Where is it written that holiday dinners have to feature turkey? Right here it’s about to be written that they should not feature turkey!
Yesterday I cooked a turkey that I’d found at Safeway for a good price. As you know, I feed Cassie the Corgi real food, a mix of about half starch & veggies and half meat. For this purpose I look for meat that’s under $2 a pound—as far under as possible. The turkey was only $1.29/pound. True, the package said it was “up to” 6 percent water, and true, it was a product of one of those hideous mass farming operations. But the poor critter was dead already, so why waste the meat, eh?
Well, after roasting in the oven, so much water leached out of it that I was moved to wonder exactly how much water my money had bought. So I poured it into a big measuring cup and skimmed off the fat. It filled a quart measuring cup. Set on the kitchen scale, it weighed over two pounds.
2 pounds/14 pounds = .14 = 14 percent!
14% of $24 = $3.88
That’s right…I paid almost $4.00 for water. Bad-tasting water, we might add. The whole bird had a funny off-taste, kind of chemically or dirty-tasting.
Folks, I’ve been around the block a few times and I know what turkey is supposed to taste like. This is not nostalgia for a fantasy “good ole days.” American turkeys have tasted terrible for decades. When we were in England, a friend invited us for Christmas dinner and insisted on serving turkey. We really didn’t want to take the train down to Kent from London and stay overnight for what we expected would be a mediocre meal, but we enjoyed our friends as so of course we accepted their invitation. The turkey was incredible: it actually tasted like turkey used to taste, the way it’s supposed to taste. So it’s not my subjective opinion that American turkey doesn’t taste like turkey.
Thank goodness I didn’t serve this thing up to guests yesterday. It’s barely adequate for dog food.
In addition to poor flavor and questionable provenance, turkey is a nuisance to prepare. The bloated giants coming out of factory farms are too large to handle easily or safely, they often come frozen and take days to defrost, and few people know what to do with the carcass or have time to do anything with it, so the leftovers go to waste.
Do yourself a favor and serve up something other than turkey. Let’s consider three options: pork, beef, lamb, and some other variety of fowl.
If you’re not Jewish or Muslim, pork is relatively inexpensive and it tastes ten times better than turkey. Some cuts can even be stuffed, if your friends and family just can’t live without stuffing. Pork loin is tender, delicious, and easy to cook. Personally, I prefer a good pork loin to ham, which is oversalted and overprocessed. Here’s how to fix it:
Buy a pork loin roast large enough to serve all your guests. It’s OK to buy two or three, if one won’t suffice. While you’re at the store, get some fennel seed, dry sage, garlic, onion, a can or box of low-salt chicken broth, and a bottle of inexpensive dry white wine. If you don’t have any olive oil around the house, buy a small bottle of that, too. You’ll need some flour; if you don’t keep flour in the house, buy the smallest bag you can find on the grocer’s shelves.
For each decently sized roast, pour out enough fennel seed to fill the palm of your hand. Toss that into a blender. Add about 1/4 that much sage. Cover the blender cup and whirl the spices long enough to pulverize the fennel seeds. Peel one or two cloves of garlic and toss those into the blender. Add about two teaspoons salt. Pulse the blender briefly–just long enough to chop (not liquefy!) the garlic and mix in the salt.
Next, pour a little olive oil over the roast and rub it around. Wipe your hands on a paper towel. Then pat and rub the spice mix all over the surface of your roast. Stick a meat thermometer into the roast and set the meat in an oven-proof pan that is not made of glass.
Cut up a couple of nice sweet onions. Arrange these around the base of the roast. If you’ve got some carrots, toss those in there, too. Preheat the oven; for tenderloin, set the oven at about 400 degrees; for a loin roast, at about 325 to 350 degrees. Cook a boneless loin or tenderloin about 25 to 30 minutes a pound; a bone-in loin about 20 to 25 minutes per pound. The thermometer should say 160 to 170 degrees.
Now, what if people just must have stuffing? For heaven’s sake. Get yourself some decent bread—a French or Italian-style baguette will work. You’ll need a bunch of parsley, a couple cloves of garlic, and some bottled herbs. Break the bread into pieces and whirl them in the blender or food processor to turn the stuff into crumbs. Add a peeled clove of garlic, roughly chopped garlic, a little salt, and a teaspoon or so of whatever greenish bottled herbs you like. Tarragon is always nice. It’s hard to go wrong with thyme or sage, too, but remember a little sage goes a long way. Whack this stuff around in the blender with the bread crumbs until it’s nicely chopped and blended together. Divide the pork into two, three, or four smaller roasts, depending on how much you have. Coat as above with a flavorful rub. Set the pieces of roast in the pan and pack this stuffing between them. Secure the package with string, or use those metal turkey-stuffing skewers to hold them together. Pour a little olive over the stuffing, and cook as above.
If you don’t eat pork, or if you’ve noticed that factory-farmed meat of the pig also doesn’t taste like real pork, substitute a good standing rib roast for the above, dispensing with the stuffing (35 to 40 minutes a pound at 325 degrees). Use the same rub, or simply season to taste with salt and lots of fresh-ground pepper.
