A good way to cook a turkey

My daughter, Julia, is named after two people. One of them is Julia Child. I happen to think Julia Child has had more influence on American society than most other people, by helping to make varied and interesting cuisine part of American culture.

One day when Julia was a very young child (my Julia, not Julia Child), I was out walking her in her carriage. I turned the corner around the Van Serg Building on the Harvard Campus and practically ran into Julia Child, who was walking in the other direction on her daily constitutional.

“Oh, what a cute child,” she said. (And she was a cute child, I assure you.) “What’s her name.”

Well, that was an interesting conversation…..

Anyway, I want to suggest that you use a recipe invented by Julia Child for cooking your Thanksgiving Turkey this year. It is called “Laid Back Turkey.” It is, in my view, the best possible way to cook a turkey.

But it is not for the feint of heart….

You can find more specific instructions in one or more of Julia’s books. Julia made this on her show once, so somewhere out there is a video of this process. Here, I’ll just give you the basic idea. If you are the kind of person to even try this, the you are also surely willing to experiment and take some chances. All you should really need is the basic theory. If you are the kind of cook who prefers specific instructions and actually follows recipes, then hang up now…

The first thing you need to do is to remove all but a few of the bones from the bird.

Lay the uncooked turkey on it’s front. Slice down to the bone along the spine. Use this slit as the starting point to expose the entire skeleton, working your way around the rib cage, etc., all of which you will remove except for the wing bones and the distal leg bones. Cut through the wing and leg joints at this point in order to free the “outer” part of the bird from the main skeleton.

Caution: As you work your way around to the front … to the breastbone … your chances of cutting through the skin increases. Don’t do this.

When you’ve got the skeleton out of the turkey, lay the deboned bird on it’s front, the livid, exposed flesh facing up. Brush this with an appropriate oil based marinade. I recommend half grape seed oil and half olive oil with lots of thyme, some black pepper, and a little salt.

In the mean time, make a huge pile of stuffing. Put this pile on a flat pan with very low sides big enough to hold the turkey. You are going to lay the turkey on this pile later. If possible, put the stuffing on a cookie sheet that, in turn, fits into a large low-sided baking pan. You can even fashion the pan from aluminum foil or from those disposable pans you get in the spice and cooking supply aisle of your basic grocery store. You’ll see later why this method … the cookie sheet set into a pan … is useful.

Now, back to the turkey. You’ve got the exposed flesh facing up, and you’ve put it on some kind of a pan, temporarily. Fire up the broiler and slide the bird in there. Watch it closely. You want to brown the exposed flesh and hopefully get it cooked a quarter to a half inch deep. The more cooking at this stage, without burning, the better.

Now, take the large, floppy bird that is now covered with hot oil (so be careful!) and lay it flesh side down over the big pile of stuffing. Brush the skin, which is now facing up, with your favorite substance for these purposes. I recommend coating the skin with oil and sprinkling copious amounts of dried green spice (thyme and basil … avoid oregano) for this purpose.

Put this in the oven and cook until done. It will take a fraction of the time that a “normal” turkey will take. It is also a good idea to make sure the stuffing is not cold … in fact, it could be heated up in advance .. when you put the turkey on there. You want to avoid partly cooking bird-meat, cooling it down, then cooking it again. Makes it a bit rubbery.

Now, here comes the fun part.

When the bird is done, wrangle it onto a huge cutting board, big enough to hold this laid back bird. This is where the cookie sheet inside the big pan is helpful. To cut the turkey properly, you don’t want it in the pan, but you’ll need the cookie sheet to keep it stable while you move it. There will also be a significant amount of drainage of juices during this process. So have a mop handy. Might be good to wear rubber boots with a good tread, as the floor tends to get slippery at this stage.

Get a whopping big knife, which you have sharpened, the biggest spatula you have (maybe two) and possibly something large and flat and metal like a cookie sheet cut in half down the long axis. Maybe a flattened hubcap. Whatever you’ve got that is big and flat and thin.

