Tricks of the turkey trade

Local chefs share secrets for a perfectly executed Thanksgiving meal

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published November 25, 2014

 Andiamo’s chef Jim Oppat said he tries to do something a little different each year with his Thanksgiving dinner menu at home. — Photo by Sean Work

Andiamo’s chef Jim Oppat said he tries to do something a little different each year with his Thanksgiving dinner menu at home. — Photo by Sean Work

Fresh Cranberry Chutney
By chef Jim Oppat

• 1/2 cup dried apricots, or other dried fruit
• 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
• 1/2 cup golden raisins
• 1 cup water
• 3 cups fresh cranberries
• 1 diced fresh apple
• 1 teaspoon lemon rind
• 1/4 cup lemon juice
• 1/4 cup dried crystallized ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
• 1 1/2 cups brandy or amaretto

Combine dried fruit, brown sugar, golden raisins and water and bring to a boil. Cook on the stove for five minutes.

Add cranberries, apple and lemon rind, and simmer for 10 minutes, until cranberries begin to pop.

Then, add lemon juice, crystallized ginger and hot pepper flakes, and simmer for an additional five minutes. Finally, season to taste with the liquor of your choice.

Sage Sausage and Pear Strata
Created by chef Andrew Alcid

• 6 croissants
• 2 Bosc pears
• 1 spanish onion
• 1 rib celery
• 1 carrot
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1 cup white cheddar cheese
• 1 pound fennel sage sausage, or breakfast sausage
• 1 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
• 1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme
• 1 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon allspice
• 1 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 quart whole milk
• 4 eggs
• 1 tablespoon butter
• Optional: chopped roasted pecans

Tear croissants into pieces and toast, set aside.

In a pan, render sausage and break apart into small pieces. Drain fat and add butter, onions, pears, celery and carrots, and sweat until fragrant. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, and finish with parsley and thyme. Remove mixture from pan to cool.

In a bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, nutmeg, allspice, salt and black pepper. Grease a casserole dish with butter, and fill with sausage mixture and toasted croissants, combined. Sprinkle with cheese and add custard mixture until casserole dish is filled.

Allow strata to sit for at least two hours, or overnight for best results. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-40 minutes or until eggs have set.

Tired of the same old recipes on Thanksgiving? Chances are your dinner guests are, too.

While great-grandma’s recipe book might have some important staples inside, there’s no reason your holiday menu can’t be spruced up with some new and tantalizing ideas.

C & G Newspapers reached out to a couple of the area’s most popular fine dining chefs to see what they’ll be serving to their guests this season. It took some convincing, but they’ve divulged a few of their best-kept culinary secrets.

Chef Jim Oppat, Andiamo Restaurants, Warren
Macomb resident Oppat, a former Schoolcraft culinary instructor and Andiamo’s corporate cuisine mastermind, said it took a few years to get his guests to stray from the traditional boxed and canned Thanksgiving foods they had come to know. But once they did, there was no going back.

“Every year, it evolved a little bit. I started off with the regular mashed potatoes. Then I got into the mashed potatoes with celery root purée. Now, it’s mashed potatoes with celery root purée and white truffle,” said Oppat.

Like the restaurant industry itself, food trends change with the times, and so too should the menu for at-home celebrations. Turkey Day meals can have all of the tradition the occasion calls for, without some of the outdated methods chefs have tossed aside over the years.

Take, for instance, the standard dressing side dish. Most call it stuffing because, for years, it was stuffed inside the bird and the two were cooked together. That’s a big no-no in Oppat’s recipe book.

“You should never stuff a turkey. You have to cook them separately to get a quality product,” he insisted, explaining that he likes to cook his turkey with some fresh herbs, peppercorns, garlic and a little citrus tucked inside.

The dressing he’s planning to make will have cornbread instead of regular bread or croutons, since he said it will give the dish better texture.

