The turkey, be it a commercially raised yard bird or a South Hill nuisance clipped by a Honda Element, retains its high place as the centerpiece of most meals on Thanksgiving Day.
While many would-be chefs continue to search for variety, much care must be taken if the menu includes a bird harvested from a local forest or backyard, instead of a neighborhood grocery store.
My own mother, Barbara Clouse, took on this challenge in the late 1970s after we brought home a wild turkey shot during a family hunt in northwest Nebraska. She decided to feature the wild bird for the meal, which always included 10 people (I was one of eight kids) and generally included several stragglers who joined us for Thanksgiving.
“It was a disaster,” she said. “I didn’t allow for how lean it was. It seemed like it took forever to cook. It was tough.”
Think Clark Griswold when he cut into the turkey in “Christmas Vacation.”
“Thank God I had other things cooked that we could eat besides turkey,” she said.
Having been raised by Great Depression-era parents, my mother tried again the next year. This time, she added a commercially raised bird with the wild turkey.
“Wild turkeys are not as big and they don’t have as much fat. The next time, I got a smallish tame turkey and I just cooked them together,” she said.
She put both birds into a baking bag, then occasionally basted the wild turkey with the drippings from the much fatter tame bird.
The result became a family tradition. “Back in the ’70s, we didn’t ever hear of putting anything in a brine or smoking like they do now,” she said. “We were old school.”
Turkeys are not native to Washington.
State wildlife officials introduced them to the area in 1960 and they have flourished, first as thrilling quarry for winter-weary hunters eager to hit the woods and now as an urban nuisance.
On Tuesday, my longtime hunting partner, Jed Conklin, had to stop his vehicle on Grand Boulevard as a flock of turkeys, mostly young toms, decided to use the street as a platform to work out which one was dominant.
“People were freaking out,” said Conklin, a former photographer for The Spokesman-Review. “It’s unfortunate when a wild animal becomes so accustomed to human interaction to survive.”
Just last week, my wife gathered several frozen turkey breasts out of the freezer. She put them in a brine and smoked them over alder wood. Let’s just say a grizzled journalist found himself in the doghouse after he secured all the leftovers for lunch sandwiches.
While the urban birds crap their way out of the good graces of city folks, they continue to be the featured guest during our annual Turkey Trout Camp. The early May camp generally includes at least one bird on the menu that is cooked fresh.
During that first meal, I tend to use a simple cooking method I learned from Dave Voelker, my good friend and a lifelong chef: Take a fresh turkey breast and dice it up into uniform pieces. Roll them in flour, dip them in egg and then roll them again in seasoned flour. Fry the breaded chunks in olive oil in a cast iron skillet until golden brown. Serve the turkey nuggets with a bowl of honey mustard for dipping.
“The commercial bird is bred with fat and flavor in mind,” said Voelker, who recently moved from Rathdrum back to his native Michigan. “Just like commercial beef or anything else, it’s going to be easier to cook because of that fat.”
Commercial turkeys generally are raised in a confined space as opposed to wild turkeys, which use their legs more than their wings. They can run as fast as some birds fly. As a result, those well-used legs can be as tough as leather.
“With a wild bird, the breast is the ideal part. The rest is edible,” Voelker said, “but not the most palatable.”
The key to preparing tougher meats is time. The muscles that get used the most get cooked the slowest. Crock-Pot turkey legs make a wonderful soup stock.
Inject that thing!
As for making a wild bird for Thanksgiving, Voelker offered several suggestions. He said the key to a good-tasting bird is the brine, a combination of salt, sugar and spices.
“You can inject the brines, or flavor, or fat, into the wild bird,” he said. “Just don’t overcook them. That should be the headline.”
Voelker suggested cooking a ham, or something else, for guests just in case they get surprised by the fact that the centerpiece of the meal is wild game.
“Unless it’s a bunch of guys at camp, it might not be everybody’s thing,” he said. “Unless they are totally into it, there are going to be questions.”
Voelker prefers to cook with high heat, searing in the juices.
“I’m big on marinade, grill and maybe having bacon draped over it or wrapped around it. Everything is better with butter,” he said. “Sear it and get it off and let it rest.”
Conklin, who takes the time to pluck at least one wild bird a year, has turned the turkey cooking adventure into a science. It’s sort of Kentucky backwoods meets Dorothy Dean.
“We actually started planning for this in April,” he said. “If you do hit one with your car, use the following recipe.”
Conklin starts with the laborious job of plucking the feathers off the bird. Keeping the skin on is key.
A week prior to Thanksgiving, Conklin takes the frozen bird and puts it in a refrigerator to gradually thaw. Any meat put in a microwave to defrost causes the cells to burst and results in moisture loss, he said.
Then he starts preparing either a wet or dry brine that generally uses a ratio of one cup of salt to 2/3 of a cup of sugar. The brine should include a goodly amount of black pepper and other spices, that could be cinnamon or cumin or any other herbs of choice.
“You want that brine on there for 24 to 48 hours,” he said. “You have to brine a turkey or you will suffer the dry consequences.”
This year, Conklin is employing a technique called spatchcock, where the chef physically cuts the bird from the back to remove the backbone while leaving the skin intact on the breasts. He then sprinkles the bird with a dry brine, puts it in a double oven bag, then puts it back in the fridge to soak up that flavor for up to two days.
He then pulls the bird, rinses it in cold water as he prepares the Traeger Grill. He then melts butter.
“You have to introduce fat into these wild turkeys because they have none,” Conklin said. “I take melted butter and I inject it.”
He then takes even more butter and stuffs it under the skin, near where he removed the neck and backbone.
“The trick is that you want to cook it breast down, so all that juice melts into the breast and percolates under the skin,” he said. “If you cook it breast-side up, all that liquid drains out of the back.”
If the chef is in a hurry, Conklin suggested turning the Traeger Grill up to 350 degrees and cooking the turkey for two to three hours until the meat thermometer reads 160 degrees.
If the party can wait, he prefers to cook the bird at 225 degrees until the interior breast meat temperature reaches that 160-degree threshold.
“The other thing people often neglect or forget is that they don’t rest it enough,” he said.
“A turkey requires an exceptionally long rest period versus steak or other meats. If anything should be cool for dinner, it should be the turkey.”
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