The first time Eli Collins made Thanksgiving dinner, he served it to about 350 people. It was his first year of working at the New York City brasserie DBGB, and he was in charge of the holiday menu.

He tried to keep it simple: roast turkey, potato puree, cranberry sauce, stuffing. He wanted to make dishes that were traditional but refined enough for a restaurant with famed French chef Daniel Boulud at the helm. It took him a week to prepare for the big day.

"It was a great experience," said Collins, now the chef at the French-inspired a.kitchen, restaurateur Ellen Yin's Rittenhouse Square location. "I look back on it and I felt like it was one of the first times I accomplished something bigger as a chef. It's a very gratifying experience to build something like that step by step."

Collins went on to spend many Thanksgivings in professional kitchens, enjoying the camaraderie that came from working a holiday with a team of colleagues. Now, as a married father, he prefers to stay home and cook for his family. That means creating seasonal, rustic dishes that combine his desire for a French country feast with flavors that evoke his personal history.

Chef Eli Collins with the Thanksgiving meal he prepared at a.kitchen.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Chef Eli Collins with the Thanksgiving meal he prepared at a.kitchen.

Collins grew up in Scranton; his father was a minister who invited over people who didn't have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving.

"We'd always have like 15 people every year, but it was never the same people," Collins said. In that way, his father, who died this year, turned Thanksgiving into a holiday meant for welcoming others into the family. The meal itself was always traditional, and as an adult, Collins said he has not strayed far from that.

Home chefs should take comfort in knowing that turkeys are difficult for anyone to cook perfectly, Collins said. For this holiday feast, Collins brined his turkey for two days in honey and salt, air-dried it for 24 hours in the refrigerator, and rubbed it with a blend of salt and pepper, fennel seed, fennel pollen, and dill.

A Thanksgiving meal at a.kitchen.
JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
A Thanksgiving meal at a.kitchen.

The honey helps set a golden patina on the bird as it cooks, Collins said. He recommends roasting it at a low temperature and taking it out when it's about 75 percent done, letting it sit for an hour, then blasting it with high heat. The crispiness of the skin comes from drying it, then cooking it at a low enough temperature so the skin renders.

"When you blast it, it's almost like air searing it," he said. The turkey emerges juicy and tender with savory, crispy skin.

In Collins' opinion, the stuffing is the hardest part of the meal due to the labor required to prepare the different components. He started with Genzano bread from High Street on Market, which has a rustic, sourdough flavor, and advised letting the bread dry out for a day. When ready to cook, he added onions, celery, and carrots and sautéed them in butter with sausage, fennel, chili flakes, oyster mushrooms, chicken stock, and herbs.

Fennel, sausage, mushroom, and sourdough stuffing baked in a cheese pumpkin.
Fennel, sausage, mushroom, and sourdough stuffing baked in a cheese pumpkin.

Serving it in a gourd makes the stuffing even more festive, so Collins sliced open a cheese pumpkin and hollowed it out. He cooked it in the shell for about an hour and a half, and finished it with a touch of sweet vinegar. The resulting dish is savory and porky, and crackles with a hint of crunch from the toasted crust of the bread.

Collins's father loved sauerkraut — a love Collins inherited. So he made a platter of it, adding thick pieces of pork rillons that added a crispy richness to the tang of cabbage and vinegar.

Sauerkraut with crispy pork rillons.
JOSE F. MORENO
Sauerkraut with crispy pork rillons.

"Vegetables at Thanksgiving should be simple," Collins said. He roasted carrots, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, and rutabaga in butter, lemon, thyme, and crushed garlic for an earthy taste.

He also whipped up a creamy bowl of potato puree, made silky with brown butter, and added rosemary and garlic to give it a satisfying snap of flavor. He made cranberry sauce from a combination of dried and fresh cranberries, as well as flavors from pomegranate and star anise.

For a fresh salad, he combined bitter greens with radicchio and offset it with bites of seasonal fruit like apples, and dressed it with vinaigrette.

Tarte Tatin at a.kitchen.
JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Tarte Tatin at a.kitchen.

Aaron Manuyag, pastry chef for a.kitchen and its sister restaurants Fork and High Street on Market, baked a tarte Tatin, a French version of apple pie. The dessert is made from flaky, buttery puff pastry and topped with apples that have been baked with vanilla, butter, and sugar. It might be served with a dollop of freshly whipped cream.

Unlike many home chefs, Thanksgiving for Collins has become a day associated with rest and relaxation, far from the stresses of a professional kitchen.

"It's a good day when I cook at home. I can just chill," Collins said. This month, when he prepares the family feast at home, he said, "We'll pretty much have this meal."

