By Larry Levine –

I love the taste of a good roasted turkey. I like it unadorned – no smoking, brining or other gimmicks. If you buy a really great bird you don’t need all the rest. If you’re going to pick up a 99-cent-a-pound frozen bird at the local big box store, then reach for the brining salt, the smoker, or the rub; you’ll need it. I’d rather have just a roasted turkey with golden skin, and let the side dishes and gravy to the rest.

There is no better time for turkey than the last six weeks of every year, when the greatest variety of birds are available at the best prices.

I also like dinner parties with family and friends. Once again, turkey with a bunch of side dishes fills the bill perfectly.

My earliest memory of a family turkey dinner was a Thanksgiving in Brooklyn in the mid-1940s. A family legend was created that night. Aunts, uncles, aunts and cousins were gathered at our apartment. Mom was carrying the platter of carved turkey from the kitchen to the dinner table. An uncle had his movie camera trained on her to capture the grand arrival. My father turned to take something else to the table. They collided and the turkey platter flew out of my mother’s hands. After the initial shock, a wave of laughter swept across the room as mom and dad got down on hands and knees and started loading the slices of turkey back onto the platter. I have no idea what we wound up eating for dinner that night. It wasn’t turkey.

My mother would only buy hen turkeys, believing toms were tough and dry. That may have been true once upon a time. But the way the birds are bred, fed and raised today, there is no difference. And if you want a really large bird and plenty of leftovers, it’s going to be a tom.

I’ve done turkey dinners at home for as many as 17 people – the more the merrier. I always buy the biggest bird available – usually about 26 pounds – even if the party is only 10 or 12 people. I want to have leftovers.

Now, with the family scattered over the entire West Coast from San Diego County to Seattle, those big dinners aren’t happening any more. That’s what happens when the kids grow up and move on to lives of their own and the years rob us of the generation that came before us. This year there will be 13 of us for Thanksgiving. That includes grand children ages 6 years, 4 years, and 1 year. Dinner will be at our son John’s house near Seattle. We’ll be doing it without turkey out of respect to daughter-in-law Julie, who doesn’t eat meat or poultry. We’ve done that before and it’s always worked out fine. The family is together and that’s what’s most important. One year I put together a fabulous Indian dinner, center piece of which was shrimp in dark sauce. Another year we had some really great salmon.

To salve my itch for turkey, one year I sneaked in a January dinner party at our house for friends and a few family members. It worked out fine. I got to cook for a crowd and eat great turkey; I had left overs for follow up meals and I had roasted carcass and bones for stocks. Here are some hints and tips gleaned from my experiences through the years.

GETTING STARTED
It begins and ends with the bird. Order now. Spend a little more, or a lot more, and get the best bird available – free range and never frozen if possible. The quality of the turkey on your table depends more upon the quality of the turkey you buy than on any other factor. So, compromise at your own risk. Don’t buy a turkey that has been butter-basted or doctored in any other way. If the bird you buy comes with an inserted thermometer, pull it out and throw it away. It will interfere with the roasting. If the bird has a metal binder or anything else to hold the legs in place, take it out and throw it away. Allow about 1 pound per person, or just get a great big bird and plan to have turkey gumbo, turkey soup, turkey enchiladas, or hot turkey sandwiches with gravy and mashed potatoes with whatever is left over.

ROAST TURKEY WITH GRAVY
Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the heart, liver, gizzard and neck from inside the bird. (Save them for other uses. I’ll get to that later.) Wash the bird inside and out with cold tap water. Cut away all large chunks of fat, including the butt, which you should throw away. Cut away excess flaps of skin. Pat the bird dry with a paper towel. Place the bird on a rack in a shallow roasting pan breast side down. Tent the bird with tin foil, being careful that the foil doesn’t touch the bird. Put the tented bird in the oven for the time shown on the chart below. One hour before the turkey is done, remove it from the oven. Place the turkey on a large platter. Pour the drippings from the pan into a 1 quart measuring cup, or some other deep vessel. Return the turkey to the rack, this time breast side up. Be careful; there will be a tendency for the bird to want to break apart. The best way to turn it is not from the ends, but by using oven mitts and gripping the turkey from the sides. Place the tent back over the bird and return it to the oven. When the bird is done, remove it from the oven, remove the tent and allow the bird to set for 15 minutes before carving.

