Thanksgiving Memories and Tips

November 18, 2009

The way chefs treat turkey for Thanksgiving has changed very much over the past 10 / 15 years. Turkeys used to be considered common, ordinary food and we’d purchase the cheapest ones for Thanksgiving. It’s surprising because Thanksgiving Dinner is always, always, always one of the biggest, most important dinners of the year.

When I first started working in Yosemite National Park and at The Ahwahnee for Delaware North, everyone still purchased the cheapest turkeys that had already been refrigerated for two or three months and then we cooked the heck out of them for five to 10 days before Thanksgiving. After you cooked them you’d take them out, make the gravy and fixings and then cover them up, refrigerate them and then slice and heat them again when you needed them. That was how it was done unless you had a small moms and pops restaurant.

I worked with our chefs to change all that at Yosemite. I told everyone that we should use fresh turkeys and cook them the day of Thanksgiving. Everyone laughed at me. “We can not do that, Chef Henin,” or “We don’t have the kitchen space and ovens.” I understood why they said this, as it is not easy to cook a whole turkey, let alone a few dozens of them. The breast meat cooks faster than the leg meat and this is complicated. I said to them, “Let’s separate the legs from the breast and braise them on their own, two days in advance. Then, we could cook all the breasts on the exact day of service.”

So we did it. We boned and braised the legs ahead of time and cooked the meat fresh. It was great. Everyone said how good it was and they had big smiles and happy stomachs. We made it even better the next year when we began getting fresh, organic turkeys from Diestel Turkey Ranch near Yosemite. That’s how we still do it at The Ahwahnee and in our other kitchens. We changed things, and I know our guests are happy we did.

You probably aren’t cooking for hundreds of people this Thanksgiving, but here are some tips that will make your guests wanting seconds.

1. Cook a fresh turkey. Most supermarkets have fresh turkeys. Cook one this year for tastier, juicier meat.

2. If you can find a place that offers locally raised turkeys, that’s the best. Doing this also cuts down on transportation costs and helps the environment.

3. Organic turkeys are free of antibiotics, hormones and other additives. They are better for you and definitely tastier, too.

4. Even if it’s too late to do all this for this Thanksgiving, try cooking it the way we did in Yosemite. Braise the legs two days ahead of time (this also will ensure your gravy is done in advance) and roast the breast on Thanksgiving Day. It also helps to soak the breast in brine before roasting, which means covering the bird in salt, water and herbs and letting it sit in your fridge for 12-14 hours before it’s cooked. I usually put it in a double trash bag. Remove the turkey when the time is up, and rinse it before you roast it.

I hope this helps. Thanksgiving is a great time to celebrate food.

In good cooking always,

Chef Roland Henin, CMC