French-Style Thanksgiving Turkey (with Gravy)
Once again, Thanksgiving is upon us. I must admit; as I was cooking this turkey for my blog I got little misty-eyed with gratitude. Another year has passed with us all safe and well. A hard year, yes, but one that yielded good things, ultimately.
I’ve been cooking this particular turkey recipe for seven years now. The smells of the fresh herbs, the butter and the white wine combine into this kind of magical formula that takes me back to every Thanksgiving past. Little helpers clamoring into the kitchen….The excitement that Daddy is home… The pies, all lined up ready to be eaten.
As a Marine Corps spouse of twenty years, I’ve taken it upon myself to forge traditions for my family. We never know where we will be from year-to-year. We never know what enormous weight we will be asked to carry. Food is so important in the forging of traditions. The familiar scents, the familiar tastes… They all paint a picture on our minds of good times. You cannot put a price on good memories. As a mother, I believe it’s my sacred duty to facilitate as many happy memories in my little home as I possibly can.
I cannot control where we live, and I cannot control what crises are upon the world on any given day. I cannot control my husband’s work responsibilities. Heck, I cannot even control that dang Department of Defense blackberry going off during mealtime to signify that something urgent needs his immediate attention.
But I can control the beauty of the dishes I make for special holidays; and I take that very seriously.
Because one day all my children will be grown and they will have their own problems, responsibilities and lives. I can’t control any of that. Not even a tiny bit of it.
But I can give them good memories now that they can take with them, wherever they may go.
And I can make my turkey year-after-year, for whomever is home.
So, that’s just what I do.
We have other traditions besides the turkey. We have “PIE DAY”. It’s typically a day or two before Thanksgiving, and each of my seven children comes into the kitchen, in turn, and that one child and I make a pie (of their choosing) together. It’s the best! The children love “Pie Day” almost as much as they love Christmas.
So many little things. Little traditions. They all fit together like tiny blocks and have made my family what it is today.
One day I will see the enormity of what I’ve built, and indeed, year after year I see more unfolding of a beautiful expectation. An expectation of goodness. I can see that more and more and it bolsters me, because staying faithful to these traditions is not an easy thing to do. It’s a lot of work. A lot of standing on my feet. A lot up finishing up dishes at 10:00 at night. But it’s worth it. To me, it’s worth it.
I wrote this turkey recipe for a series of classes I taught back in 2009. The breast is always moist and buttery, and all the herbs and aromatic vegetables lend their flavors so generously to the turkey. 1/2 cup of unsalted butter, and nearly a bottle of white wine make this turkey a fantastic masterpiece of flavors.
I use a turkey in the 13-15lb range. I find that the best and most moist turkeys are the ones that are not too big. It’s a thrill to cook an enormous turkey, but if you want a good result, stick to the 13-15lb guys.
I use an assortment of fresh herbs and aromatic vegetables.
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Yes, just like the song. Not hard to remember. Ha.
I also use one white onion, two carrots and two stalks of celery.
Don’t forget that butter. 1/2 cup of softened (room temperature) unsalted butter. I suppose you could use salted butter, since we’re going to add salt to the turkey anyway. But I use unsalted for all my cooking and baking. It’s the only kind of butter I buy.
In addition to the herbs, carrots, celery, onion and butter, you will need 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
Also, 1 1/2 cups chicken broth, and 2 cups of white wine to start. Don’t go drinking the rest of the wine yet. You might need it later for basting. I’ll explain below. Take some cotton kitchen string, and tie the herbs in a little bundle like this. This is called an “herb bouquet”. You can be all fancy with your “herb bouquet”.
Okay, innards. PLEASE remember to remove those packets of the neck and the heart and giblets. And if….IF…you forget and your go to serve your turkey and a big bag of cooked guts falls out, take heart – it’s happened to me too.
Thanksgiving is a big day! Sometimes there’s just so much going on! Sometimes giblets are the least of your worries.
Just try to remember to grab those bits out. And don’t forget to look in the neck cavity too. There’s probably a little surprise in there too.
I’m really not a turkey heart or neck fan, so I just throw them out. If I wasn’t already so busy on Thanksgiving, I’d probably make a broth out of them. If you can manage that, then good for you! Maybe I’ll be able to pull that one off one day.
After you take the bags of surprises out of the turkey, dust the whole thing inside and out with your 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper.
Now, snap a carrot in half and cram it in the turkey. Creepy, I know. Then snap a celery stalk in half and cram that in there too. Half an onion in the cavity, and the other half in the neck cavity. Now, take your whole “herb bouquet” and feel very fancy while you cram that in the turkey too, stem-side-in. Just for looks.
I always feel better when my poultry is spouting greens and herbs. It just looks a little less indecent. A little more civilized.
