Local chefs share Thanksgiving tips to help make the holiday stress-free for those preparing a feast for family and friends.
Christina Culver, the secondeldest of six kids, grew up on the North Shore in a family of avid skiers. In high school, she took it upon herself to make dinner once a week to help out her mom, who regularly baked bread from scratch and made a point of feeding her family wholesome, nutritious meals. By the time she had moved out, Culver had built up her own repertoire of healthy and flavourful foods.
“I was living in the West End in a building where I had friends on every floor, and I was always known as the salad queen,” Culver says in a phone call with the Georgia Straight. “Some of my friends said, ‘We love your food; what if we paid you to make our lunches?’ Things snowballed from there.”
Culver is referring to the 2012 launch of Culver City Salads, the green solar-powered food truck (affectionately named Granny Smith) that she runs with her sister Sarah. All of the food is plant-based and glutenfree. The company also does catering, and despite the business keeping the women busy, Culver still loves cooking for—and with—her family.
Making Thanksgiving dinner is no straightforward task for the party of eight. Culver is vegan, but there are also meat eaters and vegetarians in the group, as well as people who are gluten-free and those with other food sensitivities and preferences. To satisfy so many dietary needs without spending the entire day in the kitchen, she has come up with a few time-saving tips. One of them is not to make multiple versions of dishes to try to appease everyone.
“Sometimes we’ve done a glutenfree stuffing, a regular stuffing, and a vegan stuffing,” Culver says. “We’re releasing the whole need to have a vegan and a nonvegan version; just have it more plant-based. Screw having two mashed potatoes, one regular and one dairy-free. What I find the easiest thing to do is make everything gluten-free and vegan,” she says, with the turkey and gravy being the obvious exceptions. “You’re going to get a bunch of amazing sides with beautiful flavours in every single dish instead of just mashing some potatoes.”
Sourcing her produce at places like Inner City Farms (pictured on the cover), Culver says some of her favourite sides are roasted sweet potatoes topped with vegan marshmallows; kabocha squash stuffed with vegan dressing (which is as Instagrammable as it is tasty); Brussels sprouts pan-seared
with truffle oil and rosemary; potatoes and steamed carrots mashed together with roasted garlic and coconut milk; and a vegan cashew “cheese” sauce.
There are few ways to cut down on the time involved in preparing and cooking the bird itself, but Culver says that taking the easy route for other parts of the dinner helps make up for that. Chances are you don’t need as many sides as you might think, and there’s no rule book saying you have to have a pumpkin pie to finish things off.
“Do you really need that extra dish? Oftentimes you don’t,” Culver says. “You always end up eating way too much food. Also, for dessert, get some fresh fruit and serve it with coconut ice cream. A lot of people get really hell-bent on having these traditions. But the world is changing; the way we eat is changing. So switch up traditions a little bit so you feel good at the end of your meal.”
To keep the meal prep moving along, Culvert practises a tactic employed by her mom, who used to go skiing with the whole family every year on Christmas Day and still get a turkey dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. She takes an inventory of what’s being served, how long each dish takes, how many burners she can use at once, and how many items can fit in the oven simultaneously, all to come up with a grand plan.
It’s a strategic approach that restaurant chefs use all the time, whether they’re at work or at home.
“Writing out a menu is not reserved only for professional chefs; it’s a necessary tool to begin planning for any meal, big or small,” says Caitlin Mark, chef at H2 Rotisserie and Bar at the Westin Bayshore. “What we end up with is a shopping list and a prep list, and by knowing the cook times, we know when and in what order to start cooking each dish to allow the dinner to stay on track and on time.”
Mark has other pro tips to help save time in the kitchen on Thanksgiving and other holidays. One of them is to reduce “visual noise”.
