Transcribed by James Creange
Photos by Kelcey Harris.
This month, Chef Jon Bonnell answered all of your Thanksgiving related questions. To submit your Christmas questions for December, leave a comment on this post or send an email to [email protected].
Reader Question: Chef, I’m hosting Thanksgiving for the first time this year, and half of my guests don’t like turkey. Help!
Jon Bonnell: That is awesome. That comes up every year, and nobody wants to admit it. For me, we always do turkey and we’ll do a ham. My daughter shot her first buck last year, so we also did venison meatballs. I think having two or three different kinds of meats is a great idea. We are famous for our to-go food so we can make Thanksgiving for your family the easiest thing ever. Last year we sold something like 120 turkeys. Some were smoked, some were fried, some roasted. We also sold a ton of tenderloin and venison. We like to give everybody a big box with their turkey, their mashed potatoes, and their other sides. All they have to do is turn the oven on which makes Thanksgiving easy. The whole point of the holiday is getting your family together. The point isn’t to put out the greatest meal at any cost. We want to make it easier for people to get together and just spend time with their families.
RQ: What’s the most important Thanksgiving side?
JB: The most important side for me is the gravy. I think gravy is just the greatest thing ever. We will take the drippings from the bird while it’s roasting – I’ll use the fat to make a roux. I’ll use the drippings to make it the “turkiest” gravy possible. Other than the gravy, which I can’t think about turkey without the gravy, a side dish that I like to do is a green chile and oyster dressing. It reminds me of New Orleans where we had a lot of green chiles. It adds a little spice to it, and there’s freshly shucked oysters in there too. Instead of just turkey stock or chicken stock in there, the oysters are the filler, and we use a little bit of clam juice too. It’s got a lot of great flavors in there. It’s very unique.
RQ: Do you host Thanksgiving?
JB: I do. We have it out at my parent’s lake house. Last year was the first year we hadn’t done it in awhile because my mother had passed away, so we all went to the other side of the family. But this year we’re back. We always shoot a wild bird for Thanksgiving. I think I was 13 when I got my first turkey, and we’ve managed to find a wild bird ever since. The hunt will be the weekend before Thanksgiving, so it’s very fresh. My daughter who’s 12 is excited because she thinks that she’s getting it this year. We’ve been to the range and she’s been practicing – she’s getting very good. There’s only been one year that I didn’t get a turkey, and that’s when I was working on Thanksgiving day. When I was in New Orleans, I was the low man on the totem pole, and I certainly wasn’t getting Thanksgiving off.
RQ: Are there any good Thanksgiving themed cocktails that you enjoy?
JB: We always start off Thanksgiving with a Bloody Mary. A really spicy Bloody Mary with a celery stick is the perfect one for me. Typically, I’ll also be running the Turkey Trot. I’m a little hurt this year, so I won’t be running it. But normally, I’ll put my bird on the smoker and then go run the race. By the time I get back, a Bloody Mary while the turkey is coming off is kind of my go to.
RQ: How do I not dry out my turkey for the third year in a row?
JB: The key is to start with brine. You can look up any brine you want. The basic idea is that you’re soaking the bird in water that’s got salt and a little bit of sugar. There’s tons of different ways to flavor it up. Use more salt than sugar because it’s a hypertonic solution. It just means that the bird will swell up. Weigh your turkey when you put it in the brine; weigh it when you take it out. It weighs more, and there’s more juice to begin with. Roast your bird. Don’t let it go too far. If it’s dry, you’ve probably overcooked it. If you wait for a little chunk of plastic to pop out, that is an incredibly inaccurate scientific method. I like to use a digital thermometer. The deepest part of the thigh and the deepest part of the breast are the best places to check. Once you get to 155 or 160 degrees, you’re good. The thermometer will tell you to pull it at 175 or 180 degrees, but the lawyers write those instructions. Pull it at 155 or 160 degrees and let it rest for awhile – then you’ll be good.
RQ: What’s your best Thanksgiving memory from growing up?
JB: My favorite Thanksgiving memory was always the weekend before. It’s great to go out and try to find a turkey. We’d be deer hunting too. Getting the turkey, being able to brine it, and then smoke it – that was the best. I always loved getting to do something different or unique. When I was a kid, the pride of saying that you were the one to get the turkey was the greatest feeling in the world. That, to me, is a connection to food that is more intimate and more meaningful than pulling the frozen bird out of the freezer section at WalMart.