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Turkey tradition, or how to display your fowl

December 2011

Let’s talk turkey—this is our family’s most enduring holiday food, but that doesn’t mean it is our favourite dish. In fact, frankly, some of us might leave it out, but we can’t. It’s a tradition! So much so, we eat it twice.

For Hanukah, we require a protein supplement for the massive amount of fried carbs we will eat. Cold smoked turkey, sliced and ready on the table, is a great counterpoint. Making latkes—potato pancakes—at the last moment, which is how we do it, requires everyone out of the kitchen except the latkes mistress. Platters come. We ingest. Platters go back for refills. The kitchen is sealed off under smoke and oil fumes.

While the traditional latkes are frying, other traditions our changing. We may remember “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay,” but we also know Adam Sandler’s Put on Your Yamaka, Here Comes Hanukah and Tom Lehrer’s I’m Spending Hanukah in Santa Monica. Go ahead, Google them and then come back to the column.

Turkey is now as much a part of our Hanukah celebrations as Adam Sandler and a nine-branched menorah. Then there is the other family feast, a week or two later. With about 20 Jews and a couple of Catholics in our clan, we celebrate an indigenous festival on December 25 known as ChrisHanukah.

This, too, requires a traditional turkey, but served hot. We have discussed several ways of doing this.

A few years ago, my sister, who traditionally cooks the turkey, received a turkey fryer as a gift. Some gift. Turkey frying requires immersing the bird in a vat of boiling oil. This is a technique for engineers, not cooks. Imagine damp stuffing hitting boiling oil or a slight miscalculation with searingly hot fat overflowing the pot. For informational purposes, you may wish to see an instructional YouTube video of the ignition of William Shatner deep-frying a turkey. Beam me up Scotty, indeed. We, of course, would do it safely. We could do it in the garage, or better yet outside, or safest yet, not at all.

Another approach, recommended by food writer Mark Bittman, is to split the turkey down the middle, flatten it and cook it at a high temperature. This takes about 45 minutes.

This means that we are presenting a somewhat diminished splayed fowl, reminiscent of a deflated football on a large plate. A holiday feast demands oohs and ahhs and the Flavourguy thinks that an impressively large turkey should largely impress.

Tradition rules. Old school. In the oven. We take a walk through the woods while the turkey roasts. We baste it, probe it and make a group decision as to when it is done. By tradition, I make the pan gravy as it rests. By tradition, my brother-in-law carves thin slices with such skill he could be performing surgery on Grey’s Anatomy, not the turkey’s.

Maybe one year we will discuss barbecuing a turkey or serving it Mexican style with a spicy mole sauce. In fact, part of the tradition is discussing different ways to cook it. But traditionally, what we like about our turkey is that it is invariable. After all this talk, it is always the same. So we eat some turkey with lots of stuffing and gravy; and then the tradition continues: leftovers for a week.

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Instead of a recipe, here are two gift ideas: No cook really needs another set of fondue forks or a bottle of chili-flavoured olive oil. But all cooks love books that do more than give recipes, that bring us into the minds and hearths of a cook. In that category, I suggest Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes A Cook’s Manifesto ($45). The first chapter is not “appetizers” or “main courses.” It is titled Think. This book had me questioning my cooking with ways to improve it.

Another great gift for lovers of Montreal is The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts ($40) from the brassy Little Burgundy bistro Joe Beef.

There are dishes you will want to make, such as spaghetti homard-lobster or the four-page centrefold of a monster smorgasbord. But what sets this book apart is the writing of Joe Beef’s co-owners, including David MacMillan’s foodie take on Montreal history and Fred Morin’s recipe-laced tale of a Via Rail trip to the Gaspé, and his insane directions for building a smoker. (Start with a $1,000 industrial-strength acetylene torch.) Forget deep-frying a turkey, we’re not in Dollard any more.

With either book, you are more likely to spend several hours enjoying the writing, and the authors’ love for food, than getting back into the kitchen. And, after any holiday feast, what could be better than that?



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