I used to think the Thanksgiving feast was best left to the home cooks own devices.
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star
Thanksgiving is hardly a restaurant-style holiday, so why labor to turn it into culinary theater by seeking out precious gourmet ingredients or learning a showboat technique?
But my attitude changed after working with a dozen local chefs to create The Stars 2012 Food and H+H Thanksgiving special sections.
When the chefs agreed to pull up chairs at our table, I asked them to keep in mind that they were creating recipes for the home cook, someone who doesnt necessarily know a hotel pan from a chinois. No chef-y stuff like sous vide, foams or much as Im a fan of them local, heritage turkeys.
Nor did the recipes need to be a dishes off their restaurant menus. In fact, I told them, I preferred a recipe for something they might have actually cooked for their own family and friends.
Once the recipes were in, I set to work testing them in my home kitchen to be sure they worked on an electric range, rather than a commercial gas stove. The chefs and I discussed changes in wording, always keeping in mind that they have more manpower, a telepathic grasp of technique and their own set of makeshift measurements, like a PC of something. (Hey, the line cooks know that means plastic cup.)
I cooked the dishes again for the camera. Finally, we invited the chefs to stop by our photo studio to pose for portraits.
I couldnt help but be nervous about all the moving parts, but these men and women are professionals, capable of dressing food up, or down, depending on the occasion.
When I got hold of Patrick Ryan, chef/owner of Port Fonda in Westport, he immediately knew what he wanted to contribute: braised kale flavored with fall-off-the-bone meat from a smoked turkey leg. He had created the recipe a few years ago to coax the younger members of his family to eat their vegetables.
If kale seems like an odd choice, I can vouch for these greens. Some of the most luxurious Ive ever put in my mouth and so darned easy to make. Set the kale to braise in chicken stock and come back more than an hour later.
Shanita McAfee, who recently opened Magnolias, a Southern-style bistro on Hospital Hill, agreed to share a close facsimile of the candied sweet potato recipe she uses at the restaurant. But she took pains to adapt the brown sugar syrup so home cooks didnt need to bother with a candy thermometer. Theres absolutely nothing pretentious about this dish, which she spoons on mac and cheese or serves alongside greens and chitlins at her family Thanksgiving dinners.
My heart skipped a beat when I wound up with two butternut squash recipes, but the coincidence illustrates how the best chefs plan their menus around the most flavorful seasonal ingredients: think lots of butternut squash and bacon augmented by such fall flavor enhancers as butter, brown sugar and brandy.
Despite many of the same raw ingredients, the variations were strikingly different. Jennifer Maloney of the Kemper Museums Café Sebastienne created a brilliant savory crisp with a panko-blue cheese topping. Todd Schulte, owner of the homemade soup company Uncommon Stock in the Columbus Park neighborhood, created a silky and satisfying butternut squash soup with a dollop of I-want-to-scream-this-is-so-good apple-bacon marmalade casually swirled in as garnish.
Still on the subject of bacon, Howard Hanna of downtowns the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, solved the sawdusty turkey breast dilemma by first brining the bird, then blanketing the breast with bacon. (Sounds complicated, but its not.) The bacon keeps the breast moist, while adding a smoky flavor.
Unsure whether he would insist on stuffing the bird, I also assigned the stuffing/dressing to Hanna. (For food safety reasons he volunteered to cook it outside the bird.)
By then I realized I had forgotten to assign someone the gravy. Ted Habiger of Room 39 (on 39th Street) to the rescue. For his intensely local take on mashed potatoes, he folded a medley of earthy mushrooms into the mash and ladled a smooth, blond gravy highlighting the native chestnut over the top.
Fred Messner of Natures Choice Biodynamic Farm near St. Joseph had his son drop off a few pounds of his dark brown chestnuts, a nut that contains more starch and less oil than most other nuts, hence its propensity to explode when roasted. Now that I have your attention, Habiger shares tips to make sure the nuts quietly steam open.
Finally, it was time for pumpkin pie. After I told her how I always stress out over pie dough, Erin Brown of Dolce Baking Co. in Prairie Village suggested I try the bourbon-pumpkin tart that has become a must-have at her house throughout the holidays. The dough was forgiving, and the tart came out of the oven as beautiful to look at as it was scrumptious to eat.
Im feeling reassured and ready to cook my family a feast they wont soon forget. And all thanks to a little help from some of Kansas Citys best chefs.
Reach Jill Wendholt Silva at 816-235-4395, on Facebook or at email@example.com.