Your guide to a juicy, flavorful Thanksgiving bird
This time of year turkeys are flying off supermarket shelves - 45 million birds will be gobbled up coast to coast for the Thanksgiving feast. Some will be tender and juicy, others NASCAR-tire chewy and Styrofoam tasteless. Let me dish up some seasoned bird advice and damage control to guide you through Turkey Land so your holiday won't turn out a "foul" one.
The pivotal question - do you want a boy or a girl bird? Tom is the boy, hen is the girl. Large, older males are tastier and tenderer than the wily young boys, while old hens are tough birds. So it's better to buy a young hen no older than 15 months or an old tom. (Why is it that men always seem to age better even in the turkey's world?)
If you want more breast meat, buy the hen, but if dark meat is your druthers, tom's for you.
Now do you want organic, free-range or kosher? The organic turkeys are raised on a balanced diet of pesticide-free corn and soybean meal compared to conventional ones that are pumped with antibiotics so they don't catch the flu and hormones for plumper breasts.
If you are migraine-prone or health conscious, stick to the hormone-free organic bird. And don't confuse free-range with organic. Just because these birds are dancing the turkey trot in the yard doesn't mean they are toxin-free (i.e. hormones and antibiotics).
Finally, kosher birds, oy vey, are slaughtered, cleansed and blessed under strict kosher laws with rabbinical supervision. They are soaked and salted in the old-world style similar to brining, so they are moist and tender.
Once you've made your informed pick, here are 10 cardinal turkey rules you may want to follow:
- Allow one pound of meat per person (for children, less than a pound is fine).
- Never, never, never put a frozen turkey in the oven unless you start roasting on Labor Day. Unthaw the bird in the refrigerator, breast side up in a shallow pan in its original wrapper allowing 24 hours for every four pounds.
- Only stuff the bird with cooked ingredients and pasteurized eggs to prevent the formation of food-borne germs. Stuff immediately before roasting, do not overstuff and unstuff immediately after removing the bird from the oven.
- Nuking the bird is also a no-no unless you want a 20-pound basketball. And puh-leeze don't cook and carve in advance and reheat. That's what leftovers are for.
- Massage the skin with olive oil and seasonings, and if cholesterol is not your problem, whip up a compound by creaming butter with fresh sage and slip under the breast skin for a juicy, flavorful bird.
- For a stuffed turkey allow 30 minutes per pound, unstuffed 20 minutes per pound, no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. To check for doneness stick a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. At 180 degrees, the bird is done, while the stuffing must reach 165 degrees.
- If you're planning on deep-frying the bird, please go outside. In any event, make sure your smoke detectors are working, and have a fire extinguisher and home cholesterol test handy.
- Tent your turkey with damp parchment paper instead of aluminum foil.
- After removing the turkey from the oven, let it nap for 20 minutes so the juices settle in, making it easier to carve.
- If you really don't know what the heck you're doing, order in Chinese. Black bean chicken isn't bad.
Thanksgiving is also a time of great culinary embarrassment. Here is a taste of my favorite disaster stories:
Beware of your dinner guests
A man, in a weak moment, invited his soon-to-be-ex spouse for Thanksgiving dinner. When his mother brought the turkey to the table, the angry wife grabbed the bird by the legs and flung it out the window where it landed on the poisonous barbs of an oleander bush.
Know your ovens
A woman had recently moved to a custom-home with a gourmet double-oven kitchen. She inadvertently turned on the bottom oven and gingerly slid the turkey into the cold top oven. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law put the side dishes into the hot bottom oven. The kitchen was starting to smell delightful and the woman thought the bird was coming along nicely until five hours later when she removed the raw hen from the top oven and the incinerated sides from the bottom. Served: deli for dinner.
Cooking under the influence
A high-powered Fortune 500-esque couple was entertaining for 20 of their top clients. The tipsy maid, who had secretly been imbibing on the cooking sherry, tripped over her feet en route to the dining room and plopped the 25-pound bird onto the Persian rug. The hostess gracefully scooped up the lint-covered turkey announcing, "Don't worry, Lucia, let's just bring this bird back into the kitchen and serve the extra one in the convection oven." Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Yes, we've all made our culinary blunders, but we'll survive thanks to Plan B - damage control. If your bird is so raw it could go to the vet for a pulse check, don't panic. Simply slice it, drizzle with gravy and roast in a shallow pan until done.
If the turkey is overcooked, serve with an abundance of divine gravy and cranberry relish to counter the dryness. But if it is past the point of no return, morph your meal by shredding the meat for turkey tacos, tetrazzini, risotto, chow mein or shepherd's pie.
My hubby has an aunt, a certifiable non-cook who traditionally hosted Thanksgiving dinner at her home every year. She served cranberry sauce right out of the can, boil-in-a-bag veggies still in the plastic and sliced deli turkey. But the family was all together, sharing blessings, funny stories, rotten food and having a blast.
I have a scrumptious cranberry relish recipe that you'll love so much, you will never buy the can again. Whether you cook your heart out, bring in or eat out - Happy Turkey Day!
Citrus Pecan Cranberry Relish
- 6 cups of fresh cranberries
- 1/2 cup of golden raisins
- 2 oranges, zest grated and sectioned
- 2 lemons, zest grated and sectioned
- 2 cups of brown sugar (adjust to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
- 1-3/4 cups of water or orange juice
- 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup of chopped toasted pecans
In a large saucepan combine the sugar, vinegar, ginger, cinnamon and water or juice, reserving a quarter cup. Stir and bring to a boil until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the citrus, raisins and 3 cups of the cranberries, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the remaining cranberries, water and pecans, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Refrigerate and serve in a festive holiday bowl.