Holiday bird brings out flock of questions Tips: Veteran cook answers Top 10 queries regarding Thanksgiving's main dish.

November 20, 1996|By Janice Wald Henderson | Janice Wald Henderson,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

I'll never forget my first attempt at carving a Thanksgiving turkey before guests. As my friends were admiring the golden bird, I plunged my fork into the turkey breast and the supermarket-wrapped giblet bag flew out of the neck cavity and onto the lace tablecloth.

A vote was taken around the table as to what possessed a redder hue -- my face or the cabernet.

Disasters like mine are what keep the Turkey Talk-Line -- the hapless cook's holiday hand-holder -- ringing off the hook. Butterball says its toll-free number receives more than 270,000 annual pleas for help.

What's the most common request? According to "The Butterball Turkey Cookbook," the majority of callers ask for the Talk-Line's preferred method of roasting a bird (Answer: the open-pan). Perhaps the wildest query comes from a consumer demanding to know if she could pop popcorn in the turkey's cavity during the roasting process (Answer: Seek therapy).

Since I've now successfully cooked more big birds than I care to count, I'm happy to answer the most often asked turkey-related questions.

Question 1: How do I keep turkey from turning to sawdust?

For a juicy bird, "baste" is the operative word. I religiously slather turkey with a blend of 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth and 1/2 cup chardonnay (supplemented by pan drippings) every 20 minutes during the entire roasting process.

I always cook turkey breast-up. Trying to flip a bird can cause it to fly out of your hands and into the air like Superman -- with only the floor, not Lois Lane, to greet it.

I roast turkey uncovered until it begins turning golden-brown (about one-third to halfway through the cooking process). Then I make an aluminum foil "tent" and drape it over the bird. The turkey turns rich brown in color, with a crispy skin and moist meat. If cooked at 325 degrees until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads about 180 degrees, a turkey tastes terrific, every time.

Question 2: Can frozen turkeys ever taste good?

In my book, frozen turkeys -- especially those injected with chemical-enhanced self-bastes -- never satisfy. I always opt for a fresh, hormone-free bird. The flavor of these optimum turkeys is so wonderful that it requires little work on the cook's part to enhance it.

Question 3: Is it better to cook a turkey stuffed or unstuffed?

An unstuffed turkey cooks faster than a stuffed one; it shaves about 1/2 to 1 hour off the roasting time (the latter for 24-pound or larger birds). I always opt to stuff, because turkey's natural juices help flavor the stuffing and keep it moist as it cooks. To avoid bacterial contamination, stuff poultry immediately before transferring to the oven.

Also, by stuffing the turkey, I can use my second oven to prepare an alternative dressing in case I can't decide between two scrumptious recipes. My motto is: You can never be too rich, too thin or have too much stuffing.

Question 4: Name some great stuffing recipes.

I'm addicted to Paul Prudhomme's corn bread dressing in his classic "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen Cookbook." Evaporated milk and eggs keep the stuffing moist; three different ground peppers cut its richness.

When I dare risk my manicure, I roast and peel chestnuts for Susan Herrmann Loomis' elegant chestnut stuffing in "Farmhouse Cookbook." It's worth the work, and the chance broken nail. Alternately, the rich, earthy sausage-crouton stuffing in Anthony Dias Blue and Kathryn K. Blue's "Thanksgiving Dinner" provides the most pleasing texture, thanks to water chestnuts and pecans.

For that rare occasion when exotica must prevail, stuffed turkey, Cuban style, from Mary Urrutia Randelman's and Joan Schwartz's "Memories of a Cuban Kitchen," achieves profound PTC perfection. This exuberant stuffing contains ground beef, pork and ham, Spanish olive oil, raisins, olives, almonds and hard-cooked eggs. It's a guaranteed conversation-stopper for a family complaining about eating the same old meal.

Question 5: What's your favorite turkey cooking tip?

Wait 15 to 20 minutes before carving the turkey so the juices can redistribute. Otherwise, no matter how often the bird has been basted, it's destined to taste dry.

Question 6: What's the most extraordinary turkey recipe to cross your path?

I only wish this bird would cross my plate more often, for I've never met moister meat. The blue ribbon goes to John Martin Taylor's fried wild turkey recipe in "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking." A Southern specialty, the seasoned bird is marinated with herbs and vegetable oil and then deep-fried outdoors (about 3 minutes per pound) in a 10-gallon pot. The turkey is declared done when it floats to the surface.

Question 7: Which wine goes best with turkey?

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