Thanksgiving Boot Camp

Get in tip-top shape for hosting a stress-free Turkey Day feast.


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Let’s face it: hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be more than a little daunting. But according to Executive Chef Wes Morton, who taught a Turkey Day Boot Camp class at Art and Soul in Washington, D.C., having a game plan, prepping in advance and using a cooking trick or two will ensure that you host without a hitch.

Prep Sides

“Simple things can bog down your day-of cooking schedule, so set aside time in advance to prep your ingredients,” suggests Morton. Chop up all the herbs and vegetables, sort and measure the spices, and make the stuffing and cranberry sauce in advance of the big day.

Flatten Your Bird

Spatchcocking—a traditional method of cooking chicken after removing the spine, flattening and butterflying the bird—is a technique that accelerates roasting and “can shave up to an hour off your turkey cook time,” says Morton. Prep and season the turkey the day before, then on the day of, temper the bird and place it in the oven to roast.

Make Dessert Early

Assemble and freeze pies in advance. “They can be taken right from the freezer to the oven on Thanksgiving Day,” says Morton. Or think outside the crust: Poach skinned and cored pears in Port or Madeira, and refrigerate them. When you’re ready to serve dessert, top them with a dollop of mascarpone, a drizzle of honey and a handful of candied pecans.

Start with Sips
Mix up a massive punch bowl ahead of time, leaving out any effervescent ingredients, and refrigerate. When your guests arrive thirsty—and you need more time in the kitchen—put out the bowl, add some bubbly or soda water, and voilà, you have a self-serve station.


Eggplant Dressing

Recipe courtesy Wes Morton, executive chef, Art and Soul, Washington, D.C.

This Southern side has great depth of flavor, thanks to roasted eggplants, sautéed vegetables and chili peppers. And if you are short on time, you can buy the cornbread.

5 pounds eggplant
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
⅔ cup sugar
3½ teaspoons baking powder
1 cup buttermilk
⅓ cup butter, melted
3 tablespoons of butter, divided
2 large Vidalia onions, finely diced
2 green bell peppers, finely diced
5 celery stalks, cleaned and diced
1 fresh jalapeño or Fresno chili pepper, finely minced
5 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 quart chicken broth, divided
1 cup scallions, finely sliced with white parts included
1 cup flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
2 whole eggs
Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper, to taste

Preheat an oven to 375o F.

Split the eggplants in half lengthwise. Score the flesh side with a paring knife to make a diamond checkerboard effect. Lightly salt the eggplants on the cut side, and allow them to set for one hour to draw out some of the water and bitterness.

In the meantime, in a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix the buttermilk and butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and stir just until they are combined.

Preheat an 8-inch cast iron skillet in the oven, and add 1 tablespoon of butter. Once the butter has melted, add the batter and bake it for thirty minutes, or until a paring knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Allow the cornbread to cool then crumble it with your hands in a large mixing bowl. Next, squeeze the water out of the eggplants, taking care not to damage their shape. Place them, skin side up, on a baking tray lined with foil, and bake for 45 minutes in the still-hot oven, or until they are very tender. Remove them from the oven and allow them to stand at room temperature until you can handle them.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan over medium-low heat, add 2 tablespoons of butter (or enough to coat the bottom of the pan you are using. Add the onions, bell pepper, celery, chili pepper and garlic, stirring constantly. Be careful not to caramelize the vegetables. Season the vegetables with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste, and remove them from the heat. Add a few tablespoons of the chicken broth to moisten.

Holding onto the skin side of the eggplant, scrape off the flesh with a spoon and place it into a large mixing bowl. Add an amount of crumbled cornbread to the bowl that is half the volume of the eggplant. Add the cooked vegetables, scallions, parsley, lemon juice, eggs and enough chicken broth to moisten. (It should be very wet, but not soupy.) Place the mixture into a greased casserole dish, and bake in the oven until the crumbs are golden brown. Serves 6–8.


Turtle Tart

Recipe courtesy Wes Morton, executive chef of Art and Soul, Washington, D.C.

This chocolate dessert is a nice switch-up from traditional pumpkin and apple pies—and its preparation requires no oven space on the big day.

1½ cups Oreo cookie crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup butter, melted
1 cup chocolate bar, 66% cocoa, chopped
2 cups brown sugar, packed
1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups pecans, chopped and toasted
3 cups chocolate bar, 44% cocoa, chopped
Pecans and sea salt, for garnish (optional)

Preheat an oven to 350°F.

Add the cookie crumbs, salt, sugar and melted butter in a mixing bowl, and combine them with your hands until they are well mixed. Press the mixture into a tart or pie mold and baked in the oven for 10 minutes. Set it aside to cool.

Melt the chocolate, spread it over the bottom of the pre-baked crust and allow it to set. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine ¼ cup of water, brown sugar and 1 cup of the heavy cream and cook for 10–15 minutes until it thickens or coats the back of a spoon.

Next, add the butter to the brown sugar mixture and stir constantly until it is melted and well combined. Add the toasted pecans. Pour the mixture into the prepared tart mold and allow it to cool and set.

In a double boiler over medium heat, combine the 44% chocolate and the remaining heavy cream to make a ganache. When it’s melted, spread the ganache over the top of the cooled tart. Garnish the tart with additional pecans and sea salt, if desired.

Allow the tart to sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving. Serves 68.

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