Two chefs go dish-to-dish in a Thanksgiving challenge
MILTON — It’s the end of a whirlwind day of cooking, and the two chefs are relaxing over a beer. Their Thanksgiving dishes are arranged on a long wooden table, looking like the most appealing holiday groaning board.
The chefs — Carolyn Johnson of 80 Thoreau in Concord and Chris Parsons of Steel & Rye in Milton — have completed a Thanksgiving cooking challenge to use turkey, fresh cranberries, butternut squash, challah, green beans, sweet potatoes, and fresh pomegranate (that last ingredient was our wild card) for their feast. The first rule was to make four dishes in three hours, adding anything else they wanted. The second: Have some fun. Steel & Rye was the host restaurant, which put Johnson at a notable disadvantage. In a nod of good sportsmanship, one of Parsons’s prep cooks helped Johnson retrieve whatever she needed during the cook-off.
The chefs arrived early on a recent morning with most ingredients ready to go. Both seemed slightly nervous, but once in the kitchen, they became noticeably more comfortable. The pace was quick, each chopping vegetables and cutting up a whole turkey in a blur of knife work to be envied by anyone with more modest skills.
Both tackled the turkeys first, and each used a practical restaurant trick to speed things along: Cook the breasts separately from the drumstick-thigh sections and you’ll save oven space and be able to cook them in different ways. “Legs tend to get tough and stringy,” explained Parsons. “There is always something interesting you can do with them other than just roast them.”
Johnson roasted the breast with a garlicky herb butter, then braised the whole legs in a rich, mustardy wine sauce. Parsons slow-roasted the breasts, then dropped them into a deep-fat fryer to crisp the skin before serving with a super-concentrated cider glaze. “We started with a gallon of cider and boiled it down to one cup,” he explained. He braised the legs in red wine and shredded the meat to serve as an upscale hash with tiny Brussels sprouts and chunks of roasted butternut, topped with a sunny-side-up egg.
Some recipes featured a playful riff on old classics. Parsons breathed new life into the time-worn green bean casserole. His ode to the mid-20th-century concoction included creamy homemade mushroom soup, wild mushrooms, and a breadcrumb-cheese topping using toasted challah.
Green bean casserole isn’t a sentimental favorite with everyone. “That was always at Thanksgiving for sure,” Johnson said. “I stayed as far away from it as possible.” When Parsons, whose mother makes a casserole similar to the one he prepared, but with broccoli, caught wind of what his competitor said, he told her: “I heard someone doesn’t like bean casserole. I’m going to try and bring you back.”
Considering the relatively short list of required ingredients, it’s surprising only one dish was replicated by both chefs: sweet potato soup. Parsons cooked the orange flesh in milk, pureed it, and garnished bowls with sweetened cranberries and toasted homemade Fluff. It recalled candied yams with marshmallow topping, the flavor sweetly mellow, balanced by tart cranberries.
Johnson took a more assertive approach and made her soup with a habanero chile, coriander, and ginger, garnished with hazelnut brown butter mixed with pomegranate molasses and fresh pomegranate seeds.
The only dessert of the challenge came from Parsons’s side of the kitchen. “I decided to make a pomegranate fool,” he said. For his take on this British classic, he whipped heavy cream with mascarpone and pomegranate syrup, and served the dish garnished with pomegranate seeds and homemade graham crackers.
On Thanksgiving Day, Johnson has the day off. She worked at Rialto in Cambridge for seven years, which was open for the holiday, so she knows the pressure of cooking for it. “The serious food prep starts a week ahead, and the planning for all of it a couple weeks before that,” she said. “You’ve got to start cutting vegetables by Saturday if you’re going to be finished by Thursday.”
Home cooks, heed her advice: Make a plan to avoid a chaotic rush near the end. Another consideration from Parsons has to do with tradition. “For me, mom’s recipes have to be involved,” he said.
The dish that piqued everyone’s curiosity — including the photographer and the Steel & Rye kitchen staff — was Johnson’s butternut squash bread pudding. She layered toasted cubes of challah in a buttered pan, then poured over a savory custard with whipped roasted butternut and a sprinkle of sage. The finished pudding was custardy like a dessert, but the flavors belonged squarely among the main dishes. “It bridges somewhere between dinner and dessert,” said Johnson, who had done a dry run of the dish at her restaurant. “This is going on our tasting menu tonight,” she said.
Once the cooking was finished, everyone gathered around the table for samples. Johnson and Parsons each tasted a spoonful of the other’s soup. We tried Johnson’s delicious bread pudding. An excited Parsons was so impressed with the dish that he stood at attention when Johnson described how to make it.
“I want that recipe,” Parsons said.
Without skipping a beat, Johnson turned to him and said, “You can read it in the Globe.”