In the Know - Episode 4: Thanksgiving Hero

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Written by Guest | Last Updated February 24th, 2020
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Jordan: This is In the Know by BestCompany.com. I'm Jordan Grimmer.

In preparation for Thanksgiving this week, we are dedicating an entire episode of our podcast to food! Today on the program we will be hearing from chef and restaurateur Jessica Grimmer on some of her own Thanksgiving experiences, advice on how to prepare the perfect Thanksgiving meal, along with a couple of recipes and resources to help you along the way. And now, episode 4: Thanksgiving Hero.

Now, for full disclosure, Jessica also happens to be my sister-in-law, which is how I got her to agree to an interview. Jessica, along with her husband and business partner Aaron Grimmer (my older brother) have taken the Portland food scene by storm. They got their start in 2012 with The Picnic House, which represents a modern twist on traditional foods. Then, in 2014, they opened Barlow, an artisanal bar, right next door. In 2015, they opened a third restaurant called High Noon, which highlights cuisine from Jessica's childhood in southern Utah. And if that's not enough, the power couple plans to open a fourth restaurant in January 2016 called CHKCHK, which is all about locally sourced chicken sandwiches and fries.

I've had the privilege on several occasions to sample Jessica's cooking both in professional and personal settings, and I can attest that, when it comes to food, she absolutely knows what she's talking about. But obviously, I can't let you take my word for it. That's not how we do things as BestCompany.com. Here's what some of the brutally honest people on Yelp! have said about Jessica's food:

Gregg C. from Portland, OR says, "Anna was amazing as our server, but Jessica was the behind the scenes rock star. When our drinks got low, she was there to suggest something new. When we were STARVING waiting for our food- she checked on us and got the bread we ordered (on the fly) out in a timely manner. Thank you, Jessica."

And Shannon W. from San Francisco, CA says, "I have loved Jessica's cooking since she [catered] my sister's wedding in my mom's kitchen 15 years ago . . . Picnic House BLEW ME AWAY! Subtle and stunning all at once . . . best grilled cheese and tomato soup ever."

Really, the only complaints Jessica gets about her food aren't about her food at all, but about the amount of time people have to wait for an open table just so they can get inside and enjoy her food. In short, Jessica is a food genie, though, when she was a kid, cooking wasn't even on her radar as a possible career choice.

Jessica: I always wanted to be an actress, but that did not come easy to me. Cooking does, and it always has. When I was thirteen, I made the cheerleading squad and my parents insisted that I earn the money for the cheerleading uniform. So I decided to make pies from scratch (I used the original Lion House cookbook for all the recipes), and I would make pies for the holidays for my neighbors. Pies are sort of a tricky place to start. There's a lot of steps involved, and temperature is important, and the specifics of it really helped me hone my skills pretty quickly.

Jordan: Opening four restaurants, or "concepts," as she calls them, in four years is hard to do anywhere - let alone Portland, the arguable foodie capital of the world. When I asked her how that feat was possible, she said, like anything in cooking, it's a matter of having the right ingredients:

My husband and I never wanted to work for other people, we wanted to work for ourselves. And growing up being industrious in food I also - because the same neighbors I sold pies to would ask me to do small catering jobs for like small weddings or things - I felt comfortable in that arena. It's something that comes natural to me. I think that's why I chose that career path. And my partner and husband is very good with business, which is very important in restaurants in well, you've got to keep numbers in check. So think that magical combination is why that works.

Jordan: That being said, the conversation turned to Thanksgiving. You might recall that Jessica got her start in pies, but when I asked her which dish she first prepared specifically for Thanksgiving, her answer was both simple and elegant (this is the point in the episode that you'll want to pause and go grab a pen and a paper, because you're about to get in the inside scoop on how to perfect a beloved Thanksgiving staple):

Jessica: I think mashed potatoes are essential in Thanksgiving dinner, and there is a special way in doing potatoes to make them perfectly whipped and light and fluffy, and that was important to me to master. There's a huge variety of potatoes, but the best potato for whipped potatoes is the Yukon Gold. So you gotta get the Yukon Gold potato.

