I considered titling this post “PTSD: Post-Thanksgiving Stress Disorder,” but I refrained primarily because it didn’t make a lot of sense, but also because I didn’t want to be accidentally offensive or insensitive. In the spirit of Thanksgiving tradition, however, I don’t think fear of offending anyone was a priority for the original pilgrims, evidenced by the part when they killed their hosts and turned the land into McDonald’s (eventually/probably).
Anyway, when I was in Florida for Thanksgiving with my family, I had a conversation with my mom about how, as a lover of white meat, I was excited that all of the grocery stores were going to take the leftover, unsold whole turkeys, cut them up and sell the parts individually in the weeks following. Sure enough, when I returned to New York and my empty refrigerator, I journeyed to my local Bushwick hipster mart, and lo — there lie the breast, contained in its own exclusive packaging.
This may be a controversial statement, and if it is, you need to reprioritize your politics, but the turkey is far and away my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal. The sides my family prepares are unique recipes, but pretty common dishes — there’s my great-grandmother’s stuffing recipe, incorporating chicken giblets, heavy cream, and my great-grandmother’s weight in butter. There’s the broccoli casserole, which is a perennially perplexing item for my mother who prepares it — she uses frozen broccoli, Velveeta cheese, and dried onion rings, and my siblings and I always go nuts for it. My Dominican father makes his cold potato salad, with Veg-All canned mixed vegetables mixed in, and roasted red peppers and pimiento-stuffed Spanish Queen olives as garnish. But the turkey is always the best, what I find myself revisiting all throughout the night.
And on second thought, this is one controversial statement stacked atop another (a controversy napoleon, if you will), because my favorite part of the turkey, the white meat, is commonly regarded as inferior to the dark. Dark meat, inarguably, has more flavor and less of a tendency to dry out when roasted. But why is dark meat turkey so holy and magical, but dark meat chicken is the Oliver Twist of the dinner table, begging to be recognized?? At least I’m consistent! Just call me a breast girl. (Or don’t.)
So when I returned to my apartment with the turkey, mint oreos, and other slightly less essential items in tow, I was enthusiastic about the prospect of turkey sandwiches with this masterful poultry I was about to prepare. I began by eating like nine oreos, and then I really began…to prepare for tomorrow.
When I cook for my friends or family, I receive a massive amount of compliments because I don’t serve anything that isn’t cripplingly spectacular. And when they ask me how I’ve prepared such an extraordinary feast — THIS IS HOW. Prep is so enormously important, and many people don’t understand it’s about 90% of the work in cooking. You wonder why cooking on TV looks so irritatingly easy? Because everything has already been prepped, likely by slave labor interns.
I’m embarrassingly impatient with a significant amount of general life, and most of cooking too, to be honest, but I can’t even envision a reality within which brining is not involved, ESPECIALLY for white meat. I don’t know about brining dark meat, because again, I don’t give a shit about dark meat. But it is the most important part of the entire process, it makes a world of a difference, and it’s unequivocally the easiest step.
Fill a big pot with a bunch of cold water. Then dump salt into it. I don’t know how much. I didn’t measure. Probably about a cup. Brine is a salt water solution that keeps juices from escaping the meat when it’s been cooked, so it remains super moist and flavorful and superior to dark meat. I could get more sciencey about it if I did some research, but I’m barely a writer, let alone a chemist, so we’ll move on. Throw some other stuff in the brine, too. I used garlic powder, onion powder, and garlic paste, because I didn’t feel like looking for anything else. If I had vinegar, I definitely would have added it, because vinegar also does something to the meat that’s important. Just trust me. Brines can absolutely have more and different combinations of stuff in them, and that’s what cooking is all about. Different quantities and combinations of different stuff.
Whisk everything together, mostly to dissolve the salt. Submerge the turkey into the brine, and it will look like a mythical lagoon creature. Poke it for good measure, and then stick it covered in the fridge for at least 24 hours. Covering it is important, because water (and ice) absorb flavors and aromas from the air. Protect your breast. Keep her pure.
I can’t say enough about fresh herbs. Actually, I probably can, at which point all of you except for my mom will stop reading (thanks in advance, mom, and yes, I can make this same turkey for us next time I’m home).
