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Bird of a Different Feather 

Turkey is kind of boring.

There, I said it. It can be bland, and dries out easily. The different parts of the bird cook at different rates, and reach perfect doneness at different times. Lacking an industrial deep fryer (which I have been assured gives a wonderfully succulent result) it’s hard to make the meat a delicacy without an assist from gravy, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Turkeys are also big, which means they often leave us with a monotonous monolith occupying most of the fridge for a week or so after Thanksgiving is over until it’s finally exhausted as sandwiches and soup.

We’re lucky because the original Thanksgiving meal was made in the Northeast; most of the traditional ingredients are easily sourced locally. But preparing the meal can still be a chore, and timing everything to be ready at once is not easy. Too often the result is a day or three of stress culminating in a food coma. With some minor tinkering, the menu can instead relax the host, excite adventurous eaters, and still please devout traditionalists. The secret? Break down the bird and cook the parts separately. Everything gets done perfectly, and it’s far more efficient: much of the work can be done a week or more beforehand and any leftovers will be much more manageable. By confiting the legs, brining and smoking the breasts, and making stock from the carcass, we can make an easier and tastier holiday dinner—and we’ll have some excellent stock in the freezer for future use.

The first step is to divide the bird into the three parts to be treated differently. (If you’re unsure of your butchering skills, ask whomever you buy the bird from to do it for you.) Remove the legs at the hip joint, and cut the breasts out, removing as much of the meat as possible; start at the breastbone and work the knife down the outside of the ribcage, pulling gently on the meat as you go. Any meat that remains will make your stock taste extra-good, so don’t worry too much. Cut the wings off. That’s it. Instead of making turkey soup a week after the fact, make stock at the outset, using the raw carcass. Rather than regular old turkey stock, try making pho—a rich, complex Vietnamese soup (normally made with beef) flavored with anise, ginger, and clove. Turkey makes an excellent—if untraditional—pho, and the pie spices really sing with other Thanksgiving ingredients. By using the raw carcass, the stock will have much more flavor and body than it would if made post-cooking.

TURKEY PHO
1 raw turkey carcass and wings (heritage breeds from local farmers are best)
Turkey neck, gizzard, organs
1 onion, halved
1 thumb of ginger, halved
4 star anise pods
12 cloves
1 cinnamon stick (about 4 inches long)
10 black peppercorns

Put onion and ginger halves cut-sides down in a pan and brown them well. (Don’t add any oil). Add spices and toast for a minute or two. Place the carcass and offal in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Add aromatics and heat to a bare simmer; the surface of the liquid should ripple but not boil. Periodically skim any scum that appears, and let simmer for about three hours. Skim one last time, then pour stock through a strainer into containers and chill them in an ice bath. Store containers in the fridge or freezer.

For a first course, try simmering peeled, cubed winter squash (about 1 lb. per quart) in the pho until tender, then blending, straining, and salting it to taste. The spices in the broth make it taste a bit like a savory pumpkin pie. And be sure to use this stock to make your gravy; since there won’t be much in the way of drippings from a whole roasted bird, use a bit of the confit fat to make a roux, then whisk in the pho. The stock can also be used for braising greens to further unite the flavors of the meal.

TURKEY LEG CONFIT

Confit is an old method of preservation; by slow-cooking meat in fat, it can then be stored in the cooking fat for a long time without spoiling. It’s an easy technique, and it turns turkey legs into something sublime.

Two turkey legs
Duck fat (4 lbs. or more if needed; available from Hudson Valley Foie Gras)
4 fat cloves garlic, smashed
1 sprig rosemary
1 bunch thyme
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
2 bay leaves

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  • Peter Barrett has some suggestions for a tastier Thanksgiving dinner.

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