John Ash likes to err on the side of simplicity when it's time for the Thanksgiving feast.
That means streamlining the menu, prepping well in advance and finishing off dishes on Thanksgiving Day while the turkey roasts in the oven.
"The big issue with Thanksgiving is that we try to do too much," said the renowned Santa Rosa chef. "You should work ahead. ... You can mix up the stuffing the night before and make a fresh, uncooked cranberry relish a few days in advance."
Ash, who travels the globe teaching people how to cook, recently wrote his fourth cookbook, "Culinary Birds: The Ultimate Poultry Cookbook," released in September.
Although poultry has been a mainstay of the human diet for 7,000 years, Ash discovered there were surprisingly few cookbooks dedicated to the popular protein.
"I was intrigued by the idea," he said. "People have done a book on every other animal."
In "Culinary Birds," Ash serves up a tasty history of the various birds, tips on sourcing healthy poultry, proper handling and storage guidelines and more than 170 recipes inspired by cuisines around the world.
The cookbook also provides everything you need to know about cooking America's favorite fall fowl.
"The turkey is so appropriate for Sonoma County," Ash said. "There are so many wild turkeys here, and they're not afraid of anything."
If you're wary of the many challenges of the Thanksgiving feast, fear not. We consulted with Ash about all the big turkey debates — brine vs. no brine, stuffed vs. not stuffed, bag vs. no bag. He also suggested a few, easy side dish ideas guaranteed to perk up the plate. Let the cooking begin.
To brine or not to brine is not a question for Ash, who advocates the brining process to keep turkey meat moist.
His turkey brine — brown sugar, maple syrup, salt, garlic, ginger, red chili flakes and soy sauce — can also be used on pork and chicken, salmon and halibut.
"I think brining makes all the difference in the world," he said. "And it's an opportunity to add flavor."
After you brine the bird for a few hours, just make sure to rinse the bird off and pat it dry.
The stuffing question is also a no-brainer.
"Always cook without the stuffing," he said. "The danger with a stuffed bird is that it takes a lot of time to heat up ... and then the stuffing is soggy, because it just steams in there."
Instead, Ash stuffs the cavity with citrus fruit and chopped vegetables for added aromatics, then cooks the stuffing separately.
Although cooking the turkey in a bag provides even heat, the problem is that the skin does not crisp up.
"If you want crispy skin," he said, "you have to take it out of the bag at the end."
Ash also favors cooking turkey on low heat after the first 20 minutes.
"The high heat tends to dry it out," he said. "On the grill, you can cook it on indirect heat, then at the end, put it on high heat."
Making gravy at the end of a cooking marathon can be a daunting and intimidating task, but with a little advance work, it can be as simple as pie.
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