Thanksgiving (Part 2): Taming the Beast
There is a certain panache required to redefine the annual Thanksgiving meal, or any tradition, for that matter. It is less so about being “different” and more about reflecting the true essence of the celebration. And when it comes to Thanksgiving it’s all about giving thanks. My natural instinct is to show gratitude through my food, so I continued my ritual of enhancing the Thanksgiving menu as the years progressed.
I served roasted ducks, pigeons and quails (these were easily available in Hong Kong). Also, Cornish game hens, which Melanie McManus rightly points out aren’t game hens at all, nor are they Cornish. But, they do render a stylish plating, which is likely why we see them at fine dining restaurants!
As much as I enjoyed trying these uncommon fowl in my Thanksgiving menus, I had an underlying desire to conquer this beast of a bird, otherwise known as ‘the dry turkey’. I was convinced that there had to be a way to cook a large 20+ pound bird that would yield a juicy, tender, delectable bird. Despite my vow never to touch another turkey (see my last post, Thanksgiving: Part 1), somehow I knew I had to combat this bird again.
After much experimentation with turkeys of a variety of weights, with a variety of seasonings, vast array of aromatics and herbs used for stuffing or roasting in the pan on top of the bird, pillowcase turkey, cheesecloth turkey, butterflied or stuffed roulade, to brine or not to brine, to baste or not to baste, white wine varietals for the sauce/marinade/baste…and especially different temperatures and techniques, I eventually mastered the art of cooking a flavorful and tender turkey…my way! I was armed and ready for any catering event or food promotion that may come my way which required an over-sized bird.
Here are my Tips, Tools Techniques for taming this parched and arid bird:
Tips: Always defrost meat, poultry in the refrigerator and or under cold running water, a turkey is thawed once it reaches 32 to 40 degrees. Do NOT thaw a turkey overnight outside of a refrigerator! Once a turkey is thawed to 40 degrees, it enters the danger zone, the bacteria in the turkey will start to multiple.
I prefer not to baste my turkey because every time you open the oven door you are letting out heat, which means having to add on more cooking time, hence, a drier bird.
I marinate my turkey with Chardonnay; the crisp acidity, and fruit-forward notes compliment well with turkey.
My stuffing is comprised of 2 whole lemons cut in halves, 1 large yellow onion halved, 1 head of garlic skin on, bunch of thyme, bunch of tarragon, few fresh sage leaves, salt and pepper to season the cavity.
Preheat oven for 20-25 minutes.
Place the aromatics; shallots, carrots, garlic in the bottom of the pan to act as a trivet for the turkey. The aromatics and herbs will provide a monumental gravy/sauce.
Cover the bird with a loose foil tent, this allows a steam trap and moistens the turkey. Remove the foil during the last 30 minutes of roasting for a crispy, brown skin.
Tools: These are the essentials tools and by no means exhaustive.
Digital Meat Thermometer that is water resistant and provides an accurate reading in seconds.
Sharp carving/slicing knife that is long with a narrow width which tapers to a sharp point allowing a cleaner cut and less of dragging and pulling the meat, which allows for more uniformed slices.
A 16 x 13 x 3 inch roasting pan with a roasting rack, as this allows for heat to circulate around the turkey.
Techniques: Defrost turkey completely, marinade in white wine overnight, refrigerate. Pull the turkey out and allow it to come to room temperature, 45 minutes prior to roasting. Pat the skin dry with paper towels to ensure a crispy skin. Rub the turkey with butter under the skin (not on top of the skin as the skin browns faster with butter or water content on it). Instead use vegetable oil or opt for clarified butter on top of the skin during the last 30 minutes of roasting. Place the stuffing in the turkey just before roasting, but discard after cooking. Allow the turkey to rest for 30 minutes with a loosely covered sheet of foil, this allows the juices to redistribute into the meat for a juicy, moist finish.
Weight: 20 lb.
