Let’s talk Turkey

Coming to a dining table near you…. You can run, but you can’t hide from the beast of Thanksgiving! Turkey day has arrived! The first of our two calendrial turkey-fests are here and for some odd reason, once again, Thanksgiving does NOT fall on the last Thursday of November as it should. Come to think of it, it didn’t last year either, but like it or not, its here to stress you out, make you eat excessively and generally induce panic… all in the name of being reunited with family and giving thanks.

What is Thanksgiving? Something to do with pilgrims, our forefathers and for some reason, that magnificent beast-of-a-bird, the turkey. I must admit, i am not a huge fan of all things turkey, to be honest. I don’t mind it, but the American obsession with turkey on rye, turkey pot pie, turkey sausages and turkey bacon, is just one step beyond insanity for my purist ways. Furthermore (I believe) sausages and bacon should be made of pork! If our little porky pals weren’t so damn tasty, then why would we try and make alternatives to these products, at every opportunity? I know, I know it’s a health thing, and of course, there are two sides to every argument. For the “My-body- is- a- temple” types amongst you, I will gladly point out that turkey is one of the lowest fat meats around. It’s rich in vitamin B, containing essential amino acids, as well as zinc, potassium, iron and magnesium. Although it must be said that it’s the dark meat that actually contains the bulk of the nutrients, so sadly no points for white meat lovers.

Once in a blue moon I am asked to do some private catering, and for some odd reason I am always booked for Thanksgiving, including this year. Maybe the thought of wrestling with a 20lb bird doesn’t appeal to your average Joe. Enter yours truly, ready and willing to tackle the feathered monster, tweezers at the ready. Whether Thanksgiving or Christmas, I believe every turkey deserves a little beautification before it enters its final resting place, namely the oven. I did a lot of plucking with the tweezers last year to aid the depilatory process and help remove those leftover feathers and follicles (because nobody likes to eat that) followed by a deep tissue massage with the finest butter and of course, my trusty ‘Maldon’ sea salt. Massaging the bird is so important. It actually acts as a tenderizer of sorts and a good rub down with some butter really helps keep the bird succulent and moist throughout the cooking process. If you need guidance with cooking times log onto here for a helpful turkey ‘calculator’.

Planning my menu for this year’s Thanksgiving festivities, the one thing I can tell you is that the best way to take attention away from a potentially dry bird is to create a spectacular spread of side dishes which will act as a diversion! I should also point out that you should offer gravy at EVERY opportunity to further divert attention from any potential “Turkey-tastrophes”. When the meat is drenched in gravy, it can never be dry, right? I don’t think people expect a flawlessly cooked bird. It’s just too damn big to be cooked perfectly every time, so don’t fret if yours isn’t the embodiment of perfect poultry. The only thing you need to ensure is that your bird isn’t raw! This is the biggest faux pas of all and could result in food poisoning (and other uncomfortable side effects) for everyone involved.

So what’s on the table this Thanksgiving? I shall start with my own personal favourites. The creamiest mashed potatoes on the planet (involving A LOT of butter, Maldon salt and cream) green beans, honeyed baby carrots and my absolute favourite accompaniment, a fabulous sage and onion stuffing. (Which despite its name, I do not actually ever stuff into the bird). I usually make a huge dish of stuffing and I semi-cheat by finding my favourite kind of (best quality) sausages, scoring the skins and extracting all the sausage meat. Get a pack of stuffing mix (usually consisting of dry herbs, breadcrumbs and sometimes oats) and mix it in with the raw sausage meat. You can also add some fresh or dry herbs to the mixture, and basically whatever you like really. Then take an oven dish and take the sausage mixture and smooth it into your oven dish and bake for about 45 minutes (or until evenly brown & crispy) on 200C (400F). It’s absolutely wonderful and a really popular flavour-packed accompaniment to turkey.