(If you insist on stuffing the bird, remove the stuffing as soon as you take the bird from the oven. I never stuff a turkey for two reasons. First, it’s easier not to have to unstuff the bird when you take it out of the oven. Second, I use the carcass for making stock and I don’t want the residue of the stuffing sticking to the inside of the carcass. Anyway, if you have stuffed the bird removed the stuffing as soon as you take the bird out of the oven; put the stuffing in a warmed casserole and return it to the oven until ready to serve.)

Roasting time chart (325 degrees)
Weight Stuffed Unstuffed
12-16 lb 3-4 hrs 3½ – 5 hrs
16-20 lb 5-6 hrs 4½ – 5½ hrs
20-24 lb 5½ – 7 hrs 5 – 6½ hrs
24-28 lb 6½ – 7½ hrs 6 – 7 hrs

DRIPPING GRAVY
3 cups turkey stock (which you should have made ahead of time)
Turkey pan drippings
½ onion – diced
Salt and pepper to taste (optional)
½ cup all purpose flour
Some of the fat skimmed from the drippings
Skim the fat from the drippings. The best way I have found is to use the fat skimmers sold in many kitchenware shops. After pouring the drippings into the skimmer, put the skimmer in the freezer until you are ready to use the drippings. Drop in two or three ice cubes to help congeal the fat.

About 1 ½ hours before you will start carving the turkey, place the turkey stock on the stove and heat (don’t boil) over a medium-low heat. When the stock is heated, turn the temperature down to low.

Make a roux using the some of the fat drippings and flour. (I know how unhealthy this is and you can substitute olive oil for the fat if you want to.) Heat the fat or oil. Stir in the onions to coat cook until they just start to brown. Stir in the flour and let it brown, stirring to keep it from sticking. Stir some of the warmed stock into the roux. Add more stock in small batches and allow it to thicken after each addition. When about half the stock has been thickened in the roux, slowly pour the roux into the stockpot, stirring constantly to incorporate fully. Bring the stock to a very slow boil and stir occasionally until thickened. Stir in the fat-skimmed turkey drippings and heat through. Don’t boil too long or too vigorously or the gravy will thin. Taste the gravy and add a little salt if needed. Also think about adding some freshly crushed black pepper, and maybe a little dried sage.

Now, for the heart, liver, giblets and neck we took out of the turkey. While the turkey is roasting, put them in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and let it boil slowly for about 30 minutes. Remove the heart and liver and let the giblets and neck boil for another half hour. When they are done, cut the heart, liver and giblets into small pieces, allow them to cool, strip the meat from the neck. Give the heart, liver, giblets and neck meat to the cat. You will have a friend for life. If you don’t have a cat or know someone who does, use the gizzard and neck to make a stock and throw away the liver and heart.

GREEN BEANS WITH MUSHROOMS AND ONIONS
4 Tblsp olive oil
1 large onion, sliced into half rings
1 cup water
2 cloves of minced garlic
9 mushrooms, sliced
80 green beans
½ cup pine nuts – toasted
3 Tblsp butter, softened (optional)
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan. Add onions and sauté until medium brown. Pour in water. Stir onions. Reduce heat to low. Cover and stew onions until dark brow. Check occasionally to be sure there is some moisture left so onions won’t burn. Stir onions occasionally. Add more water if necessary. When onions are fully stewed, remove to a small bowl. While the onions are stewing, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a separate frying pan until very hot. Add mushrooms, toss to coat with oil. Add the garlic and cook and stir frequently until the mushrooms are softened, about 10 minutes. You may do this in advance and put onions and mushrooms together in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Wash beans. Break off ends and break beans into serving size pieces. Put beans on a vegetable steamer rack. Bring water to a boil. Spoon mushrooms and onions on top of beans. Cover and steam until done to taste. Turn beans, mushrooms and onions into a serving bowl. Add pine nuts and butter and toss together.

Serves 8. For a larger crowd just increase ingredients proportionately.

BREAD STUFFING
¾ cup butter – divided
3 large onions – chopped
2 tsps marjoram leaves or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
¾ tsps each crushed black pepper, ground sage and thyme leaves
12 cups day-old white bread – cut into ½ inch cubes (about a 1 lb. loaf)
2 cups chopped celery
½ cup chopped parsley
Melt ½ cup of the butter in a wide frying pan. Add onions and cook until golden, stirring occasionally. Add ¼ cup of butter. Melt it and add marjoram, pepper, sage and thyme. Remove from heat. In a 5-quart casserole combine bread, celery, parsley and onion mixture. Toss together until bread is moistened. At this point it can be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours. Remove from refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees and cook in a covered casserole for 1 hour.

Makes about 12 cups.

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