Cooking Method: Roast in a 350 degrees pre heated oven for 4 ¼ hours at 165 degrees F (the USDA recommended internal temperature for cooked turkey).
Roasting time: 4.5 hours
Resting time: 30 minutes.
Slicing: Remove the whole breasts first, slice them against the grain. A sharp knife will ensure a clean cut and skin attached to each slice. Pull away the wings, separate the drumsticks from the thigh. Remove bone from thigh and slice meat against the grain.
Plating: Arrange turkey on a large platter, giving the sliced meat center stage. Then place the drumsticks and wings around the meat. Fill in gaps with the roasted aromatics that were on the bottom of the roasting pan. Add fresh garnish of herbs around the platter. Serve with gravy/sauce made from the pan juices.
After relocating to California in 1998, we celebrated Thanksgiving with family, friends and visitors from overseas. This allowed me to hear more stories on this American tradition, as it is served in different homes, thus starting me on a new journey of developing promising recipes and experimenting with our new friends.
My favorite takeaway was cranberry sauce made from fresh tart luscious scarlet cranberries with smooth and waxy texture, musky aroma, super rich in vitamins C and E, low in calories. Cranberries were not available in Hong Kong, so you can imagine my delight. I had a fabulous time with these, crimson hands, and all!
When I embarked on my new career in healthcare, I never anticipated my experience with turkey would come in handy. But as I share in my book, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Hospitality Food Services Team, to initiate a Holiday Meals Program at the hospital where I worked for 16 years. We fed 3,000 nurses, physicians and hospital staff each holiday. It was the most rewarding experience, meeting people, seeing their smiles, sharing recipes and hearing words of appreciation.
That is when all the turkeys were officially freed from my home kitchen…indefinitely! Instead I determined to pass on the recipes, tips, and techniques with my kitchen teams in the hospital. It was their time to conquer the beast!
As I was drafting this piece, my daughter, Avisha, happened to text photos of the recent harvest in her garden. She lives in Malawi, Africa, where some of the most amazing vegetables are grown. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, to name a few. It was when her text read “pumpkin leaves” that my curiosity was aroused. “Pumpkin Leaves? How do you use them? Large or baby ones? What do they taste like, sweet or bitter? What do you mean you mix them with groundnut paste? Why? What do you call this delicacy in Chichewa [the local language of Malawi]?”
‘Nkhwani’or ‘Muboora’; pumpkin leaves cooked as a relish together with peanut flour which is processed from blanched, de-skinned, raw peanuts. Pumpkin leaves are a good source of vitamins A, C and K, plus calcium, iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium. The taste is similar to spinach and swiss chard.
Here is Avisha’s recipe of ‘Nkhwani’ or ‘Muboora’, a classic dish prepared during the pumpkin harvest season.
3 cups of gently washed pumpkin (preferably young tender leaves), deveined and ribboned
1 cup of water with 1 tsp salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium size onion, diced
2 large tomatoes, diced
½ cup peanut flour (can be substituted with 3 tablespoons of peanut butter)
Bring salted water to boil, add the leaves and let simmer for 5 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the onion and tomato mixture by heating oil in a pan sauté the onions till light brown, about a minute, add tomatoes and sauté for a couple of minutes, add peanut flour, mix well, and allow to simmer for 4 minutes, till the whole relish comes together. Drain the leaves, add to the relish mix well cover the pan with a lid for about 2 minutes to allow the flavors to amalgamate. Serve with a bowl of ‘Nsima’, a staple carbohydrate dish of the region, made from maize flour.
I am thankful to you, Avisha, for making it possible to include this recipe!
Whatever the recipes may be, Thanksgiving can be the most heavenly time of the year, especially when we get together with our families to truly share and encourage one another. I love the fact that we tend to build memories around food, whether in the kitchen or at the table. I hope this Thanksgiving, you build wonderful, lasting memories.
“Happy Thanksgiving and my heartfelt gratitude to you all!”