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Turkey: Roasted or braised, you decide

November 17, 2014

A whole turkey is cut up into manageable pieces, rubbed with plenty of spices, then braised until tender. The method allows for easy transport and reheating

Thanksgiving might just be the ultimate potluck. Nearly everyone we know loves this food-centric holiday. Long gone are the days of one person cooking the whole Thanksgiving dinner.

These days, many guests volunteer to bring a part of the meal, for a bunch of reasons — special diets or food preferences, but mostly, for the pleasure of cooking. They practically beg to bring their all-time favorite dish, or the newest idea they found in a magazine. Friends of ours always want to share a favorite wine or craft beer.

For Thanksgiving, about two dozen of us gather at my sister’s home. She’s a practical person and plans two turkeys — one braised in a portable Nesco roaster oven and the other on the charcoal grill. Her daughters cook our favorite stuffing recipes in three slow cookers, leaving the oven free for the rest of the meal. Someone brings roasted vegetables to reheat; another contributes mashed potatoes. My daughter likes to bring homemade cranberry sauce, while my mother makes a fresh cranberry relish. I often like to start the meal with soup. My brother enjoys selecting the wines.

My nieces and nephews get in on the action too, making appetizers, salads, veggies and dessert — exclusively pie. All the standards show up — pumpkin, apple, lemon meringue. Newcomers include sweet potato, cranberry, coconut, even chocolate. We laugh. Because of everyone’s generosity and love of the kitchen crafts, we often have more than half a pie per person.

When it’s my turn to bring a main course, I volunteer this braised turkey. I have the butcher cut the turkey into parts (like a chicken) for maximum flavor and moistness. I rub a spice blend evocative of Moroccan tagines to season the turkey. Then the turkey parts are arranged on a bed of vegetables with broth added to the pan. There’s a bonus — all of the lovely vegetables and broth used to braise the turkey taste terrific stirred into pasta for an unexpected side dish to add to the meal.

Our family’s potluck holidays require a little planning and a few advance preparations to keep them low stress.

Let’s start with that second turkey recipe — the always-a-showstopper whole bronzed bird. This year’s version takes advantage of my bourbon stash. I put a generous amount in the brine and a splash in the pan-gravy — adding just enough of bourbon’s dark, smoky flavors for an intriguing addition. After brining, a simple rub with olive oil, salt and pepper seasons the skin. I like to cook the turkey in a shallow roasting pan with a couple of cups of broth for added moisture. The rich pan juices make a delicious pan gravy.

I rarely stuff the turkey with dressing — primarily because of speedy cooking, but also for safety. Tightly packed turkey cavities can fail to reach a safe internal temperature. Instead, I loosely fill the neck and body cavities with a medley of onion, apples and fresh herbs. These ingredients add moisture and aroma to the turkey. They do double duty because after the turkey is cooked, I add the still-sweet onion and apple bits to my pan gravy.

Turkey stuffing, or dressing as some folks call it, need not be just a pile of mushy bread. I like to upgrade the bread — no preseasoned croutons or soggy white dough. Good bread means stuffing with integrity. I add drama with a blend of dark bread (such as pumpernickel) and the toasted cubes from a hearty baguette. I soften crunchy celery and sweet onion along with sausage and bacon; then add raisins or dried cranberries for a sweet element. Marry the stuffing to the bird by moistening it with a homemade turkey broth made from the neck and giblets.

When I bring a dish to someone else’s home, I like to pull out all of the stops. After all, the host does the lion’s share of the holiday work. This sweet potato recipe overflows with indulgence from favorites like candied bacon, smoked almonds, cheese and trendy kale. Who knew sweet potatoes could be so captivating?

Ditto for roasted vegetables. A local restaurant sparked this idea: roasted Brussels sprouts garnished with seasonal pomegranate. The combination is great with roasted cauliflower or broccoli. Simply toss roasted veggies with a splash of pomegranate molasses for a sweet edge. Add fresh pomegranate seeds just before serving.