Spice-rubbed turkey

Serves 10 to 12

INGREDIENTS

1 16- to 18-pound turkey, with all giblets and neck removed from the cavity.

For the brine:

1 gallon water

400 grams salt

400 grams honey

1 bulb garlic, cut in half

4 pieces allspice berries

2 Tbsp. black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 sprig thyme

2 Tbsp. coriander seeds

9 pounds of ice

For the spice rub:

6 Tbsp. black pepper

4 Tbsp. pink peppercorn

6 Tbsp. fennel seed

4 Tbsp. dill seed

2 Tbsp. fennel pollen

1 Tbsp. smoked sea salt

Vegetable oil, for seasoning (optional: chicken or duck fat)

Salt, for seasoning

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a pot, bring 1 gallon water, salt, honey, garlic, allspice berries, black peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme and coriander to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes.
  2. Using a separate, larger bowl or pot, pour over ice. Stir until ice melts and mixture is completely chilled.
  3. Pour brine over turkey, making sure bird is fully submerged.
  4. Refrigerate turkey in brine for 36 to 48 hours.
  5. After brining, leave bird uncovered in refrigerator to dry out for 24 hours.
  6. When ready for roasting, prepare the spice blend by combining pepper, pink peppercorns, fennel seed and dill seed in a grinder. Grind coarsely; you do not want a fine powder.
  7. Stir in fennel pollen and smoked sea salt.
  8. Rub bird with oil (optional: use chicken or duck fat), then season evenly with spice rub and additional salt.
  9. Roast turkey at oven's lowest setting, 200 degrees or lower, for several hours depending on oven and size of bird.
  10. When bird is almost cooked through, with internal temperature of about 155 degrees, remove and let rest for about 90 minutes.
  11. Cover the end of the legs in foil to protect it from burning and roast turkey at oven's highest setting (up to 600 degrees) while basting with more oil, duck or chicken fat for about 20 minutes until a desired color and texture is achieved on skin.
  12. Let bird rest for another 25 to 30 minutes before slicing.

— Chef Eli Collins of a.kitchen

Fennel, Sausage and Sourdough Stuffing

Serves 8-10

INGREDIENTS

For best results, prepare each ingredient at least a day before assembling and cooking the dish.

1 10- to 15-pound cheese pumpkin

2 loaves High Street on Market Genzano bread, diced in quarter-inch cubes, air dried for two days

1 lb. cremini or oyster mushrooms, washed and dried

Vegetable oil

Salt, for seasoning

Chicken or duck fat, for cooking

2 lbs. fennel pork or sweet Italian sausage

Turkey giblets and liver from one bird

2 onions, diced small

2 large carrots, diced small

1 celery head, diced small

1 sprig thyme

2 bay leaves

10 cloves garlic, finely diced

2 cups fines herbes blend (parsley, tarragon, chervil and chives)

2 quarts chicken stock

Muscat or banyuls vinegar, for seasoning

Aleppo pepper or chili flakes, for seasoning

DIRECTIONS

  1. Toss mushrooms with oil, arrange on tray and lightly season with salt.
  2. Place in oven for 25 to 30 minutes, checking periodically until they are evenly roasted but not dried out. Let cool to room temperature.
  3. Heat a cast-iron pan or wide sauté pan with high sides over medium high heat. Add small amount of chicken or duck fat and roast sausage in the casing on all sides to get even color.
  4. When cooked through, remove from pan and cool to room temperature.
  5. Using the same pan and fat, sear turkey liver and giblet, then set aside to cool down.
  6. In same pan, add onion, carrot, celery, thyme, bay leaves and garlic. Cook on low heat until extremely soft with a small amount of color.
  7. Transfer vegetables to a sheet tray and chill in the refrigerator.
  8. Remove sausage from casing, dice to same size as bread and place in refrigerator to chill completely.
  9. Chop the liver and giblets finely and chill in refrigerator.
  10. Chop mushrooms to about the same size as the bread and refrigerate.
  11. Prepare the cheese pumpkin. Using an electric knife or sharp bread knife, slice pumpkin horizontally, just above the middle hemisphere.
  12. Scoop and clean out the guts of the pumpkin until it forms an even, bowl-like vessel.
  13. To assemble stuffing, mix bread, sausage, liver and giblets, roasted vegetables, fines herbs and mushrooms in a large bowl.
  14. In stages, add cold chicken stock to the mixture until the bread starts to break down slightly. It should feel a little like a loose paste with some texture to the bread. You may not need the full 2 quarts of stock. If in doubt, err on the side of over-moisturizing.
  15. Adjust the seasoning to taste with salt, a couple of splashes of vinegar and pinches of chili flakes.
  16. Pack the cavity of the pumpkin with the mixed stuffing. Fill just above the rim and smooth out top to form a dome-like shape.
  17. Cover pumpkin loosely with foil and bake in oven at 350 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes.
  18. Uncover pumpkin, turn oven up to 375 degrees and bake another 20 to 30 minutes to get a crunchy topping on stuffing.
  19. Just before serving, drizzle with turkey fat from the roasted bird, if desired, and sprinkle with more fresh-cut herbs.

