My wife has invited many strays and singles, and at least two married couples, to our Thanksgiving this year. The conversation went like this:
“I want to have some people over from my work for Thanksgiving. Is that okay with you, honey?”
“Sure. I just need a head count. And any sorts of dietary restrictions I have to work around.”
“No problem! It’s going to be Alex, Bill, Charlie, and Dave. They’re all fine, feed them whatever.”
“Great!” Six people. No problem.
Those of you who subscribe to traditional recipes may, in your darker moments, confess to feeling irritated when you make the Great Gesture of friendship and invite a friend over to share a meal at your home, and are rewarded with dietary caveats. When you make the Great Gesture, of course you want to show off with one of your better dishes, one of the things you exceed at. There’s likely to be a more-generous-than-usual allowance of carbohydrates and fats involved. And if you’re like me,1 booze too.
Then you hear that your friends, to whom you’ve made the Great Gesture, are lactose intolerant. You can’t be mad at them for this. It’s not their fault, they didn’t ask for it, and they’re at least a little bit embarrassed by having to admit it. You certainly don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, and you know if you plop a big ol’ glob of cheese down in front of them they’re going to feel obliged to eat it and tell you how good it is, lactose intolerance be damned.
All the same, you were going to make your famous Bacon Mac and Cheese Lasagna, and now that’s out so it’s got to be something else. Damnit.
It’s the irritation of having to go to plan B that causes the peeve. You’re not going to hold the lactose intolerance against your friend. You deal. You find a recipe that doesn’t use milk products and you move on.
I’ve had lots of plan B this year.
A couple of days later, I’m told, “Oh! Edgar and Frannie are coming too.”
“Cool!” I say.
“Edgar is gluten-intolerant.”
“He’s celiac? Oh, that’s too bad.” And I pause. The stuffing, that’s out, it’s mainly crumbled up bread, those old hot dog buns I’ve been saving for this exact purpose. And the gravy. Gravy’s made with flour (see below). “So Edgar can’t have stuffing or gravy?”
My wife is blissfully unconcerned. “He won’t need the gravy, because your turkey always turns out great.”
“What about the pie?”
“Someone else will bring it.” At least that’s something I don’t have to do.
She’s right about my turkey. I spatchcock the turkey. It comes out looking like the picture on the right. Here’s how you can do it too and I totally recommend you do this.2 You’re going to need a turkey, a sharp chef knife, a big-ass cutting board, and some poultry shears. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Trust me, the bird won’t dry out.
Takes two hours. Yes, that’s right.
Get the bird thawed. Drain out the excess juices and pat the outside dry with some paper towels. Now, set him breast-side down on your big-ass cutting board. Turn the bird so his neck cavity is facing you. Stick you hand inside the cavity, and feel around until you’ve located the bird’s spine.
Grab the poultry shears, and pick one or the other side of the spine. Doesn’t matter which. Start cutting down the edge of the spine. Some of the connecting bones are tough, so man up (or woman up, as appropriate) and put some strength into it. You’ll feel the resistance end as you get close to the bird’s ass, and the spine tapers down to the coccyx. Then cut down the other side. Remove the bird’s spine. Set it aside but do not throw it away — you’re going to use that sucker.
Flip the bird over, and with your chef’s knife, find and remove the wishbone. That’s going to involve a bit of surgery, but it’s easy enough to do, it’s right there near the neck cavity on the front side of the bird. Now, spread out the legs and the wings, and press down in the middle of the breast. Again, it’s going to take a bit of strength, but (wo)man up and crunch down with both hands until you feel the breastbone give way and the bird flattens out.
Also, trim off the neck and some of the excess skin around there. Save all that stuff. Save the giblet packet too. Congratulations, you’ve spatchcocked your turkey. Dress the bird as you normally would — me, I rub a bit of bacon fat mixed with sage, salt, pepper, rosemary, and garlic under the skin, and then sprinkle a bit more salt and pepper on the skin itself.
“Bill is out, he’s going home to his parents. But George and Howard are coming now. I think we ought to have a theme for the party!”
“Wait, what? A theme? And what’s my head count again?”
