No holiday is simpler than Thanksgiving. It’s just a big meal. There are thanks to be given, of course, but once that is dispensed with, it’s all about the food. No gifts to deal with, no eggs to hide, no costumes to put on, it’s just a big meal.
Which is to say there is a lot of pressure on the cook. The meal has to be good. There is a great deal of expectation that the day be the living embodiment of a Norman Rockwell painting. And sometimes, it doesn’t work out quite that way.
The possibilities for disaster are endless. Starting with a meal centering on a bird that is notoriously hard to cook, the impossible demands on oven time, the drunk uncle that always makes a scene and the unpleasant cousin who insists on ranting on about his obnoxious political views, it’s a wonder things don’t go wrong more often than they do.
There’s not much you can do about the interpersonal relationships. This is your family. You don’t get to pick the guest list. Seat your most obnoxious relatives with the deafest ones and make sure everyone always has their mouths full.
As far as that one drunk uncle that almost everyone seems to have one of, don’t wait too late in the day to eat. Go with more of a lunch so he has less time to get plastered and for goodness sake, get the food out fast. Food is your friend.
On that note, the worst possible food related disaster is forgetting to defrost the bird. Try really, really hard not to do that. Buy a fresh bird and head off the problem at the pass. But if you do find yourself with a big poultry shaped rock on Thanksgiving morning, submerse it in cold water and keep changing it. Do NOT try to cut corners with hot water. You’ll give the whole family botulism. When the bird feels pliable enough for surgery, spatchcock that big bird. It’s really just butterflying the bird or cutting out the backbone and pressing it flat so that it will cook faster. Depending on the size of the bird, you can save a couple of hours. Truthfully, sawing the backbone out of a somewhat frozen turkey is not the easiest task you will ever undertake but let your desperation and stress work for you to release some superhuman adrenalin. Go for it.
If the worst problem you have is a dry turkey, relax. They’re all dry. Nice guests just say they’re not. In this case, gravy is your friend. Just make sure you have enough gravy for everyone to slather the turkey really well.
If your gravy supply does not look up to the task of moistening that giant carcass on your table, a recipe follows for emergency gravy. Add any flavor enhancing ingredients you have lying around to zip it up. Wine and mushrooms are good options if you have them.
If, like Joy Billings, you inadvertently cook your turkey upside down and fail to take out the giblets because they are hiding and can’t be found, simply smile as Billings did and accept the compliments of the guest who has a big helping of turkey innards because he thought you meant to do it that way.
Hopefully, your desserts are all done or someone else is bringing them. This is not the day for a chocolate souffle and it is certainly NOT the day to try making a croquembouche for the first time. Stick with pie and let someone else do it.
Most likely you have enough sides that you don’t need to worry if any one of them goes wrong on you. So relax. Find something to be thankful for and remember that at the end of the day, it’s just a big chicken. A big dry chicken.
How to butterfly a turkey
Pat the turkey dry with paper towels, then place it breast-side-down on the cutting board. Holding it firmly with one hand, make a cut along one side of the backbone, starting down near where the thighs meet the tail. Continue cutting, working your way around the thigh joint until you’ve snipped through every rib bone and completely split the turkey up to the neck. Use your hands the spread the turkey open slightly. Make an identical cut along the other side of the backbone. This cut is a little trickier, so make sure not to get your fingers in the way of the blade. Using a clean dish towel or rag to hold on to the bird will make it easier to keep control.
There may or may not be a large excess hood of fat up near the neck. If it’s there, remove it. If you wish to make carving even easier, the wish bone can also be removed by making a thin incision with the tip of a paring knife or boning knife along both sides of it, and pulling it out with your fingers.
Turn the turkey over onto what once was its back, splaying its legs out in a manner that can only be described as inappropriate. Press down hard on the ridge of the breast bone. You should hear a couple of cracks, and the turkey should now rest flatter. Flatter is better for even cooking and crisper skin. Tuck the wing tips behind the breast. This step is not strictly necessary, but it’ll prevent your turkey from looking like it wants to give you a high five as it roasts.
Ready to Roast
Preheat the oven to 450°F, then line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy duty aluminum foil and cover it with a mix of roughly chopped onions, carrots, and celery, along with some thyme stems. These vegetables will not only add flavor to the drippings (which will then make it back into the gravy), but will also slowly release moisture to ensure that the pan drippings don’t scorch and set off your fire alarm.
Use the extra back bone pieces, giblets, and neck to enhance some store-bought or homemade chicken broth, along with a few more vegetables and aromatics. Brown the bones in a little bit of oil before adding the stock to give it a nice roasted flavor. After simmering for about 45 minutes while the turkey roasts, the broth will be deeply flavorful and intense. Cook a quarter cup of flour with a few tablespoons of butter until golden blond, then slowly whisk in the strained stock to make a great gravy.
Get Ready To Carve
If all went well, your turkey will be perfectly golden brown and crisp, its thighs coming to 165°F just as the breasts hit 150°F in 80 to 90 minutes. Once cooked, remove it from the oven, take the rack out of the baking sheet, add the pan drippings to your gravy, and let the turkey rest for about 20 minutes before starting to carve.
To begin carving, start by cutting off the first leg by slicing through the joint where the thigh meets the body. Next, find the joint between the thigh and the drumstick by rotating the drumstick back and forth. Cut through the joint with your knife, then repeat with the other leg. Remove the wings by locating the ball joint near the top of the breast and working the knife through it. The wings can be left whole or further separated into drumettes and flats by cutting through the first joint.
Hold the breast firmly in place with one hand (a clean kitchen towel can help if you have a slippery grip or fingers sensitive to heat), then slice down one side of the breast, using the tip of the knife to follow the contour of the bone. Continue using the tip of the knife so slowly work the meat away from the breast bone, pulling outwards at it with finger tips to separate the meat from the bone (again, a clean towel can help if you have sensitive fingers). As you continue to slice, the breast should fall away in one complete piece. Make sure you take the tenderloin along with it. Repeat for the other side. You now have two breast halves, two drumsticks, two thighs, four wing pieces, and one carcass from which to pick meat for leftovers and soup.
To continue cutting into serving pieces, slice each breast into even slices on a bias. Transfer to a warm serving platter. The hip bone is still attached to the back of the thighs and must be removed. To do this, pick up the flat bone from one side and shake it gently back and forth until the thigh bone pops out of its socket. Pry away the hip and save it along with the carcass for soup. Cut along one side of the thigh bone with the tip of your knife, removing as much meat as possible along that side. Repeat on the other side of the bone. Save the bone along with the rest of the bones for soup.
Slice the dark meat across its width into thin serving portions and add it to the warm platter. Don’t worry about the absence of a big roasted centerpiece. Your guests will be fascinated with the butterflied turkey and the carving process is total performance art. Don’t worry if you’re any good at it. It will be entertaining either way. Just move quickly before drunk uncle gets out of control.
If you need extra gravy and have exhausted all pan drippings, give this a try.
2 cups hot water
2 cubes chicken bouillon
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold water
In a microwave safe dish heat water and bouillon on high, stirring occasionally until just boiling.
In a small bowl combine the cornstarch and cold water and mix together; stir into the hot broth and cook on medium for about 1 minute, or until thick, stirring at 30 second intervals.
Nominate your favorite cook to share their love of food with readers of The Mount Airy News.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.