In an effort to raise consciousness regarding the origin of the revered food that regularly graces our bountiful table, I decided to trace much of my Thanksgiving feast back to its natural state. The quest detailed herein focuses on the journey of the turkeys with supporting star mentions going out to spectacular sides as well; Tom Tom couldn’t have done it alone. Tom Tom is the celebrity-inspired collective name for both of our Thanksgiving turkeys. Since they’re on the smaller side we needed two, and can you really think of a better name for the two preening Toms we hand-selected from a local organic farm? If so, leave it in the “comments” section of this post :)
The story of Tom Tom starts with Craigslist- that’s where everyone goes to find a free-range, organically fed Thanksgiving turkey *caveat- still alive, right? I put out a few feelers to the more reputable ads that listed turkeys for sale, hoping someone would let me come out and be a part of the process. Plenty of folks were willing to let me take a live one home, but after the great October chicken massacre on my in-city back deck, I was really hoping to do the deed at the farm. Logistics aside, I also felt that the birds would be less distressed if we removed them from the world surrounded by nature, rather than after a jarring car ride back to an urban flat. After a bit of nudging, I found a farm called ER Properties who said we could come on out to aid in their processing at 11 am November 23rd. That is T-minus 3 days to Turkey day. With my big brining and drying plans, I thought it was cutting it a bit close, but that was the option I was left with, so I set the date.
Jonas did some finagling at work and managed to get the morning off to assist Bentley and me (since Bentley’s 15 months old, I didn’t expect much of him), and Jonas’ coworker Jason tagged along out of sheer curiosity. At the appointed hour we rolled up to the farm, which turned out to be a fortressed, gated compound further protected by two trusty German Shepherds. I rang the buzzer at the gate and nursed my dashed hopes for a rustic experience. Farming is big business these days, I suppose, plus someone has to pay for these folk’s gas-guzzling F350’s and Spanish villa-themed farm house. When they didn’t answer the gate I was almost relieved, but I called them to sort out the snafu. “Oh, didn’t you get my email?” She said, just as I was downloading my messages onto my iPhone. Message sent at 10:40 cancelling an 11’oclock appointment that my husband had switched an entire day around to be a part of? Not cool at all- cue panic mode. Where oh where to find a turkey at this late stage in the game? Prepared to eat store-bought and sulk away the day in a tryptophan-induced daze, I almost gave up. We were an hour from home on a Monday morning in the middle of ranch-urbia and I needed a damn turkey to put into my special two-day brine! Surely a neighbor of this vast fortress must have a free-ranging turkey or two? A quick look around revealed more snarling dogs and mote-like facades. That’s when I remembered earlier that morning I found an eyelash on my cheek and based on ancient legend in the Salty Seattle household, if you wish on an eyelash, your wish will come true. I had wished for the taking of the turkey to be a wonderful, humane experience for all involved, and by gosh I knew the wish would carry us through. I did some tactical research via Craigslist on the iPhone (what do people do without these? I’ve had mine for a few short months and I can hardly recall life pre-iP) and lo and behold the first ad displayed images of gorgeous Blue Slate turkeys frolicking in a bucolic setting not 15 minutes from where I was standing. I called the number listed and the kindly gentleman who answered had me at hello. Arrangements were made for us to hightail it over to his farm to collect the last of his Toms for our Thanksgiving feast stat.
We got to the farm and a sense of peace washed over our entire party- this was the experience we were looking for. Obvious at first glance: lush pastures, happy animals, and real people trying to eke out a living in a respectable way. The good man who saved our Thanksgiving also raises doves and carrier pigeons in addition to turkeys. He releases them at weddings and funerals and they fly all the way back to his homestead on their own. It was pretty apparent he cared a lot about his stock, evident in one regard by the fact that the turkeys are a Heritage breed. Prized for their rich flavor and beautiful plumage, Heritage Turkeys are the ancestors of the common Broad-breasted White industrial breed of turkey that comprises 99.99% of the supermarket turkeys sold today. But the Heritage Breeds still exist and are making a comeback.
They are gorgeous birds, though a touch on the small side. We decided to take two; there are 14 mouths to feed. Even Jonas’ coworker Jason got into the spirit and decided based on the good vibes flowing that he would take a turkey as well. Once we had chosen our birds, we corralled them and grabbed them by their legs in one swift gesture. We hung them upside-down, which calms them. According to our guide, the most humane, quickest slaughter method is that of throat-slitting. We hung the birds from a tree branch and our guide showed us how it was done with the first bird. It’s a calm action, not unlike slicing through a filet mignon with a steak knife. When my turn came, I thanked my Tom for his life and did not hesitate to make the cut.
I figured if I hemmed and hawed I would talk myself out of it and cause more suffering to the bird in the end. By not removing the head right away, you give the bird the opportunity to bleed out thoroughly through the main artery, leading to better meat.
