Operation Thanksgiving 3: More Turkey Troubles (or Me Against The Kitchen)

Welcome to part three of “Operation: Thanksgiving,” your guide and my spin on that holiday that will pack your digestive tract tighter than the overhead luggage on an over-booked flight home. Last time around, I got into some cultural history about the holiday and how the goofy-looking turkey went from being domesticated by ancient peoples to carved by modern man (or woman) for an autumn holiday sandwiched between the garish, sugar rush of Halloween and the cold, yet heartwarming lull of Christmas (or Hanukkah, if you’re Jewish, Ramadan, if you’re Muslim, or no holiday if you’re Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or you’ve long given up on holiday cheer and want everyone else to know it).

Today, we’re going after the popular dishes of Thanksgiving, specifically, some subsitutes, new spins, and the right way to cook dishes you can’t do without…which means, “Yes, we will discuss how to make that turkey come out a little less dry so your critical relatives can get off your damn back,” which is the subject of today’s post.

Now, cooking for large crowds (what’s known in the foodservice biz as “high-volume service,” whether you’re serving the cream of the social crop at a fine-dining restaurant or serving the unfortunate souls who have to make due with soup from a homeless shelter. I’ve done both) isn’t for the weak or slow. You have to be on your game and make sure everything is prepared in time. You have to know how to do your stuff and do it well under pressure (again, a lesson learned from my Job Corps days). It also helps that you have others around you who can work as a team and also know what they’re doing. If you feel you can’t handle this, then don’t read and wait until the next entry. If, however, you are a seasoned Thanksgiving kitchen veteran or feel that you can handle it, then read on.

I’d like to thank the good people at Cook’s Illustrated, the writers of all those recipe books I poured through, and my Basic and Advanced Culinary Arts instructors who taught me well, as all my tips will be from these sources and it’s only fair to give them credit.

First up, the turkey:

This isn’t like the roast chicken you can make for Sunday dinner and use the leftovers for chicken salad sandwiches and feeding the outside cats (and the indoor ones) who won’t leave you alone, despite that you’re out of dry and wet cat food. A lot of care goes into making a turkey the best anyone’s ever tasted, regardless of whether you’re serving to a large family or just you (or you and someone you love).

If you know me at all, then you’ll know that one of my major pet peeves is a dry turkey. Everything else on the Thanksgiving menu can be five-star, but if the turkey is dry, then that’s a major flaw to me. Part of the reason is because I have that need for everything to be right. Then there’s the fact that I want to show others that the two years of learning culinary arts at Job Corps weren’t a waste, even if I never get a job in that field (I can show my support for farmers’ markets, sustainable agriculture, local growers, fair trade, and talented people who want to go to school to be five-star chefs, but don’t have the money or don’t know what to do to reach that goal, though), and the fact that I always get the hiccups whenever I eat dry turkey.

So, if this is your first time roasting turkey and you’ve been racking your brain on how to make that turkey moist, stop racking and start taking notes.

Let’s start off with why your turkey would end up dry. The most common reasons are either: (a) you overcooked the bird, or (b) you made a mistake in how it was prepared or while it was roasting in the oven.

You may have heard from cooking shows or dear old ma (or grandma) that a pat of butter under the skin or rinsing it is the key to juicy turkey. Well, you can tell dear old ma (or grandma) not to bother with her technique (no matter how many generations it’s been passed down), because you have some new tricks up your sleeve:

First, you need the right equipment:

a roasting pan three inches deep or less and a rack for even roasting.

This one has been with my family for years. We don’t have an inside-the-pan rack for it, but the turkey still comes out okay. The ones with the rack inside like this one…
…are good if you’re planning on turning the pan drippings into homemade gravy (which is simply your pan drippings, plus a flour/oil mix called a roux and some whipping cream if you want it smoother or have to stretch it).
Which leads me to my next secret to juicy turkey: your mirepoix (pronounced “mere-pwah,” named for a French field marshal and Louis XV’s ambassador, Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix). “Mirepoix” is just a fancy name for the aromatic vegetables cooks chop up to flavor soups, stews, sauces, and roasted meats. It goes by various names, such as “sofrito” in Spanish, “refogado” in Portuguese, “Suppengrün” in German, “the holy trinity” in Creole and Cajun cooking, or “włoszczyzna” in Polish. A common mirepoix is made up of 2 parts onions for every one part of celery and one part of carrots (though you can also add or substitute for other aromatic vegetables, like leeks, parsnips, celeriac, bell peppers, garlic, or tomatoes). What you want to do is chop your aromatic veggies into medium to large chunks (depending on how big the turkey is) and spread the chunks out on the bottom of the pan, creating a flat surface.
But the mirepoix can’t make the turkey juicy alone. You need to season the bird all over — including the inside cavity. Salt and pepper are your go-to guys, but you can use any seasoning you want. Most of the time, I’m a kitchen-sink seasoner when it comes to roasting poultry  (meaning, “I use everything but the kitchen sink”), but you (and I) have a special blend when it comes to turkey. A nice dry rub I like to use for poultry is salt, pepper, a whisper of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, some garlic (whether fresh and crushed or dry and powdered), some white pepper, and either basil or Italian seasoning.The spice rack (or spice section of your pantry) is your oyster; use it to your advantage. Do taste tests if you must to come up with a winning combination
It also helps if you stick an apple (Granny Smith, Fuji, and Gala are good. Save your Red Delicious for apple juice, apple sauce, or good, old-fashioned, out of hand eating) in the neck cavity. It keeps it juicy and imparts a fresh, fall flavor to it when combined with the cinnamon inside the bird. Or, you could do what I did four years ago and fill the cavity with dried cherries and fresh orange slices. It surprisingly came out good, but it imparted a very sweet taste to it that even I couldn’t handle.