Throw your second carrot on the roasting rack, and your celery too. Pour the 1 1/2 cup chicken broth and 2 cups of the white wine under the rack, and then cover the whole turkey with butter.
Next, make a little tent out of tinfoil. I take two pieces that are as long as the pan, then I connect them, lengthwise. Just fold over a couple times. Now you have a nice big tent to pop over the turkey. This is VERY important. This will keep your turkey from drying out.
Tuck in your turkey for a nice nap, sing it a bedtime song, whatever, and pop it in a 400 degree oven for ONE HOUR.
No, it’s not done after one hour. It’s just sufficiently warmed-through. Baste it. Baste it well. Now put the foil back over it and put it back in the oven, now at 350 F. Prepare for 4-5 hours of basting this little buddy. Baste, baste, baste. Allllll that butter and wine and juices and herbs and vegetables are going to make magic in that baste. Become obsessed with basting. Yes, it’s work. But it’s Thanksgiving. Commit a little.
In the meantime you can prepare your presentation.
I took a cue from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” a few years ago, and started making my special meals look like decadent feasts from the Ghost of Christmas Present. He’s always portrayed as a laughing, jolly, bearded fellow, and is surrounded with a sumptuous display of goodness and plenty. Roasts surrounded with pomegranates and loaves of bread glistening with honey. My family LOVES IT! You can make your table look like that too. It’s easy. I put my turkey on a bed of greens. I use kale or collards. Then I surround the turkey with any good looking fruit I can find. Citrus, grapes, pomegranates, cranberries. Even whole nuts in-shell. This year I could not find any nuts or pomegranates at the commissary, but I was able to find some nice looking citrus and cranberries.
You will see how I arrange them in the finished photos.
Okay, let’s talk timing. I cannot tell you exactly how long it will take to cook your turkey. A lot of factors will come into play. Additionally, I cannot tell you how much additional white wine you will need to baste your turkey. IF you start to cook your turkey while it’s still partially frozen on the inside, you will have a lot of extra juices falling out once they thaw. If you wait until your turkey is totally defrosted, then those juices will end up in the sink when your rinse your turkey. That’s good. I recommend you defrost your turkey thoroughly. But I understand how hectic the day can be and sometimes you just need to throw the turkey in the oven while it’s still a little icy in the cavity, then hope for the best.
Either way – pay attention to the juices in the bottom of the pan. During the basting process (which should be every 30 minutes or so), if you notice that you have less and less juices to baste with, just pour the rest of the white wine in the pan. Good to go. Baste with that for the remaining cooking time. Can’t go wrong.
Observe the above photo. See how I have the thermometer in that meaty section of the thigh/leg? That’s what you want. Through the leg, into the thigh. Don’t put it in the oven like this, or the thermometer will melt. Yes, I learned that the hard way too. Unless it’s a special oven-safe thermometer.
When the thermometer reads 175 degrees, take the foil off the turkey, and kick the oven heat up to 400 degrees. You will finish the roasting process now over about 30 minutes, and you will brown the turkey a little as well. Check that temperature again. 180F = SAFE. If you are still not at 180F by this point, cover the turkey and keep baking it at 400F. You’ll get there. I have found that once it heats to 170, 180 comes very quickly.
I say this all in such detail because cooking a turkey is largely intuitive. Turkeys are big birds. A lot can go on in your oven, and in the bird, and there is no SET formula. You must just stay aware and make adjustments as you go. Kind of like driving a stick-shift car. You just need to get the hang of it, then you’ll be fine.
Lift your finished turkey out onto your serving platter. I use my bare hands because I have heat-resistant (scarred, traumatized) chef hands. You could use oven mitts or a clean dry dish towel. Cover with foil to keep it warm. Now, let’s make gravy.
Pour the juices through a sieve. There were a lot of chunks in the bottom of that pan and I don’t think you want them in your gravy.
The fat will rise to the top. Use your trusty turkey baster again and suck out all the juices from under the layer of fat. More about that on THIS post.
Take 2 tablespoons of the FAT, and heat over medium high heat in a medium saucepan. Add 1/3 cup flour and stir until you get a paste. Add the JUICES of the turkey, and stir constantly over the heat to combine. I like a creamy gravy, so I add milk at this point. 2 cups of milk. Stir over the heat until you have a nice gravy. The juices are so full of flavor from the vegetables and the herbs, salt and pepper, you probably will not need to add anything at all to this gravy, once it thickens a little.
More about gravy on THIS POST.
I took all the cooked herbs and vegetables out of the cavity, and added more fresh herbs and some beautiful jewel-like cranberries. You could add your own stuffing too, but I like to cook and serve my stuffing separate from the turkey. To each his own.
I surround the turkey with more herbs, cut fruit, cranberries, and nuts and pomegranates if I can find them.
And that’s all there is to it! Beautiful. I can’t help but squeal a little when it’s all done.
Take care and have a great Thanksgiving!