Atlanta chefs crave home cooking at Thanksgiving

Inviting a chef for Thanksgiving sounds like a golden opportunity to dress up your homespun spread with a showstopper. Surely you can count on Empire State South’s Cynthia Wong for elegant absinthe ganache cake with pear sorbet, or Abattoir’s Joshua Hopkins for potted chicken liver with apple butter.

Hold on a just a second there, gobbler.

In truth, the holiday food that Atlanta chefs prepare for friends and family resembles what the rest of us eat on our gut-busting day of national gratitude. At their Thanksgiving celebrations, the city’s top foodies savor traditional dishes steeped in memory, time and specific flavors.

Wong makes rustic apple or pecan-and-sourwood honey tarts. Hopkins brines pork with sorghum, salt, juniper and allspice berries, bay leaves and peppercorns -- creating a spice-cured meat roasted to crusty, caramelized perfection.

And even after preparing some 200 complete Thanksgiving takeout dinners for her customers, Busy Bee Cafe owner-chef Tracy Gates-Phillips still craves her mother's luscious cornbread dressing.

“We work around the clock cooking and storing food,” said the restaurateur, who runs the 64-year-old diner her late father bought in 1982. “Wednesday, when it's all over, I am crazy exhausted. I curl up in a booth just to get enough sleep to drive to Mama’s house.”

Her family has a big sleepover; then they all pitch in to help matriarch Georgia Gates fix the Thanksgiving meal.

For Abattoir executive chef Hopkins, a “snout-to-tail” aficionado known for tripe stew and pork belly, it’s not about cooking to impress. “You just basically want to be comforted by the food,” Hopkins said. “It’s all about memories and hanging out with your family.”

On Thanksgiving, Hopkins and his wife will go to his mom’s place in Buckhead, where they will be joined by an extended clan of 20 to 25. They’ll crowd around the stove and cook together, making a feast of turkey, oyster stuffing, quail or duck and “as many casseroles as we can.”

And “some biscuits,” Hopkins said, like an "amen" to the litany of dishes he's thankful for.

While Hopkins remembers picking up pecans with his grandmother Anne Taylor, Wong recalls the weird mash-up of Asian and Southern foods her immigrant family had in their adopted hometown of Mobile.

“My Dad did a lot of roasted duck. He did a lot of Cornish hens,” said Wong, who has a Chinese father, a Burmese mom and herself speaks in a gentle Southern accent. “We did have turkey every once in while, but it wasn’t very good. My mom just really didn’t know how to roast it.”

How American is that?

One thing the James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef does not care for is pumpkin or pecan pie.

“The texture is just so disgusting,” she said of pumpkin pie. “Pecan pie is all this corn syrup, which kind of freaks me out.” She finds sweet-potato souffle with toasted marshmallows “really disturbing.”

So she makes simple tarts. If you want her fancy maple–syrup custard with caramelized apples and cider ice cream, you’ll have to go Empire State South.

“I think people think I have a tree in my backyard that produces pastries, and I just get out there and pluck it and bring it over to their house,” joked Wong, who this year will spend Thanksgiving with her husband's family in Greenwood, S.C. “If I bring something that’s not Phatty Cakes ...  everyone’s kind of disappointed.”

After supervising her catering business, Gates-Phillips is both tired of Thanksgiving food, and hungry for it. “Even though I taste all that stuff, the next day I want ... the turkey, the dressing, the cranberry sauce, the greens. And I want some sweet potato pie. I want the whole meal, just to taste it.”

Don't we all.

If you want to eat like a chef on Thanksgiving, try these easy recipes for brined and roasted pork (from Abattoir chef Joshua Hopkins), cornbread dressing (from Busy Bee Cafe chef Tracy Gates-Phillips) and rustic apple tart (by Empire State South’s Cynthia Wong). Add a green vegetable and you have a complete meal.

