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Virgin Turkey

Posted Jan 27 2009 8:20pm

I know Thanksgiving has passed, and that perhaps many of you have even tired of Thanksgiving stories, and are ready to move on to the rest of the holiday season. With apologies, however, I can’t keep from announcing: I cooked my first turkey yesterday. “What,” you ask? “A week and a half late? Has she been asleep? Or on another planet for the past month?” Allow me to explain. This year, we had two Thanksgivings – a vegetarian Thanksgiving with my parents on the actual day, and, just yesterday, our own non-vegetarian Thanksgiving. Really, at least in part, I just wanted to cook my first turkey – the dish of the all-American holiday, the most stressed-over, contemplated, talked about dish of the year. What could be the big deal, I wondered? It’s a dish, it has ingredients, you cook it like you would anything else, right?

We picked out a fresh turkey well ahead of time, so we would have plenty of selection – a beautiful, organic turkey, to be exact – and popped it in the freezer. Three days prior to the chosen cooking date, I transferred it from freezer to fridge, and didn’t give it another thought until around 3PM Saturday afternoon, when I decided it was time to begin the preparations. I deposited the turkey on the counter, and prodded it gently with a forefinger. It was as hard as a rock. Somehow, the turkey had not thawed at all. No matter, I thought, I’ll just leave it on the counter for a bit (yes, I know, my nutrition professors would be screaming in horror, but I admit to thawing chicken this way and I haven’t died yet. Do as I say, not as I do). Half an hour later I realized the absurdity of my counter-top solution – if it takes two chicken breasts all day to thaw out in such a manner, how long would this turkey take? A week? More proactive measures would have to be employed. I stared at my microwave, then back at the turkey, and decided it just might fit (suddenly thankful that I had spent more money than I could afford on top-notch microwave when I was a broke graduate student). This was when I discovered the number one challenge of a turkey – it is extremely Large and Cumbersome. While realizing with some part of my brain that I was exaggerating, I was nonetheless convinced that the turkey weighed as much as I did while I wrestled it onto a plate and into the microwave. Because my microwave doesn’t allow “auto-defrost” for anything over 5lb, I typed in the 5lb. setting and figured I’d just start it again when the first round had finished. Now, I’ve never defrosted anything nearly close to five pounds – we’re a two person household, after all (well, 5 if you count the cats, 9 if you count the fish, but they don’t eat much); we defrost things like one pound of ground sirloin or two chicken breasts. Imagine my surprise, then, when the microwave display cheerily read “defrost time: 39 minutes.” Thirty nine minutes?! So much for trusting my microwave. I peered inside after 20 minutes, and found that not only was the turkey completely unfrozen, it was beginning to feel a bit warm. “Don’t start cooking yet!” I yelled at the unsuspecting turkey, reduced to addressing remarks to bird carcasses in my distress. I hastily scrambled to assemble the stuffing – this at least, I knew how to do – sauté some shitake mushrooms and onions, make some breadcrumbs from a beautifully crusty rosemary loaf (see photo above), add some broth, you know the drill. Then came the issue of stuffing the turkey. I was using a roasting bag, as per the advice of my friends Emily and Aaron in Nashville (which turned out to be an excellent idea), but as I wrestled once again with the aforementioned Large Turkey I encountered my next dilemma – how to position the turkey in the stuffing bag? I had read that one should cook the turkey “breast side up,” and I am embarrassed to admit that I had to first picture a live turkey, then rotate the one on my counter a few times, until I decided upon the proper orientation for “breast side up.” Then I noticed that this nice, endorsed turkey roasting position placed the little red pop-out gage underneath the turkey, where it was neither visible nor able to pop out (unless it was strong enough to elevate the entire turkey). However, I seemed to recall my grandmother saying those pop-out gages never worked properly anyway, so I decided what the hey, I’ll do without the thing. Next, gaining confidence, I made a nice buttery paste with salt, pepper, and minced garlic, and carefully began “loosening the skin from the turkey and applying the butter beneath the skin.” In reality this consisted of me, up to my wrist inside the turkey, muttering “I’m sorry, turkey, I know this isn’t very elegant,” but the result was the same. I’m usually a very tidy, relaxed, cheerful cook, mind you, so all of this was entirely uncharacteristic – or at least I'd like to think so.

Anyway, 2 hours later, for some reason the turkey was actually good. The aroma was lovely, Zach did a splendid job of carving, and I even felt ambitious enough to scoop up some of the smaller bits of carved turkey and make fried turkey gravy. The turkey was moist, the stuffing tender and flavorful, and surely the kitchen muses were looking out for me that day. Next year, I hope to proceed with confidence and aplomb – or at least get the turkey thawed on time.

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