How to Make a Thanksgiving Turkey

How to Make a Thanksgiving Turkey

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Talk Turkey to Me

Make your own Traditions

By Tom Yates

What makes up our Thanksgiving traditions? The food? Our memories? Our families?

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My Thanksgiving traditions got off to a slow start. I don’t recall ever celebrating Thanksgiving in Europe as a child.  Frau Olga wouldn’t have thought to roast a turkey. It wasn’t her tradition.  She was simply happy to be alive and thankful to have escaped  communist controlled  Czechoslovakia to live safely with our family in Vienna. That was something to be thankful for. Was it worthy of a beautifully browned roasted turkey? Hardly. Never happened. Crispy fried schnitzel with cups of garnished consomme, maybe. Turkey? Not a chance.

After a few years in Austria, we moved to Africa. We were housed on an army base surrounded by 20′ concrete walls topped with swirling barbed wire to protect us from phantom enemies. Hot and sand-ridden, it was a far cry from the  Black Forest of Vienna. Ababa, my Ethiopian nanny, was bussed onto the army base every day (from the other side of the concrete wall) to care for our family.  She lived a very simple sparse life, but was always joyous, content, and thankful to have a job. I worshiped her.  Although she loved us dearly, we wouldn’t have asked her to roast a turkey for Thanksgiving.  Doro Wat with injera bread? Yep. Turkey?  In Africa?  Nope.

My Thanksgiving traditions started building  after my father retired from the army and we moved to Western Kentucky to live with my grandparents on their farm. Their farmhouse was perched on a hill, overlooking rolling fields, white picket fences, oil wells, and trees. With a hen house teetering against  a rickety smoked-ham shed, frightening  roosters freely roaming the grounds, and aggressive herds of cattle stampeding at whim, their farm was fascinating and horrifying. Because my grandmother spent every summer canning everything from her garden, her cellar housed what she needed for her part of the family Thanksgiving feast: canned green beans, dusty canned tomatoes, creepy twisted potatoes, bright fluorescent-green lime pickles, murky bread and butter pickles, and grayish canned corn.  

Even with a bountiful cellar, our family Thanksgiving dinners were potluck affairs at my grandparent’s house. Like clockwork, the extended family arrived toting all kinds of food. Her long kitchen counter would be lined end to end with our traditional family feast. All the food was grouped by likeness. The beige section featured stuffings, dressings, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn pones, biscuits, yeast rolls, and  several varieties of ground beef laden baked beans topped with sticky sweet gooey bacon. The green category consisted mostly of Campbell’s Soup casseroles.  Different versions of green bean and broccoli casseroles were lined up side by side as if they were to be judged for a county fair. Occasionally, an “other” casserole made an unexpected appearance.

At the farthest end of her kitchen counter, near the fresh lemonade, assortments of  green, orange, red, and yellow gelatin salads jiggled with crazy varieties of nuts, marshmallows, coconut, canned fruit, and whipped cream. They glowed from the sunlight streaming through  the lone kitchen window.

Every year, the Thanksgiving turkey was prepared by our designated turkey-cooking aunt.  She baked it overnight in a very low oven for 14 hours. A very, very low oven.  It was  tender and moist, but never brown. There wasn’t a hint of beautifully browned turkey skin. Was it moist and tender?  Yes. Was it pretty?  Uh, no.  The giblet gravy was the highlight of the meal for me. I was crazy about the hard boiled eggs suspended in thick brown gravy dotted with tender sliced livers, gizzards, and hearts. Being an offal kind of kid,  I loved that stuff. While everyone else picked around the organs, I scooped them out with righteous ferver.

Four years after we moved to Kentucky, my father married Marge. Our families merged into a blended family. Marge was a sophisticated townie who cooked beautifully. She brought her family’s Thanksgiving traditions to our table. They were much different than my grandmother’s traditions. Much different. Marge awoke very early on Thanksgiving mornings. She’d don her blue and white polka-dotted dress with matching navy heels and coordinating apron. Methodically, she would prepare our Thanksgiving meal from start to finish. From scratch. She never stressed, gliding through the kitchen like Giselle sans Albrecht.  She’d dirty every dish in the kitchen, plate everything on my mother’s  bone china serving platters, and graciously place the food around the table.  After closing the kitchen doors to shield the unyielding mess, she’d come to the table with such relaxed ease and precision, you’d have thought the entire meal had been prepared and air-dropped by the military. I admired that. She was my hero.

Marge made a killer turkey. Deeply roasted, tender, and moist. When sliced, the skin crackled.  I’d never seen or tasted anything like it. Her wonderful dressing, moist with crunchy edges, was equalled only by her smooth and rich giblet gravy dotted with organs and eggs. Creamed pearl onions (made with jarred Aunt Nellie onions), scalloped oysters, broccoli casserole, whipped potatoes, mashed yellow squash, and old school stuffed celery rounded out her meal. Without apology, she served sliced canned cranberry sauce over iceberg lettuce topped with dollops of mayonnaise.  Betty Crocker elegant. I adored it.

