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Chefs Jeremy Charles, Lynn Crawford, Anna Olson on elevating Thanksgiving dishes

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TORONTO Planning to serve turkey, mashed potatoes and carrots yet again for Thanksgiving this year?

While a roasted bird and all the trimmings are traditional classics, others opt for an unconventional approach.

At chef Anna Olson’s gathering, seafood will be on the menu.

“Something we’ve learned is: guess who buys seafood on Thanksgiving weekend? No one. So you often get great sales,” says Olson in an interview from her home in Ontario’s Niagara region.

“Because it’s a holiday we’ll go a little decadent. We’re not just going to do grilled salmon.”

The menu might include king crab, lobster or shrimp. She oohs and aahs over the idea of seared scallops with brown butter sauce along with celery root puree and wilted greens like Swiss chard or kale.

For Jeremy Charles, hunting season brings with it such choices as moose, rabbit, partridge and grouse.

“It keeps it a bit more exciting instead of just having turkey ‚Äî which I do enjoy, mind you,” says the head chef at Raymonds Restaurant in St. John’s, N.L.

If home cooks are cooking turkey, he advises focusing on getting it right.

“Ninety per cent of people overcook their turkey,” says Charles.

“Being able to cook the protein separately ‚Äî whether it’s a partridge or a grouse or a turkey ‚Äî it really helps with the end product, for sure.”

Charles breaks down the carcass and cooks the pieces individually. He likes poaching the breast, which renders out fat while keeping in the moisture.

“Then I sear it in a pan to get a caramelization and beautiful colour and then you’re left with a lovely product. You rest the meat properly and slice it and you have a nice juicy breast of chicken, partridge, turkey or what have you.”

Lynn Crawford, chef-owner of Ruby Watchco restaurant in Toronto, advocates brining turkey before roasting.

“Not only does it season the turkey, but you can infuse so much more flavour into the bird and it stays moist. It’s foolproof,” says the “Chopped Canada” judge.

“So all those wonderful aromatics that you want to infuse the turkey with ‚Äî if it’s apples and cinnamon and rosemary and stout with maple syrup ‚Äî you can get all that in there.”

You need a container large enough to submerge the turkey in the brine and ice for up to 24 hours — a clean cooler or plastic bin works. The ice keeps the turkey at a safe temperature.

When it comes to flavour combinations for stuffing, the sky’s the limit.

“Traditionally my dad always did pork sausage, sage and onions and that’s a classic. I love that,” says Crawford, who also suggests sweet corn, leeks and spicy chili; roasted fall fruits, ham hocks and sauerkraut; or a vegetarian version using mushrooms.

Some of Charles’ favourite fall side dishes are roasted brussels sprouts with shallots, bacon and chestnuts, or honey-roasted carrots. He also loves parsnip puree. Simply cook parsnips in milk with a fresh bay leaf, then puree and season with a hint of honey and touch of salt.

Olson, who hosted “Bake with Anna Olson” and “Sugar” on Food Network Canada, keeps side dishes light to counter the richness of the other food.

Instead of a potato gratin or scalloped potatoes laden with cream, milk and cheese, try boulangere potatoes: layers of sliced potatoes and caramelized onions with stock that can bake alongside the turkey.

She keeps flavour builders like caramelized onions and roasted garlic on hand to boost fall dishes.

“When you need to add that little ‘something something’ to make your gravy that much better, a spoonful of caramelized onions just really takes it to the next level or adds zip to a soup. Or I toss it with sweet potatoes,” says Olson.

While apple or pumpkin pie are traditional Thanksgiving fare, you can use the seasonal ingredients in other ways.

For a twist on a pumpkin pie that Olson calls “heaven,” fill a chocolate pastry shell with a thin layer of pumpkin custard and top it with chocolate ganache.

For a crowd, the dessert guru makes pumpkin chocolate trifle — layers of chocolate cake or chocolate wafer cookies with pumpkin mousse.

“It looks beautiful, the dark brown and the orange layered on top of each other in a trifle bowl. You could even do poached pear or cooked apple if you wanted to add a fruit element,” she says. Or layer chilled apple crisp in a trifle bowl with custard spiked with bourbon.

“I don’t own a trifle bowl so I use my flower vases ‚Äî well cleaned, of course. They work great because they’re flat-sided and you can fit a spoon into it.”

For a sumptuous pumpkin mousse, Olson stirs a little brown sugar into softened cream cheese, then folds in pumpkin puree and whipped cream.

Charles likes dessert to be uncomplicated.

“I just love simple pies with local berries (blueberries, cloudberries and partridge berries) and some vanilla ice cream. How can you beat that?”

Follow @lois—abraham on Twitter.

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