Monday, November 30, 2009

Nearly Perfect Turkey

We visited my wife's family in Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving. Soon after we arrived, it became clear that her grandmother was feeling stressed out about having to roast a turkey for the whole family. It turns out that despite being in her late 70s, she has admirably escaped roasting a turkey for her entire life. Since she seemed stressed, and also because I wanted to help her keep up her streak, I volunteered to roast the turkey for the 30 people that would be eating with us Thursday afternoon.

The turkey was delivered fresh the day before, which made these easier for me. But it was just a few ounces shy of thirty pounds. That afternoon I went shopping to pick up a few ingredients. Once we made sure that it would fit in the roasting pan, and that once in the roasting pan, they would both fit in the oven, we put it back in the fridge and I set my alarm for 5:00am, certain that roasting a beast this size would take many hours.

We were staying with a cousin down the street, so after a shower and a nice early morning walk, I started prepping the turkey just before 6:00am. I made sure everything was patted nice and dry, inside and out, and made up a rub of salt, black pepper, and sage. I wished I had my kosher salt, but regular iodized salt would have to do. I used plenty of this rub inside the cavity and then used the rest to give the breast a nice massage with some vegetable oil. I then put the turkey in the roaster and let it sit and rest while I did the rest of the prepping.

First, I quartered an apple and an onion and put them in some apple cider (about a cup or so) on the stove with a dash of apple cider vinegar and plenty of salt and pepper. Once this started to boil, I killed the heat and let it steep for a few minutes. This went into the cavity with about 10 sage leaves and a few sprigs of thyme and the whole thing went in the oven at 500.

I don't think my wife's grandma's oven had been at 500 for quote a while because it smoked a bit and kept on setting off the fire alarm. Not wanting to wake the rest of the family, I just took out the battery. Once that had been in for about 20 minutes or so, I knocked the heat down to 300. After about two hours, the breast was starting to look nice and browned, but I didn't want it to get much more browned, so I covered the roaster in foil and let it finish.

After another two hours, the breast was registering around 170, so I turned the heat off. I would have liked to finish it then, but we had some family activities to participate in and we were still a few hours away from eating, so I left it in the oven. When we got back about an hour and a half later, I took it out and made a glaze. The glaze was a stick of butter melted over low heat and whisked together with a few tablespoons of maple syrup, the leaves from a few sprigs of rosemary, and plenty of salt and pepper. This glaze went all over the outside and I sprinkled a few more rosemary leaves into the glaze, just for aesthetic effects. Then I covered it back up with foil to keep things moist while I let it rest.

I realize that a glaze isn't traditionally used for a turkey, that it is usually reserved for hams, but I thought it might be a good way to avoid a dried-out breast. But accordingly, I went for a more butter-based than a sugar-based glaze like you might see on a ham.

After an hour of resting I took off the foil, lifted it onto a cutting board, and let it continue to cool for another half hour while I got going on the gravy. The gravy base was a nice mixture of the salty drippings and the mellow sweetness of the apple and maple flavors. I scraped up all the browned bits, strained out most of the solids, and put this over high heat to reduce it down a bit. I then added some milk (maybe 2 cups or so, about the same amount as the base) and knocked the heat back down to low. I then added salt and a bit of pepper, and just a splash of the apple cider vinegar to wake up the flavors. Then I thickened it by taking some out, whisking it with some corn starch in a cup, and adding it back in. I kept it over medium heat until it thickened, and then kept it hot over low heat while I carved the turkey.

Most of the dark meat was so falling-off-the bone tender that there really wasn't much carving to do other than to slice through the skin and take off the drumsticks. The thighs basically just shredded themselves as I lifted them onto the platter. As for the breast, I took it off whole and then carved across the grain, laying the slices tanding up next to each other on the platter with the skin side up. Most people don't like to eat the skin, but I like to give them the option. Turkey and chicken breast are usually eaten skin off, but when you use a barbeque sauce or a glaze, like I did, then it seems a waste to just strip the skin off and throw it away. Instead, I like to serve it as duck is traditionally served with the skin. The skin also has the added bonus of keeping things moist while you wait to being the meal.

The breast was a little more done than I would have liked, but overall, the bird was juicy and not dried out and the diners universally acclaimed it. I also had a thought---rather than (or maybe in addition to) putting the glaze on before carving, it might be nice to carve it all up and put the glaze on after its all on the platters and ready to serve. This would let it soak in and keep things moist, and it would also warm things up, which would allow you to let the turkey cool more before carving. This cooling time is beneficial because it makes the meat easier to carve without burning your fingers, but also because it allows the juices in the meat to cool and absorb back into the beat rather than simply steaming out as vapor when you cut into the meat.