Find yourself yawning over the prospect of another roasted turkey this holiday season? Is the most exciting thing about your dinner bird when that little plastic thing pops out of it in the oven?
How about taking your taste buds to a different place this year -- say to Tuscany, or Provence, by way of California? At the end of the journey is a succulent, dark-golden turkey with a heavenly aroma and taste. It's so different from the ordinary turkey that friends and family will still be talking about it days later.
The route you take to this masterpiece is called brining. A traditional method of preparing meat for smoking, brining involves soaking the turkey in a solution that has a fair amount of salt, but also lots of other ingredients that slowly infuse the bird with layers of Mediterranean tastes -- orange, cilantro, garlic -- plus the Far Eastern notes of ginger and star anise. The turkey is then roasted over a charcoal fire with soaked wood chips for extra flavoring.
Of course, it helps if, as I did, you've first tasted this fabulous fowl in a fairy-tale setting on top of a mountain in California's Napa Valley. Chefs from a number of wineries prepared a "Napa Valley Thanksgiving" feast at Stag's Leap Winery for attendees of the Association of Food Journalists convention in September.
The meal left food professionals gasping for adjectives to describe the beauty of the setting and the glory of the food. However, when I prepared the dish on my backyard grill in Baltimore, I got the same luscious flavor and texture, and the guests were just as thrilled.
The highest accolade came from a 9-year-old, who was heard to murmur, "That was a mighty fine turkey."
While brining is not new, its use has pretty much been confined to commercial applications. But three years ago, Cook's Illustrated magazine, searching for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey, roasted 30 12- to 14-pound birds, and the one they brined beforehand was their favorite.
The testers liked the look of the turkey, which they roasted in the oven. "More important," they wrote, "the texture of the breast was different from that of the other birds we had cooked; [the brined turkey breast was] firm and juicy at the same time."
Brined birds gain several ounces as they soak up some of the liquid. Brining alters the structure of proteins in the flesh and allows them to absorb the liquid, Cook's said.
Last year, the magazine revisited the topic, using the brining method with larger birds, up to 20 pounds, and found it equally successful. The testers used 2 pounds of salt, plus cold water to cover, on a 12- to 14-pound bird. They left it in the brine four to six hours.
The Napa Valley recipe uses just one cup of salt, and orange juice instead of water, but the bird is soaked for three or four days.
It's true that preparing the brine, soaking the turkey (turning it every 12 hours if the brining solution doesn't cover it), then grilling it, is time-consuming.
But the taste of that turkey, and the surprised and pleased look on guests' faces, made every bit of the work worthwhile.
Brining is not limited to poultry -- traditionally, hams are brined before smoking, and the technique works particularly well with fish, such as salmon.
Annapolis food writer Rita Calvert told me that with the advent of less expensive farmed salmon, a brined, smoked side of salmon has become her "simply elegant" entertaining secret. She first tried brining when she learned that her grandmother always brined turkeys. "I have now tried brining on almost every imaginable fish, fowl or meat whole turkeys, lamb, chicken, turkey breasts, tuna, swordfish scallops, you name it!"
And, she added, "I grill my items summer or snowstorm -- it adds to the spectacle. You can roast brined items in the oven, but I prefer the phenomenal balance of sweet, salty and smoky from the grill."
I, too, found the extra smoky flavor from the grill irresistible. The turkey is cooked by the indirect method, over a drip pan with coals banked to the sides. Don't use charcoal lighter on the coals. Use a chimney or kindling.
Here is the Napa Valley recipe, from chef Jeff Starr of Stags' Leap Winery.
Orange-marinated, brined, smoked turkey
Serves 12 to 15
1 gallon orange juice
2 cups rice wine vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup dark brown sugar
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 cup peeled fresh ginger, sliced
1 bunch green onions, sliced
2 bunches cilantro, chopped
12 whole star anise (see note)
2 cinnamon sticks, crushed
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon whole cloves
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 cup kosher salt
1 turkey, 12 to 15 pounds, giblets removed (see note)
wine barrel or orange wood chips, about 2 pounds (grapevine cuttings or hickory chips may be substituted)
olive oil, to rub on turkey
salt and pepper to taste