Does anything scare new cooks more than gravy? And what to do when faced with a sweet potato AND a yam? Chef Weiner explains how educators can assuage students’ fears of preparing traditional Thanksgiving sides from scratch—and teach it all successfully in 50 minutes.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
Hard to believe, the holidays are upon us. For many of your students, they learned from a young age the important lesson that love must go into the food. However, they probably watched their parents “freak out” about Thanksgiving dinner or, worse yet, watched their parents purchase canned and packaged food.
So it is your job how to teach them to make great-tasting, healthy, homemade side dishes. Here are five items that can all be easily made in one class day, or prepped on one day and finished the next.
1. Cranberry Sauce. There is absolutely nothing easier to make than cranberry sauce. Yet, almost everyone resorts to cans. If your student can boil water, he or she can make homemade cranberry sauce in under 15 minutes.
Rinse a 12-ounce package of cranberries. Add 1 cup water and ¾ cup to 1 cup sugar into a heavy pot. (Amount depends on how sweet you like the sauce.) Simmer for about 10 minutes. The longer you simmer, the thicker the sauce. If you want the sauce smooth, just push the mixture through a strainer while it is still hot. Want to kick it up a notch? Add in diced dried apricots, lemon zest or a pinch of cinnamon, or let your mind be creative.
2. Gravy. Does anything scare new cooks more than gravy? It should not take any more than 20 minutes to make a perfect gravy. A gravy is nothing more than a thick sauce. A sauce is nothing more than a flavorful liquid that has been thickened either with a roux or a slurry and then seasoned. For Thanksgiving the flavorful liquid is often the drippings from the turkey pan. This is problematic because it is mostly fat. I recommend that you have your students used canned (yes, canned—I give special dispensation) chicken broth.
a. Roux Method. Take an equal weight of butter and flour and whisk it over medium heat until it becomes a light golden brown. It will take about 10 minutes. Add the flavorful liquid and bring to a boil over medium heat. Taste and season.
b. Slurry Method. Warm the flavorful liquid. Separately make a slurry of cornstarch OR flour and water. Add the slurry to the heated liquid. Whisk while adding. Add the slurry a little at a time; you can always add more, but you can’t take it out. Taste and season.
There are a few rules that apply to both methods
- If the liquid is hot, the roux or slurry must be room temperature. If you add hot to hot you will get lumps.
- If the liquid is cool, the roux or slurry must be hot. If you add cool to cool you will get lumps.
- The slurry or roux doesn’t reach its full thickening power until it and the liquid it was added to come nearly to a boil. Add a little roux or slurry at a time and bring the mixture to nearly a boil to check the consistency. Remember, you can always add more, but you can’t take it out. Many experienced cooks (including me) have screwed up gravy by freaking out that it wasn’t thick enough and prematurely added more roux or slurry. Then when it reached the boil, it was the consistency of concrete.
- Remember to make sure that the roux and slurry are smooth and not lumpy.
- The measurements of liquid, slurry and roux are obviously dependent on the amount of gravy being made.
3. Sweet Potatoes and Yams. My 20-something daughter refers to these as the perfect food year ’round. As she says, “Sweet potatoes are the perfect food. They are a potato and dessert in one. How can you not love that?”
There is a lot of confusion by even experienced chefs on which is which. That is beyond the scope of this article. It doesn’t really matter for Thanksgiving, because you prepare them both the same way. Please, if possible, no cans for this one. Fresh is better, and are now available nationwide throughout most of the year.
We all grew up with sickly sweet stuff with brown sugar and marshmallows. Well, let’s teach our students how to do this with less sweet, less calories and more sweet potato or yam flavor.
a. Baked. You bake them just like russet potatoes. Wash them, prick them and put them in the oven. They cook faster, so monitor them. Note that they tend to drip, so you might want to put them on an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet and turn them over halfway through cooking so they cook evenly. Small ones cook in about 40 minutes. (And, notice all of the calories we saved.)
b. Upscale Baked. Wash them, prick them, and roll them in olive oil. Sprinkle with Kosher salt or sea salt and pepper (preferably white) and bake as stated above.
c. Mashed. You can make great mashed sweet potatoes and yams by peeling, boiling until fork tender in salted water, and then adding a little bit of butter and some salt and pepper (preferably white). Try it that way before adding cream or milk. No point adding calories and fat unless you really need to. Start to finish is less than 30 minutes.
d. Casserole. Okay, you insist on the casserole being on the table. Make the mashed sweet potatoes as above the day before. Butter or spray a casserole pan. Add in the mashed sweet potatoes and smooth out the top. Top with panko or regular bread crumbs and spray the top with cooking spray. The spray will help the bread crumbs brown. Bake covered until nearly warmed through and remove the cover for the last few minutes to brown the bread crumbs. Sorry I can’t give you an exact time. It of course depends on the size of the casserole.
4. Salad Dressing.Our students buy expensive salad dressings that have who-knows-what added to them. A simple vinaigrette is easy, tastes better and will impress the guests. The key here is to slowly add the oil. Measurements depend on how much you are making.
Start with a large bowl. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and a little bit of mustard. The mustard is not as much for flavor as to help create an emulsion, which holds the vinegar and oil together. (Oil and water—and vinegar is mostly water—don’t mix unless you create an emulsion.) The more mustard, the more the dressing will be mustardy, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Add the vinegar to the bowl. (Try to use a good vinegar such as rice wine, red wine or balsamic. Plain vinegar basically has no flavor.) Measure out in a separate measuring cup a good quality oil. The amount of the oil should be about 2 times the amount of vinegar. (If you like the dressing more vinegary, use a 1½ to 1 ratio.) Slowly stream in the oil while constantly whisking. If oil starts appearing on the surface, then stop adding the oil and keep whisking. When the oil combines, you can start whisking again. Stop whisking when all of the oil has been added in. Taste for seasoning.
5. JELL-O Mold.I am not going there. My wife is from Wisconsin, where apparently there is a state law that says it must be green. A dear friend who hails from Minnesota says it must be red. My best friend is from Iowa, and tells both of them they are wrong.
So, I will take the easy way out and say to make it any way the student wants as long as he or she doesn’t add fresh pineapple. An enzyme in fresh pineapple (not present in canned) keeps the JELLO-O from setting.
A final note: In January 2013 I wrote an article for “50-Minute Classroom” titled “Do You Teach Recipes or Technique?”I concluded that you can’t teach students how to cook by just using recipes or just using techniques. At that time I concluded that you have to teach students how to do both, and more importantly how to use a hybrid of the two. The above side dishes show the importance of this.
Notice that I don’t give specific amounts, temperatures or cooking times because I don’t know how many servings are needed. This is the perfect time for your class to practice the necessary skill of using the hybrid technique of recipes and techniques.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation.Photo:Unlike sweet-potato mash smothered in marshmallow, Christopher Koetke, CEC, CCE, HAAC, vice president, Laureate International Universities Center of Excellence in Culinary Arts and the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago, offers a different take on a common and loved holiday veggie. Candied ginger lends a tantalizing taste dimension that takes this dish to flavorful heights. These sweet potatoes can be prepared up to two days in advance and stored in the walk-in or cooler. Simply reheat to serve. To download the tasting-quantity recipe, see the link below.
- KC Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Orange & Ginger (98 Downloads)