It's Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., and we're going with the majority today, roasting a turkey for the holiday feast.
It's probably a little late to be telling you how to go about roasting the traditional bird, but in case you've procrastinated and need last-minute advice, here's the short version: I'm planning to pop a smallish turkey into a 500-degree oven (260C), leave it at this searing heat for a half-hour to start its skin in the direction of crispy golden-brown, then reduce heat to 350F (175C) for another hour and a half (total of 12 minutes per pound for a 10-pound bird).
I won't stuff it - simply tuck some onion, garlic, carrot, celery and fresh herbs into the cavity to provide aromatics - and I won't baste it (although I might drape a lightly oiled sheet of aluminum foil over the breast for the last 45 minutes or so if it appears to be getting too dark too fast). And frankly, I'm not even planning to "brine" the turkey - the currently trendy practice of soaking it for a couple of hours in a strong solution of salt in sugar in water to foster moist tenderness. We're using a fresh, never-frozen free-range turkey, and I just don't think it's going to need that step.
I like to take the turkey out of the oven a good half-hour before carving - it seems to gain improved texture and moistness that way - and this procedure also allows a little time to fashion a simple gravy from the pan drippings while you wait.
If you're uneasy about undercooking, use a meat thermometer. Here's the official word from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "The temperature of a whole turkey must reach 180F in the innermost part of the thigh, and the center of the stuffing [if any] must reach 165F. ... it is also recommended that a food thermometer be used to test in several places, including the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing. When cooking only a turkey breast, the internal temperature should reach 170F."
I tend to err just a little on the low side of these targets, especially since I don't stuff the bird. I don't want rare turkey, but I don't like it overcooked to stringy toughness either, and I feel more comfortable about sanitation with quality free-range, organic poultry from a trusted source (this year's bird came from Whole Foods) than I might with industrial poultry. I'm satisfied when the temperature at the deepest part of the breast reaches 160F, knowing that it will rise another 5 degrees or so from residual heat after I take it out of the oven.
FOR MORE DETAILS: A couple of years ago, I featured a more detailed recipe and procedure for roasting turkey, similar to the summary above. If you would like to refer to it, it's in the FoodLetter archives here:
MATCHING WINE: I addressed this frequently asked annual question in last Wednesday's 30 Second Wine Advisor, specifically suggesting Loire wines like Vouvray (Chenin Blanc) if you want a white, and Chinon or Anjou (Cabernet Franc) if you prefer a red. More broadly, my standard advice for a good match with turkey is to think about cranberry sauce and seek wines with a similar fruity, tart, non-tannic flavor profile: Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Chenin Blanc among the whites; Pinot Noir, Beaujolais (even Beaujolais Nouveau) or perhaps a Zinfandel if you want a red. Or do as we're likely to do this afternoon and select something special from the cellar to celebrate the holiday, enjoying the wine for its own sake rather than fretting about perfection in wine-and-food pairing.
ABOUT THE LEFTOVERS: Even a small turkey provides way too much for one or two people to finish in a sitting, prompting a whole genre of bad jokes about Thanksgiving leftovers. I don't find this much of a problem, though, since I actually like leftover turkey.
Here's my strategy: Think ahead. After dinner tonight, even if you leave the dishes in the sink until morning, take a few moments to organize the leftovers. I generally take care to carve from one side of the bird for the holiday dinner, leaving the other side untouched. That way I can easily separate the breast, thigh, wing and leg from the undamaged side and save them whole in the refrigerator, wrapping them tightly in aluminum foil after they've cooled. This is good because thin slices are more likely to dry out and pick up unsavory refrigerator flavors. You can slice off thick slabs of white meat for sandwiches (try it slathered with leftover cranberry sauce), or slice or dice the meat to use as you would chicken or veal in just about any dinner dish from scalloppine to tetrazzini.
Meanwhile, wrap and save the carcass to use for stock, after picking off and saving any remaining meat. Later in the week, when you're in the mood for turkey soup, break up the bones and simmer them for an hour or two in water to cover, along with a carrot, celery, onion half and a few garlic cloves. Strain and discard the solids, boil to reduce it a bit, refrigerate and remove the fat. (Hint: Don't season with salt and pepper until this point, as the reduction step may concentrate salt and spice flavors.) You're good to go with this flavorful base for turkey noodle soup, turkey rice soup, turkey barley vegetable soup or ... well, you get the idea.
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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives
Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Jambalaya revisited (Nov. 18)
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Thursday, Nov. 25, 2004
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