Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sweet Violet and the Turkey

Christmas 2007

I am accustomed to turkeys that are weighed in pounds and roasted in degrees Fahrenheit: kilograms and centigrade confuse me.

And so our Christmas dinner started at 7:30 Christmas morning with me searching the internet for the proper length of time to roast a 4.35 kg turkey in a centigrade oven. After a bit of searching I did find the info I needed (1 hr per kg at 160C), but en route I managed to turn up amazing array of unusual, exotic, and even peculiar ways to prepare a holiday turkey.

Much as my liberal heart quails at the admission, I must confess to being a conservative when it comes to my holiday turkey. All these trendy new ways to pimp the bird just make me cringe. A few years back, the rage was deep frying the whole turkey which, I must admit, made me laugh when I first heard about it. At a time we were being admonished more and more to reduce our consumption of cholesterol-laden foods, the newest fad in holiday cooking is to deep fry the turkey! I never took the trend seriously so I don’t know for a fact, but didn’t one recipe include stuffing the bird with crinkle-cut potatoes so that it emerged from a vat of boiling grease with French fries on board?

I’ve been away from American television for some time…and I’ve never been terribly impressed with those poncy, pretentious television chefs, anyway…so I missed the new “brining” trend apparently foisted onto American home cooks by one such fellow. Evidently the hook is that brining supposedly gives the turkey more flavour and makes it juicier… Well, duh! If you soak anything in salty water, the flavour will be enhanced…that is what salt does!

And why is it surprising that soaking something overnight in liquid will make it juicier when it is cooked? I prevent pork chops from getting dry by braising them…cooking them in a liquid. Surely it is painfully obvious to virtually everyone that soaking a turkey overnight in a barrel of water will make the turkey absorb water...especially if the water is salted (hello…salt causes tissue to retain water, remember?). And the more water that is contained in the turkey’s flesh at the time it goes into the oven, the more “juice” in the turkey when it is cooked, right?

But aren’t we are supposed to be reducing our salt intake, not increasing it? My husband has high blood pressure and I make sure he even orders his margaritas without salt…I’m going to increase his sodium intake by soaking his Christmas turkey in salty water? I think not!!

I read an article that advocates cooking the turkey in a roasting pan without a rack and with a cup each of oil and water in the bottom of the pan. Eeeeek! Roasting is a dry process! You can lard the meat or baste it with oils or liquids, but you do not put water in the bottom of the turkey pan and let the bird’s backside boil in it!! This same article advocated marinating the turkey in red wine and stuffing it with ground pork…just what we all want…purple turkey that tastes like pork.

Another article warns against stuffing the bird, citing two reasons: 1) it makes the oven time for the bird longer and 2) stuffing = salmonella. Well, the oven time thing is a no-brainer…and kind of stupid, actually. First of all, a heavier (stuffed) piece of meat, whether turkey or a deboned and stuffed leg of lamb, is going to take longer to cook than a lighter (and presumable unstuffed) one. Secondly, this is a lazy man’s argument that turns the paradigm upside down: the normal, traditional, time-honoured method of preparing a holiday turkey is to stuff the bird and roast it, and the roasting time is based on the weight of the bird (which increases when you put stuffing in it). Omitting the stuffing will reduce the weight of the bird, thereby reducing the time it takes to cook. If you cut a rump roast in half, it will take less time to cook, too, because you reduced its size and therefore the time necessary to cook it. So, yes, omitting the stuffing will decrease cooking time. So will cutting the turkey in half and cooking only one of the halves.

It looks like a little knowledge is a dangerous thing when it comes to turkey, since we’ve been safely eating stuffed turkey for a couple of hundred years or so, and the salmonella thing is a very recent concern. Why has it not been a problem in the past? Because people prepared their stuffing in the morning and stuffed the bird immediately before putting it into the oven. But some bright souls who wanted to have a lie-in on Christmas morning and, doubtlessly following some contemporary trend, took a shortcut from the traditional method by stuffing the turkey the night before and putting it in the refrigerator overnight. Then, trying to steal a march on time and tradition, they popped a bird full of icy cold stuffing into the oven and failed to roast it long enough to thoroughly cook that stuffing, ultimately poisoning themselves and their guests by thoughtlessly deviating from long-established methods.

