Monday, November 23, 2015

Cooking a Turkey is Like Having a Baby: Thanksgiving 2015

Heightened emotions. Stress. Excitement. Family waiting in anticipation. Happy tears. Nervous tears. Tears of frustration. Reading advice. Asking for advice. Second-guessing what you already know. Spending too much. Buying stuff you don't need. Forgetting essentials that you do. Self-doubt and feeling inadequate. Over-confidence. Exquisite joy! Over in moments. Lots of mess to clean up. Exhaustion. Happy exhaustion.The best of times. The worst of times.

Sound familiar?

Yeah, sounds like having a baby, right? I experience all of those emotions over the course of pregnancy and delivery. I love giving birth, and each of my deliveries turned out to be thankfully, uneventful. Three of them were unmedicated. Still, there is always a moment right about transition when I start thinking, "This was a really bad idea." Luckily, my husband is a great coach and I can't dismiss the joy, peace, and satisfaction I feel once I've got that little person in my arms. Happy ending.

However, I was actually describing cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my family; particularly how I feel when I make a turkey.

Weeks in advance I think, "Of course I'll cook the turkey. I've done this multiple times. It'll be easy. I've got this." That sense of uber-confidence lasts until I go to the store to buy the turkey. It is amazing how rows of frozen birds can rob you of your sense of security! How many pounds should I buy? Did I read the promotional ad correctly? Will this really ring up as only $.69 a pound? Why do people buy "self-basting birds?" Do I need an oven bag? Did I buy everything I need for the brine? (Why am I doing a brine?) I hope this sucker thaws in time for baking, unlike last year...

This year we celebrated Thanksgiving early at my house because my in-laws were coming in town anyway to see me perform in my handbell group, and my sister-in-law had just had a baby. I love my house. Built in 1941, it is charmingly cozy with its dark red brick, its built in shelving in the kitchen, and its original pink tile bathroom. It isn't huge though, so guests sleep in the family room, and when all 8 chairs are around the kitchen table, there isn't really room to open the fridge, or stove, or breath too heavily.

You can eat comfortably, but leaving the table is like peeling apart tortillas that have been in the fridge too long. You know how they are all stuck together, but after some bending, plying, and perhaps irritated mutterings you can finally get the things apart without looking too bad? That's leaving the table at my house with 8 adults in the kitchen.

Really though, I love my house and maybe it is because of its age that it feels right to be crammed into a tight space with the delicious aroma of turkey, slightly burnt sweet potatoes, freshly baked rolls, and gravy simmering on the stove. I feel connected to the history of this house, and wonder how may other families made similar memories in this homey space. When my house is filled with the noise of people and holiday food, it feels most like home.

Back to the food...

This year, my friend suggested I brine my turkey using a recipe they've used for years. Ok, I can do this. So, Friday night I played bells and then went to Walmart at 9:30 to make sure I was set up with supplies. Saturday morning we got started around 7:45 with whole wheat buttermilk pancakes for breakfast. I roasted 6 cloves of garlic to make this amazing garlic rosemary butter to smear on the turkey. It is life changing, by the way. Then, I prepped dinner for that night while I was at another performance, Chicken Gyros with homemade tzatziki. I next moved on to making the Muddy Buddies for my No-Bake Muddy Buddies Cheesecake. Then, I made the filling, crust, and cheesecake. I was simultaneously letting the rolls raise for my Perfect Parker House Rolls. Once the rolls were complete, I pulled the turkey out of the fridge. While I let the brine mixture simmer, I started taking  the neck and giblets out of the bird.

