‘Don’t get overwhelmed’

It’s that time of year again. Time to blow the dust off great-grandma’s recipe for apple stuffing and the perfect cranberry-Jell-O mold. Time to browse the shelves of Mar-Val, Angels Market and Safeway, pausing for just a moment to squint at the decade’s-old recipe and wonder, “do they even still sell that anymore?”

Prepping for the iconic Thanksgiving meal doesn’t have to be a nail-biter though, according to the head chefs at some of the county’s top restaurants.

“Cooking is not an exact science,” said Hotel Leger Head Chef Chuck Swisher. “I never follow recipes exactly as they’re written down. Cooking is about understanding texture, taste and appearance. It’s also about sharing your culture and community.”

Swisher, who has worked at Hotel Leger for the past six months but been involved in the food service industry for 23 years, stressed that the Thanksgiving holiday should focus more around spending time with one’s family as opposed to spending all day locked inside the kitchen.

“You should pick your favorite dish to share. It’s kind of hard to mess up on what you love to eat,” laughed Swisher.

For only the third time in 20 years, Mokelumne Hill’s top chef will be spending Thursday with his family. Each guest will be bringing their own traditional dish and recipes will be swapped and compiled into a family cookbook to be distributed at Christmas.

“The key is not to cater to somebody else,” he said. “Just because it’s Thanksgiving doesn’t mean it has to be turkey if you don’t enjoy that. Find a happy medium. If my 10-year-old son wants to share his recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches I’m sure we’ll all be OK with that. Don’t lose sight of what kind of food you enjoy by trying to impress others.”

Across the county at Murphys Historic Hotel, Chef Joel Lacitignola was already hard at work prepping for the Hotel’s traditional Thanksgiving meal and he stressed that even for the home chef, proper preparation is key to building a solid foundation for a great dinner.

“We’re already cutting all the bread we need,” he said, jerking his thumb back toward the kitchen where staff members were hard at work preparing for the more than 200 guests they plan to serve this Thursday.

“Having a dedicated staff is also really important, here and at home,” he continued. “I’ve been helping my wife prep and organize (for their family’s own Thanksgiving meal). I think the important thing for the home chef is not to get overwhelmed. You don’t need to do too much to satisfy everyone and have a nice meal.”

This year’s menu features all the traditional Thanksgiving and Hotel favorites, roasted turkey, a winter vegetable pot pie, lamb shank, pork roulade, prime rib and – new this year – a walnut crusted salmon.

“Remember,” said Lacitignola, “this is a holiday. There’s enough hustle and bustle as it is.”

Even if your holiday meal takes a detour and doesn’t go exactly as planned, Chef Swisher’s advice may help prevent any negative memories emerging at your holiday table.

“At the very least, it’ll make for a great conversation piece.”

Contact Kristine Williams at kristine@calaverasenterprise.com.