An American feast with a subtle Asian accent

11/22/2013 8:00 AM

11/22/2013 3:38 PM

Chances are soy sauce is not at the top of your Thanksgiving grocery list.

Yet the November issue of Bon Appetit recommends using a bottle to bump up the flavor of our most American food holiday: “Use it to baste the bird for a golden finish. Splash it in gravy for an umami boost. And did you know it’s in the

green-bean casserole recipe

on the Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup can? It’s that good.”

In early October, I asked seven local chefs who work in venues ranging from food trucks and catering to fine dining restaurants to create dishes for our special Thanksgiving Food issue. The only hard-and-fast rule was the recipe needed to be something that could be accomplished by a home cook. No holy grail ingredients available only to restaurants and no fancy techniques that require a professionally trained brigade.

As the original recipes started arriving in my in-box, I began to notice an unexpected thread: most employed Asian ingredients and/or techniques. And the dish by

Novel

chef/owner Ryan Brazeal was a near textbook example of that heightened sensory quality chefs refer to somewhat cryptically as “umami.”

To be clear, Brazeal does not think of his food as Asian in style. He’s all about fresh, seasonal ingredients and balanced presentations. Yet testing Brazeal’s smoky, charred Brussels sprouts — mingled in a sweet and salty combination of soy and plum sauces then topped with the vinegary sass of pickled cranberries — proved to be a transformative experience. Even folks who entered the test kitchen with pursed lips left singing a different tune.

I’m sure most of my tasters would have thought I was babbling ridiculously had I uttered the word umami (pronounced OOH-mah-me), a Japanese concept that means deliciousness and is used to describe a harmonious balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and a fifth taste sensation found in foods that are high in glutamates. Yet the more I parsed the recipes, the more umami foods I turned up: roast turkey, bacon bits (in the dressing), spinach, winter squash, dairy foods (in sweet potato gratin and pumpkin cheesecake), pickled foods and soy sauce.

At first glance it might seem odd to find so many Asian ingredients popping up at the Thanksgiving table. But Tyler Fox, who owns Tyler Fox Catering and is a regular contributor to The Star’s food blog,

Chow Town

, says Asian ingredients and techniques have crept into the vernacular of American chefs.

“I think a lot of chefs gravitate toward those strong, very pronounced flavors found in Asian cuisine,” Fox says. “Even a teaspoon each of garlic and ginger add a strong perfume to a dish, whereas in classical French cooking you’re getting most of your flavor from long-braised mirepoix and herbs.”

And that’s probably why you’ll find a bite of ginger, the perfume of lemongrass and the rich sweetness of coconut milk stirred into his silky and aromatic roasted butternut squash soup.

Before Michael Corvino arrived at his new post as executive chef at the

American Restaurant

, I had heard that his food had a certain Asian flair. Then he offered up a turkey recipe that uses a “cure,” essentially a dry brine, containing a small quantity of what, for me at least, was an unfamiliar ingredient: kochujang, a chili paste typically used for Korean barbecue.

In keeping with my request for ingredients home cooks could get their hands on, Corvino offered a substitution. But after following his recipe using the kochujang I bought at

888 International Market in Overland Park, I wouldn’t want to jinx the results. Yes, the 36-hour cure process may seem long — buy your turkey today — but the results are well worth it. I’m proud to say 2013’s Star bird is one of the most moist and succulent I have ever roasted.

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