After the china had been carefully hand washed, she’d  gently pour hot steaming coffee  into tiny delicate mismatched porcelain cups and serve it with pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and Breyer’s Chocolate Chip Mint ice cream.

The routine never changed.  It was Thanksgiving.

After Marge passed away, we continued our family Thanksgiving traditions. My father insisted on it. Everything stayed the same. It had to. We kept her memory alive with our food (her food) for 7 years until my father died.

I haven’t been back for Thanksgiving since my father passed away, but it warms me to know that my family keeps their traditions alive in various towns with their expanded families and new generations.  Memory making. Tradition building.

Nowadays, we spend our day wrapped in flannel  pajamas, cocooned from the world, drinking bloody marys and screwdrivers.  We leisurely cook all day, happily enjoying the anticipation of our meal. No deadlines. No pressure. Just the two of us, bringing our individual family traditions together on Thanksgiving day.

Over the years, I’ve prepared our Thanksgiving turkeys every way imaginable; brined, herbed, larded with bacon, stuffed, unstuffed, and bagged. I’ve never ventured into world of deep fried turkey. The notion of deep frying a whole turkey in 1000 degree oil on our wooden deck next to our 130 year old wooden house makes me shiver. Nope.

Although the standards remain the same, we change things a bit up every year. I now use fresh pearl onions instead of jarred Aunt Nellie onions, creamed with soft melted brie, heavy cream, fresh nutmeg, and sherry. Either fresh oysters on the half shell or Oysters Rockefeller have replaced the familiar scalloped oysters.

How to Roast with Bacon

I was at the Farmer’s Market on a cool gray morning with low hanging clouds spitting a damp mist, and I was practically the only one there. I stopped by Bray’s Farm stand to chat with a friend. It was far from ideal market weather, but I picked up a few ripe yellow peaches.

After passing by familiar vendors on the way to my car, it happened. While marveling over wonderfully aromatic individually-bundled baby celery stalks from Elmwood Farm, I reached across the table and grabbed an acorn squash from a heaping basket. At that very moment, I crossed the line. I officially surrendered my lusty desires for vibrant fresh summer produce, replacing them with more languid yearnings for mellow soft-hued autumn flavors. Until then, I’d resisted the temptation by clinging to the final bright vestiges of summer. I finally acquiesced.

Inspired by that humble acorn squash, I was ready to roast a turkey.

Well……..kind of.

A dear friend recently gave us a pound of gorgeous bacon from her family’s farm.

After unfurling the bacon from its Not For Sale packaging, I overlapped several strips of the bacon on parchment paper before plopping a three pound boneless turkey breast on top of the bacon shingles, seasoning it with fresh rosemary, salt, and pepper.  I carefully pulled the bacon slices around the turkey breast, secured it with kitchen twine, and placed the larded breast into a roasting pan along with wedged candy onions and whole baby celery stalks.

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I sprinkled additional fresh rosemary, salt, and pepper over the bacon harness, poured a cup of chicken stock into the roasting pan, and slid the bacon-bundled turkey into a 350 degree oven to roast for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the internal temperature was 165 degrees.

While the turkey made merry in the oven, I sliced the acorn squash into quarters and removed the seeds.

After seasoning it with salt, pepper, and olive oil, I slid the squash into the oven to par-roast, uncovered,  for 20 minutes before pulling it out and dousing it with butter, brown sugar, orange zest, freshly squeezed orange juice, and fresh thyme sprigs.

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I covered the squash with aluminum foil and placed it back into the oven to roast/braise for an additional 45 minutes.  When the sqaush was thoroughly cooked, I pulled it from the oven and let it warm on the stovetop while the turkey finished roasting. The aromas wafting from our kitchen were ridiculous.  Turkey.  Bacon. Rosemary. Brown sugar. Squash. Heaven.

Eventually, I pulled the turkey from the oven and checked the temperature.  It was perfect.  The bacon had crisped and caramelized into a salty sweet aromatic bacon shell. I tented the turkey and let it rest for ten minutes.

Before slicing the turkey, I removed it to a cutting board, placed the roasting pan over medium heat, added a pinch of flour, and whisked together a quick pan sauce from the roasted turkey and bacon drippings.

Using the bacon slices as a guide, I sliced the turkey into medallions, drizzled them with pan gravy, and feathered fresh rosemary leaves over the top. I dropped the candied squash around the turkey and spooned the salad into small bowls, nestling them onto our plates.

