The holidays have been upon us, and because I’m not quite up to the point where I have all my posts planned out a month in advance 1, the site has been inactive the last couple of weeks. Sorry. Family takes precedent, I’m sure you understand.
But now I can actually show you what we made and ate for Thanksgiving, and then it might be useful to you for Christmas, or future Thanksgivings! This article’s an investment, see; not for the now, but for the future.
A FERAL THANKSGIVING TURKEY: HAPPY, DRY BRINED, AND SPATCHCOCKED
The centerpiece of Thanksgiving is, of course, the turkey. (Unless it’s ham, which just means that you’ve never had really good turkey.)Because we’re poor, we usually aren’t able to go for the free-range, happy-hearty, hippy-dippy 2 awesome meat. The past couple of Thanksgivings, though, we have splurged on (and invited family contributions towards) a (previously) happy free-range turkey from a local farm.
The farm is Synergistic Acres, they raise awesome chicken, pork, and beef, the farmers are a really cool couple, and I’ll be devoting an entire article to all that next week; I just wanted to give them a shout-out right here because if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have this fantastic turkey, whom we named Gabby.
You’ll notice that the turkey is shaped a bit oddly; it’s flattened out, so that the legs and thighs are laying flat rather than adhering vertically to the body, as in your classic roast turkey. That’s because we used a process called spatchcocking to prepare the bird for cooking. Spatchcocking is also sometimes called butterflying, but that’s way less fun to say than spatchcocking.
See? Way more fun.
Anyway, to spatchcock, you cut the backbone out of the bird, then you crack the breastbone to flatten out the body. This spreads all the meat out where it can cook more evenly and quickly. It makes a big difference; Gabby was thirteen pounds and cooked up in an hour and a half, rather than the three hours it would have taken otherwise.
We did one other special thing with Gabby; we used a dry brine.
Turkey brining is something my family has done for years. I never really cared for the turkey as a kid, I always went for the ham, but then we tried brining the bird for the first time when I was about fifteen. HOLY POULTRY BATMAN. Previous birds had been dry and pretty flavorless, more a vehicle for gravy than anything else. This bird was juicy, deeply flavored, needed NO gravy at all to be amazing (although gravy is just a necessary part of eating turkey, so I dumped some on there anyway). This was what turkey was supposed to be.
The problem with brining is that you must have a container big enough to hold the turkey and enough brine to cover it, and someplace to keep that whole operation cold for at least a full day. When it was really cold outside for Thanksgiving, we could use a big food-grade plastic bucket, cover it, and set it in the garage or on the back porch. When it was fairly warm outside, though, we had to figure out a way to fandangle it into the fridge somehow. Not fun.
Enter dry brining. This process yields the same elevated flavor and juiciness, without the need for gallons of raw-poultry-infected liquid. All you do is take salt, plus whatever other spices you might have used in a brine, and rub them all over the turkey. Then let it sit a couple of days in the fridge. You still need enough room for the turkey, but that’s way more doable than five gallons of brine; you could even just wrap the turkey in a big oven bag if you wanted. 3
A much more thorough and comprehensive guide to brining, both wet and dry, can be found at Serious Eats.
There was one issue with the turkey this year: the dark meat was pretty tough. The high heat probably had something to do with this; I cooked about an hour and a half at 450°F. I think a little longer cook at a lower temperature would have been better; maybe 300°F for a couple of hours, followed by a 500°F blast to crisp up the skin. That way the dark meat in the legs and thighs should be able to tenderize a bit more.
THE STUFFING: CORNBREAD, SAUSAGE, SAGE, AND NOT STUFFED
Does anybody actually cook the stuffing inside the turkey anymore? Seriously, is this still a thing?
Putting stuffing in a raw bird and then roasting it guarantees one of two things: 1) the bird is cooked perfectly, but the stuffing is undercooked and soaked with raw turkey juices and you will get salmonella and die, or 2) the stuffing is cooked enough to be safe, but the bird is massively overcooked and you will be disgusted and die.
There’s really no in-between here. With such a huge amount of bird surrounding the stuffing, there’s no way you can get perfectly cooked bird and fully cooked stuffing. Either way, you’re going to die.
