Pros talk creative ways to cook turkey for Thanksgiving
Personal chef Karen Dar Woon isn’t fond of traditional roasted and stuffed Thanksgiving turkeys. They don’t roast evenly. Timing can be unpredictable (her first bird, lovingly roasted for friends more than 20 years ago, didn’t cook through until 10 p.m.) And, she argues, there are so many tastier options—why be conventional?
For example, Dar Woon’s top tip for a festive turkey this fall is this: debone it. As a single mom with teenaged kids and a catering dream, she taught herself to wield a knife; starting her own business, Your Secret Chef, allowed her to save money for her kids’ education. Now, she debones for her Secret Chef website clients as part of the meals she preps for them—however, she said, most butcher shops also offer those services.
Once readied, Dar Woon stuffs fresh herbs and butter under the turkey skin, and rolls the stuffing inside—usually one with a shallot and celery base. She’s also used a lo mai gai stuffing—sticky rice with Chinese sausage and dried mushrooms—and basted the deboned meat with honey and soy sauce. After she twines the roll together, it roasts quickly and evenly, she said, ready for a tidy, juicy, hot serve.
“Some consider boning sacrilege,” she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her Burnaby home. “I like the aesthetic of roasting a whole bird and using all its parts, and making soup with the bones. But practically, there’s something to be said for buying what you’ll eat and eating what you buy. There’s less waste.”
Dar Woon isn’t the only Vancouver-area chef modifying the traditional bird this holiday. Both Peckinpah (2 Water Street) and Memphis Blues Barbecue House (various locations) offer smoked turkeys to take home. (However, October 3 was the order deadline for this holiday, so keep this option in mind for the next one.) Caterer Savoury Chef Foods offers its clients an hors d’oeuvre of a mini bread pudding topped with turkey and stuffing. And at West Vancouver’s Sebastian & Co (2425 Marine Drive) and other butcher shops, turducken is in the spotlight; that’s a deboned duck, inside a chicken, inside a turkey, all rolled together with layers of stuffing.
Interestingly, the shop’s co-owner, Sebastian Cortez, eschews fancy cuts for his own Thanksgiving meal in favour of the infamous American fire-starter, the deep-fried turkey (just Google it on YouTube to see the dangers). First, he brines the bird overnight in a mixture of water, kosher salt, brown sugar, garlic, thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, sliced oranges and lemons, coriander seeds, bay leaves, mace, and cinnamon. Then, he heads outside with a vat of oil. Cortez has spent the past few Thanksgivings in his back yard, firing up his Canadian Tire propane burner for the 90-minute cook.
“The disadvantage of deep frying is you don’t get that nice turkey smell in the house, and there’s no drippings for gravy,” Cortez, who trained as a chef under Toronto’s Jaime Kennedy, told the Straight. “But it’s fantastic—so crispy, and [if it’s brined] even if you overcook it, the meat is still tender.” (Deep-frying a turkey can be seriously dangerous, so don’t attempt it unless you know exactly what you’re doing.)
Customers, he said, are increasingly asking for creative turkey options; some are doing rotisserie turkeys at home, others grill a butterflied bird. Cortez also prefers nontraditional turkeys, because cooking a whole stuffed one to the recommended internal temperature often results in a dry bird.
If anyone remains dedicated to a Martha-style traditional turkey, you’d think it would be Abbotsford’s Lovella Schellenberg, who co-founded the home-style foodie blog Mennonite Girls Can Cook. Not so. As a child, her family’s Thanksgiving tradition didn’t involve a turkey feast; it involved hiking together on the mountains, crunching through fall leaves, and roasting sausages over a fire.
“Everyone loved it,” she told the Straight. “It’s not about the food. It’s about being together with friends and family.”
However, Schellenberg has a sophisticated insight into the significance of holiday menus. She’s as surprised as anyone that her group’s book, Mennonite Girls Can Cook (Herald Press: 2011), is so popular and that her Web site gets over 8,000 hits per day (neither, it should be noted, contain a recipe for roast turkey). For many readers, she said, recipes evoke memories. Traditional food, she said, is tied to honouring the people they love. Thus, it can be precarious to ditch the roast turkey or vary the holiday menu.
So now, to appease both herself and her husband’s family (who are stuff-and-basters), they alternate years: one year, hiking and sausages; the next, roast turkey.
Dar Woon, who is already fully booked for catering gigs over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, also agreed that “traditional” Thanksgiving fare need not be generations deep. Her two daughters have been living overseas, one in Australia, and one in South Korea.
“They tell me they miss Thanksgiving lo mai when they’re away.”