“There are several reasons chefs keep their cooking stations clean at all times,” Mark says. “It ensures there is no cross-contamination, which prevents food-borne illness. It’s a sign of true professionalism in a kitchen. Not having to look around for what we need reduces the time each task takes, and it’s easier to think while working. Visual noise created by dishware, leftover ingredients that aren’t being used, food scraps, half-prepped items leads to a noisy brain. When we can’t think clearly, the stress ball starts rolling downhill. The less stressed we are, the more productive we are in a kitchen.”
There’s another common kitchen slogan that Mark says helps make big meals come together: “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
“Our job in a professional kitchen
is to work together as a team to succeed in a common goal: fabulous food made well and on time,” she says. “The same can be used for a family dinner. Delegate out tasks: is there an aunt, uncle, or cousin who claims to make the best pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce? Let them! Ultimately, when it comes to family dinners, we’re all in it together. We want every member to enjoy it. The more we share the dream of the perfectly executed Thanksgiving dinner, the closer we’ll all get to it.”
A TIME-TESTED TIP to cut down on kitchen time on the holiday itself is to make what you can ahead of time. Railtown Cafe chef Tabatha Stahl credits her sister for teaching her long ago to make mashed potatoes (with a cream-and-butter mixture seasoned with garlic, pepper, thyme, rosemary, and sea salt) in advance and keep them warm in a Crock-pot. Cranberry sauce (which Stahl likes to liven up with orange zest, vanilla, and a pinch of salt) is another dish to whip up beforehand. “I always recommend making your own cranberry sauce rather than buying the store-bought stuff,” Stahl says. “It’s easy to prep ahead of time, which frees up stove space, and your guests will love it.”
Cascade Room chef Tim Evans suggests doubling the recipe for cranberry sauce and jarring it so you have some ready for next year or even this coming Christmas.
Avoid stuffing your turkey, too. “It’s safer and quicker to serve an unstuffed turkey,” Evans says. “Make stuffing in a loaf pan and bake in the oven or roll into appropriate-sized balls and bake on a tray.”
Cibo Trattoria chef Josh Gonneau has a little time-saving trick when it comes to removing fat from your homemade stock. “While the stock is still warm, place ice cubes in it and the fat will stick directly to the ice,” Gonneau says. “Use a fine strainer to pull out the ice and you’ll remove the fat with it. A little tomato paste will help you create a dark turkey jus.”
Wayne Sych, Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House executive chef, suggests making gravy ahead of time, even freezing it and thawing a couple days before the big day. “Buy some bones from your butcher and brown them in the oven with celery, carrots, and onions,” Sych says. “Simmer them down and then thicken with a roux made with butter and flour. When you roast your turkey, you can add the drippings to the gravy. Lots of people make gravy after the turkey is roasted, but this can make things hectic, and gravy needs more time than that allows.”
Another way people can save time is to visit their local butcher and ask for their turkey to be deboned, rolled, and tied. “This simply means that the butcher will remove the bones for you, place the dark meat inside the white meat, and tie it into a roll,” Evans says. “You get to keep the bones to make gravy and you cut the cooking time by more than half.” Whether it’s deboned or not, Evans still urges people to brine the turkey, since the salted water with aromatics will season the meat all the way through and keep it juicy while cooking. It only takes 10 minutes to make a brining solution, with the results worth every second.
Sych recommends selecting your serving dishes in advance and labelling them with Post-it Notes. “That way, when you are putting everything out and some guests are assisting in the kitchen, they’ll know what you have organized for what dish to be served on.”
And no matter how tempting it may seem, don’t try out a new recipe on holiday Monday.
“Test it out a few weeks in advance,” Sych says. “If it doesn’t turn out or be what you thought it would be, you can make adjustments. Just because a recipe looks good doesn’t mean it will turn out. Many recipes online are not tested. Trying it out ahead of time will alleviate potential surprises.”
To make cooking that big feast go smoothly, Caitlin Mark (left) of H2 Rotisserie and Bar recommends keeping your kitchen free of “visual noise”; Tabatha Stahl of Railtown Cafe suggests making some dishes ahead of time (Jelger + Tanja photo).