It could be years, decades even, before Jason Cichonski luxuriates in another Thanksgiving like this one.
Cichonski left a demanding post as executive chef at Lacroix Restaurant at the Rittenhouse on Nov. 1 to open his own place. And since plans for that new spot are still in flux, he is unencumbered - free to eat what and where he pleases this Thanksgiving.
For this 26-year-old kitchen wunderkind from Bucks County, nothing beats holiday dinner(s) with family and friends - in that order.
So next Thursday, he'll celebrate in Haddonfield with his Polish grandmother - his babci - and the rest of the clan on his father's side (his mother died when he was just 3).
And the next day, he'll make a turkey dinner with his second family - his friends.
They are guys Cichonski has known since first grade in Churchville. None are chefs or wannabes, but neither are they novices at the sink or stove.
Unlike the macho men, the sensitive new-age guys, or the metrosexuals who went before them, these fellas represent a new breed of under-thirtysomethings for whom cooking, like extreme snowboarding, rock climbing, and biking, is an essential aspect of social life.
The guys - 10 or 12 tops, a handful accompanied by girlfriends - will gather around the new six-foot butcher block in Cichonski's South Philadelphia apartment.
Among them will be Sam Shoap, who just finished working on U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz's successful re-election campaign; high school English teacher Greg Stoloski; and Brian "Carp" Childs, who works for a credit reporting agency. They all grew up in Bucks County, now they all live blocks from one another just south of Washington Avenue.
These graduates of the proverbial kids' table will forgo old standards in favor of foraged ingredients (mushrooms found in Fairmount Park) and techniques (such as sous vide) that would make grandma roll her eyes.
At Lacroix, Thanksgiving was one of the busiest days of the year. But at home, Cichonski's menu will be casual and so will the wardrobe. When Cichonski did a trial run for us at his place last week, he was barefoot in baggy cutoff sweats and a zip-front hoodie. Still, that's more than the mere towel he wore for a photo shoot earlier this year when the Philadelphia Daily News crowned him one of the city's sexiest singles.
"I'll never live that down," he says. "I'm constantly ridiculed by every one of my male friends."
In a way, Thanksgiving dinner with friends brings back the best of the kids' table, Cichonski says. You get first dibs on the good stuff and the conversation is uncensored.
Cichonski's home kitchen lacks many of the marvels of Lacroix's (such as a convection oven.) But music - loud, hard-core punk rock but with upbeat, positive lyrics - still fuels the room. Here, he'll make a heritage turkey brined in Jameson whiskey and white miso.
Onions, carrots, and celery make a flavorful platform in the roasting pan for the turkey, while lemons, garlic, and ginger go into the cavity of the bird to perfume it from the inside out and add another dimension of flavor. The turkey is wrapped tightly in foil and slow-roasted. Then the rich juices from the roasting pan will be added to his whiskey-blood orange gravy.
Shoap isn't sure yet what he'll add to the meal. Stoloski and his girlfriend, Kelly Sims, pledged to take no shortcuts with their roasted butternut squash soup.
And Childs, who was nicknamed Carp in fourth grade when he put a pencil behind his ear and a friend thought that made him look like a carpenter, has in mind an apple crumb pie, with crust from scratch.
"Jason's recipe, of course," Childs says. "Years ago when Jason first started restaurant school, we met up around Thanksgiving and he made one of the best apple pies I ever had, and I want to try it."
Eating well is new to Childs.
"For the longest time I ate terribly," says Childs, who limited himself in college to Wawa take-out and microwave warm-ups.
Since reconnecting with Cichonski - and realizing that we really are only as strong as our food choices - Childs says, his pantry has changed. Now he makes stews and soups and finds that cooking "is actually a lot of fun."
Young chefs like Cichonski are a far cry from their forebears (think Anthony Bourdain) for whom cigarettes and substance abuse were as common in restaurant kitchens as in jazz clubs.
These new guys don't drink, in part because it would interfere with their sporting lives. They're all into parkour, a French-inspired philosophic approach to the physical environment that involves lots of backflips and jumps. And they favor a playful, if techno, approach to cooking.
Still, one lure has driven men to capture and cook beasts (or forage for apples) since time began. And that force drives them still. "Oh my God, yes, without a doubt," Childs says. "Girls do love it when you cook for them."
Like many of his ilk, Childs' specialty is breakfast: scrambled eggs and sausage.
"That's not why I got into cooking," Cichonski says, "but I've heard it's true."
Like Cichonski, the guys will be with their families on Thanksgiving Day - and none plan to contribute dishes at those gatherings.
"Even after I started cooking, in about seventh grade," Cichonski says, "my babci wouldn't let me cook on Thanksgiving. She wanted everybody to relax."
"As much as my friends are my family," Cichonski says, "Hands down the best part is going to be seeing Babci."
Everyone tells Cichonski that his mother "was an amazing cook. My one and only memory of her is with me leaning over the stove, helping her make cookies."
Aunts and uncles, cousins with their newborns, Cichonski's sister and one of his little brothers will be at the table this year with the grandparents, Walt and Josephine Cichonski.
Another brother is an Army man, preparing for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The thought of his absence on the holiday momentarily silences Cichonski.