That thing had been thawing in the fridge for 6 days. Six. So imagine my angst when I am chiseling out the neck from a frozen turkey cavity with a dull knife while my mother-in-law watches. (She's great and super helpful, by the way, but I start feeling so self-conscious at this point). I'm also wondering,"Where are the dang giblets?!" How about frozen in the neck cavity beneath that frozen turkey skin flap. Once the turkey was pried open, I got out my special brining containers-2 large white trash bags. I had bought them especially for this momentous occasion. I put the trash bags in my canning pot, put the turkey inside, poured the brine on top, (which was lovely, by the way- rosemary, bay leaves, garlic, salt and sugar), and sealed it all up. With rising levels of uncertainty, and a performance to run to, I quickly showered and sprinted out of my house at 5:00, leaving my sainted husband to mow up the leaves in the back yard, and my equally sainted in-laws to keep my darling children alive. Yvonne, my mother-in-law, also peeled and chopped the potatoes, and prepped the sweet potatoes because she's awesome.

Sunday morning came early, and with uncertain excitement. Today's the day! I got out the turkey roaster. I chopped celery, red onion, and carrots to fill the cavity. I checked the clock. 8:00! Its go time! I checked on my brined turkey. It looked surprisingly elegant, covered in bay leaves and rosemary, so I carefully put the turkey into the roasting pan, stuffed the veggies into the cavity, and then tried to spread that delicious garlic butter under the skin of the bird.

Have you tried this before? I swear all that buttery goodness just ended up on my hands and wrists and not on the turkey, like some bizarre, herby hand mask. How do you spread butter or a wet, cold turkey? It doesn't stick! Its like trying to get a two-year-old to sit still in a candy store full of open bins of M&M's. Plus, the skin didn't seem to pull away from the turkey breast at all. What? Finally, I gave up, covered the turkey foil, put on the lid, turned up the roasted to 325 degrees. and went to church. We came home to a house filled with the promising aroma of turkey success.

Around 1:00, with the sweet potatoes and dressing in the oven, it was time to open up the turkey roaster. My first tip off was the clock. My second tip was the smell. Was that a slight burning scent? Gah! I open the turkey and see what can be best described as the burnt and busted-open turkey on National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase. You know, the family is all sitting around the table in happy anticipation and then, smoke! I open the roaster and find the turkey's back bone had broken, and there seemed to be no meat anywhere! "Oh no! I've ruined it! Oh man!" Frantic, I start dousing the carcass with the broth from the bottom of the roaster. While Yvonne consoled me, I continued to groan. My only consolation was that in tasting some of the little dark meat I found, I discovered that it was really good.        -sigh-

I poured the juices from the turkey through a sieve and into a pot to start making the gravy. In a small bowl I whisked together some turkey drippings and flour to make a paste, and them stirred that into the pot of drippings. This became the MOST magical turkey gravy I have ever made, or tasted. Period. I didn't even have to season it, not even with salt. Rosemary and garlic lingered as a light background flavor behind turkey goodness. Well, I figured, we can at least drown the turkey with delicious gravy.

We also made 10 pounds, (no joke), of mashed potatoes. I used some of the garlic rosemary butter in the potatoes, and they were heavenly. Whipped up with more butter, sour cream, and whole milk, these potatoes were light, fluffy, and divine with gravy. My sister-in-law brought an amazing arugula salad from how sweet eats  pomegranates, roasted acorn squash, avocados, cucumbers, and a pomegranate vinaigrette. When the whole spread was on the table, it looked Pinterest worthy. Maybe it would be ok if the turkey was a total bust?

But the turkey...

Remember how there was no meat on that thing? Remember how it was dark and its back was broken? I could find so little meat as I started to carve it. As I turned the turkey over it hit me: (not the turkey). I had baked the thing upside down! Who does that?!?

So, there were copious amounts of white breast meat, and juicy strips of dark meat hiding where I didn't expect it to be. The turkey wasn't too dry, and it tasted wonderfully fresh and herby. Oh, the relief! I piled my serving platter high and delivered to my family the centerpiece of Thanksgiving 2015, which the kids passed up for raspberries and Martinelli's.

The best of times. Happy ending. Happy exhaustion.

With the labor pains over, and the dishes finally done, I can honestly say I'd do it all over again.

But not until next year.

Bake the bread. Share the slices.

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