I wish I had a picture of a turkey that Gaia and I cooked for Thanksgiving. But in the craze of finishing up the side dishes and carving our beast, we forgot all about the pictures. I’ll just have to do with a turkey leftovers sandwich for this post. I never thought a day would come when I'd be excited to write about a turkey. As you might have noticed, poultry is a rare guest on my blog. Nothing against birds, but my enjoyment of them is directly proportional to the fat content. Bird number 1 is duck – fatty, gamey, and as Julia Child would say “perfectly delicious.” But eating this heart attack on a stick on regular basis is probably not a good idea. Bird number 2 is chicken – I mean a whole roasted one (the breasts are just a vehicle for sauce). This puts turkey on the bottom of the list as number 3 – it’s too lean, characterless, and the way most people cook it, comes out dry. I like everything about Thanksgiving – the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pies – except for the turkey.
But to every rule, there are exceptions. In this case, it’s my Mom’s turkey. I’ve only had her turkey a few times, since we rarely get to spend Thanksgiving day with my parents. When you live far from your family, you have to do holiday rotations. I don’t mind – New Years is a much yummier holiday to visit anyway. But the few times I got to try my Mom’s turkey, I was just floored at how good it was – crispy skin, fall of the bone dark meat, and most surprising of all, juicy breast. This year, I finally got to learn all her secrets. We were doing Thanksgiving here in Boston with our friends Gaia and Jerome and for the first time in our lives, Gaia and I were responsible for the turkey.
“Ok, what do I do? I need the gory details,” I told my Mom on the phone. As if feeling the responsibility for the success of our first Thanksgiving, my Mom tried her best to recall the magic she does only once a year. Here are the notes from our conversation:
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You’ll need a turkey roasting pan with a lid. No need to buy an expensive one. The enamel black ones (with white dots) sold at every supermarket for $20 work great.
Get 1 small turkey (10-12 Lb). This will easily serve 12-15 people. Let it sit at room temperature for an hour before cooking.
Combine 1 stick of butter at room temperature with a generous pinch of salt, 2 mashed garlic cloves, and 1 Tbsp minced herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley, or whatever you have). Mash with a fork until the herbs and garlic are evenly distributed.
Stick your hand into the neck of the turkey. Slowly and gently pry the skin away from the breasts. Be careful not to tear the skin. This is easier than it sounds. Spread the butter mixture under the skin all over the breasts.
Pin the neck skin to the back of the turkey with toothpicks. Rub the turkey all over (outside and inside) with salt and pepper (you’ll need about 3 Tbsp kosher salt). Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the turkey’s neck too (it’s usually included inside the turkey). Tie the legs together with kitchen twine.
Place 3 whole carrots and 3 celery stalks into the bottom of the roasting pan to make a sort of “rack.” Place the turkey onto the vegetables. Add the turkey neck into the roasting pan next to the turkey. The neck is my favorite part. It’s a perfect crispy treat for the cook while the turkey is resting. Spread out the wings and wrap foil around the wing tips to protect them from burning. Not tucking the wings under (as is traditionally done with birds) lets them get crispy and develop more flavor. Cover the roasting pan with a lid. If the lid is touching the turkey breast, place a piece of parchment paper on the turkey breast before covering to make sure the lid won’t stick to the breast.
Preheat the oven to 450F.
Place the covered turkey into the preheated oven. Cook for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile set a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add 1/2 cup dry white wine and 1 stick butter. Heat until butter melts. Take off heat.
Uncover the turkey (and remove parchment paper off its breast, if using). Turn down the oven to 400F. Continue roasting the turkey for another 2 hours, basting every 15 minutes with melted butter-wine mixture. Don’t bother with the squirty basters. Just use a spoon and pour about 1/4 cup of butter mixture all over turkey. When you run out of melted butter, continue to baste with the juices that start accumulating in the roasting pan.
Since the breast will stick out of the dish, it will start to brown before the legs. If this happens, loosely cover the breast with a piece of foil. But make sure to lift the foil when basting.
The turkey is done when it’s nicely browned all over, the juices run clear when you pierce the thigh, and the dark meat feels very soft. If the dark meat is done, the breast is definitely done since it cooks faster. It’s best to err on the side of overcooking. There is enough butter in the basting juices that the turkey won’t dry out, and the dark meat tastes best when it’s REALLY done. That’s why I have such a hard time with turkey – it’s exactly the opposite of cooking fish.
When the turkey is done, take it out of the oven, and let it rest 30 minutes before carving. Strain the juices into a glass measuring cup or fat separator. Let sit for 5 minutes while snacking on the turkey neck. Skim the fat off the turkey juices. Pour the juices into a large skillet with 1 cup turkey or chicken stock and 1/2 cup dry white wine. Boil over high heat until slightly reduce (about 5 minutes). In a small bowl, combine 1 Tbsp softened butter with 1 Tbsp flour and mash into a smooth paste. Turn down the heat under the turkey juices to medium-low and add the flour-butter paste, mixing vigorously with a whisk until no lumps remain and the gravy thickens. Carve the turkey, and serve with the gravy.
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Gaia and I followed these instructions to the letter. We stuffed, we rubbed, we roasted covered, we roasted uncovered, and we basted, and basted, and basted some more. How was it? Simply spectacular! Better than duck? Oh come on, nothing can be better than duck, but if you are going to cook a turkey, you might as well make it taste good.
If you are anything like us, you'll fight over the dark meat and save the breast for leftovers. Reheating turkey or chicken breasts would be a mistake -- they dry out too quickly. Better slice them up for sandwiches or dice and toss with canned tangerines, herbs, thick Greek yogurt (or mayo) and Dijon mustard for an awesome salad. The sandwich possibilities are endless, but the one in the picture is with bacon, apples, avocado, red onions, and aioli (mayo with a little mashed garlic and lemon juice).