Nov 20, 2007

Turkey Practice




Last year I hosted my first Thanksgiving. A local place catered the
meal. We had 24 people so much of our focus was on fitting everyone
in our house and finding enough chairs. I didn't realize that I'd be
reheating everything and it was sort of a disaster--the stuffing took
forever to heat up, as did the potatoes, and the once-piping-hot
gravy was cold by the time the sides were hot enough to reach the
table. It occurred to me then that if I'd cooked everything I'd have
a better chance at getting the timing right. I'm not much of a cook
but my mother and sister are spectacular and I've always felt that I
had it in my genes and the ability to move effortlessly around my own
kitchen would reveal itself to me when I was ready for it. In
general I know how to make my favorite things--big batches of creamy
mashed potatoes, vichyssoise, chili, egg salad, brownies, and apple
custard pie. That's it though. Nonetheless I decided to cook the
meal this year. I set my tivo to record everything the Food
Network was offering about Thanksgiving. I saved a page from the
Times, and bought a little magazine that had a turkey on the cover.

My sister suggested that I use the Sunday before Thanksgiving to
prepare a practice turkey. She added that I could make the gravy
from its drippings, and stock from its bones to use on the real day.
At 4 in the afternoon today (Sunday) I remembered this plan and ran
to the grocery store to fetch the bird.

Once in the supermarket, I didn't even know where to look. I saw
things that looked like whole turkeys at the deli counter...I tried
to get the counter person's attention but she was busy. Thankfully I
realized--before embarrassing myself in front of all the cold-
cutters--that it was just the mushed together deli meat shaped to
look like a whole turkey. Phew! I wonder how far it would have
gotten--would they have sold me a whole turkey shaped thing? Would I
have hauled it to the cashier? Would I have gotten it home and
attempted to stuff it?

Several steps away I found the real-meat shelf and a sea of whole
turkeys. I had the choice between the butterball, which was
shrinkwrapped in pretty plastic, or the purplish turkey that had
lived a lovelier life--probably one with a beak, and some free-
roami ng. It was organic and had no antibiotics but the plastic
was see-through and it totally grossed me out. I inspected it
closely and noticed that it had real wings. The kind that splay out
like it's flying. Not the kind you see on a platter of 'wings' next
to the blue cheese and celery. I made myself buy the ugly one. The
butterball would have been prettier until getting into the sink, so I
figured I should just grow up and buy the one I felt better about
even though it was a more obviously really dead bird.

I got it home and put it on the counter and called my sister who
talked me through it. My not yet two-year-old daughter was running
around naked and kept requiring my assistance with various ventures
to consider using the toilet so the advice from my sister was mostly
theoretical (being that I was hardly even in the kitchen during
certain points of instruction). "Don't think about what you're
doing," "double bag the stuff inside and freeze it until you can
throw it away," "don't even think about what's in those bags,"
"remember there's another *ahem* cavity at the top end of the bird
too, make sure you clean that one out also," "people say you don't
have to tie the legs shut anymore so only do that if you want." I
could begin to visualize the process. My confidence was building.

By the time I got the baby down for her nap (or bedtime?--we're never
sure when she crashes at 5:15), I was ready to take the thing out of
its plastic. I put it in the sink and set about inspecting it
without touching it. Sure enough there was a little bag in the
cavity--I pulled it out and plopped it in a double bag and stuck it
in the freezer. The cavity was smaller than I'd expected. I ran
water into it and dumped it out several times. I even had the nerve
to peer under a wing and remove a bloody thing. I was doing well. I
moved the bird over to the roasting pan and began to stuff the cavity
full of onions and celery. There was only room for half the stuff
I'd chopped...but I filled it to the brim. Then I considered putting
the rest of the onions and celery into the bottom of the pan.
Surely that would flavor the drippings? Or maybe they'd burn and
smoke or something. I decided against it. I was carrying the bird
to the oven, remembering that I had already ruled out tying the legs
shut, when it occurred to me that I hadn't noticed any legs. It was
with great creepiness that I realized that the double bone thing
sticking out of the neck wasn't a double-boned neck but was the tips
of the two drumsticks, with some loop of skin holding them closed. I
dug my fingernails into the loop of skin and freed the tips of the
drumsticks and discovered the cavity I was supposed to be filling--
the cavity I had thought I was filling when I was apparently stuffing
the neck full of celery and onions.

I didn't see a bag in there, so I reached in and my fingers curled
around two little frozen things, I tugged until they came out. Two
raw, red frosty lumps. I tossed them into the sink. Then I
reached in again and found something else that wasn't a bag but felt
more like a bone--I wiggled it loose from its moorings and pulled it
out and tossed it into the sink. The spine? The neck? I wasn't
prepared for this hard pinkish penis thing--tossed it into the sink
too. Now this was a cavity. There was tons of room. A studio
apartment. I stuffed it full of the leftover onions and celery.