But there’s a solution, and I’m pretty sure everyone and their dog already practices it, but just in case there’s somebody here who has been living in Siberia for the last fifty years 4, here it is: cook the stuffing separately.
‘But then it’s not stuffing, it’s dressing! Waaah!’ Shut up. It’s stuffing. It’s always stuffing. That’s what it is. Case closed.
So yeah, just cook your stuffing in a separate casserole dish as God intended, and everything will be great.
This year, we used another Serious Eats recipe as inspiration, and made a cornbread stuffing with chunks of sausage and plenty of sage. We didn’t use the sage sausage that the recipe recommends, because we don’t live next to an artisan butcher: we used bratwurst. Good ol’ Johnsonville brats. 5 It kicked ass.
THE GRAVY: BRINGING THE FAMILY TOGETHER
Gravy is the great equalizer. It ties the elements together, makes them one: the turkey, the stuffing, Uncle Richter’s mashed potatoes, the tree, the rock, you, me. It surrounds us, and binds us. But beware of the dark side… um. Wait. 6
Good gravy starts with good stock. Good stock is made at home, by simmering bones (I use the leftover carcasses of roast chickens) and vegetable scraps (I use onion skins, celery ends, and carrot tops) for hours until the gelatin is extracted from the bones. Unfortunately, I was all out of bones this time around, so I got some turkey backs from the meat counter at the supermarket ($0.99 a pound at Whole Foods!!), broiled them until they were nice and brown, then put them into the biggest pot I had, covered them with water, covered the pot, and set it over low heat.
I started this operation in the afternoon, so I simmered until I went to bed, turned off the stove and just left the pot up there (since it’s covered it’s all sterilized inside), then turned the heat back on when I got up in the morning. All told, it probably simmered about twelve hours. Plenty of time to extract all that gelatinous goodness. So that’s my stock.
At its most basic, gravy is just fat, flour, and stock. General proportions are 1 Tbsp fat – 1 Tbsp flour – 1 cup stock. Ideally the fat consists of drippings from the turkey, but since I made my gravy the day before Thanksgiving, I just used butter. You melt the butter in a pan, whisk in the flour until it’s smooth, then whisk in the stock a bit at a time until it’s at the consistency you want.
I went just a little further: I added some minced garlic to the butter and flour before I added the stock, and at the end I tossed in a few tablespoons of sherry.
That stuff makes everything awesome. Seriously. 7
Like I said, I made the gravy the day before, popped it in the fridge, then just dumped it in a pan and brought it to a simmer right before we were ready to eat. It was good stuff.
THAT WAS OUR FERAL THANKSGIVING.
It was a little extravagant, but it’s a feast day. A celebration of what God and nature have given us.
I’m working on redefining American regional cuisine to better fit agricultural, environmental, and health needs, but the Thanksgiving meal is something beautiful and timeless. It’s already so American: the turkey was domesticated in the Americas a thousand years before any Europeans showed up, as was corn, and cranberries are a native fruit as well. The whole meal is such a great symbol of bounty, I don’t see its constituent parts changing significantly anytime soon.
One more note regarding leftovers: Mix leftover stuffing with cream cheese and parmesan, stuff it into mushroom caps, and bake ’em. HOLY **** YOU GUYS.
Aight, that’s it for now. Happy holidays, everybody! And to all a lot of awesome food!
-Josh is listening to The Kinks
- I feel near the point of leveling up, though, so… it could happen. : ) ↩
- I use the phrase ‘hippy-dippy’ with the utmost love and respect, with an attempt to balance the ethical and taste qualities of such meat with the fact that it appears to be a financial impossibility for a person entrenched in the feral lifestyle. This is an issue I am struggling with in my own life, and will be examining in depth much more in the future. ↩
- I would probably set the whole operation in some kind of tray, though, in case of leaks. ↩
- Siberians are notorious for always stuffing their turkeys on Thanksgiving. ↩
- They’re not paying me for this shoutout, but I wouldn’t be averse to it if they wanted to… Eh? Eh? : D ↩
- DECEMBER 18TH, BITCHES!!! ↩
- The sherry. Not the cat. ↩