Friday, November 27, 2009

Day 255 - Perfect Roast Turkey, How to Carve a Turkey, Perfect Gravy, Chestnut Stuffing, and Potato and Turnip Gratin

Such procrastination! It has taken me forever to write this entry! And not because it was a disaster dinner... it was actually quite good! But I've taken a HUGE (dangerous) cooking break since Thanksgiving, and I haven't been able to face writing this until now. Apologies to anyone who thought I might have given up the ghost. I'm still very much in the game, and fyi, I'm back cooking again.

Now, on to Thanksgiving!

It's become a tradition for me to cook Thanksgiving for my parents and their friends in Florida. It all started a few years ago, when an ex-boyfriend of mine was sufficiently disappointed by a Blumenkrantz Thanksgiving meal at "The Clubhouse" that he swore he would only come back if Thanksgiving were home-cooked. I presented that to my mother and promised her I would do the lion's share, and she relented. She has little interest in cooking, and entertaining is a pain for her because no one but she can clean up in a way that's acceptable to her. Still, I twisted her arm, and here I am, back for my third (or is it fourth) Thanksgiving as Head Chef!

Preparations for this meal started about two months ago. Since I'm now cooking publicly, I felt like I had a reputation to uphold, so I was taking this particular Thanksgiving meal VERY seriously. Of course, I knew I'd be doing the turkey, stuffing, and gravy from the book, but all those sides! How to pick? And dessert: homemade or store-bought? And how much is too much? And who's coming? And when do I make what? etc.

There were shopping lists and schedules and printouts and graphs and spreadsheets.... I was not leaving anything to chance. Dishes were ruled out because they couldn't be made in advance. I didn't want to risk being overburdened on the day.

I arrived in Florida on Tuesday night and didn't stop cooking until I sat down to eat on Thursday night. It was a ton of work, but thanks to a spacious, beautiful kitchen, some sous chef assistance from my mom, and lots of advance preparation, it all went really smoothly! I should mention that my parents did all the shopping in advance. Thanks you guys!

Perfect Roast Turkey (p. 149)

This turkey recipe is quite similar to the one I've been cooking for the past few Thanksgivings, Roast Turkey with Quince Glaze. It was the success of that very turkey recipe that began my Martha-love. The only significant difference is that this recipe omits the quince glaze.

If you've never brined a turkey, you absolutely have to try it. You will be amazed at what a positive effect it has on the bird, both flavor-wise and moistness-wise. It takes some forethought, because the brine gets boiled and then has to be cool in time for the turkey to be placed in there 26 hours before going in the oven. (24 hours in the brine in the fridge and then 2 hours resting at room temperature.) I made the brine late on Tuesday night, so it would cool overnight and I could put the turkey in it on Wednesday morning. Martha puts all kinds of flavory ingredients in her brine, but she confesses that you can use just salt, sugar, and water to similar effect. Of course, I did it as written, with all the bells and whistles.

FYI, our brining technique involves a big plastic ziploc brining bag from Bed Bath and Beyond. We put the turkey in the bag, then pour in the brine, and then put the filled bag in a giant stock pot. The pot insures against a refrigerator disaster (the bag leaking or breaking), and it also helps contain and raise the level of the liquid. You want to keep all or or as much of the bird covered with liquid as possible.

Cooking the turkey was very by the book. I'd experienced all these techniques before, so it was sort of old hat: stuffing, buttering the skin, trussing, cheesecloth, brushing with butter and wine, basting, etc.

The interesting thing that happened here had to do with doneness. I started checking the temperature of the bird when Martha suggests, after 2.5 hours total cooking time. I think about an hour after that, the thigh temperature had hit 165°, so I turned the bird around just to doublecheck the temperature of the other thigh. It was in the 170°'s, so I deemed it definitely done. Took it out, let it rest for about 45 minutes.

However, when I cut into the thighs, there was a redness to the meat, and the juices were pink! I started to freak out, but I decided to trust the process and let it be. And in the end, I'd say the turkey was sufficiently cooked and well-cooked. In fact, the white meat seemed to be dancing dangerously near over-done. I'm not sure why there was so much pinkness with the dark meat, but it was extra moist, and it was all gone by the end of the night. And as far as I know, no one got sick afterward. (Wouldn't that have been horrible!)

The turkey came out well, but I think my two previous brined turkeys were even moister and more flavorful. At 19.5 lbs, this one was a bigger bird than the others, by about four pounds. I wonder if bigger birds are more difficult to cook, i.e. denser meat, less fat....

In the end, everyone was very complimentary, so I'm calling it a hit.

FYI, I dispensed with the optional garnish (lady apples, sage leaves, and chestnuts) and it's fine that I did. No one was taking any art shots. Besides, one of the wings on our turkey was partially amputated and couldn't be tucked back. That definitely would have been an end to the modeling career of our otherwise picturesque turkey.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

How to Carve a Turkey (p. 152)

When I cut into that turkey and saw all the pink and red, I have to confess, I got a little stressed out. In my panicked state, I needed some serious focus, and I was really grateful that Martha's directions were so straightforward and easy to follow.

The carving went very quickly, the most complicated part being getting the thigh meat off the bone. My mother usually carves the turkey with her electric knife, which allows her to make thinner slices, and though mine were thicker, they seemed more elegant. That hacksaw creates a kind of threading of the meat, while my slices were clean and smooth.

One weird part of the directions involved removing the stuffing on the neck end of the bird. Martha says to make an "oval incision that allows you to remove the stuffing with the skin intact." Well, I did it, but I wasn't exactly clear why I would want to do it. I had a big scoop of stuffing with a turkey skin top. Was I supposed to serve it that way? That doesn't seem appetizing. I ended up putting the turkey skin at the bottom of the stuffing dish. Why? I don't know. It felt weird to throw it away after making that beautiful oval incision.

