Updated: Nov 24, 2022
“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” is not, in itself, an especially good reason for always doing something a certain way.
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Here at Danny’s Table we’re having a special feast. Forget everything you know about Thanksgiving dinner… well, almost everything. We’re still having turkey, and green bean casserole, and pureed yellowish-orange stuff, and pie, kind of. You’ll surely recognize the flavors, if not the dishes.
FIRST, THE BIRD–
While a golden-brown whole roasted turkey is certainly a majestic sight, it is time, I think, to finally acknowledge a glaring if heretofore unthinkable reality– at the risk of horrifying everyone from the trustees of the Norman Rockwell estate to the time-and-a-half Thanksgiving Day staff at the Butterball Hotline, turkeys are not really designed to be roasted whole! That’s because white (breast) meat cooks much differently than does dark (leg) meat, and they fairly cry out for very different cooking methods. Every year we hear of people injecting and brining and tenting and roasting their turkeys in various yoga poses in a vain effort to get these two very different types of meat to cook identically… never happens, never will. Stay with me here, keep your mind open, and I promise you delicious results.
But first we must buy the bird. In terms of naturalness, turkeys run the gamut– at one extreme we find flightless genetic Frankensteins cruelly reared in small cages and treated with all kinds of artificial flavor components, some of which ostensibly keep the breast from drying out in your oven. At the other extreme you don camouflage face paint and hunt down a wild turkey. I’m guessing that your choice, like mine, will fall somewhere between these options.
This is what I’ve used for my recipe tests–
A huge step up from the Walmart Butterball is the $2.79/lb. turkey that’s not all shot full of chemicals and crap… not bad, especially as compared to a free-range, air-chilled (no retained water) heritage breed turkey that you can acquire for a mere $18+/lb from the online gourmet purveyor D’Artagnan.
We start our bird on the day before Thanksgiving, and the first thing we do is dismember it. (A store butcher should do this if you ask nicely.) We want to keep both sides of the breast together on the bone. Leave the drumsticks attached to the thighs if you wish to roast the dark meat; otherwise separate them. To cook the breast, we use a technique partially based on a classic French recipe known as Bresse-Style Poached Roasted Turkey.
If you happen to have 2 quarts of turkey stock in your freezer from your last turkey, great; if not, you'll need to make some. Arrange the backbone, neck bone, and wings on a bed of sliced yellow onions and roast in a 375º oven until well browned. (I occasionally purchase and freeze extra turkey necks for this purpose.) Add the body parts and onions to a large stockpot with a pair each of coarsely chopped carrots and celery sticks and a couple of bay leaves. Simmer for an hour or so until you have a flavorful stock. While this is happening you can start the arduous process of browning (not caramelizing) 3 medium onions for the thigh recipe.
When your stock is sufficiently rich, leave the veggies but remove the bones (long tongs come in handy) and add 1 Tablespoon each salt and brown sugar, a teaspoon of Bell’s Seasoning, and a pair of bay leaves. Raise it to a rollicking boil. Add the breast, and the boil should immediately subside. Reduce the heat to low and poach for 45 minutes.
DO NOT EVER allow the pot to actually boil! Keep it at or below a low simmer, or the meat will quickly and permanently toughen. (I like my glass lid for this step.) After your 45-minute timer goes off, check the internal temperature of the breast meat. The USDA strongly suggests cooking breast meat to 165º; many a recipe, however, suggests cooking it to 150º, turning off the heat, and then letting the temperature "coast" upward. Because we re-heat the breast at service time, I actually stopped at 125º with excellent results. Whatever your preference, remove the pot from heat and let it sit. When it is cool enough, put it in the fridge and keep the breast in the stock overnight.
And now the thighs… if you wish to roast them, do so with the drumsticks attached in a gentle 325º oven on Thursday. Dark meat is far more forgiving than white; you’ll use far less oven space than would a whole bird, and your house will smell like Thanksgiving should. However, if you want a foolproof and delicious treat, braise them Osso Buco-style. Truth be told, I personally invented this dish… then again, so did a lot of other people, because it’s really a no-brainer. That’s why all the recipes are pretty much the same. Mine uses only the thighs, as braising turkey drumsticks turns them into an unappetizing snarl of inedible white tendons after the meat slips away.
Pre-heat your oven to 325º, the magic temperature for braising. Brown the thighs on both sides in grapeseed oil. This is messy and smoky, but necessary. Try to keep the skin intact by using sufficient oil.
For a pair of thighs, finely dice 1½ cups each carrots and celery. (You already have the 3 onions all browned, right?) You’ll also need 3 or so garlic cloves, coarsely chopped. Saute the carrots in grapeseed oil until they become fragrant. Add the celery and garlic and cook briefly. Combine carrot/celery/garlic mixture with half a 14 oz. can (more or less) of petite diced tomatoes and the browned onions, and add to your Dutch oven.
