On Saturday, I had dinner with my boyfriend's family for his mother's birthday. It was the day before my own party for fake-thanksgiving, and I was discussing a few of the menu points with his brother.
"I've never had a good turkey," he summarily declared. "Turkey is an inherently dry bird so it's impossible to make it tender."
At this, I laughed. "That is just plain not true!" I exclaimed.
I went on to explain the most common problem with turkey, which is that most people just don't know how to cook it properly. They're so concerned with it looking golden and perfect, that they ignore some of the basic aspects of turkey. That, of course, being that turkey breast cooks in about half the time of the rest of the bird so by the time the whole thing comes out of the oven, the breast is overcooked and dry. It's why people who in regular life have little interest in dark meat, tend to prefer it in the Thanksgiving turkey.
The best way to avoid this, I continued, is to cook the bird upside down. My secret is to go even further and half-braise/half-roast the turkey by filling the basin of the roasting pan with a delicious braising liquid. I lay the bird right into the pan without a rack so the breast cooks slowly in the rich liquid, while the rest of the bird roasts and crisps.
Ilya was skeptical, but upon tasting my turkey the next day, he conceded. "You were right," he said as he reached in for another helping.
I hope to convince you to try it this way, too. And so here is Alejandra's ...er...MY recipe for a perfect Thanksgiving Turkey. Note that you'll have to let go of your preconceived notions of what a turkey should look like, but once you try it, I suspect you'll be pretty pleased! (Oh and I should also note that all the amazing photographs in this post were taken by my friend and incredible photographer Monica Navarro. She also does weddings, portraits, and cute baby photos. You can check out more of her work here.)
Since I know many of you are worried about not having a picture-perfect bird. Let's just get that out of the way first!
Come time to serve the bird, I have two suggestions:
1. Set it on the platter and bring it to the table upside-down! It will still look absolutely gorgeous--crispy skin and all. And I guarantee you that 75 percent of your guests (unless you come from an unusually foodie clan) won't even know that it's upside down. You will get your ooohs and aaahs and can leave it there while saying grace or making toasts. Explain that it's upside down because it cooks better that way and, when they challenge you, say "oh just you wait, annoying Uncle Steve!" Then, come time to carve it, simply pull it away and say, "we're going to carve it in the kitchen and bring it back." Uncle Steve will be begging you for more!
2. Carve the bird in the kitchen and layer the slices elegantly on a pattern adorned with roast vegetables and sprigs of herbs. Then bring it out to the table where, I assure you, you will STILL get lots of oooohs and aaahs. Maybe even more now that your family will know they can just dig in without having to wait while you carve it.
If you're concerned about the crispy skin, simply remember that the WHOLE bird is covered in skin. Even if you cook it upside down, you still get a whole half-a-turkey full of crispy skin on the bottom part. Just pull it off before you flip the bird, then proceed as usual. The tender and juicy breast will hush any doubts the more skeptical members of your family may have.
This is my recipe for a perfect Thanksgiving Turkey. The marinade is a rich sauce made out of onions, garlic, fresh herbs, and spices. It has a it of a Latin kick to it with fresh cilantro, sour orange juice, and warm and smokey Spanish paprika. You can, of course, adjust the marinade to your tastes so just think of it as a guideline. This turkey is wonderful paired with all the traditional Thanksgiving accompaniments, a few of which I'll be posting over the next few days.
Another tip: on a smaller scale (think half), this recipe and method is also absolutely brilliant for your average roast chicken. One thing to remember is that you need to think ahead.
This turkey is best when it is marinated for at least 24 hours in advance. My mom likes to marinate it a full 48 hours in advance and it comes out even better. The recipe itself is actually pretty quick and easy because it there is no dicing or chopping involved. Also no messy brines to contend with. It will work for turkeys of any size, simply adjust the cooking time based on the size of your bird.
Alejandra’s Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
This recipe is for a turkey that cooks upside down with the breast in a braising liquid. There are a lot of ingredients, but don’t let that scare you; the actual hands-on time is minimal.
