Tuesday, November 9, 2010


   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.

Fresh turkey

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.


   The sound of happiness, sincere appreciation and the presence of family make the Christmas holiday one of the most festive occasions of the year.  Such festivities were also present during medieval times.  The spirit of the holiday was the closeness of family, serfs, lords and their workers and the communal sharing and preparing of the holiday meal.
   The celebration of Christmas and the concept of Christ's birthday goes back much farther than the 19th century.  Originally a pagan festival celebrated during the Mid-Winter Solstice, Christmas, was eventually adopted by the Christians, thus being passed on through the generations.  In Medieval times a 12 day festival, held from December 25th to January 6th, opened the New Year with all of the contemporary fixings such as plays, processions, and the spreading of good cheer.  The actual gift giving took place on January 6th with the honoring of St. Nicholas, patron son of saints.

   The Druids and the Vikings used the Yule log during the 12 day feast to represent the coming of the New Year.  After it was blessed, it was burned for the entire celebration.  However, before being burned it was carved in the sins of the past year.  Burning it symbolically cleansed the people and brought about good fortune.
   The sending of Christmas cards, carol singing, decorating houses and trees, and the lighting of candles are all symbols of an ancient tradition.  The tradition was full of merriment and feasting and represented little of what it has become today.

   The Christmas tree is a very ancient tradition with origins in the ancient Germanic history of Europe.  Germanic tribes celebrated Lichfest and Tannenbaum on December 21st, the shortest day of the year.  Tannenbaum represented the festival of lighting the trees and Lichfest was celebrated as the festival of light.
   The Christmas tree did not become popular in the western world until the 18th and 19th centuries.  The tradition of holiday caroling also has its roots in medieval history.  Caroling was initially a pagan custom looked down upon by the church.  It wasn't until 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi introduced the singing of carols into the formal worship of the church.  In medieval tradition, wandering minstrels and waits that guarded the old walled cities would pass their time by going from home to home singing carols, In return, they received food and drink.

medieval carols

medieval carols

   The Epiphany, which marked the visit of the Magi to the Christ child and the bestowing of gifts upon him is where we get our physical gift giving tradition from.  Although the gifts were bestowed at birth, history dictates that it is much more likely that the holiday was celebrated at the baptism of Christ.  The holiday season was not always representative of the stress of gift buying and family hopping.  In medieval times the gifts were simple and families were all gathered in one central location.  The season was about prosperity and change for the better in the coming year.  In many ways, cultural marketing of this season, along with many others has served to dull the meaning of the season.

Medieval Nativity form the 1400's

   "Let those who have no light in themselves light candles! Let those over whom hell fire is hanging, fix to their doors laurels doomed presently to burn.  You are the light of the world, you are the tree evergreen...make not your own house a temple".  The Great Roman Tertullian.
   Hanging a Christmas stocking is a tradition that has been followed since times immemorial.  This tradition has an interesting history behind it.  Though there are no written records of the origin of Christmas stocking, there are quite some popular stories that have passed through generations till date.  Though there have been some modifications in many such stories, one of the most popular legend that talks about the history of Christmas is given in the following lines.

Medieval Santa

   Many centuries back, there lived a poor man in a village who had three beautiful daughters.  His wife had passed away due to some illness and he had spent all his money to cure his wife.  Thus, he was left with no money to get his daughters married.  The three daughter were very kind and strong and this is what worried their father even more.  He was concerned what would happen to them after his death.
   It so happened that once, St. Nicholas was passing through the village when he over heard the discussion of some villagers who were talking about the pitiable condition of the three girls.  St. Nicholas wanted to help the poor father but he knew that the old man won't accept money just like that.  He decided to help in a secret way.  He waited till it was night and stealthily came into their house through the chimney.  He had three bags of gold coins with him, one for each girl.  As he was looking for a place to keep those three bags, he noticed the stockings of the three girls that were hung over the mantelpiece for drying.  He put each bag in each stocking and then went away.  When the girls and their father woke up the next morning, they were thrilled to find the bags of gold coins.  He happily married off his daughters one after the other and they also remained happy for the rest of their lives.  The word about St. Nicholas being so generous spread throughout the village and then all over the land.  Since then, it has been a tradition to hang a stocking on Christmas in the hope that St. Nicholas would bring a present.