The Thankful Meal
● By Aimee Cormier
By Amanda Jean Harris | Submitted Photos
Jeremy Conner knows a thing or two about fresh meals done well with simple ingredients. The chef and creator of the Humble Fish dinner series as well as the main man behind Cellar Salt Co. gives us the best ideas for a memorable meal sure to please everyone around the table come Thanksgiving Day.
The Can Ban
His first order of business on a properly done turkey day meal — ban the cans.
“Typically Thanksgiving meals are prepared from a lot of canned goods — for example the green bean casserole you go down one aisle and buy cans,” Conner says. “For nearly the same amount of prep time you can elevate that meal by using fresh ingredients.”
Conner says sweet potatoes thrive in this weather and green beans are easy to find fresh and cook rather than purchase out of a can. “Those things are definitely easy to do and the reward on that investment in extra effort is certainly great,” Conner says.
When it comes to appetizers, Conner takes to the seas for easy options that give the cooks more time in the kitchen.
“Raw oysters are really cool for Thanksgiving,” Conner says. “Thanksgiving is a big gathering and you can have a sack of oysters on hand and everyone else can be shucking those and enjoying the football game. Shrimp are also doing well and prices keep falling and they are fairly inexpensive. You can get those at Rouse’s. Boiled shrimp makes a great appetizer.”
Old Bird, New Tricks
Conner says when it comes time to plan the meal, look at the local supply chain and see what makes sense to eat rather than simply going for the standard dishes. The exception, however, is always the turkey. The latest incarnation is the deep fried bird.
“The best is the fried turkey, which has its challenges but it’s good,” Conner says. “What people don’t realize is that those turkeys are injected with marinade and that does make a big difference.”
A simple brine is the way to go when prepping a turkey. Conner tosses his turkey in a five-gallon bucket, covers it with water and then uses that water as the base for the brine (to ensure it’s the correct amount of liquid for the size of the bird).“Use some lemon and fresh herbs like thyme and sage. Use a little bit of brown sugar or some sort of sweetener that has some flavor like molasses or honey and garlic,” Conner says.
For the outside of the bird rub butter with herbs all over and push some up under the skin for a big difference in the flavor of a roasted turkey. “Injector marinades with a syringe are great,” Conner says. “Melt some butter and put some fresh herbs and garlic in there.”
He says the Thanksgiving meal should be a feast, but that’s doesn’t mean you have to stick to the norm. Seafood that is locally sourced is still a great option.
“A whole roasted turkey is dramatic and that’s part of the tradition,” Conner says. “But, you can achieve that same thing with a whole fish — roast or grill a whole fish. People shy away and go buy a filet. Roast a whole fish.” He says the species can run the gamut from redfish or snapper to grouper — all are excellent to cook whole.
“To do that I would brine the fish as you would a turkey (just not for as long) and buy whole fish somewhere like Rouse’s or Fresh Market,” he says. “They are usually gutted before they ever arrive and in that body cavity put whole cloves of garlic or lemon — anything aromatic. It adds flavor and keeps things moist.”
Fish flesh takes on flavor more rapidly than poultry and cooks faster as well.
“Even in the oven to roast a five-pound whole fish will take an hour or an hour and a half. It’s not nearly the length of time it takes to do a whole turkey. Those with certain family traditions — it may not be a replacement, but it can be a secondary protein,” Conner says.
The other little something that makes a big difference in a Thanksgiving staple is the treatment of giblets. The organs that make the traditional giblet gravy get a different treatment for a richer topping for potatoes and meat.
“I ‘rice and gravy’ those pieces instead of boiling or simmering them and you get a lot more flavor. It’s not that boiled organ flavor. It’s more of a cowboy stew flavor,” Conner says. “If you can brown those parts then you get a cool dark roux sauce instead of just light wimpy gravy.”
And when the meal is over, Conner says his use of the meal’s elements is not done.
“For leftovers people throw out the turkey carcass or the fish … use those to make stock.” The carcass of a fish like snapper often leaves much meat on the head, which is perfect for a stock and soup akin to corn and crab bisque. “These make delicious soups especially when the weather is cold like it is in the weeks after Thanksgiving.”
Tips From The Pro
Can Ban: Avoid canned products (yes, even in the green bean casserole) in lieu of fresh veggies and fruit. The extra step is worth the extra flavor.
Go Raw: Mix it up with a low-maintenance sack of oysters for appetizers. While the crew is watching the game, let them shuck while you cook.
Go Fresh: The simple flavors of herbs on your turkey or fish go the extra mile.
Butter Me Up: Say adios to faux spreads and reach for rich butter for the holidays.