Saturday, January 11, 2014

Talking Turkey

Weather you’re a novice or a pro, every North American cook will be called on to roast a whole turkey at some point in their life. Being the descendent of both English and Scottish immigrants, I say a turkey, or goose, is a must on the Christmas table, but many are perfectly happy to opt for a ham, a standing rib roast, or even a whole leg of lamb. Lasagna anyone? Still, there is that one meal which is synonymous with this bird, and while grilling and frying are growing in popularity, for the majority of people - I have this on absolutely no authority at all - it is that golden icon of Rockwellian fame: the roast turkey. 

The first time I made a roast turkey dinner for friends, it went into the oven half thawed, the giblet bag and neck still inside. I had planned to eat at 6pm and the bird, dry and unseasoned, hit the table around midnight. Thankfully, there were plenty of side dishes, ready hours too early, and a large volume of cheap wine to keep us all entertained. And then there was the year that I somehow managed to cook the breast perfectly, but thigh and leg portion were close to raw. By this time I’d had enough cooking practice under my belt to whip the breast out of the oven, cut the dark meat off at the joint, and tent the breast in foil. I then tossed the dark meat back into the roasting tray and cranked the oven up to 500ºF until it was done.  

I realize, of course, that to some readers it is heresy to even suggest roasting a whole turkey on any other day than Thanksgiving day. I do understand the impulse to reserve both the effort, as well as the meal, for a special event, but it really doesn’t have to be the annual episode that keeps you awake at night. At its best, a roast turkey dinner can be a labor of love; and at it’s worst, an absolute nightmare. The problem is, of course, we live in the over-scheduled, over-stimulated, post industrial, continuously connected world of tablet computers, and cellular phones. Type “roast turkey” into any browser and you will find yourself saddled with more information, and more questions, than you wish to possess. Should I buy the in-store brand, or a brand I know? Do I brine or do I cure? Butter on the skin, or butter under the skin? Stuffing or dressing? What about herbs? Time and money to practice before the big day? None. Time to baste the bird every thirty minutes while it roasts? Forget-about-it! Somehow, as if by magic, prayer, or sheer dumb luck, we expect ourselves to get it - not just right but - perfect every time. It is no wonder that so many attempts end in tear fraught calls to the Butterball hotline.  

It is not my intention to frighten anyone. No matter your level of cooking expertise, a great roast turkey is within your grasp. There are, however, two things that you must accept before you begin. First, this is a marathon not a sprint. Most of the process of roasting any large joint of meat is time, during which no effort from you is required at all.  Second, a certain amount of nervousness is normal, even desirable. It heightens the senses and provides momentum. The rest is the application of care and attention to detail. 

This year, thanks to supermarket sales, and the lightness of my wallet, I will be roasting several turkeys. I’ve decided for my own edification to try several different roasting, brining, and salting techniques to see which yields the best results. These are not fresh, free-range, or organic, they are simply put, “Bob-standard” supermarket turkeys. As much as food writers like to praise fresh over frozen, and heritage over double breasted industrial varieties, it is the very democratic and affordable supermarket turkey that most of us serve up every year. Yes, you will notice subtle and not so subtle differences in flavor and texture if you splurge on a high end specimen. In all instances I would encourage you to purchase the best turkey you can afford, especially when the meal is an event. But, this exercise is about culling the best flavor and texture possible from a frozen inexpensive bird.

If you are frugal minded, and savvy, you can pick up a freezer full of these birds for between $.99 to $1.19/lb. Name one other animal protein that is as inexpensive. There are even turkey seconds, often labeled “utility turkeys” that can be found for as low as $.88/lb. Sure, they might be missing a wing, or even sometimes a leg, but the meat is minimally processed and just as delicious as the full priced bird. Fully thawed birds can also be broken down into composite parts and you can even make your own ground turkey to your own specifications at a fraction of the cost of buying in the supermarket.  However; the real magic of this bird is how far it stretches. A fifteen pound turkey should yield approximately 8 – 10 lbs of edible meat, plus an additional 8 quarts of stock with the addition of some simple vegetables and an afternoon of simmering.  

In addition to posting the pictures and methods for each of these roast birds, I will, whenever possible, post recipes that utilize turkey leftovers. Next up: Turkey Number One.

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