You want to peel them and cut them into equal sizes and then you want to boil them in saltwater. And it's extremely important that you use salt in the water because the potatoes will absorb that flavor as they cook. And if you don't do that, it's difficult to get the right seasoning with whipped potatoes. So I would say the first key is to saltwater when boiling them.

Also, you don't want to overcook them. You want the fork, when you stab the fork into the potato the potato falls apart, or the fork comes out easily. But undercooking them just a little bit, and then draining them, then putting them back in the pot and putting aluminum foil over it so they can steam is a better process than overcooking them and risking water-logging them. Which I don't know if you've ever had potatoes that have been cooked too long, but they're not as appetizing. So, undercook them a little bit, drain them, and then let them steam for a good 10 to 15 minutes.

Another trick is to always use cream and butter. You get the best results with cream and butter. But you want to heat the cream and butter. I use a microwave; it's the best method. If you do it over a stove you can scald the cream, you can burn the cream. So if you do it in a microwave you avoid that. So you heat it until the butter is melted, and then it keeps the whipped potatoes at the right temperature when you whip them.

And then of course having the right tools - the Kitchenaid is the ultimate tool, with a paddle attachment. And you put the potatoes in and you slowly whip them, and slowly add the cream and butter.

And then you taste. Tasting is always important to add any more seasoning. I just use salt and pepper. A lot of times the salt that you put into the saltwater is enough, but just adding a little more of salt into the end product to flavor up the cream and butter works. And then pepper, getting some freshly cracked pepper in there. Not too much, but just to give it a little complexity is also important.

You don't want to over-whip either. You want to avoid the gluten, you want them to avoid becoming sticky. But if you follow those steps, it usually turns out to be a beautiful product.

Jordan: Did you get all that? Now, I know what you're thinking: "what kind of cruel, sick person are you to give us this decadent recipe for the perfect mashed potatoes without giving us a gravy recipe to go along with it??" But don't worry! Jessica's got you covered there too:

Jessica: You've got to use the drippings from the turkey to make the right gravy, to get the right flavor. You can start with a base that's pre-made or a stock, a chicken stock, that always helps. I even add chicken stock when I'm basting the turkey. And then you get those juices in with the chicken stock, and you'll have more to be able to use for your gravy. Some people will make the gravy with the giblets of the turkey. And for a long time before I became a professional chef that always was just disgusting to me. But the thing is if you're getting the flavors the neck and the giblets, you'll get the flavors if you slowly seep them with some chicken broth and some yummy seasonings, fresh herbs, and even some lemon zest, a good amount of salt and pepper, you can just drain the gravy and you won't have any of the giblets when you actually serve the gravy - but you'll get all the flavors. Because ultimately it's pretty much the same thing flavor-wise that you'll get out of it. But yeah, you can do it either way.

Jordan: At this point, you might be wondering, "is there any dish of which Jessica Grimmer does not have an encyclopedic knowledge?" While she admits that cooking has always come naturally to her, there are some dishes, even basic ones, that have required more practice than others.

Jessica: So my mother, growing up, always made these fabulous buttery, little, sweet, buttery rolls. And they were my favorite part of Thanksgiving, favorite side dish growing up. And I know, Thanksgiving is like "carb-overload." I was thinking, "wow, we have like one vegetable, and everything else would be carbs on our plate," which is pretty funny. Oh, and the turkey, the protein. But, carb-overload. By my mother made these rolls every year.  I think they're just a simple roadhouse roll, but it was the way she made them. So last year I tried to make them. And I studied the recipe - baking is a lot different than cooking because it's much more precise, and I think that's why it was much more difficult - but I made them, and they came out perfectly, but they just weren't the same. And I think the reason is when you are working with more complexity of a recipe you need practice, and you rarely get it your first time around. And I was just too impatient I just did it on Thanksgiving day, but I probably should have made them two or three times before presenting them to our family on Thanksgiving. So the trick is practice, and yeah, baking rolls is a lot more difficult.

Jordan: And what about the main dish, turkey? That's gotta be harder than rolls:

Jessica: Turkey is actually a lot more easy to cook. You can just put it in, follow the directions, and forget about it until you're ready to eat. As long as you give it the time it needs. But baking is a different story.

