THE BIG BIRD

BY JOE GEORGE

Well, here it is November already—can you believe it?—and being a food writer I feel compelled to of-fer the obligatory turkey article. And as I do, a quote comes to mind. Some years ago I attended a seminar at the New School in New York City. One of the speakers was Nach Waxman, owner of the literary cookbook store, Kitchen Arts and Letters. When he sat down he gave the room a long, sweeping look and then said, “We do not live in a recipe-deprived soci-ety.” He paused, and then repeated him-self, insinuating that there are too many recipes for the same thing and that food writing needn’t be boring nor merely a compilation of recipes.

With that thought in mind I shan’t offer any recipes on roasting the bird or how to make stuffing. You need only look at any newspaper or magazine for the “best” or “easiest” way to roast your bird. Instead, I’ll include a few recipes on what to do with leftovers, because in this eater’s opinion leftovers are as good as the initial serving.

One of the most underused leftovers is also the most fundamental: the bird’s stripped and picked-over carcass. While not the most attractive item, it’s just crying out to be used. And the easiest way to do this is to put it in a pot (along with any scraps of meat and a few vegetables), cover it with water, and cook it. The resulting broth will be delicious and suitable for any recipe calling for chicken broth.

As I type these words I ponder a ques-tion: Why wait until Thanksgiving to eat turkey? This is a query I pose mostly to myself. Americans eat chicken often yet generally consume tur-key only a few times a year. One would assume that in-grained cultural habits are at play.

While the Thanksgiving feast began cen-turies ago as a New England tradition and eventually spread through the rest of the country, it wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln named it a national holiday. But long before any explorer ever set foot on the Americas, the Aztecs were braising wild turkey with spices, chilies, and chocolate—a dish that would not be unlike a present-day molé.

The origin of the name turkey is interest-ing. Some say early colonists thought that the turkey was from (where else?) Turkey. A more common theory is that the turkey got its name through the confusion of Co-lumbus, who thought that the “New World” was somehow related to India, and that the name for the bird was tuka, the Tamil word for peacock, which is what turkeys were ini-tially thought to be. In France turkey was originally known as d’Inde, which translates to English as from India. Over the years the apostrophe was dropped and d’Inde simply became known as dinde or dindon.

In comparison to other meats turkey is relatively low in saturated fat, and much of the fat is located in or just below the skin. The beauty of roasting a bird is that a great deal of the fat is rendered off during the cooking process. A three-ounce portion of breast meat has a mere 160 calories. (But then, when’s the last time anyone ate three ounces of anything on Thanksgiving?) Tur-key is also an excellent source of protein and niacin and is an easily digested meat, which makes it an ideal choice of protein for children and the elderly. Turkey also contains L-tryptophan, a natural sedative. Turkey’s dis-tinctive yet gentle flavor lends itself to any dish that calls for a mild-flavored meat, such as chicken, pork, or veal.

I realize that I previously stated I wouldn’t offer recipes for cooking your bird, but I can’t help myself. Here are a few basic sug-gestions.

The most common state turkey is pur-chased is frozen, thus, before cooking a bird make sure it is completely thawed to insure even heat transfer. The USDA ap-proves three methods by which to thaw tur-keys: in a refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave. I feel the best method is to plan ahead and thaw it for a few days in a refrigerator; the water method requires numerous refreshments and microwaves scare me. If you purchase a fresh turkey, you needn’t concern yourself with any of this.

When roasting your bird, preheat an oven to at least 325F, and roast it until a probe thermometer reads a minimum of 170 de-grees when inserted into the thickest part of the inner thigh. It’s also recommended that you prepare your stuffing in a pan sep-arately to avoid the risk of bacteria. This, of course, would make it a dressing, as it wouldn’t be stuffing anything. If you do de-cide to stuff the bird, do so directly before roasting it, and cook it until the stuffing also reaches 170 degrees Fahrenheit.