Thanksgiving Day has a rhythm and feel all its own. Chef Joey Russo described it as “a symphony,” with friends and families playing the music of kitchen hustle and bustle, all culminating in an epic, heartwarming feast.
Hoping to capture the almost tangible food energy surrounding this holiday, I met Joey in the kitchen at Russo’s Bistro & Bar, ready to cook a Thanksgiving dish to share here. But, Joey Russo’s undeniable cooking prowess comes second to his ability to inspire you and make you feel a part of a moment. We cooked food. And I learned a few things, for sure.
The act of preparing a meal, amid talk about Thanksgiving memories and holiday traditions was so satisfying; it crystallized for me the basic goodness and peace that’s found in cooking and feeding others. It doesn’t really matter what’s on your Thanksgiving table; the celebration and symphony is in getting it there, and sharing it with people you love.
That said, let’s buck tradition a bit and talk about duck — plus some sautéed vegetables with a very autumnal twist — as a low-key fancy way to ditch the responsibility of a 15-pound turkey and still satisfy your friends and family with a delicious bird. Plus, I’ll share a slick, celebratory Joey Russo move that’ll make you forget there’ll be no wishbone this year.
To start, we scored the thick, creamy skin of four duck breasts; four shallow slices lengthwise and four shallow cuts crosswise. Joey took this opportunity to patiently correct my bad knife habits, suggesting I remove my pointer finger from the top of the blade and curl it against the bolster of the knife instead. Here, Joey explained, the knife can behave more like an extension of your hand, offering better control. (You think you know this, at least I did, but pay attention to yourself the next time you chop an onion.)
Knife-life changed, we paused the duck production for a moment and addressed the need for snacks —no holiday meal is complete without them. There were four little quail, no bigger than the palm of your hand, that could have been cooked whole — little seared birds, paying homage to a traditional Thanksgiving turkey. Joey mentioned something about cooking the breasts wrapped in bacon and frying the legs and wings in the fat and once an idea like that is out there, you can’t really take it back. So, moments later, we stood over a big shallow bowl eating these crispy, bacon-y, quail snacks with our fingers. Sometimes this is where the best eating occurs, especially on holidays: standing around a bowl in the kitchen, talking with a couple friends or relatives, and eating something juicy and good with your hands.
Meanwhile, we seared those scored duck breasts. Joey let the flame of the gas stove burn hot under an empty sauté pan for way longer than I was comfortable with. Wisps of smoke were curling off the surface but this wasn’t evidence enough for Joey because he still tapped the palm of his hand to the pan before declaring it ready. The burning hot pan, although scary, is important. Just be brave, and do it, because once the duck breasts touched the surface, they sizzled brilliantly and began to release a healthy, glistening supply of fat that would serve to season the duck breasts themselves as well as the vegetables that would follow. When the skin was beautifully browned, looking like it would make a noisy crackle sound if you touched it, Joey transferred the breasts to an oven and returned his attention to the golden fat in the pan.
Here’s where things got weirdly delicious. Disappearing into the walk-in refrigerator earlier, Joey had collected an assortment of vegetables — broccolini, bell pepper, onion, carrots, and mushrooms — and a shiny green apple. These were chopped and thrown into the pan of duck fat to cook and soften, followed by salt, pepper, a dusting of cinnamon, and a pinch of dill to brighten things up. I snapped a photo of the colors in the pan — looking like autumn itself — and glanced up to see Joey tilting a splash of sweet vanilla extract into this pan of savory vegetables.
“This is going to seem weird…”, he said quietly as he did it. But the smell was mouthwatering. Earthy sweetness, smoothed out by warm, roast-y vanilla. Completely eye-opening and delicious. A quick pour of apple juice — the perfect echo to that crisp Granny Smith apple — was the last step.
We made a bed of the crisp-tender, vanilla-laced vegetables on a platter and arranged the rested, sliced duck breasts on top, finishing it all with a drizzle of truffle oil and a tangy balsamic reduction.
Then, Joey closed the gap between “special meal” and “unforgettable holiday” by creating this moment: He set two little shot glasses on the table, into which he poured the juices given up by the duck and vegetables that had formed lush little pools in the corners of the plate. We clinked glasses and drank those shots of rich, earthy, cinnamon-spiced juice, tasting so fully of Thanksgiving. It was absolute magic. Who needs a wishbone? This is how to celebrate your Thanksgiving — or other special holiday — symphony.