Let’s Talk Turkey

By Catharine L. Kaufman—a.k.a. Your Kitchen Shrink

(Thought that it would be an appropriate week to reprint Catharines’s 2008 take on the Turkey. Enjoy……Dina!)

It’s that time again when turkeys are flying off the supermarket shelves. This year, about 45 million birds are expected to be gobbled up during Thanksgiving festivities in the U.S. Some will be tender and juicy, others more chewy than NASCAR tires and taste like Styrofoam. So let me dish up some advice on how to treat your bird, deal with culinary disasters, and inspire lavish praise for your Thanksgiving feast.

First step is to choose between a boy bird or a girl bird—respectively known as a ‘tom’ and a ‘hen.’ To make that choice you need to know that
(a) large, older males are tastier and more tender than the more active young boys, while the reverse is true of the ladies;
(b) old hens are tough birds that require careful (and often futile) softening techniques.
(c) Therefore, your best bet is to buy an old tom or a young and tender hen no older than 15 months. (How is it that even in Turkeyland aging favors the male?)
(d) The ample breast of a young hen offers more generous portions of white meat.
(e) The robust thighs of a mature tom, on the other hand, provide abundant dark meat to those less concerned about cholesterol.

An even more important decision involves choosing among conventionally raised, organic, free-range and kosher turkeys. The pros and cons include:
(A) ‘Conventional” means commercially (mass-) produced birds that might be
less expensive since they are
• fed pesticide-laden (often genetically modified) grains and additives;
• grown faster, bigger and more chesty with the aid of growth hormones;
• and although cooped up in overcrowded and less than sanitary conditions, are kept mostly disease-free with massive doses of antibiotics. (Both hormones and antibiotics become part of the feast when turkeys are consumed, along with the meat.)
(B) Organic turkeys, on the other hand, are raised in healthier conditions, on a wholesome diet of pesticide-free corn, soybean and other nutrients, and, are free of hormones and antibiotics. While they may (or may not) be a bit pricier, organic birds are more economical in the long run, by cutting down on medical expenses and sick days at work. Migraine sufferers, breast cancer survivors, people with allergies and concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, are among those who should stick to organic products in general—especially turkeys and other livestock.
(C) Free-range birds may be allowed to dance the turkey trot a few hours a day in the farmyard, but that doesn’t mean they are toxin free. Unless signs posted in their supermarket cooler section—or on their packaging—that clearly says, “No hormones, no antibiotics,” it’s best to stay away from them, for the above reasons.
(D) Kosher turkeys, oy vey, are slaughtered in what is thought to be the most painless, humane way, as well as cleansed and blessed under strict kosher laws with rabbinical supervision. They are soaked and salted in the Old World tradition—quite similar to brining—so they are moist and tender.

Once you’ve made a well-informed turkey decision, bought the bird and are ready to tackle it in your kitchen, all you need is to follow my Ten Cardinal Turkey Rules for a Successful Thanksgiving Feast

1. Allow one pound of meat per person, kids counting as fractional people.
2. Never, never, never put a frozen turkey in the oven unless you start roasting on Labor Day. The best way to unthaw the bird is in the refrigerator, breast side up in a shallow pan in its original wrapper allowing 24 hours for every 4 pounds. So a 20-pounder will take 5 days in the fridge to unthaw.
3. Only stuff the bird with cooked ingredients and pasteurized eggs to prevent the formation of any food-borne germs. Stuff immediately before roasting, do not overstuff, and unstuff immediately after removing the bird from the oven.
4. Nuking the bird is also a no-no unless you want a 20-pound basketball. And puh-leeze, don’t cook and carve the bird in advance and reheat. That’s what leftovers are for.
5. Massage the skin with a blend of olive oil, sea salt, paprika and a dash of cayenne. If cholesterol is not your problem, you can also whip up a compound by creaming butter with fresh sage and salt then slipping this mixture under the breast skin for a juicy, flavorful bird.
6. For a stuffed turkey allow 30 minutes to the pound, an unstuffed one 20 minutes per pound, no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. A meat thermometer is a great gadget to check for doneness. Stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. When the temperature reaches 180 degrees, the bird is done. Also test the stuffing temperature, which must reach 165 degrees.
7. If you are going to deep fry the bird, please do it outside. In any event, make sure your smoke detectors are working, and have a fire extinguisher and a home cholesterol test on hand.
8. When tenting your turkey, use a damp piece of parchment paper instead of aluminum foil.
9. Let the turkey nap for 20 minutes after removing it from the oven so the juices settle in, making it easier to carve. Start with the drumstick, then carve the breast meat.
10. If you really don’t know what the heck you’re doing, order in Chinese. Black bean chicken isn’t bad.
Thanksgiving is also a time of great culinary embarrassment. Here is a taste of some of my favorite disaster stories:

Know your Ovens

A woman had recently moved to a custom-home with a gourmet double-oven kitchen. She inadvertently turned on the bottom oven and gingerly slid the turkey into the cold top oven. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law put the casseroles and side-dishes into the hot bottom oven. The kitchen was starting to smell delightful and the woman thought the bird was coming along nicely until after five hours when she removed the raw hen from the top oven, and the incinerated sides from the bottom oven. Served: deli for dinner.

Cooking Under the Influence

A Fortune 500-type power couple was entertaining 20 important business clients. The tipsy maid, who had been secretly imbibing the cooking sherry, tripped over her feet en route to the dining room, and plopped the 25-pound bird onto the Persian rug. The hostess gracefully scooped up the lint-covered turkey announcing, “Don’t worry, Lucia, let’s just bring this bird back into the kitchen and serve the extra one in the convection oven.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Yes, we’ve all made a culinary faux pas or two, but we’ll survive thanks to Plan B — damage control. If your bird is so raw it could’ve gone to the vet for a check-up for a pulse, no need to panic. Simply slice it, drizzle gravy on top, and roast in a shallow pan until done.

If the turkey is slightly overcooked, serve with an abundance of divine gravy and cranberry relish to counter the dryness. But if it is past the point of no return, morph your meal by shredding the meat for turkey tacos, tetrazzini, risotto, chow mein or shepherd’s pie.

My hubby has an aunt, a certifiable non-cook who traditionally hosted Thanksgiving dinner at her home every year. She would serve cranberry sauce right out of the can, boil-in-a-bag veggies still in the plastic bag and sliced turkey from the deli. But the family was all-together, sharing blessings, funny stories, rotten food and having a blast.

I have a scrumptious recipe for cranberry relish that you’ll love so much, you will never buy canned again. Whether you cook your heart out, bring in or eat out – Happy Turkey Day, etc., etc.!

Citrus Pecan Cranberry Relish

6 cups of fresh cranberries
½ cup of golden raisins
2 oranges, zest grated and sectioned
2 lemons, zest grated and sectioned
1 apple peeled, chopped coarsely
2 cups of firmly packed brown sugar (adjust to taste)
¼ teaspoon of ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 ¾ cups of water or orange juice
½ cup of apple cider vinegar
½ cup of chopped toasted pecans

In a large saucepan combine the sugar, vinegar, ginger, cinnamon and water or juice, reserving a quarter cup. Stir and bring to a boil until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the citrus, apples, raisins and 3 cups of the cranberries, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the remaining cranberries, water and pecans, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Refrigerate and serve in a festive holiday bowl.
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If you want to chew the fat or beef about a culinary disaster, email me at [email protected] for some heart-2-heart.

4 Comments on “Let’s Talk Turkey”

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