What I learned as a Thanksgiving sous chef…
Cooking with fire is no big deal. The Indians did it. The Pilgrims did it. Heck, what Girl Scout hasn’t made S’mores over a campfire? And, yes, barbecue grills use fire…but I’ve always left that to the men in my life (sorry, Gloria).
My Chef-phew Wille has baked pizzas in his Nonno’s pizza oven and wanted to pull a “Jamie O” (that’s Jamie Oliver, the Brit celeb-chef-restaurateur) by cooking our Thanksgiving turkey in a wood-fed, outdoor oven. In November. In State College, PA.
I suggested Wille arrive on Wednesday to make sure he had enough wood. I knew that Richard had cut and stacked a lot of wood for the Secret Garden campfire before he left for Belgium, but I didn’t know if any of it would fit in the pizza oven, or if it would be dry enough.
Well, he arrived at Nonna’s house after dark on Wednesday and we couldn’t find a functioning flashlight, even with a drawer full of D batteries. Not one to worry, Wille brined the 16-pound heritage turkey he bought from a Virginia pig farmer. He cut the wings, thighs and drumsticks off the bird and placed them in one pot; the body in a second pot. All of the turkey pieces were submerged in a brine mixture: Sea salt, water, Harner (Wille’s uncle’s orchard) apple cider, molasses, chili peppers, and “aromatics” which included thyme, shallots, garlic, fennel seeds, coriander, and lavender (more about that later.)
“Aromatics” is the foodie term for herbs, spices, and anything within easy reach of the kitchen stove or the herb garden.
I went to bed. The last thing I said that night: “If you need more room in the basement refrigerator, just put some of my seeds on the ironing board.” (I store my leftover and collected seeds in the downstairs Frigidaire.)
Thursday, 9 a.m.: I pushed the wheelbarrow and led Wille to the firewood stacks. We gathered a load and returned to the oven. The rain started. I found a plastic garbage bag to over the wheelbarrow and gave Chef-phew Wille some elbow room (and a pack of waterproof matches).
Don’t assume. Be clear. Later that morning, I asked Wille what he put in the brine. He gave me the rundown and said, “Your rosemary looks and smells a lot like lavender.”
“Well, they are similar.”
A few minutes later, I saw him out in my herb garden, picking off bits of the lavender plants. “That is lavender, Wille. The rosemary is in a strawberry pot, inside.”
Outdoor roasting and grilling isn’t just for turkeys. Wille pushed the fire to the back of the oven, and in went the body of the turkey, along with an Amish neck pumpkin, a Rebersburg acorn squash, and a foil-wrapped package of my Picasso shallots, still in their skins, drizzled with olive oil.
Next, Wille asked for white wine and olive oil, and another large pan. He took the thighs, wings and drumsticks out of the brine mixture and quickly browned each piece in the olive oil and wine over the grill. Then he returned each piece to the brine pot, put the lid on, and braised it in the kitchen oven on low heat for several hours.
Nothing is out of bounds for the determined chef. The night before, when Wille put the brining pots in the basement refrigerator, he found a mason jar of white and maroon mottled Jacob’s Cattle Gasless Beans…and the wheels started turning.
Thanksgiving morning, “Hey, do you mind if I cook up those beautiful dry beans of yours?”
I didn’t tell him this, but I had forgotten about them. “Sure, but save me a handful to plant.”
The beans were soaked and boiled and cooked. Aromatics added. He grabbed a packet of pancetta that I dole out by the tablespoon and dumped the entire thing into a frying pan.
Improvisation knows no bounds. My mother, who had a gourmet kitchen shop for almost 30 years, has dozens of pots, pans, and cooking gadgets. One of the family treasures looks like a frying pan with a long handle—except that there are quarter-size holes punched into the bottom—perfect for roasting chestnuts. We had no chestnuts, but Wille grabbed it anyway, repurposing it. He tossed in a shredded Chinese cabbage and quick-cooked the slivers of cabbage over the grill, giving them a smoky flavor.
There are never enough pans when there is a chef in the kitchen. And that’s the primary reason for a sous chef—someone has to wash and dry all of the pans and utensils.
Simplicity is sweet. Wille sliced our Plowshare turnips, sautéed them in olive oil, with generous clippings of the real rosemary. To finish off the dish, he drizzled my Spring Mills floral honey over top creating Turnips with a Rosemary Honey Glaze.
And those Picasso shallots roasting in the pizza oven? After they cooled a bit, it was my job to squeeze them out of their skins so they could be stirred into the heirloom bean and pancetta dish, which turned out to be one of my favorites. Laurie Lynch
It Takes a Village: Wille’s mom Larissa brought family favorites: bowls of broccoli and corn. His brother Andre brought wine and two pumpkin pies, brother Nick brought a crockpot of mashed potatoes, and brother Leon brought beer and made several trips to the woodpile to feed the hungry fire. I made kale salad, cranberry chutney, an apple pie, and washed a lot of pots and pans.