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Alt. Turkey 

Local chefs offer alternative ways to cook the traditional Thanksgiving bird

click to enlarge Brett Schuler's apple brandy-glazed turkey breast with apple pancetta stuffing and turkey leg confit. Photo by Bob Doran
  • Brett Schuler's apple brandy-glazed turkey breast with apple pancetta stuffing and turkey leg confit. Photo by Bob Doran

Thanksgiving came early to Bayside this year. Well, not exactly Thanksgiving, rather a grand meal on a Sunday in November centered on turkey and fixings -- mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, roasted butternut squash -- served to an intimate crowd of 160 plus at the Bayside Grange.

The event, "Eat From Your Watershed: An Awesome Autumn Feast," was a benefit for the Jacoby Creek Land Trust's conservation and education fund. Susan Ornelas, head of JCLT (and an Arcata city councilperson) came up with the idea for the locavore dinner. She raised the turkeys right down the road from the Grange on the land trust's Kokte Ranch and Nature Preserve.

Her idea was simple on the surface. With help from a crew of volunteers, she butchered the 5-month old turkeys. They'd grown extremely large: Between free-range grazing and the feed she brought them, most were over 40 pounds. She then distributed them to a collection of local caterers and restaurants who'd volunteered to cook them. On the day of the event they would be delivered ready to serve, with optional side dishes. Friends, family and the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority were enlisted for set-up, serving and so on.

When I arrived at the Grange at 2:30 Sunday afternoon, Brett of Brett Shuler Fine Catering was overseeing a crew who'd roasted a bunch of butternut squash and peeled and boiled 100 pounds of potatoes. He was slicing the turkey he'd prepared ahead. Like many of the chefs that day, his turkey method began with brining.

Here's how he does it: "I heat up some water, dissolve salt and sugar in it, I can't tell you the exact measurements [most brine recipes call for a cup of salt and sugar per gallon of water], but it's strong since it will be diluted later -- then I cool it down. Then I put a plastic bag liner in a big cooler, add the turkey, then the brine and enough water so it's covered, then ice so it will stay cold overnight."

Brett let his turkey soak overnight, then dismembered it. The legs were used for a turkey confit, slow cooked in duck fat. He made a separate apple pancetta stuffing. "Nobody cooks stuffing inside turkeys anymore," he noted. He roasted the breasts, glazing them with an apple brandy glaze made with reduced chicken stock, spiced cider and cognac. The brining kept the turkey moist; the glaze made it delicious.

Around 3, more turkeys started arriving. Someone from Plaza Grill brought in a massive bone-in "citrus turkey," but they were unsure how Chef Josh Wiley had prepared it. (The lemon slices and thyme garnish surrounding it offered a hint.) Tamra Tafoya of Celebrations Catering and Larrupin' Café showed up with a tempting turkey mole with a side of Southwestern style stuffing.

Dexter Villamor from Wildberries' Wildplatter Café came in with a "Oaxacan turkey" with roast pepper stuffing. "It's rubbed with a chili paste, chilies and orange juice," he explained. "I used three dried peppers, pasilla, ancho and mulatto; reconstituted them, then used orange juice, orange zest, garlic and olive oil." The mixture was rubbed on a turkey brined with salt, brown sugar and dried peppers. "The roast pepper stuffing recipe came out of the same magazine," Dexter added with a smile. "It's basically just roasted Farmers' Market peppers, prunes and bread."

Dimitra Zalarvis-Chase, owner/operator of Café Nooner, proved instrumental in the feast. When she's not running the Old Town restaurant with her husband Tommy Chase, or working on her masters at HSU, she's advisor for a 4-H group that raises poultry. She helped with slaughtering and dressing the Kokte Ranch turkeys.

Tommy prepared the Creole-style braised turkey and gravy she brought in. "He braised it and baked the turkey, leaving lots of liquid in the pan, then took the meat off the bone for ease of serving," said Dimitra. "And he made a dark roux gravy using the Creole Holy Trinity: peppers, onions and a touch of celery. There's stuffing with andouille sausage and I'm not sure what else. He also made some Farmers' Market habanero hot sauce to put over it and kick it up a notch if you like." (It had a real kick and I liked it.)

