If you don’t mind, I’d like to begin by justifying my intimidation level for this little endeavor.
To psych myself up for attacking my first turkey, it seemed natural to consult my Williams-Sonoma Thanksgiving cookbook. Mistake Numero Uno, my friends. Here’s the intro to the chapter on main courses:
When cooking turkey, the centerpiece of every traditional Thanksgiving menu, achieving golden skin, juicy white meat, and well-cooked dark meat all at the same time qualifies as an art. The following recipes come to the aid of the cook, making cooking — and eating — the turkey the best thing that happens all day.
Really, Chuck (Williams)? Really? According to you, I’m supposed to artfully create the centerpiece of the most traditional of meals for my closest friends and family. And not only that, it’s supposed to be the best thing that happens all day. In my mind, this stops just shy of me wearing a dress and heels under my apron, with a ribbon in my hair.
And am I the only one that thinks the most superb turkey conceivable is a far cry from the best thing that ever happened to me? Pass the pie, brother.
This is when the bellyaching commenced. I don’t WANNA cook a turkey, I said, to no one in particular. Not even a Salt Roasted Turkey with Lemon and Oregano. Why did I DO this stupid challenge, anyway?, I asked. What if I screw it up?, I whined. Somebuddy call the wahhhhhh-mbulance.
And you know what the near-unanimous answer was to my dramatic neuroticisms? You can’t screw it up! It’ll be fine! You’ll do great! If I can do it, you can do it!
I almost started to believe them. Almost. And then Bon Appétit, the lovely, upstanding, respectable periodical that I’ve relied upon for years, ran a Thanksgiving bloopers contest. Share your Thanksgiving disaster stories with us and you can win an All-Clad roasting pan and rack! It was like a car accident: I couldn’t help but look at the stories of gravy explosions and birds being dropped into sudsy dishwater. Mistake Numero Dos, people. Now I’m officially freaked out. Freaked. Out.
(On the other hand, my now-certain epic failure suddenly had an upside: an All-Clad roasting pan and rack!)
I pressed on. For reasons still unknown, in true WFI fashion, I decided to attempt my inaugural bird on a weekend when Johanna was in town as our houseguest. Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t really do houseguests. It’s not for lack of want-to, you see, it’s just that I grew up with all my houseguest candidates living within a 30-mile radius. So, like the turkey, it’s a lack of practice more than anything else.
Did I mention that I also invited a new friend, Diana, to join us? Did I mention that she’s also a chef? Mistake Numero Tres: setting myself up with undue pressure. Pretty smooth, huh?
To the bird. I expected BA to call for an insanely happy, free-range, never-been-injected-with-anything bird… but they didn’t. So I grabbed a Butterball, the universal choice of the bourgeois, to really give the recipe a run for its money. And Butterball has that hotline, after all, which may just come in handy. We’ll see.
I managed to thaw the thing adequately, which was a chief concern going in. I also managed to do a good bit of the work in advance — namely, making the Ultimate Turkey Stock and cooking the stuffing ingredients the day before. So far, so good.
And then Sunday came. D-Day, if you will.
On the way home from church, I swung through the store for some side dish ingredients (fourth grocery trip of the weekend, but who’s counting?). Wisely, I foresaw the possibility of huge timing issues on my part, and grabbed some nuts and cheese for my diners to nibble on. I wasn’t sure how, but I felt certain I’d be keeping my guests waiting, and now at least they wouldn’t have growling tummies in the process.
It would turn out to be the best decision I made all day.
Upon returning home, I realized that despite reviewing the recipe – oh, I don’t know — FOURTEEN times, I managed to misread the cooking time. The recipe calls for roasting the bird in several 45 minute increments, and I glossed over a couple of those. My ETA is now officially off by 1.5 hours. Rookie mistake. (Cuatro, if you’re keeping score at home.) Huge.
Ding dong. Oh, Hi Diana! Where’d I put those cashews?
So later… hours later!… there were 45 minutes left on the clock. Time to insert the probe and start tracking internal temperatures. Diana and I were chatting in the kitchen, and she commented on how well-browned and nice looking the bird already is. Then I asked her to help me figure out where the “thickest part of the thigh” is, for thermometer placement, because the whole operation hinges on getting a good temperature read. We’re aiming for a final temp of 165.
She poked with the probe. 175 degrees. Wha? Maybe she hit a bone?, I suggested.
She poked again. 178 degrees. And again. 174 this time.
She checked the recipe, and looked at the oven. Have you been roasting at 375 the whole time?, she asked. My face fell — I immediately knew what the problem was. I’d cooked the stuffing earlier at the prescribed temperature of 375, and was in such a hurry to get started on the bird (because of my colossal timing problem), I failed to knock down the temperature to 350. I’d cooked it 25 degrees too hot the entire time.
I got insanely lucky: the turkey was fine. By divine providence, my poor recipe reading was inadvertently offset by my lack of attention to detail, and cooking it at the wrong temperature actually fixed my timing problem. (Not a strategy I would recommend, by the way.)
So. How’d it taste? Ummmm, like turkey.
Seriously, all that grinding and salting and rinsing and brushing did not conspire to create a life-changing dining experience. The skin was beautiful and delicious, thanks to the lemon oil, but the meat itself tasted like… every other (good) turkey I’ve ever eaten. I fully admit there’s a fair amount of bias here, since I’m not a huge meat eater. And I also fully admit that I could be spoiled by all the good cooks in my family, and an amazing turkey seems like no big deal. All that being said, I did achieve golden skin, juicy white meat, and well-cooked dark meat all at the same time… but I’m not sure it’s an art form when you accomplish something in spite of yourself.
The stuffing was tasty, my overcooking it a bit notwithstanding (what mistake number are we on?), but it was a little on the exotic side for several folks at the table. If you’re looking to shake things up a bit, I would definitely recommend this recipe, as it has a lot of complex flavors that work pretty well together. That being said, if you have a multi-generational recipe that you make every year, you might consider making it in addition to that, and not instead of. Similar to my take on the pie issue: you’re messing with people’s holidays, and there’s a line. You don’t want a revolt on your hands.
The Greek Inspired Fresh Oregano and Giblet Pan Gravy might actually have been my favorite of the four recipes involved: tons of flavor, and not much more work than “regular” gravy. Although the speck was pretty good in that stuffing. Tough call.
In total, I’d say that I’m really glad I faced my demons, but I’m also glad it’s over. Like every home cook, I dream of one day hosting Thanksgiving dinners like the ones you see in catalog photo spreads… a huge table beautifully set for a dozen, all the picture-perfect food coming out of the kitchen at the same time, Norman Rockwell quietly sketching the scene from his corner perch. I’ve got about twenty years before I can afford the set-up (that is, a house big enough to have a dining room big enough for a table big enough), and it’ll take me about that long to master cooking for that many people at once…
But I’ve taken the first step.