We are thankful everyone wants to contribute to the holiday meal. Our only challenge is having enough counter space for all of those pies.

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BRAISED TURKEY WITH MOROCCAN SPICES

Prep: 45 minutes

Cook: 2 hours

Makes: 12 to 14 servings

Most butchers will cut the turkey up for you. Za’atar, a blend of sumac, thyme, oregano, sesame and other seasonings, is available in the spice section of most large supermarkets, Whole Foods and online from thespicehouse.com.

1 turkey, 13 to 15 pounds

2 tablespoons za’atar seasoning blend

1 tablespoon each: ground cinnamon, turmeric

2 teaspoons each: ground cumin, garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne, optional

2 or 3 carrots, diced

1 large onion, diced

1 large bulb fresh fennel, stalks and fronds removed, bulb diced

1 small leek, split, rinsed, diced

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons salt

1. Remove the giblets and neck packets from the cavity of the turkey. Rinse turkey well and pat dry. Cut the turkey in portions like you would a chicken: First remove the legs and cut them apart into drumsticks and thighs. Then cut off the wings. Use kitchen shears to cut out the back bone. Use a large knife or kitchen shears to carefully split the turkey breast down the middle into two halves.

2. Put the giblets (not the liver), neck, wings and backbone into a large pot. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches, usually 3 quarts. Simmer, adding water if needed, 2 to 3 hours. Strain into a bowl, discarding the solids. Refrigerate broth for up to 3 days. You should have about 6 cups.

3. Mix all the spices together in a small bowl. Rub the mixture on all sides of the turkey breast halves, thighs and drumsticks set on a baking sheet in a single layer. Rubbed turkey can be refrigerated, loosely covered, up to several days.

4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix carrots, onion, fennel, leek, and garlic in the bottom of a large metal baking pan. Nestle the turkey parts into the vegetables in a single uncrowded layer. Sprinkle everything with salt.

5. Put the pan in the oven. Carefully pour 3 to 4 cups of the turkey broth into the pan, taking care not to pour it over the rubbed turkey; you don’t want to wash off the rub. The broth should come halfway up the sides of the meat. Cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 160 degrees when inserted in the breast and the juices run clear, about 1 hour. Use tongs to remove breasts to a cutting board. Continue cooking the thighs and legs, 15-20 minutes.

6. Arrange all the turkey pieces on a platter or cutting board. Let turkey rest about 10 minutes before slicing. Skim off and discard any fat from the pan juices. The juices can be thickened to make a gravy, using a cornstarch slurry (a tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in a little cold water). Serve the vegetables with the sliced turkey.

Nutrition information per serving (for 14 servings): 417 calories, 13 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 239 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 65 g protein, 500 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

GRILL IT

Grilling the braised Moroccan turkey frees the oven for other dishes; sprinkle wood chips over the coals for an unbeatable smoky element. To do so, follow the braised turkey directions for preparing the bird and vegetables through step 4. (Use a pan that will fit in the center of the grill, usually 16 by 11 inches.) Then pick up here:

1. Soak 2 cups mesquite or hickory wood chips in water to cover for at least 30 minutes. Drain.

2. Heat a gas grill to medium-high or light a charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. Turn off the heat in the center of the gas grill or set up the charcoal grill for indirect cooking by banking all the coals to the sides, leaving the center empty. Sprinkle some wood chips over the coals. (If cooking on a gas grill, put the drained chips on a piece of heavy foil and set the packet over the heat source.)

3. Put the pan of turkey and vegetables in the center of the grill (not directly over the heat source). Carefully pour 3 to 4 cups of the turkey broth into the pan, taking care not to pour it over the rubbed turkey. Cover the grill to maintain a steady 325 degree temperature (you can use an oven thermometer as a guide). Check the grill and add coals and wood chips every 20 to 30 minutes. Cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 160 degrees when inserted in the breast and the juices run clear, about 1 hour. Use tongs to remove breasts to a cutting board. Continue smoke-braising the thighs 15 to 20 minutes more.

