Is it odd that I name the turkeys I cook each Thanksgiving? And that they all have men’s names that start with the letter H? Last year it was Hubert and the year before that, Horace. This year, allow me to introduce Humphrey.
These big boys have given their all for us, and the naming ritual acknowledges that. I have no psychological issues about men’s names that begin with H. I just think a turkey requires an old-fashioned, dignified moniker that’s faintly humorous (for a bird), and these names fit the bill for me.
I vary my Christmas and Easter menus, but the traditiional Thanksgiving menu is de rigueur for my family. Oh, I can play around a bit with some of the elements that don’t really matter — you know, like the vegetables — but there must be turkey. With stuffing; simple bread stuffing with no nuts, no fruits, no ham. No messing around with our stuffing! Simple mashed potatoes. Oh, and gravy. Cranberry compote is a requirement for the 25 percent of my guests that will touch it. Pumpkin pie is an essential dessert, again with no fancified touches. Just the recipe that I’ve always made.
There’s something comforting, reassuring about a menu that’s almost entirely based on family favourites. It represents a solid underpinning of stability in a world where much is askew, unpredictable or challenging. Our Thanksgiving menu, like the day itself, reminds us of the most important things in life that can be relied upon, like a mother’s love, a sibling’s affectionate teasing, and the rich sweetness of pumpkin pie. Our rituals remind us that most of life is good and that we shouldn’t focus as much on the parts that are not.
Back to Humphrey now. He’s the biggest turkey I’ve bought in many years, clocking in at 23-1/4 pounds. I buy high quality fresh turkeys from a local market. I’ve been using fresh birds ever since that time, 20 years ago, when I skinned my knuckles wrestling the bag of gizzards out of a bird that was still partially frozen.
Roasting the Turkey
The Turkey Farmers of Canada have a series of videos on their website that demonstrate various elements of turkey preparation, by Emily Richards. It’s important to practice good kitchen hygiene when preparing turkey, to ensure your food is safe and no cross-contamination occurs. There’s no need to be afraid of preparing turkey; just follow the common sense tips that Eat Right Ontario provides in this resource on safe turkey handling.
In the meantime, here’s the story of how I transformed Humphrey from a pallid, shivering bird to a hot, bronzed superstar.
On the morning of our big dinner, I gave Humphrey a nice wash under cold water, inside and out, and a pat down with paper towels, again inside and out. DON’T DO THIS! I just read in the safe turkey handling resource above that this is no longer considered necessary, and in fact may lead to cross-contamination. Good news, since I’ve never liked doing this step. My experience illustrates that it’s important to stay current about food handling issues. I was preparing my turkey using the guidelines in a cookbook from 1993. Obviously, there’s been advancement in knowledge since then. Stay informed!
Anyway, after Humphrey’s now-known-to-be-unnecessary bath, I rested him on a rack of carrots in my biggest roasting pan, while I packed the neck and body cavities loosely with stuffing, folded the wings under him and trussed up the legs through a cut in the flap of skin known as the pope’s nose (and for more about that term, click here and go to the section called Etymology). Following this, he got a nice massage with softened butter with dried sage and rosemary stirred in. A sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper, and Humphrey was ready for the oven.
Oh, I didn’t mention this, but of course I removed the bag of giblets from the body cavity and the neck from the neck cavity, reserving them for the gravy. More about that another time.
I roasted the turkey at 325ºF for 7-1/2 hours, basting occasionally after the first hour and a half or so. A couple of hours in, he was already browning nicely, so I loosely tented the bird with foil to prevent burning. As you can see from the photos, by the end of all this Humphrey had a beautiful tan, but no burn.
So, the roasting time was just under 20 minutes per pound since this was such a big bird. How do you know when the turkey is done? The best way is to use a meat thermometer, which will register 185ºF in the thickest part of the thigh, and 165º F in the stuffing.
I transferred the turkey from the roasting pan to a heated tray, covered it with foil and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving. This gives the juices time to settle and redistribute, so you don’t lose so much when you cut into it. Remember to factor this resting time into your meal preparation schedule.
Alas, my carving job was lacking in elegance, but my guests didn’t seem to mind. They all enjoyed this moist and flavourful turkey.
Simple Bread Stuffing
As I mentioned, my stuffing was very basic. The night before, the Culinary Enthusiast volunteered to cut bread into cubes roughly 1/2 – 3/4 inches, making about 24 cups in total. We used a special stuffing bread made at my local market, pre-seasoned with lots of sage. We let the cubes sit uncovered in a very large bowl on the counter overnight.
While the CE was slicing and dicing, I finely chopped about 3 cups of white onion and 4 cups of celery, adding about 3 tsp of finely minced fresh rosemary, and stored the mixture in the fridge in a plastic bag. I also chopped about 1-1/2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley and stored in the fridge as well.
The next morning, I melted 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp butter in a large skillet, then added the chopped onions, celery and rosemary. I also added about 4 tsp of dried chopped sage. Since the stuffing bread was already seasoned, I didn’t want to overdo the flavouring. Other seasoning included about 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1-1/2 tsp dried rosemary and salt. Stirred together, this mixture cooked over medium low heat for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables were starting to soften.
I then added the parsley to the bread, and then the celery/onion mixture. Using a large pair of tongs, I gently turned and tossed everything until the buttery vegetables and herbs were evenly distributed among the bread cubes. I let the stuffing cool while I was getting the bird ready.
Before stuffing Humphrey, I removed enough stuffing to fill a medium sized, buttered mixing bowl and put it into the fridge covered with foil. It’s important to do this before you put your turkey-contaminated hands into the stuffing.
When stuffing the bird, don’t pack the bread mixture too firmly. I’m not really sure how to describe it when it’s right; let’s just say well-stuffed but not crammed.
About 45 minutes before dinner time, baste the stuffing in the bowl with a a few squirts of the juices in the bottom of the turkey roasting pan. Cover with the foil and place in the oven to heat through.
Remove the stuffing from inside the turkey before carving the bird.
Guests will have their choice of the very moist stuffing from inside the turkey and the drier stuffing that was baked separately. My photos are from the leftovers, with the two stuffings mixed together.