The family comes together for one of the two biggest meals of the year. Old, simmering resentments and jealousies abound, barely kept in check. It's the one big chance for the host cook to make an impression, or maybe to redeem himself.
Thanksgiving is fraught with peril. A misstep could mean social disaster.
And with so much riding on it, the whole thing inevitably comes down to: turkey.
It's often bland. Often dry. And never really what anyone would ever call fancy.
The meal is so important, and yet there are so many different ways to fail. Not all mistakes wind up with the house burned down, but Thanksgiving is quite possibly the day when the most kitchens fill up with the most amount of smoke, when ingredients are left out of side dishes, when rolls are forgotten in the oven.
But the biggest problem is that the turkey just tastes ...blah.
Turkeys are easy to overcook, easy to make dry and tasteless. And if you've ever had undercooked turkey, you'll know it's not just blah, it's bleh.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat the whole uninspired turkiness of Thanksgiving. Foolproof recipes. Unusual ingredients. Even different ways to prepare the bird.
Let's start with the basics. The most important step you can take to improve the taste of your turkey and keep it moist and delicious is to brine it. Brining turkey (or, for that matter, chicken) simply means immersing the bird in salt water for several hours before cooking it. The salt seeps into the meat in a more thorough and flavorful way than just sprinkling salt on it before cooking. And properly brined meat needs no salt later.
Brining basics are simple: Use one cup of salt for every gallon of liquid, use enough liquid to cover the bird entirely, and be sure to keep it chilled -- brining does not keep the meat from spoiling. For turkey, a good rule of thumb is to brine it one hour for every pound. Brining a 12-14-pound bird overnight is always fine; you can do it longer (some people do it for two hours per pound), but it is better to underbrine than overbrine, which results in the meat being much too salty and tough.
You can just stir the salt into the water until it dissolves, but a more effective method of creating the brine is to boil one cup of water for every cup of salt you use. Add the salt, stir until it dissolves, and then add that mixture into the remaining cold water.
If you want to get fancy, you can create additional flavor in your brine by adding a tablespoon of chopped sage and chopped thyme (if you boil the water with the salt, that's the best time to add the herbs). You can also add a half-cup of sugar per gallon of brine, stirring to dissolve it.
And the liquid doesn't have to be all water. You can goose the flavor of the turkey, so to speak, by substituting half of the water with a vegetable stock. You can either use store-bought vegetable stock or make your own (chop and simmer four stalks of celery, four peeled carrots, two large onions and one-half bunch of parsley in one gallon of water for an hour; then strain out the vegetables). If you don't have all the stock you need, you can also add apple juice to the mix of water and stock. Just keep the general proportion of one cup of salt to each gallon of liquid.
To brine the turkey, first remove the giblets and neck. Put the rest in a large stockpot, a clean and food-safe plastic paint bucket or a turkey-size resealable plastic bag (Reynolds makes them, among other companies. Do not use a plastic trash bag, which has unhealthy chemicals). During the brining process, be sure to keep it in the refrigerator, if you have room. If it is going to be cold enough during the whole time you are brining -- under 40 degrees at the warmest -- you always can store it in Nature's Refrigerator: the great outdoors. And if it is too warm outdoors, you can put the pot, bucket or bag in a large cooler with plenty of ice. Don't forget to add more ice if needed.
Or you can skip the whole brining process altogether and still get the same great flavor in one simple step: Buy a kosher turkey. They may be expensive for turkey (though it's still cheaper per pound than hamburger), but they are so easy and are guaranteed to make the best turkey you've ever had.
You'll get a much better flavor from a fresh turkey than a frozen one, but you'll pay for it. If you do buy a frozen bird, don't forget that it will take two to four days to thaw in your refrigerator, depending on the size -- figure on six hours per pound (that's one full day for every four pounds). It must be thawed before you can brine it, which adds additional time. Under no circumstances should you try to thaw it at room temperature; that's only inviting bacteria and an unpleasant stay at a hospital. If you don't
have time to thaw it in the refrigerator, you can thaw it under cold running water -- but that takes a lot of time, too, and wastes a great deal of water.
Now that you have the turkey ready to cook, how are you going to cook it? Most people roast it, but that's just so predictable.
Nevertheless, if you insist, cook the turkey on a rack in a roasting pan at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees and roast for an additional 2-3 hours, depending on the size, until a meat thermometer registers 165 degrees. Tent with foil and let rest for 20 minutes before serving.
If, however, you want to try something new, you will get the most flavorful and moist turkey of your life by grilling it. All you need is a grill big enough, and with a lid high enough, to fit a turkey.
If using charcoal, burn the coals until they have turned ash gray. Put half as close to one side as possible, and half as close to the other side. If you plan to make gravy, place an aluminum-foil roasting pan in the middle to catch drippings, but you should be aware that the drippings often boil off or get ash in them. Place the grate with the hinged edges directly over the coals so you can add more coals later.
Place the brined or kosher turkey (giblets removed, and don't stuff it before cooking) in the center of the grill, making certain no part of it is over the coals. Keep the vents open. Cover the grill and try to keep it covered as much as possible. Every hour, add a handful of coals to the glowing coals on each side. Cook for 11-13 minutes per pound until a meat thermometer registers 165 (if it is a cold or windy day, the cooking time may be longer). Remove from the grill and rest under tented foil for 20 minutes before serving.
If you have a gas grill, preheat on medium-high heat. If you have a three-burner grill, light the two burners on the side and place the turkey in the middle, making certain no part is directly over a flame. If you have a two-burner grill, light a burner on one side and place the turkey on the other side. Cook for 11-13 minutes per pound, until a meat thermometer registers 165. Rest under tented foil for 20 minutes.
Surging in popularity over the last decade has been deep-fried turkey. For people who want to try this method, we have two rules: Use a commercially produced turkey-frying kit, and follow its instructions to the absolute letter. All too often, people who fail to do one of these wind up with their house burned down, a trip to the emergency room or, at least, a very, very burned turkey. Don't say we didn't warn you.
If you like the idea of going against the grain and cooking a completely alternative Thanksgiving meal -- but you still want to serve turkey -- try cooking it in an unexpected way. Turkey Osso Bucco, for instance, is a bit exotic, a bit intriguing and completely delicious. Your guests may look at you oddly when you bring it out on a platter. Then, when they bite into it, they will sing your praises as a daring and original cook. They will call you ambitious and talented, able to bring a complex and rich flavor to so humble a dish as turkey.
But they may still look at you funny.
TURKEY THIGHS OSSO BUCCO-STYLE
- 2 turkey thighs, 1-1/4 pounds each
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 4 carrots, peeled, and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
- 2 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 can (14-1/2 ounces) tomatoes in puree OR tomatoes in their juice
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle salt and pepper on turkey. In nonreactive 5-quart Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until very hot. Add 1 turkey thigh and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown; about 5 minutes. With tongs, transfer thigh to plate; repeat with second thigh. Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from Dutch oven.
Reduce heat to medium. Add onions to Dutch oven and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Add carrots, celery and garlic; cook, stirring frequently, 2 minutes longer.
Stir in tomatoes with puree (or juice), wine, bay leaf and thyme, breaking up tomatoes with side of spoon; heat to boiling. Add browned turkey; cover and place in oven. Bake until turkey is tender, about 1-1/2 hours. Discard bay leaf. Remove turkey meat from bones and cut into bite-size pieces; return meat to Dutch oven and stir well
Serve over white rice or polenta.
Yield: 4 servings.
-- "The Good Housekeeping Cookbook"
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.