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Don’t be a turkey — try something new

Sometimes you might just want a smaller meal of turkey breasts
FIT Staff
Nov 21, 2013

It is easy to see the allure of following the same traditions every Thanksgiving.

The same family, the same friends get together to eat the same old turkey, the same old mashed potatoes, the same old side dishes, the same pumpkin pie.

They talk about the same subjects, tell the same jokes, watch the same football featuring the same teams.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it is possible to be too consistent at traditional holiday events. You can’t change the people and you can’t change the football, but perhaps you could change up the turkey, at least a little bit.

Roast turkey is great, for what it is. Deep-fried turkey has its passionate fans. A few of us are convinced the taste of grilled turkey cannot be beat.

But this year, why not try something new? Stick with turkey, of course — you may face rebellion if you don’t — but prepare it a little differently.

Nothing too radical, though I have a niece who will be making a curry this year (it’s sort of Thanksgiving with the Indians). This Thanksgiving, I’m thinking more along the lines of small changes and familiar ideas.

Such as barbecued turkey. Or a spice rub that goes well with poultry.

Or even an American take on a French classic, coq au vin made with turkey. I’m calling it turk au vin.

But first, a concession to reality. Although the traditional Norman-Rockwell Thanksgiving requires a whole turkey, that is simply too much food for many families.

Others simply prefer nothing but white meat. So at Thanksgiving, many folks don’t reach for a whole turkey, they simply snatch up a breast or two.

The recipes I made this year are suitable for either a breast or a whole turkey.

If you just want to cook the legs or the wings, you’re on your own.

As it happens, although I have cooked many whole turkeys before, I had never cooked the breast by itself. Not being certain of how long to cook it or at what temperature, I went straight to the source, the font of all wisdom about turkeys. I called the 24-hour Butterball hotline (800-288-8372 — that’s 800-BUTTERB). There, the helpful Donna told me that a bone-in turkey breast weighing 5½-9 pounds should be cooked at 325° for 2¼-2¾ hours, until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°.

A boneless breast, which weighs around 3 pounds, should be cooked at 325° for 1¾-2¼ hours.

Thus informed, I set out to make my modern twists on the Great American Turkey.

I started out with one of my favorite spice mixtures, which I rubbed on a breast. There are few rules for making spice rubs, but one of them is this: Use more salt than any other ingredient. Not more salt than the other ingredients combined. Just more than any of the others.

To the salt, I added paprika, garlic powder, oregano (sage would work well, too), brown sugar, and black pepper. Usually, when I make a rub such as this, I also tear a bay leaf or two into tiny, digestible pieces, which adds a tremendous jolt of flavor, but I decided for no particular reason to forgo that step in this case. I spread the rub all over the breast and allowed it to rest for an hour while I did other things and preheated the oven.

I made sure to use kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper for this mixture, knowing it would make the rub fairly coarse. I also tried a different rub with a more finely ground texture and too much of it adhered to the turkey, resulting in a flavor that was unpleasantly strong.

After achieving success with the coarser rub, I decided to try making my own barbecue sauce — taking some of my cues (so to speak) from a recipe in the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. I mixed ketchup and onion, sweetened it with brown sugar and honey (instead of molasses), and balanced it out with the tang of cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and Dijon mustard. Then, because I like the way oranges pair with turkey, I stirred in the juice of an orange.

The result was a sticky, sweet delight. Most important, I did not spread it on the turkey until there was only about 45 minutes of cooking time left; anything more than that and the sugars in the sauce would burn.

And finally, I decided to tackle the turk au vin. And it was easier than I had guessed, mainly because I made it easy. I didn’t add bacon, though it would certainly be welcomed. I didn’t cook it with mushrooms, though they would be good to serve with it. And I didn’t pour Cognac over the turkey and then flame it because, frankly, it just didn’t seem very Thanksgivingy.

So basically, I just braised a turkey — cut into serving pieces — in a bottle of white wine, with onions, garlic, and a hint of sage. Though coq au vin is traditionally made with red wine, I chose to use white in this case because I did not want the intensity of the red to overpower the poultry.

I used a small, 11-pound turkey, and the whole thing took less than 1½ hours to cook — including time spent browning the pieces of meat. The turkey was fall-off-the-bone tender, with a richly warm taste of wine. Following a suggestion by the late Alma Lach, I added just a touch of cream to the sauce, instantly turning it smooth in taste but not too rich.

It’s turkey that gives you something to be thankful for.