Stuffing the bird also keeps it moist, but only if it’s a moist stuffing (read: it has broth/stock in it).
And last, but not least, some “dos” and “don’ts” for roasting your turkey:
  • Don’t truss the turkey. Trussing is when you tie the legs and wings of poultry together to keep its shape and cook evenly without drying out any of the extremities. You might be asking, “But Philly Foodie, how can you tell me not to do this if the goal is to have a turkey that’s not dry?” Well, in this case, trussing is a bad thing. The legs and wings are dark meat (which is from the active muscles of a bird) and dark meat doesn’t dry out quickly like white meat does. The dark meat will cook faster unfettered and thus reduce the chance of the breast overcooking by the time the dark meat is done. And if any of this sounds like sexual innuendo, I do NOT apologize, because it’s your mind that’s face-down in the gutter.
  • As much as TV, magazines, and your fellow home cooks make it seem glamorous and will pressure you into doing it, just say “No” to basting as your turkey roasts in the oven. The meat is covered by the skin and won’t absorb the juices, so why bother? Also, you will lose valuable heat by opening and closing the oven door a lot. Here’s how you combat this: For the first 20 minutes, roast the bird at a really high heat (450 degrees).  This will allow the skin to brown on the outside and lock in the juices. After 20 minutes, reset the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and turn the turkey upside down so the breast is on the bottom. Add ¼ cup of low sodium chicken stock seasoned with black pepper. This will act as a basting mechanism for the turkey. Since the breast cooks faster than the dark meat and needs less cooking, situating it breast side down exposes it to less direct heat.
  • The phrase “Stick a fork [or knife] in it. It’s done” actually does more harm than good for Tom Turkey, so don’t do it. Why? You lose valuable turkey juice that way.  Some folks like to use the pop up meat thermometers which are fine when they work while others use the leg check technique (read: if the leg when you wiggle it is very easy to move and the skin breaks the bird is done).  You can also use the “20 minutes per pound” rule for a no stuffing bird or the “25 minutes per pound” rule for a stuffed one, but if you’re not good with math, then stick with the other two methods.
  • Do remember is that once the turkey has reached the proper temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit whether or not it’s stuffed), remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to sit 20 minutes to keep the meat moist. If you carve the meat immediately, all the juices will run out and your goal to make a moist turkey will have been a fool’s errand.

In the next post, we’ll go through the side dishes, sauces, and biscuits. See you then, and happy eating!

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Operation Thanksgiving 2: Gobbled Up in the Festivities (or Turkey Troubles)

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving,” where I highlight notable moments in food history and dispense tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal. And what better way to continue than to tackle the star of the Thanksgiving table: the turkey.

Male_north_american_turkey_supersaturated

The turkey (pictured above) we have come to know, love, and welcome to our tables (except if the entire family is vegetarian or vegan or just plain doesn’t like turkey) is a descendant of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), a North American native with Mesoamerican (Mexican and Central American) roots (the turkey was domesticated in an area now identified as southern Mexico). Its actual name was a mistake, though there isn’t any clear evidence of whether or not it was true. Wikipedia states that it was from British ships importing the birds to their country and believing that they were from the actual country called Turkey (situated between Europe and Asia; capital city is Ankara while its most important city is Istanbul).

