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Upgrade tradition…cook a modern, eclectic Thanksgiving Dinner

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By Maylon T. Rice

Only a few locals may realize it, but Bon Appetite magazine sure does: Hiram Brandon is one great chef. A few years ago, the restaurant was named one to visit in the Northwest Arkansas region.

A week away from the holiday that sends fear and trembling into the kitchen of even the most traditional cook, Thanksgiving, Brandon’s laidback style will offer relief from the stress and anxiety and perhaps a chuckle.

“Don’t kill yourself [working] in the kitchen for Thanksgiving,” Brandon said and laughed. “It makes for an awful holiday and tired cooks usually aren’t a lot of fun to be around.”

Wisdom…for sure.

“I know this will sound strange, but why on earth with all the well-packaged, pre-cooked foods available (at such local outlets as Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Harp’s and even the IGA) do cooks try each holiday to start cooking from scratch? It makes no sense,” said Brandon, the owner of Uncle Gaylord’s Mountain Cafe.

So readers benefit from Brandon’s mantra, the Free Weekly asked Brandon and his staff, including retired restaurateur Gaylord Willis himself, for some recipes and drink mixes to make the holiday pass with ease and comfort in these waning days of 2007 with the holiday season upon us.

Willis, who most of the population of Northwest Arkansas, refer to as “Gaylord” and who is known for his dry sense of humor, was in rare form the day this interview was underway.

“You know what? Tell ‘em just to slop some canned green beans out in a bowl and slap ‘em in the microwave,” Gaylord said with a bawdy laugh.

“No, that’s really not the way to make the damn Thanksgiving dinner— forgive my French,” Gaylord roared, prompting a nearby table of four in the bar of Uncle Gaylord’s to laugh loudly at the all too common outburst from the retired restaurateur.

The restaurant, a longtime fixture in downtown Fayetteville, is on Mountain Street, a stone’s throw from the Fayetteville Square and a few blocks from the Dickson Street entertainment district.

Uncle Gaylord’s has been recognized as one of the finest restaurants in Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas for decades. Gaylord and Brandon, the two principles, have gained a reputation for good food, fine spirits and hosting lots and lots of parties for a wide assortment of Fayettevillians over the years. Gaylord is also well known in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he owned and operated restaurants before moving to NWA.

Here are Brandon’s tips for an enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner.

The wine list

Brandon suggests that if wine is to be served with the Thanksgiving meal, that the host consider having two types of wine: A red—a pinot noir, and a white—a dry Riesling.

Thanksgiving Cocktail
If you want to make a pre- or post-meal cocktail, here are Brandon’s suggestions:

1 part honey liqueur
1 part brandy
3 white cloves
1 teaspoon sugar
A slice of lemon
A cinnamon stick for garnish

While this may be too exotic for many, Brandon says a neat whiskey will also fill the bill with any or all of the garnish items mentioned above.

The vegetables
Asparagus
Brandon said it’s impossible this time of year to get fresh locally grown asparagus spears, but if you can find some in the supermarket, select a bunch, steam them and garnished well with butter and a dash of white wine.

Sweet Potatoes
Always a favorite of Bandon’s, this is the one vegetable that will take minimal preparation. Bake the sweet potatoes with the skins still on in either a conventional oven at 400 degrees or in a microwave, according to directions.
When done and soft, set aside to cool. When cooled, slip the potatoes from the skin. Some prefer to peel the potatoes, but the skins will slip out of their skins if properly cooked and cooled. Cut into chunks and place in a baking dish with like amounts of brown sugar, butter and marshmallows. Top with an ample covering of marshmallows on top. Bake and remove from oven when the marshmallows begin to brown.

Shiitake Mushrooms
Brandon loves these delights and Northwest Arkansas is blessed with an ample supply almost year round. “I just get a full skillet of these and saute them in cooking sherry or white wine, cooking them down and then add them to most any of these dishes or as a side dish to add to the plate.”

Traditional Stuffing

While one of Brandon’s easy tips is to fetch a name brand stuffing off the supermarket shelf, he also offered this traditional stuffing recipe.

