As we were eating dinner the other evening, my husband, Mark, asked me, “If you were to tell people how to make one essential thing, what would it be?”
If Mark could have one meal, and only one, day in and day out until he breathed his last breath, it would be turkey dinner. Followed in close second by hot turkey sandwiches. He lives in fear that one of our children might grow up to be a raw-foods vegan, and I can’t say what might happen if such a tragedy should occur.
There have been times when I’ve felt a little bit creatively stifled by the back-to-back turkey roastery we engage in here, where the bones of Thanksgiving’s bird have just been boiled clean when we turn around and do the whole damn thing again for our yuletide festivities, but I commit to it anyway. Mind you, there’s nothing saying you have to do turkey for both days, or for either. Except tradition. Which can be a pretty strong force, especially for those family-oriented holidays.
And what’s wrong with that? There’s something to be said for innovation, of course, but there’s also much to commend the cozily comforting, the predictable—especially in these dark days of winter. A turkey dinner is a sure thing, and it’s also far less complicated than many people would have you believe. Roasting a turkey is pretty much the most stress-free endeavour of the holiday season, provided you take a few minutes to plan it out and don’t get yourself worked into a frenzy over it.
I can’t even really give you a recipe. I just kind of take the turkey and fling it (lovingly) in a pan, put it in the oven, then some hours later I eat it. I don’t even cover it unless it looks like it’s getting too brown too fast, in which case I casually tuck a bit of foil over the top. Is my way the only way? Certainly not. Is it the best way? Who knows? I appreciate the fancy stuff —brining and spicing and whatnot—but I just want to keep things as simple as possible during the bustling season.
If you can snag a fresh, local turkey, then by all means do it; our farmers are our friends, so give them your money if you can. If your budget requires that you pick from the frozen offerings at the grocery store, that’s cool, too. If you have a decent-sized freezer you can grab a turkey when they’re on sale, which happens pretty often. I would advise against the pre-stuffed, pre-basted, buttered-up ones; injecting turkeys with industrial moisture-retaining solutions makes them taste kind of weird.
Whatever you buy, make sure it’s fully thawed—and, if possible, close to room-temperature—before you start.
For cooking times, I save myself the second-guessing and check the chart from the Turkey Farmers of Canada (www.goo.gl/e3VKs0), because if they don’t know, who will? Don’t break your brain trying to work out equations on Christmas morning, just check the chart and err on the side of more time rather than less. If the bird is done early, remember that a foil-tented turkey can sit on the counter for a good 45 minutes before it starts to lose too much heat. That crispy skin locks the heat inside like a toasty jacket. Even if you’re rushing and people are looking like they might eat the tablecloth you should let the bird sit for at least fifteen minutes before carving so it will be at optimal juiciness.
So you’ve got your turkey. You’ve got your oven preheated to 325°F. You’ve got your timing worked out, knowing that once your turkey comes out of the oven you still have to let it rest for fifteen minutes, make gravy, and carve the meat (I allot half an hour or so for all that, but if you’re not feeling like a kitchen ninja, give yourself a few more minutes.)
Want to stuff it? Stuff it. Don’t want to stuff it? Cut an onion in half and stick both pieces in the cavity of the turkey with a couple lengths of carrot and celery and some fresh herbs (I favour sage and thyme); the aromatics will add a lovely flavour with pretty much no effort. Truss if you want to (you can do it like this: www.goo.gl/KfTm8I), but I don’t bother.
If you don’t have a roasting pan large enough, those aluminum ones at the grocery store will do fine, but you might want to double them up, because they can be pretty flimsy. If you have a rack you can put the turkey on inside the pan, use it; if not, it will still be fine.
Salt and pepper the outside of the turkey generously. I like to brush on a whack of softened butter for extra awesomeness. I baste the turkey once or twice toward the end of the roasting time too, and I’m not convinced it makes a difference but it’s customary. I don’t have a baster, so I just use a big spoon, and it truly isn’t Christmas until I have accidentally burnt my arm trying to reach into the oven to baste the bird with the improper implement.
A turkey is cooked when the internal temperature is 180°F (measured in the thigh). If the turkey is stuffed, the stuffing should be 165°F. If you’re a thermometer-shunning daredevil, you can cut into the thigh joint and if it immediately comes loose and there’s no sign of blood, you’re good to go. That said, daredevil, thermometers are cheap and you can get them at the grocery store, so if you don’t want to have to worry about poisoning your loved ones, pick one up.
Now. I’ve imparted all my knowledge on to you, and my husband can sleep easy knowing that there are more people out there who aren’t afraid to roast a turkey. Happy holidays, friends! May your turkeys be moist and your leftovers be plentiful.
Stuff That Goes With Turkey
Finely chop an onion and cook it until soft in 1/2 cup melted butter (or less, but it’s Christmas), with a generous couple spoonfuls of Mount Scio Savoury. You like celery? Add some chopped celery. Apples? Cooked bacon? Toasted nuts? Handful of raisins? Honestly, I just keep throwing stuff in, cooking any vegetables until soft but not brown. I mix it all into a big bowl of large-ish breadcrumbs (I take a loaf of stale bread and crumble it up with my hands – the Light Rye from Rocket is quite nice for this), then salt and pepper it enthusiastically. Stuff it in the turkey, not too well-packed but not so loose that it gets washed away. Done. For vegetarians I axe the bacon and add a bit of vegetable stock to moisten, then bake it all in a covered casserole dish.
The most important part of dinner? Perhaps. Here’s what I do: a few days before roasting a turkey, I roast a chicken for dinner. Then I take the chicken carcass, an onion, a couple carrots and some celery, bay leaves, and peppercorns and throw all of that in a slow-cooker full of water and leave it on low heat overnight. Yay! Chicken stock! Then on the morning of turkey day, I take the neck and giblets (that little bag of stuff that’s tucked inside your turkey), more of all the same vegetables and seasonings, and give them the same treatment. Yay! Turkey stock! Obviously, you can use store-bought stock if you want but I’m so in love with my method I thought I should share. When the turkey comes out of the oven I remove it to a board to relax, then scrape all the drippings and little cooked-on bits into a saucepan. I top it up with stock and then thicken it with a flour-and-water slurry or, even better, with some beurre manié (www.goo.gl/XPnGAw). Add salt and pepper to taste, and it’s done.
Special Bonus Vegetarian Option!!!
Get yourself a pack of phyllo pastry in the freezer section of the grocery store and let it thaw overnight. The next day, cook up two thinly-sliced leeks (the white and light green parts only) in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add a tablespoon or so of chopped fresh sage and thyme, about a cup of finely chopped button mushrooms and a grated medium zucchini, and cook until soft. Add a half-cup of chopped walnuts, a half a can of drained chickpeas, and maybe three cups of cooked bulghar or quinoa (follow the package instructions). Set that aside and cook up some manner of vegetarian gravy; I like chickpea-based ones like this: www.goo.gl/ozAnx0. When your gravy is done, add enough to the bulghar mixture to glue it all together, adding salt and pepper to taste, and set the rest aside for later. Now, in a deep-dish pie plate or spring-form cake pan, layer six leaves of your phyllo dough, brushing with melted butter or olive oil between each layer. Make sure the phyllo goes up the sides of the plate and sort of flops over (it’s okay to make a mess, phyllo is very forgiving). Fill with the bulghar mixture, then top with three more phyllo layers brushed with butter/oil. Fold any overhanging edges over the top and brush that with some more butter/oil. Bake at 400°F for about forty minutes, until the phyllo is deeply golden. Reheat remaining gravy, slice up your tasty pie, and serve.