.The Chef’s Holiday Table

James Syhabout, Kim Alter, and other top East Bay chefs talk turkey, tradition, and putting together a holiday feast to remember.

When I was a kid, Thanksgiving seemed like an effortless affair. I’d wake up late, spend the day puttering around, and by the time the first dinner guest arrived, like magic (i.e., thanks to my mother) the table would be piled high with food: stuffing, mashed potatoes, a big ol’ turkey — all the American staples — but also Chinese sticky rice, steamed fish, and “mock chicken” made with yuba sheets.

The holiday looks a little different when you’re the one tasked with preparing the meal. Over the years, I’ve served my share of overcooked birds and, on several occasions, planned a more elaborate meal than my modest cooking skills could handle. Any holiday that revolves around unapologetic gluttony will always rank among my favorite days of the year, but for the host, it can be one of the most stressful as well.

This year I sought guidance from some of the best chefs in the East Bay — folks who crank out large quantities of delicious food on the regular. I wondered, what secrets do they possess? What do chefs cook when celebrating Thanksgiving at home with their families? And which of their treasured holidays recipes would be feasible for me, a lowly home cook, to add to my repertoire?

Rest assured, then: Whether you want to make sure this year’s turkey comes out perfectly juicy or you’re getting an early start on planning that over-the-top Christmas or Hanukkah feast, our experts have got you covered.

A Game Plan

Any chef worth his or her salt will tell you that one of the keys to running a successful restaurant kitchen is organization. That’s the first thing Elizabeth Sassen, the chef and co-owner, along with her husband Fred Sassen, at Piedmont Avenue’s Homestead, teaches her line cooks — to plan ahead and make sure their prep lists are squared away so that they know exactly what task needs to be completed at any point in time.

When you’re cooking a big holiday meal, prior planning is the only thing that’s going to keep you from “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” Sassen said. For Thanksgiving, she writes a menu at least a week in advance, maps out a detailed plan of attack on the calendar (since many dishes can be cooked several days ahead of time), and does the bulk of her grocery shopping early — preferably right when the store opens, so she doesn’t have to fight the crowds.

An organized game plan also means you’ll be able to put together a more ambitious, thoughtful meal. For instance, if you want to brine your turkey (or other large hunk of meat) — as detailed below — you’ll need to start the process at least a day or two before the meal.

Early planning allowed Kim Alter, the chef at Uptown Oakland’s Plum, to put together one of the most memorable Thanksgivings of her early twenties. At the time, she was living in San Francisco, which she describes as an “orphan city” — a place where a lot of the people had moved far away from their respective homes and families. As a young restaurant cook, Alter loved hosting friends who were “orphans,” and one year she called all of her guests and asked what Thanksgiving dish had the most sentimental meaning to them. She made a version of each guest’s sentimental favorite, and that night, amid many bottles of good wine, everyone shared the story behind their dish.

“Whether the food came out good or not, it was the thought that mattered,” Alter recalled.

Alas, if you’re browsing the Internet (or flipping through your local alt weekly) in search of Thanksgiving recipes at this late stage of the game, congratulations — you’ve mastered the art of procrastination, and it may be too late to make more than a few minor tweaks to your menu. Still, often those small details can be the difference between a middling holiday dinner and one that’s truly great.

Turkey Talk

For many Americans, the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table (and, often, for Hanukkah and Christmas feasts as well) is a roasted turkey, which is perhaps a curious tradition given how dull the dish can be when it isn’t prepared well.

When it comes to roasting turkey, there are generally two schools of thought — those who brine (i.e., immerse the bird in a saltwater solution before cooking) and those who don’t. Most of the chefs I spoke to fell in the pro-brining camp, although the contents of their brining solutions varied. James Syhabout, chef-owner of Commis and owner of Hawker Fare and Box and Bells, favors a brine infused with the flavors of Southeast Asia (fish sauce, crushed ginger, and star anise), whereas Marrow’s Jon Kosorek uses a slightly more traditional Western formula (brown sugar, cinnamon sticks, and allspice). Whatever the exact specifications of the brining liquid, the principle is the same: Brining helps keep the turkey juicy and allows the seasoning to penetrate into the meat more evenly.

As for the actual roasting of the bird, our experts differed in their approaches. Syhabout likes to cook his turkey in a blistering hot oven for half an hour, after which he lowers the temperature for the remainder of the roasting time; Sassen does the opposite — she cranks up the heat at the very end to get the turkey’s skin to crisp up. Kosorek, on the other hand, advocates a “low and slow” approach: He’ll put the turkey in a 225-degree oven first thing in the morning and allow it to cook for the better part of the day.

