A COMPLETE MENU
Each dish, as amazing as it can possibly be
Inspired ideas from a dream team of chefs add up to a dazzling feast.
For a moist and remarkably tender turkey, Judy Rodgers recommends brining the bird for two days, then roasting it. It's important to let it rest after cooking. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Particularly at Thanksgiving, the most food-centered of American holidays, who doesn't dream about having a great cook drop by to lend a hand?
Even the greatest chefs are not all created equal. Each excels at a slightly different aspect of cooking. So, with a menu as diverse as Thanksgiving's, what you really want is an entire collection of great chefs -- a kind of Turkey Day Dream Team.
The trick is in identifying the talent and then matching it up with a specific course. For example, who knows more about cooking poultry than Judy Rodgers, who built San Francisco's Zuni Cafe largely on the basis of a wonderful roast chicken? On the other hand, for a bit of sheer luxury who better to turn to than Daniel Boulud, chef at Manhattan's four-star Daniel?
Michel Richard, chef at Washington, D.C.'s Citronelle, is a genius at putting a creative twist on familiar flavors, so he can do the vegetables -- no boring old steamed broccoli from him. The list goes on: The French Laundry's Thomas Keller has built a career on elegant small bites to start the meal; he'll do appetizers. Lydia Shire, chef at Boston's Excelsior, will take charge of the cranberries -- after all, they're grown in her backyard. And for a glamorous, over-the-top dessert, there's only one choice: Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard.
The only question now is: Whom would we choose to clean up?
The hors d'oeuvres
Anyone who has eaten at the French Laundry or Per Se knows that Thomas Keller is fascinated by appetizers. Dinner at either of those restaurants begins with a parade of them (indeed, given the size of Keller's portions, it could be argued that they make up the entire meal).
Thanksgiving is no different. From the earliest holidays he can remember, dinner started with little bites. Of course, back then the menu was slightly different than today.
"Ants on a log," he remembers. "That's one I remember: Take celery sticks and mix up some cottage cheese with salt and pepper and parsley or chives and put it in the center. Sprinkle raisins on top. That's ants on a log. My mom fixed it every Thanksgiving."
They'd be accompanied by a hit parade of '60s favorites: "Always a crudite plate with radishes, cauliflower, broccoli and green goddess dip, or her favorite, which was onion dip. Oh, and stuffed mushrooms, the kind with bread crumbs on top that you'd put under the broiler. And canned artichoke hearts."
Today, appetizers are still an important part of the meal, though they're a bit more refined: marinated olives and jumbo macadamia nuts and a big tin of caviar and some smoked salmon. And different kinds of spreads spooned onto toasts or crackers. "But we're so sophisticated now," Keller quips, "we use Carr's water crackers. We always had Ritz when I was growing up."
Despite the menus' obvious differences, they share the same idea. The point of an appetizer should be not only to pique the appetite, but to set the meal in motion by getting people involved with eating. "It's about interaction with the food," Keller says.
A good example is the shrimp with avocado salsa, each piece set on its own fork. It's not fussy, but fun. "I love serving things that people can eat with their fingers," he says. The shrimp, which he uses as a passed appetizer at parties in the French Laundry's garden, has a sophisticated presentation, but it couldn't be easier to put together.
The salmon rillettes, a favorite first course at Keller's Bouchon bistros, in Napa Valley and Las Vegas, is nearly rustic in its preparation and simple in its presentation (well, at least for Keller). The surprising, almost herbal, flavor undertones and a combination of coarse and creamy textures come from mixing finely diced smoked salmon and silky chunks of the steamed fish (and, of course, a satisfying amount of butter). It can be made ahead and will even improve for several days, ripened in the refrigerator, sealed under a cap of ... what else? More butter.
Divide the appetizers into smaller portions and position them at different points in the dining room, and you'll encourage mingling, getting the guests to interact with one another while they interact with their food. As Keller says, "Thanksgiving is about getting together with family and people you love and having a wonderful time."
If you should happen to run into Judy Rodgers driving around Berkeley on Thanksgiving Day, don't be surprised at the large bundle in her lap. It's her turkey. Rodgers and her husband celebrate the holiday every year with her sister-in-law across town, and even on this rare day off from the restaurant, the consummate roaster can't bring herself to give up the reins. "I know my oven and I don't know hers," Rodgers says. So she roasts the turkey in advance. Then she lays bath towels in her lap and cradles the cooked bird in its roasting pan for the drive over.
As you might expect, Rodgers has definite ideas about what makes a great bird.