Well, now that we’ve explored the strange and wonderful world of bizarre holiday foods — let’s talk about tips and tricks for getting that big ceremonial meal on the table …
My mother just called and my cousin Denise wants to know how I did the turkey last year because apparently she remembers it as being especially good — honestly, I can’t really remember. I’m pretty sure I bought an organic bird because those frozen ones shot full of stuff freak me out — and really, if you can get a nice fresh organic turkey, it’s worth the hassle and the expense. I know I didn’t stuff it, because I think stuffing the bird is a sure way to dry it out, and frankly, I get a tiny bit skeeved out by the stodginess of stuffing done inside the bird. I tend to cook a turkey like a big chicken — and since I have a near mystical faith in the power of a roasted chicken to make everything right in the world, I figure a turkey is just a bigger bird for a bigger group.
So, because it is such a big bird, and because the breast tends to dry out — I like to take at least a stick of soft butter and mash it up with a bunch of garlic and herbs into a paste (whichever herbs you like — my favorites are thyme, sage, rosemary, and some parsley for that nice fresh green taste). And although it’s a little bit fiddly, you can smush it in under the skin either from the cavity end or the neck end, depending on where it’s easier to get in between the skin and the flesh. I have short stumpy little fingers, so I use a spatula to get the butter stuff in there, and then you can kind of massage it around to spread it — and of course, the butter will melt once you put the bird in the oven so don’t worry if there are lumps. Then lots and lots of salt and pepper on the skin and you’re ready to go.
Because I don’t like bread stuffing inside the bird, I stuff the cavity with lemons, herbs, garlic, and a couple of onions. Poke lots of holes in the rind of the lemons, or chop them into halves or quarters so you can jam more of them in there if you want. But citrus and onion inside the cavity gives the bird a nice fresh flavor, and keeps it moist.
I might have gotten fancy last year and started the bird breast side down as well. I usually start chickens that way. It crisps up the skin on the back nicely, and I think it helps keep the breast meat juicy. For a chicken I usually cook them at 425 for an hour and a half (remember, we’re at altitude here, so things take longer — at sea level an hour might suffice). I do the chicken breast down for the first 45 minutes, then flip it for another 45. For a turkey I’d suggest looking in Joy of Cooking or some other standard cookbook for temperatures and times — Like a chicken, I think I did the turkey half and half last year — the trick is if the bird is enormous to get one of those big strong men lounging by the football game to help you when it’s time to flip the bird. Also, I just use potholders right on the hot bird — yes they get greasy but that’s what the washing machine is for — just toss them in afterwards.
So, that’s my turkey process — it’s just a big bird, it’s not rocket science. Use some common sense, keep an eye on it and have a nice time chatting with everyone while it cooks. As for the other stuff — we’re not really a gravy people, so that’s never been a source of anxiety in my family — a little jus made from the drippings and some beurre maniere and some booze and we’re good to go. I do stuffing on the side, in a baking dish and don’t really have any standard one — they’re all good — I’m partial to stuffing with sausage in it. My cousin Dede does a nice mix of mashed potatoes and mashed turnips that’s yummy. I like brussel sprouts with some pancetta done in the oven until the sprouts are brown and yummy and the bacon chunks are crispy. A nice fresh salad, perhaps with some apples and walnuts and a little blue cheese — something crispy and fresh to balance all that heavy food. Champagne, a nice zinfandel and something sweet at the end.
Since you guys all had so many great horror-show dishes to share — what about tips and tricks? What do you tell your non-cooking friends when they call you in a panic about Thanksgiving?