Friday, October 7, 2011

Thanksgiving Thoughts

I have cooked quite a few turkeys in my day, beginning with one that played the role of procrastination tool  when I was supposed to be writing a paper in grad school. That one, while popular at the potluck I took it to, was not my most successful; it was undercooked, and my paper REALLY could have benefitted from the extra attention I gave instead to roasting a bird.

The stuffing for that one, however, was quite excellent: Apricot, Orange and Wild Rice Stuffing, which could easily serve as a vegetarian dish all on its own, if you chose not to stuff it into the body cavity of a large bird.

Another year, when I lived in Vancouver, I had some adventures with cornbread stuffing. I baked the cornbread the night before Thanksgiving, and then left it out on our outdoor freezer overnight, because our refrigerator was full of a large turkey and several other goodies. I woke at 5AM, with the sense that something wasn't right. I opened the back door to check on things, only to discover two raccoons with their faces buried in my cornbread. I had to re-bake another batch of cornbread first thing in the morning, because my roommates wouldn't go for my suggestion of scraping off the parts the raccoons had touched. I can't imagine why not.

My next revelatory bird was roasted here in Saskatoon, using Emeril's Brined Roasted Turkey recipe. This was my first experience with a Pine View Farms turkey, and I attribute its success partially to the brine and partially to the amazing quality of the turkey prior to any interference on my part.

I continue to be enamoured with the concept of brining, particularly where a deep-fryer is concerned. Last year, I went for Alton Brown's deep-fried brined turkey. Being easily swayed toward anything resembling instant gratification, this is a strong seller in my books. A turkey can be brined overnight, and ready to eat one hour after beginning to heat the oil. Forget all that you've heard about deep-frying being dangerous. Well, perhaps don't 'forget it.' Just be smart! If you follow the instructions, it's quite safe. And delicious!

There is still something to be said, however, for the traditional roasted bird packed with stuffing. And I have now, after all the years of helping my mother pull off Christmas/Thanksgiving/Easter/Birthdays for 30+ people, as well as my own personal experiences, outlined above, reached the point where I am ready to experiment a bit. Which leads me to this year.

Number one, I will never purchase any other turkey but a Pine View turkey, if I can help it. These are gorgeous, healthy, tender, juicy...what other adjectives can I employ...YUMMY. They are also expensive, but heck, you only buy one or two a year. Why not do what I do and splurge on the turkey and ask your guests to bring some of the other dishes? They'll be happy to oblige.

Second, I have been having great success with dry rubs. This is a simpler method than brining, and while those of you new to the process may be concerned that putting so much salt on something is bad for you or will make your meat taste overly salty, I assure you that adding the factor of time makes all the difference.

I have been doing dry rub experiments, using chicken, all summer. I have been having great success using the simplest of simple dry rubs (recommended by such chefs as Thomas Keller and Judy Rodgers) on roasting chickens and roasting them over indirect heat on the barbecue. Seriously simple. As in: salt and pepper. I generously salt and pepper my bird, inside and out, preferably the night before, but often just earlier in the day, and then heat one burner of the bbq and place the bird on the other side. I turn it once while it roasts, but otherwise, I ignore it completely. Delicious, with salty, crispy skin. Sometimes I add herbs under the skin, a la Zuni Cafe, but often I don't. Although I have had success with just picking a huge handful of herbs and stuffing it in the cavity before I toss it on the bbq. I must add the requirement that you use a fat, happy, healthy chicken that didn't know it was on the way to the chopping block. Just any old store-bought chicken doesn't have enough flavour and natural goodness to pull off this light seasoning treatment.

Anyway, I've been loving the idea of doing a dry rub for my Thanksgiving turkey, combined with traditional roasting and a good old-fashioned bread stuffing. I picked up my 15 lb. turkey yesterday (Thursday) and rubbed it down, inside and out, and under the skin where possible, with 1/4 cup Kosher salt mixed with 1 teaspoon Sucanat. I then ran out to my still-flourishing herb patch (love the weather we've been having!) and picked generous handfuls of thyme, sage, marjoram, and a bit of rosemary. These I stuffed under the turkey's skin, breast, thighs and backs, wherever I could reach. The turkey will sit in my fridge in the roaster until early Monday morning (and I mean early. One more reason to go for deep-fried...), when it will be stuffed with fresh herb stuffing, loosely following this recipe but also borrowing from my mom's traditional stuffing recipe.

I will give a report how this turns out. The chemistry of the salt on the turkey goes something like this: the salt pulls out the liquid in the turkey and penetrates the meat. When sitting with the salt on it for three or four days, it will eventually re-incorporate the liquid that it originally lost as well, leaving the ready-to-roast bird both nicely seasoned and juicy. It won't have any salt showing on the skin. I'm also tempted to try covering the bird in a piece of muslin soaked in butter. Not sure whether I can find a piece of muslin...cheesecloth I have, but not muslin...although I do have a lovely thin organic bamboo receiving blanket that would be just the thing...I wonder if my sister would ever forgive me for using one of the baby gifts she gave G as a baster for my turkey...

Enough about the turkey. Here's the rest of the menu, as currently planned (subject to change without notice):
Roast Turkey with Fresh Herb Stuffing and Giblet Gravy (I'm making stock from the turkey neck, etc, tomorrow)
Cranberry sauce
Buns (my MIL offered to bring buns, but I'm playing with the notion of baking them myself)
Mashed potatoes (provided by my inlaws)
Mashed turnips (also provided by inlaws)
A small roast ham (there are only going to be 12 of us, and the turkey is 15 lbs., which is lots, but my MIL thinks it wise to bring a ham as well, "because you need SOMETHING left for sandwiches!")
Brussels sprouts side dish (provided by my brother and sister-in-law)
Candied Sweet Potatoes (made the day before)
Spinach Salad with Pears, Cranberries, and Hazelnuts (dressing made the day before)
Pumpkin pie, apple pie (provided by my mom)
Sour cherry pie (made the day before)

This will truly be a Thanksgiving Feast!

What are your turkey...or tofurkey preparations?

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