Add the browned thighs. Steal two cups of stock from the pot with the breasts, replacing with water if necessary. In a medium saucepan, simmer the stock with an added glass of red wine and a teaspoon or more of demi-glace. (This link is for the gluten-free version.) When the demi-glace is thoroughly dissolved, add to the Dutch oven with a couple of bay leaves and just a little salt and pepper. (You can add more later.)
Braise for 3 hours and then allow to cool for an hour. The thigh bones should slip out easily without disturbing the meat. Refrigerate overnight.
Now all the hard work is done. On Thursday, roast the breasts in a 400º oven to an internal temperature of at least 150º. Allow to rest, then slice the breasts as thinly as practicable, using a very sharp knife. Place the sliced breast meat in an aluminum foil roasting pan. Half an hour before serving time, boil some stock, add to the pan, and cover with foil. Hold in a 200º oven until service. Transfer to a serving platter and slather with your best gravy if desired. Meanwhile, slice the braised thighs. Correct the seasoning of the now soup-like braising veggies as needed, add the sliced thighs, and gently heat it all up. (You can do this right in the Dutch oven and then transfer it to a nice clean serving dish.)
And what about the drumsticks? Well, you can roast them separately… down south they smoke them to great effect… and, you perhaps should know, wild turkey hunters tend to just leave them for the foxes. I have found that drumsticks from large turkeys roast perfectly well, but the smallish ones are hardly worth the trouble and usually wind up in my stockpot.
NEXT– THAT GREEN BEAN THING
Long after my grandmother had solidified her Thanksgiving menu, the iconic green bean casserole became a Thanksgiving staple on tables other than ours. The Campbell Soup Company invented it in the 1950’s after they figured out that people often used their Cream of Mushroom Soup as an ingredient in comfort foods-- so commonly in Minnesota that this particular soup became known as "Lutheran Binder." Campbell's efforts at creating a new staple were hugely successful-- this green bean casserole currently graces some 20 million American tables every November.
The traditional version, simple to cook and certainly soothing to palate and soul, is an easy-to-prepare combination of canned green beans, canned cream of (Campbell's) mushroom soup, and canned “French-fried” onions. It provides a measure of nutritional cover as technically a “green vegetable,” a category unapologetically absent from my grandmother’s annual spread.
Modernizing this dish to current sensibilities seems like low-hanging fruit to many a chef. Martha Stewart published this intriguing version. I’m not saying mine is better, but here’s what I came up with–
Large Bag (2 lbs.) Trimmed Fresh Green Beans
20 oz. Package of “Baby Bella” Mushrooms
2 Cups Heavy Cream
3 oz. Malmsey (or Malvasia) Madeira
2 Large Sweet Onions
It doesn’t need to be BLANDY’S brand of Madeira, but it absolutely needs to be Malmsey, a.k.a Malvasia.
Blanch the beans, then toss with clarified butter and roast them until they become tender and start to shrivel. While that’s happening, coarsely chop the onions and saute them in clarified butter in a pot or large saucepan. When they begin to brown, add mushrooms and continue stirring. When the mushrooms are nicely cooked, add the Madeira and keep stirring. Add 2 cups of heavy cream to a separate pan and reduce by half, being careful to keep it from boiling over. Add reduced cream to onion/mushroom/Madeira mixture. Add salt and pepper as desired, then combine with beans and then transfer to an appropriately-sized Pyrex dish.
Up to this point you can do everything the day before. For service, I recommend microwaving the casserole and then browning the top just prior to service. When done, it should look like this–
AND FINALLY, A YELLOW VEGGIE–
Puree of one root vegetable or another has long been a staple on the Thanksgiving table. My grandmother made fabulous mashed turnips. Down south they love their sweet potatoes… I’m not sure where, when, or how marshmallows ever found their way into that dish. The Silver Palate Cookbook popularized sweet potato & carrot puree, though I don’t think they actually invented it.
I’ve taken my grandmother’s mashed steamed turnips and combined it with mashed roasted butternut squash, providing the dense richness of one with the snappy bitterness of the other to create a whole that is better than either component alone… kind of like the way the great Bordeaux estates marry their sharp and crisp Sauvignon Blanc with fat and rich Semillon to create a balanced and well-rounded white. I use a ton of butter like my grandmother; I take a cue from The Silver Palate and jazz it up with nutmeg (and a touch of ginger) and I add a splash of heavy cream to smooth it out a little and a similar quantity of dark amber maple syrup from nearby to put it over the top.
NEXT– THANKSGIVING WINES & DESSERTS