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Chef John Foster: Holidays are coming, holidays are coming! No one’s really ready — so, keep it simple

The holidays are coming fast and furious for the next month and a half, and I’m not ready. I like that I’m not ready because it adds an element of suspense to the next few weeks, but it does wreak havoc at home.

We’re heading north for Thanksgiving, back to New York to see my wife’s parents and some of my family as well. We’ve offered to cook Thanksgiving dinner, which puts even more pressure on me, cooking in someone else’s kitchen shopping in another city, what could go wrong?

It turns out that in the past, a lot has gone wrong. The oven suddenly doesn’t work, the weather turns icy, so no one can travel, a sudden case of the flu pops up, and the list goes on and on.

Chaos, even in the subtlest of terms is still chaos, and if you love the holidays, deep down you love the chaos.

So, keep it simple, and I mean that. This is not the time of year to take the turkey in a new direction (done that, it doesn’t work). It’s not the time to show off a new technique or twist Grandmother’s favorite recipes into nouvelle cuisine. Leaving ego behind during the holiday skirts many potential minefields, both inside the kitchen and out.

More than any other time of the year, the holiday kitchen should be a place of enjoyment and even relaxation. Stress will be abundant outside, don’t invite it in. Instead, enjoy digging into the past for a change. You will be appreciated more if you can adroitly maneuver the unwritten or poorly written recipes of the ones who toiled many years before you were born. In those yellowed pages, you might find some gold, little nuggets of wisdom that may shed light on the reasons behind all the wonderful food you enjoyed as a kid. With a little bit of skill and some guidance from the recipes, you can recreate some of the memories you have without re-inventing the wheel. The family is thrilled, you’re happy, and everyone manages to sit down together for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Boring,” you say. I want to showcase my skills, spread my wings. We have the same thing year after year, why can’t we change it up? And I do admit that I feel the same way sometimes.

We have in the past radically deviated from Thanksgiving, and we’ve had some success. But the failures have been monumental, and memorable. A multi-course meal that ended with several courses taking an hour to prep and present. The molasses glazed turkey that turned black with the roasting of the turkey. Finding out months later that the blade from the food processor was never really cleaned after the fish mousse was made.

There have been good, memorable meals, like the squash ravioli we ate in a little trattoria in Little Italy when our eldest son was young. One of the last Thanksgivings before my mother passed away, filled with a bit more wine, and a much longer time at the table. And most celebrations pass the test simply because no one tries to do too much, a lesson that we all should live by.

The energy and excitement should be manifest in the company you keep, and you should feel secure enough not to try and impress. Rather, you should comfort with the food you make, welcome in and engage your friends and family with the holiday meals you share. Grandmother’s sweet potato pie doesn’t need that new twist you see in the food magazines, and the full bottle of siracha you just purchased should probably stay on the shelf.

If there is room for improvement, such as upgrading from a canned cranberry relish to a fresh one, make sure your recipe is solid. I remember having a retro meal one year and we actually tried to have the cranberry relish both ways, the canned one remained untouched for the entire meal. This method not only benefits your guests but gives you more time outside of the kitchen.

The tried and true recipes have a rhythm to them and set their own schedule. For me, it’s up early to set the turkey up, make the dressing, and the dough for the rolls. The cranberry orange relish is the day before, the mashed potatoes are early afternoon for an early evening meal. Brussel sprouts can be blanched the day before and roasted with the turkey in the last hour of cooking. Pies are made the same day, but pie dough was made the day before. This is the beauty of enjoying the process; one week out I can schedule everything I’ll be doing, leaving me time to relax.

Now isn’t that what a holiday meal is supposed to do?


Spatchcock is a somewhat violent word for an effective cooking preparation that involves taking the back out of the bird and splitting the sternum partway to open the turkey up and spread it out. This allows the heat to penetrate directly to the interior bones, creating another heat source directly connected to the meat. Bone is a great conductor of heat and leaving the bones in also retains moisture in the meat. Seasoning can be through both inside and out, and the roasting time is reduced by a significant amount. You can still flip the bird from breast side to back, and still finish it skin side up to create the golden, crisp skin we all fight over. I’ve even stuffed the open side, although the skin and breast don’t get color this way.
If you absolutely can’t stop yourself from experimenting, then let me offer you a small project to challenge your creativity; sweet potato gnocchi:

10 medium-size sweet potatoes baked in salt until they are soft, peel and rice while still warm.

You can use a food mill to rice, or grate the potato on a coarse grater setting, do not mash the sweet potato.

Add in three small eggs and up to 2 cups of flour to form a dough that is soft, but not overly sticky. At this point, if you want extra seasoning in your dough, add a bit of nutmeg and or cinnamon, salt and pepper.

Roll the dough into long “ropes” and cut into 1-inch lengths. Boil the gnocchi until it is firm but tender, drain and cool in ice water. Once cool remove immediately and lightly oil. You can do these a day ahead and then bake or sauté them the day of the meal.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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