Today, I ate a bad piece of leftover chicken for lunch. It was tough, flavorless, and pasty white. And I made it. A week ago.
I know, shame on me. I have no one to blame but myself for eating second-rate food. But it reminded me that some folks eat that caliber of food every day. Some people "cook" food in the evening, server it right away, and encounter what I had for lunch this afternoon. Uninspired, boring, nasty, hockey-puck-grade food. There are people who don't know how to cook.
I am not one of those, bless the maker; so I feel a bit obliged--especially today, on the eve of the highly heralded, pagan-like celebration of our daily-ravished paramour: food--to offer some of the finer wisdom I have been blessed enough to glean from other food worshippers in my tenure on our spinning globe.
Put plainly, here are Wyatt's cooking tips that ANY person cooking this week can apply to their Thanksgiving meal that can take a feast from "not bad," to "Oh my!"
First, of course, the bird. If you do nothing else differently than you've done in the past, brine your bird. Absolutely nothing will make a greater difference in the quality of your turkey than soaking it overnight in a salt solution. Brines don't make your bird saltier, they allow the turkey to take in and retain more moisture than they otherwise would. It's the difference between a tough bird and a tender bird; between a dry bird and a juicy bird. Salt solutions don't make a turkey salty, they make it soft and moist.
A very simple brine: 1c salt, 1/2c brown sugar, 1 gallon of vegetable or chicken broth, and 1T pepper. Boil it, add a galling of ice water and let it cool ALL THE WAY DOWN, and then put your bird in it over night. I keep it in the garage to stay cool. Add lemons, allspice, ginger, and other goodies to the brine for good measure, but at least the salt and brown sugar.
The brining is done, but you still have to cook it right (but even if you don't, the brine will go a long way to cover other foibles). Take your bird out of the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Put sliced apple, 3-4 rosemary sprigs, and a sliced onion in the cavity. Then cover the entire turkey in cooking oil (canola works fine, but if you use olive oil, be ready for more smoke). I just spray oil over the turkey, but you can rub it around with your hands if you prefer.
Heat the oven up to 500 degrees. Yep, 500 degrees. It goes up that high for a reason. Cook your turkey at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. This will seal the skin and give it the Norman Rockwell-esque tan/brown color. After 30 minutes, turn it down to 350 until it's done.
How long does it have to cook? Until it's done. It's done when it hits 161' in the thickest part of the breast (this is a point of contention. Some folks measure the temp in the thigh; some measure temperature in the breast. I'm a breast man…wait). For the love of Pete, get a meat thermometer, and DO NOT call the Butterball hotline. They'll have you eating turkey jerky for as long as they'll have you cook it. Poultry is done when a temperature is reached, not after the passage of time. When the thickest part of the breast reaches 161, pull the bird out of the oven.
Wait, isn't 161' low? Yes. But, the turkey will continue to cook after you've pulled it out. Don't believe me? Leave the thermometer in and see. The temp will get to or about 170'+ within a few minutes.
This is my next and final turkey tip: let the bird rest for 15-20 minutes. If you cut into a bird right after you pull it from the over, the boiling hot water will escape, leaving you with a dry bird. Let the temp come down so that the juicy goodness stays put. Carve and serve.
Alright, you have an enviable bird. Now for the potatoes. Cut your potatoes (4-5 large russets) up into eights, about 1-inch sections, and put them into a big pot. I leave the skins on. Toss a handful of salt on them and add enough water to the pot to cover the potatoes. Put the pot in the fridge overnight.
Take the pot out of the fridge and put it on the stove. Heat them up in the water they're already in; bring them to a boil and let them boil until they won't stay on a fork any longer.
Next comes is the hard part. And seriously, this is pretty hard. Strain the potatoes through a colander (ok, THAT'S not the hard part). Then, put them back into the pot and return them to the heat--high heat. For four agonizing minutes, beat the living love out of your potatoes over hight heat. I use a fairly heavy-duty whisk for this. Don't let them brown. Your hands will burn, your shoulder will ache, and your brow will bead, but my lovely, techie aphrodites, you will not find better potatoes within a mile if you do this (unless you live within a mile of each other). Getting the water out of your spuds gives you room to replace that moisture with…
By God, you're going to add a shameless quantity of artery-clogging goodness to your diabetes-inducing starch, but the premature reaper party is absolutely worth it. Put your potatoes into a mixer with a whisk attachment. Add--no kidding--one cup of heavy whipping cream AND (not or, but and) a stick of butter to these spuds, and turn on the mixer. Throw in some salt and pepper. When they look like you want to eat them, they're done.
"Wait, Wyatt, won't they be heavy and oily?" Nope. You knocked out all the water of the spuds, so the moisture of the fat balances divinely with the potatoes. I'm telling you, you've never had better spuds. You can't eat them every day, but you can once a year.
Finally, I'll include a cranberry margarita recipe. If your turkey is dry and your spuds are…well, also dry, then grab a margarita even an Puritan could love:
1.25c cranberry juice cocktail
1.5c raw cranberries
3/4c lime juice
1/2c triple sec
3c crushed ice
Blend and serve
Happy Turkey Day, all!