And as for that turkey, there’s a lot that can be done to ensure you don’t set a dry, flavorless piece of poultry in front of your guests. Though it can be tricky, Oppat said he’ll brine his turkey for at least 18 hours before he pops it in the oven, and he recommends others do the same. Then, he’ll let the turkey take plenty of time to cook.

“Brining is a must, and so is slow roasting. I’ll put the turkey in at 475 degrees (Fahrenheit), uncovered, for about 30 minutes to crisp up the skin. Then I’ll turn it down to about 200 (and cover with foil). I usually cook a pretty big turkey — about 20 pounds — so it will be in there for like seven hours,” he said.

Later, when the turkey’s done, Oppat stressed it’s vital to let the bird sit at room temperature for at least 25-30 minutes, tented with foil to keep the heat in but vent out moisture.

“Turkeys are about 65 percent water, and when they’re in the oven, those water molecules are (boiling); they’re moving around. If you cut right into it, those juices will all run right out,” he explained. “If you let those juices cool, you’ll still get some that run out, but it will be considerably less.”

Another tip, he added, is to put the culinary magazines away if it’s the day before the big feast. Recipes are guidelines, and you need some time to experiment with a dish in case something goes wrong.

“If recipes were 100 percent, there would be no culinary school. Everyone would be a professional chef,” he said. “Don’t try something for the first time on Thanksgiving. It’s too much pressure.”

The most important ingredient, though? You guessed it: love.

“I get the kids involved in whatever dish they want to see on the table. Usually, my daughter and I make the cranberry chutney together,” he said. “And when everyone comes in and they see something simmering, they want to taste. So I have a container of plastic spoons on the counter so I can taste as I go and they can try something, and then the spoons go right in the trash. But everyone’s involved, until just before dinner. I try to get everyone seated at the table with a nice soup or something — I think this year it’s going to be lobster and butternut squash soup. That way, I have a good 30 minutes to set up a really nice buffet.”

Chef Andrew Alcid, The Townsend Hotel – Rugby Grille, Birmingham
At Alcid’s house in Madison Heights, Thanksgiving isn’t about entertaining guests — it’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of day.

“My side of the family loves food, and my mom always wants to try something different. Everyone’s in the kitchen doing something, and we’re all watching football and visiting in between,” said Alcid.

This year, the culinary challenge Alcid’s mother plans to face will be a new take on the turkey. Instead of roasting the bird the old fashioned way, she hopes to apply to the turkey the Mediterranean method used to make brick chicken.

In short, the turkey will be broken down into smaller sections, and he said he will cook the turkey with a heavy element, like a skillet or brick, on top to crisp the skin as the meat cooks through.

The brick chicken — or rather, brick turkey — is something he’ll bring to the Thanksgiving menu at Rugby Grille. Alcid said the holiday is one of the hotel’s busiest dining occasions of the year, second only to Christmas Day.

“It’s a tradition in this community. People love to spend their holiday with us; they plan on it every year,” he said.

Alcid also plans to turn the traditional stuffing on its head in his own home by making a strata, which is a classic American dish that’s a bit of a cross between a casserole and a quiche.

“People like to do what’s current, and strata has really come back around. These traditions kind of pop back up over time, and chefs can do something new and have a lot of fun with it,” he said.

The strata recipe he’ll be making this Thanksgiving can be used in lieu of traditional dressing, but it can be especially handy the morning after Thanksgiving, when the fridge is overflowing with leftovers. The elements of a stuffing can be combined with custard, herbs and other goodies for a hearty breakfast that will keep the whole family full through a day of Black Friday shopping.

“Strata is something that’s a favorite with my wife’s family. They’re from Ohio, and they have this different brand of down-home cooking. It’s good — it’s something to feed a lot of people in the morning,” said Alcid.

Alcid’s only other tips for Thanksgiving dinner success? Do as much preparation as you can in the days beforehand — strata included — and most of all, remember to make time to enjoy yourself.

“Get everything ready early so you can enjoy your day. At my house, we’re in and out of the kitchen, we’re watching football, and everyone does something. It’s an all-day thing, and it’s a great day,” he said.