Oh, it was quite the feast, this Thanksgiving, with the 31-pound bird we butchered at our farmer friend Mike Klein's farm at the center of it all. Brother-in-law Tom, the oenophile, outdid himself, with bottles of champagne to drink with hors d'oeuvres, a beautiful Sancerre and an audacious German auslese Riesling, Pinot and even a port for dessert. Father-in-law Dave, meanwhile, came armed with a lively Zinfandel.
My wife had started cooking a day ahead. Spiced pecans for starters, a Tarte Tatin and pumpkin creme brulee for dessert. (She's so smart: She even had the vanilla ice cream for the tarte scooped and ready to serve in the freezer.) She also made a classic stuffing, baked on the side, and her famous macaroni and cheese. Sister Linda brought a beautifully composed cranberry relish with candied ginger as well as ginger-spice cookies for the dessert segment. Mother-in-law Susan arrived with two gorgeous dishes of the family's traditional, cheesy onion casserole. Apparently she thought we'd invited an army for dinner.
Specifically local: we changed our original menu according to what we had grown in the garden. For hors d'oeuvres we displayed radishes and carrots along with bowls of pickled green tomatoes and pickled beets. Turns out it's not just me who's crazy for the pickled tomatoes. They disappeared in a flash. My wife had a genius idea for serving soup in shot glasses. I made soup from the Longue de Nice squash we received last week in our farm subscription box (plus maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.) and garnished it with roasted pumpkin seeds.
For the buffet accompanying our magnificent double-breasted bronze turkey I harvested all of the Lima beans that were still hanging on the vines here in our edible landscape in the District of Columbia. These I soaked the day before; they plumped up beautifully. I turned them into our faux-cassoulet, a baked casserole with garlic, onion, sage and bread crumbs. We have so much Swiss chard growing in the garden and it loves this time of year. I gathered the stalks (and leaves) from two plants and sauteed these with red onion and pomegranate molasses, then added some of the beets that are plumping up nicely. We have so many potatoes still in the ground. These were cooked simply and mashed the old-fashioned way, with butter and cream. The bread for the stuffing was baked at the local Whole Foods. And my wife, who's been on quite a baking tear or her own lately, made the most deletable and handsome dinner rolls infused with sweet potatoes from our CSA subscription.
To juice it all up, there were two kinds of gravies: one with giblets, the other without.
We followed the buffet with a salad of the many different lettuces that are so happy in our garden at the moment. We had planned to make a much bigger production of the salad with sliced pears and nuts, but in the end we just tossed the greens with a simple honey-mustard vinaigrette. I had a big plateful and could easily have taken seconds.
We've concluded that while 31 pounds is still a bit large for the turkey, we would pay almost anything for the quality. Everyone at the table remarked on the succulence of the meat, the flavor of this pasture-raised bird. Over the years, we've also noticed that beyond a certain weight, turkeys take about three hours to cook no matter how much they weigh. Those instructions in the classic cookbooks where it says to calculate 15 minutes per pound? Don't believe it.
There are several ways to judge turkey doneness. The meat and skin will be shrinking away from the ends of the drum sticks. The legs and wings will allow some movement in the joints. And the best measure: an instant-read thermometer will register about 165 degrees in the deepest part of the thigh.
My method of cooking the bird is to brush it all over with extra-virgin olive oil (my grandmother used butter) and season liberally with coarse salt and black pepper, inside the cavity as well. I stuffed the bird with big handfuls of sage and rosemary gathered from the garden, along with two small heads of garlic cut in half, half an onion, and half an orange cut into two pieces. I did not truss the bird at all, but did fold the wings back so the tips were not exposed.
Place the turkey breast-side-up in a rack inside a roasting pan and bake 1/2-hour at 425 degrees to start the browning process. Then lower the oven temperature to 325 and cook with the breast up another hour. Remove the bird from the oven and turn it upside down. (I used tea towels to turn the hot bird. Balled-up newspaper also works.) We laid some aluminum foil on the rack at this point so that the ribs of the rack did not dig into and cling to the exposed breast. Place the bird back in the oven and continue roasting another 1 1/2 hours, or until it is done.
The timing might be very different for a smaller turkey. I don't think we've ever had one less than 25 pounds. But turning the bird seems to help retain the juices and distribute them so that the breast meat isn't all dried out. It certainly results in a uniformly brown bird. Whether this would have the same good results with a factory-raised turkey is another question. Personally, I'm not interested enough in eating a factory-raised turkey to find out.
My grandmother used to get up at the crack of dawn to begin preparing the Thanksgiving meal. We awoke to the smell of onions and parsley being sauteed for the stuffing. She was also quite particular about covering the breast with a cheese cloth that she drenched in butter. And she would continually baste the bird throughout the roasting. We did none of these (our turkey covered the entire roasting pan. There was no way to get at the pan juices to baste it with). Yet our turkey came out browned to a stunning, light mahogany color all over. The meat could not have been more perfectly cooked--it was so moist and flavorful.
Truly, with family and friends gathered 'round, with great food--much of it grown ourselves--and fine spirits, it was a meal to be thankful for.