The Novelist Talks Turkey

by Richard Engling

Richard Engling
Richard Engling

What makes a great, juicy turkey for Thanksgiving? A fresh turkey. Overnight brining. And this year I’m using a bacon fat baste for delicious smokey crisp skin that helps seal in moisture.

Broth-basted turkeys are less expensive, but I prefer to season my turkey my way. God knows what they are injecting into your bird at the turkey processing plant. And if you do buy a frozen broth-basted or Kosher turkey–don’t brine it! It’ll be too salty.

Brining a fresh turkey produces the juiciest meat imaginable. You soak the turkey in a brine overnight in the refrigerator–or on a cold porch if it’s between 32 and 40 degrees. I have a huge (12 inches in diameter, 9 1/2 inches high) stainless steel stock pot that fits an entire turkey. It’s a great thing to own because it’s also good for making stock and soups, obviously, and fantastic for steaming crab legs or mixing enough sangria for dozens of friends. Some people brine in a cooler and add ice to the brine so as not to use refrigerator space. Some put the brine and turkey in a tall kitchen bag, seal and put that in a cooler. Whatever you use, if the turkey cannot be totally submerged, it’ll have to be turned occasionally.

Richard’s apple brine:
* 1/2 gallon fresh apple cider
* 1 cup sea salt or kosher salt
* 1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
* 1 tablespoon crushed whole allspice
* 1 tablespoon dried thyme
* 1 inch peeled fresh ginger, sliced into thin slices
* 2 bay leaves
* 2 tablespoons juniper berries crushed
* 1 1/2 gallon ice water

1. In a large pan, combine the apple cider and other ingredients (but not ice water). Bring to a boil and simmer at least five minutes, stirring frequently to be sure salt is dissolved. Cool to room temperature.
2. Pour the apple cider liquid into stock pot or other container. Stir in the ice water.
3. Wash and dry your turkey. Reserve the innards for making stock. Place the turkey, breast down, into the brine. Make sure that the cavity gets filled. If you need more brine, add more salt water (1/4 cup of salt per quart of water). Keep cool (below 40 degrees) and soak for 12 to 24 hours.
4. The next day, drain the turkey, rinse well, pat dry with paper towels. Discard the brine.

Richard’s Stuffing:
Prepare your stuffing the night before. I make a big batch in a huge salad bowl and put some inside the turkey and bake the rest in a casserole dish.
* 1 1/4 pound of bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and toasted in an oven at 400 degrees until lightly browned. A firm white bread is good. 1/2 pound could be a lighter wheat. Don’t use heavy whole grain breads.
* 2 1/4 cups onion chopped.
* 2 1/4 cups celery sliced
* One stick of butter
Saute the onion and celery about 5 minute (until tender)
Mix with the toasted bread.
* 1 pound sliced mushrooms
* 1/4 stick of butter
Saute the mushrooms lightly
Mix with the toasted bread.
Stir in:
* 1/2 cup pine nuts (Yes, my friend, PINE NUTS!)
* 1/2 cup dried currents or raisins
* 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
* 1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon minced fresh
* 1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon minced fresh
* 3/4 tablespoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the portion of the stuffing that will go in a casserole dish, dot the top generously with butter. Add a 1/4 cup of chicken stock to moisten and bake covered for 45 minutes and take the cover off for a final 15 minutes.

Make bacon for breakfast Thanksgiving day and reserve the bacon fat for basting the turkey. Or better yet, make BLTs some night this week and save the fat to make Thanksgiving morning easier. Fry a 1/2 pound of bacon, at least.

Roasting the turkey:
If you want stuffing cooked in the bird (and who doesn’t?) stuff the body and neck cavity loosely with stuffing (recipe to follow). Use round toothpick or bamboo skewers stuck through the skin twice, like sewing needles, to hold the close the cavities. Tie the legs together with unwaxed dental floss or kitchen string (Some turkey come with a metal or plastic device for holding the legs together).

If you are not stuffing the turkey, put a few apple and orange slices and a sprig of fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, parley, cilantro or sage) into the cavity for flavor. An unstuffed turkey will roast about a 1/2 hour faster than a stuffed one.

Put the turkey onto a rack in a roasting pan and rub it all over with the bacon fat. (If you don’t want to deal with the bacon fat, use butter). Sprinkle with ground pepper and dried thyme. Cover the breast lightly with a greased, double-thick layer of aluminum foil so it doesn’t overcook. Uncover it to brown in the final hour of cooking.

In the bottom of the roasting pan, pour in a can of low salt chicken stock plus 4 garlic cloves, one onion cut in quarters and a teaspoon each of dried thyme, parsley and sage (or a tablespoon each of fresh).

Roast the turkey on the lowest rack in the oven at 325 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes per pound if it’s stuffed or 10 to 12 minutes if it is not. Brush the skin with bacon fat, butter or pan drippings every 30 minutes. When it’s done, an instant read thermometer will read at least 175 to 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh. Stuffing must reach at least 160 degress to be safe.

The gravy:
While the turkey is roasting, put the neck and gibblets into a sauce pan with three cups of water, a quartered onion, a carrot, one or two sticks of celery, three peeled cloves of garlic, and a 1/2 teaspoon each of dried thyme, parsley and sage (or a 1/2 tablespoon each of fresh). Bring to a boil and simmer as the turkey roasts. Break apart the neck bones with a spoon as it cooks down. Add water if more than a cup of water boils away.

When the turkey is done, strain the broth. Put the turkey on a platter to rest for 10 minutes. Spoon off all but two tablespoons of fat from the drippings in the pan. Pour the remaining drippings into the broth and scrape the stuck bits into it as well. Mix 4 tablespoons of flour into a 1/2 cup of apple cider until it’s smooth. Bring the broth/drippings mix to a low boil. Very slowly pour the flour mix to it, stirring, until it reaches the thickness you prefer. You probably won’t need it all. (Are you now saying, “Richard, @$#&! I put all the apple cider in the brine!”? Don’t panic. Use canned chicken stock instead).

As I finish up my shopping list for the day, I am struck by the similarities between the Artistic Director and the Thanksgiving Chef. Each brings together the best combination of ingredients and cooking. In the theatre, one gathers the team and selects the script, director, actors, designers and technical staff, and provides the environment in which they can “cook” to perfection with the right amount of rehearsal time, money and materials into the final feast. Then it is a matter of getting the guests to the table to enjoy the meal.