The turkey is part of a taxonomic order of birds known as Galliformes, heavy-body, ground-feeding birds that don’t migrate, are found in essentially every part of the world’s continents (except for Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic regions, and any place that’s mostly desert) and are often raised for food. Other birds in this order include chicken, pheasant, partridge, guinea fowl, and quail. There are different breeds of turkey, same with any other animal, from the common-as-muck Broad Brested White to the ones that aren’t raised to be eaten, like the Bourbon Red. The Broad Breasted White is the one bred for Thanksgiving dinner, and the one “pardoned” by the President, as per White House tradition, which had its origins when Abraham Lincoln was President, but didn’t become a tradition until George H.W. Bush [the one who was Ronald Reagan’s vice president and only lasted one term, which, as of 2013, is the most recent time a U.S. President only served one term. Bill Clinton, H.W.’s son, George W., and Barack Obama are all two-termers] sent the turkey he was meant to eat back to Herndon, Virginia’s — and I’m not making this up — county of Frying Pan Park on November 14, 1989.

Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys, using its meat and eggs as major sources of protein and employing its feathers extensively for decoration. The Aztecs associated the turkey with their trickster god Tezcatlipoca. Why? I don’t know. The turkey is funny-looking and its throaty cluck/gobble sound is comical to some, but I don’t know what’s so funny about the turkey…well, except for the darkly humorous times when a turkey dies because some idiot thinks turkeys can fly like most common birds (WKRP in Cincinnati and Married…With Children has had at least one Thanksgiving episode featuring such a scene).

Like most things in North, Central, and South America back when it was home to indigenous peoples, the turkey was brought back to Europe as proof that the explorers had been to the Americas and to see if the florae or faunae from the native lands can survive somewhere else. A 16th-century English navigator named William Strickland is generally credited with introducing the turkey into England. His family coat of arms — showing a turkey in his family crest — is among the earliest known European depictions of a turkey. The turkey was also originally considered to be the bird associated with the United States rather than the eagle. Hm, majestic and endangered or goofy-looking and grounded? So hard to choose. If you ask me, both birds represent the best and worst of America’s culture, philosophy, and history. It’d be like picking Pepsi over Coke (and despite my being a fan of Saturday Night Live [so long as it’s not anything from 1980 to 1982] and seeing the Olympia Cafe sketch on an E! special about the show’s 101 greatest moments, I prefer Coke over Pepsi).

Speaking of turkeys throughout history, we’ve come to the point where I get to tell you how the turkey came to be associated with Thanksgiving. Hurrah!

Intensive farming of turkeys in the late 1940s dramatically cut the price, making it more affordable for the working classes. With the availability of refrigeration, whole turkeys could be shipped frozen to distant markets. Later advances in disease control increased production even more. Advances in shipping, changing consumer preferences and the proliferation of commercial poultry plants has made fresh turkey inexpensive as well as readily available. However, there was a time when turkey was considered a luxury (somewhere before the 19th century). If you wanted a good holiday meal, but didn’t have the cash for it, you settled for goose or beef. It’s the reason why Ebenezer Scrooge surprised Bob Cratchitt with turkey when he changed his ways at the end of A Christmas Carol (which most of you would know if you read the actual story instead of watching the parodies, adaptations, and clones that always come on TV or are released in movie theaters).

Oh, and forget all that crap you learned about the first Thanksgiving in school. I’m pretty sure the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down and eating together had the same tension as a Thanksgiving meal with a relative fresh out of prison/rehab, a grandmother or grandfather who embodies all the old, shameful prejudices this modern, politically correct society is trying to whitewash out of history, a college-aged older sibling who either came out of the closet, became a drug addict, is dating someone the family doesn’t like (and yes, that includes someone of a different ethnic background, sociopolitical status, and/or someone of the same sex), dropped out of school,  joined the military, or joined up with a fringe political party or religious group that conflicts with the family’s core values and morals, several aunts and uncles you haven’t seen in years and used to think were so cool, enough loud, bratty younger siblings/relatives to cast five kiddie sitcoms on The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, a patriarch trying to keep in touch with his fantasy football bets, and an overly-cheery matriarch trying to keep everything together with the power of her smiling like a Stepford wife on amphetamines and whatever antidepressant is popular on the market today. As this picture below shows, the Indians were forced to sit at what we modern people call “the children’s table.” They probably had a racist name for it, but that’s lost to time (hopefully). I’m saying this as a partial Native American (Cherokee, not Wampanoag), and someone who’s trying to see American history past the B.S. taught to younger generations:

We know the story of the first Thanksgiving, but how has the food changed since then? (Wikimedia Commons / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

Oh, and the menu that day in 1621 was wildfowl, corn, and venison (deer meat. I, personally, never had it, but it is on my culinary bucket list). No turkey, no biscuits, no green bean casserole, no collard greens, no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce, no sweet potato pie — nothing. So, how did we go from wildfowl, corn, and venison to turkey with all the trimmings and sides associated with it?

