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Roast turkey
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Roast turkey

Greetings from Florida, where we're taking a few days off for a quick getaway. For today's FoodLetter, I thought it might be worth while to talk briefly about the approach I took to roasting our Thanksgiving turkey, especially since this festive bird may be on many of our menus again during the holiday season.

Remembering the old saying about eternity being illustrated by two people and a turkey, we opted for a smallish bird, at least by modern standards. I ordered a fresh free-range turkey from a local organic-food store, asked for a 10-pounder, and received the smallest available, a bird slightly over 12 pounds, which provided a hearty holiday feast and enough leftovers to last most of the following week.

Assuming that you plan a more-or-less traditional roast turkey (as opposed to such tasty oddities as a Cajun-style deep-fried bird), there are really only two major decisions to be made before you start cooking: Stuff the bird or cook the dressing separately; and roast it at a steady low temperature, quick high temperature, or start high and finish low.

In my opinion, the stuffing question is a no-brainer: Dressing cooked in the bird may be tasty, but it ends up greasy, slows cooking time and poses a slight risk of health issues if the bird and stuffing don't cook fully through. Make the dressing separately, and tuck a few aromatic herbs and vegetables into the cavity, that's my advice.

As for roasting, each approach has its advantages. Roasting at a steady, low temperature, 350F or even 325, takes longer but makes for a tender, juicy turkey. Roasting at very high temperature - 450 or even 500F - guarantees a mahogany, crispy skin and gets the turkey finished fast, but leaves the quality of the meat very much up to fate. I like the compromise method, starting at a high temperature for just long enough to sear the skin and get things moving, then reduce heat to moderate to finish at a more stately pace.

I worked from my recollection of FoodTV personality Alton Brown's method that aired on his "Good Eats" program last year. Here's how it went:

INGREDIENTS:

1 small to medium turkey (we used a fresh 12 pound, 6 ounce bird)
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1 large sprig fresh rosemary
1 large sprig fresh sage
Vegetable oil
Salt
Pepper

PROCEDURE:

1. Preheat oven to 500F. Check first to make sure the rack is placed low enough to allow plenty of room for the bird!

2. Rinse and dry the turkey, taking care to remove neck, giblets and anything else that may have been tucked into both cavities. Rub the outside of the bird with a little vegetable oil and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Put it on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.

3. Smash two of the garlic cloves with the side of a knife, and tuck one of each under the breast skin.

4. Put the rosemary and sage into the turkey's abdominal cavity. Put in the onion, carrot, celery and remaining two garlic cloves. (Optional: First heat these vegetables in the microwave in a bowl with a little water until they're aromatic, then add them to the cavity.)

5. Put the turkey in to roast. After 20 to 30 minutes at 500F (a period that, if your house is like ours, may be signaled by the smoke detectors going off), reduce heat to 350F. At this point, cover the breast portion with a square of lightly oiled aluminum foil; this will keep the breast skin from getting too dark as well as avoiding the white meat overcooking before the thigh meat is done. Baste if you wish, but in my experience it's not necessary. Best to keep the oven door closed and the heat in.

7. Roast for a total of about 2 hours for a 12-pound bird, but don't rely entirely on on the clock - it's best to use a meat thermometer. When the temperature at the middle of the breast reaches 160F, you're done. Remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

WINE MATCH: As I've discussed before, the fact that turkey has both light meat and dark meat makes it an interesting if not necessarily easy dish to match with wine, and the variety of trimmings on the festive holiday table can add to the challenge. It's arguable that this is not a time to be too geeky about food matching and simply open a bottle of something special to add to the festivity.

For the record, though, I've found that Pinot Noir or Beaujolais tend to work well, as does an off-dry Riesling if you prefer a white. Zinfandel, Rhone reds and Northern Italian reds also have their partisans, and we were exceptionally happy with this year's slightly off-the-wall choice, 1994 Chateau Musar from Lebanon.

ABOUT LEFTOVERS: Luckily, we both enjoy turkey and don't get bored with it during the days after a feast. Turkey sandwiches (maybe with a little cranberry sauce slathered on) or turkey soup made with rich stock from the pan drippings and carcass are fine; and it's easy and fun to substitute turkey for chicken or even veal in dishes ranging from turkey-and-eggplant pasta to Kung Pao turkey stir-fry to such Middle Eastern delights as turkey pilaf with almonds and pine nuts or Circassian turkey with a thick, garlicky chopped walnut sauce. If you've got creative leftover-turkey recipes, drop me a note at wine@wineloverspage.com. If there's enough response, I'll summarize them in a future article.

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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Potato-spinach gratin (Nov. 28)
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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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