A Rafter of Turkeys
Thanksgiving Day, an annual national holiday in the United States celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people. Things have changed since the time of the Pilgrims but the art of giving thanks has not.
Being grateful and appreciative each day is a behavior, when mastered, can bring a lifetime of happiness. A key to this success is making sure you are engaged in worthwhile work each day. Reflecting on this concept and determining what worthwhile work might be to you is a great launching point for a grateful life.
Aside from worthwhile work interests, our family is engaged in cooking and entertaining. To some, cooking can be an arduous task required to provide nourishment to one’s body. For our family, cooking is a space for friends and family to create lasting memories over a carefully prepared meal.
I have shared my individual cooking journeys via text with close family and close friends since I can remember. The texts became a means to share the process of preparing the meal as well as what to expect for dinner. One particular friend suggested I engage in blogging, which is what prompted this post about Thanksgiving 2020. For years, we have smoked Turkeys for Ron’s employees in appreciation of their hard work and dedication to the team. I am the punctilious person throughout the entire process to assure we meet the intended outcome. I am also a bit more of an “artist” when it comes to cooking (i.e. creating my own recipes) while Ron is the consummate food scientist and has mastered the art of smoking. He records pages of data each year to perfect his process.
My journey begins on the Monday before Thanksgiving with two key locations: 1) Delaware Chicken Farm & Seafood Market and 2) Restaurant Depot.
Ordering fresh whole turkeys from Delaware Chicken is key to a great meal. Plus, the large order allows me to pick them up curbside without leaving my car. This year, I was happy to have them load 125 #’s of turkey into the large cooler in the truck. If you have never purchased a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving, there is a huge difference in texture and flavor. The intense flavor also imparts into well-prepared stocks that are used for stuffing, gravy and cream of mushroom soup, providing an even deeper flavor profile. The turkeys are fresh from Sensenig Turkey Farm In Pennsylvania.
Second stop, Restaurant Depot. Someone once asked me, “What is the one thing you could not live without?” My immediate response: my Restaurant Depot Card. This card provides access to shop where professional chefs and restaurateurs acquire higher quality products, typically sold in bulk quantities (ie: a wheel of cheese, a whole tenderloin, etc.). Restaurant Depot not only makes large meals possible, but enriches the dining experience with lots of people in attendance.
By the time I arrived home, several coolers have been iced down to keep all the ingredients at the proper temperature. This year’s cooler sanitizing was completed on the dock, under the oversight of our 5-month old puppy, Radar. He takes his supervising job very seriously and sometimes can lose sight of his surroundings. In his intense concentration, Radar fell into the canal! Fortunately, he was on a leash and the tide was high. Within 10 seconds, I was able to sit on our lower dock, wrap my legs around his torso, and quickly whisk him back on the dock. Thank goodness for adrenaline. This year, we had orders for a total of 8 turkeys. Four whole and four breasts safely iced in our “dead body cooler”.
Then, the breakdown process. The neck and organs are removed from the turkey. The necks go into a stock pot with a traditional mirepoix (onions, celery and carrots), with plenty of salt and pepper for a rich and gelatinous stock to be used for gravy and stuffing. The gizzards go into a stock pot with mirepoix, salt and pepper for an intensely flavored stock, also to be used for the gravy. The plentiful number of livers are immersed in heavy cream, soaked overnight to be used for a delicious Turkey Mousse, an annual tradition. For the breast-only requests, turkeys are broken down so the breast can be easily smoked.
Wings and legs, are roasted in the oven over a mirepoix for pan drippings to be used for gravy production. The excess roasted vegetables can be used to make "Turkey Pot Pie".
The backs go into a pot with mirepoix, salt and pepper for another rich stock (due to the large quantity of backs in the pot). This stock is used for stuffing, gravy, and fresh cream of mushroom soup.
Three different stocks allow for great layers of flavor in preparation of various items.
Excess thighs are prepped to confit, a traditional French cooking method. Confit originally referred to anything preserved by slowly cooking it in any liquid; fruits, for example, would be cooked in sugar syrup. Nowadays, however, confit tends to refer to food that's been slow-cooked in fat and not necessarily aged or stored. The process produces a super moist and delicious product.
All turkeys to be smoked end up back in the cooler to be brined overnight in a properly maintained and sanitary environment. Brining is the process of submerging a cut of meat in a brine solution, which is simply salt dissolved in water (we also add sugar). The meat absorbs extra liquid and salt, resulting in a juicier and more flavorful final dish. This technique is particularly great for lean cuts of meat that tend to dry out during cooking.
Then on to prep for stuffing production and cream of mushroom soup (Yes, it’s still Monday!) A 10# case of domestic mushrooms serves the purpose and are sliced and ready to go for the next day.
Necks are removed from the stock and the meat is stripped off to add to the stuffing. This is a family tradition on my side of the family passed down from my grandmother on my dad’s side. The meat is sweet and imparts great flavor to the stuffing.
