Crazy-good classics: Leslie Brenner's favorite Thanksgiving dishes

One day in the early autumn of 2006, a conversation I had with one of my colleagues at The Los Angeles Times, where I was Food Editor at the time, would change Thanksgiving for me forever. And not just me: What came out of that conversation -- with my colleague Russ Parsons, a longtime food editor, staff writer, cookbook author and one of the best cooks I've ever had the pleasure to know -- changed Thanksgiving for dedicated home cooks all over America.

Russ was somewhat obsessed at the time with technique for roasting poultry (and other meats) practiced by Judy Rodgers, the gifted chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. (Rodgers passed away in 2013). If you've ever been to Zuni Cafe or cooked from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, you may have feasted on its famous roast chicken. The secret behind its incredible flavor, succulence and crisp, golden-brown skin is generously salting the bird a day or two before you roast it, then letting the skin air-dry for hours. It's a trick Rodgers learned from old-school home cooks in the French countryside. Try roasting a chicken this way, and you'll never do anything else.

Anyway, I was as enamored of the technique as Russ was. One day I said to Russ, "Hey, Russ, have you ever tried giving a turkey the Judy treatment?" 

A look of amazement crept across Russ' smiling face. I think he ran out of the office without looking back -- eager to get his hands on a turkey and try it.

In the following weeks, Russ developed the technique for the turkey -- he called it dry-brining. It was a smashing success. The flesh was incomparably flavorful, with a wonderful smooth texture, and fabulous crisp, golden-brown skin. The technique was a snap, there was no basting, and no wrestling the bird into a bucket of brine and finding a way to store it during the week when refrigerator space is at such a premium.

At the paper we did comparative tastings -- of turkeys roasted after conventional wet-brining (always good, but an unwieldy mess), and high-temperature roasted birds and steam-roasted birds (another technique we were loving then). The dry-brined bird blew the other turkeys out of the water.

Russ tweaked and refined the technique, we published the recipe and our readers went crazy for it. Within a couple of years it had been picked up by papers and magazines all over the country. Now if you ask a serious home-cook how they make their Thanksgiving turkey, likely as not they'll say they dry-brine.

I can't even imagine doing it any other way: It's that good. That's why, from that season on, a dry-brined turkey has always been the centerpiece of my Thanksgiving table. (Thank you, Judy! thank you, Russ!)

Meanwhile, for me Thanksgiving isn't the time I feel like experimenting and being adventurous; it's the day I want to sink my teeth into dishes I know and love. I crave familiar flavors. For me Thanksgiving is the day to celebrate comfort food. (Probably the fact that as I restaurant critic I'm constantly tasting new things every night, rarely able to zero in on something I just happen to love, has something to do with it . . . ) 

Therefore, I always make the same things, year after year after year. The dry-brined turkey. A really good Cognac sauce (not gravy!). Chestnut-porcini stuffing. Brussels sprouts leaves with pancetta and mirepoix. And a luscious, savory sweet-potato gratin. You'll find recipes for all of the above in this post. I also serve a simple cranberry sauce and a relish tray, and for dessert, it's classic pumpkin pie all the way. 

So, back to our turkey. As Russ has always pointed out, the path to the magnificent bird is really more a technique than a recipe. 

All you do is apply Kosher salt -- quite a lot of it -- to the surface of the turkey. Seal it in a plastic zipper bag. Let it sit for three days in the fridge, during which time the salt works its magic on the flesh. By the end of three days, the salt will have soaked in. You take the bird out of its bag, its flesh moist but not wet at this point, and let it air-dry in the fridge for six or eight hours. The roasting part couldn't be easier: Start it breast-down on a rack in a roasting pan at high heat, turn it breast up, drop the temperature and let it finish roasting like that. That's it. No basting is necessary. The bird will be brilliant.

In case you're not yet a dry-brining convert, I'm excited to share the technique and recipe with you.

Along with the recipe you'll find my personal contribution: the really good sauce. It's not a gravy, but a sauce -- made by deglazing the roasting pan with Cognac. Ready for the recipes? Here you go . . . 

Now let's talk about the sides.

Naturally there has to be stuffing, and my stuffing of choice is one made from country bread enriched with chestnuts, porcini mushrooms and lots of celery and herbs. It was inspired by the stuffing my mom always made -- which didn't have mushrooms, but did have lots of rich roasted chestnuts.

And she taught me a trick that gives it amazing body and texture: add a lightly beaten egg or two. I used to stuff my turkey, and make additional stuffing to bake outside the bird. But in recent years I've chosen to keep the roasting simpler and quicker (and probably safer, from a food-safety point of view) and just bake the stuffing in a casserole outside of the bird. Honestly, I find it to be just as delicious. 

Here's the stuffing recipe:

Onto the potato question. I know there are people in the world who serve both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, but that's not the way I was raised. Chez nous, it was sweet potatoes all the way. 

In my house, we were spared the candy-sweet concoctions involving marshmallows and pineapple. But I did grow up with sweet potatoes that were given a brown-sugar boost. They weren't terribly sweet, but they were sweeter than I liked; I'm a huge fan of sweet potatoes' deeply sweet natural flavor. The sweet potato recipe of my dreams walked into my life the year after Russ developed his "Judy bird," as he called it, when my friend Regina Schrambling published her recipe for a savory sweet potato gratin -- also in the L.A. Times.  

I've made it every year since: It's a simple dish, achieved by peeling and slicing sweet potatoes, layering them -- seasoned -- in a baking dish, pouring a mixture of heavy cream and fresh thyme over them and baking. 

Yes, it's super-simple. And really killer. I hope you'll love it as much as I do.

Finally, a green veg. Many years ago (fifteen maybe? I'm guessing...) I fell in love with a recipe in Chez Panisse Cooking for Brussels sprouts leaves with pancetta and mirepoix (mirepoix is the classic trio of diced onion, celery and carrot). It was long before the Brussels sprouts craze took hold; I remember telling a friend this was a Brussels sprouts dish for people who didn't like Brussels sprouts. 

To be perfectly honest, it's a bit of a pain in the ass to prepare, as it requires pulling all the leaves off of each Brussels sprout. But the payoff is great: You get all the wonderful Brussels sprouts flavor -- heightened by mirepoix and pancetta -- without the dense texture of biting into a little cabbage-head. Bertolli's dish, made bright and lively with a splash of vinegar at the end, is light, airy, vibrant and super-flavorful. 

OK, I hope that's enough to get you inspired for the big day. I always round things out with classic pumpkin pie and a straightforward cranberry sauce.  With any luck, I'll manage to put recipes for those in your hands by the time Thanksgiving rolls around. 

Have any questions -- about planning, cooking these dishes, anything? Do let me know in a comment -- I'd love to hear from you and I'll do my best to help!