TORONTO, Cananda - Chef Susur Lee plans to add an exotic touch to his family Christmas dinner this year with a flavourful twist on traditional turkey.
When the temperature dips, spicy foods are delicious, Lee says. And a turkey marinated for several days in jerk seasoning is bound to get mouths watering.
Lee makes his own jerk seasoning, which includes allspice, fresh thyme, chili powder, garlic and onion.
"It gives a real spiciness and a lot of flavour. If you look at jerk spice, it has allspice — very Christmas in many ways," he says. "After you marinate the turkey, when you roast it you get a very nice colour and also very savoury.
"If you use stuffing, maybe this year you want something a little healthier. You could use quinoa with nuts, with chestnuts, cranberries and also with pumpkin seeds."
To continue the theme of lighter eating, a tangy salsa featuring mango or pineapple teams beautifully with the poultry. An avocado salad could round out the main course.
Lee, whose cooking reflects Asian and French influences, owns three restaurants. In Toronto, there's Lee and Bent — which he runs with two of his three sons — while TungLok Heen is in Singapore.
His many years in the restaurant trade have taught him how important it is to make patrons feel comfortable. At home, hosts can also go the extra step to make guests feel welcome.
"It's nice to get a pot of apple cider with cinnamon, with cloves, with star anise, with ginger. Just heat it up so when people come in the house they can smell it right away," suggests Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong where British colonization influenced Christmas celebrations.
Even though the festive season is a fraught with stress for many, it can be a period to slow down and put an effort into making something really special, Lee believes. He likes the idea of taking time to research a new dish, then combine it with items you've prepared before.
"You want to make something special that your friends go, 'Oh, my God, she or he is an amazing cook. He could open a restaurant.'
"You know, everybody makes one dinner and they think they can open a restaurant," Lee adds with a hearty laugh.
Look for products in the grocery store to help make life easier so you can sit down at the dinner table and celebrate with family and friends.
Lee, who is a judge on Food Network Canada's "Chopped Canada" premiering Jan. 2 and has competed on "Iron Chef America," suggests buying fresh vegetables that are already peeled and cut, such as squash.
As much as possible, prepare dishes ahead. Consider items that can be served cold or at room temperature. Marinating is a huge time saver. Not only can it be done ahead, but it also adds a punch of flavour.
If your Christmas dinner guest list is small, split a turkey and freeze half to cook on another occasion, such as New Year's Eve. This cuts down on roasting time.
Or accompany the smaller portion of poultry with a contrasting dish, such as filet mignon. Having a combination of red and white meat means there's something for everyone.
For side dishes, Lee likes fruit with starch. "Quince with sweet potato roasted together is awesome."
With his jerk turkey, he suggests roasted plantain and sweet potatoes. Roasted pineapple is also delicious. Cut it in chunks, toss them in brown sugar and caramelize in a pan.
Artichokes can be stuffed with braised onions, topped with cheese and roasted.
Skip the bread and crackers with hors d'oeuvres before dinner so guests' appetites aren't spoiled.
"I wouldn't suggest pate because you eat it with bread. Stay away from the starchy stuff. Think of something a little bit different," Lee says.
A charcuterie platter with a variety of cured meats and other prepared items purchased from the grocery store is easy to put together.
For dessert, Lee loves featuring fruit. "You can make a great crumble. Who doesn't like crumble by the end of the meal? You can bake it the night before. You warm it up and it even tastes better."
Use other fruits too, such as quince. Or Lee mixes in wild blueberries that he's preserved and adds tapioca which thickens the juices while the dessert is baking.
Just before serving, sprinkle the dessert with rum or brandy. For a nice change from ice cream, Lee suggests creme fraiche.
Don't forget presentation, including a garnish of fresh herbs and the right platter on which to set off your main course to its best advantage. "It's like a painter. You got to get a nice frame and I think it's so important," he said, adding that this is often an afterthought for many in their rush to get the food on the table.
With turkey, Lee suggests a dry Riesling. Shiraz pairs well with jerk chicken.
"I think it's important to get your family involved to prepare too and don't say 'Get out of the kitchen.' Have a glass of wine while you're cooking too."
Lee is sharing knowledge gleaned over a career that has spanned more than three decades with three lucky Canadians and their guests, who will spend the afternoon of Jan. 21 cooking with him in Lee restaurant, then consume a multi-course dinner complemented by wine pairings.
"If they are professional or they are non-professional, I just love the fact that they're cooking with me," says Lee, who will turn 55 before the end of the year. "It's the first time I've ever done it."
Entrants can submit a unique recipe online until Dec. 31 to contest sponsor Jacob's Creek Reserve. Visit http://thereservetable.ca/Canada/Cooking-With-Chef-Susur-Lee.aspx for details.