Boston Butt Brined in Wintry Spices (Joshua Hopkins, Abattoir)

Hands-on: 10 minutes

Total time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (plus two to six days for brining)

Serves: 6

Hopkins uses a brine of kosher salt and sorghum syrup (or other sweeteners) -- plus wintry spices like juniper and allspice berries -- to coax excellent flavor from pork. While the recipe is for Boston butt, Hopkins said you can use blade steak, pork shoulder or butt steak.

“Any of these cuts are perfect,” the Abattoir executive chef said. “What we are looking for is a cut of pork or beef that has a large amount of tissue.”

You also can add other spices, such as whole cloves or cinnamon sticks, but don't use too much.

It’s important to heat the brining solution to “bloom the spices,” Hopkins said. You also want to cool the brine completely; dunking in hot water will start the cooking process. Hopkins suggests brining the butt for at least two days, or for best results four to six days. (I brined the pork for three days -- to delicious effect. I did not, however, inject it with brine every three hours.)

1 gallon water

1 cup kosher salt

3/4 cup sorghum syrup (may also use granulated sugar, brown sugar or maple syrup)

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds

1 teaspoon juniper berries

1 teaspoon allspice berries

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

3 to 5 bay leaves, crushed

4-pound Boston butt (may use up to 10-pound butt)

Fill a large lidded stock pot or soup kettle with 1 gallon of cold water.  Add salt, sorghum syrup, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, juniper berries, allspice berries, crushed red pepper and bay leaves. (If you want, give the spices a good whack or two in a mortar and pestle before adding to the water.) Bring to a boil over medium-high to high heat. Once the brine comes to boil, give it a stir, and allow to cool completely.

Rinse the Boston butt with cold water and, using a sharp knife, make 1-inch slits on both sides and ends. Submerge the meat in the brine. If it’s floating, place a clean object such as a bowl or jar between the meat and the lid to hold it down. Refrigerate for at least two days or up to six days. (You may want to check the meat daily to make sure it’s submerged. You also can inject the slits with brine every three hours, using a turkey baster.)

When ready to roast the pork, heat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the butt from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Place in a roasting pan, and roast for 30 minutes at 500 degrees. Turn heat down to 300 degrees and roast until the meat has reached an internal temperature of 158 degrees, about 1 hour. Turn the oven off, and leave the meat in the oven for another 30 minutes. Rest the meat for about 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Per serving: 519 calories (percent of calories from fat, 43), 59 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 24 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 206 milligrams cholesterol, 1,155 milligrams sodium.

Mama Georgia Gates’ Old-Fashioned Cornbread Dressing (Tracy Gates-Phillips, Busy Bee Cafe)

Hands-on: 25 minutes

Total time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (plus 12-24 hours for bread to dry)

Serves: 12

Gates-Phillips and her mom put chipped turkey in their dressing, so this dish is a good way to have a bit of Thanksgiving bird without roasting an entire turkey.

Like many good cooks, the women of Busy Bee Cafe like to use dry, day-old cornbread. (It absorbs more stock.) While cooking the cornbread, you can also make the turkey stock, and chill until ready to use.

The recipe also calls for six biscuits. It’s fine to use frozen or canned. I like Mary B’s frozen buttermilk biscuits. Gates-Phillips uses Hungry Jack.

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 cups self -rising cornmeal (sifted)

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

2 eggs lightly beaten

6  baked biscuits (may use canned or frozen)

2 whole turkey wings

1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon garlic powder

5 tablespoons butter

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon poultry seasoning

1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of chicken soup

To make the cornbread: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Pour vegetable oil in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and place in oven about 5 minutes until hot. Place cornmeal in a medium mixing bowl. Whisk buttermilk and eggs, pour over cornmeal and mix well. Whisk hot oil from the skillet into the batter. Pour the batter in the skillet, and bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden. (If using frozen or canned biscuits, you may bake them alongside the cornbread.)

