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Take Your Thanksgiving Meal To the Next Level With Tips From Delaware Chefs

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The secret to a flavorful turkey starts with brining. While salt is the essential ingredient, it’s fine to get playful with other seasonings too./Adobe Stock

From the perfect turkey brine to local takes on classic dishes, elevate your holiday meal with the help of local culinary experts.


At Matt’s Fish Camp in Bethany Beach, Maggie Cellitto commands the kitchen. But on Thanksgiving Day, she joins family and friends to prepare a feast for 35 people. “We all help,” says the chef. “It is a collective.”

The meal typically includes an air-fried turkey, a deep-fried turkey and a bird cooked in an electric roaster. The oven does not sit idle; a ham bakes for three hours.

The family works like a well-oiled machine. But for most home cooks, the thought of Thanksgiving is enough to cause anxiety. “My advice is to have fun,” says Dan Tagle, the executive chef at Krazy Kat’s in Montchanin. “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

To help, we asked pros like Tagle and Cellitto to offer some tips.

Fry-giving

If you’re brave enough to attempt the deep-fried turkey this year, a few things differ from the traditional bird roasted in the oven. Since frying seals in moisture, you won’t need to brine or butter your turkey. If you’re air-frying, use a dry rub. If you’re deep-frying, Cellitto offers this advice:

  • Only use the fryer outside.
  • Allow time to heat the oil.
  • Never use a frozen bird.
  • Pat down the turkey to remove excess water. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Do not butter or brine the bird; it can lead to splatters when it hits the oil.
  • If you overfill the fryer with oil, it will spill when you drop the turkey in the pot. Only fill to the recommended level.
  • Don’t ratchet up the temperature after adding the cold turkey. It takes time to adjust.

Smoke It If You Got It

Doug Ruley, vice president of culinary operations for SoDel Concepts, prefers to smoke his turkey. Start with a dry rub of sage and fresh cracked pepper, then put butter under the skin. While the turkey smokes, baste it with maple syrup.

Remember to gather up a variety of herbs—rosemary, sage, thyme—to keep on hand for the big day of cooking./Adobe Stock

The Big Brine

Admittedly, most people roast a turkey. Unless your bird is already seasoned, consider a brine. The critical ingredient is salt, which tenderizes the meat and adds flavor.

The typical ratio is 1 cup of salt to a gallon of water. (The higher the salt content, the faster the brining process.) Michael Heaps, the executive chef at Harry’s Savoy Grill, prefers a low-salt brine. “I like to keep the turkey in it for three days,” he explains.

As for seasonings, Cellitto adds rosemary, black pepper, bay leaves and brown sugar. Tagle favors lemons, oranges — even teabags — for color and flavor.

Butter It Up

After brining the turkey, Cellitto rubs the meat with sage, thyme, oregano, salt, white pepper and garlic.

She gently works herbs and butter under the skin. “Get all around the thighs, legs — everything.” She puts melted butter on top, along with more spices. While the turkey roasts, the juices mix with the seasonings to form a gravy base.

Tom Hannum is another butter buff. The executive chef at Buckley’s Tavern then reaches for the Montreal Chicken seasoning.

Hannum roasts the legs separately from the breast. “It shortens the cooking time and helps ensure that the breast stays moist,” he maintains. The dark and white meat cook on a bed of carrots, onion, celery, garlic cloves and fresh thyme.

Ditch the traditional stuffing this year and try something a little outside the box. Chef Maggie Cellitto of Matt’s Fish Camp in Bethany Beach prepares her stuffing with oysters and ground beef./Adobe Stock

On a Roll

David Leo Banks, the owner of Banks’ Seafood Kitchen on the Wilmington Riverfront, also separates the legs and thighs from the breast. But instead of roasting, he boils them slowly over low heat. “It creates the stock for my gravy,” he says, “They’re nice, tender and moist so that you can pull the meat off the bone.”

He fillets the breast, sprinkles it with spices and lets it “cure” in the fridge overnight. The next day, he places the fillet skin-side-down and spreads prepared stuffing on the meat. Starting at one end, he rolls the fillet and ties it with twine. To serve, he slices the roulade into individual portions. “People can have their meat and stuffing in one bite,” he quips.

On the Side

Old favorites — think sweet potatoes with marshmallows — are expected at the Thanksgiving table. Any attempt to deviate might lead to disappointed faces. “I want everything that I grew up with, and that includes green bean casserole,” Heaps maintains.

Banks attempted to introduce upscale dishes in the past, but his family wants pineapple casserole, a sweet Southern treat, and slice-and-bake biscuits. He’s happy if he can get roasted Brussels sprouts on a platter.

As long as you have the traditional stuffing, you can get creative with a second option. “If you’re looking for a unique crowd-pleasing stuffing ingredient, I suggest a local favorite: scrapple,” Ruley says. Make sure the edges are crisp and add a tart apple into the mix. Celitto’s novel stuffing recipe includes oysters and ground beef. “It gives it that nice fattiness,” she says of the meat.

Fortunately, few people count calories on Thanksgiving.


Published as “Family Style” in the November 2020 issue of Delaware Today.