After the birds bled out, we removed the heads and began the arduous task of plucking and gutting. I knew from the chicken I processed a month ago that I would not be a huge fan of the gutting, but it’s all part of the game, and if I’m not capable, do I deserve the turkey on my table? I slid on my rubber gloves and got down to business. Since Jonas manned the camera and minded the baby, I had to singlehandedly pluck and gut two birds. To pluck a bird you must first agitate it in 150° water for 45 seconds. At that point most of the feathers come right out, but it is a tedious process removing every last pin-feather, which can impart a bitter taste on the flesh if left in the skin during cooking.
Gutting the bird involves removing the scent gland on the tail, then making two incisions at either end of the bird. You then free the inner workings from the incision where you’ve removed the neck, and pull everything out that you’ve freed from the other end. We took special care not to taint the organs with any bile, as they make for excellent flavor in gravy, stock and stuffing. I learned that fowl do not have teeth with which to chew. Instead, they ingest their food and a few rocks which all converge in what is called the gizzard. The gizzard is an organ that grinds the food with the aid of small pebbles, and passes it into the stomach once ground. It’s quite a remarkable thing to slice a gizzard into two hemispheres and see all the rocks and food processing inside.
Once the laborious process of plucking and gutting was finished, we spirited away with our trusty Toms, henceforth christened Tom Tom. Back home, I got out the kitchen blowtorch and singed off any stray hairs that did not get removed in the gutting. I also started a stock from the turkey feet and vegetables to use as a base for the gravy.
I put Tom Tom in a 3% brine solution improved with the addition of fresh bay leaves, lemon, thyme, sage, garlic and peppercorns. Then I took to my twitter and tweeted out my accomplishments for the day. The honorable Michael Ruhlman tweeted me back that he has moved on from the 3% brine outlined in his book Charcuterie to a 5% brine, and suggested I follow suit. This wasn’t a huge problem since the brine I had made didn’t quite cover the entire turkeys and I planned to toss in a bit more anyway. I set out to boil the supplemental brine and raised the ratio to 7% to counterbalance the 3% in which the birds were steeping. I also placed Ruhlman’s new book, Ratio, on my Amazon wishlist since we here at Salty Seattle tend to agree- the more salt the better!
My birds were smaller than I originally anticipated plus I had upped the saline content of the brine, so I pulled and rinsed them after roughly 20 hours. I patted Tom Tom to dry and left them to wait for the next step in the refrigerator overnight. In anticipation of the salt crust, Jonas and I made a visit to Ocean Shores, WA a few weeks ago in order to harvest sea water from which to make salt. It was a blustery day with a wind advisory in effect, which led to 20 foot waves crashing on the shore. I lucked out since I had a cold and Jonas didn’t want me in the chill November water so he did the collecting while I ferried our vessels from the shore to the car. Back home, we boiled down the sea water and extracted the salt. It’s a slow process if you hover the water temperature around 150°, which is ideal as it forms the best salt crystals. A week later we had a few pints of crystalline salt from which to make our salt encasement for the birds.
The salt crust is formed using salt, flour, herbs, and one heckuva lot of egg whites. This year I cracked in a few duck egg whites to augment the batter, since the stiffness properties of duck egg whites are nothing short of amazing. Want a perfectly risen soufflé? Duck eggs will be your secret weapon. 40 some egg separations later, I commenced kneading the very stiff dough. I would not advise putting your Kitchenaid mixer to the test of kneading this dough unless you’re really hoping to convince your husband that you need a new one. Good old-fashioned elbow grease works best, but it sure takes awhile. You may need to boost your strength with a glass or two of thirst-quenching vino.
The salt crust needs to rest for at least two hours, but overnight is better. At this point, there is so much stuff in the refrigerator I think it might burst: two turkeys, resting salt dough, apple cranberry pie, pumpkin tart, roasted gizzard gravy, and all the fixings for the impending feast- whew! No wonder they call the day before Thanksgiving Wild Turkey Wednesday- you need a few shots of something strong just to fathom the concept of surviving the festivities.
Bright and early turkey morning, the true madness begins. This year we hosted a feast for 14. We are a nomadic tribe of good friends forming a family in an effort to re-ascribe to the original intent of Thanksgiving. I think the shift into exclusively small nuclear families is part of the reason there is such a lack of awareness about the origins of the food we eat in this culture. Back in the day when a family was large and often consequently poor, growing your own food was a necessity. It was also a healthier way of life, teaching kids responsibility through helping out with the endless chores of cleaning out the coop, watering vegetables, even milking and birthing cows. The food was fresh and in season not because of a romanticized idea about what nouveau cuisine should be, but rather because that was what was available at the time. I wanted to add a semblance of that to the group this year, so everyone contributed something to the table. In many cases it was a dish someone can’t live without on the big day, like Patrick’s cranberries three ways, Michael’s pear tart, Hoyt’s bi-color squash soup, Jamie’s stuffing, my homemade vanilla ice cream and pumpkin pie or Pierre’s puree. In others, like our interior decorator best friend Robert, it was the table itself, along with all the accoutrements to set it beautifully.