To make the stock: Place turkey wings, salt and garlic powder in a large stockpot. Cover with cold water by about 4 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat; then turn the flame down to medium-low and allow to simmer, covered, for at least one hour or up to three hours.  Remove turkey wings from the hot broth. Place on a plate or chopping board to cool. Remove bones and skin. Discard wing tips. Chop the turkey meat fine.

To make the dressing: Place the butter in an iron skillet or saute pan over medium high heat. When the butter is almost melted, stir in celery, onions and black pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 5-7 minutes.

Crumble the corn bread and biscuits in a large bowl. Stir in sauteed celery and onion, poultry seasoning and the can of cream of chicken soup. Add four cups of chicken broth and mix well. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Add more stock as needed to make the mixture soupy and pourable. It is likely to take about two more cups. (Save or freeze any leftover stock for another day.)

Pour dressing in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, and bake at 350 degrees until the dressing is firm, about 45 minutes. Raise the temperature to 425 degrees and bake until the top of the dressing is brown. Let stand for five minutes before serving.

Per serving: 382 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 12 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 22 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 73 milligrams cholesterol, 1,373 milligrams sodium.

Rustic Apple Tart (Cynthia Wong, Empire State South)

Hands-on: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (plus chill time of 2 hours to overnight)

Serves: 8

“You roll out a crust, and you put some apples in it." That's how Wong describes the Thanksgiving apple tart she cooks for family. With just a little lemon, rosemary and cream, the barely sweetened pastry allows the flavor of autumn apples to sing out. It’s a perfect finish to a heavy Thanksgiving meal.

For the crust:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

5 ounces (1 stick, plus 2 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into little cubes

1/4 cup ice water, plus more as needed

For the filling

1 1/2 pounds firm tart apples (Wong prefers Black Arkansas and Pink Lady; you may use Granny Smith)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

7 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1 tablespoon soft unsalted butter

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

2 tablespoons cream

To make the crust:  Whisk the flour, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl and place in the freezer for 30 minutes. Place the butter cubes in the freezer, too.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the butter and flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. You really want the butter to be cut up into the flour mixture. Take the top off and check the mixture if necessary -- make sure there aren’t any chunks of butter. If there are, quickly pulse some more until the butter is fully cut into the flour.

With the food processor running, add about two-thirds of the ice water in through the feed tube. Pulse in short bursts until the dough just begins to hold together and forms a ball. If it doesn’t do this quickly, add a little more water, 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse.

Pat the dough into a disk about the size of a salad plate, and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Overnight is best if possible.

To make the tart: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Peel and core the apples and slice them in 1/4-inch thick slices. Toss them with the lemon juice and 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) sugar. Set aside for 20 minutes at room temperature.

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the butter, then the apples with their juices. Cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring gently and occasionally, until the apples just begin to soften.

Remove the apples from the heat and place them in a strainer set over a bowl. Once the juices have drained from the apples, pour the juices back into the saute pan. Set the apples aside to cool completely. (If you spread them out in a flat layer on a plate or sheet pan, they will cool faster without continuing to cook so much.)

Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and cook the juices over medium-high heat until they begin to thicken and caramelize lightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rosemary, then the cream. Gently fold the caramelized juices into the cooked apples.

Take the dough out of the freezer; if it has been in the freezer overnight it will need to thaw just a few minutes. Roll the chilled dough out into a free-form circle about 14 inches in diameter. Place on a large baking sheet or pizza pan. (Make sure not to prick the crust, or the juices will seep out.) Place the apples on the dough round, leaving a 2-inch border uncovered. Fold the border over the apples, one little section at a time. It should neither be crimped nor mounded like pizza dough—just overhanging the apples a little.

Bake the tart for 20 minutes, or until it just begins to color, then lower the heat to 375 degrees and cook for 10 more minutes.

Per serving: 329 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 3 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 17 grams fat (11 grams saturated), 46 milligrams cholesterol, 272 milligrams sodium.