A Feast with Flair 

Looking for holiday dishes with a twist? Ask Chef Doug Ruddle.

Doug Ruddle, owner of Chef's Palette catering, enjoys combining his experience as a corporate trainer with his passion for cooking. When he decided to study the culinary arts after retiring from a 25-year career at FedEx, his goal was to open a gourmet cooking store and give lessons.

Attending Memphis Culinary Academy was the culmination of an interest in cooking that began with his first job at Shoney's where he worked as a cook.

"I continued cooking during my career at FedEx," he says. And though he hasn't opened a shop (yet), he's had plenty of opportunities to teach people about cooking.

After he finished culinary school, he gave cooking demonstrations at Williams-Sonoma. Most recently, Ruddle has been teaching at a monthly luncheon at Prairie Life Fitness Center in Collierville. He's developed quite a following. More than 80 people attended last month's luncheon. The modestly priced gatherings ($10) feature a cooking lesson followed by lunch.

"We've done them poolside, where I showed grilling techniques," Ruddle says. He's also covered topics such as Mexican food and cooking with herbs.

With one of the biggest holidays of the year just around the corner, Ruddle is sharing his expertise to show people how to use elements of typical holiday favorites to create unusual Thanksgiving feasts.

It's all about creating new flavors and adding a little flair to a traditional meal — "anything that steps outside the boundaries of a baked turkey and cornbread dressing," Ruddle says. "You can enhance any traditional holiday food with the extra things you put in it."

If scrapping the entire menu for a more modern version is too extreme, Ruddle suggests substituting one dish at a time.

For instance, instead of pumpkin pie, try white-chocolate and cherry bread pudding with vanilla cream sauce. This easy recipe is served in a large glass casserole dish that can feed an army. Also, it can be served warm, which is just the thing people are after on a chilly fall day.

Other departures from the usual approach might include cooking a turkey breast instead of the whole bird. "It's a really good option to the whole turkey, and it takes a lot less time to cook it," Ruddle says. "If you're not comfortable with carving at the table, you can just slice the breast and you're good to go."

Modernizing a menu doesn't mean doing away with all the old favorites. "I may do green beans because everybody loves green beans, but let's do some slivered almonds in there. Let's do some pancetta. We'll do it a little bit healthier. We'll sauté it."

Then there's the cranberry sauce. Is it really that much of a sacrifice to do away with the gelatinous blob that comes out of a can? Ruddle says fresh cranberry sauce is the way to go. Add a little Amaretto for a different flavor.

To switch things up a bit, instead of traditional sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, try a sweet potato trifle for dessert. Or add chestnuts and dried cherries to cornbread dressing.

One of the more practical tips Ruddle offers is to keep things simple. "I would suggest not serving such a huge variety of things. There's no need to make six side items," he says.

Before any big holiday meal, Ruddle recommends skipping the appetizers: "You don't want people filling up on finger food." He suggests starting out with a nice soup, like wild mushroom or squash, then skipping the salad and going right to the entrée.

"I love the wild mushroom soup," he says. "It's really earthy and good. This time of year it will warm you."

And even though everyone wants to get through the holidays without going up a pant size, menu planning is not the place to save a few hundred calories. It's better to watch the portion size and use smaller plates, Ruddle says.

"People can always get seconds," he explains. "If you give them a big plate, they feel like they have to fill it up."

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