By Nigel Spence
MY FIRST experience of Thanksgiving in the United States after migrating from Jamaica as a boy was at my family’s home in Mount Vernon, NY.
Not quite familiar with all the particulars of this holiday other than the musings from the other kids at school, I had no real expectations for the dinner or festivities involved, as I was coming straight from Jamaica and our big dinner is held on Christmas Day.
I learned quickly that turkey was the celebrated protein of the day, so I wasn’t surprised when my brother-in law announced that he was heading out to the store to procure said bird.
What did seem a little strange was that with the little knowledge I had acquired from eavesdropping on other holiday conversations was that this bird should have been purchased days ahead, as there was a momentous task of dressing the bird up for the occasion with seasoning, marinating, stuffing, trussing and a myriad of other time consuming techniques that needed to be carried out on the massive bird in order for it to be presentable for the dinner table, which would have required forward thinking on their part.
It was apparent that our bird was an afterthought; as this was Thanksgiving Eve and we had not yet procured the bird.
My brother-in-law left with all confidence that all would be good, and our dinner table would be blessed with the best bird in the area.
While he was out, my brother and I helped my sister in the kitchen with all the usual suspects that would play the supporting roles in making the turkey look even more grand on the stage of the dinner table.
I grated the breadcrumbs for the stuffing, my brother worked on the requisite cranberry sauce, while my sister prepped the roasting pan and the seasoning while patiently awaiting the arrival of the celebrated bird.
What seemed like forever and a day, my brother-in-law returned with the spoils. Without much celebration, he quietly plunked the bird down on the kitchen counter and went to the living room to watch television.
We should have realized that something was wrong when we noticed that the bird was warm. We were experiencing a particularly cold winter that year, so it was hard to imagine the bird losing all that chill from the supermarket shelf on the ride home.
The bird also didn’t quite look like the ones I had seen in the cookbooks. The color was a bit different, and the bird was significantly smaller and lacking the plumpness of the ones I had seen hanging out on the supermarket shelves. We proceeded to season and stuff the bird as protocol dictated, and got it all dressed up for the morning roasting session.
We put it to roast and roast it did, as we periodically basted it while checking for doneness and tenderness as instructed in the recipe.
About three hours into the roasting process we began to question why the bird wasn’t tenderizing, and it seemed whatever little plumpness was in it on the giddyup, had all but disappeared. We began to wonder if we were missing something in the recipe.
My sister made the executive decision that the bird was done and could not take any more roasting to acquire tenderness fearing that the little meat left on the bone would be rendered out to nothing if it continued to take the toils of the heat.
So with quite a few hungry souls at the dinner table, the bird was finally unveiled and we all dug in. We then immediately realized that something had gone terribly wrong, as the carving knife was having great difficulty in navigating its way through the meat. The entire table looked on in horror, with my sister glancing at her husband quietly giggling to himself. Upon serious inquiry, he finally revealed the mystery of this rubberized impostor for a turkey that was all dressed up but not fit to party.
It turns out that when he got to the supermarket, all the turkeys were all gone and that story repeated itself at every supermarket, corner store, butcher shop and any and every other place he tried to find one.
Then, like a true Jamaican, he decided to improvise as he decided his family could not be without a prized bird for such an important occasion. He remembered his mechanic friend in Queens, NY (quite a distance from Mount Vernon where we lived) raised guinea hens in his yard, so he decided to make the trek over there to explore the possibilities.
Upon arrival, the grim news that all were recently sold created that predictable sense of desperation that sets in when one realizes that they have exhausted all options. The only bird left was the Queen of the lot, the guinea fowl, which was very mature (old as the hills), a little on the skinny side, and probably not well suited for headlining at a grand dinner.
The mechanic was willing to part with it at no charge considering the dismal situation he was in.
My brother-in-law reluctantly accepted the offer and so began the process of moving this bird from free range to roasting pan ready.
It seems that the hen anticipated her fate and set out to give these contract killers a run for their money.
