To accommodate my daughter’s work schedule, her boyfriend’s family commitments and my friend Deb’s holiday obligations, I invited everyone for Thanksgiving the Saturday following the official day. I often do this—everyone is more relaxed and has recovered from the feeding frenzy of Thursday. This plan also gives me extra shopping and cooking time, so I’m more relaxed, too. Of course, things don’t always happen exactly as you plan. Take, for instance, the turkey.
Having purchased a home-grown turkey last year, I was prepared for a larger-than-store-size bird when we arrived at the delivery point for MOB Farms this past Monday night. At least I thought I was prepared. Apparently it was a very good year for free-range turkeys; they just grew and grew right up until the point of their demise only 12 hours earlier. My turkey weighed 24.2 pounds. A 24.2 pound turkey for a dinner attended by two carnivores and three vegetarians?
I tried not to panic as we drove home to rearrange the refrigerator, already crammed with other Thanksgiving ingredients. What were we going to do with all that meat? I began to question my vow to only serve a locally grown bird, raised free of hormones and antibiotics and goodness knows what else from a humane producer—it’s not a cheap decision, and your amount of control on how much you buy… well, let’s just say I’d never have chosen this size turkey as I wandered through the grocery store. Still, I wanted to stand by my “green” decision. I waited for the Universe to send confirmation.
And it came—twice. My first message of support was from my good ol’ Joy of Cooking when I read: “Turkeys are really just oversized chickens, so if you can roast a chicken, you can roast a turkey too.” Ok. I’ve roasted hundreds of chickens (not to mention a few small turkeys). But come on, who ever heard of a 24-pound chicken? Further, I have always adhered to the “flip” philosophy for turkeys, meaning I begin my turkeys upside down on the roasting rack so the breast stays juicy and tender while the rest of the turkey gets good and done. Halfway through this ordeal, I was going to have to flip this flipp’n big bird! My comfort waned.
Then came message number two—from of all places my Tuesday morning cycle class. It seems my instructor Justin Allen bought his bird from MOB Farms, too. And as we started discussing the unusually “good year” for turkeys, Justin said a remarkable thing: “People don’t realize that with a fresh turkey you have more options. For instance, you can remove the legs and wings and freeze them for use some other time.” The light bulb that went on above my head had enough energy to power a small city, I’m sure. I could have kissed him. I just rode my bike really hard, instead.
So that’s what we did: we pulled that big bird out of the refrigerator on Thursday and carefully removed both drumsticks and both wings. We wrapped them securely in foil and placed them in labeled freezer bags, destined to become a Christmas delicacy. Well that made me feel better—we were getting two meals out of one bird—the price per pound was going down.
Since we were celebrating the big “turkey day” on Saturday, not Thursday, I really had way more flexibility than most people. I decided to go ahead and roast the turkey so Donald would have his piece of turkey on the “real” day and I’d be that much farther ahead on Saturday. I put the turkey (Well, we both had to pick up the turkey.) onto the rack in the roaster pan and placed my sturdiest rimmed cookie sheet underneath to give it more stability as we took it in and out of the oven for basting and (gulp) flipping it at halftime. I placed the neck, heart and liver in a storage bag and put the bag in the refrigerator, deciding I’d make stock with the “innards” and the carcass on Sunday. The turkey just got cheaper and cheaper with each step.
Before I actually put my bird in the oven, I combined a handful of diced carrot, a small chopped onion and a couple of garlic cloves with a bunch of fresh herbs from the garden and tucked them into the (now gaping) cavity. This is a neat way to flavor your bird from the inside out. You just discard the “stuffing” after the turkey is done. I coated the entire surface of the bird with olive oil and dotted it all over with butter pats—just like my grandma taught me. Add on some salt and fresh ground pepper and it was into the 325 degree oven (upside down) by 1 p.m.
It took both of us to get the turkey in and out of the oven for basting—about every 30 minutes or so. At 3:30 p.m. we flipped the bird (Believe me, at that point the pun was intended.) and I coated the breast with some melted butter and basted well with pan drippings. Then we waited for the turkey to reach an internal temperature of about 175 degrees in its meatiest part.
Three hours later, Donald finally got a piece of Thanksgiving turkey, as we were carefully carving the gloriously white breast meat into one large container (destined for my fancy meal on Saturday) and the rest of the meat into another large container marked “leftovers” (Oh, yeah, there would be leftovers. Sigh.).
