I HAVE HEARD that it is important to have goals in your life. Accordingly, my goal during this particular stretch of my journey on the planet is to make good turkey gravy while cooking the bird on the grill.
In barbecue terms this is the equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.
Traditionally, cooking the bird on the grill has been a trade-off. You get a great-tasting, smoky bird. But since the bird has been perched on the grate of the grill, not in the oven in a roasting pan, there have been no pan drippings and, hence, no gravy.
Pan drippings, the degreased residue found on the bottom of the roasting pan, is, I believe, an essential element to successful gravy. That is what all the great gravy makers in my family -- my mother and her mother -- have instilled in me.
Recently, however, I wrassled with several ideas on how to get around the grill/gravy challenge.
One, the aluminum-foil-attack method, was straightforward. In it, you mount the turkey on a wire roasting rack, then put the bird and rack in a heavy-gauge aluminum-foil pan. Finally, you position the pan and its contents in the middle of the grill grate, with the glowing coals pushed to the sides of the kettle, and put the lid on the cooker.
Hours later, when the bird has finished cooking, you hoist it onto the cutting board to rest. Then you collect the drippings from the bottom of the foil pan to make gravy, the lifeblood of the Thanksgiving meal.
I have a couple of problems with this approach. The first is space. Already it is a tight fit to get a decent-sized bird, somewhere around 20 pounds, situated on my grill without having things pushed together so tightly that the grill ends up looking like a closet in a New York City studio apartment.
To cook evenly, the bird has to have some head room; it can't be rubbing up against the lid. Moreover, you've got horizontal issues as well. Namely, you can't have the drumsticks pushing out sideways, sitting smack-dab over the hot coals, turning brown faster than a babe at Miami Beach while the rest of the turkey saunters along, hardly tan, with nary a briquette underneath it.
A variant on this approach puts the aluminum-foil pan underneath the grill grate and catches the bird's drippings that way. That, of course, is not all the pan catches. Often a little ash, or a wood chip or two, wanders in.
According to a friend who made turkey gravy this way last year, these smoky bits add taste, what the French winemakers call "terroir," conditions in the ecosystem that give distinct local personality to the flavor of the gravy. That, it seems to me, is another way of saying you like your gravy gritty.
I suppose you could grill a smaller bird, a 12-pounder. But that seems contrary to the "living large" ethic of Thanksgiving. Another remedy is to shell out some cash for one of those Big Bubba cookers, the ones with grills that stretch out from here to Texas. Short of quitting the day job and jumping into the turkey-cooking business, I couldn't justify buying the big boy.
So I took a hard look at another tactic: outsourcing the gravy. Instead of making the gravy right after the bird came off the grill, this technique called for making a base gravy ahead of time on the stove top. In lieu of the turkey fat, you substitute butter. In other words, you cheat.
I found this "cheater's gravy" in Rick Rodgers' new book, Thanksgiving 101 (Broadway, $15). He calls it "Head Start Gravy." He explains that if you grill your bird and you happen to end up with some pan drippings that don't taste like charcoal ashes, you can stir them into your already prepared gravy.
If, on the other hand, your pan drippings end up looking like something that dripped out of your car engine, you still have base gravy to put on the table.
The other seeming advantage of this approach is that it allows you to make gravy ahead of time. The other night, in a trial run for Thanksgiving, I tried the cheater's gravy technique.
This was the short course, so instead of grilling a great big turkey and using its drippings, I cooked a small chicken in the oven. While the bird was cooking, I melted 6 tablespoons of butter in a heavy pan, tossed in 6 tablespoons of flour and, when that mixture browned, I added 3 1/2 cups of canned chicken stock. Then I cooked the mixture for 10 minutes, whisking like crazy, and set it aside.
Later, when the bird was ready to carve, I stirred some of the degreased pan drippings and bits of roasted bird bits into the gravy.
This cheater's gravy was OK, a little too blond and too bland for me, but passable.
I began to think about ways to improve it, to bring it up to the ranks of good gravy, the dark, flavorful stuff made by moms and grandmas.
One idea was to liven up the chicken stock used in the recipe by adding chopped-up giblets and neck to the stock, along with a diced onion, a carrot and some water and simmering the mixture for two hours.