Around and around the yard and in the garage and under the car it went in an attempt to foil it’s inevitable demise. Finally, with the help of the neighbors kids, the bird was corralled and ultimately sacrificed for the good of preserving a Jamaican-American Mount Vernon family’s soon to be annual tradition.
This explained my brother-in-laws exhaustion upon return the night before with said bird.
I still give him an A for effort in trying to save Thanksgiving. He was also truly ahead of his time with the free range bird thing.
Although it was a far cry from traditional, it is probably through that experience that I have mustered up the courage to veer from traditional methods and techniques at times in my own restaurant kitchen.
It helps to minimize monotony in the business when you can successfully change the perception of what a traditional dish is expected to be, albeit a little more palatable than an old bird!
With this is mind, since most of us Caribbean folks don’t cook turkey regularly as part of our tradition, I decided to include a foolproof recipe for a super juicy turkey for ANY occasion.
If you are going to attempt this around Thanksgiving in the United States, please heed my brother-in-law’s advice and pick one up early, as old guinea fowls are not a great substitute and they require super-hero-type skills to be commandeered!
JUICY WHOLE ROASTED TURKEY-BRINING METHOD
This recipe is more about the technique of brining the bird than it is about the type and amounts of seasonings and/or aromatics you use. Turkey takes well to almost any combination so I loosely leave it up to the cook to decide on those ingredients.
This bird is not meant to be stuffed, nor should any turkey be stuffed, due to the possibility of a food borne illness arising fromproteins not being fully cooked or staying in the danger-zone temperature in the cavity for too long during the cooking process.
Stuffing works just as well being cooked separately then adding some of the pan drippings from the bird toward the end, so do it that way and save yourself a trip to the hospital.
One 12-15 lb bird
1 large container for brining bird
2 Cups kosher salt or 1 3/4 Cup regular table salt
1 Gallon COLD water
6 Tbs butter-melted (you can substitute with coconut oil for depth of flavor)
Sprigs of thyme, cloves of garlic, and scotch bonnet pepper and any other spices you would like to be infused into the bird during the brining process.
Take 1 quart of the water and all of the salt and spices and bring to a simmer and immediately remove from the heat and add the remaining COLD water. Stir to dissolve all completely.
Cool completely, then add the bird and place in refrigerator for 8-12 hours – Maximum.
Preheat oven and pan you are roasting in to 400 degreesFahrenheit. Rinse bird completely to remove excess salt and discard brine solution.( You may use the giblets from the bird to make a turkey stock by simmering in a slow pot of water and adding drippings from the bird after it is done cooking to that water and thicken.)
You may now add additional non-salty spices to the bird, including some of the type that you used in the brine. This bird is pretty tasty on its own, so it does NOT need an overwhelming amount of spices.
Brush entire bird with the melted butter or oil.
Place breast side down in the roasting pan-preferably with a roasting rack on the bottom (if roasting rack is not available, you may cut large pieces of carrots and onions and place on bottom and then put the bird on top of the veggies-with a little water in the bottom so the veggies won’t burn. Either way you should have a little water in the bottom of the pan so that the drippings from the bird nor the veggies will burn and smoke the whole house!
Bake for 50 minutes, then reduce heat to 250 deg F, and cook for an additional 1 ½ hours.
Turn the bird breast side up (at this point, the breast meat should register approximately 140-150 deg F) and raise heat back up to 400 degrees and cook for another 45 min to an hour, or until breast meat reads 160 degrees and thigh meat reads around 170-180 deg Fahrenheit.
These cooking times work best for a 14 pound bird. Adjust your cooking times accordingly based on the size of your bird! Do NOT use a bird bigger than 15 pounds, as the breast meat will be way overcooked before the thigh meat is cooked through, defeating the purpose of this recipe!
Monitor temperature closely toward the end of cooking time as the success of this bird is dependent on not overcooking and drying it out.
The fact that the bird has been brined helps to keep it more moist but also shortens the cooking time since water is a good conductor of heat.
Be sure to let bird rest for at least 10 minutes and up to 20 minutes before carving to redistribute the juices after cooking.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.