Once the carcass was bare, I shoved the bones into storage bags and popped them into the frig alongside the “innards.” Sunday would definitely be stock day. As I started to clean up, Donald looked at the roasting pan, looked at me and said: “What about gravy?” Gravy? I felt as if I had just swum in a sea of turkey juice all day, and now gravy was on the table—or at least that’s what he was hoping for on Saturday. And, it did make sense: all the ingredients were right there, and I had until Saturday to make it happen. I spooned all the pan drippings into a jar and stuck it in the frig, too.
On Friday, I had scheduled some bread baking and pie crust prep. I added gravy to the list. The real advantage of making gravy a day after you roast your turkey or chicken is that the fat has time to separate from the flavorful pan drippings—there’s always way too much fat in those meat drippings when most people are preparing the gravy for dinner the same day. If you prepare the gravy in that roasting pan at dinnertime, nine times out of 10 it will be lumpy and greasy.
Now that my pan drippings were cold, the fat had floated to the top of the jar. I could skim all the fat easily off the top and throw it away (My grandma would have had other ideas, of course.). I placed the juices (that sort of resemble jelly at this point) in a pot, and got them good an hot. All, that is, except about a quarter cup.
I placed the reserved cold juices in a little bowl and added about two to three tablespoons of flour, whisking until very smooth—thus, creating my roux without the unmanageable fat. Once the pot of turkey juices was liquefied and very hot, I whisked my roux gradually into the pot until everything smoothed out and thickened and became velvety. The gravy went back in the frig in a screw-top jar. Making the gravy was a great idea because I would be able to use it to warm the large breast slices, both flavoring them and ensuring they didn’t burn or dry out.
And dinner on Saturday, by the way, was a success. One of my favorite moments was the toast we made to our food providers—MOB Farms for the turkey, our friend Bob for the apples and spinach in our salad and the pumpkin in our gratin, The Family Garden for the fresh eggs, Keith Biver for the delicious kale and shallots, Bruce Haas for blackberries, green beans, garlic, potatoes and onions, and Leo for the world’s best mushrooms. How enchanting to honor the people who helped grace my holiday table with bounty and love. I guess this will become a ritual.
Sunday: stock day. Really? Another day of turkey in the kitchen? Be brave, I told myself. Stock is not difficult to make, and the flavor it imparts to soups and other dishes is amazing. So, out came the turkey carcass and innards. To add more complex flavor, I included a large carrot, a large yellow onion, a couple cloves of garlic, two big stalks of celery, a stalk from a bunch of Leo’s mushrooms that I had frozen at an earlier date, a bay leaf from my own little tree, and a bundle of thyme and sage from my garden. I put this all in my biggest stock pot and covered everything with cold water.
While it is important to keep the ingredients covered with water during the entire cooking process, you want only enough water to get the job done. According to The Joy of Cooking and other famous culinary sources, you want a ratio of more ingredients/less water to equal the most flavor. So, you do have to watch the pot and occasionally add a little water if it dips below the level of your ingredients. You also have to skim off the foamy bubbles that continually rise to the surface (I really never knew why this was done; my grandma just did it. But apparently there are impurities that come to the surface that are bitter, so those need to go.). Since the stock is not supposed to boil, only simmer steadily, it takes some time—in this case about three and half hours, until the aroma was fairly rich and the stock had a nice brown color. So the answer is to find some other things you can be doing close by to make your day productive. I worked on this post.
Once the stock was finished, I removed all the large pieces of turkey bones and flesh, and all the vegetable chunks from the pot and threw them away (Well, I did fish out the heart, liver and neck, cut up all the meat into tiny pieces and stored in the frig for a special treat for our neighborhood stray cats. Yes, besides the three who rule our house, there are a few furry visitors at the back and front doors each day. What can I say?).
The stock then must be strained with a fine mesh strainer to remove all the tiny bits of stuff. I never seem to get it all, but I get most of it. In the end, I had three pitchers of stock waiting to become something else—so stay tuned for Thanksgiving Part Three: Turkey salad and Turkey with Rice Soup.
And, if you questioned the expense of a healthy, humanely treated, local turkey for the holidays, I believe I’ve made my point. Be flexible, use your creativity and be brave in the kitchen. You can do it!