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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.

Ash's secret? The night before, take the giblets out of the turkey, saute some mirepoix (diced onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms) and simmer them in some ready-made stock. Then strain and reserve.

When it's time to make the gravy, just skim most of the fat from the bottom of the pan and make a roux with the fat and flour. Cook the roux for three to four minutes, and whisk in some of your hot stock.

As a simple side dish, Ash likes to chop root vegetables like parsnips and carrots into chunks, toss them in apple cider and mustard, then roast them in the oven.

For mashed potatoes, he advises using Russets or Yukon golds, cut into 2-inch chunks, then boiled. To avoid overworked, gluey potatoes, use either a potato ricer or a hand masher, adding warm cream and butter for extra richness.

For a green vegetable, Ash suggested a slightly bitter green like broccolini. It can be sauteed the night before, then thrown briefly in the pan to reheat.

"That little bit of bitterness cuts through the rest of the meal," he said.

The turkey condiments — a simple Fresh Cranberry Relish or Winter Fruit Chutney — can be made days in advance and stored in the fridge.

The following recpes are from John Ash's "Culinary Birds."

<strong>Roast Turkey</strong>

<em>For brine:</em>

2 cups packed brown sugar

1 cup pure maple syrup

3/4 cup coarse salt

3 whole heads garlic, cloves separated and bruised

6 large bay leaves

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped unpeeled fresh ginger

2 teaspoons dried red chili flakes

1 1/2 cups soy sauce

3 quarts water

For turkey:

12-to 14-pound dressed fresh turkey

3 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

5 celery stalks, roughly chopped

2 potatoes, roughly chopped

2 oranges, quartered

4 lemons, quartered

3 cups canned or homemade turkey or chicken stock

For gravy:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

— White wine or brandy

2 cups canned or homemade turkey or chicken stock

— Fresh herbs (such as thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, sage)

— Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine all the ingredients except the turkey in a large enamel or stainless steel stockpot that is large enough to hold the brine and the turkey. Bring to a simmer and then remove from the heat and allow to cool thoroughly. Rinse the turkey well; remove the neck and giblets and save for stock or discard.

Submerge the turkey in the cooled brine. Be sure there is enough brine to cover the bird. If not, add water to cover. Refrigerate for at least two days and up to four. Turn the bird in the brine twice a day.

Remove the bird from the brine and pat dry. Lightly brush the bird with olive oil and set aside for at least an hour before roasting. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Set the turkey in a roasting pan fitted with a V-shaped rack. Throw the chopped vegetables and citrus in the cavity. Add the chicken or turkey stock to the pan. Slip a flavored butter up under the skin of the turkey if you want.

Cook the turkey for 20 minutes and then reduce the heat to 350 degrees (325 in a convection oven). Roast for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. It's done when juice from the thigh runs clear and an instant-read thermometer reads 165 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh not touching the bone.

Remove from the oven. Lift the turkey out of the pan and loosely tent with foil to keep warm. Don't wrap tightly or the skin will lose its crispness. Let the turkey rest at least 25 minutes before carving.

To make the gravy: Pour off all fat from the roasting pan, leaving the delicious browned bits in the bottom. Make a roux by whisking the butter in the roasting pan over moderate heat with the flour. Continue to whisk for a couple of minutes. Add a splash of white wine or brandy and scrape up the browned bits. Add the stock and any herbs you like and continue to whisk and simmer for a few more minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve the gravy along the side of the carved meat.


"This is so simple to make — less than 3 minutes," Ash said. "It's a delicious accompaniment not only to the holiday turkey but to roast pork, ham or duck. You can make it all year round if you've remembered to throw a few packages of cranberries in the freezer in November. Other additions that can make this even more interesting are diced fuyu persimmons in the winter."

<strong>Fresh Cranberry Relish</strong>

<em> Makes about 3 cups</em>

1 12-ounce bag (3? cups) fresh cranberries

1/3 cup chopped crystallized ginger

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2/3 cup turbinado or white sugar

Rinse the cranberries and drain, removing any bruised ones. Add the remaining ingredients to a food processor, pulse several times to finely chop being careful not to over process. There should still be some texture. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Can be made up to 5 days ahead and stored covered and refrigerated.


"This is one of my favorite ways to fix winter root vegetables and it's so simple. These are delicious served with roast chicken or lamb and can be done in the oven right along with the meat."

<strong>Roasted Root Vegetables Scented with Apple and Mustard</strong>

<em> Makes 8-10 servings</em>

3 cups apple juice or cider

1 cup fruity white wine such as Riesling or Gew?rztraminer

2 tablespoons smooth Dijon-style mustard

3 tablespoons butter

4 to 5 pounds root vegetables both sweet (carrots, parsnips or yams) and savory (turnips, rutabagas or celery root) peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a saucepan reduce the apple juice, wine and mustard over high heat to 1 1/4 cups or so. Whisk in butter and pour over vegetables, tossing to coat. Season with salt and pepper and place vegetables in a single layer in a large roasting pan in a preheated, 375 degree oven. Roast for 1 hour or so or until vegetables are lightly browned and tender. Stir vegetables 3 or 4 times during the roasting process to promote browning on all sides.

Note: To save time you can use a 12-ounce can of frozen apple juice concentrate in place of the straight juice. Add the wine and mustard to it and reduce to 1? cups or so. It should only take a few minutes.


"This chutney is a delicious accompaniment to smoked and roasted meats and poultry dishes and as an accompaniment to cheese. "

<strong>Winter Fruit Chutney</strong>

<em> Makes about 1 quart</em>

1750-ml bottle of dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc or chardonnay

3/4 cup sugar

3 whole star anise

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon coriander seed, slightly crushed

1 tablespoon black peppercorns, slightly crushed

1 cup raisins (preferably golden, unbleached)

3/4 pound assorted dried fruits such as apricots, cherries, mangoes and/or figs coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons minced candied ginger

1 large tart fresh apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks

3 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice

Add wine, sugar and spices to a non-aluminum pan and simmer uncovered over moderate heat for 10 minutes. Take off heat and let it cool. Strain, discarding spices. You should have about 2 1/2 cups strained liquid. Return liquid to pan and add raisins, dried fruits and candied ginger and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Add the fresh apples and simmer gently until they are just tender, about 3 minutes. Off heat and cool. Stir in lime juice.

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.</em>