Let's talk turkey

Tips for fixing the perfect bird on the big day

By Lucy Herrman
Posted 11/21/19

Countdown to Turkey Day has begun. A turkey is one of the most common main courses for many holiday meals. According to the National Turkey Federation, a huge percentage of this country's population -- about 88 percent -- eat turkey for Thanksgiving. Over 52 million turkeys were consumed for Thanksgiving in 2018. Another 22 million were eaten at Christmas and 19 million for Easter. That's a lot of bird!

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Let's talk turkey

Tips for fixing the perfect bird on the big day

Posted

Countdown to Turkey Day has begun. A turkey is one of the most common main courses for many holiday meals. According to the National Turkey Federation, a huge percentage of this country's population -- about 88 percent -- eat turkey for Thanksgiving. Over 52 million turkeys were consumed for Thanksgiving in 2018. Another 22 million were eaten at Christmas and 19 million for Easter. That's a lot of bird!

For many people, Thanksgiving means eating a huge meal with family or friends, pushing away from the table with a groan, and then taking a nap or watching football in front of the TV. Then later that night, somehow hunger strikes, so out come the leftovers for turkey sandwiches. And the next day, the remaining turkey might be layered with stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes and reimagined as one of the all-time classics -- turkey casserole.

While Thanksgiving dinner is grounded in tradition, there's no reason why a cook can't have fun, drawing on creative inspiration and trying something new. So, for this year's article, I wanted to present a memorable main course that turkey-eating guests will savor, compliment and maybe even ask for the recipe. And as a departure from tradition, my turkey this year is inspired by the red chile essence of Taos. Slathered with a flavorful coating of homemade New Mexico Spice Rub, this year's turkey should awaken everyone's taste buds.

Before I get started with the recipe, though, let's talk a little turkey - about techniques and generalities. It's always good to review this information a week ahead so you are prepared for the big day itself.

Your turkey of choice is a personal preference. A fresh turkey, which is chilled down after processing, can be wonderful, but so can one that was flash frozen. If you do buy a frozen turkey, be sure to give yourself four days to safely defrost it in the refrigerator. If you are cooking a fresh turkey, try to buy it as close to Thanksgiving as you can, as fresh turkeys have a shorter shelf life. And don't forget to remove the package of giblets usually found inside the turkey -- you'll need them for making gravy later.

Preparation is everything. To get a turkey ready for roasting, wash it thoroughly with cold water, drain it and dry it inside and out with paper towels. Generously salt and pepper the entire skin and inside the cavity. Place the turkey on a baking sheet. Next, use about 1/4-1/3 cup of the chile spice mixture and cover it with rub inside and out. Then place the seasoned turkey on a rack in a roasting pan, breast side up.

The final key to success is soaking a large piece of cheesecloth in butter and draping it over the breast of the turkey so it is evenly covered. The butter-soaked cheesecloth ensures that the breast meat stays moist, and helps you by requiring very little attention during cooking. The turkey is now ready to roast.

My method is simple and straightforward. Preheat the oven to 325 F and allow 15 minutes per pound. For example, a 12-pound turkey will take 3 hours, and a 20 pound turkey will take 5 hours. (Note: My cooking times are only for an unstuffed turkey.) So once the oven is hot, you put your turkey in and forget about it until the designated time.

Baste it if you wish, but it's really not necessary with the draped buttered cheesecloth. Some people like to stuff their turkey, but I never do. I prefer to cook stuffing separately in a pan. Roasting the turkey unstuffed is the best way to guarantee the turkey cooks evenly and there are no hidden undercooked parts masked by the stuffing. Cooking a turkey unstuffed also means it can cook for less time, producing juicy meat and crispy skin.

On to the gravy.

Normal gravy making requires wrestling with the roasting pan just before serving the meal. This can be a stressful undertaking while everything else starts to get cold. But I have a time-saving gravy shortcut that tastes just as great and is much less of a hassle.

Take the neck and giblets from the packet that was inside the turkey and place them in a 3 quart pot to make broth for the gravy. Add vegetable trimmings -- onion and carrot peels, parsley stems, celery tops, bay leaves, peppercorns and whole cloves. Add with 6-8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to low. Allow to simmer for a couple of hours. Strain the broth and discard the solids. You should have about 4-5 cups of broth.

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan, add about 1/2 cup of flour and stir over low heat to make a paste. This is called a roux. Slowly add the strained broth in batches and whisk to combine with the roux. Once all the broth has been incorporated, simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently, until smooth. Turn down to lowest setting and simmer the gravy until thickened, stirring occasionally. You can do this far ahead.

Once the turkey is roasted, pour off most of the fat from the roasting pan and pour in a little white wine. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a rubber spatula to fully incorporate all the drippings. Then pour into the saucepan to complete the savory gravy. This method is much easier and quicker than waiting until the end to start the gravy from scratch. By deglazing the pan, you have now added the concentrated turkey essence to your gravy. Taste the gravy. It's a good idea to wait to adjust seasonings until after you've added the drippings.

My closing turkey talking point -- presentation. The New Mexico Spice Rub has given the skin a rich mahogany color. You will want to show this one off. Place it whole on a festive platter and garnish it with fresh chiles and herbs. The meat will be juicy and piquant, but mellow as opposed to fiery. Your guests will be delighted, and you will be gratified as you serve one of the tastiest (and easiest) turkeys you've ever made.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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