Cook and cool cornbread.
1 bunch of celery; 3 carrots, 2 white onions (this should equal about 1 pint of each when chopped). 1 tablespoon of salt, one tablespoon of pepper. Putting all of this through a food processor will speed up the process. Add one cup of port wine and mix with an ample amount of cornbread that has been cooked and cooled. Crumble into a large pan and add the chopped ingredients Important: Do not overcook this mixture. Some cooks will add a bit of sage, others will not. Some like their dressing firm (dry and hard) others like it runny (moist and wet).

Dessert
Cranberry Eggnog Tart
A easy and good, tasty treat to top off a delightful Thanksgiving dinner.

Crust:
1 1/4 cups of flour
1/4 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg
- mix and lay out in a pie pan as a crust

The Tart
Small jar (8 to 12 oz.) cranberry jam
1/4 cup of water
10 to 12 ounces of cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup and 2 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Mix and stir until it has a nice consistency and fill the crust. Bake until crust is golden brown

Brandon said that every recipe and every cook will have his or her way with these recipes.

“We all do things different in the kitchen these days, heck, all the time. I never make anything the same way twice.”

Brandon recalled his earlier days when he was cooking in San Francisco. “That was in the ‘70s when Julia Child and others showed us how to cook on TV and in person. We didn’t know anything about too much fat, too much sugar, too much of this or that, but boy, was that good cooking and even better eating.”


Hiram’s favorite Thanksgiving

“A few years ago, after we came back home to Fayetteville, we took the day off and a bunch of us went to the Buffalo River. I mean way down the river near the Boxley Hollow for a picnic lunch for Thanksgiving. We had some of the traditional turkey and stuff, but it was a glorious fall day – a warm fall day. More than just recalling the food, I recall it just being a great day in the Ozarks with a wonderful picnic lunch. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful here, not only is it good cooking, but just a delightful atmosphere here in Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas to enjoy a really good meal.”


The turkey

A popular trend is brining a turkey before it is cooked. The National Turkey Federations offered this recipe. You can also find prepared brining mixtures in gourmet food shops.

Brining and Roasting
15-pound whole turkey, (not self-basting or kosher) thawed, giblets and neck removed
2 cups table salt (do not substitute equal amounts of kosher salt)
2 gallons* icy cold water
4 cups brown sugar, **
1/2 cup dried rosemary leaves
1/2 cup dried thyme leaves

* The ratio of water to salt is appropriate for a 15-pound turkey. If a larger or smaller turkey is brined, calculate accordingly.
* * Other combinations of herbs may be added including 6-8 bay leaves, 3 cloves garlic and 2 teaspoons black peppercorns. Or a spicy flavor may be achieved by the addition of 1 cup small dried red chile peppers.

1. Rinse turkey in cool water.
2. In a very large clean container (non-corrosive pan or stockpot such as stainless steel or glass or a food-grade plastic container), mix salt and water together until salt dissolves. Stir in brown sugar and spices, mix well until sugar dissolves.
3. Totally submerge poultry in solution and store, covered, in refrigerator for at least 6 hours and up to 8 hours. Since brining does not preserve meat, the turkey must be kept below 40 degrees F throughout the entire brining process. Ice packs may also be used to keep turkey at a safe temperature of below 40 degrees F.
4. Remove turkey from brine. Discard brine. Thoroughly rinse the interior and exterior of the turkey by placing it on a wire rack and setting both rack and turkey in a clean, empty sink. Use cool water from the spray hose and rub gently to release the salt and sugar from the turkey.
5. Pat skin and both interior cavities dry.

Roasting Procedure
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 small stalk celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
4-6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. In the cavity of turkey, place onion, carrot and celery.
2. Brush turkey with melted butter.
3. Roast turkey, breast side down, in a preheated 325 degree F oven for 2 hours. During this time, baste legs and back twice with melted butter.
4. Remove turkey from oven and protecting your hands, grasp turkey with several layers of clean paper towels at both ends, and turn turkey, breast side up.
5. Return turkey to oven and continue to roast, basting twice with pan dripping. Continue to roast until internal temperature reaches 170 degrees F in the breast and 180 degrees F in the thigh. NOTE: A brined turkey cooks slightly faster than an unbrined turkey, so check the internal temperature frequently.
6. Remove turkey from the oven and allow to stand for 20 minutes before carving.
7. Transfer to a platter and garnish with fresh fruit.

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