Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Essential thinking for reading Catholics.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thanksgiving: The Turkey

For most people, through most of our lives, the turkey is a perennial letdown. The dark meat is gamy and liver-ish, the white meat is moisture-free to the extent Dr. Heimlich would be alarmed, the skin is flabby and greasy and the flavor is non-existent.

But no more.

I'm going to steer you through this. It's gonna be OK. Come in off the ledge.

Herb-Roasted Turkey.

First, you're gonna need to get the right turkey. Do NOT get any turkey injected with any bizarro ingredients. Do NOT get any ::cough, cough:: self-basting turkey. Do NOT get a turkey that's has spent its nasty, brutish and short life jacked on hormones and antibiotics. These are wrong. Get yourself a free-range, all-natural, etc., etc. turkey. I swear by Bell & Evans; Plainfield Farms and Empire Kosher are also quite good, but get whatever your supermarket/butcher carries (you may have to order ahead).

It is not necessary (but it IS nice) to get an heirloom turkey or one of those $150 boutique turkeys. Just make sure it's all natural and free range and EITHER frozen (not bad, actually) or NEVER frozen. Those frozen-then-thawed suckers are beyond flavorless.

Next -- unless you get a Kosher bird -- brine the turkey. This is the voodoo part of the equation, so go slow here, OK? First you'll need to make an herb infusion. Get dried (BUT NOT GROUND) thyme, marjoram and sage, in decreasing order at a 3:2:1 ratio. A lot will depend on the time you have available to brine (all day or overnight?), the size of the bird (12lb or 20lb?) and the vessel to contain it (a bucket or a big-arse cooler?) and whether you are starting with a fresh or frozen bird.

To get a rough idea, put the still-wrapped turkey in the vessel and fill with plain tap water. Remove bird and measure water. If you're doing a short brine you will need more salt, possibly sugar, and herb flavoring than if you're letting the beast soak a full day. The rule of thumb is 1 cup salt (if you use kosher or sea salt, get the SMALL crystal not the big honkin' flake variety) per gallon for a 4 hour brining for a 12-14lb. turkey. The longer the brining, the less salt you need and conversely, the bigger the bird the more salt you will an overnight brining will use half the salt and a 22 lb. behemoth will use twice the salt. You get the idea. The dried herbs--in the case of a one gallon brine-- should be 3 teaspoons thyme, 2 teaspoons marjoram and 1 teaspoon sage. Add these to a cup of simmering water and steep for 3-5 minutes. Dissolve the salt in the gallon(s) minus one cup and add the herb infusion slowly. Depending on how strong and/or fresh your herbs are you may not need to add all the infusion to the brine...if you go overboard, it may start tasting like you're pickling the turkey, so watch it.

That done, remove the giblet-y bits and put the turkey and brine in your vessel (ideally a cooler) and let it soak. If you cannot fit this into a fridge (and most people can't), drop in those blue gel freezer packs to keep the temperature around 40F. If you are using a frozen turkey, you can skip the gel packs, but give it an extra hour in the brine.

Now, take the turkey out of the brine and pat it dry.

[OPTIONAL] Put it on the roasting rack, and that in the roasting pan. (If you have room, you can put this as is for 8-24 hours to air dry in the fridge. The longer the better, for an shatteringly crisp, mahogany skin.) Dump brine down the drain, and rinse. Fill bottom 1/3 of cooler with ice and nestle the laden roasting pan in the ice. Let it air dry for the aforementioned 8-24 hours. If you feel vaguely heroic, use a blow dryer on the skin.[/OPTIONAL]

OK, show time.

Take out a stick of butter. Remove your turkey from its fridge/cooler rest, letting it come up to room temperature. Preheat oven to 425F. Remove your rings and all that. Take 3 yellow onions (trim off the extreme ends, peel, and cut into rough half-wedges), a head of garlic (loosen the cloves and then smack 'em with the flat of a knife to peel them and crush them slighly) and three lemons (quarter one and THICKLY slice the other two). Smush in another 3 teaspoons thyme, 2 teaspoons marjoram and 1 teaspoon sage and 1 teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper into the butter. Run your hands CAREFULLY between the skin and the flesh of the turkey, to loosen.

Smear a third of your herb-butter goop inside the skin, another third inside the cavity and the last third on the outside. Make sure the coverage is even. Stuff the cavity with the quartered lemon, 3-4 chunks of onion and 6-7 smacked garlic cloves. Scatter the remaining garlic/onion/lemon debris around the turkey in the roasting pan and add about 1" of water. If you have it (and you really should), stick in one of those probe thermometers into the thickest part of the breast, making sure you do not touch the bone. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, TRUSS THE BIRD. Agents of Satan will try to thwart you, but keep them at bay with a bulb baster. I'm serious.*

Put the whole rack into your oven. Roast for 30 minutes until the breast skin just starts to get all golden**. Drop the oven temperature to 325F. If the breast meat is browned by this point you may want to cover it with foil at this stage. When the breast meat registers 165F (this should be 2.5, maybe 3, hours after you dropped the temperature. Your oven could be a bit off, or your room temperature colder or warmer, so don't get all hung up on this...of course, if you have a larger turkey--18lb or so--this could mean an extra 90 minuts of roasting) turn off your oven and leave it shut for 30-45 minutes as you go about your business and the turkey rests.

Remove turkey and unstuff; set it aside on the cutting board. Put roasting rack astride two burners on medium. Add about a cup of water or chicken or turkey stock and deglaze (pick out any lemon skin -- roasted lemon pulp is lovely here -- which will definitely be bitter) . Put all the roasted vegetables and juices and drippings into your blender and puree, adding chicken stock as needed until you get a gravy with the thickness you prefer. I like it the viscosity of a milkshake, but you do whatever. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper.

Carve turkey and bask in the slavish fawning of your loved ones.


* The problem with trussing is that it makes the discrepancy between leg/breast cooking times even worse. That is, the dark meat is done at 180F while the white meat is ready at 170F. Trussing only makes the dark meat take longer to come to temperature, by which point the breast is turkey flavored, moisture-free particle board. Or, the breast meat is perfect and the legs are still kicking. So, no trussing. Ever.

** Some people like put the temperature at an even 325F and start roasting the bird face down and then flip about halfway. Me? I don't like an oven open while all this is going on (and the built-up heat taking a hike to the ceiling) and it's a total PITA to open the thing, pull the rack somewhere heat-safe, manage to get a grip on the bird, flip the turkey without sending searing-hot metal items and vegetable matter flying every which-a-way, etc.) If you notice--and you have to be vigilant here--the breast skin getting too golden too fast, cover it in a LOOSE double layer of aluminum foil and leave it there until the last hour of roasting. But that shouldn't happen if your oven is close to accurate.