|Turkey Tips 2009
by Emily Bell
| photos by Antoinette Bruno
Turkey: that old, tired Thanksgiving bird, with its sagging neck, ridiculous features, and bullyish attitude, will makes its requisite appearance on tables everywhere for our predictable national feast. To bird lovers it’s a massacre, to turkey lovers it’s a feast, but to chefs everywhere, it’s something a bit less dramatic, but no less tragic—it’s just plain limiting.
Every year at Thanksgiving we as a culinary nation are inclined to embark rather impetuously on what amounts to an extremely labor-intensive meal, whatever our qualifications. Nor does the automatic, obligatory fashion in which Americans everywhere consume our almost national bird (thanks for trying, Ben Franklin) help the cuisine of the holiday. Finesse is often sacrificed for bulk production and creativity tends to take a backseat to nostalgic craving. Despite these obstacles, chefs amateur and expert are called upon to feed family, friends, and strangers alike for this centerpiece holiday meal, while restaurants open for the holiday will cater to strong expectations of what is arguably the most emotionally evocative meal in the American culinary repertoire.
Restaurants serving Thanksgiving dinner can choose to satisfy diner expectations (turkey, turkey, turkey). And for those restaurants we’ve assembled a list of helpful “turkey tips,” advice from chefs on how to cook the best Thanksgiving bird. But for chefs looking for variety, reinvention is a real opportunity for the professional kitchen at this time of year. While a sophisticated, chef-quality take on traditional turkey will always gratify a diner’s nostalgia, those dining out on the holiday are more likely than not ready to abandon sentimentality in favor of culinary flourish.
To put together a turkey-free Thanksgiving, we did what any American pioneers would do: We headed West, with a touch of East Coast for good Colonial measure. A number of our most holiday-friendly tastings took place in the lands conquered latest by the American pilgrim. The flavors we encountered from Seattle to Sonoma were rustic American: clean, structured, and forthright, just the way Thanksgiving dinner should be. And chefs East and West incorporated immigrant influences, veritable spices in the American melting pot, from pesto to ricotta to buttered French radishes.
With predominant use of local game and seasonal produce, these chefs have assembled dishes to make any American palate proud of its patchwork heritage. Traditionalists beware: although some traditions and flavors abide, you’ll find nary a spoonful of oyster stuffing or turkey gravy on this holiday table. Instead we’ve assembled these holiday-adaptable, but thematically unhindered recipes from talented chefs nationwide to remind us of just what kind of plenty there is to be had in the land of plenty—that is, when we bother to look for it.
But for those of us burdened with the onerous task of preparing Thanksgiving turkey this year, it’s important to contour expectations to realistic parameters. Thanksgiving turkey is one of the most idealized meals in the American consciousness. And the stakes are usually higher—or heavier, with twenty or so pounds on the line for as many guests. It’s no wonder that even those among us sufficiently assured of our culinary skills tend to get slightly overwhelmed during this time of year. To alleviate some of the stress of preparing this pinnacle holiday centerpiece, we’ve assembled a few tips from chefs on how to make the best holiday bird.