Having an assistant help you with this step is a good idea, if it is someone you work well with.

Get the plates ready … the plates you will be serving dinner on.

Cut the laid back turkey right down the middle, the long way, in half. Using large flat devices, separate the two halves by a couple of inches.

Now, cut a slice about a third of an inch from this freshly exposed cut … so you are cutting a saggital section from near the midline of the bird. Use your flat devices to keep this slice from falling apart, angle it onto the flat surface, and move it over to one of the plates. Now, carefully slide this big slice onto a plate. You will probably have to curve the ends in to make it fit on the plate.

Now, look at what you’ve done. You have a slice of white meat and a slice of dark meat, nestled along side a slice of stuffing, all in one glorious unit. Because both forms of meat will cook much more nicely with this method than the usual ways of cooking turkey, your guests will enjoy both even if they’ve come to the table with preconceptions about their preference for dark vs. light meat.

Repeat this slicing operation, working from both halves of the turkey. As you work your way laterally, make the slices a bit thicker if you want all of the servings to be similar in total mass.

If the slicing piece of this does not work well, don’t worry. Just cut the bird up and serve as normal. The flavor will be far superior to any other method you’ve ever tried, and the meat will be moister and tastier.

An interesting variation of Laid Back Turkey is Laid Back Flock. Here, you get a few birds, like a few of Cornish game hens, two big chickens, and a medium sized turkey. You totally fillet the smaller birds (cut off the wings and the distal legs and get rid of the skin) and arrange them over the giant pile of stuffing, and cover them all with the turkey. This can produce astounding results.

The frame of the turkey can be used for stock. Also, don’t forget to make some excellent gravy to go on this dish. I’ll provide a suggested recipe for gravy and some hints for making stock shortly.

Comments

  1. #1 Rick MacPherson
    November 13, 2007

    can you be hired out for parties?

    if so, i’ve got a big kitchen just waiting to get sloppy with this julia-inspired bird! yeesh, i can barely type through the saliva that’s puddled onto the keyboard from the mouth-watering description…

  2. #2 greg laden
    November 13, 2007

    can you be hired out for parties?

    Absolutely. But for this Thanksgiving I’m already booked. I’m being flown to a remote estate in the mountains of California to make the gravey.

    (Gravey recipe theory coming soon)

  3. #3 the real FMC
    November 14, 2007

    I thk I saw this recipe on the “Red Green show”, but he used an old Chevy sidepanel and a sawzall….

  4. #4 Fnord Prefect
    November 15, 2007

    That sounds awesome… but I think I am going to chicken out on trying this on the in-laws for Thanksgiving, I got an extra turkey in the freezer though and may try it for just me and my wife around xmas. Deboning a large raw turkey is intimidating, just not sure how well my first go at it will succeed.

  5. #5 thalarctos
    November 15, 2007

    I turned the corner around the Van Serg Building on the Harvard Campus and practically ran into Julia Child, who was walking in the other direction on her daily constitutional.

    “Julia Child, Child Julia. Child Julia, Julia Child.”

  6. #6 Heather
    November 15, 2007

    Mmmm. Dangit, now I have to wait a whole week for Thanksgiving! What to do with all this well-meaning drool puddling up everywhere?

  7. #7 Maureen
    November 19, 2007

    Thanks for participating in the Carnival of Recipes this week!

    Happy Thanksgiving!
    Maureen

  8. #8 Engineer-Poet
    November 22, 2007

    I tried this with half a filleted bird (not enough time to do a whole one).  A few observations:

    • There are no drippings for gravy.
    • The half-bird fillet doesn’t cover as much of the stuffing as one might like, and the rest does not receive any drippings.  If I was going to do this again, I would make the stuffing semi-damp (mine was very dry) and squish it up so it all underlies the meat.

    When I take it out of the fridge tomorrow, I’m going to separate the dry stuffing and give it a shot of bouillion.

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