I tossed my Queen of Christmas crown over to my eldest daughter, our family attorney. She’s got the babies and the career, so like a good mother, I’ve let her take on the joys of bouncing holiday hoopla, family, friends and career. I say this with impunity because it’s how tradition rolls. (Why do I not hear my daughter laughing out loud?????)
However, my Queen of the Roasted Turkey crown remains intact. Yes, I am the Queen of Roasted Turkeys—and chicken too.
This is a quantum leap from my vegetarian days and the times I forced the entire family to chow-down on my famous vegetarian walnut loaf for holiday dinners. Looking back, I’d bet the kids’ grandfather had their grandmother roast a turkey for dessert when they returned home. But in my defense, my walnut loaves beat the trusses off just about any turkey prepared by other Queens of Christmas. Fortunately, their gravy always saved the turkey slices from being confused with turkey jerky.
Time and age jerked my taste buds back to the flesh. So, while I bore the Queen of Christmas crown (which includes Thanksgiving), I had to learn how to cook a turkey.
Today, I don’t even serve gravy to coat the white breast meat, because my roasted turkeys spew juices like a flood at the first razor-sharp incision into the perfectly roasted bird.
It might have been Sunset Magazine that inspired a jewel into my imaginary crown, when the night before Thanksgiving I ground bell peppers and onions into a paste and slipped the green mix under the turkey’s skin. I remember chef daughter, who was 7-years-old at the time, watching intensely and querying me what it felt like sticking my hand between the meat the flesh. “It’s cold,” I answered while exploring the possibilities of this technique. The next step included coating the exterior flesh with Kosher salt, and letting the bird sit in the fridge all night.
“Now, when you roast a turkey, cook it at 300° for 8 to 9 hours,” instructed my godmother, the Queen of Fried Chicken, but not of roasted turkey. For 8-hours roasting turkey wafted through the house seducing our senses. The seduction succeeded, but if it wasn’t for my godmother’s perfect gravy, I could have taken the thinly sliced breast meat, rolled it out, gave it another hour or so to complete the drying processes, and then used it for my holiday note cards. Fortunately her trimmings were heavenly.
Last year when I hauled a turkey and the fixings to my 95-year-old aunt’s house for the feast, she freaked out because it was 7 a.m., she had set her oven to 300 degrees and “the turkey will never be ready for 6 o’clock dinner if we don’t get it in now,” she worried. I withered at the thought.
Back to that bell pepper and onion paste infused bird of years past: The magazine’s recipe said to set my oven at 450°, insert the turkey then reset the oven to 350°, calculate about 25 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird. When the bird reached 185° it’s done.
It was good. But, if I didn’t have some gravy, it would have been just okay.
So I changed the recipe. Here’s what I do. Overnight I brine the bird in iced water. If it’s an obese model, I sanitize my sink, fill it with ice and tons of Kosher salt, place the bird on the ice and fill the sink until water completely covers the meat. I then cover the sink for a plethora of reasons…but mostly to keep my cat from sampling the goods while we sleep.
Brining is one secret to a juicy bird, but I do more. I create assorted pastes each year, depending on my dinner theme (spicy, traditional, New Mexican, Native, or Californian), and slather it under the turkey’s skin. A generous amount of olive oil coats every single inch of that gobbler, and then I give it a new coat. Well, it’s not a coat, but a thick layer of salt, pepper, garlic powder and whatever spices inspire me at the moment. When it is no longer a naked beast, it goes into a 450° oven for about 15 minutes. I reduce the heat to 375°, pour another glass of brandy, and continue watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the tube.
I always stuff my bird (and that’s a whole other story), so I guesstimate 25 minutes a pound. But what I watch is a real meat thermometer. (The pre-inserted pop-up thermometers suck. But if you like paper-dry turkey meat, then trust the lousy piece of plastic in your bird and let the men run around squawking, “Is the turkey happy yet?”) When my trusty, tried and true meat thermometer reads 165°-170° I play with the turkey’s leg and check for looseness and if it freely moves, I yell for spouse to remove the bird. I cover it with foil and let sit.
By now, spouse has opened a really good Syrah which I sip while finishing up the meal knowing that the meal’s showcase will continue to cook and reach a safe 175°–but, truthfully, I’ve served many a juicy turkey at 170°.
So, do you want to know about my fabulous dressings? To be continued.