Whichever approach you take, invest in an oven probe — which costs as little as $20 — and pull the turkey out of the oven when the thermometer hits 5 to 10 degrees below your target temperature. (The bigger the bird, the more residual heat retention there will be.)

Several of the chefs interviewed, including Syhabout, admitted that they’ve never actually cared much for turkey — at least not when it’s served the traditional American way. Syhabout recalled that when he was growing up in Oakland, Thanksgiving was always a big potluck where most of the foods were Asian — winter melon soup, steamed rice, assorted curries and chili pastes, rice vermicelli, green leaf lettuce, and fresh herbs. There was always a roast turkey, too, but instead of eating it with stuffing and gravy, everyone would spoon the various curry sauces onto the meat and build their own little Thai-style lettuce wraps.

“Of course the most prized part of the turkey is the bones,” Syhabout said, explaining that he’ll use the bones and all of the leftover scraps of meat to make a really good jook (or rice congee) the following day.

All About the Sides

“I’m a side-dish girl,” Alter said. So, when it comes to Thanksgiving, Alter, too, has never had much interest in turkey. Instead, she loves deviled eggs and green beans and all different kinds of casseroles — those are the parts of a holiday menu she gets most excited about.

This year, Alter is attending a Thanksgiving potluck hosted by the vegetarian pastry chef Bill Corbett, and so she plans to make a vegan version of a bagna càuda — an Italian hot vegetable dipping sauce. She’ll use miso instead of anchovies (the traditional base for the sauce), and she’ll serve the bagna càuda with a mix of raw and charred brassicas — cauliflower, broccoli, romanesco, and the like. It’s the perfect dish to serve for the kind of Thanksgiving meal Alter said she enjoys the most — everyone hanging out in the kitchen, snacking and drinking wine all day.

Sassen passed along a recipe for duck scrapple, a dish she’s served at Homestead. It’s a cheffy twist on a rural Pennsylvania staple that is traditionally made by slowly simmering assorted pork scraps and innards, which then get molded into a loaf, cut into slices, and fried. Homestead’s version uses somewhat-harder-to-procure duck organs, but Sassen said you can easily substitute the innards that come bagged up inside the cavity of your Thanksgiving turkey. Once fried, Sassen said, the dish reminds her of nothing more than “crispy gravy” — a perfect accompaniment to turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.

Speaking of mashed potatoes, I’d be remiss not to pass along one of Kosorek’s favorite tricks: In addition to a generous amount of milk, cream, and butter, he adds some freshly grated nutmeg and a squeeze of lemon juice — not so much that you’d taste either ingredient, but enough to help bring out the natural flavor of the potatoes.

A Note on Tradition

Interestingly enough, none of the chefs interviewed have cooked a strictly “traditional” holiday meal in years. Sassen said that as much as she loves a traditional Thanksgiving meal, the past several years she and her husband have always hosted Thanksgiving dinners with a specific culinary theme — last year it was all Indian food. Alter said that most years she’ll serve the traditional side dishes, but instead of turkey she’ll do a big crab and lobster boil.

On the other hand, Sarah Kirnon, chef-owner of Miss Ollie’s, does cook all the traditional holiday foods — but the foods traditional to Barbados, where she grew up, rather than the United States. For Christmas, she’ll often roast a pig for her neighborhood, and she’ll make jug jug, a dish — often likened to Scottish haggis — that’s made mostly of pigeon peas and cornmeal.

As it turns out, the closest Bajan equivalent to Thanksgiving is Independence Day, November 30. For that holiday, the traditional dish is a kind of steamed dessert called a conkie, which Kirnon likened to a sweet tamale. To make the filling, you take giraumons (a pumpkin native to the Caribbean) and sweet potatoes and grate them using a special grater that has extraordinarily tiny holes.

“You’re grating all day,” Kirnon said. “You make them and you gift them.”

Perhaps Syhabout, who himself eschews the constraints of the traditional American holiday table, summed it up best: “Cook what you want to eat. The status quo says to cook turkey, pie, and stuff like that,” he said. “But if you’re not into turkey, you don’t have to cook turkey.”

It’s worth noting, too, that holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are among the few days in the entire year that a professional chef doesn’t have to cook. When I spoke to Syhabout, he said that no one in his extended family had signed up to host this year’s Thanksgiving feast yet, and he wasn’t planning on volunteering.

“I might bake some cookies,” he said.

