Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Heritage Thanksgiving

The first year I helped our farmer friend Mike slaughter his turkeys I came home with a 40-pound bird as my reward. It barely fit in our oven and my wife has been on a tear ever since trying to reduce the size of our Thanksgiving gobbler.

This year, we implored Mike to find us a smaller bird and he replied that he could get us something closer to 12 or 14 pounds from a friend who was raising heritage breeds. But it would cost us an extra dollar a pound, he warned. We jumped at the chance.

So our turkey this year was a 12.4-pound bronze turkey. You'll notice that these heritage birds are slightly darker, the legs a little longer, the breasts a little slimmer. I liked the look of it and cooked it in the usual manner:

About four hours before the bird is supposed to go in the oven, clean it up and salt the cavity and the outside with coarse salt. Let it sit on the kitchen counter and come up to room temperature. Just before placing it in a 450-degree oven, brush it all over with extra-virgin olive oil and stuff the cavity with onion, garlic, carrots, celery, parsley and thyme. Tie the legs together but otherwise leave the cavity open.

Place the bird on a rack inside a big roasting pan along with a handful of fresh sage and a hand full of rosemary sprigs. Place the bird in the oven for 1/2 hour to brown in the high heat. Then lower the heat to 350, remove bird and flip it over in the rack. Place it back in the oven and roast another 1/2 hour, then flip it again. Continue this process for two hours. The turkey may well be done (if you have a very heavy bird, this could take up to 3 1/2 hours. But I have never had a turkey take longer than 3 1/2 hours to roast using this method.)

To test for doneness, stick an instant-read thermometer deep into the thickest part of the thigh or the wing joint, being careful to stay away from the bone. I had to use the wing joint because the thigh on the heritage turkey wasn't thick enough. It's done when it reaches 160, or a few degrees less. Place the turkey in its rack on the kitchen counter to "coast" while you make your gravy.

For the gravy, I will have been simmering all morning the turkey neck and the gizzards (except liver) in a pot with water and the usual aromatics--onion, celery, carrot, parsley, thyme. I eat the neck with a little salt. Then I put the roasting pan on the stove top and turn the heat up to moderately high. I brown the bits at the bottom of the pan (there's much less juice and fat with a heritage turkey), then pour a couple of ladles of the giblet broth, stir everything around. Turn off the heat.

Now melt about six tablespoons butter (or turkey fat) in a large sauce pan, add six tablespoons flour and make a roux, stirring frequently over moderate heat. The flour needs to cook for just a few minutes. Now you can pour in the browning juices from the roasting pan, whisking as the gravy quickly thickens, and adding giblet broth, one ladle-full at a time, whisking and whisking, until the gravy is just the thickness you like. Remember it will get even thicker after you've taken it off the stove, so I usually shoot for something a little thinner than what I would put on the table.

Finish the gravy with a splash of heavy cream, maybe some Madeira. I didn't have Madeira this year and my wife suggested I use Calvados, the French apple brandy, instead, since we were having apple tarte Tatin for dessert. That worked just fine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

There were 13 of us for Thanksgiving dinner at my sister's new digs in McLean Virginia, including my in-laws and sister-in-law from California with her friend from India. Everyone swooned over the turkey. The heritage bird was by far the moistest, most flavorful thing we had ever tasted. It didn't need any of that brining or deep-fat frying that the food sections and magazines are all out of breath over this time of year.

Say goodbye to the Butterball. I do believe you could cook a heritage turkey almost any old way and it would still be the most delicious thing you've ever experienced.

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