Feast with Louisiana touch: Big Easy Turkey

November 16, 2005|By STEVEN RAICHLEN

When we think of our friends in Louisiana these days, we don't tend to focus on their rich culinary history. We think of what they've been through, both during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

So this Thanksgiving, let's take a few moments to honor them, their challenges and their wonderful contributions to American culture - great culinary creations among them.

After all, who else but someone from Cajun country would have conceived of deep-frying a turkey?

Even the Cajun injector, a sort of oversized hypodermic needle used for injecting liquid flavorings deep into turkey breasts and inherently dry meats, was invented in Louisiana.

Which brings us to what I call Big Easy Turkey, a bird given shots with a Cajun injector and seasoned with Cajun seasonings before being smoke-roasted on the grill.

OK, I know a true Louisianian would probably deep-fry the bird. But smoke-roasting offers at least four advantages over deep-frying. First, it's a lot less dangerous. (Every year, newspapers report that a few careless souls have set fire to something while frying turkeys.) Second, it's a lot more healthful because there's no added fat. Third, the addition of wood smoke contributes a bold new dimension to the flavor. Finally, smoke-roasting is a whole lot more forgiving, in terms of precise cooking times, than deep-frying is.

So what the devil is smoke-roasting? Well, it combines the virtues of two popular American live fire methods: smoking and indirect grilling.

True smoking is done at a low temperature for a long time. This method is unbeatable when it comes to turning out fork-tender beef brisket and pork shoulder. But I'm not a big fan of smoking turkey because the temperature (typically 225 degrees to 250 degrees) is too low to crisp the skin. I often find that smoked turkey skin comes out dry and leathery.

Indirect grilling is a process in which you cook the food on a covered grill next to, not directly over, the fire. On a charcoal grill, you rake the coals into two mounds at opposite sides of the grill and do the cooking in the center over a drip pan.

On a two-burner gas grill, you set one burner on high and cook over the other unlit burner. On a three-burner gas grill, you light the front and rear burners (or outside burners) and do the cooking in the center.

On a four- or six-burner gas grill, you light the outside burners and do the cooking in the center. The advantage to indirect grilling is that it typically takes place at 325 to 350 degrees, which is hot enough to crisp the turkey skin.

Smoke-roasting combines the virtues of both methods. You work at a higher temperature but you toss some hardwood chips on the mounds of coals or in the smoker box of your gas grill to generate the wood-smoke flavor characteristic of true barbecue. (The chips are soaked in water first so they smolder and smoke slowly, not ignite all at once.)

If your grill doesn't have a smoker box, you can wrap soaked chips in foil to make a flat package, poke some holes in the top to release the smoke and place the resulting smoker pouch under the grate over one of the burners.

I must tell you, though, that this method produces noticeably less smoke flavor than tossing wood chips on the embers of a charcoal grill. In fact, if you're even halfway serious about this smoking business, I recommend investing in an inexpensive charcoal grill, such as a 22 1/2 -inch kettle, for smoking turkey.

The other piece of equipment you may want to have is the Cajun injector. It is used for injecting butter and broth deep inside the turkey.

The result is extra flavor and moistness and no more dried-out breast meat. Cajun injectors are available at most cookware shops and grill shops. One good mail order source is purecajun.com.

Here's a recipe for Big Easy Turkey, adapted from my book BBQ USA (Workman Publishing Co., 2003, $19.95 paperback). Cajun Seasoning rub makes it spicy, the (optional) injector sauce helps make it moist and smoke-roasting gives you a smoke-scented bird with moist meat and a crisp skin. It's the perfect bird for Thanksgiving.

Steven Raichlen writes for Tribune Media Services. He is the author of 26 books.

Cajun Seasoning

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup sea salt

3 tablespoons sweet paprika

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons onion powder

2 tablespoons dried ground thyme

2 tablespoons dried oregano

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon dried ground sage leaves

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine sea salt, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, oregano, black and white peppers, sage and cayenne pepper in a bowl and whisk to mix or place in a jar and shake to mix.

Makes about 1 cup, which is more than you'll need for this dish but leftovers will keep for several months sealed in a jar away from heat and light.

Per serving ( 1/3 ounce): 17 calories; 1 gram protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 3 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1,729 milligrams sodium

Big Easy Turkey

Serves 4 to 6

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