Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Roasted turkey

Here is an appropriate entry for the day before Thanksgiving! A lot of people are freaked out about roasting turkeys--the intimidating size, the uncertainty surrounding cooking times, the potential for a salmonella free-for-all. But really it is no more difficult than roasting a chicken. A very large chicken, to be sure, but still. You don't need much to do it right, but there are some things that will make it go smoothly. Last weekend we roasted a 18.88 pound turkey for a "pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving" feast at Jeremy and Melanie's. Here is a short list of very practical items that I use when roasting turkeys. Except for the meat thermometer, it won't kill you not to have them , but you'll get better results if you do:

1. Reliable meat thermometer. Just spend a little cash on a nice one because you should be using it often anyway. Instant digital meat thermometers are best. When you check temperature, poke it in the thickest (not by the bone) part of the thigh.

2. Kitchen twine. Truss up the legs and you'll have a better looking, better cooking bird.

3. Roasting rack and pan. I shouldn't have to tell you this, but turkeys put off a lot of liquid as they cook. Do it a favor and give it a place to sit up out of the pan. The rack is great anyway--use it everytime you roast tiny turkeys, aka chickens.

4. A fresh, free-range turkey. I buy Belle & Evans fresh turkeys from DeKalb Farmer's Market. You are doing everybody a favor when you buy a better bird.

(OK, so the next two aren't really kitchen implements, but they are still good advice)

5. I do not recommend washing the turkey; washing spreads the surface bacteria all over your kitchen, what with the water splashing and you heaving the turkey about. While you are prepping the turkey, a good rule of thumb is to make sure your working space is clear of any objects you can't put through the dishwasher to clean.

6. Don't stuff the turkey. The stuffing doesn't necessarily get to the same heat as the rest of the bird and the juices that get into the bread or whatever can still carry all kinds of raw poultry pathogens. If you really want to put something in there, feel free to add aromatic herbs or carrots or celery or something. But then don't go eating it afterwards.

Take your turkey out of the fridge one hour before oven time. A room-temperature bird will cook more swiftly and evenly. Rub all over both sides with salt and pepper, like a weird baby. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Truss together the turkey's legs with your kitchen twine. Place the turkey on the roasting rack and put on lowest level of oven. Let it go for about 2 hours, rotate the pan and baste the bird. After another hour, baste again (actually, baste whenever you feel like it), take your turkey's temperature with your meat thermometer. I turned the temperature down to 350 after about 3 hours.(Side note: This is the part where it all starts depending on how big the turkey is; mine was on the large side, so it took a bit more than 4 hours total. Yours may be done sooner, so be vigilant)If you feel the turkey is getting too browned but still needs more time, tent it with some aluminum foil. When the thickest part of the thigh is around 167-170 degrees, remove the turkey from the oven to rest. The bird will continue to cook and the thigh will eventually rise to around 180--check it and see for yourself. Allow the turkey to rest at least 30 minutes before serving.

Let us now address the matter of gravy. You now have a pan full of turkey drippings--pour them off into a liquid measuring cup to separate (unless you actually have a fat separator, but if you have one you probably also already know how to roast a turkey, so what gives?). Look in the pan for any good browned bits and reserve those as well. Melt 1/2 cup butter, slowly add 3/4 cup flour until it forms a smooth paste. I have been known to add more butter if it seems too pastey, but that is somewhat unorthodox. Cook the roux until brown, then slowly add 6 cups of chicken stock, whisking constantly and compulsively examining the viscosity of your mixture as you go. Use your turkey baster to suck out the non-fat part of your turkey drippings and add that to your gravy, along with any nice browned bits from the pan. Bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat, stirring to check the thickness. It should be pretty much like a gravy and ridiculously delicious. Take the leftover turkey fat/juice that remains in the liquid measure and pour it all over your turkey to give it a last minute hot-oil treatment for shine and bounceability.

Carving a turkey is a little annoying, but it's worth doing right. Make sure everybody gets a chance to admire the turkey before you take it apart--I recommend casually leaving it on the buffet; among, yet somehow above all the rest of the delectables, sort of like a feudal lord and his peasants. First remove the leg and thigh so you have a nice, open space to work in. Do this by firmly grabbing the drumstick and pulling it away from the body while cutting through skin between body and leg. Press the leg down and cut through the joint that joins leg and backbone. Remove to plate, bask in admiration, then make a deep cut in the white meat, parallel to the wing. Cut thin slices downwards from the front of the turkey to the back, starting at the top and meeting at the parallel cut. Lay slices out. Continue to other side of bird, and don't forget to slice dark meat from underside.

We had a great time at pre-Thanksgiving. It felt very festive. Melanie made a chocolate pound cake that was so good that it's probably considered an illegal substance outside of Georgia. The next night we had a pre-Thanksgiving leftovers feast. I cut up the leftover turkey and put it a pan with sliced mushrooms and butter, then simmered it all in leftover gravy. I mixed leftover mashed potatoes with grated sharp cheddar and jalapenos before reheating, which was definetely worthwhile.

Something fun to to is to name your turkeys like hurricanes. Last year was Albert. This year was Beth-Ann. Happy Thanksgiving.

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