It’s turkey time–again!

At the risk of being considered heretical, perhaps even un-American, and definitely not in the proper holiday spirit, I’m going to come right out and say that turkey would be my last choice for the main course of a holiday feast.  I’d much rather have duck, goose, roast pork, prime rib, or even roast chicken, (unless we’re going to talk wild turkey).  The problem is that it’s an achievement to get a whole turkey to be edible (and I do have a friend who does that well, so I eat her turkey–it’s the best I’ve had when the bird is roasted whole). The problem is the turkey–not the cook!

It seems to me that turkey is all about presentation, and NOT about cooking it to the best advantage. We’ve bred turkeys to have a huge chunk of breast meat, which really isn’t that flavorful. That white meat is attached to the legs, dark meat.  Now dark and white meat cook very differently, and here they are attached to the same bird, so that you have to cook them together–a real cooking dilemma.

Not to mislead you, some of the same problems exist with chicken, or Cornish game hen/poussin, though it’s easier to find ways to have both come out reasonably well on the smaller bird. The white meat still is not as flavorful as the dark, even on free-range chickens. I do use the breast meat–I usually cook it separately from the dark meat, but do sometimes roast a whole bird (French style in a dutch oven, in the Romertopf, or sometimes just uncovered in the oven). 

It’s not that I don’t like turkey–at least occasionally–even the white meat.  I just want it like I want all my food–to have the best taste and texture possible. It’s always seemed to me that when you have two things as different as turkey legs and breast, that you should not try to cook them together–neither will be at its best.  Cook’s Illustrated has provided a recipe for optimizing turkey, and it involves taking it apart, but it also provides for stuffing, and presentation, too. I’d like to try this out with a whole turkey to see how complicated it is to get it done.

I’ll buy turkey breast fillets almost any time for a quick sauté–just like I’d do chicken breasts, but I still like dark meat best. I’m actually glad to see turkeys in the market–especially the pieces–light and dark meat separately. While you can almost always get turkey breast and sometimes even the drumsticks, what I really like are the thighs–without the drumsticks attached. I was happy to find turkey thighs at Harris Teeter when I went to do my marketing yesterday.

roasted turkey thigh in roasting pan

turkey my way

Yes, even though turkey-eating season is about to get into full swing, I came  home with a package of turkey thighs–and tonight I had roast turkey–thigh that is.

It’s ideal for cooking for one–and inexpensive as well. One roasted turkey thigh will give me several meals: hot roast turkey, a cold turkey sandwich, and a serving of turkey soup.

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Since I was working on an indexing job today, I really did not get fancy with my turkey thighs. I just let the thighs sit for a couple hours in the refrigerator, uncovered, so the skin would dry.  I plopped them into the roasting pan with some wedges of potatoes, and salted the skin liberally so it would be crisp and golden brown. Then, into the oven (350°F) for about an hour, and out came my roast turkey.

roast turkey thigh partially carved

ready to serve

I let it rest just like a whole bird, and then carved off my supper. Since I was after as few dishes to wash as possible, I made a cabbage dish that I wanted to try, and had potatoes roasted right along with the turkey–no gravy or stuffing tonight. (Cook’s Illustrated did give instructions for making stuffing with the disassembled bird, and I do want to try to adapt that for my single-serving quantity–but just not today. It was an easy, inexpensive, and tasty meal.

I’d eat more turkey if I were able to get thighs year round.  I’m looking forward to more roast turkey in the next few days as I have another thigh that’s been roasted.  I suspect there will be more than one turkey sandwich, and some will end up in with the bones in some hearty turkey, barley or lentil, and mushroom soup from my tiny single-serving size slow-cooker.

plate of turkey

Cornish hen braised in milk

sage, cinnamon, garlic and lemon

I had an earlier post about braising chicken in milk, when I tried the recipe using chicken pieces since that gave me something more like a single serving.  Flavor was great, but I thought that for something a bit scaled down, but more in keeping with the original recipe, I would try this with a Cornish  hen and see how that worked. One of the advantages of these little birds is that they are more in keeping with  Jamie Oliver’s recipe, rather than the chicken parts that I tried originally. This might be a way to keep with the spirit of the original recipe, but scale it down to something closer to single-serving size.  While this is a recipe that might do well on second runs, I really don’t want as much as whole chicken would make.

Well, the weather has turned to fall with blowing leaves, and chilly temperatures so this seems an excellent time to try this again…and my grocery shopping provided me with a lovely price on a pair of (frozen) Cornish hens–about 1 to 1-1/4 pounds each.

