How a storied New Orleans restaurant pulls off its massive Thanksgiving feast
Tips for cooking for a crowd and a recipe for turkey, New Orleans style
Commander's Palace in New Orleans is a hive of activity, particularly during the holidays. The nearly 130-year-old restaurant hosts scads of guests in multiple dining rooms for Thanksgiving dinner. The kitchen staff also prepares packaged dinners to be shipped to diners nationwide. Such reach requires an enormous amount of work behind the scenes.
Steering the ponderous ship of Commander's Palace requires top-notch talent behind the kitchen doors. Chefs who have helped write the book on Haute Creole cuisine here have included Paul Prudhomme, his successor Emeril Lagasse and, now, Meg Bickford, the first woman to serve as executive chef at the vaunted New Orleans restaurant.
Here, Bickford shares her tips for staying cool, calm and collected while serving large crowds in her professional life and at home.
Southern Kitchen: What's it like to put Thanksgiving dinner together for such large groups of people?
Chef Bickford: Whether I’m preparing for Thanksgiving for our guests at Commander’s, our national guests ordering Thanksgiving via our nationwide shipping partner Goldbelly, or cooking for family at home, I always like to say it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
The holidays are stressful enough, so alleviate that feeling in the kitchen by planning ahead. Make a calendar for the days leading up to your holiday meal, scheduling prep a few days before, and split up the cooking days over the course of two or three days. Then on the day of, it will be more enjoyable to just finish dishes off in the oven and allow you to spend more time with family and friends. It also happily cuts down on the dirty dishes, keeping that chore spread out over multiple days as well.
What do you like to eat and make on Thanksgiving?
Smoked wild turkey, smoked ducks, oyster dressing (recipe below) and my Aunt Connie’s Spinach Madeleine are all favorites of mine, but the absolute best is the gumbo made the day after. I love to put a tablespoon of everything on one plate and everything gets mixed together as you eat…. You definitely need an extra-large plate.
A storied history:The secret to the 130-year success of Commander's Palace in New Orleans
What makes Thanksgiving special at Commanders?
The majority of our reservations are standing and the families that dine with us are generational. They have all become our friends and family over the years. The holidays are so important, the food is so important, and it’s an honor that our guests keep coming back every year to celebrate with us. The vibe in the restaurant is incredible.
Roasted Turkey with Oyster Dressing
This recipe requires a dark roux. That's simply a slow-cooked mixture of one part flour, one part fat (typically butter). To make a dark roux, heat up fat, whisk in your flour little by little, then cook on low heat stirring constantly until the mixture turns dark brown, around 30 minutes. For a half cup of roux, you'll want to use around 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter and ½ cup all-purpose flour.
- 1 turkey that has not been frozen, about 12 pounds
- 2 pounds of kosher salt
- 5 ribs celery, in medium dice
- 3 small onions, in medium dice
- 3 jalapenos, minced, stems and seeds removed
- 2 bell peppers, in medium dice
- 1 medium head garlic, cloves peeled and minced
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 tablespoons poultry seasoning
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) butter
- 3 cups shucked oysters in their liquor
- 16 cups crispy French bread cut into 1-inch cubes
- 4 medium eggs
- 2 cups chopped fresh parsley
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1½ tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
- ½ cup Dark Roux
Wash the bird's neck and giblets thoroughly in cold water and set aside. Place the turkey in a large, deep pot and sprinkle the salt in the cavity and on all surfaces of the bird, rubbing it into the skin. Cover the bird with cold water and stir to dissolve the salt and soak. Refrigerate overnight, up to 12 hours.
Place the neck and giblets in a large saucepot. Add the celery, half the onions, half the jalapenos, half the bell peppers and half the garlic. Add 3 quarts of cold water and the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and skim away any foam that comes to the top. Stir in 3 tablespoons of poultry seasoning. Reduce the heat and simmer, skimming occasionally for about 2 hours or until the stock has a good poultry flavor and smells good. Remove the neck, pick off the meat and dice it. Remove the giblets, including the liver, dice and refrigerate for later use.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to grease a piece of foil.
Place 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large pot, and melt over high heat until the butter starts to smoke. Add the remaining celery, onions, jalapenos, bell peppers, garlic and poultry seasoning. Sauté for 15 minutes over medium heat, or until the vegetables turn brown and become tender. Add the oysters and any liquid they might be stored in, and cook 4 to 5 minutes, or until the oyster edges curl. Turn off the heat, add half the bread, and stir, soaking up any liquid. Add 1 cup of unstrained stock and stir. Add the remaining bread and stir. Add the eggs quickly, stirring constantly to be sure the eggs don't cook when they hit the hot vegetables, oysters and liquid. Season with salt and pepper, and add the parsley, 1/2 tablespoon of the rosemary, and green onions. The stuffing should be moist but pliable, damp but not wet. If it's too wet, add more bread; if it's too dry, add more liquid.
Remove the turkey from its brine, and rinse under cold running water, inside and out, until there is no sign of salt. Using one hand, separate the breast skin from the meat and place 4 tablespoons of butter cut into small pieces, between the skin and the breast meat. Try not to tear the skin. Pat the skin dry with a towel, and season the bird inside and out with salt, pepper and 1/2 tablespoon of the remaining rosemary.
Place the bird on a rack in a roasting pan. Tuck each wing tip under the turkey. Stuff the bird in the neck area first, pulling out the skin and packing tightly. Then pull the skin around the stuffing and tuck it under the bird. Stuff the main cavity and then cover the breast with buttered foil, leaving the legs, thighs and wings exposed. This will protect the breast and keep the stuffing from burning. Add one quart of stock and roast for 1 hour, basting the exposed portions of the turkey after 30-45 minutes. Cook for an additional hour, basting every 20 minutes. Remove the foil, turn the heat up to 375 degrees, and roast 1 hour more, or until the center of the stuffing reads 160 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Breast skin should be golden brown.
Remove the bird from the oven, and place it on the buttered platter, covered loosely with foil. Allow it to rest at least 20 minutes.
Strain the pan drippings into a saucepot, and skim away any excess fat. Place the roasting pan over two burners on the stove, both on high heat. Add 3 cups of stock to the pan, and scrape any glaze off the bottom with a wooden spoon. When the liquid comes to a boil, remove and strain into the saucepot containing the drippings.
Place the saucepot on the stove over high heat and bring to a boil. Skim off any impurities that rise to the top. Whisk in the roux and return to a boil. Add the giblet meat, the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of the rosemary, and adjust the seasoning. Adjust the consistency of the gravy by adding more liquid or reducing if too thin. Keep hot while turkey is being carved, and serve in a gravy boat to accompany the turkey slices and dressing.