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The turkey was incredibly moist and tender with succulent juices trapped and sealed within the crispy bacon skin.

While the bacon provided salty crunch, the oozing buttery sweet roasted acorn squash balanced it with soft earthy undertones.  It’s a new season at the market. One I’ll embrace with open arms.

How to Brine (and lacquer) a Turkey!

Even a mild brine plumps a bird with moisture and flavor. Bolstered by the abundance of local apple cider, I got apple happy.

After warming 14 cups Evans Orchard apple cider in a large stock pot over a medium flame, I added 1 1/2 cups  Country Rock sorghum, 1 1/2 cups Buffalo Trace bourbon, 6 cups water, 3 tablespoons black peppercorns, 3 bay leaves, 6 whole garlic cloves, 4 sprigs lemon thyme, and 1 cup kosher salt. When the sugar thoroughly dissolved into the mix, I pulled the brine from the heat and added 6 cups of ice to cool the brine to room temperature.

I lined a clean bucket with a large plastic bag and carefully poured the cooled brine into the bag.  After thoroughly rinsing a 12 pound all natural Amish turkey, I plunged it into the brine, placed a plate over the turkey to keep it submerged, tied the plastic bag together, and slid the turkey into the refrigerator to brine for 24 hours.

Roast.

I needed a shallow pan to allow the legs and thighs of the turkey to be exposed to as much circulating heat as possible, so I used a shallow (2″ deep) hotel pan. It was deep enough to hold the needed vegetables and liquid, but shallow enough for even heat distribution.

I pulled the turkey from refrigerator, disposed of the brine, rinsed the turkey under cold running water, patted it dry, and set it aside. For an added flavor boost, I combined 2 sticks softened unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage, 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary, 2 tablespoons chopped thyme, and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley before smearing it over the entire turkey. Using the tips of my fingers to loosen the skin from the flesh, I carefully slathered the remaining herbed butter under the skin of the breasts, thighs, and legs. After stuffing the cavity with sliced apples, onions, rosemary, sage, and thyme, I tied the legs together with kitchen twine.

In lieu of a rack, I placed celery stalks and large unpeeled carrots into the hotel pan and positioned the buttered turkey onto the vegetables before scattering 6 whole garlic cloves, 3 quartered Scott County red candy onions, and 4 peeled Casey County Winesap apples to the side. After adding 2 cups chicken stock, 1 cup apple cider, and 1 cup bourbon to the pan, I slid the turkey into a preheated 350 oven.

To baste or not to baste? I’m a baster. As long as the turkey is cooked to the correct temperature (internal temp 165 deepest part of the thigh), why not bathe the skin with the reduced fatty pan drippings? Basting the turkey roughly every 30 minutes, I covered the breast with aluminum foil after 1 hour to prevent over-browning and continued to baste while checking the internal temperature every 45 minutes or so.

Glaze.

I’m a sucker for a glaze.

It’s all about balance.

After reducing 2 cups apple cider by half, I added 3/4 cups sorghum, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1/2 cup bourbon, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, and 1/4 cup brown sugar. I lowered the heat and let the glaze bubble away until it was the consistency of…well…sorghum. So, think of it as an amplified boozy apple cider-infused sweet and tart version of sorghum.

Lacquer.

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When the turkey reached an internal temperature of 155 degrees (about 2 hours), I started painting every inch of the exposed skin and flesh with the molten sticky glaze.  When the turkey hit 165 degrees, I blasted to heat to 450 degrees, gave the bird a final slather, and popped it back into the oven to burnish the skin before pulling the turkey from the oven to rest for 30 minutes.

After reducing the strained pan drippings into a highly seasoned jus, I nestled the brushed mahogany lacquered turkey onto fresh greenery, feathered sage, and fresh bay leaves.

Full on savory, the apple cider and sorghum didn’t blast the turkey into a candied sugar bomb. The bold double punch of  brine and glaze combined to promote succulent, moist, and tender meat. While the bourbon added mellow smoky vanilla undertones, the acidic bolt of the apple cider vinegar tempered the fruity cider and soft bittersweet earthiness of the caramelized sorghum. Perfect.

Thanksgiving. Lacquered up.

We haven’t planned this year’s Thanksgiving meal…yet.  Whether we go old school, new school, or somewhere in between, the food will taste like home and remind us of all our Thanksgivings, families, and traditions.

The two of us will sit in our pajamas at my parents’ long dining room table, eat from my mother’s beautiful wheat-patterned German bone china,  pray our blessings, enjoy a few glasses of wine, and eat our Thanksgiving meal.

This article also appears on page 6-7 of the November 2016 printed issue of Ace. 

Chef Tom’s food column appears on page 11 of every Ace, and at aceweekly.com where he’ll be sharing more holiday traditions in the coming weeks.

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