Why Norman Rockwell’s turkey sets us up to fail

“Freedom from Want,” part of the Four Freedom series, by Norman Rockwell, published in the Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1943

Meet Your Maker is Nosh’s regular series in which an East Bay food specialist shares their expertise. Here, Monica Rocchino, co-owner with her husband Aaron Rocchino of The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, challenges the sacred notion that a whole turkey is de rigueur for Thanksgiving dinner, and offers two proven recipes for preparing the perfect bird.

Thanksgiving Dinner is a pressure filled meal for many of us. For those who don’t cook much throughout the year, it is a daunting task to feed family and friends, and for those who pride themselves on being excellent cooks, there are grand expectations!

Unfortunately, for both types of cooks, Norman Rockwell’s image of a turkey dinner has become the “norm” of what we expect to see on the Thanksgiving table, even if only for a brief moment before it gets carved or hacked to pieces. After spending a pretty penny on a turkey for Thanksgiving, why is it that we throw our sense of taste aside in order to present a whole bird for a minute or two at the table? The bottom line is that it is nearly impossible to cook a whole turkey and end up with perfectly cooked white and dark meat. 

The trouble is that the anatomy of a turkey (and chicken for that matter) is broken up into two types of meat — white meat and dark meat — and the two require different cooking techniques and times in order for each to fully live up to their individual potential.

Dark meat comes from the legs and thighs of the bird which, if you are getting a pasture-raised bird, are well exercised muscles. They are “dark” in color as a result of myoglobin which help carry oxygen to the muscles. They also tend to be “tougher” because they are worked muscles and need a bit of coaxing to soften up. The best way to relax the muscles into tenderness is through braising them in a bit of liquid (preferably poultry stock).

White meat comes from the breast area of the bird and much like humans, doesn’t get much of a workout, even on a pasture-raised bird. Because the breast does not get much use, they are already tender and need considerably less cooking time than the dark meat.

At our house, we used to start the whole turkey in the oven and then, when the breasts were done, we hacked off the legs and threw them back in the oven to finish cooking. But what would impress guests, and our taste buds, even more, would be to have a platter of sliced roasted turkey breast and a platter of braised turkey legs and thighs both cooked to perfection.

Try this and guests will be wowed by not one, but two different turkey dishes, both seasoned and cooked differently.

Even the guests who prefer white meat will want to try the braised turkey, and vice versa.

Herb Roasted Turkey Breast with Pan Gravy

Ingredients

  • 1 Whole Turkey Breast (two breasts) bone in
  • 1/2 stick Butter, softened
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
  • 1 teaspoon Garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Thyme finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Rosemary finely chopped
  • 3 cups Chicken Stock

Directions

Remove breast from packaging and heavily season with salt on both sides.  Put in the refrigerator.  At least 1 hour before cooking, pull turkey out of the refrigerator and bring it up to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine softened butter, mustard, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary in a bowl. Rub the herbed butter all over the turkey under the skin as well as on top.

Put the turkey on a rack in a roasting pan.  Pour the 3 cups of chicken stock into the bottom of the roasting pan.  Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and roast for approximately 1.5 -2 hours. The skin should take on a nice golden browned color. Baste the turkey with the pan juices every 30 minutes.  (If the bottom of the pan becomes too dry during cooking, add a little more stock.) Continue cooking until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Use an instant read meat thermometer, inserted into a deep part of the breast, to check the temperature.  When the turkey is cooked, remove the pan from the oven. Loosely cover the turkey with foil and allow it to rest for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the gravy.

One whole breast serves 4-5

Turkey Pan Gravy

Ingredients

  • 3 Tablespoons Butter
  • 3 Tablespoons Flour
  • Drippings from Turkey
  • 1 1/2 cups Chicken Stock (approx.)

Directions

Pour out the turkey juices and remaining stock from the roasting pan. Add chicken stock to the juices to make a total of 2 cups liquid. In a saucepan, combine the butter and flour over medium heat, whisking continuously. Cook for two minutes until the color is a golden brownish/yellow. Then, whisk in the turkey juice/chicken stock. Bring to a simmer. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the gravy begins to thicken. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, as desired.

Makes 2 cups

Bacon and Cider Braised Turkey

Ingredients

  • 8 slices bacon, chopped into lardons
  • 2 turkey thighs, skin-0n, bone-in
  • 2 turkey drumsticks, skin-on, bone-in
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 3 cups apple cider
  • 3 cups chicken broth (plus 1 cup reserve in case needed)
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

2 hours before cooking, take turkey legs and thighs out of the fridge.  Season heavily with salt and leave out at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put flour and ground pepper in a bowl and mix.  Sprinkle the flour mixture on the turkey parts on both sides.

In a large dutch oven pan or roasting pan (one that can fit all of the turkey pieces in a single layer), cook the bacon lardons over medium/medium-high heat until crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon, leaving the bacon drippings in the pan.

Place the thighs and drumsticks in the pan in a single layer, skin side down. Cook for 4-5 minutes, until the skin is browned. Then flip and cook for about three minutes on the other side. Pour the cider and chicken broth around the chicken. (The liquids should come about halfway up the sides of the turkey, leaving the browned skin exposed.)

Put the bacon back into the pot, cover and place on the middle oven rack. Allow to cook for 90 minutes, undisturbed. Then, remove the cover and allow it to cook for 30 minutes more (to crisp up the skin and allow the sauce to reduce). The meat should have pulled away from the bone and be fork tender.  Remove from the oven.

Remove the turkey pieces and place in a deep platter. Pour the sauce into a measuring cup and allow it to cool for a few minutes. As it cools, the excess fat will rise to the surface. Use a spoon to remove the excess fat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, as desired.

Pour the sauce around the turkey in the platter.

Serves 5-6 with turkey accompaniments.

The Local Butcher Shop offers sustainably raised, local meat — as well as fresh daily sandwiches and a roster of butchery and cooking classes — at 1600 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley (entrance on Cedar Street). Follow Aaron and Monica’s What we ate for dinner at the Rocchino’s blog.

Follow Berkeleyside NOSH on Twitter, and on Facebook.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/cjuricich Chris Juricich

    The writers here make a good case for cooking these separately, and ignoring the momentary drama of presenting an entirely cooked bird au complet at once. Presumably, as these two segments of the bird can be cooked at the same temperature and for nearly the same amount of time, if one’s oven is large enough, one could out them side by side. No problem with that.

    I think that Local Butcher Shop does have an impressive display of meats and related, of the strictest high quality and locally grown. Alas, I simply am not one of those who can afford to shop on a daily basis in their fine establishment. Even though my wife and I have reduced our meat intake overall, I still find LCS prices much more than I can justify– at least for daily consumption.

    Thanks, though, for the great cooking tips!