A Cornish hen–either male or female regardless of calling it a “hen”–is a special breed of chicken (in the USA sometimes also called a poussin, though that is really French for a very young, small chicken that is usually about a pound in weight).  Since my supermarket does not offer poussins, but does have the Cornish hen (which is a young, hybrid chicken–of Rock Cornish with some other breed–not over 2 pounds by USDA specifications) that’s what I’ll use; I was fortunate enough to find some hens that were just about a pound or a pound and a quarter each.

While browsing some of my favorite blogs, I found a discussion of Jamie Oliver’s recipe–where an oversight  of lid on instead of off for part of the time was compared to the bird braised in an open pot.  This made me think of the French chicken in a pot that I had cook recently–one of the things that was  impressive about that was how the flavors seemed to permeate the meat itself.  I decided to try this with the  lid on for part of the time just for that reason.  (I do have two Cornish hens–so maybe I need to do the same here–one each way!

One of the things I discovered when doing the chicken parts was that just because you are using 1 pound of chicken instead of 4 pounds, you might not want to just take a quarter of the seasoning ingredients–the flavor was good, but perhaps a bit on the wimpy side; so I have to find a way to optimize that when cutting the recipe to single-serving size.  I decided that this time, I will make up the seasonings and milk as if I were doing the large chicken (in the 2 cups of milk).  I thought I’d simmer the seasonings in the milk and taste to see what that was like, cool it and add what seemed appropriate for the size of my bird and my pot.

The petit brasier was a no go–too big around–so I used my 4-quart All-Clad pot as being the closest thing to a “small” dutch oven.  The whole stick of butter was obviously not necessary so I used just enough (about 2 tablespoons) with the olive oil (about 2 tablespoons as well) to brown the hen.  (One thing I did discover is that the skin on a Cornish hen is much more fragile and has much less fat under it than does a more mature chicken.)  Just the smell of the hen browning in the butter and the olive oil is fabulous!

browned bird on plate

There was not much fat in the cavity either so I returned about half of the butter/olive oil mixture to the pot with the chicken.  Giblets were mostly not included–just the neck, but I browned that and included it in the braising pot for  extra flavor.

So here’s my bird, browned, and ready to go back into the pot to braise with the seasoned milk.  (Next time I’m doing a Cornish hen or poussin, I think that I’ll try using just half the milk with half to three-quarters of seasonings even though these birds are only about a quarter the weight of the chicken called for in the original recipe.)

browned bird in the pot with milk and seasonings

After steeping the other seasonings in the warm milk, and then letting it cool a bit, I tasted it–very lemony and sage-y, but not much garlic or cinnamon yet; (that came out later in the braising process).  I divided the milk and the other seasonings in about half since that looked like about the right amount of liquid (the eyeball test!!).  It took about 1 cup of milk (and I added half the solids) so the rest went into the freezer for a repeat, or perhaps just to braise some chicken thighs or poach some breasts. ( I did put the cinnamon into the braising pot with this bird).

braised Cornish hen

Since it was a smaller bird and the braising liquid was already warm, I reduced the oven temperature to 325 ° F since I wanted enough braising time to let the flavors actually get into the meat (as it did in the French chicken in a pot).  I decided to go with lid-on for about 30 or 35 minutes and see how it looked then, and finish the braising with the lid off so that the liquids reduced more.

bird in pot after 30 minutes in the oven with lid off

lid off for about 30 minutes

After another 30 minutes in the oven with the lid off, the sauce has reduced some and it looks falling-off-the-bone tender.

Somewhere along the way, all those unlikely, highly individual, and potent seasonings have turned into a complex, earthy  taste and aroma.

I’m ready to eat!

Admittedly this does not look like it’s going to be a dish that lends itself to elegant presentation, but it’s certainly a keeper for comfort food.  Braised in a container that could go directly to the table it would make a nice casual presentation as the skin does brown more after the lid comes off.

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The  pot  that I used was just a bit deeper than I might have liked, but better too deep than too wide since that would need too much liquid to reduce by the time the hen was done.  Unfortunately, the bird was just a bit too tall to fit into my small chef’s pan–but this was close enough.  The sauce does look “curdled” but tastes wonderful!  Just the thing for a damp, drizzly, autumn or winter evening!

chocolate mug with sage-lemons IMG_4796The original recipe for a whole chicken would be great for causal company–this is definitely a keeper!   I had this with basmati rice, roasted baby carrots and baby zucchini.  Sautéed  spinach, or maybe broccoli raab would be good too.  I think that the slight bitterness of the broccoli raab would be a great contrast to the way that these seasonings meld into a very earthy background to the chicken.

A son goût!