Now it looked like a turkey. This practice run was turning out to be
a great idea.

Following the NYTimes instructions (fast roasting not slow, no
basting) I tented the bird after half an hour. Then an hour later I
remove dthe tent and, again following instructions, used my new meat
thermometer to test the bird. I'm supposed to put the thermometer in
perpendicular to the pan, in the thigh near where the drumstick meets
the body. Nothing looks like a thigh to me but I aim for a place
near a joint an d get a low reading--about 120. I pop the whole
thing back in the oven for another 20 minutes, then I test it again.
I realize my earlier poke was near the wing, so now I put the
thermometer down into a thicker spot. The temperature shoots up to
about 180. I'm aiming for 165. I'm supposed to get a few readings
of 165 so I put the bird back in for another 20 minutes and then get
all those good high (too high) readings again. I pull the bird out
and while it sits there I watch a food network special on making
perfect gravy.

Then I call my sister who makes perfect gravy for some on-the-spot
assistance, since her method isn't at all like Alton Brown's method.
Her kids had been at a dessert party so they aren't in bed yet but
she agreed to walk me through the steps anyway. Without any turkey
stock we realize I shouldn't make it at that moment, but rather
should save all the drippings and make it later, but still before
Thanksgiving. By that time I should have a better sense of the
whole process and might even feel comfortable whipping up gravy with
my Thanksgiving drippings (and a kitchen full of chattering
relatives). Who knows? I think I'm starting to get the hang of this.

We figured out a strategy for my gravy. I use my new fat/strainer/
separator thing and only get about a half a cup of drippings. She
was surprised that this was such a low amount, but again, she was
advising me from two hundred miles away and with a houseful of
sugared toddlers so we didn't focus on it for long. We decide I
should keep the whole lot of it rather than strain it. My next
assignment is to pull the meat off the bones and save the bones to
make stock. It sounds reasonable until I realize that I've never cut
into a turkey before. I beg my sister to stay on the phone to walk
me through this (several years ago I called her to walk me through
disposing of a dead mouse--it's a moral support thing mostly, but
necessary to many tasks, especially those, like this, that sorta
gross me out). She tells me to just start tugging at the white meat
with a fork but I don't see any white meat.

The more I st ab and pull the more bones I bump up against and
it's all dark meat, and sort of slimy. A little surprised that I'm
having such a difficult time locating any meat, my sister explains
that it's true that a clean-livin' turkey like this one probably ran
around a lot and won't have that nice plump genetically engineered
breast lump. I'm in a flat panic, unable to imagine how two of these
birds would ever yield enough meat for 5 people, let alone the 15
we're expecting. I start to talk about buying a butterball turkey.
If I get it tomorrow and start to thaw it out, I can do the two
organic birds I'd preordered for political reasons, and the
butterball for gastronomical ones. As I tug and pull with a fork and
a knife my sister asks me if I've roasted the turkey upside-down. I
highly doubt it, it looks sort of like the birds in the
pictures...the knees tucked under, the elbows propped up. It's the
way I'd be if someone asked me to crawl into an oven. She asks me to
take a photo and email it to her so she can see what's wrong.

I resist this suggestion for a moment, and then it occurs to me to
just prop the bird up and peek underneath. Lo and behold, there was
the enormous beautiful white breast, swollen against the roasting
rack, pinkish and plumpish with waxy drips hanging down through the
grooves of the rack. My sister and I gasp with astonishment at my
stupidness. I let her go, since I've now figured out where the meat
is, and her kids really need to get to bed. I flip the bird and
another cup-full of beautiful drippings and juices pours out all over
my kitchen table. I make a weak attempt to gather it into my
original half-cup. But the cat beats me to most of it.

I spend the next half hour tearing all t he meat off of the bones
(well most of it, and hardly any of it in some cases). I bag the
meat, probably woefully undercooked--where was I taking the
temperature anyway? The back of the bird? Between the ribs? The
meat's pink in the way that some fancy cooks like, but I'll never
touch it. I bag all of the meat for the cat to enjoy for many weeks
to come.

I'd like to think that it's the best $16.98 I'll ever spend, since I
made all of the mistakes on a day that just doesn't matter.

I shower to get the turkey meat from under my fingernails, and to get
the smell off of me. I watch a clip on the news about the avian flu
pandemic but the talk of bird to man and so on freaks me out...and
then I switch over to Wolfgang Puck's turkey school. I think I've
learned how NOT to cook a turkey. About sixteen of us will find out
on Thursday.

12 comments:

Brooklyn Ink said...

Just wanted to say it was great meeting you recently, and I'm glad to have found your blog.

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