The Bird is the Word
Driving the winding country roads just outside of London, Ontario, I came across a wondrous sight. A flock of wild turkeys–beautiful, glossy, black birds–slim, quick on their feet and quite capable of flight, thank you very much. They scuffled through the fallen autumn leaves on the forest floor, then crossed the road, headed for a dry cornfield on the hunt for stray kernels. These birds are not to be confused with the domesticated turkey, so often thought of as dumb and somehow, wilfully flightless.
Give the bird a break, it’s how we made them. The white ones we’re most familiar with–utility turkeys–are bred to be docile with fat breast meat. The ability to fly would exercise those muscles, making the meat tough. Still, with all that biologically engineered breast meat, some folks manage to dry out their holiday bird. For some, turkey is a once or twice a year treat, and for the harried cook who’s expected to produce a plump, golden, succulent bird–Ã la Norman Rockwell–it can add up to a ton of pressure. A gal might find herself reaching for the cooking sherry before the sun climbs over the yardarm. She may also find herself chained to the kitchen, basting the bird every 15 minutes, fretting about perfect skin–the bird’s, not yours.
But we say, go wild, break with tradition. Here are a few tricks and tips, to get that bird ready for its debut.
Cooking in hot, deep fat produces a super-juicy bird with crispy, delicious skin in record time, but there are some very important dos and don’ts.
Never start with a frozen bird.
Never add stuffing to the bird’s cavity.
Dry the bird thoroughly with paper towels.
Ease the bird slowly into the fat.
Kill two birds with one stone. Give him a gift he will love–a snazzy new ‘que with rotisserie spit–and cleverly rope him into tending to the bird. Consider a dry rub to start, and a cranberry barbecue sauce for basting.
Bonus: Both techniques–grilling and deep frying–will turn the turkey into his problem–um, his project–and give you more time with the side dishes and décor, and perhaps even a little you-time.
Brine that bird!
Whether you’re roasting a game hen for two, or a 15-pound gobbler, brining is a foolproof way to assure the juiciest, most tender bird you’ve ever served. Chef David Kokai of Loic Gourmet in Toronto, purveyor of the most succulent brined rotisserie chickens, shares his recipe:
1 quart water
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 Tbsp sugar
12 whole black pepper corns
4 bay leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
6 sprigs thyme
This is enough brine for a 1.5 pound bird.
Bring everything to a boil until salt and sugar dissolve. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. The following day, add the bird, cover and refrigerate for 12 hours. Remove the bird, dry well with paper towel and roast.
Tip: You’ll never fit a whole turkey in brine into the fridge. So start from frozen and do it in a covered picnic cooler. Tucked away in a corner of your kitchen the bird will keep the temperature low enough to be food-safe while it thaws, just in time to roast.
Upside down is right side up
When you set the bird upside down–that is, breast facing down–in the roasting pan, you let gravity do the work. Juices from the fattier dark meat run down into the leaner–and therefore dryer–white meat of the breast.
Break it down
Pick up a fresh (not frozen) turkey and ask your butcher to break it down into parts: breasts, legs, thighs, and wings. Keep any off-cuts for broth or gravy. With your big, unwieldy bird in bits, you’re ready to try something completely different this year. How about curry, Thai turkey, or turkey au vin?
A breed apart
Heritage birds are as big a culinary trend as heirloom tomatoes. Think Berkshire pork, Red Fife wheat, Chantecler chickens and now, the Bronze turkey. It’s closer in appearance and flavour to its wild kin, minus the buckshot, and according to chefs and foodies who have tasted this rare bird, it’s worth the hunt, extra cost–about $18/kilo–and care needed in cooking.
A whole, cold smoked turkey makes for a splendid centrepiece to a relaxed holiday brunch, lunch or even buffet-style dinner. Now you could smoke it yourself, in one of several smokers that are available at barbecue shops, or you could buy one already done. Either way, it’s different, and definitely takes the pressure off the cook and host. Also, smoked turkey tastes quite a bit like ham, so it’s a great alternative for folks who don’t eat pork or red meat.
When turkey is too much
Just because your nest is a tad on the empty side this holiday, it doesn’t mean you have to: a) go into automatic and cook a 15 pound turkey that you’ll be turning into soup, sandwiches, stews and casseroles for the next three weeks, or b) go without a lovely roasted bird. Here are some alternatives that often go overlooked at the meat counter. From quail to poussin, these little birds are delicious, festive, and just the right size for one or two.
Extreme birding – Turducken
Some call it the ultimate in holiday indulgence, others, the ultimate in over-indulgence. Call it what you will, this tasty beast hails from Louisiana (where else?) and consists of a de-boned, sausage-stuffed chicken, stuffed inside a deboned, sausage-stuffed duck, stuffed inside a partially deboned turkey.
— Signe Langford
Signe is a former chef and current foodie. Read more from Signe on her delicious blog, An Eater’s Digest