Tuesday, December 26, 2006

First Turkey

This year, we offered to host Christmas dinner for my family (twelve of us in all with cousins, niece and nephew), which by our family tradition is more or less a Thanksgiving meal encore, featuring a roast turkey. We'd never cooked a turkey before, so were a bit nervous about such a large culinary undertaking with so many ways to go wrong. Fortunately, I'm happy to report that the combination of techniques and advice that we employed in cooking the big bird turned out very successfully.

Part of the trepidation is that advice on cooking a turkey can vary so widely, and it seems that almost no one does it the same way. Being the engineer that I am, I combed the Internet searching for advice, at least trying to get a handle on cooking times. General rules of thumb ranged from 12 minutes per pound to 20 minutes per pound, and specific recipes gave total cooking times anywhere from two and a half hours to four and a half hours. So many variables: size of the bird, oven temperature, brined or not, stuffed or not, breast up or breast down (or turning part way) and more. I finally decided we should aim to get the bird in the oven around noon, aiming for a six o'clock dinner, and hope for the best. I figured if it finished early, it couldn't hurt to just let it rest a bit longer, wrapped in foil to stay warm.

Most sources agreed in recommending brining, the technique where the bird is soaked in a salt-water brine before cooking, causing it to retain moisture and flavor. We were familiar with this concept from cooking more quotidian-sized chicken, and knew it to be a good idea. But sticking chicken pieces in brine in a ziploc bag in the fridge is one thing. Figuring out how to do that on an 18-pound turkey would have presented a more formidable logistics problem. Fortunately, we were also familiar with a shortcut on the chicken: if you buy kosher chicken, it saves you a step, because part of the koshering process includes brining, so kosher chicken is essentially pre-brined. Thus, I was delighted when I discovered that I could order a kosher turkey at my local Gelson's market. That was a no-brainer. Ordering a fresh bird also seemed a good choice, avoiding the nightmare stories about defrosting frozen ones.

Trussing was a bit of an adventure. We both understood the goal, and we'd both seen it done on TV or in pictures. Putting it into practice was a bit more perplexing. We had the bird breast up on the rack, and I knew we wanted the wings tied behind its back, tucked under as much as possible, but couldn't see how or why the trussing of the wings should connect to the trussing of the legs. George, however, was adamant that it should all be done with one long piece of string, because that's what Martha Stewart does. This was also complicated by the stuffing of the bird, which obviously needed to happen before the legs were trussed, and we also agreed that we didn't want to turn the bird over once it was stuffed. Wrestling the bird around had become a bit trickier, as we had rubbed butter all over it. But somehow we got the wing trusses in place, then stuffed the bird, and then pulled the same string inside the thighs to take in the legs.

Finally, we got the bird in the oven around 12:30. Many sites had recommended that the bird should go in legs first. Obviously those people are cooking much smaller birds or have much larger ovens, because the notion of putting this bird in our oven any way other than sideways was a non-starter. Our oven is reasonably sized, but we still needed to use the absolute lowest oven rack, and the bird, comfortably nestled (we decided on breast up, no turning) in its roasting pan and V-rack, had only a couple inches margin on all four sides of the pan. I also opted to use the convection mode in our oven, which those sources that discussed convection seemed to recommend. (The air flowing around the bird more evenly browns the skin.) And I split the difference of conflicting advice on temperature and went for 350.

There was also conflicting advice about leaving the bird exposed, versus tenting it in foil, or exposing it only at the beginning or the end. I went with our neighbor's advice of leaving it exposed for the first 30-40 minutes to get the skin golden, and then tenting it the rest of the time, which made sense to me. (Exposing it at the end of the cooking time seemed perilous, since it was so wildly uncertain when exactly the end would be.) We did indeed develop a nice color on the skin after 30-40 minutes (perhaps influenced by the butter we had slathered on the skin just before trussing), so we removed the bird, basted it, added a loose foil tent, and also deployed my mother's innovation at that point: covering the bird in strips of bacon. The bacon acts as a time-release automatic baster, so we didn't disturb the bird for any additional basting after that. (Of course the notion of putting bacon on a kosher bird was amusingly eclectic.) I think Martha puts butter all over the inside of the tenting foil -- the bacon serves the same purpose but releases more slowly. After about an hour, we checked it, and the skin looked like it was getting darker, so we decided to wrap the foil a bit more closely around the top and side of the bird.

I started checking the bird for temperature after two and a half hours of cooking. The thigh was around 160. I decided to cut the temp back at that point to 325. Pretty much every source agreed that the real way to know when you're done is by taking the actual temperature inside the bird with a quick-read thermometer. Most agreed on using the thigh as the best gauge, and getting it to 180. We got there after another two hours (for a total of four and a half hours cook time). The breast, which I checked at the end, was 170, as it should be. The center of the stuffing was only 150, a bit cooler than recommended, but since I knew I'd be boiling it, I didn't worry about that. Happily, all of the elements combined somehow, and we ended up with a very juicy and flavorful turkey.

For the stuffing, I improvised on the basic Stove Top mix (which is what we've always used in our family). My husband is allergic to bread, so we didn't want to put bread in the bird. Instead, I finely chopped a couple onions, four celery stalks, and a couple carrots, and mixed them with some fresh herbs I'd gathered from our garden (a sprig of rosemary, some thyme, and a lot of black sage), and lightly sauteed it, to where the vegs were just starting to get soft. We stuffed the bird with most of that veg mixture.

