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Spicing up Thanksgiving

By Sylvia Pfeffenberger
Posted Friday, November 17, 2006

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Washington Duke chef offers suggestions for shaking up your traditional holiday meal

Durham, NC -- As far as food goes, Thanksgiving is the most traditional of holidays.The Christmas season offers weeks of opportunities to try new dishes and explore international food traditions at parties and family dinners. Hanukkah covers eight days. But the Thanksgiving table must bear the weight of family custom all in a single day. Riots can ensue if a Thanksgiving meal at home doesn’t include Aunt Hattie’s sweet potato casserole or Mom’s oyster dressing.

So, what’s a creative chef to do when trying to offer a little twist along with turkey-day tradition? Jason Cunningham, executive chef of the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, has learned where he can offer a little variety and where his customers want him to stick with Thanksgiving tradition on the inn’s annual buffet.

“One year, I prepared what I considered traditional dressing. I grew up in the Midwest, and to me it was old, stale bread, carrots, onions, celery, some raisins,” Cunningham says. “I got a lot of complaints about that dressing. Here in the South cornbread dressing is the tradition, so now I use cornbread.”

Cunningham, who became executive chef in 2004 after arriving at the inn in 2001, says the buffet served about 600 people last Thanksgiving, and he expects at least that many hungry folks this year. Most of those diners will come looking for Southern-style Thanksgiving favorites.

“About 95 percent of the items on the buffet are Southern traditional Thanksgiving dishes,” Cunningham says.

But he has found ways to prepare dishes that use traditional flavors slightly differently, or to dress up the standard offerings. For example, he has used kobe beef for the roast beef carving station.

An apple-cider brine for the roast turkey was well received one year. But he encountered one problem: Finding a container big enough to submerge the large turkeys Cunningham cooks for the buffet. The solution: new, sanitized 55-gallon metal trash cans.

Before coming to Durham, he once prepared Thanksgiving turkeys with fresh truffles and truffle butter rubbed beneath the skin. That luxurious flavor would have made Puritans at the first Thanksgiving blush.

Cunningham also is a fan of the popular deep-fried whole turkey. “If we didn’t have to cook so many, I’d fry them,” he says.

Cunningham always includes a fish dish on the buffet, because there are a number of people today who don’t eat red meat or poultry. But even with seafood, simpler is better for holiday tastes. An Asian-inspired seafood dish last year elicited a lukewarm response, so now he keeps the fish fresh and simply cooked.

With side dishes, he takes the root vegetables that are a part of classic Thanksgiving dishes and roasts them with cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, fresh rosemary and olive oil. Cunningham uses a combination of carrots, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, parsnips, gold beets (red ones bleed too much color onto the other vegetables) and shallots.

Home cooks who long to add a little spice to the same old Thanksgiving menu, but without alienating their families, could try Cunningham’s approaches as well. He says that side dishes and desserts are good places to slip in a new item or two.

Or, he suggests, look for new ways to present traditional desserts. Cunningham says that restaurant trends are moving away from full-sized cakes and pies toward small desserts, such as individual tarts. Small pumpkin, pecan or sweet potato tarts also make a beautiful display while paying homage to Thanksgiving tradition — and allowing those who can’t decide to have a little of everything. Pumpkin pie is still No.1 with the buffet diners.

“I’ve tried both sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie, and both have been successful. But pumpkin pie is still the hands-down favorite,” Cunningham says. “I always keep a large number of pumpkin pies on hand, just in case.”

Also popular are what he calls “interactive desserts.” Last year’s buffet included a station where diners could top freshly made sweet pumpkin waffles with chocolate sauce, strawberry compote or ginger-caramel sauce, or their own combinations of the three. After just a couple of years, the chocolate fountain, into which diners dip fruit or chunks of cake, has become a must-have.

For his own Thanksgiving meal, Cunningham looks forward to his mother’s roasted acorn squash with brown sugar, cinnamon and lots of butter — and to be able to enjoy the meal with his parents, now that they live in Raleigh.“When you’re working as a chef and trying to build your resume, changing jobs, there was 10 years that I must have been able to see them just five times,” he says. “So it’s great to just sit around the table together.”

Thanksgiving Recipes from Jason Cunningham

 

 

Honey Roasted Winter Vegetables with Rosemary 1 cup Butternut Squash 1 cup Organic Carrots 1 cup Turnips 1 cup Shallots or Sweet onions 1 cup Celery Root 1 cup Parsnips 1 cup Rutabaga 1 Tbl Ground Cumin 2 tsp Ground Cinnamon Pinch Nutmeg 3 Tbl Honey 2 Tbl Fresh Rosemary,
Stemmed and Chopped Kosher Salt to taste Fresh Ground pepper to taste Peel and dice all of the vegetables to roughly the same size; about
1/2 inch works well. Place all of the vegetables in a large bowl and season with the cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix well. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place a large sauté or roasting pan over medium to high heat and allow it to warm up for about 5 minutes. When the pan is hot, add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the vegetables and allow them to cook for 2-3 minutes before stirring. Cook the vegetables on the stove top for about 5-8 minutes, stirring periodically. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook, stirring periodically until the vegetables are almost tender, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and add the honey and the chopped rosemary. Mix well and return to the oven for about 10 minutes. When the vegetables are tender, remove from the oven and check the seasoning. The vegetables should be quite aromatic at this point. Place vegetables in a bowl and serve family style with roasted meats or poultry. Serves 6-8. Cranberry Chipotle Compote Saute pears and raisins in oil until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until desired consistency. Serves 6-8

 

*For chipotle puree: In a blender combine one 4oz can ‘Chipotles in Adobo’ and 2oz water. Blend until pureed.

 
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