— Chef Eli Collins of a.kitchen

Caramelized cranberry and pomegranate sauce

Cranberry sauce at a.kitchen.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Cranberry sauce at a.kitchen.

Serves 8-10

INGREDIENTS

1 cup sugar

2 pieces star anise

½ cup pomegranate molasses

1 cup orange juice

2 cups cranberry juice

1 Tbsp. grated ginger

Zest of 1 orange

1 1b. dried cranberries

2 12-ounce bags fresh cranberries

1 cup pomegranate seeds

DIRECTIONS

  1. Place sugar in sauce pot and place over medium heat, allowing sugar to melt gently.
  2. Let it become a light caramel and add star anise, pomegranate  molasses, orange juice, cranberry juice, ginger and orange zest.
  3. Bring to boil and reduce by a third.
  4. Add dried cranberries and fresh cranberries. Let sauce thicken.
  5. Adjust sweetness with sugar or more molasses.
  6. Top with pomegranate seeds and serve at room temperature.

— Chef Eli Collins of a.kitchen

Roasted vegetables

Roasted autumn root vegetables.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Roasted autumn root vegetables.

Serves 8 to 10

INGREDIENTS

Olive or vegetable oil, for cooking

1 lb.  Brussels sprouts, split in half, core trimmed

Salt and pepper, for seasoning

1 lb. Cippolini onions or pearl onions, peeled, cut in half, core intact

3 carrots, peeled, cut into wedges

3 parsnips, peeled, cut into wedges

1 large rutabaga, peeled, diced large

1 celery root, peeled, diced large

6 Tbsp. butter

12 cloves garlic, lightly crushed

6 sprigs thyme

Optional: lemon juice, coarse sea salt for garnish

DIRECTIONS

  1. Coat bottom of a cast-iron pan with oil and heat to medium high.
  2. Add Brussels sprouts, cut side down, and allow to evenly caramelize. Season lightly with salt and black pepper. Do not worry about cooking them all the way through.
  3. When they have caramelized, add 1 Tbsp. butter, 2 cloves crushed garlic, and 1 sprig thyme and cook a few minutes more. Place in drain pan to allow excess oil to fall off.
  4. Repeat process with five more times with each type of vegetable, making sure to get a deep caramelization on each. Place each in same drain pan as Brussels sprouts.
  5. Drain vegetables and let cool to room temperature.
  6. Right before serving, mix all of the different vegetables and place on a baking tray.
  7. Warm vegetables in oven at 350 degrees.
  8. If desired, dress vegetables before serving with a splash of lemon juice and adjust seasoning with sprinkle of coarse sea salt.

— Chef Eli Collins of a.kitchen

Sauerkraut with crispy pork rillon

Serves 8 to 10

INGREDIENTS

2 heads green cabbage, sliced to 1/8-inch thickness

Salt, for fermenting

½ lb. pork rillon or slab bacon

2 white onions, sliced thinly

2 large carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthwise

5 cloves garlic, sliced thinly

Cheesecloth sachet made with 4 cloves, 5 pieces allspice, 1 Tbsp.  black pepper, 1 Tbsp. juniper berries (lightly crushed), 2 bay leaves, 2 Tbsp. coriander seed