4. Arrange all the turkey pieces on a platter or cutting board. Let turkey rest about 10 minutes. Continue with directions from the braising recipe for the vegetables and pan juices.

PASTA SIDE DISH

The braised vegetables and pan juices from the Moroccan turkey make a wonderful accompaniment to pasta to serve alongside the turkey.

Cook 1 pound rigatoni or cavatappi pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, 8 to 11 minutes. Drain well.

Put pasta into a large bowl. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables from the roasting pan into the pasta. Ladle in several spoonfuls of the pan juices to moisten the pasta. Season with salt. Stir in 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro; if you like, you can also add 1/4 cup slivered almonds and 1/4 cup diced preserved lemons. (Preserved lemons can be found bottled in specialty stores or on Amazon.com; they add an aromatic bitter lemon flavor.)

BOURBON-BRINED TURKEY WITH APPLE BOURBON PAN GRAVY

Prep: 45 minutes

Brine: 4 hours or overnight

Cook: 3 hours

Makes: 12 to 14 servings

I don’t bother trussing the turkey; the legs will cook more evenly if they are not trussed close to the body. The broth in the bottom of the pan lends moisture to the turkey. Baste the turkey every 20 to 30 minutes for moister breast meat. Skip the basting if you crave crispy skin.

1 turkey, 13 to 15 pounds

1 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup coarse (kosher) salt

1/2 cup bourbon

1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 large sweet onion, roughly chopped

2 large apples, quartered, cored, roughly chopped

Several sprigs each of (all fresh): sage, parsley, thyme, rosemary

Pan gravy:

1/3 cup cornstarch

2 tablespoons bourbon or 1/4 cup dry red wine

Gravy darkener, optional

Fresh herb sprigs for garnish

1. Remove the giblets and neck packets from the cavity of the turkey. Rinse turkey well.

2. Have ready a large food-safe plastic bucket or container. Put 2 cups very hot water, brown sugar and salt into the container. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt. Stir in 2 cups cold water, 1/2 cup bourbon and pepper flakes. Put the turkey in the brine. Add enough cool water to completely immerse the turkey. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Remove turkey from brine. Discard the brine. Refrigerate turkey up to 2 days.

3. For broth, put the giblets (not the liver) and neck into a deep saucepan. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches, usually 1 1/2 quarts. Simmer, adding water if needed, about 2 hours. Strain into a bowl, discarding the solids. Refrigerate broth for up to 3 days. You should have about 4 cups broth.

4. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Put some of the onion and apple pieces in the turkey’s neck cavity; use wooden picks to secure the skin over the cavity. Tuck the wings behind the back. Put the remaining onion and apple pieces into the body cavity. Add herb sprigs. Use wooden picks to pull the skin closed over the body cavity, but don’t stress if it’s not completely covered.

5. Put the turkey into a large roasting pan, breast side up. Rub all sides with olive oil; sprinkle generously with coarse salt and pepper. Gently pour 2 cups of the turkey broth into the pan. Roast, 30 minutes.

6. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue roasting the turkey, basting every 30 minutes or so with the pan juices and turning the pan occasionally for even browning, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers about 160 degrees, 2 to 2 1/2 hours longer. Increase oven temperature to 450 degrees; roast to brown the skin more deeply, about 10 minutes.

7. Remove turkey to a cutting board; tent with foil. Let it stand about 15 minutes or so; the temperature will rise 10 more degrees. I think the turkey is deliciously juicy at 165 to 170 degrees — no more.

8. Meanwhile, set the roasting pan with the brothy juices directly over the burner. Ladle off and discard any excess fat. Heat the pan juices to a boil. Dissolve the cornstarch and 1/2 cup of the remaining turkey broth. Whisk some of the dissolved cornstarch into the simmering pan juices until boiling and thickened as desired (you may not need all the cornstarch mixture). Add more broth if needed to adjust consistency. Off the heat, add bourbon or wine; season with salt and pepper. If desired, stir in a spoonful of gravy darkener for a richer color. You should have a generous 3 cups.