Meanwhile, Tom Tom chilled out in the fridge waiting for their moment of glory. Our targeted dining time was 6 o’clock, so I commenced turkey preparations around 1:30. My kitchen scale only goes up to seven pounds so I didn’t have an accurate weight representation on the turkeys, but my guess is that they were each around 10 pounds. Because it was really just a guess, a thermometer with a probe that could be buried in the turkey thigh proved essential. In years past with 17 pound turkeys, I found the oven time to be roughly 2.5 hours. The reason this seems relatively short is because the salt crust forms around the bird and essentially creates an oven inside an oven. When you pull the turkey from the oven, it continues to cook inside the crust until you break the hardened shell and let the steam escape.
I laboriously rolled out my salt dough and Jonas began blanching celery leaves to use as a barrier between the salt crust and the birds. We trussed up Tom Tom nice and tight, wrapped them in celery leaves, and encased them in their respective crusts. This is the trickiest part of cooking using the encrustation method. It is vital that every area of the bird must be covered in crust, because any holes will allow steam to escape. If a proper seal is not formed around the entire bird, the cooking time will vary drastically, as well as cause the potential for dried out meat.
The very best thing about brining in combination with salt-encrustation is that the juicy flesh remains perfectly moist and tender even though you cook the bird long enough to ensure doneness of all the dark meat. You don’t want to compromise this with holes in your crust, so the best way to prevent this is to reserve some dough and watch your bird carefully in the oven for the first 30 minutes or so until the crust hardens. If you see any thinning crust, get in there and patch it up with your reserved dough and some egg wash.
We put the beautifully encrusted Tom Tom in the oven asap since gravity was not on our side and the heavy crust will droop and form holes if not hardened as quickly as possible. We had one little incident with a hole in the side, but vigilant watching prevented this from being a problem as we patched it up straightaway. After about a half an hour, the crust solidifies in the oven and there is no longer any cause for concern. At this point we watched the thermometer closely as we wanted to pull the birds around 150°. We were shooting for an internal temperature of 165° when all said and done, so we figured pulling the birds at 150° would be ideal since they continue to cook in the crust until you crack it. In retrospect I might have pulled the birds at 145° instead, as after we removed them from the oven they shot up the remaining 15° in less than half an hour and we had to break through the crust to slow the cooking time.
We took them out of the oven just shy of two hours after we put them in, which is another great thing about this cooking method- your oven is freed up early for last minute roll baking and food reheating, but your turkey remains toasty warm. By the time guests started to trickle in and champagne began to flow, we were sitting pretty for an on-time feast. I had high hopes for the turkey since we had brought them from farm-to-table, thus we were personally responsible for so many of the factors that contribute to taste. I do not speak alone when I equivocally state that it was by far the best turkey I have ever eaten. Our guests echoed that sentiment periodically throughout the meal, but I could do nothing but smile a satisfied, tryptophan-induced smile for a job well-executed.
- 1.5 c chopped mixed herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, sage and bay leaf
- 4lb all-purpose flour plus more for kneading
- 21 egg whites (4 of which should be egg if you can find them)
- 33 oz kosher salt (I used salt that I made from the sea, but kosher salt will do- be sure to measure it by weight as different salt has different weights by volume)
- 2 c water
- 1 10-12 lb brined, dried and tightly trussed turkey
- 1 lemon punctured with a fork 4-5 times
- 10 sprigs thyme
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 5 c celery or grape leaves, blanched (use whatever type of edible leaf you can find, preferably from your garden)
- 2-3 egg whites for egg wash
- Mix the herbs, egg whites and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the flour and stir to combine as best as possible. Add the water and continue stirring until the dough comes together slightly. Turn out onto floured surface and knead for roughly five minutes until the dough forms into a stiff ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for at least two hours or up to 24.
- Preheat oven to 425° and place oven rack on lowest position. Place the lemon and thyme inside the cavity in the turkey. Make sure the trussing is nice and tight so the crust will form well around it. Pepper the turkey all over. Cover the turkey in blanched celery leaves to act as a barrier between the bird and the salt.
- Roll out about ¼ of the dough into an oval ¼” thick and large enough to set the turkey on top of. Place this oval on a sheetpan large enough to contain the bird. Roll out the remainder of the dough into a large oval big enough to drape over the bird. Set the bird on the initial oval, and quickly drape the large oval over the bird. (if you are using a probe thermometer, stick it into the bird now and be sure to drape around it tightly so that no air escapes) Tuck the lower oval over the draped down upper oval and seal all edges by pressing together with your fingers. If you have some extra dough after this process, reserve it to patch holes. Using egg wash as glue, brush all seams together so that they congeal quickly in the oven. Immediately place the turkey in the oven. Watch the turkey for the first half hour or so- you don’t want the crust to open up before it has a chance to seal, so patch any holes if you see them using reserved dough and egg wash.
- Roast until thermometer reads 145° or roughly 2 hours. Remove from oven but do not puncture crust. Bird will continue to cook until you open the crust, and you are targeting a temperature of 165°, which will take about half an hour more. Break through the crust, carve turkey, and serve immediately.