Cilantro has always been my favorite, and paired with lime, it automatically makes any food taste hispanic and therefore, like home. Thyme is a close second, though. I love thyme in scrambled eggs, mixed with mayo to make what I like to call ~herb may0~, roasted in a chicken, tossed with potatoes, you name it. It’s a pain in the ass to deal with though, because the leaves are the size of a mouse’s fingernail, and you have to pull them from the stem without getting any stem. But afterward, your hands smell beautiful for the 8 seconds it takes you to walk to the sink to wash them, and that is your reward.
I use thyme in this context to make a compound butter. Again, I’m no scientist, but in chemistry, a compound is two chemical elements mixed together to make a different…something else (I actually had to Google that to confirm). Also in English, a compound word is two words put together to make a new word. So maybe this has nothing to do with science, but the important thing to know about compound butter is that it’s just adding other ingredients to regular, unsalted butter to make it interesting. (Use unsalted butter in cooking so you have full control of the final saltiness. Use salted butter for your table, for toast, etc., when you want it to add extra flavor to something that’s already been prepared.)
After a day of letting the turkey brine, I chopped the thyme, and threw it in the butter (half of a stick), which I microwaved a little to soften, but not so much that it becomes liquid. I also added fresh ground pepper, garlic powder, garlic paste, sage, and salt. Again, no measurements. Don’t be annoyed.
When you pull the turkey out of her brine, it’s typically really important to pat her dry with paper towels. The less moisture on the surface of the meat, the better brown/crisp/sear it will achieve because you won’t be steaming it with the excess water, just cooking it in your preferred fat. That goes for steaks, searing fish, roasting birds, etc. In this case, I knew my end result was sandwich meat, so *gasp* I didn’t care about a crispy, brown skin all that much. But look how pretty she is!
Once it’s dry, rub the turkey with the butter under the skin, above the actual meat. (I’m reminding myself of Silence of the Lambs. “It rubs the butter on its skin…”) Rub it with the back of a cold spoon so it doesn’t melt all over your fingers. And don’t worry about it being perfect. Just don’t invest too much thought into this step, because the faster you get this into the oven, the faster you can EAT IT.
I’ve learned a multitude of life lessons from my brilliant father, full of wisdom and love, but certainly the most important has been this. I actually just discovered this year that covering the turkey in bacon was something his mom, his teacher, used to do, and I’m happy to carry on the tradition. There absolutely is a noticeable difference between thick-cut, artisanal, smokey bacon and the cheap stuff, but conveniently, cheap bacon is still yummy.
This last part is even easier than making the brine, and as is typical in regards to bacon, little to no words are required.
So I know a whole, big turkey in my parents’ house requires about 4 hours and a lot of cursing, but had no idea how long to cook just a single breast for, so I texted my dad. After I told him it was 3 pounds, he told me to bake it for an hour and a half (I’m no mathematician either, but my calculations determine that cooking time to be 30 minutes per pound). I forgot to ask him the temperature, so I went with a solid 400º, and it worked out perfectly.
The skin wasn’t crispy because I don’t have a top broiler in my gas oven, sadly, but again, I didn’t really care. I pulled off all the bacon and set it aside. It didn’t turn crispy either, as it does with my dad’s turkey, but I didn’t take into account that he uses the same amount of bacon but cooks it for nearly triple the time. Luckily, the only conundrum that I’ve found myself in is that I now have a pile of hot bacon with no further plans.
There were lots of juices left in the pan, and I grew very excited about the idea of bacon gravy, but after whisking some flour and butter into the pan with some chopped bacon, and it turned into this golden brown sludge, I realized I don’t exactly know how to make gravy. I kept the sludge though, which didn’t look all THAT bad, and because it’s just bacon and butter and amazing turkey drippings, my plan is to throw some in a pan before I cook eggs, and I’m sure I’ll get amazing flavor.
In general, I always try not to be afraid to experiment with whatever’s leftover after I’m done with the actual item I’m preparing, and I try to be as creative as possible with whatever abomination/delight results from that experimentation. That is, I believe, the spirit of cooking.