Sunday, November 25, 2012

Winging It

This year I made the most beautiful Thanksgiving turkey I have ever cooked.  I swear you could have put that bird on the cover of a magazine.  Of course, there's no evidence of this, because even though I packed the camera, I didn't exactly manage to get it out of the suitcase.

You're used to taking my word on how things taste though, so maybe you'll believe me when I claim that not only was the turkey gorgeous, it was delicious.  Nice crispy skin, juicy meat, I couldn't have been more thrilled with the outcome.

Because here is my Thanksgiving truth:  I always wing it.

I have no tried and true Turkey recipe.  I don't swear by Alton and his brining or the siren lure of the deep fryer.  I just kind of make it up as I go along.  Which is usually something I'm pretty comfortable with, but Thanksgiving is different.  First of all, it comes right after the most stressful week in my entire working year, a week of meetings and professional reviews and long hours.  This means I am effectively brain dead by the time I have to cook Thanksgiving dinner.  Secondly, (and most of you know this) I make Thanksgiving dinner at my mother-in-law's house which means I am not responsible for the equipment available or the exact ingredients purchased.  And then there's the fact that it's pretty hard to properly wing a recipe that you only use once a year.

So in the interest of my sanity more than anything else, here's a rough guide to winging your Thanksgiving turkey.

1 turkey (not 2, unless of course you have 2 ovens) defrosted (seriously, if you haven't defrosted it, I am not your girl)
poultry seasoning
an obscene amount of butter
kosher salt
maybe one of those packs of fresh herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme
chicken stock (1 box)

1 poultry lacing kit, preferably one that comes with directions printed on it
1 roasting pan large enough to fit your turkey
a turkey baster
a roasting rack
something to lift the turkey out of the pan with later (old oven mitts, actual forks designed for this, be creative if necessary)
a pot on your stove (medium sized)

Before you turn on your oven, check out your rack situation.  You may need to remove a rack to fit the turkey in the oven and not have it squished against the top.  It is SO much better to remove this rack before the oven is hot.  Ask me how I know.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Stare at your turkey.  Remove the plastic covering.  Poke at it a bit.  Decide what is what.  Turkeys have 2 cavities.  There are generally things shoved in these cavities.  One of ours had the neck, the other had a paper packet of other turkey innards.  So, toss the neck into that pot on your stove.   Open the paper packet of innards.  The big thing is the liver.  Toss it, unless you actually know what to do with a turkey liver and want to eat it.  Toss the other junk in with the neck.  Poke at the turkey again.  If it has any weird plastic-y things, cut them off (ours had both a stupid pop-up thermometer and a weird thing holding the legs together like some type of twisted turkey chastity belt).

Debate rinsing your turkey.  Pros: You can feel like you rinsed your turkey.  Cons:  You can coat your sink in salmonella.  Which means that really, you should probably use some bleach to clean the sink once you've rinsed the turkey in it.

Definitely pour off any weird liquid lurking in the turkey.

Pop that puppy on top of your roasting rack in your roasting pan.  Commence project stuff things into the turkey holes.  NB: Stuffing is not an acceptable option.  It is a total pain to have to monitor whether or not it's cooked and whether or not the turkey is bleeding raw poultry juices into it thereby turning one of the best parts of dinner into a veritable breeding ground for all things causing food-bourne illness.

Right.  So.  You are going to put things in the holes.  Start with salt and pepper.  Be generous.  Then a healthy dose of poultry seasoning (a few tablespoons, don't skimp).  Have someone else hold up the turkey because it is really hard to lift it and drop things in it simultaneously.  Once you've seasoned the insides, wash your hands.  Prepare your veggies.  You don't need to peel carrots or onions, but at least rinse the carrots.  Chop them into bits that will fit into a turkey cavity.  So, maybe quarter the onions, halve the lemon, chop the carrots and celery in fourths.  Cut the garlic clove so you can see all the little cloves.  Shove this into the bigger cavity, use the onions, carrots celery, half of the lemon, the garlic  Then head to the smaller cavity and shove some of the stuff in there.  Take some of those fresh herbs and pop them in the larger cavity.  Cut a few tablespoons off your log of butter and pop those in too.  (If you weren't washing your hands between each journey into the turkey you should have been).

So he's stuffed.  It's time to do the poultry lacing.  Follow the directions on the package.  Save them for next year if you're that type.  I close the big cavity but not the little one.

Once the bird is stuffed, it's time for his butter massage.  I rub the whole critter down with butter, even getting some under the breast skin.  Then wash your hands and sprinkle it with salt and pepper.  Then it's time for some more poultry seasoning, a few tablespoons probably.  Sprinkle that over the bird too.

Finally it can go in the oven.  I cooked mine at 350, basting and rotating every 20 minutes. Rotating just means that if his feet face right, you turn the whole pan and face the feet left.  Basting also goes easier if you have someone to tip the pan so you can get enough juice.  If you don't have enough liquid to baste with, sub in some chicken stock.  There's no shame in it.  If it gets brown, cover with foil.

Ina Garten claimed a 10-12 lb bird needs to cook for 2 - 2 1/2 hours.  Something else said to add 15 minutes for each additional pound.  So, for an 18 lb bird (which is what I had) it should have taken 2 1/2 plus 6 x 15 minutes.  Which according to my resident math-smart person is 4 hours total. We put the bird in at 10:30 and pulled it at 1:45 which is 3 hours and 15 minutes. Which just goes to show you that there is no percentage in planning a dinner time.  Just get people over early enough, feed them apps and alcohol and go with the flow.

Your bird should be close to 170 when you pull it (it will increase a bit as it sits).  Let it rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.  If anything is still too rare, pop it back in the pan and serve what is cooked.

Most of all, try not to worry too much.  Everyone else should just be grateful that they didn't cook.

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