Unexpected tricks for making your fall feast meals that much better

Dry out your poultry, use fresh coconut in curries and add this secret ingredient to your croutons — trust us.

Dry out your poultry, use fresh coconut in curries and add this secret ingredient to your croutons — trust us

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If you've already got the recipes lined up for whatever fall feast or holiday you're celebrating in the coming months, you may not be one to give articles on (amazing) 5 minute appetizers or turkey in a slow-cooker, or make-ahead brisket a second look. Which, I understand. I've got ol' faves that I'm committed to making on special occasions too. 

But, still, I suggest remaining open to changing things up. And I speak from experience.

You see, for years and for all the holidays, I was loyal to my great aunt's dinner roll recipe. Those rolls were reliable, high in sentimental value, and always earned rave reviews. But one summer — not for a holiday — I tried a recipe for Japanese milk buns and everything changed. 

The recipe used tangzhong, a starter roux and Asian baking technique — it yields incredibly soft and fluffy results, much lighter than my family's heirloom recipe. So when fall's feasting commitments rolled around again, I faced a dilemma. Would I abandon my great aunt's buns and bring something new to the table?

In the end, I compromised. I worked a tangzhong or starter roux into our family recipe. Now my aunt's rolls live on, slightly revised and much, much softer. If you're open to a little change, you too may be surprised at how much better and easier your fall feast recipes can be. 

Beyond tangzhong, I've got more tricks for making your favourite recipes even better and easier. Try out the applicable ones below and when guests ask for your secrets, make sure to get theirs too. 

Techniques for better flavour

Swap smoked trout into your gefilte fish recipe. With a relatively small ingredient list, making this traditional dish from scratch isn't hard at all. Follow these directions and sub in hot-smoked trout (the flaky kind) for roughly half of the raw fish to put a great spin on this staple. The smokey twist adds a lot of flavour, just be sure to skip the sea salt in the recipe completely, or add it cautiously, to taste.

Add anchovies to homemade croutons. As you tear your crusty loaf of bread apart, melt two finely-chopped salted anchovy fillets in the olive oil where the bread will fry. I promise the anchovies will just disappear into the oil, leaving behind only their incredible umami flavour to coat your croutons. Add a generous sprinkling of flaky salt and send your salad score through the roof. 

Let your chicken, duck, or turkey dry out in the fridge overnight before cooking. Take the wrapping off and let it air out. This will help the skin crisp up and even fry if you're adding butter or perhaps an oily jerk marinade under the skin, which I hope you are. 

Caramelize apples before baking them into a pie. Toss the slices with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and cook them in a skillet, without crowding, until they start to brown. This deepens and sweetens their flavour before they go into the crust. 

Add a couple tablespoons of cranberry sauce to your gravy. The sweetness balances the savoury flavours and let's be honest, you knew this because you swirl those two flavours together on your plate, right?

Use fresh coconut in your curries instead of coconut milk. You'll get a cleaner tasting "gravy" by avoiding liquid-y coconut milk whose richness can mute flavours. Look for tips on cracking a coconut or check to see if any grocery stores around you sell fresh coconut in pieces, already peeled.

Add Italian parsley to your fall salads. Don't even both chopping up the leaves. Just pluck them and treat them as another green in your salad. They'll freshen things up and complement other fall additions well, like roasted root vegetables and dried cranberries. 

Roast beets in water and vinegar and freeze them to get ahead. Many vegetables, like beets, don't freeze well raw, but cook them a little bit and they'll be fine. Keep the peels on and season the beets well with salt and vinegar, before roasting them in a marinade of equal parts oil and vinegar — just enough to cover the bottom of your roasting pan. Cover the dish with a lid or foil and roast in a 375F degree oven until fork-tender, about one hour. Once cooled, slip their skins off and chop up as desired. Freeze them until feast day to use in salads and sides. 

Add fish sauce to your chicken soup. A few splashes is all you need for an added flavour complexity your guests will be hard-pressed to define — just be sure none of them have seafood allergies.

Toast your sugar for desserts. You heard me right. Stick a tray of white, icing or cane sugar into the oven and bake it at low heat, stirring every 15 minutes, until it's fragrant and starting to brown. This does wonders for recipes like icings, white cakes, meringues, where you'll especially taste the sugar's deepened, toasted flavour. 

Add bourbon to your pumpkin pie. All it takes is a couple of tablespoons to round out the flavour. Splash it right into your favourite recipe and consider pairing the pie with a bourbon-based after dinner drink

Techniques for making your meals even easier

Make-ahead and freeze your mashed potatoes. They re-heat best if your recipe contains butter, cream, or other fat, to protect the starchy vegetable's texture. If you need a recipe, try the technique out with this recipe. It's always liberating to get a side out of the way ahead of time. (Make your gravy ahead of time too. Look up a recipe online and get it out of the way so it's not a last minute stress-maker. Add any turkey drippings for extra flavour just before serving, if that's what you're cooking.)

Take whatever spice mixture you're cooking with anyway and use it to season cauliflower for an easy side. Melt ghee or olive oil and stir in a tablespoon or so of the spice mixture, then toss a head's worth of cauliflower florets in your flavoured oil. The vegetable's mild flavour means it wears many spices well. Roast for about half an hour in a 375F degree oven until brown and crispy.

Been tasked with cooking fish? Cook it in parchment (preferably unbleached) for a foolproof way to get it perfect. Look up a recipe online, searching for the technique's French name en papillote.

Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks

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