Because records from the 1600s were spotty (at best), it is unclear when and how the turkey first claimed its place as the Thanksgiving bird. Maybe it was after the turkey was passed up as America’s bird, but that’s just speculation. It’s generally acknowledged that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (he’s on the $10 bill in American currency) declared, “No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” By 1916, writers had begun referring to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day, but turkeys didn’t become a staple of the dinner until Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1941 during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration despite that Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States since 1863 (two years before the Civil War ended).

Pumpkins, like the turkey, are native to the North America continent. However, pumpkin probably was not baked into a pie at the first Thanksgiving. In fact, the Pilgrims did not even have access to ovens. While pumpkin and squash are part of the traditional New England harvest, the Pilgrims likely only ate boiled pumpkin, not the now-traditional pumpkin pie. Approximately fifty years after the first Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie gained popularity in New England. Recipes for pumpkin pie then appeared in English cookbooks beginning in 1670. The first American cookbook that included a recipe for pumpkin pie was not published until 1796. Pumpkin pie today is a popular way to conclude a delicious Thanksgiving feast with a sweet dessert, but, for my money, I’m going for something chocolate (preferably chocolate with hazelnut or pepperment) or too lethargic and full from eating to even care about dessert.

Stuffing has a longer history than turkey. Stuffing itself dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Recipes for stuffing appear in the Roman cookbook De re Coquinaria and the practice of stuffing large birds, not just turkeys, was common then and in the time of the Pilgrims. Does that mean stuffing was present at The First Thanksgiving? No, because the Pilgrims didn’t have access to flour or ovens when they sailed to Plymouth Rock.

Cranberries are native to North America, and eaten by the Native Americans before The First Thanksgiving was even a thing. Once the white settlers began consuming cranberries in the mid-1600s, cranberries became a crucial part of the New England harvest. It wasn’t until 50 years after Thanksgiving that referencs to traditional cranberry sauce appeared in the written historical record. Cranberries sealed their role as a part of the national Thanksgiving tradition in 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal. Cranberry sauce as you know it (the canned, gelatinous mass that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot fork and knife) wasn’t popular until 1912, when Ocean Spray canned and released it to the unsuspecting masses. Damn you, Ocean Spray.

Potatoes (Sweet and Regular White): At the time of the first Thanksgiving, neither white potatoes nor sweet potatoes had arrived in North America. White potatoes were native to South America, and sweet potatoes were native to the Carribean. Once sweet potatoes were brought to the United States from Europe, they quickly became popular in the South, where humid growing conditions suited the tuber. Southerners even used sweet potatoes as a substitute for pumpkin in pumpkin pie. The earliest recipe for candied sweet potatoes appeared around 1889, and sweet potato casseroles didn’t have marshmallows in them until a 1917 cookbook was published that popularized marshmallows as an everyday cooking ingredient. If you want to see weirder cookbook ideas and premises, visit my favorite site (and one of my inspirations for writing and humor), The Gallery of Regrettable Food, part of James Lileks’ “Institute of Official Cheer.”

Tune in for part three, where I finally get to that “dispensing tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal.” Thanks, and happy eating.

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All credit (verbal and visual) goes to Wikipedia, whitehouse.gov’s blog, and Neon Tommy

Operation Thanksgiving

Dear Reader,

In less than two weeks, I’ll be drafted. Not to fight for my country, but to help my mother cook Thanksgiving dinner.

I come from a family where, despite being on the lower-middle class rung on the American social ladder, we always put out a decent spread — not just for Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. While searching for steady work outside the home, I became a kitchen guru for my mother (who, if she was in a culinary education institute, would be commended for her hands-on work instead of her classroom knowledge. For me, it would be the other way around, though my hands-on work is pretty good…just, not good enough for a professional kitchen. That’s why I want to either teach others about cooking — whether it’s being some cooking teacher’s assistant or having my own video series online), informing her of the tips and tricks I learned in Kentucky and California (mostly California), introducing her to new foods (particularly fruits she would never eat, like figs, star fruits, lychees, and passion fruit), and answering (to the best of my ability) any and all queries about cooking time, flavor combinations, and how to make the most out of meals without going over budget. Now, last year, I wasn’t as instrumental to the Thanksgiving planning as I could have been (why? I forget. I can assume it was because my mom didn’t need my help), but this year, it’s different.

From now until Thanksgiving Day, I will be chronicling my thoughts on Thanksgiving (both historically and through the eyes of a food blogger), the typical dishes served, and what’s changed throughout the years.

Sincerely,

PhillyFoodie85 (Canais Young)