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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

In Defence of the Christmas Turkey

I have had a lot of interest in my blog post “Cooking Christmas Dinner the Stress-Free Way”, where I give you the recipes for a fabulous festive feast, and the methods of preparing and cooking that will take the pressure off you for the great day.

I can’t help noticing, though, that turkey as the centrepiece is under threat, particularly from the TV and magazine chefs: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Rick Stein have been praising goose, and Heston Blumenthal, being Heston Blumenthal, suggested stag (red deer venison) served out of a wicker sculpture, with an archer shooting the dressed pelt of the creature at the table.  Some of these shows were repeats, and I don’t doubt that they will continue to be repeated for a few years yet, so this defence may be necessary for some time yet.

There is no doubt that turkey is a relatively recent tradition, championed by the Victorians, (and, of course, it wouldn’t have been available to Europeans until the discovery of the Americas) and that in earlier times goose, venison, rib of beef etc may have been more likely to be on the table on Christmas Day.  But that’s still 150+ years of tradition to follow for us turkey lovers: I have absolutely no quarrel with you going-goose, or whatever, but please do not dismiss the big bird without considering the following.

The loudest objection to turkey is that it is boring and dry: not if you buy a good, free-range breed, and then cook it sympathetically, it isn’t.  As I point out in my recipe, it is a huge lump of meat, and it is all to easy to dry out the outside parts before you’ve successfully cooked the inner: I show you the correct way.  If you started with an inferior, factory-farmed turkey, you didn’t have much flavour or moisture to start with, and if you bought a frozen one, that will probably take three days to defrost safely in the fridge, losing even more of the flavour it didn’t really possess in the process.

So, to repeat: buy a good turkey, and cook it the way I have shown you: enjoy the rich flavour, and the juicy meat (even I will admit that the lean breast won’t exactly be juicy, but it certainly shouldn’t be dry), and remind yourself just what a wonderful food it is.   Maybe you’ll be experiencing the real thing for the first time, in which case prepare yourself for a pleasant surprise.

I am not anti the alternatives, by the way; I enjoy them all.  But to me, there is something about the turkey that speaks Christmas more than any other.  However, like many people nowadays, I shall actually be celebrating Christmas twice: once on the 25th, and then again a few days later when the rest of my family arrive, following their festive frolics with the in-laws at the other end of the country.  This is an opportunity, not a problem: I shall actually be having roast Rib of Beef on Christmas Day itself, then have the turkey to look forward to, which will help extend the spirit of Christmas through the festive season.

On a final note, I say in my recipe that I don’t think stuffing the turkey is a good idea; any advantage of flavour and moisture retention is offset by the extra cooking time needed to penetrate all the way through the bird to the middle of the stuffing.  But, being an open-minded kind of guy, I will pass on a suggestion, kind of influenced by a recent River Cottage programme where they did stuff the bird.  It was a goose (see above), but the principal still applies to our turkey.

Add some Christmassy flavourings to your stuffing (the one I suggest in my recipe is fairly plain, and, to be frank, not especially seasonal) such as dried fruit and spices, with maybe a dash of port.  If you must stuff the bird, and I admit it would be nice to have some of those flavours wafting through the meat, only part-stuff the cavity: you can still cook the rest of the stuffing as I suggest, on a tray or formed into balls.  As long as there is still plenty of space inside the bird, the hot air will get through.  Be very, very careful, though: make sure the junction of meat/stuffing, and the centre of the stuffing itself, is absolutely piping hot.

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