One way to conquer that culinary anxiety that may accompany you during the holiday season, is to think about this time of year as just that---a season! This is the most productive time of year. There is always so much to do, and apparently so little time in which to do it. These are the most favorable conditions for producing great food. That's for sure! The day after Halloween signals the start of what promises to be a flavorful culinary journey: which shall last well beyond New Year's Day. By September, after the heat of summer has gone, we have already begun to prepare for the holiday season. Sooner or later, something wonderful is bound to happen!
This is the time for cordials; homemade liqueurs. Perhaps raspberry,cranberry, peach, or pear, maybe even hazelnuts. Everything is set as early as September, in order to perfectly steep these delightful flavors in a neutral vodka and sometime in rum for weeks at a time. After awhile, a sugar syrup is added and then this mixture will continue to macerate for an additional period of time. By the end of October, a nice homemade cordial or two serves as a unique personal signature to welcome in the holiday season.
By the second week in November, it is time to start planning the Thanksgiving meal. Usually, it would be some kind of theme, and this will guide your decisions along the way. What kind of vegetables, rice or potatoes, what kind of desserts shall be prepared; and of course the biggest question of all; just what kind of turkey are we going to buy? Nonetheless, there is never any doubt that the big bird shall be the centerpiece of the holiday table.
Purchasing: Americans consume as average of 17.1 pounds of turkey per year. For flavor and for ratio of fat to lean, the other white meat is a pretty good deal. However, due to corporate greed and the decision to put increased product yield and profit over quality and flavor there is a 90% chance that the turkey that you buy will be a Broad Breasted White. Although Harvest turkeys are making a comeback, the older traditional brands have been completely phased out of the marketplace. Nevertheless, this is not to say there is anything wrong with the Broad Breasted White. It's just to present you with an understanding of the realities of the market. The Size of the turkey that you buy will largely depend upon how many guests you intend to serve. You will want to figure approximately 1.5 to 1.75 pounds per person. In other worlds for 8 people you'll purchase roughly 12-14 pounds; for 12 people 15-16 pounds and so on.
Variety: You have a number of choices in the manner in which you purchase your turkey. First: Fresh or Frozen. Most supermarket brands are thoroughly frozen. You must decide if you will have the time to properly defrost it. The manner in which you defrost it is important as well. Raw meats must remain within the Temperature Danger Zone (40-140 degrees Fahrenheit). The safest way, is to place it in a large basting pan and allow it to defrost in your refrigerator. Of course this will take up space and it is rather time consuming. However, it remains the safest bet for sure. The other way, is to use a water bath. This is dangerous. The water must remain with the T.D.Z. and the wrapping must not be punctured at any point, as this will only leave room for opportunistic bacteria. The U.S.D.A. permits turkeys to be stored at 25 degrees Fahrenheit and still be labeled as "Fresh". The problem with this is that this temperature allows for the formation of ice crystals which puncture the cell membranes, allowing water to leak away and leaving Tom no better off than a bird that has been frozen anyway. So, chose wisely but don't believe the hype!
Although there exist for the most part but two remaining varieties of turkey in the American marketplace, you do have several more options in how you purchase your turkey. However first, let's not leave out the other 10% of the U.S. market that was mentioned earlier.
|A flock of some of the heritage breeds|
Heritage Turkeys: While Broad Breasted White Turkeys are bred for yield, Heritage Turkeys are still bred in the traditional fashion. Of course this makes them more expensive; and their availability limited to special order. Yet, they are allowed to mature for a longer period of time (usually 26-28 weeks) which adds additional richness to their flavor. Heritage breeds are: White Holland, Narragansett, Black Squash, Jersey Bluff, Bourbon Red Slate, and Standard Bronze.
Organic: These turkeys are raised "free-range". They have been fed a vegetarian diet of organic grasses and grains. They are available fresh or frozen, online or in the higher end supermarket chains.
Free-range: This label denotes a bird that is treated more humane and allowed to hang out and graze on grains and grasses instead of being kept in solitary confinement. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) acts as the warden who makes sure that this is so. They can be found at specialty grocers and in the larger supermarket chains. There is a large demand for these turkeys during the holiday season so you just might want to order ahead of time.
Self-basted: These are turkeys marketed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and to the laziest of cooks. They actually do require less basting time simply because they are injected before freezing with a solution that may contain a variety of preservatives, salt, herbs, and spices, and oil or butter. This can actually give the finished bird a strange and bland flavor. Flavor begins with the "carmelization process". There exist few short cuts to flavor. Besides, this process often leaves the flesh of the finished product with a soft, spongy, and squishy texture. These birds have the addition of salt which also makes using brines prohibitive. Whatever you buy, make sure to read the label. If there are more ingredients than simply "Turkey" listed on the label, it is most likely that you are purchasing a Self-basting bird.
Kosher: Of course these turkeys are raised with strict rabbinical supervision and in accordance to Jewish dietary laws and customs. They are fed an organic diet and then slaughtered in the proper fashion. Afterward, they go through a salt based "koshering process", meant to make them ethically pure. As a consequence of this process these turkeys generally retain a moist succulent texture when roasted.
It is not recommended that you brine a kosher turkey, simply because of the koshering processes. The only shortcoming is that this process often makes the quills more difficult to pluck out. This shall require a measure of patience. Check your supermarket or order ahead of time from your neighborhood kosher butcher.