Second Thanksgiving, Where Butter and Bacon Make Everything Better

My wife and I have never considered Thanksgiving cooking to be a chore, a task, or in any way a burden.  On a day where millions of people consult the internet, friends, and family to determine how best to tackle the immense ball of bird sitting on their kitchen counter, we’re always willing to gladly step up and happily serve the cause.

Which is why, on Thanksgiving last week, we had no idea what to do with ourselves, because we weren’t in charge of the cooking.  We had gone to my wife’s aunt’s place, and the only thing that we were responsible for were the potatoes.  Thanksgiving turned out fine, but we still left there feeling a little unfulfilled.  That night, while driving home through Lancaster County, we both decided that a second Thanksgiving dinner would be entirely appropriate.

On Friday, we set out to the supermarket and picked up a 13 pound fresh turkey and everything we needed to create our own private followup Thanksgiving.  We called friends and neighbors and invited them over on Saturday, with the explicit understanding that no matter how many people accepted, the two of us were having Thanksgiving again for our own selfish purposes.  That evening, I concocted a brine of salt, brown sugar, chili powder, apple cider, apple brandy, pureed apples, and garlic and submerged the turkey, making sure that the fragrant mix welled up inside the cavity and that no part, save for a nubby end of a single drumstick, poked out from the surface.  I started using this brine two years ago, and, instead of replacing my traditional holiday turkey recipe, it’s kind of merged with it, with amazing results.

On Saturday morning, my wife let me sleep later while she roasted sweet potatoes, prepared homemade cranberry sauce (made easily with cranberries, sugar, and an entire orange, rind, flesh, and all), and baked a pumpkin pie.  When I finally roused myself out of bed, I drained the turkey from its brine and set it into a pan, patting it dry with paper towels and letting it warm up a bit to cut down on the roasting time.  I softened a stick of butter, fried up some diced bacon, and went to the garden to fill a small plastic bag with snips of thyme, flat leaf parsley, chives, and sage.  I’m enjoying the fact that my herb garden has grown so resistant to the cold weather.

I incorporated finely chopped sage, some sea salt, ground pepper, and the bacon into the butter, mashing and stirring until I had achieved a uniform mix.  Using first my fingers, then my entire hand, I loosened the skin from the turkey’s breast meat and applied the butter mixture liberally underneath, wiping any excess on my hands across the surface of the breast, the thighs, and the legs, then applying more salt and ground pepper to the entire outside surface of the bird.  Now, sitting royally in its pan, brined throughout, well-seasoned both under and over the skin, and stuffed with a single chopped apple, the turkey was ready for the oven.

In keeping with the tradition of having a lazy day devoted to nothing but kitchen duties, I roasted the turkey at a steady 350 degrees, anticipating a total cooking time of nearly four hours or so.  I have a religious devotion to my probe thermometer, so the oven temperature is not as crucial to me as the rate at which the internal temperature of the bird rises.  About an hour and a half into cooking, I realized that my temperature was rising way too quickly – a relocation of the probe deeper into the thigh meat registered a full 40 degrees cooler.

With the turkey now set and roasting away, we turned our attentions to turning out the numerous traditional side dishes that appear on every Thanksgiving table.  I put the turkey neck and giblets into a stock pot with a dash of olive oil, then tossed in roughly chopped carrots, onions, and celery to start a stock which would simmer on the back burner until it was needed.

The timing was as perfect as we could ask for, since the turkey was ready about an hour before our guests would arrive.  I like to give my roasted turkeys a good hour or so of resting time – it allows the juices, which accumulate close to the surface of the bird during cooking, to redistribute back throughout the meat.  I set the roast aside on a platter in the warmest corner of the kitchen and tented it with foil while I prepared the gravy.

Gravy, as I may have mentioned, is an art.  I drained the fat from the pan drippings, setting the now empty roasting pan across two stovetop burners set to high.  As the residual fat grew hot and started to sputter, I splashed about half of a cup of white wine and a third of a cup of apple brandy into the pan, moving quickly to scrape all of the meaty bits up from the bottom, finally adding the defatted pan drippings and stirring.

Letting that cook down and reduce, I started a roux in a heavy saucepan – about three tablespoons of butter, melted, to which I added a quarter cup of flour, whisking to incorporate the butter.  I heated the roux until it smelled of toast, picking up the light brown hue of peanut butter, then poured the pan dripping/wine/brandy mixture into the saucepan, whisking, whisking, whisking, then finally adding a good amount of the turkey stock, watching the mixture thicken, then letting it simmer slowly for ten minutes or so.

Ultimately, we would end up serving roasted brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes with parsnip and celery root, a sweet potato casserole, homemade cranberry sauce, and that glorious cider brined sage-butter roasted turkey.  Recipes will be forthcoming later this week, so you’ll have have the opportunity to consider them in time for Christmas.  Most of the preparations come from old issues of Saveur, others from the backs of bags and boxes – I’ll list all sources so that you can save them for yourselves.