I reserved a small portion of the vegs, and put them in a sauce pan with the turkey neck (apparently the only innard that comes with a kosher bird), covered in water, and boiled that all afternoon to get a quart or so of turkey stock. When we got close to dinner time, I got 3 cups of the stock to a boil, with a stick of butter, and then added the veggies taken out of the turkey (boiling them for 5-10 minutes to make sure they were safe), and then dumped in the Stove Top seasoned bread crumbs. This was very easy (and believe me, easy is good during the last frantic half-hour pulling together a holiday dinner), and got rave reviews.

I also used the stock in making our gravy. I finely chopped three portobello mushrooms and an onion, and braised that in some of the stock. Then when the turkey came out of the oven, I poured the pan drippings out, and then deglazed the roasting pan. I had never deglazed before, but it merely meant placing the pan on the stove (across two burners), pouring in some white wine, and using a wooden spoon to scrape off the black bits of pan drippings that had stuck to the bottom. After a hasty phone call for reassurance from Mom, I poured the deglazed black bits into the gravy, where they dissolved and created a rich flavor. I then built the gravy up, pouring in a bit of stock, and then adding a bit of flour (I used potato flour, to keep it gluten-free), and repeating. I also added a bit of cream, as the gravy was pretty dark from the pan drippings. It had good flavor but (George will be stunned to hear me say this, cause I never say this) I should have added some salt.

So all in all, I'm pleased to report that our first endeavor with roasting a big bird was a success. And we've got the leftovers in the fridge, and I've got the carcass boiling on the stove to make some stock for turkey soup!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Iraq Study Group to America: It's Up To You, Frankly

The findings of the Iraq Study Group, presented today, revealed no surprises or silver bullets. Its general ideas -- shift more responsibility to the Iraqis, shift the mission focus to training, and engage in comprehensive diplomacy across the region including Iran and Syria -- are all ideas that have been urged by others before. I think what is truly significant about the Group is not its findings, but the process and the bipartisan imprimatur that this group gives to those particular ideas. The Group recognized that the challenge was not only sectarian divides in Iraq, but partisan divides here at home. The process of a group of widely-respected bipartisan leaders forging a consensus plan allows an opening for partisans of either side to gracefully put their partisan views aside and unite as Americans behind this best bipartisan advice.

I think the most interesting question of the press conference this morning was when Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times asked the Group, "What do you intend to do from now on to help President Bush embrace the wisdom of all of your recommendations?" Leon Panetta gave a very thoughtful answer explaining that the essential ingredient to any possible success is to unify our country behind a course of action. Justice O'Connor then added this: "It really is out of our hands, having done what we did. It's up to you, frankly. You are the people who speak to the American people. You're there interpreting this and talking to America. And I hope that the American people will feel that if they are behind something in broad terms that we'll be better off." Senator Simpson then added some observations about how there are too many "100-percenters" in America today who are unwilling to compromise, but compromise and consensus is the only way forward. They obviously all felt strongly about this, as I think it was the only question on which so many Group members wanted to add something. It was then that I realized that was the true value of this Group. Not a new silver bullet idea that no one had thought of before. But a consensus and an opportunity for all of us to get behind it. Now, as Justice O'Connor said, it's up to us.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Taking Ethics Seriously

In this era where "congressional ethics" has practically become an oxymoron, I'm somewhat encouraged to read that Speaker-elect Pelosi seems to be taking it somewhat seriously that Democrats should try to hold up an ethical standard, such as not allowing congressmen to serve in key leadership positions if they are under an ethical cloud. The example du jour being Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL), a former federal judge who was impeached for sentence peddling (and subsequent cover-up). He has been a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, but Pelosi declined to give him the chairmanship. This follows up on a commitment to ethics made earlier this year, when Pelosi removed Rep. William Jefferson (LA) from the House Ways & Means Committee after strong evidence of bribery turned up in his freezer. In both cases, the Congressional Black Caucus complained loudly, but they miss the point. These men were not removed from positions of responsibility because they are black. They were removed because they are crooked. If the fools in these Representatives' districts want to send a crook to Congress, that is their right. And those Representatives, being duly elected, are entitled to speak on the floor of Congress, and to vote. But they are most certainly not entitled to any special responsibilities, such as committee chairmanships, and such responsibilities should not be given to them.

DeWayne Wickham opines in USA Today that Hastings committed his crime long ago, has paid his penance, and should be given a break. I don't think so. If Hastings' crime had been one arising from hard circumstances or even been another sort of crime, I could imagine the possibility of rehabilitation. But Hastings' crimes go straight to the issue of ethics. The man took money as a judge to sell a lenient sentence, and then perjured himself to cover it up. Hastings and his defenders like to point out that he was acquitted of bribery, which is true, but only because he lied on the stand. Which is what lead to his subsequent impeachment. I am probably one of the few Americans alive today willing to imagine that a child molester might possibly become rehabilitated, but even so, it would be imprudent at best to put him in a position of responsibility for, say, a children's choir. Asking for an allegedly rehabilitated Hastings to be put in charge of a Congressional committee would be equivalent to putting an allegedely rehabilitated child molester in charge of the boys' swim team.