Cory Smith from Hotel Carter's Restaurant 301 brought a gorgeous mushroom-stuffed turkey with turkey demi-glace. "What I did was de-bone the whole turkey separating the breast and the legs," he explained. "I filled the breast with porcini mushrooms and butter, tied it and roasted it, then did the same with the legs [with thighs attached].

"For the demi-glace, I made stock from the turkey bones, added some pinot noir and a little bit of beef stock and reduced it. I basted the turkey with the demi, then when it was finished, poured it in a pot and reduced it some more. It's very intense." And, he added, "We have a Madagascar vanilla bean cranberry jam," to serve on the side. Smith will be working on Thanksgiving Day preparing a five-course prix fix meal, which, of course, will include turkey.

Ricardo Contreras from Jambalaya and his brother-in-law Joe Maxey (the Jam's head cook) came in with a couple of pans. "The turkey was so big, we didn't have time to cook it traditionally, so we cooked it part way, then broke it down," said Ricardo. "We coated the skin with [Louisiana-style] blackening seasoning and finished it uncovered."

The breast and legs were presented on a bed of jambalaya littered with prawns. Joe and Matt Gomes made the spicy jambalaya. "On the menu, it's vegetarian or you can add bay shrimp and chicken," noted Ricardo. "We left those out and added some turkey meat and prawns and clams sautéed with white wine, garlic and shallots. It's pretty simple, but it's good."

That still left them with a pair of oversized turkey wings; Joe had an idea for those. "I took the wings and deep-fried them, then put them in our Buffalo wings sauce and put some blue cheese crumbles on top. They're pretty much the biggest hot wings I've ever seen. But there's only two."

Owner/Chef Dan McHugh of F Street Café went a totally different route with his bird. "What I made was a non-traditional lasagna," he said as he removed several pans from a catering hot box. "I took the turkey and butchered it -- it was huge -- and I used it to make turkey sausage: ground it with some sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions, all run through a meat grinder. Then I puréed some butternut squash and sautéed some porcini mushrooms. I layered those with fresh pasta sheets, the turkey sausage, caramelized onions, basil béchamel, mozzarella and parmesan.

"I make something like it at the restaurant, but without the sausage so it's a vegetarian dish. It's pretty damn popular. I usually serve it with caramelized Brussels sprouts and fresh julienned chard dressed with olive oil. The hot lasagna goes on top of a chard surrounded by the Brussels sprouts, garnished with pomegranate seeds to add color and texture."

F Street Café will be open the weekend after Thanksgiving, but Dan's taking next Thursday off. "My mom's having a potluck at her house where I just have to bring one dish," said Dan. "I plan on having a few beers and watching some football."

Beverley Wolfe of Avalon showed up around the time dinner was being served. "We de-boned the turkey first, brined it and filled it with a stuffing of dried fruits and butternut squash, all organic," she said. "We used bread we bake at the restaurant. Then we put it in the oven for a long time -- a very long time."

Avalon will be open for Thanksgiving starting at 4, she noted. "We typically offer an a la carte menu with a lot of choices. We'll do Diestel Ranch turkeys ballatine-style like we did for the Jacoby Land Trust dinner. And we've been getting Warren Creek potatoes for our mashed potatoes." Paul Giuntoli of Warren Creek Farms also supplied the squash and the spuds for the mashed potatoes at the Awesome Autumn Feast. (I helped mash them.)

A final note: This Saturday is the final Farmers' Market of the season on the Arcata Plaza. Stop by and pick up some potatoes or other fresh grown local food for your Thanksgiving feast, be it traditional or non. And while you're at it, tell the farmers thanks for all the hard work.

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About The Author

Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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Freelance photographer and writer, Arts and Entertainment editor from 1997 to 2013.

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