2 cups white wine, preferably dry Riesling

1 quart chicken stock or turkey stock

4 tablespoons butter or duck fat

Champagne vinegar

1 bunch parsley, leaves picked

DIRECTIONS

  1. To ferment the cabbage, weigh in metric measurements to ensure accurate curing. For every 1 kg of cabbage. add 35 g of salt.
  2. Using a large bowl, mix salt into cabbage evenly and let sit for 30 minutes so cabbage begins to wilt.
  3. Tightly pack cabbage into plastic container so it fits snugly with some room at top.
  4. Place piece of plastic wrap directly on top of cabbage. Weight cabbage down with plates. Cover container with a lid.
  5. Let sit in a cool, dry place outside of refrigeration for 4 to 5 days. Check the flavor: Cabbage should be salty but also have a pleasant tanginess. For more tanginess let sit for several more days.
  6. To prepare the sauerkraut: Using a pot large enough to hold all of cabbage, place pork belly in dry, with no oil or fat, and turn heat to medium.
  7. Let pork render on all sides and develop a bit of color. When evenly cooked, remove from pot and set aside.
  8. Leave fat in the pot and add onions, carrots, garlic and sachet. Do not add any salt.
  9. Cook quickly until vegetables have a slight amount of color. Add cabbage and cook slightly just to warm through.
  10. Add wine and bring to boil.
  11. Add stock to cover cabbage.
  12. Turn heat down to a very low simmer and cook for approximately 30 minutes.
  13. Add the pork belly to braise and cook for approximately 15 minutes more.
  14. Remove pot from heat, stir in duck fat or butter and adjust flavor with vinegar, depending on how sharp you want it.
  15. Remove carrots and slice into smaller, bite-size pieces. Add the pieces back into the kraut.
  16. Garnish with lots of fresh parsley.

— chef Eli Collins of a.kitchen

Potato puree with rosemary, garlic and brown butter

Potato puree with brown butter, garlic and rosemary.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Potato puree with brown butter, garlic and rosemary.

Serves 8 to 10

INGREDIENTS

1½ lbs. butter

3 cups cream

5 cloves garlic

4 ounces fresh rosemary

1 bay leaf

Salt, for seasoning

10 russet Idaho or large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and sliced into thick 1-inch widths

DIRECTIONS

  1. Place half of butter in a small sauce pot.
  2. Melt on medium high heat, constantly whisking until it starts to become brown and smells nutty.
  3. Turn off heat as soon as the browning begins, but keep whisking so browning occurs evenly.
  4. Set aside but keep warm so butter doesn't solidify.
  5. Place cream in pot with garlic, 2 sprigs rosemary, bay leaf and pinch of salt.
  6. Simmer for 5 minutes without reducing too much, softening garlic.
  7. Cover with plastic wrap and step aside, but keep warm.
  8. Small dice the rest of butter and place in a deep sauce pot. Set aside.
  9. Preheat oven to 350.
  10. Place potatoes in a separate pot, and fill with just enough water to cover potatoes. Season water with plenty of salt and bring to boil.
  11. As soon as water boils, skim foam off the water.  Remove all foam and boil potatoes for approximately 10 minutes.
  12. Potatoes are done when they are just starting to fall apart when gently squeezed with a pair of tongs. Quickly strain and lay potatoes on sheet tray.
  13. Place in oven for 7 minutes.
  14. Reheat cream. Remove garlic from cream and set aside. Remove rosemary and bay leaf from cream and dispose of them.
  15. Place garlic in potato ricer. Place or hold potato ricer over the pot with the diced butter.
  16. Remove potatoes from oven and immediately rice potatoes over the diced butter. As soon as all potatoes are riced, place pot over low heat.
  17. Add cream and brown butter to potato in stages, reserving a small amount for garnish. Stir gently over low heat. Keep adding cream and brown butter until desired consistency is achieved, stirring until it is smooth. (Optional: pass potatoes through fine-mesh strainer as a final step.)
  18. Saute a few leaves of rosemary briefly in a pan with a little oil.
  19. Garnish puree with rosemary and a drizzle of brown butter.

— Chef Eli Collins of a.kitchen

Tarte Tatin

Makes one tart

INGREDIENTS

½ lb. butter

1 vanilla bean pod

Brown sugar

10 to 12 large, firm apples (granny smith or another firm variety of apple), thinly sliced, seeds removed

Puff pastry

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a sauce pan, melt the butter and add the vanilla pod.
  2. Line a 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper.
  3. Fan out the apples in a layer in the cake pan. Drizzle them with about 1½ tablespoons of the melted butter, and generously sprinkle with brown sugar. Add a second layer of apples, butter, and sugar.
  4. Place in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.
  5. Remove the pan and add two more layers of apples, butter and sugar. Repeat this process four to six times, depending on how thick you want the Tatin to be, and return to oven for 10 to 20 minutes.
  6. When apples have softened, remove pan from oven and let it fully cool.
  7. On a lightly floured surface, roll out puff pastry and cut into a circle that is a little larger than the cake pan filled with apples.
  8. Bake pastry according to package instructions, until golden brown.
  9. Immediately sprinkle top of pastry with powdered sugar and place under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes or until all the sugar is melted and it becomes shiny.
  10. Carefully flip the cake pan of apples onto the puff pastry.
  11. Garnish with sweetened crème fraiche, a vanilla bean pod, or fresh apples or other fruit.

— Chef Aaron Manuyag