A Real Cut-up


November 14, 1990|By ROB KASPER

If you're someone who is a better eater than a cook . . . If you're someone who struggles at trying to find some way to make yourself useful at a holiday meal . . . If the only culinary skill you have is setting the table, and that job is already taken by a 7-year-old . . . Then buck up, buster or busterette, I'm going to teach you how to carve.

Before I learned to carve, I was just like you, a dinner party loser. For years I was the only adult in our family relegated to the task of folding the napkins. Many was the time that while my highly skilled relatives whistled while they worked, I sat embarrassingly idle.

Then one day I learned how to carve a turkey, and it changed my life, at least for the holidays.

Instead of being shooed out of the kitchen, I was treated with deference. Cooks poured me glasses of wine, they showed me their cutlery and listened to my opinion on how the meal should proceed.

My treatment at the dinner table improved as well. Instead of being banished to one of the folding chairs at the far end of the table, I got a real wooden chair near the entree.

I haven't yet made it to the head of the table. But, thanks to my knife work, I am on my way. I've already picked out the vest I'll wear when I get to the big cushioned chair, the one with arms, at the head of the table.

You, too, can get on the road to glory. You, too, can be invited into kitchens and drink the wine before everybody else does. You, too, can wear a vest. All you have to do is follow the turkey-carving tips which, today, in what is becoming a Thanksgiving tradition, I am going over again.

Basically, I have a two-part turkey carving strategy. It consists of removing the bird's legs, and practicing on a chicken.

Let's deal with the first part, the legs. What I am calling a leg is the combination of the drumstick and thigh. It is the piece of the bird that kings, like Henry VIII, used to grab when they posed for pictures.

Once you've subdued these turkey legs, carving the rest of the bird, the breast, is as easy as cutting wheat in central Kansas. That means the cutting field is mostly flat, with few hills and valleys. All you do in this plan is move the knife, back and forth, back and forth. There are two times you can remove the legs from the turkey, either before the bird goes in the oven, or after it is cooked.

I prefer before. It hurts less.

The turkey, even in its state of uncooked, refrigerated repose, does not cotton to the idea of saying goodbye to its legs. It puts up a struggle. I've also found that if you remove the legs before the bird is hot, the struggle is less painful.

It is called working cold turkey.

When working in this cold-turkey mode you avoid getting burned by the hot juices that erupt when you attempt to remove the legs from a sizzling bird.

Moreover, once you've got the legs off a cold turkey, you can tie them up. This is fun and perfectly legal.

What you do is take the bone out of the thigh. It is a small bone, you use a small knife, cutting through the meat and freeing the bone from the joint where it connects to the drumstick.

I performed this operation last year for the first time and my only previous surgical experience had been removing splinters with tweezers.

Next, you put stuffing in the thigh where the bone used to be. Then you either sew the stuffed thigh up with needle and thread or close it with skewers.

Finally, you can cook the trussed-up legs in a separate pan. This you should clear with the cook, after several glasses of wine.

The legs will finish cooking before the rest of the bird. If your family stands on ceremony and requires that a picture be taken of the clan gathered around a complete browned bird, this too, can be accomplished.

You can reunite the legs with the rest of the bird, by propping them up next to the cooked carcass. The legs sorta look like vice presidents at a board meeting, on the fringes, but they photograph well.

After the photos you can easily slice both the turkey breast and the bone-free thighs.

I usually do my carving in the kitchen and present an artful platter of white and dark meat.

But you can also carve at the table, provided you've spent the weeks leading up to the feast practicing on a roast chicken.

Either way, the crowd will love you and probably ask you back for another meal.

A turkey carver can always find work.

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