Culinary experiments are rarely a good thing when guests will be sitting down to eat.
Most of the time.
This Thanksgiving I caught myself paying undue attention to recipes and cooking tips in the days leading up to the annual Day of Gratitude. It was not that I was looking for recipes; the menu was firm, all but etched in stone. It was not that I was intimidated by the prospect of cooking the bird; au contraire, I am the Queen of Roasted Fowl.
No, I blame the Today Show.
One morning, Giada de Laurentiis offered up tiny cheese cakes baked in a minimuffin pan. What a good idea, I thought, forgetting that I find her an abomination. For years her décolleté tops and beauty-queen rictus of a grin have irked me. Then there is her eccentric pronunciation of “pancetta.” Giada’s conviction that anything can be improved by the addition of chocolate is further proof that her mouth is a few thousand tastebuds shy of a palate. At any rate, I pulled the recipe from the Today Show website. Hmmm. Replace the chocolate cookies with graham crackers; use a teaspoon of vanilla and the tiniest pinch of lemon zest instead of the heavy-handed use of orange zest; glaze the finished minicakes with strawberry, apricot or blueberry jam. No problem, I thought. This could work and I’m pretty sure everyone likes cheesecake.
Well of course there was a problem: extraction from the pan. The darned things don’t “pop” out with the slight pressure of a knife. They stick firmly to the bottom of the pan and the mangled removals look pretty pathetic on the serving plate. Thank heavens that Giada’s proportions yielded me only fourteen sorry bits.
I think I know how to solve the problems. I will use paper liners and quadruple the recipe. Instead of a twelve misshapen little dabs I am pretty sure I will be able to lay out two dozen delicious little mouthfuls.
Then there was Tyler Florence. Tyler pitched a feast that included exotic creamed spinach, spuds, dressing, gravy and turkey roasted with fresh herbs. The sides offered no allure; neither did the turkey recipe since I always roast my gobbler with fresh herbs. No, what I noticed was that Tyler, like so many others, advocated butchering the bird so that white and dark meat could both be done to a turn.
“Use your poultry shears,” he said, “it’s easy!”
“Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and you’ll get a perfectly roasted turkey in an hour and a half,” he said.
The reason I liked his method—apart from the reduction of cooking time by at least ninety minutes—was that it preserves the wings. All the other forms of disassembly I have seen sacrificed them. I don’t sacrifice the wings; the arms of the bird are my private reserve. Dad and Doffy battled for the pope’s nose; Nannie got the oysters; there surely were family members who negotiated for the drumsticks. I, however, find nothing more perfect than the sweet crunch of browned skin stretched taut over every bone from humerus, radius and ulna to metacarpals and third digit.
Moreover, wedging two half-birds into the roasting pan solved one problem.
In previous years, wrangling the Butterball has been something of a hassle. Unlike a roasting chicken, a turkey cannot be installed on an upright rack and still fit under the closed lid of the gas grill where I bring my poultry to perfection. To get the back skin properly done, therefore, turkey has to start tummy down and be flopped over after about forty minutes. Generally this means slopping precious juices all over the place, and mostly out of the pan.
Last year we stopped talking about ordering a free-range turkey from Rumbleway Farm over in Cecil County and got it done. An “heirloom” turkey, as they designate their heritage breed, has only the most superficial resemblance to a factory-raised Broad-Breasted White that comes as an icy rock from the grocery store. Mr. Rumble, of course, is blessed with superior flavor and incomparable meaty reality. However he is also a long, tall athlete rather than an obese lazybones. Last year, like a baby destined for basketball stardom, his feet extended substantially beyond the end of his cradle.
And speaking of bones. An article in the Baltimore Sun mentions the sturdiness of the leg bones of a heritage turkey. (This piece, by the way, provided way more information than I really wanted about that moment that follows their last day on the farm and precedes my arrival to collect my vacuum-packed gobbler.) We started with a set of poultry shears and after five minutes had gotten barely past the tail. We moved on to the heavy serrated knife and five more minutes of sawing severed another inch or so of backbone from the thigh. My Dear One then went to the toolshed and fetched the pruning saw, a curved and menacing, toothed blade around eighteen inches long. Success! The length of the saw made it a bit awkward to use, and one had to be certain where all fingers were at all times, but it worked. Up one edge of the spine I went, then down the other. After that, the cut down the breast was a breeze. My Dear One scrubbed the saw, rinsed and dried it, resheathed the blade and returned it to the shed.
I gave Mr. Rumble a sprinkling of salt and pepper and nestled him into his bed of rosemary, thyme and sage. Most of a stick of softened butter went under the skin and the rest was smeared across his magnificent physique. A slosh of white wine completed preparation. I set the disposable foil pan—the largest the grocery store had to offer and it was barely big enough—on a cookie sheet and put the whole shebang on the grill. Almost as an afterthought I hacked the backbone in half and tossed it, the neck and the giblets (all but the liver) into a bread pan. I drizzled olive oil over the scraps and tucked the pan into the narrow space that remained on the grill. The drippings from the turkey and scrap pans produced a killer gravy, if I do say so myself.
Everything else—dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, roasted squash and apples, and Lithuanian sausage and sauerkraut—tasted as they do every year: delicious. The blueberry pie and white cupcakes with chocolate frosting (a grandchild’s request) more than made up for the cheesecake failure.
But trying out new recipes on guests is still a bad idea.