LEOMINSTER — It’s that time of year once again. Jack-o’-lanterns start to rot on stoops and walking on sidewalk creates that woosh woosh sound made by walking through leaves in the brisk, crisp fall air. Sunday football sounds on televisions as the timeless ritual of harvest descends on us. It reminds the busy folk to be grateful and gives farmers a last chance to collect the investment of a year’s worth of work.
Apples and pumpkins are the first foods that come to mind as the leaves change color. Maybe it’s those golden hues of gold and orange that match the skin of a pumpkin that make people pumpkin crazy. Beer, coffee, pancakes, and donuts are just a few of the foods that take on this fall personality. Autumn actors in a seasonal play all leading us to the big day, food’s own Super Bowl, Thanksgiving.
Like a true American holiday this festive day has dark origins that help the divisive energy present on this day. If you’ve ever worried about dinner or guests on the third Thursday in November, then you understand how emotional the day can get.
Dealing with family members that rub us the wrong way or old friends that demand our attention is anxiety provoking enough, never mind trying to create a feast for all these people and the kids. Oh, the kids.
It’s hard to delight in how much a niece has grown or a cousin’s new husband when trying to clean brussel sprouts and make sure the potatoes don’t overcook, especially when people keep from coming in the kitchen. If you are the put-together person that doesn’t feel the anxiety or stress of Thanksgiving, kudos to you. For all my stressed-out Turkey Day peeps, the ones making the meal, we are going to tackle the crown jewel in the Thanksgiving crown — the bird.
“B-b-b-bird bird, bird is the word,” as the old song by The Trashmen goes.
This here is your new guide to making the perfect bird. But first, a little backstory.
When Roots Kitchen was being developed, turkey was the last thing on my mind. The whole concept and menu underwent many changes and edits as we tried to figure out what made the most sense to serve our healthy community and entice people who might not otherwise step foot in a health food store.
Moving back to Massachusetts from the country’s first gluten-free state, California, sandwiches never crossed my mind. Bowls, salads, whole grains, and raw nuts seemed a natural fit. Certainly, the one thing central Massachusetts didn’t need was another sub shop.
Well, several arguments, discussions, and revisions later I began experimenting with my turkey recipe.
Marieke Cormier, owner of Roots Natural Foods and Chantal Langford, who was the general manager, at the time, convinced me that the sandwiches I was creating would make a mark and draw people in.
The summer before we opened, I tried making turkey so many ways. Dry rub, wet rub, marinade, and dry roast.
I knew that a great roast turkey breast, roasted on the bone, could equal a Boars’ Head turkey breast, which was the gold standard in the Twin City sandwich circles. I wanted no additives, no preservatives, the best turkey meat around.
Rotisserie roast and braised were all tried in hopes of making the perfect bird. I soon learned the truth, uncovered the conspiracy and saw the light. That perfect turkey on the magazine cover, golden brown, glistening, firm and supple. Looking perfect, crispy skin.
That turkey it was, how to say this … not a lie … but dry! That’s right, just like the hard human bodies we saw on magazine covers, photoshopped to perfection, that “ideal” was not real.
Let me explain.
Having a golden bronze perfectly cooked turkey that smells like heaven don’t mean a thing. The goal is not to make it look perfect but taste perfect. The truth is we break down the turkey to eat it and the real test is in the taste.
When everything is looking good, take a second for yourself.
Engage in whatever libation gets you in the mood for good talk and food. A shower will wash away the worry and put you in a happy place. Feeling confident and looking cute will make people want your food more.
If you are still stressed those emotions will carry over to dinner and stop the vibes.
Give thanks to Earth for growing it, to the farmer for harvesting it, and the cook for making it! (that’s you!)
“And here is your map to flavortown”, as Chef Guy Fieri would say.
