Does anything scare new cooks more than gravy? And what to do when faced with a sweet potato AND yam? Chef Weiner explains preparing traditional Thanksgiving sides from scratch—and teaching it virtually.
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
Happy nearly Thanksgiving! I am going to do something I have never done before. I am revisiting and changing a previous article. My 2014 Thanksgiving column is my most-read piece. This 2020 article takes the best from that article and updates it for virtual teaching.
During the holidays, your students may be volunteered or required to take on cooking responsibilities. This can be scary or intimidating. Some students have only attended culinary classes virtually. They may never have stepped into any teaching kitchens. Furthermore, over the years they may have watched their family freak out about Thanksgiving dinner. Or, watched their parents purchase canned and packaged food.
It’s your job to teach them how to make great-tasting, healthy, homemade side dishes. Here are five items that can be easily taught virtually. The dishes can be made in one class day or prepped on one day and finished the next.
There is 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 one cup water and ¾ cup to one cup sugar into a heavy pot. (Sugar 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.
Does anything scare new cooks more than gravy? It should not take more than 20 minutes to make a perfect gravy. Gravy is a thick sauce. A sauce is nothing more than a flavorful liquid thickened with either with a roux or a slurry and seasoned. (Note: Keep these definitions for teaching sauces. The thought of sauces scares young culinarians, and these simple definitions help put them at ease.) For Thanksgiving, the flavorful liquid is often the turkey pan drippings. This is problematic because the juice is mostly fat and not accessible until close to serving. I recommend your students used canned chicken broth, for which I give special dispensation.
- Roux - Take an equal weight of butter and flour and whisk it over medium heat until it becomes light golden brown. It will take about 10 minutes. Add the flavorful liquid and bring to a boil over medium heat. Taste and season.
- Slurry Method - Warm the flavorful liquid. Separately make a slurry of either cornstarch and water or flour and water. Add the slurry to the heated liquid while whisking. Add a little at a time. You can always add more but you can’t take it out. Taste and season.
There rules apply to both methods:
- If the liquid is hot, the roux or slurry must be room temperature. If you add hot to hot you get lumps.
- If the liquid is cool, the roux or slurry must be hot. If you add cool to cool you get lumps.
- The slurry or roux doesn’t reach its full thickening power until the pot comes 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 by freaking out that it wasn’t thick enough and prematurely added more roux or slurry. Then when the gravy reached the boil, it was concrete consistency.
- See the roux or slurry are smooth and not lumpy.
- The measurements of liquid, slurry or roux are dependent on the amount of gravy required. Both are very inexpensive so make more than you think is required.
Sweet potatoes and yams
My 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 much confusion by even experienced chefs on which is which, which is beyond this article’s scope. It doesn’t matter for Thanksgiving because you prepare them identically. Please, if possible, no cans for this one. Fresh is better and both are available nationwide.
We grew up with sickly sweet potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows. Let’s teach our students how to make this dish less sweet, lower calories and more sweet potato or yam flavor.
- Baked - Bake them like russet potatoes. Wash them, prick and put in the oven. Monitor them as they cook faster than russets. Note they tend to drip so put them on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet and turn them halfway through cooking to ensure even cook. Small ones cook in about 40 minutes.
- Upscale Baked - Wash them, prick and roll in olive oil. Sprinkle with Kosher salt or sea salt and pepper (preferably white) and bake as stated above.
- Mashed - Make great mashed sweet potatoes and yams by peeling, boiling until fork tender in salted water, and adding a little butter, salt and preferably white pepper. Try it before adding cream or milk. No point adding calories and fat unless it is required. Start to finish is less than 30 minutes.
- Casserole - 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 mashed sweet potatoes and smooth the top. Top with panko or regular breadcrumbs and spray with cooking spray. The spray will help brown the breadcrumbs. Bake covered until nearly warmed through. Remove the cover for the last few minutes to brown the breadcrumbs. I can’t give you an exact time. It depends on the size of the casserole. Leave the marshmallows for fireplace s’mores.
Students buy expensive salad dressings that have who-knows-what added. A simple vinaigrette is easy, tastes better and will impress 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 mustard. The mustard is not as much for flavor as to help create an emulsion, which holds the vinegar and oil together. (Oil, water, and vinegar are mostly water and don’t mix without an emulsion.) The more mustard, the more the dressing will be mustardy. There is nothing wrong with that.
Add the vinegar to the bowl. (Use a good vinegar such as rice wine, red wine or balsamic. Plain vinegar has no flavor.) Measure a good quality oil in a separate measuring cup. The amount of oil should be about two times the vinegar amount. (If you like dressings vinegary, use a 1½ to 1 ratio.) Slowly stream in the oil while constantly whisking. If oil starts appearing on the surface, stop adding oil and keep whisking. When the oil combines, start whisking again. Stop whisking when all the oil has been added. Taste for seasoning.
Corn bread or biscuits
Click here for basic corn bread and biscuit recipes that make classroom-size portions. This is a good time to have students practice reducing recipes. Please double check their math.
Finally, there is the question of Jell-O molds. As in my 2014 November article, I am not going there. My wife is from Wisconsin where apparently there is some state law requiring it must be green. A dear friend who hails from Minnesota says it must be red. My best friend from Iowa tells them they both are wrong.
I will take the easy way and say make it the student’s way 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: I wrote an article for 50-Minute Classroom “Do You Teach Recipes or Technique?” I concluded you can’t teach students how to cook just using recipes or just using techniques. You should teach students both and more importantly how to use a hybrid of the two. The above side dishes show the importance of this. Now is the perfect time for your class to practice the necessary skills of using the hybrid technique of recipes and techniques.
Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 16 years.