October 30, 2018

Turkey Time

It’s funny when you think about holiday menus, every family has those family recipes and traditions that really define that holiday – often culturally or locally influenced. For my family, a few include cracked Dungeness crab on Christmas Eve and gnocchi with my great-grandmothers bolognese on Thanksgiving. We eat crab because it’s locally sourced here at the Sonoma Coast (and crab season always starts in December) and we make gnocchi because we’re Italian and gnocchi has always been reserved for celebrations (store bought dry spaghetti is just fine for day to day dining!). Some families do goose at Christmas or leg of lamb at Easter. My mother in law always makes a Jell-O mold for every holiday (that no one eats but she never seems to notice).

As I said, we all have our family recipes and traditions that seem to be unique and different to each family. Except for one holiday: Thanksgiving. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a turkey. Downright un-American to forgo that big roasted (often dry) bird. Your sides might vary slightly, but the main course is always turkey.

So, of course, at Farmhouse, once a year (just like at your house) you’ll find turkey on the menu for Thanksgiving. The trick is, how do you make roasted turkey live up to a Michelin One Star dining expectations?

Let’s be honest, turkey has a bad rap.  It’s big and hard to cook and almost always has been frozen.  Most of us remember our mothers getting out of bed at 5 am Thanksgiving Day to get that bird into the oven for some ungodly number of hours.  But that doesn’t have to be the case.  Like any other meal you might prepare, before you even think about preparation, you must start with the very best ingredients if you want it to taste good.  In 2006, the Sonoma Heritage Turkey Project was dreamt up by a local poultry farmer, Katherine Thode, where 4H kids could apply to raise up to 30 heritage breed birds on organic feed, thus continuing the preservation and breeding stock while educating a community about why sometimes it’s better to skip the grocery store freezer bin.  These birds, about 200 a year, are sold to restaurants and consumers (with always far greater demand than supply) and I’m happy to report that Farmhouse has been a customer since day one.   I’m even happier to report that my son Nico is one of the 4H kids raising these beautiful turkeys.

This year, Nico has a flock of entirely Narragansets, half toms, half hens. In the past, we’ve had a mix of Bronze and Narraganset. They’re nothing like the lumbering and docile broad-breast grocery store turkeys we’ve all seen in petting zoos, these guys are lean, sleek, and entirely too skittish. They grow at about half the rate of their factory farmed cousins and require a massive yard to roam. That means from chick to entrée, it’s almost an 8-month commitment! Genetically very close to wild turkey, they exhibit so many of the same behaviors – moving as a flock, gobbling in unison and always on high alert for predators. They don’t go in at night (forcing us to herd them into their coop with sticks), their preference would be to roost high in trees, and a single bird won’t leave the protection of the flock to eat so food bins better be in a convenient location.  If the flock is even remotely stressed, they’ll stop eating and the toms will start becoming aggressive with one another (this happens, regardless, but stress really amplifies the behavior).

So, as we’ve learned, there’s a fair amount of finesse that goes into the care and well being of these birds.  Adding to the mix, the turkey’s instincts are spot on, Northern California is full of predators – eagle, fox, coyote, raccoon, mountain lion, bobcat… Last year a week before Thanksgiving, a bobcat ripped the netting that covers our enclosure taking one bird but, in the chaos that ensued, four more died of broken necks. It took 2 more days before we recovered the remaining flock that fled into the treetops of the forest!  We were lucky, the Osmond family in Valley Ford lost their entire flock to coyotes. It’s not for the faint of heart. But we trudge on and eventually we make it to “process day” where the kids load the birds up and, together with the other 4H families, process (a fancy word for kill), gut, de-feather, and bag the birds.

It’s dirty work but I can’t tell you how vitally important it is to see a living animal become the food you eat – it forever changes the way you look at meat. I respect every bite I put in my mouth.

Every carnivore should be required to “process” an animal once in their life.  The freshly bagged birds are delivered to customers by the children who raised them, often with a farm box of local produce and a pumpkin pie, and for a day or two, we can forget about turkey.  Oh wait, we still have a bird to cook!

At Farmhouse, the preparation of our Thanksgiving feast is far beyond what any home cook would want to tackle. But, over the years, I’ve learned a lot from our chefs and in my own kitchen, I incorporate many of the tricks they’ve taught me. Our heritage turkey has a lot more flavor than a broad breast and, while overall much leaner, like duck there is a thin layer of fat right where you want it, between the breast meat and the skin. I know the world is in love with brining, but if your bird is full of flavor (with fat in just the right spots) you can skip the salt bath. I’m a HUGE advocate of deconstructing the bird before cooking it. Honestly, I think it should be against the law to cook a turkey whole and stuffed!

I start by breaking down my bird the day before separating out the entire breast (in one piece) and thigh/leg (in two pieces). Breast meat cooks quicker than thigh and with a whole bird, you always must overcook the breast in order to get the thigh and leg meat cooked through. Roasting off the pieces separately means that you can cook each part to the perfect temperature keeping it moist and delicious. And, as an added benefit with this method, before your bird even goes into the over, you are left with a mountain of boney unusable parts – neck, back, wings, that weird thing that might be a tail – that can be roasted off in advanced to make a rich beautiful bone stock for your stuffing and gravy. I can’t tell you what a game changer having great stock is!!! And, make sure that you save all the dripping from the bone roasting, and the thigh and breast roasting for your gravy.

Remember, deglazing those little-burnt spots on the bottom of EVERY roasting pan not only give your gravy rich brown color but loads of flavor. I must admit, I love good flavor!

So, there you have it, it’s not that complicated. You just need to start with a great bird and an intentional technique that yields the results you’re looking for. Happy Thanksgiving!

And you can order your own turkey here!

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