How to cook the perfect turkey
Step 1: Secure the bird. Shortages this year are real. Most turkeys are sold frozen, and it’s predicted this year they will sell out. It could be a bunch of hype, but why take the risk. If you have space in your freezer, sooner is better than later. Organic birds are often pasture raised, meaning better flavor. Heritage birds go one step further. Their flavor is full bodied and earthy, almost gamey. It’s a wonderful rich flavor but can be a big strong for some. It’s all a matter of preference and after giving it the love we’re giving it’s going to taste amazing no matter what.
This is also a good time to think about what you are going to cook this feast in. Do you have a pan? A good pan is something worth investing in. The sides should be a deep four-inch minimum but the deeper the better. A giant aluminum pan isn’t a bad idea either. You get to throw it out at the end of the day. Green is always better but if there is already a ton on your plate clean up can be a nightmare. Just make sure to recycle.
Step 2: Make space. Ideally you turkey’s vacation will include three days and two nights in a luxurious bucket. A five-gallon bucket, so baby will need some room. If you don’t have room in your fridge like most, find a safe spot in the garage, or back porch, even the basement works as long as it’s cold, clean, and safe. I always use the back porch and worry about squirrels or the dogs getting in the buckets but a tight seal with a heavy rock on top is safe as Fort Worth when it comes to critters. Turkey goes in frozen usually and that helps keep it cold but don’t go above 45 degrees in the day and never in direct sun. Keep ice on hand to dump in your bucket as global warming takes hold and Novembers get warmer and warmer.
Step 3: Make the brine. For some reason when people hear the word brine they think of pickles. So, let’s go with that for a second. Imagine a cucumber — crunchy — let lacking any real flavor outside the vague taste of fresh or green. It’s the perfect vessel. Brine is a salty, sweet, herbaceous liquid with magical properties. Reverse osmosis is the motor in this train to, you guessed it, flavortown.
In other words, reverse osmosis, the chemical reaction, is what makes brining so special. Taste at the end. It should be a little too much of everything but yummy and balanced. Make sure the salt and sugar has melted/dissolved. If your see a bunch of sugar and salt granules on the bottom its better to reheat and let everything melt.
Step 4: Submerge the beast. In an ideal world you want your bird fully defrosted and your brine room temperature. If the brine is a little warm and turkey a little frozen, it’s ok. Drop her off at the pool. Right in the bucket. If your bucket has that warning sign, of a baby entering a bucket with that part of the Ghostbusters logo around it, saying “Don’t do it”, remember you have a bird not a baby. But treat her right. You have already made space so now all you have to worry about is the seating arrangement, all the other sides for dinner, how to not get Uncle John to not talk politics, where the kids will sit and what to do with the dogs. I’ll give you a few (three) days to deal with everything else while Sheila, can we call her Shelia? Gets the full spa treatment.
Step 5: Today is the day. Today all you want is to get Sheila in first. Have the oven preheated and ready nice and early. Our half week brine is going to keep everything nice and juicy. I like to have some onions, apples, garlic, and fresh herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme for this last stage. If it takes her a long time to get ready and be beautiful, we want to give her the time she needs. Start by cutting the apples and onions and peeling the garlic. The idea is we are going to put half under the turkey in the pan and the other half in the cavity.
Now here is my little secret: Flip the bird! Turn your whole turkey upside down.
When that is done, we are going to pour the remaining brine into a large measuring cup. A large sheet tray should be placed under your roasting pan to catch the mess we will make later. Place Sheila in the oven and pour brine in to just over halfway. Halfway through the cooking process comes the biggest challenge of this whole ordeal. Flipping your baby back over to brown. I use a tong and a spoon. Use the tong to grab the top of cavity and start flipping your masterpiece over. Place the spoon in the nook of the leg and flip the rest of the way. Try not to pierce the top skin. Two tongs a friend (not your significant other!) and maybe a spoon can work also. The sheet tray should catch any access liquid but clean any mess up right away. Now roast until golden brown. 165 degrees. It’s ready when the leg falls off when you pull or when juices run clear when cut.
Cook everything else while turkey smell fills the air. Carve when cooled a bit and place back in roasted pan with juices panned over. Pop in oven covered to heat up for 10 minutes before serving if necessary.