Birds of a feather
How times have changed. Turkey, once viewed as exotic, graced only the tables of the well-to-do for years from Europe to America; and the larger the bird, the more festive the occasion was considered. The most decadent in Renaissance Europe would serve several birds, including peacock, swan, goose and quail, developing the practice of stuffing one inside the other. Today, compared with the festive season brought to life in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the tables have turned and goose is now the elitist bird, while turkey is eaten by everyone, regardless of social status.
David Campbell, head chef of Grand Hyatt Steakhouse, says turkey is now the cheapest form of meat protein available. But in spite of its egalitarian status, turkey, as well as being the centrepiece of the Thanksgiving dinner table, is practically synonymous with Christmas. Campbell comments that in Atlanta turkeys are deep-fried - 'awesome, if unhealthy' - and cook beautifully in less than an hour. But most of us roast these festive birds in the oven.
'Get an oven thermometer,' says Campbell, noting that the typical domestic oven is probably 10 degrees hotter or cooler than the temperature indicated on the dial. And don't stuff the bird, he warns, because ingredients like under-cooked pork sausage meat could make you very sick indeed. 'And if the stuffing is cooked through, you'll choke on the turkey instead!' Campbell says, alluding to ultimately dried-out meat.
His favourite stuffing, cooked separately, is based on chestnut, white breadcrumbs, apple and sausage.
But Uwe Opocensky, executive chef at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, advises to stuff the turkey - with a piping hot stuffing (of cornbread, apple, nuts and herbs, moistened with milk and fat and bound with duck egg).
Later we learn that this stuffing is not to be eaten, but he says, by having two heat sources, including this internal one, the turkey cooks more evenly. The stuffing for consumption is a firmer version of the above. Opocensky also takes the view that ovens vary, but for the usual 4-5-kilo bird, he says about four hours should do the trick. The bird should be cooked slowly, at about 150 degrees, with the heat cranked up later to 250 degrees to crisp the skin. 'The tricky part is the legs,' Opocensky says. 'I normally take the legs off because the breast will always cook sooner.' Alternatively, the legs can be scored or opened up.
Turkeys are a huge deal at Mandarin Oriental: Opocensky orders 25 tonnes of them and is a bit 'over' turkey by the time it gets to Christmas because he spends so much time preparing them.
It turns out that at the hotel he cooks them sous vide [under vacuum]. After three hours at this low temperature, the bird is taken out and cooled down, then returned to the water bath for a further two hours. It then gets 30 minutes in the oven to turn it crispy and juicy. 'You cannot get it wrong - it is all down to timing.'
Sous vide is in but basting is out, as the juices collecting in the roasting pan have a water content high enough to prevent the skin from crisping nicely; and brining is in too.
'Brining is quite a new thing, it started getting popular 10-12 years ago,' comments Campbell. He takes six litres of water to 363g of salt - thereby approximating seawater - with pepper and herbs, and soaks the bird overnight. The salt penetrates the skin, as a flavour enhancer, and the practice improves the water-holding ability of the meat.
And the trimmings? Cleaned and chopped giblets browned off with some vegetables, can be used to make a gravy, mixed with some of the roasting juices and thickened with a little flour. Cranberry sauce is another popular condiment, though something of a strange match. They grow in New England and Campbell can only assume that they were deemed to have a proper place at the harvest celebration, and became an accidental pairing with turkey.
Well before Christmas it is worth doing an assessment of your own oven to make sure it is large enough to take a turkey, which won't come in at less than four kilos. Campbell recommends sticking a basketball in the oven as a guide and, if the oven turns out to be small, or you cannot 'muster a crowd', consider chicken or even quail. At least this way you don't have days of leftover meat to handle.
Go Asian with leftovers
The coolest thing to do with turkey leftovers, which also marks the move away from the rich and heavy excesses of Christmas eating, is to go Asian. Think of dishes which use cooked chicken, and simply substitute turkey. Thus, shred it and add it to Vietnamese pho ga (assuming you are using pre-prepared stock or even a stock cube, and not starting from scratch with a whole chicken), or use those same shreds and combine them with very finely sliced onion, mint leaves, lime juice and black pepper for a traditional Vietnamese salad. Laab from Laos can be made from ground chicken, so substitute ground turkey, and have it come alive with all the chilli, shallots, lime and fresh herbs in the dressing. Diced, it can also go into the cold Chinese dish bang bang chicken, given a new lease of life with the sesame dressing and eaten in crisp lettuce leaves. And what do the chefs do? Uwe Opocensky at Mandarin Oriental minces it and makes a ragu or dips pieces in an egg-flour-breadcrumb mix and fries them to make schnitzels. Jeffrey LeBon, executive chef at Dot Cod, suggests a turkey pot pie. A covered, regular pastry pie, this includes vegetables like carrots and peas and uses turkey broth as well as turkey meat. 'Nothing beats a warm turkey sandwich on thick wheat bread with leftover stuffing and cranberry sauce,' says the Grand Hyatt Steakhouse chef David Campbell. He recalls that his mother always used the bones to make soup - or they would perhaps make a stock with them to go in the turkey pot pie filling. His mother would also use any leftover mashed potato on a shepherd's pie; and mashed potato can also be combined with leftover cabbage or Brussels sprouts to make bubble and squeak - which might also double as a hangover reliever.