Local chef Jonathan Miller offers advice for a stress-free Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is just days away, and for the person in charge of cooking the meal, that means one thing: pressure. Pressure to beat other shoppers to the same essential ingredients. Pressure to appease guests with different tastes and dietary needs. Pressure to cook several items simultaneously and get the timing just right.
It’s easy to get caught up in the stress of the day, but let’s not forget what Thanksgiving is all about—spending quality time with loved ones and expressing gratitude for life’s many gifts.
For some helpful tips for crafting a tasty Thanksgiving meal that also reduces stress, we turned to Santa Cruz personal chef Jonathan Miller, who is teaching a class on Thanksgiving Sides and Pies at Let’s Cook! Santa Cruz on Nov. 21.
GOOD TIMES: Do you have any advice for those cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time?
JONATHAN MILLER: If you’ve never done it before, you should try not to cook too many things. If you’re a control freak and you don’t want others to bring anything, then stick to just a few items, like turkey, stuffing, potatoes and some sort of relish, instead of worrying about special drinks, desserts, etc. When you only focus on making a few things, what you do make will turn out good.
How can you accommodate for those with dietary restrictions at Thanksgiving?
Try not to wedge yourself to the traditional turkey dinner, because you just cut out all vegetarians that way. Instead, think outside the box.
You should think about what Thanksgiving is really about—is it about turkey? Or is it about family coming together? If it’s really about turkey, then you should think about your guest list.
Gluten-free is easy to get around at Thanksgiving, since there are many substitutes. Plus, there is no gluten in mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce
Whatever you do, don’t let any of your guests surprise you—ask them first about any dietary restrictions that you should be aware of.
When it comes to vegans, you can use grains and legumes, which give them the protein that they need, while giving yourself (the chef) some versatility too.
It’s nice to make vegans and vegetarians feel like they’ve been thought of.
How does one master pie?
If pie stresses you out, make it a day in advance. That way, you can mess up and not worry about it. If you’re not married to pie, pumpkin pudding and pumpkin mousse are great alternatives. There are also a gazillion recipes online. If it stresses you out to roll out dough that cracks, find a recipe that calls for food processor pie dough; it’s much easier and better than store-bought pie crust.
Is it possible to balance a Thanksgiving meal?
For me, Thanksgiving meals are super sweet. There’s way too much sugar in everything—from the sweet potatoes, which sometimes even have marshmallows on top, to the cranberry relish to the pecan pie, which is basically just baking sugar and nuts. Turkey is also a sweet meat. So let’s give us a break this year.
You can make a tart cranberry sauce with actual cranberries, and even use orange peels for flavor. It doesn’t need to be super sweet. You can also play down the sweetness in the meal by adding more salty and smoky flavors, like pancetta or oysters. Wild rice is another good option; it’s super nutty and not very sweet. Also think about adding some roasted turnips or Brussels sprouts.
There’s a reason why people lay down and sleep after Thanksgiving; when you add all of the menu items together, it’s extremely sweet and sugary.
Can you respect tradition and spice up the Thanksgiving menu?
When you start talking about varying the menu, you’re likely talking to people who know how to cook. First-timers should stick to the more traditional menu items.
If you like tradition, but want to introduce a non-traditional dish or two, I would start with the stuffing. It’s the most flexible dish in terms of the traditional repertoire that you can mix up and make a hit. You can make it lots of different ways. You can use bulgur, cornmeal, barley or even rice. You don’t have to use bread. You can also think about adding oysters, mushrooms, nuts, pancetta or bacon.
What do you plan to cook this holiday?
I’m actually not allowed to cook it. [Laughs] Every year, we go down south to visit my wife’s family, and they decided a while back that what I made is “not traditional enough.”
They would say things like, “How come there’s no cranberry sauce out of the can? We love that!” But it’s OK. [Thanksgiving’s] very relaxed for me this way, when I don’t have to cook it.
Any parting advice for those preparing a Thanksgiving meal?
Try not to make this a meal that has to be perfect. And try not to stress if it didn’t turn out like the food and wine magazine. Chances are, it will still taste really good.
Jonathan Miller teaches classes at Let’s Cook! Santa Cruz throughout the year. For the class schedule, visit letscooksantacruz.com. For more information about Jonathan Miller and his personal chef service, visit eatrightathome.com. Photos by Keana Parker
Thanksgiving Recipes By Jonathan Miller
Tangerine Cranberry Sauce – 8 servings
¾ cup sugar
2 cups orange juice
12 ounces fresh cranberries
Wash the tangerines, then cut them into thin wedges. Toss them with half the sugar and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
In a saucepan combine the candied tangerines and any liquid that they released with the remaining sugar and the orange juice. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 50 minutes, until the tangerine skins are very soft and the liquid is reduced to a thin syrup.
Add the cranberries and boil for 15 minutes. Drain over a bowl to catch the liquid, and return the liquid to a small saucepan. Bring that to a simmer and reduce to a syrup, about 10-15 minutes. Pour back over the cranberries.
Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.
Brussels Sprouts with Browned Onions and Bacon – 8 servings
3 pounds Brussels sprouts
½ pound bacon
2 large or 3 medium onions (any color)
Heat the oven to 425.
Halve the Brussels sprouts lengthwise. Toss with a quarter cup (4T) olive oil and some salt directly on a sheet pan.
Peel your onions and slice them in half, then thinly crosswise.
Slice the bacon into half inch pieces.
Roast the sprouts in the oven until lightly colored and crispy on their edges, about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven.Heat a large skillet and cook the bacon until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the fat. Add the sliced onions to the bacon fat in the skillet and sauté briskly until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stir regularly to make sure they brown evenly.
Remove from heat. Combine the browned onions with the Brussels sprouts and the crisped bacon. Taste to make sure you like it, adjusting seasonings as necessary.
Wild Rice with Nuts and Apricots – 8 servings
2 cups wild rice
½ cup walnuts
½ cup pistachios (shelled)
2/3 cup dried apricots
Roast the walnuts and pistachios in a 350 degree oven until fragrant, about 8-10 minutes. Do not scorch. Cool.
Chop the walnuts and the pistachios. Using scissors, cut the apricots very thinly.
Cook the rice according to the package instructions. Or, boil like you would pasta (but use only a little bit of salt) for 45-50 minutes, then drain.
Toss the rice with the walnuts, pistachios, apricots, a little salt, and a few tablespoons of olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve warm.
Classic Pumpkin Pie – 8-10 servings
1 ½ cups flour
7 Tablespoons butter, cold (unsalted), cut into small chunks
1 teaspoon salt (divided)
2 cups pureed pumpkin flesh
1 ½ cups evaporated milk
½ cup brown sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
Make the crust: combine the flour, butter, and ½ teaspoon salt in a bowl and use your fingers to rub together until you have small (pea sized) crumbles. Work quickly so the warmth of your hands doesn’t melt the butter. Drizzle in ¼ cup of ice water and stir until the dough comes together. Form into a disk and chill (wrapped) for an hour.
In a bowl combine the remaining half teaspoon of salt, the pumpkin puree, milk, sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and eggs. Mix well and taste to make sure you like it.
Preheat the oven to 375. Roll out the dough to a ¼ inch thickness then transfer to a 9 inch pie pan. Crimp/decorate the edge however you prefer. Pour the pumpkin filling into the shell and bake for 45 minutes. Cool to room temperature.