Jordan: Out of the three people who listen to this podcast regularly (two of them being my parents), one of you is probably a little bit nervous about cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the very first time. But Jessica says you don't need to slave away for hours and hours in the kitchen to have the perfect Thanksgiving meal:

Jessica: So, first what you need to do is write down what you're going to be serving. As long as you get the basics, don't overwhelm yourself. For example, stovetop stuffing is fine. It's a great product and it's easy to do, and it's hard to mess up. So know where your limitations are. Costco does a great pumpkin pie, and Marie Calendar's does a great frozen pie crust that you can get in Utah. So know  what your limitations are, and don't put too much pressure on making everything from scratch, because people don't care. As long as it's cooked correctly, it's enjoyable.

Jordan: I asked Jessica what dishes usually make their way onto her table for Thanksgiving, and what was funny about her answer is that she couldn't help but rattle off additional recipes and helpful tips along the way:

Jessica: The turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, I usually also do a yam with marshmallow of some kind. We love brussel sprouts, or if you like, carrots or corn. Squash is seasonal. And then cranberry sauce, you can get it out of a can, it works. Or you can make a yummy cranberry relish, which is really easy. You just boil cranberries with some  sugar, and salt, and orange zest, and it comes together pretty quickly. Rolls if you want them. And of course dessert: pumpkin and pecan pie. I always have to have one of each.

Jordan: And as for dishes that don't make it onto the table?

Jessica: I never put salads. I think salads are a waste of space on this kind of meal.

Jordan: Of course, these are all great suggestions, but how do you get started? What are some resources that even experts like Jessica use if they're trying to learn to cook a new dish? Once again, Jessica's answers were simple:

Jessica
: Since Pinterest has come into reality, I have found inspiration from what's happening all over the world. You can see what's going on in Melbourne and in London, which tend to be on the cutting edge of what's next. And you take what's going on next and you bring it to what is familiar to you, and you come up with something that's really special and unique. When I am trying to learn a new technique - it's always a challenge to stay ahead of the game and the trends - I go to YouTube. You learn a lot quicker when you see someone actually doing the recipe, going through the recipe and assembling it online visually is much quicker learning curve there. Another key is to read the recipe. Read the recipe over and over, and really go through the steps. The more you understand what you're doing the better outcome you're going to get. Also the Food Network during this time of year, they do a lot of beautiful holiday content. If your mom lives close by, really use her. She's the ultimate resource and she knows the tricks. She's probably done 18, 20, 25 Thanksgivings. So she's an expert at this point. Also there's a great app that Bon Appetit has put out, and it's free. It is called: Thanksgiving: a Bon Appetit Manual. And you can download it for free, and what's so beautiful about it is it has full menu plans. It has a modern Thanksgiving menu, a traditional Thanksgiving menu, it has a southern Thanksgiving menu, new traditions Thanksgiving menu. And it has all of the recipes and a lot of beautiful pictures. So you really can put together a really fun and inventive Thanksgiving.

Jordan: Now, the next question on everyone's mind is, how does a master chef spend her Thanksgivings?

Jessica: So, we do a lot of Thanksgiving dinners for the low-income housing in Portland. That's sort of our giving back to the community. And we get to serve about 400 people up here, which is always a huge blessing for us, and brings a lot of good morale to our staff. But we actually close our restaurants for Thanksgivings, so our staff can spend time with their families. And honestly, I am so burned out on cooking, I cook so much, that I think my little family is going to enjoy Thanksgiving at another restaurant that's open. Which is a great option as well. I've never, it's amazing how yummy food is when you don't have to make it yourself. It's much more enjoyable.

Jordan: Truer words have never been spoken. We'd like to thank Jessica for her tips and insights. For more information on her Portland restaurants, including the restaurant opening this January, you can visit the text version of the podcast at BestCompany.com. There you will also find the link to the Bon Appetit app, as well as our expert reviews on the top online recipe sites out there. For more great podcasts like this one, you can follow us on SoundCloud at SoundCloud.com/BestCompany. From all of us at BestCompany.com, we wish you a very happy, safe, and delicious Thanksgiving. Until next time, I'm Jordan Grimmer, and this is In The Know.

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