Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ben Franklin's National Bird

Ben Franklin, my librarian hero, and the oldest father of our country, was said to have championed the humble turkey as the national bird. Although it lost the official fight, I'd like to honor his wishes and toast to this Independence Day in the true Pilgrim style. As I sit here typing this on Cape Cod, where lightning is striking houses and clam boats all over the place, and simply majestic turkey lives just up the road at the farm, I'd like to take a moment to honor the glorious fourth by telling you about my own turkey triumph.

For a long time now, I've been a fervent fan of DiPaola Turkey Farm, that bunch always grilling spicy sausage at farmers markets all over town. Their sausage is excellent, their soup parts are very reasonable, and they raise their turkeys sustainably.

Last week, I splurged and left packaged wings and necks far behind. I got myself a whole turkey. I was inspired by several things:

First, my love of bigger and better in all forms. Who wants to be un-American?

Second, Kenny Shopsin's book Eat Me, where he speaks lovingly of roasting a daily turkey in the days when Shopsin's was a grocery store. That just tweaked some primal need to turkey-roast in me, and released that need from its usual November time-trap.

Third, the encouragement of friends. Stacey roasted a turkey breast from DiPaola the week before, and raved until I just couldn't be left out. (I actually went planning to buy a breast, but switched the plan when I saw how small the price differential was between bone in breast and full 12-lb turkey, and realized how much I wanted to do the whole bird anyway.

And, fourth, the love of the challenge. Due to the nature of how my family celebrates Thanksgiving, I have never actually roasted a turkey before, or even really been party to any part of the roasting process until last year. My grandmother's garlic infused, apricot-nectar basted turkey is outstanding, but it's usually portioned before I even appear in town. Last year, I helped my mother with her new project, a 'Judy turkey,' named for Judy Rogers of the Zuni cafe, and pre-salted in what has become Rogers' signature approach to meats. By helped, I mean looked at while it was in the oven.

Clearly the time had come for me to grow up and roast my own turkey. I hoped it would be at least reasonably cost efficient as well. I tried very hard to demystify the process, which often gets whipped into a frenzy of complication around Thanksgiving, and which some people regard with the awed fear more proper to the negotiation of international climate change treaties. If this worked, I wanted to feel comfortable roasting turkey on a semi-regular basis, and enjoying it more than once a year. So I tried not to be overly ceremonious about the process, although for reasons out of my control, that didn't entirely succeed.

As for technique. I did salt and pepper the turkey the afternoon of the day before I roasted it. I just rubbed unmeasured handfuls of salt on whatever surface I could reach, laid it on a rack in a large roasting pan, and covered it in the refrigerator. The next day, I uncovered it in the morning and left it to dry a bit in the fridge, still on its rack. There are few kitchen sights more subtly unnerving than a giant turkey uncovered and without any mitigating barriers of plastic or foil, just reposing in your refrigerator. Just before cooking I added a few more garlic cloves under the skin and stuffed most of a large onion and a few withered bits of lemon into its cavity. I also rubbed the skin with a small amount of butter.

When I returned home at night, I consulted a few basic books for helpful turkey methods. As usual in things of this kind (hearty, homey, all-American and slightly out of the way for the average modern householder), The Joy of Cooking was the most businesslike and helpful guide.

They suggested a few basic methods of roasting, some at a low, slow, heat, one at a fast, high, heat. Since I've had a lot of success with the high heat chicken roasting technique (via, who else, Judy Rogers), and since the turkey was small enough to manage the repeated turning that this method requires, I decided to go for it, despite my previous encounters with hot spattering fat, my oven, and our poorly ventilated smoke alarm.

In order to succeed at the high heat roasting method, the turkey is placed directly in the roasting pan, (no rack), and arranged so that one leg is on the bottom and the other faces up. It looks hilarious, like it is demurely reclining. Positioning turkeys is an excellent exploratory investigation into how much, exactly, you want to mock your food.It goes into a preheated 450 degree oven, on a low rack. It roasts for 30 minutes on the first side, 30 flipped right over, and then thirty more on each side, followed by about twenty minutes of breast crisping. I skipped the last 30 minutes of leg browning because it was starting to seem very done, and just finished up with the breast a little early. This was a good instinct, as the final was perfectly done. Holding out for the whole roasting time might have been too much. Very soon in the roasting process, our evil smoke alarm decided to participate very decisively, and since there's no way to disable or turn it off for more than a few minutes, what could have been a leisurely roast became a drill-precision group project. I wielded the scowl and the oven door, rolling turkeys with a mitt on each fist, Matt manned the smoke alarm, and Sophie kibitzed.

Matt took a bunch of great pictures of the finished beast before I dismembered it. Raw or roasted, they're still hilarious (see above), and somewhat lewd. I'd like to think Franklin would have been proud.

1 comment:

Avi and Stacey said...

Our thanksgiving turkey had so many lives - appreciated fresh off the beast, re-heated in a little gravy the next day, and then as beautiful turkey stock and finally delicious turkey soup. I would recommend that you get some dill from JB's terrace if you make it to the soup step. Yum.