Stay Cool Cooking Your Turkey Dinner

What makes a normally calm home chef completely lose it?

Answer: Holiday Entertaining.

Frankly, it's a feat of culinary dexterity to have every part of a large meal, like those served on Thanksgiving or Christmas, arrive at table in unison and piping hot. It's perhaps even more demanding to serve such a meal while donning one of those "it was no effort at all" smiles. Who's kidding who? How many times have you seen talented cooks cloister themselves (and a few unlucky souls) in the kitchen so as not be distracted by friends indulging in the general merriment of the holiday. And there they cook, seriously of course, without a smile. (Maybe they seek solitude so that no one will hear them cursing like just like the professional chefs do.)

Let's face it, food is such a big part of holidays. So the pressure's on! Amidst the frayed nerves comes the turkey--that perfectly browned, crisp-skinned, tender, moist bird that is proudly displayed tableside for all to see. It is the moment of culinary glory, validating everything you want people to think about you as a cook. It is the crowning achievement, the focal point of the whole meal...NOT.

Rather, as anyone who has gone head to head with this bird knows, it is an S.O.B. of a bird that is fickle to say the least. More often than not, it is dry--mercifully sacrificed in the name of food safety, overcooked so you "won't get worms!". Then there is the skin, which is so often insipidly flabby--more like a poached turkey than a roasted one. It's an enigma. Somehow, some colonial Martha Stewart with a bent for sadistic practical jokes, thought it fashionable to make the turkey, of all things, the center of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. But alas, turkey it is unless you choose to serve something like goose or venison, both of which are, incidentally, historically accurate.

Turkey recipes abound. There are hotlines, instructions and warnings on turkey shrink-wrap, and web sites all devoted to producing the perfect bird. Let me then add my own suggestions to the heap of ideas already out there. Ultimately, cooking a turkey is not, I repeat, is not that difficult. I realize that coming from a chef these words seem shallow, but it really is true! Just keep the following points in mind:

Stuffing. There are 2 schools of thought here--to stuff the bird or not. Those who stuff the bird claim that the bird flavors the dressing at it cooks. True, but at what cost? To cook the stuffing to the required internal temperature of 165 at the center of the bird, the exterior (meaning the meat of the turkey) is hopelessly overdone. Is it worth sacrificing the meat for the stuffing? I don't think so. I recommend cooking a richly flavored and moist stuffing in a separate, covered pan. To add additional meat flavor, make the stuffing with strong stock (or even reduced stock). Canned low sodium broth would do in a pinch.

If you want to present a beautiful stuffed turkey to your guests, simply fill your roast turkey with the hot cooked stuffing during the last 15 minutes of the roasting process. This way the stuffing will be adequately cooked and the turkey not overdone.

Speaking of overdone, how do you cook a turkey and know when it is done? (The following information ONLY applies to an unstuffed turkey.) Start roasting a well seasoned turkey in a 350 degree oven with the cover on (if the lid is too small, use aluminum foil, leaving about an inch of air space between the foil and the top of the turkey) and a small amount of water (about an inch) in the bottom of the roasting pan. In essence, the turkey is being cooked by steam and not technically by roasting. This is crucial as the moist heat keeps the turkey meat moist. You can add a host of ingredients like thyme, bay leaf, freshly ground pepper, white wine, Madeira, dry sherry, and chopped vegetables to the water in the bottom of the roasting pan for additional flavor. Take the turkey's temperature with an instant read thermometer periodically during the cooking process. To do this, simply stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. When the thermometer reads 130, remove the lid and brush with melted butter. (Do not, at this point, baste with the broth in the bottom of the pan. This will not crisp the skin but rather make it soggy.) Turn the oven to 400-425 degrees. Roast with the lid off. Frequently brush with additional butter until the turkey is cooked through. If the turkey is browning too slowly, turn the oven up. If it is browning too quickly, turn the oven down.

Doneness. This is the key to a moist bird. And it's simple. Just cook the turkey until the instant read thermometer, when poked into the thickset part of the breast and thigh, reads 160. (The carry over cooking will raise the internal temperature of the bird to at least 165--the recommended temperature for poultry doneness.) That's it. Take it out of the oven, let it sit loosely covered with aluminum foil for 15 minutes (while making the gravy), and serve.

What about the gravy? Again, simple. Pour the juices into a saucepan. Skim the fat off the top of the broth using a small ladle. Place juices over high heat. Meanwhile, mix flour and cold water together until it forms a perfectly smooth, pourable paste. Pour slowly into the boiling liquid, mixing briskly with a wire whisk. Let the gravy come to a boil, stirring constantly. It will not thicken completely until it comes to a full rolling boil. Taste for seasoning and add salt and white pepper if necessary.

Perhaps the best piece of advice is to follow Julia Child's lead. Be sure to keep a supply of wine on hand in the kitchen. Perhaps it will add a little flavor to a dish you are making. But more importantly, working with a glass of wine just lightens things up a bit. Cheers and happy holidays!