She has bones to pick with traditional turkey

My holiday turkeys always come with extra bones. Bones of contention.

Bone one: A whole roasted turkey, bronzed and beautiful, makes a great photo opp. But the white meat usually is overcooked and dry. If by design the breast is still juicy, the thighs are likely still undercooked and tough. Getting it just right is a challenge.

Bone two: Carving at the table is overrated. Guests want to see the operation, and often the carver has stage fright. I'm a committed kitchen carver. Better the juices and goop on the meat board on the counter, not on the table linens.

Bone three: At our house, we don't argue over money or politics. We fight over poultry parts, and who gets the dark meat: the thighs, the drumsticks, the "oysters." White meat usually is foisted upon guests, and any leftovers are minced for a treat for Alex, our Siamese cat.

Bone four: Because he likes to pick at the odd parts, my husband gets dibs on both wings and the entire leftover carcass. He says the best parts are those with no name.

Bone five: Since we like a fresh kosher, organic bird or heritage-breed turkey, I'll pay a pretty penny. With a dining room full of guests coming, no mistakes are allowed.

What to do? This Thanksgiving, I will address all of the above. I'm shopping for a pasture-raised, fresh, flat-chested, four-legged turkey.

In the kitchen

Two days before: Pick up the (pre-ordered) fresh turkey and a couple of extra thighs; refrigerate. (Turkey parts are so economical and easy to come by right now, I'll also buy a few extra to stash in the freezer.)

One day before: Dismantle said turkey. With the bird on its back on a cutting surface, remove the legs using a chefs' knife, cutting down through the thigh joint. Take the whole leg in hand; holding the knife parallel to the drumstick, cut through and separate the drumstick from the thigh. Repeat on the other side.

Next, cut the wings off the breast and set aside.

Switching to a boning knife, I'll slice down along one side of the breastbone, and using my free hand, hold onto the breast as I scrape the sharp edge of the knife along the ribs to free the breast side in one piece. Repeat on the other side. All parts go back in the fridge.

Make an appetizer mousse or pate from the liver. Make stock from the carcass and the rest of the giblets.

The Big Day: About three hours before serving, brown thighs, wings and breast halves in a skillet on the stove top. (I cook the drumsticks another time.) With the breasts set aside and lightly covered with foil, braise other pieces along with aromatic vegetables, a little pork for flavor and some stock. When the thighs are deeply tender and cooked until just done and still juicy, the breast meat is added and cooked for a relatively short time.

See? All my bones of contention have been dealt with. Because the turkey is cut up, there's no carving to fear. By skillet-browning turkey parts on the stove top, the skin is bronzed and crisp. Braising yields dark meat that is so tender it almost resembles pulled pork. And with two extra thighs, there's plenty of dark meat to go around.

If Dolly Parton were transmogrified into a turkey, she'd be an over-chested Butterball. But because I chose a free-range bird, the breasts are normal, on the small side, and cooked just until done and still juicy.

Now about dessert. Who wants a big slice, who wants a small, and of which pie? Really? A sliver of all three?

Braised Thanksgiving Turkey

PG tested

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound Italian sausage, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/4 pound pancetta, guanciale or not-too-smoky bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 4 turkey thighs
  • Coarse salt and black pepper
  • 2 turkey wings
  • 1 turkey breast, boned to yield 2 halves
  • 1 ounce (more or less) dried porcini or other mushrooms
  • 1/2 pound carrots, trimmed and diced
  • 1/2 pound celery, trimmed and diced
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • Several sage leaves or sprigs of thyme or rosemary
  • 1/2 pound shiitake or other fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • Turkey or chicken stock as needed
  • Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add sausage, pancetta and as many thighs as will fit, skin side down; sprinkle thighs with salt and pepper. Brown all well, removing pancetta first (it will brown first), then sausage; set aside. Turn thighs when they are well browned and cook a minute or so on the skinless side. Remove them, too, and repeat with remaining thighs and the wings. Add breast pieces to pan and brown well, skin side down, then flip and cook for just a minute or so and remove. Set pan aside.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Soak porcinis in hot water to cover. On the stove top in the pan used for turkey, cook carrots, celery, onions, sage and shiitakes in leftover fat. When all vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, add drained porcini, reserving liquid. Return pancetta and sausage to pan. Cook another minute and turn off heat.

In a large roasting pan, put thighs in corners, browned side up. Tuck in the wings, too. Leave an island of room for the breasts; for now, set them aside and loosely cover. (Pieces should be all in 1 layer.) Fill space between thighs and wings with vegetables. Add mushroom soaking liquid, leaving any sand and grit behind. Add stock as needed to come about halfway up sides of the thighs. Leave the breasts out at room temperature, and loosely covered with foil or waxed paper.

Put in oven and roast uncovered, for 2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure liquid level remains sufficiently high and stirring vegetables if they threaten to brown too much. When thigh meat is tender, lay breast pieces on the vegetables and cook until they are done, about a half-hour longer. Allow the dish to rest on the stove top for 15 minutes.

To serve, put vegetables and sausage pieces on a large platter; slice breasts across the grain and arrange slices on vegetables; shred meat from the thighs and arrange on the vegetables. Garnish the platter and serve.

Makes about 10 servings.

-- Adapted from The Minimalist by Mark Bittman (The New York Times, 2008)

Turkey Liver Pate with Crostini

PG tested

A silky and rich turkey pate appetizer serves as the overture to a roast turkey dinner. If you don't like the looks of the turkey liver or you don't have enough, substitute chicken livers. Present the pate in a small crock with a basket of toasts. Tightly covered, it keeps for at least 3 days in the refrigerator. Makes a generous cup of pate.

Note: To make toasts, slice the baguette into 1/4-inch slices and place flat on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes to completely dry out.

  • 1 large turkey liver, or 4 chicken livers
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme or marjoram leaves, optional
  • 2 tablespoons cognac
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter ( 1/2 stick) at room temperature
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 baguette, cut into 1/4-inch slices and toasted
  • Fresh herbs for garnish, optional

Trim any fat and gristle from the livers and cut into large pieces. Heat a small nonstick skillet. Add the olive oil, then add the shallot and saute until it begins to soften. Add the livers and herbs and cook, stirring, another minute or 2 or until the livers are cooked but still pink. Check by cutting into a piece with a knife. Remove the livers to a dish. Add the cognac to the pan and deglaze it scraping up all the good browned bits. Remove from heat and add to the livers. Remove the bay leaf.

When the liver mixture is cool, put it into the food processor with the butter. If you add the livers when they're hot, they will melt the butter and the texture will be altered. Process until very smooth, season generously with salt and pepper, transfer to a serving dish or crock and refrigerate. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving. Makes about 1 cup.

-- Marlene Parrish

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