Then he gets to thinking about the menu at Babci's. It will be straightforward and savory: turkey, gravy, stuffing with onions and celery, cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts bathed in butter and bread crumbs, mashed potatoes, a green bean casserole with mushrooms and bacon.
"Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. Walking in, you smell everything. You don't eat the day before because you can't wait to get so ridiculously full you won't be able to eat for another five days.
"I haven't been able to do it in years. That's probably the best part about having a break now. And who knows when I'll have one again."
For 16-18 pound turkey
3 gallons water
1 1/2 cups kosher salt
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup white miso paste
2 cups whiskey
1/2 cup fresh ginger, sliced thin
3 oranges, juice and zest
3 to 4 stems sage
3 to 4 bay leaves
6 pieces star anise
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pot (or two) and cook until simmering.
2. Turn off the heat and allow the brine to come to room temperature.
3. Refrigerate overnight. The flavors will develop more as it sits, so the brine may be made up to a week in advance.
4. Two days before cooking the turkey, submerge it completely in the brine and refrigerate.
Makes 14 to 16 servings
1 16-18 pound turkey
3 gallons brine (see recipe)
2 large onions
3 large carrots
1 head celery
3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup ginger sliced thin
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Remove the brined turkey from the liquid, making sure it is free of any spices or herbs that may have stuck to it. Place the turkey on a tray and pat dry. Allow the bird to sit uncovered at room temperature for about an hour. This "tempering" will give the skin time to dry out, so the skin will be crisp and the bird will cook more evenly. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 275 degrees.
2. Cut the onions, carrots, and celery into 1/2-inch pieces and place in the bottom of your roasting pan along with 3 cups of water. Cut the lemons and the garlic in half and put them, along with the ginger, in the cavity of the bird.
3. Place the bird on the vegetables in a large roasting pan, season the skin with salt and pepper and cover completely in foil. Place the bird in the oven to cook for roughly 4 hours.
4. Remove the foil during the last 45 minutes of cooking so the skin can crisp and turn a beautiful golden brown.
5. Check the doneness of your turkey by inserting a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. The thermometer should read 145-147 degrees when you remove it from the oven. (It will continue to cook and reach the proper 165 degrees recommended by the USDA.)
6. After the turkey has been removed from the oven, allow it to rest 45 minutes before you cut into it. In addition to letting the temperature rise, resting allows the juices to redistribute, making for a juicier bird.
Per serving (based on 16): 356 calories, 51 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 184 milligrams cholesterol, 157 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 14 servings
1/4 cup diced slab bacon
Any neck or giblets that may have come inside the turkey, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped
1/2 cups, plus 2 tablespoons whiskey (Jameson is preferred)
1/4 cup flour
2-3 cups chicken stock or water
Pan juices from roasting your turkey (approximately 3-4 cups)
1 stem sage
Zest and juice from 3 blood oranges
1. Once the turkey has been removed from the oven, you can start making the gravy. Begin by rendering the bacon in a medium-sized pot. Once the slab bacon starts to give off some of its fat, add the turkey neck and giblets and brown.
2. Add the vegetables to the same pan and brown them as well. Add the 1/2 cup of whiskey and cook until the liquid is reduced by half.
3. Sift the flour over the pot and toss to coat the meat and vegetables and incorporate them with the fat in the pan.
4. Now slowly pour in the other liquids (stock and pan juices) and stir as the mixture comes to a simmer. Let it simmer 10-15 minutes before adding the sage plus the zest and juice from the blood oranges.
5. Cook gently for another 10 minutes, then strain the gravy and finish with the last 2 tablespoons of whiskey.
6. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
205 calories, 3 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 179 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
2 1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled or not, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt (plus more to taste)
6 to 7 tablespoons good-quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 scallions, very thinly sliced on a long diagonal
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, coarsely crushed in a mortar and pestle or with the flat side of a chef's knife.
1. Put the potatoes and a pinch of salt in a large saucepan and fill with water. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until tender, 12-15 minutes.
2. Drain the potatoes, then transfer them to a large bowl and immediately mash with a fork or put through a ricer.
3. Stir in 1 tablespoon coarse salt, then drizzle in the oil, stirring until combined. Sprinkle with scallions and serve warm with extra salt, pepper, and a drizzle of oil on top.
390 calories, 7 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, no cholesterol, 1,456 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4-6 servings
2 pounds red and golden beets (about 8 medium) trimmed, leaving about 1/4 inch of the stem
6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Pinch or more coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar, optional
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Leaves from 1 small bunch of fresh basil.
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Put the beets in a baking dish and add water to come up about 1/2 inch. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and roast the beets until they can be easily pierced through to the center with a knife or skewer, about 45 minutes to one hour or more.
3. Remove from oven, uncover, and allow the beets to cool.
4. Trim and discard the beet tops and tails, then peel the beets. Cut the red beets into halves or quarters and transfer them to a bowl. Do the same with the orange beets, putting them in a separate bowl, so the colors do not bleed.
5. Working with one bowl at a time, add one tablespoon vinegar and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. If the beets are at all bitter, add a pinch of salt. Toss to combine. Let the beets absorb the vinegar in their separate bowls for about 10 minutes.
6. Whisk together the remaining vinegar and the oil in a separate bowl. Transfer the beets to serving plates and spoon the dressing over the top. Arrange the basil leaves on top and season generously with salt.