“A theme! It’s going to be ‘Dress Like Your Favorite Song.’ I want to do Short Skirt, Long Jacket. I’m going to paint the word ‘Justice’ on my fingernails.”
“Sounds like fun. What can I be? How about the American Idiot? I’m sure the neighbor will lend me his Trump hat.”
“You know, that’s a good idea that could go very, very bad very, very quickly.”
“…Oh. You’re right. Anyway, what’s my head count now?”
Once you’ve got the bird butchered and dressed like I described above, your oven should be pre-heated. Next, you’re going to cut up an onion, several stalks of celery, and several carrots. Big hunks; these aren’t going to be eaten directly. But small enough to fit below the flat rack in your roasting pan. Add some thyme and sage and maybe some powdered (not clove, because a whole clove will burn) garlic.
Spread the vegetables and herbs out on the bottom of the roasting pan, and drop in maybe a quarter cup of chicken stock. Then put the rack on top of them, then put the bird, breast-side up, on top of the rack. Arrange the bird like you see in the picture above — tuck his wings underneath his shoulders, and leave his legs sticking out.
In to the 450 degree oven he goes. In twenty minutes, drop the oven to 400 degrees, and twenty minutes after that, drop it to 350 degrees. There it will remain, unless you notice the skin starting to turn too brown. That bird is going to cook way faster than a whole turkey. For a twelve- or fourteen-pound bird, an hour and a half is likely all it’s going to need.
There’s more work for you to do here during the roast, so don’t get too drunk yet.
“This is awesome! We’re the totally coolest party to go to. Irene and Jacob are coming, you remember them? And Alex is bringing his brother Karl. Karl is a vegan.”
“Yeah, is that a problem?”
“I’m serving a turkey.”
“So he won’t eat the turkey. There’s potatoes!”
“Mashed potatoes are made with milk and butter.”
“Yeah, no, that’s not vegan. What else are we making?”
“Yams. With honey and butter.”
“Use olive oil!”
“Okay, I can do that. And agave nectar, that’s a lot like honey. What about the stuffing? I make the best chicken stock ever.”
“Well, can’t you make a vegetable stock? I’ll pick up some gluten-free stuffing at the hippie store tomorrow on my way home from work.”
“Gluten-free vegan stuffing? That’s gonna be cardboard.”
“I believe in you, you can make it great!”
After about an hour and twenty minutes of the turkey roasting, it’s time to prepare the gravy. Get the giblets that came in that slimy plastic packet inside the bird, and the spine, neck, and the wishbone that you butchered out of the bird while spatchcocking it. Chop up the spine into segments two or three vertebrae long each, and start browning them and the giblets3 in a medium saucepan (your secondary saucepan, not the one your gravy is going to wind up in) with a bit of oil heated up in it. No need for a lot of seasoning here, just get the scrap bits of bird on the outside of the bones browned.
If it’s been an hour and a half, time to use the meat thermometer. Your turkey legs should test at 155 and the breast at 145. (These are the pasteurization temperatures, and they’re also about when the meat firms up to the right texture.) The skin of the turkey should be of a color and texture suitable to grace a cookbook’s cover. Take your bird out and let him rest a bit before carving. The bird will continue to cook while he rests; experienced cooks know that you want this to happen.
In the bottom of the pan will be the vegetables and a ton of turkey-fat drippings. Those go in your saucepan with the browned bones. Along with some more herbs, including the essential bay leaf, and enough chicken stock to cover the mixture. Bring it to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. At this point, you’re probably working some of your side dishes, which is good, because your gravy base needs to simmer and your bird needs to rest.
“Okay, sweetie, what’s the head count now?”
“Between twelve and fourteen. And some of them are only coming for dessert.”
“Not that I know of.”
“How many gluten-free folks?”
“At least two, plus two of the dessert-only people. They’re bringing a vegan cheesecake.”
“Vegan cheesecake. Now I’ve heard it all. So, how many vegans?”
“At least two.”
“How many lactose-er-ifics?”
“I don’t think any, now.”
Warm up the serving platter in the oven. This matters for when you serve the bird. Your sides can go in chafing dishes; your bird goes on a heated platter and the gravy boat rests on that to keep warm, too.