9. Use a spoon to remove the cooked onion and apple pieces from the turkey cavities to a cutting board. (Discard the herb sprigs.) Cut onion and apple pieces into small dice. Stir into the pan gravy. Serve carved turkey with apple bourbon pan gravy. Garnish with fresh herbs.

Nutrition information per serving (for 14 servings): 507 calories, 17 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 276 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 74 g protein, 579 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

TWO-BREAD STUFFING WITH SAUSAGE, BACON AND RAISINS

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 1 1/2 hours

Makes: 12 to 14 servings

1 pound loaf pumpernickel or black bread with raisins, cut into 1-inch pieces

10 ounces French baguette, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 1/2 pounds mild Italian sausage, removed from casing

4 ounces smoky bacon, cut into small dice

1 large sweet onion, diced

4 ribs celery, diced

1 bunch green onions, trimmed, diced

3 to 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries

2 tablespoons rubbed sage

About 5 cups turkey or chicken broth

1/4 cup fresh parsley

1/2 teaspoon each: thyme, pepper

Salt to taste

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heavily butter a 13-by-9-inch baking pan.

2. Spread bread pieces in a single layer on two baking sheets. Bake, turning once or twice, until lightly crisped, about 20 minutes. Cool. (Wrap cooled bread in foil up to 1 day in advance.)

3. Meanwhile, cook sausage, bacon and sweet onion in very large skillet over medium heat, chopping sausage into small bits and stirring until sausage is cooked through and golden, about 30 minutes. Cool.

4. Mix celery, green onions, garlic, raisins or cranberries, and sage in bottom of a large bowl. Stir in cooled sausage mixture. Add bread cubes; mix well. Stir in broth to nicely moisten everything. Stir in parsley, thyme and pepper. Taste and season with salt.

5. Transfer the mixture to the buttered pan. Let stand at room temperature up to 1 hour or refrigerated, covered, up to 1 day.

6. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees until heated through and edges are crispy, 50 to 60 minutes (slightly longer if mixture was refrigerated). Serve hot.

Nutrition information per serving (for 14 servings): 282 calories, 9 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 38 g carbohydrates, 13 g protein, 1,049 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

ROASTED SWEET POTATOES WITH SMOKED ALMONDS AND CANDIED BACON

Prep: 40 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 12 to 14 servings

6 large (about 4 1/2 pounds total) sweet potatoes, scrubbed, peeled

1/4 cup rice bran oil or expeller pressed canola oil

2 teaspoons salt

4 to 6 cups (3 to 4 ounces) baby kale or arugula

2 cups crumbled goat cheese or coarsely shredded sharp cheddar

1/2 cup roughly chopped smoked almonds

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

6 slices candied bacon, see recipe

Sour cream thinned with a little milk

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut potatoes into 3/4-inch pieces. Put into a large bowl; add oil and salt; toss well to coat evenly. Spread potatoes in a single uncrowded layer on 1 or 2 large baking sheets. Roast potatoes, stirring occasionally, until golden and fork-tender, 20-25 minutes.

2. To serve, stir kale into warm potatoes; arrange on a serving platter. Sprinkle with cheese, almonds and chives. Break the bacon over everything. Drizzle with a little of the sour cream. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Nutrition information per serving (for 14 servings): 215 calories, 12 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 24 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, 532 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

CANDIED BACON

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 12 slices

I like Niman Ranch bacon for this recipe, but any thick smoky bacon will taste great.

12 thick slices (12 ounces) peppered uncured bacon

2 tablespoons demerara sugar or dark brown sugar

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lay bacon on a wire rack set over a baking sheet in a single uncrowded layer. Bake until bacon is starting to crisp and brown, about 15 minutes.

2. Use a metal spatula if necessary to loosen the bacon and flip each slice. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of the sugar over the tops of each bacon slice. Bake until sugar melts, 2-3 minutes. Flip bacon again; sprinkle another 1/2 teaspoon sugar over each slice. Return to oven; bake until crisp, about 2 minutes.

Nutrition information per slice: 59 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 161 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

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