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Recipes and Stories

26 November 2014 Mastering Thanksgiving XI—Turkey and Dressing

The cornbread, biscuits, and seasonings all tossed toghether for the dressing, awaiting its moistening dose of rich broth

If all has gone well and you’ve done enough basic prep by tomorrow, your only really big job will be the turkey and dressing. If you haven’t tried to roast a turkey in a year (or have never done it), relax: a turkey roasts just like a chicken – it just takes longer. Allow plenty of time and remember that it doesn’t have to look like those magazine covers.

• Attacking the frozen bird: If you purchased a frozen turkey and it’s still not thawed by tomorrow morning, unwrap it, remove the neck and giblet packet and COMPLETELY submerge it in COLD salted water (1 tablespoon kosher salt per quart). Salt speeds up thawing, keeps it juicy, and helps prevent bacterial growth. Never try to speed up thawing with warm water: salmonella will be tap-dancing on your bird. Cook it right away.

• Brining a turkey will indeed make it more tender and juicy, but it can be an unwieldy undertaking. It’s easiest done in a plastic brining bag, available at many supermarkets and kitchenware stores. Follow the directions that come with the bag and don’t try to adapt a cookbook brining formula to the bag.

• A couple of years ago “dry brining” became fashionable. Why we allow such ridiculous oxymorons into print is beyond me: not brining because that by definition is a wet process. It’s a foreshortened corning, or dry-salt curing. Salt and spices are rubbed into and sometimes under the skin and the bird is refrigerated at least overnight. Follow the directions of the recipe or the packaging of the “dry-brine” kit.

• Sometimes I loosen the breast skin, smear a little butter underneath, and then decoratively arrange fresh sage leaves across the breast.

• To stuff or not to stuff: the choice is yours. Stuffing adds flavor, and basting in the juices, is exceptionally moist and delicious, but it also slows down the cooking and can make the meat dry. I prefer dressing, and fill the bird’s cavity with moisture-rich aromatic vegetables and herbs – giving me the best of both worlds.

• If you stuff, heat the stuffing in a large skillet before putting it in the bird and cook the turkey the moment it’s stuffed. Never stuff and refrigerate it: this invites bacteria to come and have a party in your bird.

• Loosely spoon stuffing into the turkey to give it room to swell. Let it remain in the bird for 15 minutes after cooking, but then remove it ALL to a serving bowl.

• Roast at a high temperature, beginning at 450-500 Degrees F. for 20 minutes to sear the outside, then reduce the temperature in stages (see Damon Lee’s Favorite Roast Turkey, following). This makes a mess of the oven, but it’s worth it.

• Roast the bird mostly breast down. This makes it automatically “self-basting”. Start it breast up, rub well with fat after it is seared, and turn it breast down until it is nearly done (150 degrees on a meat thermometer), then turn it breast up to let the skin crisp and brown during the last bit of cooking.

• Have trouble flipping the bird or obliged to cook a big one that you can’t handle? Thickly rub the breast with butter and, after it is seared, cover ONLY the breast with buttered heavy-duty foil. Remove the foil during the last 20 minutes.

• Testing for doneness: Use a reliable “instant read” thermometer, available at any kitchenware store. Insert it into the thickest part of the inner thigh without touching bones. It’s safely done at 160 degrees, overdone at 170. If the bird is stuffed, the center of the stuffing should read 165 degrees. To test without a thermometer, pierce the thigh: the juices should run clear. If they’re red, it’s not done. If there are no juices, you’re doomed: it’s overcooked. Make lots of gravy.

• Cover leftovers well and refrigerate promptly, but let them cool first: don’t tightly cover and refrigerate hot food. That’s another sure bacterial party invitation.

• Use common sense: wash your hands immediately after handling raw poultry. Always scrub cutting boards, knives, and your hands with disinfectant before they touch anything that won’t be – or already is – cooked.

My Favorite Roast Turkey
Serves 8 to 12 (with plenty of leftovers)

1 small young fresh turkey, weighing about 12 pounds
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
4 large sprigs fresh sage, or 1 tablespoon or so crumbled dried sage
1 large onion, peeled and cut lengthwise into wedges
2 large or 3 medium leafy ribs celery, cut into 1-inch lengths (leave leafy tops whole)
Butter

1. Remove the neck and giblets from the cavity of the turkey and use them (except for the liver) in the broth pot (this can be done a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate turkey until ready to cook, but let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before cooking). Position a rack in lower third of the oven and preheat to 500° F. Wash the turkey inside and out with cold water and wipe it dry.

2. Rub the cavity well with salt and pepper. If using dried sage, rub this into cavity; simply put the fresh sage sprigs in the cavity with the onion and celery. Close with trussing needle and twine or small metal skewers. You may tie the legs together or not. Suit yourself. Rub the outside with butter. Choose a close fitting roasting pan fitted with a buttered rack and place turkey breast-side up on rack. (If you don’t have a rack, rub the pan bottom thickly with butter and put turkey directly on pan.

3. Roast in lower third of oven 20 minutes to sear skin. Rub with more butter and turn the bird breast down. (Use oven mitts and tongs if needed – it may not yet be too hot to handle.) Pour in enough broth or water to cover pan by ¼-inch.

4. Reduce heat to 400° degrees and roast, basting occasionally, if liked (basting isn’t necessary) about 1½ to 2 hours longer, turning it breast up for last 15 minutes, baste well, and roast until the skin is brown and the turkey is done. If skin is browning too fast, reduce heat to 375°. To test for doneness, see the notes above. Add more broth to the pan as needed to keep the roasting juices from drying out.

5. Remove turkey to a warm platter, loosely cover with foil, and let it rest no less than 15 and up to 30 minutes before carving.

Now, on to the dressing. If you haven’t made your cornbread yet, (or, if you’re not making cornbread dressing) cut up the bread so that it will get stale if that’s what you’re using), do that today. When I make the cornbread late, I crumble it into a big rimmed baking sheet and let it sit overnight.

If you usually stuff the bird, consider putting your stuffing into a covered dish and baste it several times with roasting juices while it bakes. Your turkey will be done quicker and you won’t be able to tell the difference.

Mama’s Sage and Onion Cornbread Dressing (Sort Of)

This is basically my mother’s dressing, but after studying a lot of historical recipes while writing Classical Southern Cooking, I began adding some of the seasonings that were once commonplace in the South, but had faded from use. If it says optional beside an ingredient, those are my additions.

Makes about 7 cups, serving 12

2 cups (about 2 medium) chopped yellow onions
1½ to 2 cups (about 4 large ribs) diced celery, to taste
3 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter
4 cups stale (day old) crumbled cornbread
4 cups stale but soft breadcrumbs, preferably from biscuits
1 tablespoon crumbled, dried sage (or 2 rounded tablespoons chopped fresh)
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater (optional)
The grated zest from 1 lemon (optional)
2 large eggs, well beaten (optional)
About 1½ to 2 cups turkey broth (or more if eggs are omitted)

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Put the onion, celery, and 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté until it is soft and transparent, but not colored. Turn off the heat.

2. Put both crumbled breads into a large bowl. Add the onions and celery, the sage, and salt and pepper to taste. I often add nutmeg and lemon zest. Toss until it is well mixed. Add eggs if using (these will make the dressing firmer and hold together when cut) and toss until crumbs are evenly coated. Moisten with broth until pretty wet, yet loose and slightly crumbly, not soggy.

3. Lightly butter a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish or pan that will hold it in a layer about 1-inch deep. Pour in the dressing and level it with a spatula. Dot top with remaining butter and bake until center is set and top golden brown, about 45 minutes.

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