Two Guys, Three Birds

They risked broiling coals, bubbling oil and a hot oven in their quest to find the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.

November 21, 2001|By Rob Kasper and Peter Jensen | Rob Kasper and Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

With the flick of a lighter, the propane burner is lighted, and suddenly the back yard sounds like Baltimore-Washington International Airport during the morning rush hour.

Ah, yes, the roar of a 160,000 Btu burner on full throttle.

More rational people might be in-tixnidated by having such a noise near their homes. We aren't. We're about to use this industrial-strength burner to heat 35 pounds of peanut oil to the hot sizzle (or as sports announcer Keith Jackson might say, the "Whoa, Nellie") stage.

It's all part of a quest, you understand. We are hunting for the perfect turkey. Not the pretty good turkey. Not the looking-forward-to-leftovers turkey. Not even the perfect-looking turkey a la Norman Rockwell. We've had them for Thanksgiving before.

But how do you cook the perfect bird? Crisp brown skin. Succulent breast meat (as opposed to the usual dry, stringy kind). Legs that we would proudly hoist in the air in our best Henry VIII imitation.

There are dozens of techniques touted at this time of year by knowledgeable chefs. Some involve disassembling your turkey so it can be cooked in parts, a butchering that is not for the squeamish. Others swear by soaking them in brine (and risk creating a gravy saltier than a rear admiral). One of the more tempting techniques involves a telephone, a checkbook and a caterer.

With some minor research, we narrowed our choices to three: grilled over charcoal, fried in peanut oil, and Grandma Tellefsen's oven-roasted with the midway flip.

Three frozen turkeys are secured. All weigh 13 pounds. Cooking equipment, chiefly the turkey-frying kit, is purchased. Two days later, on a cool, crisp autumn morning, our cooking team is assembled in Timonium: two grizzled newspaper veterans with just enough experience in the kitchen to be dangerous.

Perfect.

First, an observation about frozen turkeys. Have you ever defrosted one in the refrigerator? The label said two days. After 48 hours, they were still hard enough to hammer nails.

So there we were, giving a cold bath to our three subjects in the bathtub. The kitchen sink was too small. We briefly considered adding cranberry bath salts and giving them a rubdown in the whirlpool. Two hours of soaking later, we were ready to begin.

Step 1. Light the charcoal and fire up the oven.

The bag of charcoal, the major ($5) expense of grilling, is ripped open and lighted with a match and a wad of newspaper.

The electric oven is turned to 325 degrees. Somewhere, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employee smiles.

Seven minutes later, the oven is ready.

Thirty minutes later, the charcoal is covered in ash and ready to be repositioned along the sides of our trusty Weber for the classic, indirect cooking technique.

We wash the turkeys. Remove the neck and giblets. (We've failed that basic step before. The results aren't pretty.)

The oven bird is injected with a melted stick of butter. Yes, with a syringe - the cooking variety, not the flu-shot kind. Meanwhile, the grill bird is given a nice coating of butter and, after some salt and pepper, they're both ready to rumble.

The oven bird is set on a rack, breast side down, in the manner passed down in the Jensen family from Grandma Charmaine Tellefsen of Elmhurst, Ill. Her reasoning is this: The juices run south into the breast while the thighs get the hottest part of the oven.

We've seen it work wonders before, so this turkey will be our bench mark.

The grill bird is set on a rack in a disposable foil pan as recommended by Jamie Purviance and Sandra S. McRae in Weber's Big Book of Grilling (Chronicle Books, 2001, $24.95). The turkey's breast faces up in the classic pose as we settle it into a 350- to 375-degree kettle grill. Some apple-wood chips soaked in water are tossed on the hot coals.

Already, we're feeling good about ourselves - a reverie that lasts all of about 90 seconds before we realize the Weber grill is getting way too hot, so we need to shut down the air supply and watch the thermometer.

Thus begins our three hours of tending to that darn grill bird, who will be coddled, coaxed, prodded and massaged, and have its charcoal supply fed by its faithful attendants for most of an afternoon.

But the quest has begun. Hallelujah.

Step 2. Introduction to some serious frying.

Purchased at the local Sam's Club, the box is about the size of a Goose - as in Tony Siragusa, the Ravens' bulky defensive lineman. Inside is the biggest pot we've ever seen, not to mention a disassembled propane burner and the rest of the equipment to deep-fry a turkey.

Never having put together a propane burner before, we looked to the instructions. That would be the piece of paper with the childlike illustrations and the vague references to regulator valves, the female SAE and the POL fitting.

Huh? Well, it's only highly explosive gas we're dealing with, so we'll just have to improvise, right? Two monkey wrenches and 15 minutes later, the burner is assembled and attached to our propane tank.

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