Thanksgiving is the No. 1 farm-to-table holiday. More than any other it is based on food — and local, some of it foraged food at that.
Local food is part of America’s origin myth. Think squashes, root vegetables, turkey for that matter. Think scarcity for settlers that turned to plenty with help from Native Americans who knew how to find the food that was available … locally.
With this in mind, WCPO asked four prominent local farm-to-table chefs for their thoughts on the holiday. What do they love about Thanksgiving — beyond the chance to give thanks with family and friends? What are they cooking and eating this year? We found some surprising answers.
Bennett said he was planning a turkey roulade with herbs. “This year,” he said, “we are doing both white- and dark-meat turkey. It’s from Elmwood stock farms based out of just above Lexington.…
“We’re going to take the skin off the whole bird. We are going to take the breast and the dark meat. We’re going to take the breasts, and we’re going to roll them up into a roulade with some herbs, and then were going to vacuum seal them and then slowly poach them in an immersion circulator” for up to three hours.
The following day, the poached turkey will be deep fried in to give it a crispy skin. The legs will be made into a confit.
Bennett said that in the end his turkey roulades will be a classic dish, but “we’re doing a modern method … just cooking it a little bit differently. The idea is to have it taste like your grandmother’s turkey dinner.”
Also on the menu: sautéed Brussels sprouts, charred cranberry relish, a dressing of Blue Oven bread with fennel and smoked butter.
Bennett said much of the produce for Thanksgiving dinner — as in the regular menu — will come from the Ohio Valley Food Connection, which distributes the produce of local farmers.
What is Bennett’s personal favorite dish for Thanksgiving? “My mother’s chicken and noodles.”
Speaking of hotels, Julie Francis of Nectar said she has taken her family to the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza for Thanksgiving dinner. “Usually we go out to eat just because I am a chef, and it’s an opportunity to take the day off.”
But sometimes she does cook at home.
“Other times,” she said, “we definitely cook, and for years I have either located a local turkey or perhaps other local meats.... I got a local goose one year, which is what we prefer to eat rather than turkey. Goose has been delicious in the past, and we tend to like that just because it has more dark meat and it’s a little more interesting flavorwise.
“I usually always have a lot of local squash to prepare and local fruits, apples and pears. And we always have a green salad — spinach has been really strong right now.
“We kind of just wing it every year. I really don’t have recipes that we just do over and over.… My family, they’re really up for anything. As long as it’s local and fresh and seasonal, they’re fine with different preparations of lots of things.”
One locally pertinent Thanksgiving dish that came to mind, Francis said, was persimmon pudding. It’s a traditional recipe, she said, a custard using persimmon pulp.
“This is a wild persimmon, so it’s a real small fruit. It’s the wild native American persimmon, and they’re in seasons right now. So they drop to the ground, and you have to pick them up and you have to make sure that it’s dead ripe, just like any persimmon, because they can have a good amount of tannin — dead, dead ripe.
“But persimmon pudding is very classic,” she said. “I think also very Thanksgiving.”
Mike Florea of Maribelle’s said his restaurant, like Nectar, will be closed for the holiday.
“We try to make sure our employees and everyone gets to spend time with their family,” he said.
“We’re buying a bunch of sweet potatoes this Thanksgiving, and we’re going to make a huge batch of our sweet potatoes, and then we’re going to give them to our employees to take to their families.”
He said that this time of year was a special time for farm-to-table food: “Right now beets, any roots — carrots, parsnips, potatoes — then as far as vines go, there’s a ton of peppers ... bell peppers, paprika, caipirinha peppers, shishitos (peppers). [Plus] turnips, radishes — those are still coming in really nice.
“Obviously, your squashes, your pumpkins and your spaghetti squash and acorn squash — we used this squash last week called butterkin, which is a a butternut-pumpkin blend. We got that locally.… We did that [in the restaurant] as a mash with some cream and butter and some salt and pepper into it. It was really good.”
Florea said his plan for Thanksgiving is to make soup for a soup kitchen, then pick up his daughter and go to his grandmother’s house in Indiana, where he will not be cooking.
“I like to have my mom and my grandmother do that,” he said.
“My family does the traditional, you know: the turkey, the stuffing and all that. Just like most of us in this industry, our families don’t always understand 100 percent how we think, and they would have the same thing no matter what time of the year it was or what was in season or not.”
For Florea, Thanksgiving pleasure is about family. “It’s the love that the women put into it — my grandmother and my mom, the women of my life — that I enjoy about it.”
As for the sweet potatoes on Maribelle’s menu — the dish that will go home with the staff — he offered this guide: He tosses quartered sweet potatoes with olive oil and a mix of chili pepper, allspice and nutmeg — “the warm spices” — with salt and pepper. After the sweet potatoes are roasted, “We take goat cheese and whip it with honey and a little bit of cream, so it’s like a whipped goat cheese, and candied pecans…. It caramelizes on the outside, but it’s still like a mashed sweet potato on the inside.”
Stephen Williams of Bouquet said his restaurant also will be closed on the holiday.
“Since we’re so small basically everybody works full-time. We like to close down and get everybody so they can travel to their families.”
Williams said he will be traveling with his family “down to Louisville to see my side of the family. I will not be cooking. My mom will be, my mom and grandmother.”
Is he looking forward to having someone else cook?
“They won’t let me cook when I go down there. They think that that’s all I do for a living, so they like to give me a break. If I could I would be in the kitchen every second with them, but they force me to sit down and relax, so it’s kind of nice.”
When asked what are his favorite Thanksgiving dishes, he took a long pause.
“I love mashed potatoes, green beans, roasted apples. My grandmother makes these things called angel biscuits, which are like a real light fluffy, buttery biscuit made from scratch. We actually took that same recipe and modified it, and it’s our bison pot-pie crust here at the restaurant.”
His favorite dish to make for Thanksgiving? Stuffing. “Bread, herbs, onions, nothing fancy.… Pretty much all of our recipes here at Bouquet and what we cook at home are about as simple as it gets.”
Williams continued: “I look at every holiday as a farm-to-table holiday — or every meal, really, if possible. Thanksgiving itself I look at it more as a family eating-together time.
“I don’t think a lot of people in this country know a lot about farm-to-table.… I don’t think much of that hits the Thanksgiving table,… but I think this is the best time of year because you’re really getting a lot of the late harvest and early-winter harvest items coming in like squashes and late corn and all the beautiful apples and root vegetables.
“It’s probably my favorite holiday because it’s just based around eating.”