Talking Turkey with Kathy Sidell: Fixing the Feast with a Pro

The annual “table picture” of the completely prepared Thanksgiving meal – taken just before everyone tears into the turkey and trimmings – often looks as if it happened effortlessly, as if nothing went wrong or no frantic trips to the corner store for an obscure ingredient were necessary.

But home cooks all over the downtown neighborhoods know better, and there’s no help like that from a professional.

That’s why the Sun sat down with restaurateur Kathy Sidell to hear how she and her famous foodie family (which includes sister Stephanie Sokolove of Stephanie’s on Newbury and Tremont) celebrate Thanksgiving – the biggest single eating session of the year.

Sidell is the president and founder of The Metropolitan Restaurant Group, which includes MET Back Bay, Nantucket’s MET on Main, and her newest Back Bay concept, Saltie Girl – among others.

However, when the restaurant doors close for Thanksgiving weekend, the cooking doesn’t stop for the Sidell family.

“I do love Thanksgiving and I love Thanksgiving in New England,” she said, noting that her family typically spends Thanksgiving on Nantucket. “Thanksgiving is really this great meal where you blend savory and sweet together in a way that not a lot of other holiday meals do. You usually eat either savory or sweet. It’s really great at Thanksgiving the awesome kind of palette that’s going on, which is what is so compelling, plus all the spices…What we usually tend to do is have the traditional items and flavors amped up with new or better ingredients, like having mashed potatoes with brown butter. It’s traditional, but with something new. That’s really what we do with the whole meal; it’s a spiced up version of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.”

 

ORGANIZATION IS KEY

Not everyone has the benefit of having several professional chefs in the family to work side by side for the big meal, but Sidell said one doesn’t need to have a pro on hand to be able to plan and delegate so that the meal comes on time.

“I think you need to schedule,” she said. “You need to write everything down and you need to have a timeline down on paper showing what time everything gets done.”

A key thing is to get things done ahead of time – and the first stop is the dinner table and early items.

“I think there are some things you can do ahead of time and some things you have to hold to the end,” she said. “It’s very tough to get dinner out for 22. You can do mashed potatoes ahead of time and keep them in a pot over simmering water. They’ll stay pretty fresh all day. There are other things I will prepare the night before and then put aside. Then you can just take it out at the right time and put it in the oven for an hour and then out to the table. Typically, I cook in the same thing I will bring to the table. I like copper pans and I use those.”

Likewise with the table – that’s something Sidell said one can delegate and work on the night before.

“The table can be done ahead of time,” she said. “I do the table the day before so I’m not running around wondering where the forks are and what glasses I’m using or thinking about what the centerpiece looks like. If that’s done, I can focus on cooking the day of and not worry about the table.”

And don’t forget the pantry, she said, noting that one of the worst parts of the big meal is not having an ingredient or having to make a mad rush the night before, or on Thanksgiving day.

“Another key is making sure your pantry is well prepared,” she said. “I’m a pantry girl and am meticulous about what I keep in my pantry. At the last minute, someone will want to make a soup with crystalized ginger. I want to be ready for that so no one has to run out to try to find some kind of ingredient.”

Finally, she said to focus on the kitchen tools one has available.

One year, she said the family ate at a relative’s house that had only one oven, but had a great stovetop. When that’s the case, she said to customize the menu so that things get done.

“That year, we had the oven going and we focused a lot on sautés and things that could be done on the stove,” she said.

 

IT’S A PIE YEAR

“This year is so interesting because I’m totally into the pie thing,” she said.

After reading the cookbook ‘Sister Pie’ by Lisa Ludwinski, Sidell said she was motivated recently to delve into the world of making pies – and what better time than Thanksgiving to try out those skills.

“What I really took from the book is to highlight the flavors,” she said.

For her, that has come in the form of crusts.

She said she has been upgrading her ingredients, such as using Plugra European-style butter for the crusts – which adds a twist.

She has also produced a roasted pecan crust, which she said has raised the flavor profile of some of her pies.

“I’m really in crust mode this year,” she confessed. “Even for left-overs, I’m already thinking about the idea of next day Thanksgiving pie.”

 

TURKEY 101

So many of those preparing the turkey foil themselves before they start because they are rushing around and don’t take the time to prepare the turkey correctly.

For Sidell, turkey prep starts one week ahead of time when she cooks a first turkey to make fresh turkey stock that she freezes for the big day. The fresh stock is something she uses in the pan and to baste with.

“I’m brining the turkey for sure, about 24 hours,” she said. “Then I get the turkey super dry in the fridge, keeping it there for 24 hours. That’s to make sure the skin gets tight so it’s crisp. I don’t put butter under the skin, but I do a dry ginger glaze with butter. It makes the turkey super brown and a golden brown. It’s not so much for flavor, but just for the beautiful Chestnut color it produces.”

When it comes to cooking the bird, she said she stuffs the turkey, and uses the rule of about 20 minutes per pound. However, it’s the technique and paying close attention that will keep the bird from being overcooked, undercooked or unsuccessful.

“I start it high and then go low (heat),” she said.

She said she starts the turkey cooking at high heat, about 425 degrees for 30 minutes. Then, she kicks it down to 325 degrees for the rest of the cooking time.

“I definitely baste it the whole way through,” she said. “Underneath the turkey, obviously, you have the stock. I make my own stock ahead of time, the weekend before, and freeze it. Then you have to make sure you rotate it – baste and turn. You really have to pay attention to that.”

 

AFTERNOON OR EVENING

Sidell said her family – like many these days – has switched to having the big meal in the evening instead of in the afternoon. That gives more time to prepare the side dishes and for guests to snack on things like Cheese and Tin Fish – such as they serve at Saltie Girl, Sidell said.

“We start that in the 2 or 3 p.m. zone and work our way to the turkey dinner,” she said.

While all of that is going on, she said it’s all hands on deck in the kitchen.

“You have to delegate and I’m a big delegator in the kitchen,” she said “The big thing for entertaining on Thanksgiving is organization. It’s really critical, particularly when you have a family of people who love to cook like we do. Thanksgiving I have a working kitchen and everyone takes their station…We all try to stick to what we’re passionate about.”

For Sidell, she said they love sides.

“I love to have corn with the meal, but it’s hard to find,” she said. “If you can find fresh corn, that’s the best. Instead, we make a corn pudding with frozen corn. It gives that Indian corn flavor and that’s about the only frozen thing we’ll use.”

She said they will be having brussels sprouts, but with a Hazelnut crunch on top. They also like to have creamed onions with salsify (a winter root vegetable), and Mac & Cheese with white truffles.

In New England, there tends to be a seafood on the table, and Sidell said they love to do a baked stuffed lobster with Nantucket Bay scallops.

“Oh my goodness, I just really hope it is as good as last year,” she said.

One kitchen secret she shared was preparing mulled cider to drink with the meal, but also doubling up and using the cider and apple cider vinegar in her recipes.

“I use cider in the gravy, and I use cider in my pastry dough as a tenderizer,” she said. “That really works.”

 

TIME FOR A NAP

When the meal is completed, there’s always a mess, and Sidell said that’s when it pays to have a big family.

“No one wants to clean up, but I suggest paying a 14-year-old in the family very well to do all the dishes,” she said with a laugh, noting that all of the adults are usually in a tryptophan turkey coma.

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