Lamb makes superb feasting food. Try to get imported New Zealand lamb, which is far superior to the muttony American lamb. It should be cooked rare to medium; if you like your meat well-done, opt for something else. Cook a bone-in leg of lamb 15 to 20 minutes/pound for rare and 20 to 25 minutes/pound for medium; boneless leg, 20 minutes/pound for rare or 25 minutes/pound for medium. Over the rub described above, spread a layer of Dijon-style mustard before roasting.
Or cook a passle of Cornish game hens, one for each guest. These also will roast in about 45 minutes or an hour in a 325- to 350-degree oven. These can be stuffed, if you feel compelled to work that hard, but I wouldn’t be bothered. Instead put some stuffing (see above; add a few pecans or walnuts if so moved) in a baking dish, moisten it very slightly with chicken broth and olive oil, cover, and bake in the oven with the other food. Duck is good, as is goose, but it is not hassle-free; avoid if you’re looking for ease of preparation.
While the meat roasts, put things into the oven to cook with it. Baked potatoes should be first on the list. Wash these; dig out any damaged spots with the tip of your paring knife. Punch each potato all over with the tip of your knife (otherwise it can explode inside your oven). Stick these on a rack in the oven at the time you put in the roast.
It’s hard to miss with butternut squash. Slice the squash in half lengthwise, scrape out and discard the seeds (yes, I know, you can roast them for a snack; do this only if hassle-free is not your main goal). Line a cookie sheet or other pan with tinfoil; rub olive oil over the surface of the tinfoil. About an hour before the meat is done, set the squash cut-side down on the tinfoil and stick it in the oven. Melt some butter in a small pan with a liberal squirt of honey. After a half hour, turn the squash over so the cut side is up. Pour the honey butter in the hole and brush some of on the rest of the squash. If possible, reserve some of the butter for serving. Cook another half-hour, until perfectly tender.
Once all these things are in the oven (or, if you’re ambitious, earlier in the day), make a green salad. For ultimate ease, buy some packaged precut salad greens. For maximal laziness, do nothing more—just serve it up with some bottle salad dressing. With minimal extra effort, you can cut up one or two little green onions, chop a carrot, add some canned marinated artichoke, and, at the last minute, cut up some tomato and toss that in. Use your favorite bottled dressing or make a real dressing with one part sour stuff (lemon juice, wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, or even plain cider vinegar) to three parts olive oil, seasoned to taste with salt & pepper and some bottled herbs.
Now the meat and veggies are cooked and you have those baked potatoes. You can serve them with Greek-style yogurt or sour cream for those who like their potatoes that way. But if you’ve made a good pork roast, you have killer pan drippings to make the gravy from heaven. Ditto a beef roast. The potatoes cry out for the stuff.
This is the only thing you’re going to cook on the stovetop, and if you’ve played your cards right, it’s the only thing you’re going to do any visible work on while your guests are present.
Remove the meat from the pan. Get someone else to slice it. Open the bottle of cheap wine; use red for beef, white for pork. Open the can or box of chicken broth (you can use beef broth for roast beef, or just wine). Remove any vegetables from the drippings and discard (or, if they’re not blackened and too greasy, consider serving them on the side).
If the drippings are very fatty, pour off all but about two tablespoons of melted fat, reserving the delicious brown drippings in the pan. Place the pan over a burner and turn on the heat to medium-high. Sprinkle two or three tablespoons of flour over the drippings. Stir this around to get the flour toasting a bit. Carefully pour in some broth, stirring around to mix. Add wine. I like about 50-50 wine and broth, but it’s very forgiving. You can use all wine or all broth, whatever works for you. Stir this around some more over the heat. Observe the thickness. Add more liquid to thin, if desired. If the gravy seems too thin, get a coffee mug and mix about two tablespoons of flour with about a half- or three-quarters mug of wine or broth, stirring well to eliminate any lumps. Mix this in a little at a time with the gravy to achieve the desired thickness.
If your pan drippings are not mostly grease but instead contain a lot of liquid, mix flour with wine from the git-go, rather than starting by toasting the flour in the oily drippings.
And that’s it. Slice the butternut squash into serving-size pieces, pour the rest of the honey butter over them, serve everything up with some wine or beer, and enjoy.
Dessert? Grocery store or baker. It’s hard to ruin pumpkin pie and some bakers can make a decent apple pie. Pick up a good pie at the bakery and, if you crave whipping cream, get the canned variety. Most people can’t tell the difference. You’re into healthy eating ? Well, that’s easy: serve a bowl of fresh fruit for dessert, accompanied by a plate of two or three excellent, sharply flavored cheeses and a sweet dessert wine or a pot of coffee.
Roast Pig, by Elias Tomaras. Public domain.
Red Onions, by Stephen Ausmus. Public domain.
Butternut Squash, Wikipedia, GNU Free Documentation License.
Apple Pie: USDA. Public domain.