At the time, I felt like I was racing through the carving and doing a sort of half-assed job, but I got so many compliments on it! Sometimes I think I'm too hard on myself...

I'm going to grade myself based on those compliments. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Perfect Gravy (p. 154)

This gravy requires an hours-long process. There's a stock of vegetables and giblets that gets made while the turkey is cooking, and then the process stops until the turkey is out of the oven. Then you hustle.

First, you deglaze the roasting pan.

Then comes the part of the process that was so weird and not what I was expecting... I don't know how this got so off from what it looks like in the book. I must have done something very wrong, but I thought I was following the directions so carefully!

I heated 3 tablespoons of pan drippings in a saucepan and whisked in 3 tablespoons of flour. The next instruction is "continue whisking, cooking until mixture is fragrant and deep golden brown, about 9 minutes."

First of all, I had a ball of putty in 10 seconds. So I had this already deep golden brown ball of putty, which I was trying to whisk (?) and I had 8 minutes and 50 seconds yet to go! I knew there was probably a reason why you were supposed to cook it for 9 minutes, i.e. get the starchy taste cooked out, so I didn't want to blow that off. But what to do about my putty ball? I started adding more drippings, trying to get a little liquid action going, and after I had added all the drippings I'd reserved, it was still a ball.

So I kicked the ball around the pan with a whisk for 9 minutes. I mashed it and kicked it and mashed it and kicked it. Ours is not to reason why....

When, after nine ridiculous minutes, I added the stock to the saucepan, it seemed as if the ball would never dissolve, but eventually it did. And from then on, thankfully, the results were as indicated in the book.

In fact, I think this gravy was outstanding, probably the most accomplished thing I did that day. It had an amazing depth of flavor.

But why was that one stage so weird? I'm just developing a theory. I was probably supposed to use pan drippings without having separated out the fat, i.e. dripping that are mostly fat. Isn't that what a gravy thickener is? Equal parts fat and flour? That must be it. More (or even all) fat drippings would have gotten me closer to what is pictured in the book. That could have been made more specific....

Jeff: A
Martha: A-
(for not specifying "fatty" drippings)

Chestnut Stuffing (p. 156)

My typical stuffing is a kitchen-sink type stuffing. I always invent it on the spot and put all sorts of vegetables and fruits and meats and nuts in there: apricots and apples and sausage and walnuts and carrots and you name it. So it was a real departure to make this stuffing, which has very few ingredients: bread, chestnuts, butter, onion, celery, sage, chicken stock, parsley, salt and pepper.

Note to anyone who makes this: leave a ton of time for shelling the chestnuts. It's painstaking work! You score the chestnuts before boiling them, which is supposed to make them easier to peel, but this was in no way an easy task.

Also, there are 3 cups of chopped parsley used in this recipe, which means you need at least three giant bunches. I had to send my father out to get more. (He's such a mensch.)

And there are 4 cups of celery! And 4 cups of chestnuts, which I don't generally like. What is this going to taste like??

This stuffing was fabulous! I cooked a third of it in the turkey and the rest of it separately and then mixed it all together in a serving dish (sitting atop a hidden oval bed of turkey skin). It was moist and savory and delicious! The celery gave it crunch, and the chestnuts gave it sweetness. It was an eye-opening experience to realize that something can be this simple, have this few ingredients, and still be deeply flavorful and wonderful.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Potato and Turnip Gratin (p. 320)

This was the one side dish from the book that I incorporated into our dinner. It too is a simple recipe, involving only thinly sliced potatoes and turnips, covered in herb-infused cream and baked until brown.

The problem here was that the baking time was really off. It was not "golden brown and bubbling" at all after one hour of cooking time. I left it in there until it started coloring and bubbling, another 20 minutes or so, but even then, this dish was deeply undercooked. The vegetables were too crunchy and the cream hadn't thickened and the flavors just weren't there. Sadly, she was the least popular girl at the party....

The next day, I did an experiment and reheated it in the toaster oven, cooking it for another 30-45 minutes, until it was REALLY golden and bubbling. And then it came to life! It had flavor, texture, everything seemed right. Unfortunately though, at Thanksgiving, this was a bust.

Jeff: A
Martha: C
(I'm guessing something's really off in the recipe, either the cooking time or the oven temperature)

Incidentally, the other side dishes I prepared that night were Green Beans with Vinaigrette, Roasted Brussels Sprouts shpritzed with lemon juice, and a delicious Roasted Parsnip Bread Pudding. I also made an Apricot and Pine Nut Relish, which I thought was a Martha recipe, but I just found out that Real Simple is not a Martha publication! How could I have mixed that up? It's her competition! Ah well, I was trying to make it an all-Martha meal, but I blew it. Thumbs up on the relish recipe, though.

I should also add that my mother made cranberry sauce and her traditional jello mold. (It sounds bad, but it's actually good: two layers of fruit-packed strawberry jello, surrounding a layer of sour cream.) And our friend Vicki made an amazing Sweet Potato Pie!

For dessert, we had store-bought pies and vanilla ice cream, and I made the same Poached Pears I made for the Pavlova last month. Yum!

Until we eat again....

From left to right: Nancy (my mother), Stan, Leila, Evelyn, Aser, Ron, Zachary, Florence, Murray, Vicki, Tony, Audrey, and Harold (my father)


  1. Wowiee! What a simkeh... you make me want to try thanksgiving all over again (like for new years maybe)! Albeit in a much smaller version. Im inspired all over the place:
    - brining bag? who even knew this existed!?
    - proper carving makes the turkey look like a star
    - a relish in addition to cranberry sauce?!
    - savory style bread pudding... yummy.
    You did it again Jeff. The real star was obviously YOU!