What is so wrong with preparing a traditional meal for a traditional celebration? It’s not like turkey graces the table so often that one gets bored with it. If you want some variety in the holiday meal, why not change from mashed to roasted baby potatoes, ditch the canned cranberry sauce for a fresh cranberry-orange relish, or substitute a steamed romanesco…a curiously fractal form of broccoli…in place of those limp green beans?

Perhaps the problem is one of ignorance. We grew up eating those succulent turkey dinners at grandma’s house, but nobody bothered to teach us how grandma got the turkey so moist and flavourful and the stuffing so fragrant and tasty. And, instead of asking an older generation of accomplished turkey cooks, we turn to our most ubiquitous modern source of information, the internet and, instead of finding grandma’s turkey recipe, we happen upon a zillion megabytes of misinformation intermingled with trendy ways to ruin a traditional holiday dinner.

Given the difficulty of finding clear, time-and-kitchen-tested recipes for preparing a turkey the way grandma did, as a turkey-roasting grandma whose Christmas dinner (using a free-range bird, not one of those “pre-basted” factory turkeys) won high praise at the latest family turkey orgy, herewith a traditional turkey stuffing and roasting recipe. Print it. Save it. Use it.

This is for a bird weighing approximately 10 lbs, unstuffed. Scale the portions up or down, depending on the size of the bird (works for roasting chicken and game hens, too).

Traditional Stuffed Roast Turkey

Meat thermometer
Roasting pan
Two thin skewers
Roasting rack*
Aluminium foil (heavy)
Basting brush


1 turkey, approximately 10 lbs (5 ½ kg), fresh or thawed according to package directions.
½ cup melted butter

1 cup diced onion
1 cup finely sliced celery, including tops
3 to 5 tbsp Bell’s Poultry Seasoning
2 tsp crushed garlic
1 egg, beaten
½ cup melted butter
12 slices bread, freshly toasted
Additional liquid if required

Cooked giblets, minced
Broth giblets were cooked in
3 tbsp corn starch (mielie flour)
½ cup water

Prepare the turkey before beginning to make the stuffing: do not cut the band of skin holding the legs in place, and do not remove the turkey’s tail. Pull the legs away from the band of skin to open the bird’s cavity and remove the giblets. They will probably be bagged, but if not, make sure you have all of them removed from the cavity: neck, liver, heart, and gizzard. Set these aside for now.

Rinse the bird’s cavity with cold running water and pat the bird dry with paper towels, inside and out. Place on a large platter or board.

Begin heating the oven (160C or 325F), making sure to remove all unnecessary oven racks. Locate the roasting pan you will use and make sure the turkey fits into it. Place a roasting rack in the bottom of the pan. *If you do not have a roasting rack, make a rope of aluminium foil, fashion it into an oval and place it on the bottom of the roasting pan for the turkey to sit on. Spray the roasting rack with cooking spray (or coat with oil).

Place the giblets in a saucepan, cover with water, add salt to taste and set to boil. Allow to boil for twenty minutes or until they are done. Set aside. Do not discard liquid.

Make the stuffing:
Cut the toast into cubes approximately ½ inch (1.25 cm) square and place in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Make the cubes larger for a dryer stuffing, smaller for a more moist stuffing. Sauté the onion, celery, and garlic until the onion is translucent and soft. Add to the toast cubes and toss well. Add poultry seasoning and salt, toss again. Add butter and egg and mix thoroughly with clean hands. The stuffing should cling together when a handful is squeezed. If it does not, add broth from the boiled giblets a few tablespoons at a time until the desired consistency is reached.

