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Thanksgiving turkey is a much maligned dish. Many see it as nothing more than a (barely) edible centerpiece, dry and bland.
Tradition aside, there's no rule that you have to serve turkey at Thanksgiving. You could give another meat pride of place, or go ahead and serve a vegetarian feast.
But if you want to serve turkey, and many of us do, there's no reason it shouldn't be delicious.
There are a million detailed recipes, but roasting a turkey is so simple it doesn't really require a recipe, just a few basic techniques.
Those turkeys that stores use as loss-leaders may be good enough to give away, but you get what you pay for -- lots of water pumped into a bird that's bred for fast growth, not flavor. You don't have to spend a fortune, but it's worth shopping around and finding a turkey worthy of your thanks. For some, that might mean a fresh, organic bird. Others prefer a bird that's locally raised. For those with extra room in their budgets, heritage turkeys really are more flavorful. They can easily be sourced on-line and some are available locally. Next year, Chris Bonfili plans to sell brined and stuffed local birds at B Gourmet, his market and gourmet foods shop set to open next month in Sewickley.
You probably already know what kind of turkey you're getting this year, so even if it's a frozen generic from the grocery store, don't freak out. Good technique can improve any bird. If you did buy a frozen bird, start defrosting it in your refrigerator well in advance. The USDA recommends 24 hours per 5 pounds of turkey, so a 20-pound turkey needs four full days of thawing.
Many chefs love to brine their turkeys. Brining consists of submerging turkey in a solution of water, salt and sugar. The solution is drawn into the turkey's flesh, allowing for better seasoning, and ensuring that the turkey meat remains more moist when cooked. Brining also allows the cook to infuse the turkey with other flavors. Mr. Bonfili uses brown and white sugar as well as a little honey, plus sage and black peppercorn, while Brian Pekarcik of Spoon in East Liberty likes to add peppercorns, chile flakes, thyme, parsley and bay leaf.
Brining can be great, but it's a lot easier for chefs, who invariably prep their turkeys in restaurant walk-in refrigerators. Whether you use a brining bag or a large pot, brining your turkey requires either a lot of refrigerator space or a well-insulated cooler that will need to be carefully monitored to make sure it stays below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sonja Finn of Dinette in East Liberty advocates instead for pre-salting, rubbing the turkey liberally with salt and a little cracked black pepper two days before T-day. "The salt initially draws the water from the turkey meat to the surface," she explained in an e-mail, "but then the water dissolves the salt and that salted water is then drawn back into the turkey meat. It is simply osmosis. Once the salt is in the turkey meat, it acts to denature the proteins, which makes for more tender meat after cooking."
Ms. Finn cooks her turkey in a charcoal grill, which frees up the oven for everything else. Her tips for successful turkey grilling include placing a foil "snake" around the turkey to protect it from any flare ups, and putting a disposable roasting pan on the bottom rack underneath the turkey to catch the drippings. Then, when the turkey is done, she tastes the drippings before adding them to the gravy, to make sure they haven't gotten too smoky.
If all this is starting to sound a little complicated, why not embrace simplicity this year? Derek Stevens, executive chef of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District, likes his turkey "to taste like turkey." He uncovers the bird in the fridge up to a day before Thanksgiving, letting the skin dry out for optimal crispiness. That day, he also takes the wings and the neck and makes a turkey stock to use for the gravy. On Thanksgiving, he seasons the turkey with salt, pepper and olive oil, then roasts it at one temperature, around 350 degrees, until it's done -- and surely delicious.
You can start at a higher temperature (400 to 450 degrees) for the first 15 to 30 minutes, then lower the temperature (300 to 350 degrees) or cook it at the same temperature the whole time. If you're cooking a larger bird (20 pounds plus), many chefs recommended using a lower temperature (around 300) and cooking it for longer, which encourages more even cooking.
The secret to a really good Thanksgiving turkey? Take it out when it's done -- that is, when its internal temperature reaches 155 degrees. "The novice is so worried about under-cooking poultry that they cook it too much," said Mr. Bonfili. "They overcook it by 10 degrees just to be safe."
Cooking to temperature is where chefs have another leg up on amateurs. They're so comfortable cooking all kinds of meats to all kinds of temperatures that they quickly develop a sixth sense for when things are done.
A good rule of thumb for a turkey that is less than 14 pounds is to start checking after 2 hours of cooking time. For a 14- to 18-pound turkey, check after two and a half hours, and for an 18-pound-plus turkey, check after three hours. Then check every 30 minutes. Once your turkey hits 140 degrees or higher, check more often. If you're frequently opening and closing your oven door, your turkey will take longer.
When a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh hits 155 degrees, take the turkey out of the oven and set it in a warm place -- the temperature will rise to 165 while the turkey rests. (Note: Your turkey is safe to eat at 165, but some people prefer to let the dark meat reach a higher temperature. Brining and pre-salting the bird will help keep the white meat moist if you let the turkey cook a little longer.) You can tent the turkey with tin foil as it rests, but the skin will stay crispier if you don't. There's just one more step to ensuring a delicious, moist bird: Leave it alone for 30 minutes. Not only will this ensure that the juices redistribute and stay in your bird, rather than on your carving board, it also will give you ample time to finish up the gravy, reheat the stuffing, finish those brussels sprouts and get everyone to the table.
China Millman: 412-263-1198 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her at twitter.com/chinamillman. First Published November 17, 2011 5:00 AM