It's Thanksgiving, and we're talking turkey. It's the one meal of the year that we find ourselves most focused on the meat before, during and after the feast.
The star of the table should get special treatment, and for that we turn to brining and our trusty charcoal grill for ease of cooking and awesome flavor.
Plan for leftover turkey, because having turkey to enjoy in another way may be the best part. And make use of the whole turkey by making deeply flavored stock from the carcass that can be frozen and used in the future for soups, stews and such.
Enjoy the day and honor the turkey, which came close to being our national bird.
Here is a different (and better, we think) way of carving a turkey breast:
In the past, we were slicing the breast meat off the carcass parallel to the keel bone, which often resulted in crumbly, pancake-like slices.
But try removing the entire breast from the carcass first. Make one deep slice as close to the bone as possible, then begin to pull the breast away, using your knife to cut around to free the meat all the way. Then take the chunk of breast and slice it across the grain, i.e., the short side. The pieces will be smaller surface-wise but more tender, and will have a nicer look when placed on the platter.
See a video demonstration on carving turkey at postandcourier.com/turkey.
Turkey roasted on a charcoal grill simply tastes fabulous. Plus, it frees up the oven and gives the family grill-meister something constructive to do for the Thanksgiving feast.
There are a few necessities. The first is a kettle-type grill with a lid, one large enough to fit the turkey inside with the lid closed. Also required are large disposable foil pans, a roasting rack and an instant-read thermometer.
For best results, brine the turkey first using a homemade or purchased mix. (See brining instructions at postandcourier.com/turkey.)
Also, a turkey in the 12- to 14-pound range is recommended. A larger turkey is too hard to handle and might not cook thoroughly or evenly.
Here are the basics, thanks to "Weber's Time to Grill" cookbook by Jamie Purviance (2011, Weber-Stephen Products and Sunset Books):
1. The night before grilling, brine the turkey for 12 to 14 hours. The brine should be very cold. Before placing turkey in the solution, remove the giblets, neck and lumps of fat from the tail area. Remove and discard the pop-up timer if there is one.
2. When ready to grill-roast, remove the turkey from the bag and discard the brine. Pat the turkey dry inside and outside with paper towels. Tuck the wing tips behind the turkey's back. Tie the drumsticks together with butcher's twine.
3. Place one large disposable foil pan inside the other. Place the turkey on a roasting rack set inside the pans and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before grilling.
4. Prepare the grill for indirect cooking: Create two beds of charcoal on opposite sides of the grate and leave a wide area open in the middle. Place the turkey in the foil pan on the grate and grill over indirect medium-low heat, with the lid closed, keeping the grill's temperature as close to 350 degrees as possible. Once every hour, add 5 to 8 charcoal briquettes to each bed of charcoal. Roast turkey until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone) reaches 160 to 165 degrees, about 2 3/4 hours for a 12- to 14-pound turkey. Occasionally during grilling, tilt the bird so the juices run out of the cavity into the roasting pan. The juices will reduce and turn dark brown, adding color and rich flavor for the gravy.
5. When the turkey is done, transfer it to a platter and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes (the internal temperature will rise 5 to 10 degrees during this time) before carving.
If roasting a turkey on the grill, use the pan juices that accumulate in the foil pan to make a tasty gravy. This method is adapted from the "Weber's Time to Grill" cookbook.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Neck and giblets removed from the turkey's cavity
1 small onion, chopped
2 quarts reduced-sodium chicken broth
Pan juices from roasting turkey
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, if needed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme or sage, or a combination
Ground black pepper
In a large saucepan on the stove top, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
Using a heavy knife or cleaver, chop the reserved neck into 2-inch chunks. Add the neck and giblets to the saucepan and cook, turning occasionally, until well-browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the chopped onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes.
Add the broth and bring the mixture to a low boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until reduced by half, about 1 hour. Drain, discard the solids, and set the stock aside.
Strain the pan juices into a gravy separator. Let stand for 3 minutes so the fat rises to the top of the separator. Pour the pan juices into a 1-quart measuring cup, reserving the fat. Add more of the stock as needed to make 1 quart.
Measure the fat. You should have 1/2 cup. Add melted butter if needed. In a medium saucepan, heat the fat (and butter) over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and let bubble for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Whisk in the stock mixture and bring the gravy to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, simmer for 5 minutes and then pour the gravy into the foil roasting pan. Scrape up any browned bits with a rubber spatula, taking care not to pierce the foil pan.
Return the gravy to the saucepan and add the fresh herbs. Simmer to blend the flavors for 5 minutes, whisking often. Taste and season carefully with salt and pepper (the brine may have seasoned the gravy enough).
