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Fresh[er] tips for a grand Thanksgiving dinner

By Brandon Hernández

Thanksgiving is a special day worthy of an equally-special meal. But, as anyone who has been responsible for getting that grand meal on the table knows, making sure everything is just right can be something of a challenge. But fear not! Ryan Johnston, the executive chef of La Jolla’s Fresh[er] restaurant, is getting into the spirit of the holiday by sharing his passion as well as a variety of helpful techniques to ensure a successful, tasty and memorable dinner for you and your guests.

For many people, the most challenging part of Thanksgiving is preparing so many dishes at or around the same time. Johnston stresses the importance of planning every detail beforehand.

“The process is so important in creating a successful Thanksgiving dinner,” Johnston said. “I always plan the meal step-by-step and make a game plan. Know which items will take the longest time to prepare and plan the cooking process accordingly. Any prep work you can do will make your Thanksgiving day much easier.”

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So, if you are making pie from scratch, prepare the dough up to a week in advance. Prepare a cranberry sauce, soup or dessert a day or two in advance. We all know there are certain dishes that just taste better the next day, so use that to your advantage. Peel your potatoes, dice your carrots and make your stuffing the night before, so it’s ready for action the next morning.

Another easy pre-Turkey Day step that will significantly enhance the flavor and moistness of your bird is brining. Simply combine water, stock, broth or even beer in a large pot with salt, sugar and flavoring items such as cloves, garlic and peppercorns. Submerge your turkey in the brining liquid and leave it, covered, for two or three days. Then, remove the turkey from the pot, drain it, and it’s ready for the oven.

When roasting your turkey, Johnston decrees that you, “always use a meat thermometer! The internal temperature of the turkey should be 135 degrees (Fahrenheit) on the thigh bone when the turkey is done. At this point, take the turkey out of the oven and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.”

During that half hour, the turkey will continue to cook, so that it will be perfectly done when you slice into it. And that gives you a half hour to devote to finishing the other dishes you’ll have baking, roasting and simmering away.

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A great technique for handling multiple kitchen tasks - especially last-minute ones - is to get your guests involved. Not only does it give you extra sets of hands, but it also allows you to talk and spend quality time with your family and friends, which is a big part of what Thanksgiving is all about.

As one might guess from the name of Johnston’s restaurant, his excitement stems from using the freshest local and hand-made ingredients. And since those ingredients are different each year, his Thanksgiving dinner is also different each year.

“I don’t really know what the season is going to produce, but when I see it, get it and then cook it, it’s like getting a new toy,” Johnston said.

You don’t have to be a professional chef to be innovative and even a bit whimsical in the kitchen. While Thanksgiving features more traditional recipes than any other meal of the year, there is no reason not to think outside the box and include a few unconventional dishes as well. As with any meal, the key is using the best ingredients available.

Take a trip to the grocery store and see what produce looks particularly good or choose some wildly exotic ingredient that is hard to come by and plan side dishes around them. You just might come up with a new family favorite to add to the parade of mainstays we all know and love. But no matter what vegetables you decide on, be sure to buy them the day before. The finest flavors are derived from ingredients procured at the peak of freshness.

And while we’re on the subject, no discussion on fresh ingredients would be complete without mentioning herbs. Thyme, oregano, parsley, sage, rosemary, marjoram, chervil, mint - they all feature bright, potent flavors capable of lifting the taste of dressings, potatoes, soups, casseroles, squash and vegetables to the next level.

The same goes for another ingredient that is a favorite of chefs everywhere, Johnston included.

“Use lots of butter,” Johnston said. “It’s a special day and this will always make your dishes taste great!”

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Thanksgiving recipes

Pie Dough

2 ounces all-purpose flour

1 3/4 Tbsp granulated sugar

1/4 tsp salt

9 ounces unsalted butter, chilled and diced small

3 large egg yolks

4 ounces ice water

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1/4 tsp fresh lemon juice

Place the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix the ingredients together. Add the butter and mix until the mixture takes on a coarse meal consistency. Add the egg yolks and water and mix until they are fully incorporated. Remove the dough from the bowl, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Unwrap the dough and place it on a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a 9-inch wide, _-inch thick round and place in the bottom of a tart pan. Dock the dough with the tines of a fork and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Line the shell with aluminum foil and fill the pan with baking beads or uncooked beans. Bake for 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool before adding pie filling.

Squash Gratin

6 Tbsp unsalted butter

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 pounds Kabocha squash, peeled, seeded and diced

1/4 tsp coriander seed, crushed

2 tsp all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

1/4 cup Gruyere cheese, grated

1/4 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs, lightly toasted

2 Tbsp cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions, season with salt, pepper and coriander and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. In a bowl, sprinkle the squash with the flour and toss. Add the squash to the pan and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook until a the mixture takes on the consistency of a light sauce. Simmer the mixture for 20 minutes. Stir in the cream. Transfer the mixture to a casserole dish. Sprinkle evenly with the cheese and breadcrumbs place in the oven. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes. Serve.

Cranberry Mustard

A great substitute for cranberry sauce

2 cups water

2 Tbsp dry mustard

1/2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

6 Tbsp fresh cranberries, pureed

3 ounces malt vinegar

2 Tbsp honey

3 large egg yolks

1/2 tsp granulated sugar

1/2 tsp salt

Bring the water to a boil in a heavy-bottom saucepan. Whisk all of the ingredients together in a round-bottomed metal mixing bowl. Place the bowl atop the saucepan and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thick, but not frothy. Remove the bowl from the heat and cover the mixture.

Serve chilled or at room temperature.