For the marinade:
1 whole Spanish onion (Spanish onions are typically spicier and larger than regular yellow onions; if you can’t find any, substitute two whole yellow onions)
1 whole red bell pepper
1 whole head of garlic, each clove peeled
1 bunch of cilantro
1/2 bunch parsley
3 tablespoons Smoked Spanish Paprika
Juice of two seville oranges (sour oranges often available in Latin grocers, or substitute a mixture of 1 whole regular orange and 1 whole lemon or the juice of 3 Meyer lemons)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup Kosher salt, plus more if necessary (as outlined in the instructions)
For the herb butter:
1 stick of salted butter, softened at room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon paprika
For the turkey cavity:
1 Spanish onion, quartered
1 lemon, halved
1 head of garlic, whole but with top sliced off
1 fresh Turkey (any size)
For the braising liquid:
1 bottle of Malta (a latin malt soda) or 1 can of Coca Cola
2-3 cups low-sodium chicken broth (homemade or boxed)
1/2 cup orange juice (freshly squeezed or bottled)
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh oregano
Special Equipment: 1 large roasting pan, twine and skewers to truss the bird, 1 oven safe meat thermometer, aluminum foil, a blender or food processor for preparing the marinade
1. First, prepare the marinade. You will need a blender or a food processor with the largest bowl in place. Peel the onion and quarter it. Cut the pepper in half and remove the seeds and vein. Peel the garlic. Drop the onion, bell pepper, garlic, cilantro, and parsley into the food processor and blitz until completely blended. Add the smoked spanish paprika, orange juice, olive oil, black pepper, and salt, and continue to process until the mix is completely smooth like a sauce. Taste it for seasoning; the sauce should taste TOO salty. If you taste it and it’s still pleasant—like you could easily eat it as a salad dressing—add more salt. Note that this amount of salt will not be evident in the final turkey, but it’s going to be what makes the bird so flavorful so don’t be afraid to add more. Once it is ready, set the marinade aside.
2. Prepare the herb butter. In a small bowl, blend the soft butter with the thyme, oregano, and paprika. Set aside at room temperature.
3. Prepare the items for the turkey cavity. These will go inside the bird in lieu of stuffing (which should be cooked separately) and will provide even more flavoring for the bird. Peel and quarter the onion. Halve the lemon. Slice the to off the head of garlic. Set these aside.
4. Prepare the turkey: Unwrap the bird and rinse under the sink to remove any blood or liquid. Remove the giblets and turkey neck and set aside. Pat the bird dry and use your hands to separate the skin from the breast of the bird. Using your hands, scoop in small handfuls of the herb butter and massage into the bird under the skin and inside the bird cavity. Use the entire amount of the butter.
5. Now you are ready to pour on the marinade. Place the bird in the roasting pan where you will be cooking it, breast side up. Pour on the marinade by the cupful, making sure to get it all over the bird, inside the cavity. Use a spoon to scoop the marinade into the bird between the skin and the flesh. Be sure to also pour some inside the neck cavity.
6. Insert the onion, lemon, and garlic inside the bird cavity until it is filled. Scoop in a few tablespoons of the marinade.
7. Cover the bird with the top of the roasting pan or aluminum foil and place in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to 48 hours (note that if you started late, that will be OK and it will still taste better than a plain old salt-and-pepper bird).
When you are ready to cook:
8. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Remove the bird from the refrigerator and let sit for 30-45 minutes until it loses some of the chill from the fridge.
9. Uncover the bird and use your hands to gently flip it over in the roasting pan so that the breast is on the bottom and facing the bottom of the pot. Use twine to tie the legs together and skewers to seal the skin over the breast and neck cavities. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh being careful not to touch any bones.
10. Pour in the braising liquid: 1 bottle of soda (malta or coca cola—not diet!), 2 cups chicken broth, 1/2 cup orange juice. Scatter in the herbs. Cover with foil or the top tightly and place in the oven for the recommended amount of time based on the size of your bird. (You won’t need to worry about basting it!)
11. About 1 hour before it’s finished roasting, remove the cover and let it continue cooking uncovered.
12. When the meat thermometer reaches 165 degrees, remove from the oven. Cover with foil and let sit for 30 minutes until the temperature reaches 180 and the juices have all settled.