Then crouton prep for the stuffing. I buy fresh Hoagie rolls made by a local baker and cube them before drying them in the oven. Drying is required so the bread will absorb the rich flavor of the stocks added to the stuffing. Layering of intense flavors is critical for a delicious stuffing.
Roasted garlic is prepped, which will be used for the roasted garlic smashed potatoes. Think of whole roasted garlic in mashed potatoes like biting into a warm cookie with soft chocolate chips. It is also great for as garnish, and can also be used as a spread when the garlic is extracted from the bulbs. It can easily be stored in the fridge soaked in olive oil.
After a 12-hour day cooking and prepping, I can continue my cooking marathon on Tuesday!
The key to stuffing is using the freshest ingredient possible. I use the recipe below as a guideline for the most part. I also use the 3 different stocks for a deep flavor profile and sauteed mushrooms. This year, I mixed the stuffing in a five-gallon bucket due to the extensive quantity.
I had extra roasted vegetables left from pan roasting the wings and legs this year. I try to keep Publix pie crusts on hand, which allowed me to make Turkey Pot Pie. I mixed the roasted vegetables, basted in the fat of the wings and legs, with cooked turkey meat (legs mostly) and then added enough stock (cooked and thickened with flour) to moisten the mixture. The mixture was then tucked in between two layers of the pie crust and baked until finished. Basically, all the ingredients were cooked in advance then heated together. This will be a new tradition to utilize some of the byproducts of turkey processing. I also was able to make turkey salad for turkey salad sandwiches (turkey, celery, vidalia onion, Duke’s Mayo, Sour Cream and salt and pepper) which were quickly gobbled up.
Ahhhh, the gravy! Utilizing the caramelized pan drippings from the legs and wings together with the 3 stocks as a base, I then finished it with butter, heavy cream and salt and pepper. I typically add some of the roasted vegetables blended with stock to help thicken the gravy to avoid using flour as a thickening agent. Mushrooms were also added to a portion of the gravy. Some of the gravy is added to the remaining sauteed mushrooms (olive oil and butter) which is later pureed with more heavy cream into cream of mushroom soup.
Finally, the Turkey Mousse. I follow the recipe below pretty closely. I did not have an apple so I added some raspberry preserves which ended up being delicious.
And now it’s Wednesday! Time to season the birds to prep for the smoker. Ron makes a delicious flavorful rub that he uses on many cuts of meat. We also use a standard poultry seasoning for those that want a more traditional flavored turkey.
Two smokers are used due to the quantity of birds. One is a traditional smoker with the firebox outside. The smoker has great sentimental value, close friends gave it to us after they moved to Texas over 15 years ago. We had shared many enjoyable dinners with them, typically their perfected brisket. Since acquired, the smoker has been a key tool for our household. The smoke and heat from the fire on the left in the smoking box moves through the smoking area in the center and out the exhaust on the right side of the smoker, infusing smoke into the meat during the cooking process. Ron likes to use oak to fuel the smoker together with charcoal.
The second smoker used is a La Caja China. The La Caja China is an outdoor roasting oven that uses coal placed above the meat for cooking. The La Caja China works by circulating hot air around the meat, no fire ever touches it. It can roast a 50-pound pig in a little over three and a half hours. Both smokers are carefully monitored throughout the day, including probes in the turkeys as well as in the box itself.
After the garlic bulbs are slow roasted in the oven, the soft garlic cloves are extracted to be used in the mashed potatoes. I typically use Russet potatoes with skins on mixed with a healthy portion of butter and sour cream then finished with salt and pepper. The roasted garlic is a nice touch.
Although we typically only have an organized breakfast on the weekends, Thanksgiving is a perfect time to create your own omelette. In this case, it was a stuffing omelette topped with gravy. The eggs were a nice enhancement to the flavors of both the stuffing and gravy.
If you don’t know what to do with the turkey carcass remaining after it’s stripped of its meat, save it for the next day to make turkey carcass soup. It is simple, stick the entire carcass (leftover wings if you have them are great) into a large pot with onions, celery, carrots, parsley, and salt and pepper and let it cook on the stove. It produces a very rich stock you can use stand-alone or freeze it for other sauces and soups in the future. If you need a recipe, feel free to select something you like on the internet.
If you need full guidance through the Turkey process, Ron and I both love J. Kenji López-Alt, author of the Food Lab, where Kenji unravels the mysteries of home cooking through science. The Food Lab is our go-to source as well as Serious Eats, where Kenji parks a lot of his knowledge. If I ever have some unusual ingredients on hand and need some ideas, I go straight to Serious Eats.
Much of the excess production is carefully packaged and placed in the freezer to prolong the enjoyment of the delicious items prepared on this special day. Although Thanksgiving is an annual event, you will always find something good cooking in the Trebbi Home.
Let us remember that,
As much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.