Of more than 100 ingredients that can go into a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is the acknowledged star.
Cook it just right and you'll be the talk of the town. Dry it out, and you've no recourse to save the meal of the year.
"You have to give it due diligence," but don't check it too much, says Anthony Micari, executive chef of the Ebbitt Room at The Virginia Hotel in Cape May. "If you're opening the oven every 10 minutes because you're worried, it's not going to do well."
Micari has some experience making Thanksgiving dinner for two to 200 people. He has probably worked every Thanksgiving since he started working in restaurants, when he was 15.
"It's always a big thing in our household," he says. "I'll usually celebrate after the holiday, with my fiancee who works in the front of the house."
Micari has worked in high-end restaurants from Atlantic City to New York, including cooking at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and The Chelsea in Atlantic City. This year, Micari is offering guests at The Virginia a chance to enjoy a price fixe traditional turkey dinner in the Ebbitt Room, or to make their own "homemade" dinner in the comfort of the Victorian cottages on historic Jackson Street the hotel rents to visitors.
Guests who choose the later can order a turkey to roast in the oven of the old-timey cottages, and simply reheat a spread of prepared sides including roasted sausage and apple stuffing, roasted Brussels sprouts, sweet-potato gratin, cranberry marmalade, roast beet salad and pumpkin soup.
The produce is the seasonal harvest from the attached Beach Plum Farm, which boasts 85 percent sustainability. Ingredients needed in the hotel's kitchens that can't be produced there are sourced locally, such as from Cape May fisheries.
Micari said he initially planned to provide ingredients and instructions for the entire meal, including sides. But after figuring out the logistics of equipment and instructions - and counting above 100 on the ingredients list - he opted to present the sides in attractive jars and packets and leave just the turkey to be roasted, "so they still get the smell of the bird roasting in the oven."
The dinner basket includes a note from the chef with instructions on how to roast the bird in one of three styles: traditional, apple-bacon stuffed or honey-lemon glazed. The dry-cured, applewood smoked bacon for the second option, which Micari says has "pizzazz," comes from Berkshire hogs raised on the farm.
Micari also explains how to prepare and baste the bird to your liking. But one preparation you're not likely to see him champion is deep-fried turkey.
"Everyone has their favorite, whether you roast it or fry it," he says. "But I kind of think it's an insult to the bird, to deep fry it.
"A lot of people want a traditional turkey, and we have that. But for me, it was more fun to play around with the honey barbecue aspect of (the third option). It has more flavor with the sweet roasted onions on top and it's a good way to utilize the produce from Beach Plum Farm in our farm-to-table tradition. It adds complexity and has a way of giving it a different flavor."
No matter which preparation you choose, Micari offers tips to make the turkey memorable.
"The worst thing you can do is turn it too many times," he says. "You want to give it a chance to slowly roast and get all that flavor packed in. I'm telling them, give it the time it needs to cook properly on each side - about an hour and a half before you're done, then you can uncover it and let (the skin) crisp up nice and golden brown."
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