Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bird Day in New Orleans

When I first got back to New Orleans, years ago, I took a chef’s job on Bourbon Street. That first Thanksgiving, where we served over seven hundred meals, I worked seventy hours over the weekend. There were two of us in the kitchen. The General Manager instructed me the Wednesday previous to deep fry a turkey; I did not do it, I thought that he was joking. Deep fried turkey? C’mon. I was fresh in from the west coast and they don’t play that out there.
Since then I’ve understood fried turkey, turducken, turduckencorpheail and even a way to cook turkey impaled on a broomstick covered with a garbage can which is then surrounded by twenty five pounds of briquettes, lit with sixteen ounces of lighter fluid etc. etc. But, nothing spells Thanksgiving to me more than the smell of a stuffed turkey in my oven at three hundred fifty degrees (twenty minutes per pound), old fashioned I am. And I’ve got a thousand words to tell you how to do it… the old fashioned way.
First, try to get yourself invited to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving, and then you just need to cut this article and save it for when you need to cook yourself.
Here we go. Count the number of guests that you’re expecting and buy a turkey, figure on a pound to a pound and a half for each guest, and that’s because there is a lot of trim, bone and gristle goin’ on with old Tom. In the days leading up to the big day purchase, russet potatoes for mashing, yams for candying, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, green beans, Brussel sprouts and cranberry sauce. Carrots for gingering, pearl onions for the peas and maybe some chestnuts for roasting on an open fire. You’ll also need onions and celery for the dressing, snacks for when everyone is waiting for you to complete the meal, beer, wine, butter and brown-n-serve rolls (are you sure you couldn’t get invited somewhere?). Decide on your dressing and pick up ingredients; bread or cornbread, oysters, sausage, pecans---oh my god! --- What’s for dessert?
Here’s where you decide to go potluck. Or should. It’s either that or take out a second mortgage. Have someone bring the salad (salad?) and others to bring veggies, dessert, booze or etc. Don’t leave it to them to decide or you’ll wind up with twelve pumpkin pies and no mashed potatoes. Make a list of what you want and have them choose one thing to do and do it. Now, the list of guests get bigger exponentially with the size of the turkey, and visa-versa, as six to eight guests becomes ten to twelve, the bird has to be eighteen to twenty pounds and that’s conservative. A twenty-four pound bird will take eight hours to cook (twenty minutes to the pound). You’ll need to start earlier in the week, say Tuesday and Wednesday nights (you still have a job, don’t you?).
Break up the bread or cornbread for the dressing or stuffing so it can get stale; remember dressing is cooked on the outside, stuffing on the inside. Cut up onions, celery and peeled potatoes (two pounds for every three guests) into small dice. Save the trimmings from the onions and celery. Separate, cover and refrigerate. The potatoes will need to have a covering of cold water.
If the turkey is frozen, thaw it. In the refrigerator. Take out the giblets and neck from the cavities, wash all in cold, salted water (bird as well), remove any pinfeathers and discard them. If you’re doing the bird on Wednesday, cover with a damp towel and refrigerate. If you’re starting on Thursday, you better figure on getting up on dawn’s crack.
Take the innerds, neck, tips of wings, veg trimmings, a couple of bay leaves and lots of water and put on the back burner, on a low flame to cook; this is for your gravy. If you serve turkey without gravy, your company will look at you like you are stupider than a cashew and then kill you.
SautĂ© lots of onions and celery with poultry seasonings---sage, thyme, savory, more sage, powdered bay leaves and more sage, Salt, pepper and maybe some garlic in loads of butter. Let this cool and then mix with your bread/corn bread stale stuff. Add eggs; one for every four portions. How much is four portions? Two BIG handfuls put together. Righty—o.
Now, stuff old Tom (or not) and for God’s sake close that gaping cavity. Dust him with seasoning salt or a mix of salt pepper and garlic powder. Maybe some paprika. Place in a roasting pan (you have one don’t you?) covered with aluminum foil---NOT a paper bag--- face up or face down…your choice, for how long? AND, add another hour if you stuff the bird. Take Tom’s aluminum blanket off for the last hour for that Simonize sheen. You do not need to baste; contrary to popular belief.
When turkey is cooked, take her out of the oven and parade her around to the oohs and ahhs of your companions and then repair to the privacy of the kitchen, have another glass of wine and hack that sucker to bits. Public ‘carving’ is at best a humiliating experience.
Lagniappe: perfect mashed potatoes. The reason that you cut them small and uniform is so they cook evenly and thoroughly, not done on the outside and hard inside or done on the inside and water logged and mushy on the outside. Test for doneness like a professional, take out a piece…and taste it.
Start mashing potatoes by themselves, then add lots of butter some salt and pepper and lastly some milk---smooth? Tasty? You betcha!
Strain your gravy broth and if you want to, cut up the gibs and neck meat and set back on the stove, medium heat. For every twelve ounces of broth (beer can size), mix two tablespoons (shot glass) of flour with a half a cup of milk. Mix until smooth and stir into the broth and continue stirring until it comes to a boil. Boil one minute. Correct the salt and pepper (what did they do wrong?). If it’s too thick, stir in some beer. Serve.
How do you know if you have a 350 degree oven? If you put a piece of white paper in it, it will turn yellowish in seven to ten minutes. If it takes 12-15 minutes it’s too cold, If it happens in 3-5 it’s HOT. If you open the oven after five minutes and the paper is on fire---you’re screwed.
Oh, you want to start the oven at 425, put your bird in and then turn it to 350. How do you tell when your oven is 425? Are you sure that you couldn’t get invited somewhere?

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