Sunday, November 13, 2005

Turkey for the Adventurous

One of my favorite columns. Originally published Nov. 2001 in the Grunion Gazette.

As Thanksgiving nears, you’re probably being bombarded by people who claim to have the best way to roast a traditional Thanksgiving turkey. I say, to hell with tradition, it’s time to add a little excitement and danger to your Thanksgiving meal.

This year forgo boring oven roasted turkey and try one of the more challenging and fun methods of cooking that bird: deep-frying, Cajun microwaving or grilling. All of these methods are good ways to get everyone off of the couch and involved in the cooking process. Fair warning though, this is extreme cooking at its finest and requires some specialized equipment and only those with the constitution of a daredevil and the willingness to risk both Thanksgiving dinner and their eyebrows should attempt these cooking styles.

What was once the providence of Southern Louisiana, deep-frying turkeys has become popular in almost every state in the nation. Deep-frying works best and should only be done with special outdoor deep-fryers (available at most home improvement stores and online).

The first step in this process is prepping the bird for its hot oil bath. For this you need to inject the thawed bird(using a large 60cc syringe a la Herbert West in The Re-Animator) with a potent mixture spices that will both flavor the turkey and keep it moist during cooking. Next, season the outside of the bird with generous amounts of salt and fresh ground pepper. Place the turkey, breast down, on the stand several minutes before you are ready to cook. Letting the turkey set in this position for several minutes helps to drain off any excess moisture and reduce "popping" oil when it is placed in the hot oil. Now the fun really begins.

The next few steps require both common sense and sobriety. As you place the raw bird into the hot oil (350 degrees) the excess moisture will cause a steam explosion and the oil will "boil up". This is not as bad as it sounds, especially if you lower the turkey a little at a time, lifting it slightly from the oil as it bubbles up until you have it completely submerged. If you try and lower the bird too fast the boiling oil and the sudden displacement caused by the weight of the bird could result in some volcanic action and perhaps a small patio fire (not that this has ever happened to me, he writes sarcastically). Getting the turkey into the oil is easy. Getting it out, without second-degree burns, is a bit of a challenge. Just be careful and follow the directions that come with your cooker. If done correctly a 12 lbs. bird will cook to perfection in about an hour. For the arithmetically challenged that’s roughly 4 to 5 minutes per lbs. This technique is both exciting and produces the best tasting turkey I’ve ever eaten.

Recently my Cajun Uncle has introduced me to another Southern Louisiana tradition, the Cajun Microwave (some call it the coonass microwave). This is definitely a non-traditional way of roasting your family bird. Here’s how it was explained to me. Inject your turkey with Cajun spices (as you would for deep-frying). A half an hour before cooking, start several batches of charcoal briquettes in chimney starters. While waiting for the charcoal to reach temperature, clear an area outside for a fire pit. Pound a hickory stake into the middle of the prepared ground so that at least 16" are above the ground. Stick your turkey through the body cavity on the stake, so that it's standing upright. Cover the whole thing with a new sturdy metal trashcan then pour the hot coals into the top of the upside down trashcan. The radiant heat from the coals and the metal trashcan will cook the turkey to a beautiful golden brown. If you can’t stomach the idea of cooking in a trashcan, you can purchase ready-made cypress Cajun Microwaves online (www.crawfishguy.com), these wooden roasting boxes cook the same way as the trashcan version, but they hold up to 250 lbs. of meat.

For the less adventurous who still want to play with fire, I’d suggest grilling your turkey. The trick here is to arrange medium-hot coals on either side of a large rectangular metal or foil drip pan. Once the fire is hot, you should be able to hold your hand above the grill for 3 seconds before you have to pull your hand away, place turkey, breast side up, on grill directly above the drip pan. This method of cooking (indirect heat) gives the turkey lots of smoke flavor without cooking it too fast on the outside. Cover the grill and cook the turkey for about 10 minutes per pound (any size turkey will work with this method) or until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest part of thigh reaches 165 to 170 degrees. You'll need to add more coals every hour or so and, of course, watch for any flare-ups, although the drip pan should eliminate this. Like deep-frying and the Cajun microwave, this technique is quicker than traditional methods and it also frees up premium oven space.

So this year, if the weather is nice, buck tradition and add a little excitement to the holidays.
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