Culinary Adventures with Turkey
The recent purchase of an 18.5-pound turkey turned into a choose-your-own-adventure culinary journey. This purchase was not for a traditional Thanksgiving gathering or to stash away in the freezer in anticipation of Christmas Eve dinner, a meal that in my family is headlined by a fragrant and juicy bird, flavored with green apples, dry Spanish Sherry, and rosemary. The purchase was simply due to the abundance of this versatile protein during the fall and winter months, my love for this often ill-treated meat and the desire to showcase its versatility.
The easiest path–and least interesting–would have been to simply roast the turkey whole. Maybe get a little wild with a spicy dry rub or a bourbon-spiked brine. But honestly, I was up for something a little more exciting; even the basting, checking the leg versus breast over-cooking potential getting aluminum foil involved to prevent this over-cooking, etc, didn’t seem like compelling sequences.
A far more interesting storyline for this bird is to take a knife to it, break it apart and get the most out of those 18.5 pounds. In a few minutes, with a sharp boning knife and a clean kitchen countertop covered in plastic wrap (unless you own a very large cutting board), this one-trick bird can become five separate culinary specialties.
The wings were broken down into their thirds, with the meatless tips saved for stock, coated in a fresh herb and yogurt marinade and quickly roasted – dinner does not get easier than this. The legs and thighs were given a French treatment and slowly confit in lard, scented with shallots, garlic and rosemary. This very old method of cooking–poaching in rendered animal fat–also serves as a method of preservation when the meat is stored covered in the cooking fat in the fridge. It will keep easily for a month and in the freezer until there is need for them. My own need for them will not be until Christmas, when the tender dark meat is likely to become filling for tamales.
The breasts were perhaps the most involved of the storylines, being brined, dry rubbed, oven smoked and finally steamed to turn it into pastrami. This multi-day process may sound high maintenance, but thankfully none of these processes require much attention once started, similar to the slowly simmering turkey stock that resulted from the carcass. My method included pan-roasting the bones and aromatic vegetables and deglazing with red wine, which results in a richly colored stock. I continued by slowly reducing over a long span of time, adding more cold water and reducing again. The final bit of adventure, once the pastrami is smoking in the oven, the confit legs cooling in melted lard, and the stock strained, was to make soup out of the turkey neck and giblets. Lightly browned in a saucepan, and gently simmered until tender, enriched with carrots, celery, onions and rice, it makes for a beautiful meal for two.
The following recipes are all based on an 18.5-pound turkey, utilizing both wings, legs and breasts in them.
Herb and yogurt marinated turkey wings
2 cups plain yogurt
1 cup loosely packed chopped cilantro
⅓ cup loosely packed mint
2 serranos, stems removed
1 tablespoon roughly chopped ginger
2 garlic cloves
Place all ingredients in a food processor and puree until evenly blended. Cut the turkey wings at each joint, reserving the tips for stock. Place the wings and marinade in a gallon size ziplock bag, making sure the wings are well coated. Marinate for a minimum of six hours, and as long as overnight. Pull from marinade, discarding it. Pat the turkey dry, season with salt and pepper, and lightly drizzle with olive oil. Place on an aluminum lined baking sheet and cook at 450°F until the skin is golden brown, and the turkey is cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.
Confit Turkey Legs and Thighs
6 pounds lard
2 shallots, peeled and cut in half
6 cloves garlic, crushed
3-4 sprigs rosemary
2 bay leaves
Season the turkey legs generously with kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Refrigerate overnight. Use a heavy bottomed stock pot or dutch oven just large enough to hold the legs in a single layer, and deep enough to hold enough melted lard to cover them completely. Melt a large dollop of the lard over medium-high heat. Place the turkey legs skin side down, and sear until golden brown. Flip the legs over, add the shallots and garlic, and begin adding the lard. Once enough lard is melted to completely cover the legs, add the rosemary and bay leaves, and place in a 300°F oven in the center rack. Cook for approximately one and half hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Cool at room temperature. If storing for later use, transfer the turkey legs to a container deep enough to hold enough lard to keep the legs completely submerged. This is crucial to ensure the meat does not spoil. Place the legs in the container, and strain the lard over them. Refrigerate until the lard solidifies, and is completely cool. Wrap tightly, being sure to date the container if storing for a long period of time.
Oven-Smoked Turkey Breast Pastrami
For the brine
1 gallon water
1 ¼ cup kosher salt
⅓ cup packed dark brown sugar, preferably organic
2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
1 tablespoons cracked black peppercorn
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon dry thyme
1 teaspoon dry marjoram
1 head garlic, cut in half and lightly crushed
3 bay leaves
For the dry rub
2 tablespoons black peppercorn
2 tablespoons coriander seed
To smoke and steam the turkey
A roasting pan with an elevated rack
3 sheets of aluminum foil, 18” wide and as long as needed to fit the pan
4 cups hickory or mesquite wood chips, soaked overnight
Place half the water and the remaining ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Place the remaining half gallon of water, making sure it is cold – or half a gallon ice – in a container large enough to hold all the brine and the turkey breasts. Pour the hot brine into the container, and allow the brine to cool to below 100°F before adding the turkey breasts to it, making sure the breasts are completely submerged. Refrigerate and brine for 36 hours.
Pull the meat from the brine, discarding it, and lightly rinse the breasts with cold water.
Pat the surface dry, and place on a baking sheet fitted with a cooling rack. Refrigerate again and allow to rest overnight. This resting period allows the flavors introduced during the brining process to distribute evenly throughout the meat, and for the surface to dry, which allows the smoke to stick to the surface.
Grind the black peppercorn and coriander seed in a coffee or spice grinder, looking for a medium coarse grind. Generously coat the meat’s surface with the pepper coriander mix. Allow to rest for a minimum of one hour at room temperature. In the mean time, line the roasting pan with two sheets of aluminum foil, overlapping by one inch, and making them long enough to form a smoking tent over the pan. Spread the wood chips evenly on the pan, place the rack in the pan, making sure it is at least 1 ½” from the bottom of the pan, and place the turkey breasts on the rack, making sure they are not touching. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Place the roasting pan over two burners on the stovetop, and turn on to medium-high heat. Keep on the stove until smoke begins to form. Move the roasting pan to the oven, placing on the lowest rack. Smoke in the oven until the thickest portion of the breast reaches an internal temperature of 140°F, approximately 3-4 hours.
Remove from the oven, and remove the breasts, discarding the wood chips and smoking tent. Raise oven temperature to 325°F. Clean out the pan completely, and place the breasts, skin side up, and enough hot water to come up halfway at the thickest point of the breast. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil, and return to the lowest rack of the oven. Steam until the meat is fork tender, approximately 3 hours.
When ready to serve, slice the meat against the grain and serve with the cooking liquid, after straining.