But for those of you who A) Don’t eat pork or B) Are vegetarians… I usually make a great vegetarian stuffing using wild rice (red, black or just normal brown rice, as white rice tends to get mushy) and then add herbs, onions/shallots, nuts, dried fruits (such as cranberries & raisins) and freshly grated orange or lemon zest and mix together and fry gently so the flavours have time to meld together and the mixture is golden brown. My cheats tip for gravy is to buy some fresh poultry gravy and then buy some poultry gravy granules as a back up (to thicken the fresh gravy if needed) and once the turkey has been removed from the cooking pan, place the pan on the stove (medium heat). Add your fresh gravy and start stirring and as the pan heats up, slowly all the burned bits and flavourful meaty bits will start to intensify your fresh stock creating a rich and wonderful gravy. The technical terms for this is ‘de-glazing’ the pan. If its not thick enough, add a little of the gravy granules to get your desired thickness… And a Chefs trick to giving the gravy a really glossy consistency is to add some butter (about a heaped dessert spoon) – this is called ‘Mounting the butter’.

So basically there you have it! A full thanksgiving spread, set to impress anyone who feasts alongside you on the big day. Although anyone that knows me, knows minimalism is not my thing… I know no limits when it comes to entertaining and I like to make a lot of different dishes and lovely wintery salads with either lentils or wild rice or couscous and dried fruit. It all works so well and puts a new spin to the traditional Thanksgiving table.

A luck fact for those unfortunate hosts of Thanksgiving parties, is that our faithful turkey is armed with a chemical trigger that induces fatigue in those who consume it! Very James Bond, huh? Hopefully it won’t take too long before everyone heads home and you are left to clear up the aftermath of the great feast. But what on earth are you supposed to do with 6lbs of leftover turkey meat? Well I have the best leftover suggestion for you (if you haven’t already thought of it) and you may just kick yourself for not doing it in previous years…Turkey BLT’s!!! No detailed recipe or cookery process involved. Take some toasted white bread slathered with mayonnaise and a little mustard, pile high with turkey, sliced tomatoes and lettuce and top with bacon. Season with salt and pepper and enjoy. I honestly think that THIS is the best part about the whole turkey-feasting-fiasco.

But in all fairness, not everyone likes turkey. In fact is has been vetoed from my own family Christmas celebrations, in favour of beef. And, granted, beef may not be traditional, but there are very rarely any leftovers because everyone in the family loves beef. But how about doing chicken? In fact I have prepared several chickens instead of turkey before. It takes about 90 minutes to roast 4 simultaneously, which saves you hours and hours, and the meat is much juicier and more flavoursome than turkey. Best of all, if you carve it in the kitchen and just plate the white meat, I don’t even think anyone would question it! Goose, guinea fowl and duck are also popular alternatives to turkey. So be bold, think outside the box and dare to be different.

What’s the most important thing about Thanksgiving? Giving thanks, of course, and ultimately being surrounded by family. We very rarely have more than a handful of occasions where friends and family gather together… Be it Christmas, Thanksgiving or good old Ayd-e-Nowrouz. The emphasis is always about being surrounded by your friends and loved ones, drinking and eating and generally celebrating each others company. So think very carefully this year and make sure you are surrounded by people you genuinely like. These days we don’t have so many opportunities to congregate en masse, so we should all endeavour to make it count this year. And if you aren’t gathering in a big group and just want to be low key and make it a quiet and relaxing one this year, then whatever meal you prepare, make a little effort, take a little time and no matter what you create, it’s bound to be enjoyed!

So ask yourself, what are you thankful for? I’m grateful for my wonderful family and my fantastic friends. I’m grateful for learning a little more about myself and the world with each year of my life. Thanks for the good fortune that has come my way so far and the good fortune that is yet to come my way. Lastly, I’m thankful for having a burning passion for all things food, which gives me the drive to share my passion with you all. Happy Thanksgiving everyone… And don’t forget to keep the Alka Seltzer handy!

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