep list. My favourite sides are roasted yams, Brussels sprouts with bacon and Parmesan, cheese-creamed corn, cranberry sauce, turkey gravy, and, of course, buttery, whipped mashed potatoes. Famous French chef Joël Robuchon has one of the best mashed-potato recipes.

      “Try not to overstress by trying to do too much,” he adds. “Trust me, there’s always enough food for everyone.”

      H2's Caitlin Mark advocates delegating tasks to different people to reduce the stress that's related to preparing Christmas dinner.

      Talk of prepping Christmas dinners seems to always touch on the subject of stress. Caitlin Mark, restaurant chef of H2 Rotisserie and Bar at the Westin Bayshore (whose favourite side dish is mashed rutabaga with butter and maple syrup, with dessert being a classic southern-style pecan pie), suggests following this mantra: divide and conquer.

      “Organize who is in charge of what items,” Mark says. “My parents would always split the cooking, while I would set the table and prepare the salad. My sister would be assigned table-clearing and dessert setup, making it a true family affair. Currently, potluck dinners are my go-to. My friends each bring a variety of side dishes, while I am responsible for the main. This gives us the opportunity to have a dinner in keeping with the spirit of the holidays while keeping it stress-free.

      “For me, the best meals have always been cooked with joy and positive energy,” she adds. “The more I can feel the spirit of the holidays, the better executed my meals will always be, and the more my guests will enjoy their night.”