Creative alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving turkey

From duck and goose to beef brisket and stuffed-yam roast, local chefs are talking more than turkey

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      Turkey is the centrepiece of most Thanksgiving dining tables, but the traditional meal wasn’t something Vancouver chef Felix Zhou grew up with in his native Hunan province. The executive chef and part owner of the newly opened Heritage Asian Eatery downtown has other memories of special-occasion foods.

      “I never heard about turkey in China,” Zhou says during an interview at the West Pender Street restaurant, which draws on flavours of his home country as well as Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and beyond. “Any special occasions would be duck. It has a long history in China and is considered a luxury item in Asian cuisine.”

      For anyone seeking an alternative to the usual turkey dinner this year, Zhou suggests Peking duck. He says the golden-brown, crispy-skinned, deeply flavourful dish, which has been served since the imperial era, is easy to make at home.

      “Usually, the base is Chinese five-spice,” says Zhou, whose new dining spot serves breakfast and lunch items like pork-belly bowls and wild-mushroom crepes. “Add some salt, some sugar, and hoisin sauce and rub the inside, and slowly roast it so the fat renders out. When it’s done, shred it all, combine the juice back into meat, add a little green onion and hoisin, and that’s it.”

      He’d serve the tender duck in baos, which are Chinese steamed bread rolls, and top them with pickled daikon or maybe simply slender batons of carrots or cucumber “to add that freshness to it”.

      Add a salad of local greens with yuzu dressing and a lemongrass-coconut tapioca, and you’ve got a modern, memorable Thanksgiving meal unlike any other.

      While turkey is typically a treat made once or twice a year, served with as much starch as sentimentality, it’s also labour-intensive, with hours-long prep and a seemingly longer cleanup. Local food experts have all sorts of ideas for home cooks looking to do things differently this year.

      Top of mind for Alex Chen, executive chef at Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar, is porchetta. The Italian specialty typically calls for a whole deboned suckling pig, but easier versions consist of cuts like pork shoulder or loin. Chen suggests a mix of cuts, including pork belly, all rolled together with ingredients like fennel seeds, garlic, salt, and pepper.

      “It’s a classic,” Chen says on the line from the restaurant at the Sutton Place Hotel. “I’d bake it at 300 [° F], then, at the end, put it to 500 degrees to puff the skin so it’s bubbly and crispy and gets really crackling. It’s really popular in our household.”

      The father of two young kids would serve that aromatic main with a dish of Brussels sprouts cooked with apples and bacon lardons. “I tend to go to local market Richmond Country Farms—it has a great pumpkin patch—and get whatever is fresh,” he says. “Maybe I’d do a butternut-squash-and-potato gratin with a grated cheese garlic cream, which is a nice little touch. Sometimes when I see some beautiful kale, I’ll take some smoked ham hock from my local butcher shop and make a stock out of it.

      “I slowly braise the ham hock with large chunks of carrots, celery, and onion till fork-tender. Then you take lots of kale, pull stems out, add shallots and garlic, and braise the kale in the stock with a little butter, lemon, and a small amount of maple syrup. When the liquid is almost all gone, season with salt and pepper and fold in chunks of ham hock.

      “Sometimes I might even put a layer of bread crumb or a good Parmesan gratin on top and put it in the oven till it’s golden brown. When you cut into it, you’ve got a bit of broth, braised kale, and a little bit of crunch on top. It’s comfort. Green kale doesn’t disintegrate like spinach, and with a little bit of braising to the right amount, it’s just tender enough. When you bite into it, it’s magic.”

      Porchetta would also be a top nonturkey Thanksgiving-dinner pick for Dan Cheung, founder and CEO of Nourish Vancouver, a West Side café and cooking school geared to health- and eco-conscious foodies and families.

      Besides being a delicious main—which Cheung would roll with a herbaceous salsa verde and rub with oil and rosemary—porchetta frees up a lot of time during the day. “Once you throw it in the oven, you can kind of forget about it,” he says by phone. “If you feel it needs a bit more time, you can broil it so you get an extra few bubbles in the skin and it crisps up really nicely. Then rest it for 30 to 45 minutes.

      “People love it at room temperature as well, so it’s one of those things that can be served when everyone’s ready to sit down. It’s not that stressful thing where you’re trying to talk to people and execute at the same time. Some people might do it along with turkey. If you’ve got 30 people you can do two mains, and this is a little bit more fancy than doing a ham, because not everyone knows what porchetta is.”