Make some roux in a separate pan, the destination pan for your gravy-making. Roux is made when you melt butter in a saucepan, and whisk in flour into the liquid bit by bit, until it turns into a creamy goo. It is the structural foundation of most sauces and your gravy is not going to be an exception to this. Strain out the big hunks of vegetable and bones from your simmering stock, and pour the liquid into your roux. Stir well, adding more stock until you achieve the desired texture and the lumps thin out to make a satiny, thick brown turkey gravy. You should wind up with more gravy than you know what to do with.
As for the turkey, once he’s rested about twenty minutes, you’re good to carve. The breast halves, you cut against the grain of the meat, away from the breastbone. Separate the legs from the thighs by cutting through the connective tissue at the ball joint. Pull the thighs off, trim them. They cut into two usable pieces. I cut the wings down into two pieces each also. You should wind up with a platter full of juicy meat, ornamented with that awesome, crispy, cookbook-cover skin, and fresh turkey gravy. Boom. You’re a hero.
“So, Burt! What’s your costume going to be?”
“I have that ‘Viking World Tour 790-1000’ shirt we bought in Temecula, and that Historically Inaccurate Viking Helmet from Halloween. I’m going as Immigrant Song.”
“Really? I didn’t know that song was about vikings. I just thought it was a song one of those boy bands you listen to does.”
“For the last time, dear, Led Zeppelin is not a boy band.”
“There’s all boys in the band, and just boys like it. It’s a boy band.”
“Moving on. What else is on the playlist?”
“Let’s see… Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone, Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie, Prince’s Raspberry Beret, Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love, that’s Marvin and Nancy doing a couples costume, Mackelmore’s Downtown. Isn’t that the Thrift Shop guy? Oh, and Lonely Island I’m On A Boat, Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, and something I haven’t heard of called Turn It Down For What.”
“The Lil’ Jon song?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Sounds like rap.”
“Good thing we don’t have any kids coming. C’mere, I’ll show you the video.”
Oh, yeah, The side dishes. Some people are bringing dishes to pass. I’m going to let the vegans figure out if the cream of mushroom soup in the green bean casserole is gluten-free or not.
I cubed three sweet potatoes and a butternut squash. Then I tossed them in a big mixing bowl with olive oil, agave nectar, salt, and pepper. They’re vacuum-sealed in a big bag in my freezer right now; they will sous vide at 190 degrees Thursday morning until it’s time for service.
I also pre-prepped the potatoes. They’re going to be roasted. Dressed with olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and some powdered onion. Again, vacuum-sealed and frozen in advance, to be roasted at the same time as the turkey.
Cranberry salad is ridiculously easy to make. Cranberries, water, and sugar in a saucepan. Boil. Mush up the cranberries a bit with a fork. Add some chopped celery and zest an orange into it. Simmer, thicken, then cool it down. Add a few chopped up nuts if you’re of a mind, although I don’t do this. Do not waste your money on that canned cranberry jello that comes out with the can marks on the side. I keep this stuff around as a spread for the turkey sandwiches after Thanksgiving.4
“What are those?”
“Check it out, sweetie! I got prizes for the costume contest! Here’s a framed embroidery of a unicorn, and a Chia Duck Dynasty guy. Two dollars each at the Goodwill.”
“Coming soon to a white elephant party near you. So hey, what about the whipped cream for the pies? We’re still having vegans, right, otherwise I’d just whip up some of this cream here.”
“Hmm. Can we make vanilla ice cream out of canned coconut milk?”
I honestly have no idea. Maybe gum arabic powder can thicken it up instead of the protein from egg yolks? I guess my research isn’t done yet. Nor am I really sure how someone comes dressed as Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer but I guess I’m going to find out.
While I’m doing that, know that I wish all of you in the Ordinary Times community, and all of your family, friends, hosts, strays, and singles safe travels and a happy, peaceful Thanksgiving.
Image by naz66
- I know I am.
- if you’re not deep-frying, that is.
- Not the liver, which will foul the taste of your gravy stock. I’ve got no use for the turkey’s liver, sorry.
- Leave some cranberries to infuse into whatever gin as you’ve got on hand. You’ll be happy you followed this advice when you’re drinking cranberry martinis around Christmastime.