The chef Colin Campbell talks turkey - and lamb and zaatar and dates.
Tradition with a twist
Colin Campbell has a great piece of advice for anyone who's fretting about cooking for a large group of people this Thanksgiving: "Keep it simple, stupid!" And there's every reason to take heed of his pearl of wisdom. He is the former head chef at The Plettenberg Hotel on South Africa's Garden Route and has gained a wealth of experience when it comes to cooking for big occasions. Now, as a chef working for the Abela catering group in Dubai, Campbell will be preparing a Thanksgiving dinner at the American University of Dubai - and he'll be taking his own advice.
"It'll be a traditional Thanksgiving with the roast turkey as the centrepiece, with stuffing and giblet gravy," he said with a discernible tremor of excitement in his voice. "There will be lots of side dishes to go with it, like yam or sweet potato, green beans, pumpkin, maybe onions and leeks. Basically lots of vegetables as well. We're not doing anything too fancy. We're keeping with convention."
Such convention, for those who are unfamiliar with Thanksgiving traditions, has slowly evolved since the pilgrims in America first gave thanks for their harvests with an annual celebratory feast in the early 17th century. Yet, according to Campbell, cultural diversity means that the Thanksgiving dinner will continue to change and evolve. "Because America has become so eclectic, people add their own twists to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. So if you're from the south-west United States, you might have Mexican things with it. But by and large, people stick to the traditional elements like cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, turkey and vegetables."
So how can we adapt a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to the local ingredients and cooking styles of the Middle East? The question almost sent Campbell's ever-inventive mind into culinary overdrive. "You could have lamb instead of turkey. In this part of the world, you might do a traditional lamb uzi. As a side dish, you could have plain white rice with zaatar, or sumac. Maybe cumin? Or what about saffron rice?" he said, reeling off ideas like an audio recipe book stuck on fast forward.
"You can pretty much add anything you like. Look at the American south. They have Cajun creole influences, so there's always scope for a twist. The meal adapts to the area it's cooked in and to the people who cook it. There will always be purists who stick to the original recipes, but I think times adapt and things change." It would appear, then, that the art to preparing a successful Thanksgiving dinner is not to stray too far from tradition but to enhance the meal subtly with some local flavours. With this in mind, the conversation inevitably turned to stuffing and Campbell's creativity really came into its own.
"Probably the most common stuffing is sage and onion. Get fresh sage. That's really important. Put some parsley in there, which gives it more volume because too much sage can be a bit overpowering. You want breadcrumbs, black pepper, salt. But to give it a local flavour, you could throw some cardamom in there - just a few seeds - and perhaps a handful of dates. Chop them up to give it a fruity flavour. In fact, you're probably only limited by your imagination as to what you could put in there."
With the stuffing seemingly taken care of, what about the turkey itself? Did Campbell have any tips on how to make this notoriously difficult to cook bird moist, succulent and fit for a celebration? Has Barack Obama been practicing his inauguration speech? "Get a butterball self-basting turkey," he said. "It's probably one of the best turkeys you'll find on the local market." Self-basting birds have been injected with broth and other flavourings, which makes for the moist succulent meat. Failing that, you can always soak a regular bird in brine water - the longer the better. It absorbs all the flavour of the salt water so when you cook it, it's a very succulent turkey. It's hard to go wrong with that.
And, of course, he wasn't about to stop there. "If you're having roasted vegetables, put your turkey on top of them so that all the flavour drips out onto them. Occasionally during cooking you can spoon some of those juices back onto the turkey. It's not just a question of putting it in the oven and forgetting about it. Use a turkey baster or a bristle basting brush." Talking to Campbell for any significant amount of time makes you feel like anything is possible. I get the impression that if the entire American armed forces turned up at his doorstep at 3.00 tomorrow morning, demanding turkey and stuffing with fresh cranberry sauce, he'd shrug his shoulders and say, "What's the matter, can't you guys manage the pumpkin pie as well?"
So when he starts talking about how to cook for a group, I listen. Carefully. "The most important thing is to prepare in advance," he begins with almost military authority. "Sit down and work out your menu. Maybe choose a Waldorf salad to start with. Stick with your turkey and cranberry sauce. Choose three or four vegetables. Then there's the pumpkin pie or apple pie. But you don't want to be slaving away in the kitchen for hours on end. Prepare as much in advance as is humanly possible. Peel the vegetables, pre-boil them and put them to one side so they're ready to go. Don't leave everything to the last minute."
I'm all set. I now know what to prepare and how to prepare it. And my pep talk with Campbell has helped to remove one of the biggest obstacles that might have prevented me from cooking the ultimate American Thanksgiving feast in the past: the fact that I'm not American. You see, neither is Campbell. "I'm from Pretoria in South Africa," he declares proudly. "Though my parents are Scottish." Which just goes to show, things aren't always quite as simple as they first seem.