Growing up in Connecticut, chef George Mendes's family didn't play around when it came to Thanksgiving. His mom and aunt dedicated days to cooking, adapting recipes from their native Portugal to American traditions for a 35-person feast that was so big, prep tables had to be set up in the garage.
"There was always suckling pig, baby goat, filet mignon—but Americanized. It was like a surf and turf, so my mom would make this lobster with filet mignon," the chef explains at his new beer-focused Portuguese restaurant, Lupulo, in New York City. And sides like "mashed potatoes; mushroom and tomato stew; a big green salad with iceberg lettuce, cucumber and tomato; stuffing; corn and peas stewed with chorizo . . . ." The list went on.
And, of course, there was turkey, a "deep, soulful, slightly smoky and sweet" bird, recalls Mendes. In his family's home, it "was only eaten later at night when people were passed out on the couch," but at Lupulo, it will take center stage of the restaurant's Thanksgiving meal this year (see the recipe).
"I vividly remember the day before Thanksgiving, the turkey would be sitting in the marinade in the fridge or in the garage. It was [made with] vinho verde or beer, sliced onions, garlic, bay leaf—that combination, that scent just brings me back home," Mendes says. The recipe he will serve this year "is pretty much the same recipe my mother would make" with just a few cheffy upgrades.
The result of that deep red marinade (here, made with lager) is a smoky, juicy turkey with just a hint of sweetness that's unusual but familiar enough that it can easily sit on the table next to classic Thanksgiving sides like corn bread, collards and squashes.
And to drink, Mendes explains, a brew is where it's at, too. "A roast turkey on Thanksgiving really does go well with beer. The traditional beer of Portugal is called Sagres—it's very light." But if you can't find it, he recommends a crisp lager or, "because of the smokiness, a nice saison—something that has a little citrus; a little coriander seed really goes well with it."
For those making the turkey, or those who want to try anything new for the holiday, Mendes says it's all about planning in the days before. The brine can be made a week in advance and the marinade up to five days before Thanksgiving (hello, weekend cooking project). "Stuffing can be prepared up to two days ahead of time," he continues. "You should save the Thanksgiving holiday for time with your family and friends . . . and get them involved in the cooking process."
As for the chef, he'll use that extra time on Thanksgiving morning for another tradition: picking up four dozen bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish and capers for his staffs at Aldea and Lupulo. "We have a really big team breakfast that's been going on for six years . . . and then we open for Thanksgiving service at two o'clock."
Rest assured, Mendes won't be prepping in the garage.
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