      For non-meat-eaters, Cheung suggests a vegan shepherd’s pie with lentils, chickpeas, and root vegetables topped with yams—instead of the usual potatoes—for a hint of sweetness. “The kicker to it all is to throw pangrattato on top,” Cheung says, referring to a crunchy bread-crumb topping. “I learned about this in one of Jamie Oliver’s books about five years ago—he uses it on a lot of his pastas—and it changed my life.

      “It’s so easy to make; it’s bread crumbs, herbs, and garlic, and you put some dried porcini mushrooms in there and a little bit of olive oil. You get this textural difference: you have the soft sweetness of yams and then the hardiness of all the beans and root vegetables and the crispness of pangrattato on top. It’s also called poor man’s Parmesan cheese, and it just makes the biggest difference.”

      Slather that shepherd’s pie with a miso gravy, Cheung says, and “people will be singing your name for weeks to come.”

      Faizal Kassam, executive chef at West Vancouver’s Terroir Kitchen, will be serving deboned stuffed goose—“the original Thanksgiving dinner, even before turkey”—accompanied by braised red cabbage, preserved black truffles, and Brussels sprouts with pine nuts.

      “As far as sides go, instead of potatoes you could do smashed celery root or yams or carrots and parsnips,” says Kassam, whose restaurant specializes in small plates influenced by the flavours of southwestern Europe and North Africa. “Bring water to a quick boil from cold salted water, then to a simmer, and once fork-tender, strain and mash the veggies with butter and black pepper. Now that we’re well into fall, potatoes are too pedestrian. These vegetables are more flavourful and more nutritious.”

      If you’re pressed for time (or simply aren’t inclined to cook a turkey), Kassam suggests a whole roast chicken. For a simple dessert, a seasonal alternative is an apple crumble. “I’d use Granny Smith or green apples because they’re tart, and would do a brown-butter crumble instead of regular butter. The caramelization of the brown butter adds more depth of flavour.”

      At Ritual in the West End, chef-owner Nevada Cope will be serving braised lamb shoulder, a dish she says is easy to slow-roast at home. “Then you could add a festive pomegranate-walnut sauce,” she says on the line from her restaurant. “I just think that with fall, braising meats go really well. Even a slow-braised pork shoulder would be nice with root vegetables—parsnips, turnips, celeriac, butternut or acorn squash.

      “Roast them in olive oil with some whole smashed-up garlic cloves and rosemary and thyme. You could cut some citrus in half and roast that in with the veg, then when citrus is cooked, squeeze it over top. You could also do a stuffed-yam roast. Roast yam, cut it in half, and you could add bits of pecan-pie crumb.”

      Accompanying greens could consist of curly endive with shaved apple and pear. Cope will also be serving sugar pie, a traditional Québécois dessert. “It’s sweet and festive,” she says.

      Jeff MacIntosh, executive chef at Vancouver’s new authentic Texas barbecue spot, Dixie’s BBQ, says his go-to for an unconventional Thanksgiving meal is beef brisket, “best cooked low and slow”. “For home cooks, I’d recommend a slow roast or braise, perhaps,” he says from the East Hastings Street restaurant that specializes in smoked meats, pulled pork, and fried chicken (and that has a plentiful selection of whiskies).

      “Beef brisket is the breast of the cow. Smoked brisket is my personal favourite, however it’s a difficult cut of meat to master the smoking of. It’s so special and appealing to me because it’s the king of barbecue in Texas, and one of our more sought-after meats here at Dixie’s. Sides I’d recommend would be a smoked-potato pavé, sweet-potato gnocchi with brown butter and sage, Brussels sprouts with smoked bacon and lemon, and either cornbread or Yorkshire pudding.”

      Bone-in ham is a flavourful alternative to turkey, says Raman Khatar, dietitian and marketing supervisor at Urban Fare. “Make it fancy with a spiked orange glaze—bourbon pairs well—by mixing up some orange marmalade or jam with bourbon, whole-grain mustard, maple syrup or brown sugar, salt and pepper, and lemon juice,” she says.

      “A delicious vegetarian option is stuffed peppers, and using colourful peppers really amps up the feel of fall and harvest. Stuff with a spiced rice mixture with grilled veggies, and if you want to bump up the protein a bit add an aged cheddar before baking or sprinkle with a feta or goat cheese. You can also add in some lentils or beans.”

      For a pescatarian feast, Khatar suggests Ocean Wise West Coast sockeye salmon with a simple pesto topping or a balsamic-and-brown-sugar glaze. “Serve with some colourful carrots and Parmesan-roasted Brussel sprouts to keep the fall harvest theme,” she says.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.