43 - Roast Turkey

For decades I have been a devotee of the high speed/high temperature turkey-roasting method that I clipped from the New York Times in 1973. In that now crumbling yellow newsprint, John and Karen Hess convinced me that for the small price of basting every fifteen minutes (as well as two very dramatic turkey flips) we could have a splendid turkey, cooked to a golden brown turn in less than three hours. I suspect I made that first high-speed recipe for my parents who drove from New Jersey to our apartment in Somerville, but alas, although that should have been a momentous occasion—relatively young bride cooking in her own home for her parents--,I cannot conjure that meal. Luckily, there are scores of other turkeys in the memory bank to fill the gap. I used to search for the biggest turkey in the universe that we could squeeze into our oven—maybe 26 or 27 pounds--but now, I tend to go for something in the range of 10-15 pounds, still more than enough.
The Thanksgiving turkeys that loom largest in memory or those we ate at our home on Breeze Avenue in Venice. Sometimes it was to serve multitudes--but even so--it was probably three times what we needed.

Here’s the recipe—with various additions and subtractions made over the years. In addition to my original golden brown 1973 clipping, I have a page torn from the New York Times Magazine at turn of this century by Jonathan Reynolds, which I don’t believe I’ve ever really used, but looking at it now, I see I clipped it because it was an endorsement (with brining) of my age-old favorite.

We began brining in the late 90’s. Although it doesn’t involve actual cooking, I suspect it does satisfy part of my long-ago urge to have the turkey underway the night before we actually eat it. This soaking is to help the breast stay moist while the dark meat cooks thoroughly. Although I’d always felt that our high temperature method solved that problem, I have not been able to resist this extra step. As our turkeys, i.e. the turkeys we buy, have grown smaller over the years, we no longer need a swimming pool to brine our turkey and the task is not quite so daunting.

The Brining:
Mix a cup or two of kosher salt in two or three gallons of water until dissolved. I’ve found it easier to do this in a big plastic bag, which I put in a large bowl or bucket. The goal is to squeeze it into the refrigerator, but if we’re in a cold enough clime, we can manage keeping it out, as well.

In the morning, rinse the turkey (otherwise it can end up on the salty side—dry off—and put in the fridge until an hour or so before cooking.

The Broth:

Put the turkey neck and giblets (which you removed before brining) into a sauce pan. At this point, for a morning snack, you can sauté the liver in butter and eat it immediately!

Add an onion cut into quarters, a roughly chopped carrot or two, a stalk of celery, a big handful of parsley and a bay leaf. Add three of four cups of water—bring to a boil, and then turn down to a very slow simmer, while you proceed.

The Stuffing:

I’m not quite sure why, but we departed years ago from the Hess sausage recipe.

The night before cooking the turkey, make corn bread. Combined with the brining, this satisfies my need to start the turkey way in advance. Follow recipes for any simple corn bread. Cut it up to facilitate drying (i.e. make it stale).

The turkey should be out of the refrigerator about an hour before cooking—so you might want to take it out before you leap into the stuffing:

Cut the corn bread into one inch cubes (you can be very casual here—if you prefer to crumble—you can go that route.) Put bread in large bowl.

Melt ½ stick of butter
Sauté 1 cup sliced onions. After the onions have cooked a bit add ½ cup finely sliced celery. When vegetables are soft, add to bread.

Then add:
1 cup chopped dried fruit—apples, apricots, rains, cranberries, whatever…
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste.

If I’m taking the vegetarian path (for extra stuffing not cooked in turkey) and the mixture isn’t moist enough—I’ll add more butter or water to part of the stuffing.

The stuffing that goes in the turkey will absorb turkey juices—but if the broth has been cooking a while—I might add some of that as well.

At some point, turn on the oven to pre-heat at 450 degrees.

Into the Oven:

When the turkey is happily stuffed, rub it all over with a softened stick of butter (any extra butter can go in the pan). Add salt and pepper.

Although I have made this bird scores of times, I never quite believe how quickly it cooks—so I will repeat the instructions here—a 12-14 pound bird, should be done in about two and a half hours, a 15-16 pounder, in three. When we made the gigantic birds—25 pounders—they might take 3 ½ hours—but I’d advise staying away from those big ones.

Put the turkey, on its side, in a roasting pan just large enough to hold it and slide into oven.

After about fifteen minutes turn the bird to its other side—you should try not to tear the skin—many recipes discuss a V shaped rack—but since I’ve never known what that is—and since the Hesses cautioned against it—I have always just gone with the straight pan. On to the basting!

I’ve always used the classic turkey baster, and faithfully baste every fifteen minutes. When you think you're about half-way through--after an hour or so--depending on the size of your bird, you should flip it one more time. If you get nervous (which I often do) and feel that the cooking is going too quickly, i.e. if it looks like the juices are burning in the pan, you can turn the heat down--to 400, 375, whatever. You have to be brave. You could also do a little research--needless to say, the degree of heat, length of cooking, etc. are all subjects of much internet debate. You basically have to trust yourself.

When the turkey is golden brown—or deeper brown—and you do whatever tricks you need to ensure it’s doneness—perhaps a thermometer deep in the thigh, juice running clear when pierced with a knife—various incantations, remove from oven—take it out of pan. While the turkey is resting—prior to slicing—put the pan on top of the stove—skim off some of the fat—then you can add some add the stock that has been simmering for hours. Bring to a boil, scraping off the bits of meat and skin from the bottom—let it reduce, add salt and pepper —and voila—a perfect light gravy.

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