Carve the turkey and serve with the gravy.
Brining is soaking meat or fish, particularly leaner ones, in a salted water solution before cooking. Sugar usually is part of the mix, and often herbs and spices may be as well. It is worth the effort. The turkey will be more succulent and flavorful in the end.
There are prepackaged brining mixes available, but should you want to make your own, here's a recipe. Note: If you plan to brine, don't buy a self-basting or kosher turkey.
2 cups kosher salt
2 cups granulated sugar or light brown sugar
2 gallons of water (apple juice or cider can be substituted for some water)
For additional flavor, add:
3 to 4 bay leaves
1/2 cup dried herbs (such as sage, thyme, rosemary and oregano, or a mix thereof)
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
3 cloves peeled garlic, crushed
Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water by bringing to a boil and stirring until no crystals remain. Remove from the heat and cool until tepid. Add the bay leaves, herbs, peppercorns and garlic.
The turkey should be thawed, rinsed and cleaned of any parts inside. Submerge it in the brining solution in a bag, a large pot or other clean container. Brine in the refrigerator or an ice-chilled cooler for 8 to 12 hours, keeping the temperature below 40 degrees.
Remove, rinse again and pat dry before cooking.
As rated by viewers of recipes on the National Turkey Federation website:
10. Thai Grilled Pizza.
9. Turkey Monte Cristo.
8. Easy Cheesy Turkey Enchiladas.
7. Turkey Cranberry Croissant.
6. Turkey Reuben Sandwich.
5. Turkey Pot Pie.
4. Slow Cooker White Turkey Chili.
3. Creamy Creole Turkey Bake.
2. Using It All Turkey Soup.
and the No. 1 ...
1/4 cup orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 cups red leaf lettuce, washed, dried, chilled and torn
2 cups baby spinach leaves, washed, dried, chilled and torn
1/2 pound cooked turkey breast, cut into 1/2-inch julienne
1 can (10 1/2-ounce) mandarin oranges, drained
1 teaspoon orange zest
For dressing: In small bowl combine orange juice, vinegar, poppy seeds, oil, mustard and pepper. Set aside.
For salad: In large bowl toss together lettuce, spinach, turkey and oranges. Pour dressing over turkey mixture. Garnish with orange zest and serve immediately.
Think of the turkey as an ideal sustainable food -- one that can be used in its entirely with almost no waste. You can make broth from the leftover carcass, then "recycle" the richly flavored liquid into a soup, stew or the like.
This recipe is adapted from "Soups Stews & Chilis" from the editors of Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, 2010).
The authors note a few things they learned in the process of making turkey broth:
It tastes best if there is a fair amount of meat clinging to the carcass; a barren carcass will provide little flavor. Turkey skin also enhances the flavor.
The addition of white wine helps balance the broth's flavors.
The broth needs to simmer 4 hours to be fully flavored.
Makes about 12 cups
1 carcass from a (12- to 14-pound) roasted turkey, cut into 4 or 5 rough pieces to fit into the pot
18 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
1 large onion, halved
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped coarse
1 large celery rib, chopped coarse
3 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 bay leaves
5 sprigs fresh parsley
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Bring the turkey carcass, water, wine, onion, carrot, celery, garlic and bay leaves to a boil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Reduce to a gentle simmer and cook, skimming as needed, for 2 hours.
Add the parsley and thyme and continue to simmer gently until the broth tastes rich and flavorful, about 2 hours longer. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer, then defat the broth by skimming it, using a fat separator or chilling until the fat solidifies on top.
The broth can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month.
There are some of us who think the best part of Thanksgiving dinner may start when it's over and turkey sandwich season officially begins.
That sandwich is the first thing we want when we can eat again.
You can make them elaborate or simple, and I opt for the latter. Good, whole-grain bread, lettuce of choice (I prefer butter or leaf), Duke's mayo (no neutral ground here), leftover turkey, and salt and pepper are about all it takes to reach heaven. Maybe a slice of white cheese such as Fontina or Swiss.
Well, there is one more thing that sends it over the top: a smidge of sweetness. To my mind, that's adding a generous smear of good pear or artichoke relish, or something of the like.
An outstanding condiment I found last year was a purchased jar of Baxters Cranberry and Caramelized Red Onion Chutney, imported from Scotland.
The trouble is, I haven't a clue where to find it again locally. And ordering it online is way too costly.
Here's my solution: I'm saving some of the fresh cranberry sauce from dinner and will caramelize some red onions on my own, adding a dash of balsamic vinegar (like the Baxters label) in the process.
Who knows, the stand-in might be better than the real thing.