BYO Roast Turkey Lettuce Wraps at the Syhabout Household
Serves ten-twelve

one 14-16-lb. turkey, brined and roasted (recipe online)
pineapple dressing (recipe below)
red leaf lettuce (or butter lettuce if you want to get fancy)
rice vermicelli noodles
fried shallots
julienned cucumber
rau ram (Vietnamese coriander)
whole Thai chilis (for the brave)
sliced shallots
mung bean sprouts
dried shrimp (for “surf and turf”)

1. Use the ingredients to build your own wrap to your liking in the lettuce leaf. Spoon on sauce and stuff yourself silly.
2. Chase with a cold beer.

Spicy, Sweet, and Sour Pineapple Dressing

1 cup garlic, chopped
1/4 cup Thai chilis, chopped
1 cup lime juice
1 cup lemon juice
1 1/2 cups fish sauce
2 cups palm sugar
2 cups pineapple chunks, fresh or canned
salt to taste

1. Chop Thai chilis and garlic and set aside.
2. Combine all the citrus juice, sugar, fish sauce, and pineapple and blend in a blender until smooth.
3. Add the chopped garlic and chilis and stir well. Reserve.

Jon Kosorek’s Pork and Poultry Brine

1.5 gallons cold water
1 cup light brown (golden brown) sugar
1.5 cups kosher salt
2 cinnamon sticks
1/8 cup fennel seeds
1/8 cup coriander seeds
1/8 cup allspice berries

1. Add all dry ingredients to a pot and add 1/4 of the water, stirring well. Cook over medium heat until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat and add the remaining cold water to chill the mixture.
2. To brine your meat, you should use a container that’s taller than it is wide so that the meat will be fully covered by the brine. Larger pieces such as whole turkeys and pork roasts may need 48 hours in brine. Smaller pieces such as pork chops and whole or split chickens should be removed from the brine within 24 hours.

James Syhabout’s Thai-Style Roast Turkey

one 14-16 pound turkey, thawed and innards removed

1 gallon water
1 cup salt
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 cup brown sugar
1 TB. black peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp. white peppercorns
1/2 cup ginger, crushed
3 TB, coriander seeds
2 heads garlic, split
1/2 onion sliced
5 star anises
3 cinnamon sticks
1 bunch fresh cilantro
3 bay leaves, dried
1 gallon heavily iced water
canola oil

1. Combine the water, salt, herbs, spices, and other dry ingredients in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.
2. Combine the brine and iced water in a five-gallon bucket. Place the thawed turkey breast side down in the brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully covered, and refrigerate or set in cool area for twelve to sixteen hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the bird from brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Strain the brine and put all the spices and herbs from the brine inside the cavity and tie the legs together with a piece of twine.
4. Place the bird on roasting rack inside a half sheet pan and pat dry with paper towels. Tuck the wings underneath the bird and coat the skin liberally with canola oil.
5. Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. Then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. A fourteen- to sixteen-pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting at the lower temperature. Baste the turkey with the pan drippings every twenty minutes. Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil or a large mixing bowl, for fifteen minutes before carving.
6. Carve or chop the turkey “Chinatown style” and place onto a large platter. Ladle all the drippings over the meat.
7. Reserve any scraps, bones, and juices for rice congee.

The Aftermath Rice Congee

reserved turkey trim and leftovers
jasmine rice

Garnishes and Seasoning:
sliced scallions
chopped cilantro
fish sauce
garlic oil
ground white pepper
mustard pickles
fried Chinese donuts
pickled Thai chilis
chopped Chinese celery

1. Combine reserved turkey, water, and rice in a stockpot and cook until the rice is broken and the broth is thickened with the natural rice starch. Enjoy.

Homestead’s Duck Scrapple
Makes about twelve portions

If the duck ingredients below are unavailable, use a similar quantity of chicken livers and a pound of slow-cooked and shredded/chopped pork shoulder or chicken thighs.

11 cups water
2 cups polenta
1 cup buckwheat flour
6-10 duck gizzards
3-5 duck hearts
3-5 duck livers
2 cups duck fat (or bacon fat)
4 sprigs thyme
salt to taste
rice flour for dusting
neutral oil for frying

Day One:

1. Rinse the gizzards and hearts well, season with salt, place in an ovenproof dish and cover with duck fat. Place in 325-degree oven and confit until tender, about two hours. Let cool in fat.
2. Clean through livers, pulling any large veins out. Soak in water overnight.