Pack the stuffing into the bird. Most recipes warn against stuffing the bird tightly, but this can be safely ignored. The more tightly you pack the stuffing, the less moist it will be, so let your taste be your guide. I make the dressing fairly dry, as guests who want it moist can add gravy; guests who don’t like wet stuffing can’t remove the moisture. When the cavity is full, lay the bird breast side up and slip the legs back under the band of skin that originally held them. Stuffing will extrude a bit from the cavity, but this is desirable…if the stuffing expands during cooking (it will absorb some moisture from the bird’s juices), this is where it expands to.

You will probably have some leftover stuffing. If so, you have two choices:
1) oil the inside of a covered, oven-proof dish and put the stuffing in it. You will put this in the oven during the last hour of roasting time.
2) stuff the neck cavity. If you choose this option, you will need an additional skewer to secure the flap of neck skin. Also, you can add some cooked mild Italian sausage pieces and some chopped fresh apple to the leftover stuffing before packing it into the neck cavity. This will give you two stuffings for your guests to choose from.

Last steps before roasting: use the skewers to pin the wings to the bird’s side. Try to tuck the wing tips behind the drumstick so they won’t burn. Place the bird, breast side up, in the roasting pan, being careful that the turkey does not actually touch the pan itself (the roasting rack or the rope of foil should keep it up off the pan’s surface.

Roasting the bird
Using a basting brush, brush melted butter over the turkey’s skin, making sure to brush the sides as well as the top.

Insert a meat thermometer into the turkey’s breast, making sure it goes deep into the breast meat but that it does not touch bone.

Make a tent of foil and, shiny side down, place over the turkey. Secure the foil to the sides of the pan, making sure it does not touch the turkey. Leave the ends of the foil open…you want to tent the turkey to prevent the breast meat from cooking too fast and drying out, not seal the bird into a steaming vessel.

Place pan in oven and shut the door. Do not open again for at least 3 hours. During this time, mince the giblets into teeny-tiny bits (you can discard the liver if you don’t like the taste of liver). Place the bits back into the broth they were cooked in.

After 3 hours of cooking, open oven, slide oven rack forward, and uncover the bird. If there are juices in the bottom of the pan, use the basting brush to baste the bird, If there are no juices, baste with melted butter (or a 50-50 mixture of olive oil and butter), replace the tent, and return to oven. Do this again every 45 minutes until it is time to remove the tent.

A rule of thumb for figuring out approximately how long it will take your bird to cook is to allow about 25 minutes per pound (1 per kg) of unstuffed bird. This will give you an approximate starting time for preparing the additional dishes that will be served. About an hour before the turkey should be done, remove the tent, baste the bird, and baste again every 20 to 30 minutes until the bird is done.

Turkey is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 190F (87C). Hold the turkey at that temperature for 20 minutes to ensure doneness throughout. When finished, remove the turkey from the oven onto a warmed plate. Allow the bird to stand for 20 to 30 minutes to “set.”

Gravy time

During this time, make the gravy. Place the roasting pan across two burners on the stove, light both burners and set to low. Add a cup of broth from the giblets and, using a wooden spoon, stir the water, scraping at the browned bits stuck to the bottom (and possibly sides) of the pan until they dissolve into the liquid add the remainder of the broth and giblets, stirring until they come to a boil. Cook for a minute or two, then pour the entire contents into the saucepan in which the giblets were boiled, setting aside the roasting pan (careful! It’s hot!). Return the mixture to a boil.

Mix the cornstarch with the plain water in a measuring cup, stirring until the cornstarch dissolves. With your dominant hand, stir the boiling broth mixture and with your other hand, slowly pour the cornstarch mixture into the boiling liquid. Depending on the quantity of the boiling liquid, you may not need all of the cornstarch mixture. Add only until the liquid thickens to gravy consistency and then remove immediately from the stove. If you use all the cornstarch mixture and the gravy seems too thin, just keep boiling and stirring. It will reduce and thicken in no time.

As soon as the gravy reaches the desired thickness, remove immediately from the heat and pour into a serving dish or gravy boat.

And there you have it: a traditional roast turkey with bread stuffing and brown gravy.


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