Day Two:

1. Drain livers and soak one more time while preparing other items.
2. Grease a half sheet tray (with lip) or two large casserole dishes and set aside.
3. In a large non-reactive pot bring water to a boil, season with salt. Once boiling, whisk in polenta and buckwheat flour. Once mixture begins to thicken switch to a wooden spoon, stirring frequently to avoid sticking to bottom.
4. While polenta mixture is cooking, remove gizzards and hearts from the fat; reserve fat for another use. Roughly chop the gizzards and hearts.
5. Pick thyme from stem and chop.
6. Heat a large sauté pan; add a few teaspoons of duck fat. Heat to just smoking. Add drained livers in a single layer, season with salt. Sauté the livers, flipping once or twice, until they are browned and cooked to medium. Let cool, then chop.
7. Once polenta mixture is cooked all the way (once it’s soft and no grit is left) add all the duck and thyme. Stir well. Taste and adjust salt. Pour into prepared sheet tray.
8. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap and let chill overnight.

Day Three:

1. Slice scrapple into portions, coat with a layer of rice flour, tapping off excess.
2. Heat a 1/2-inch-deep layer of neutral oil in a cast iron skillet to 350 degrees. (If not using a thermometer, heat oil, then test by dipping a corner of the scrapple in the oil. If it sizzles and bubbles it is hot enough.)
3. Drop scrapple slices into hot oil, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. (There should be a little space between them.) Let them fry until golden brown and crispy on one side, then carefully flip, using a metal spatula.
4. Cook second side until crispy and golden brown. Remove from pan onto a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Season with salt while the scrapple is still hot.
5. Serve straight away!

Kim Alter’s Brassicas with Miso Bagna Cauda Cauliflower Purée

Preserved Lemon Vin:
1/4 cup minced preserved lemon (available at Whole Foods)
2 TB. lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1 TB. banyuls vinegar
1 shallot, minced
1 TB. aleppo pepper
2 tablespoons blend oil (two parts olive oil, one part rice oil)
Mix ingredients together and season to your liking.

Charred Cauliflower:

One head of cauliflower

1. Cut the cauliflower into similarly shaped pieces (so everything cooks evenly).
2. Add a little olive oil to a hot pan. Once the oil is hot, add the cauliflower to the pan in one layer. You don’t want it to steam; you want it to char/caramelize/get color.
3. Once the cauliflower is cooked, allow it to cool, then chop it fine — like a “couscous” size. Set aside.

Charred Brassicas:

1. Cut brassicas (a mix of cauliflower, broccoli, and romanesco, etc.) into medium-size pieces.
2. Char in a hot pan with a little bit of oil (as for the charred cauliflower above), or place on a sheet pan and roast in a 350-degree oven until the vegetables are nicely caramelized.

Cauliflower Purée:

4 shallots, julienned
1 quart of sliced cauliflower (from about half a head)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. miso

1. Sweat the shallots in olive oil over medium heat until tender (but not browned).
2. Add the cauliflower and a splash of water and cook down until tender, again trying to not get any color. Finish with the cream.
3. Blend for a while and pass the mixture through a chinois (strainer).
4. Add white miso and season to taste.

Miso Bagna Cauda:

1 pound of butter
1 cup of microplaned garlic
2 TB. miso
zest of 1 lemon
1 TB. lemon juice

1. Cook the garlic in the butter until tender, trying not to brown the garlic.
2. Combine in blender with remaining ingredients and season to taste.

To Finish:

1. Mix the cauliflower purée with charred cauliflower couscous; smear this mixture on the bottom of the plate.
2. Toss the charred brassicas with the miso bagna cauda and add to the plate.
3. Top the dish with raw brassica leaves, stems, and flowers tossed in the preserved lemon vinaigrette.
4. Fry some of the brassica leaves and sprinkle on top as a garnish.

Sarah Kirnon’s Bajan Conkies

3/4 lb. finely grated giraumon (a pumpkin indigenous to the Caribbean) or butternut squash
1/2 lb. finely grated sweet potato (Satsuma or Japanese white sweet potato)
3 cups finely grated coconut
3/4 lb. demerara sugar
1 tsp. grated cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 1/2 cups corn flour
1/2 cup of flour
1 tsp. salt
4 oz. raisins
1 egg
1 cup whole milk
6 oz. margarine or shortening, melted
1 tsp. almond essence
fresh banana leaves (singed over a flame and cut into 6-inch squares)

1. Mix finely grated sweet potato, pumpkin, and coconut in a bowl. Add sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and mix in well. Then add corn flour, flour, salt, and raisins.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk egg well, then add to the above mixture along with the milk. Add melted margarine and almond essence.
3. With a wooden spoon, combine all of the above well. It should have a thick appearance and drip slowly off the spoon.
4. Place two big heaping tablespoons of the mixture onto each singed banana leaf square and fold the leaf around the mixture as you would for a tamale.
5. Steam conkies on a wire rack over rolling boiled water until they are firm to the touch.


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