After stumbling upon a Thanksgiving turkey recipe in a 2007 issue of Saveur magazine, I’ll admit that I was hesitant to proceed. The directions filled an entire page, and the process seemed complicated. Exhaustingly so.
But the recipe’s author is Lynne Rossetto Kasper. She’s the guiding voice on American Public Media’s “The Splendid Table,” and since she’s incapable of disappointing this devoted listener, I dove in.
Eight years later — that’s eight hugely successful Thanksgiving dinners later, and I have the gushy guest testimonials to prove it — I can’t imagine celebrating my favorite holiday any other way.
I’ll never think of this magnificent recipe as hassle-free, but you know what? Prepare it just once, and its seemingly countless steps feel perfectly logical and easy to master. The spectacular results speak for themselves: meat that’s deeply juicy and gently imbued with apples (a flavor, and a scent, that I forever associate with autumn) and skin that’s dark, crispy and succulent.
Truly, it’s the ultimate Thanksgiving turkey. Oh, and the gravy? Sublime.
In a recent conversation, Rossetto Kasper — who just celebrated 20 years of “The Splendid Table” — revisited the recipe, sharing details. Here’s a summary:
Why bother with brining? “Most of the turkeys we eat, well, there’s not a lot of flavor there,” she said. “The thing about turkey that is so great is that it’s this blank canvas, ready to take on flavors.”
No. 1 brining rule: Overwhelm. “I always feel you can never over-season a brine,” she said. “When I see a brine recipe that says, ‘two cloves of garlic,’ I think, what’s the point? You really want to overwhelm.” Which explains this brining formula’s two heads of garlic.
What’s with the apples? “There’s this thing about this business: You have to come up with a new turkey recipe every year, that’s how you sell magazines,” she said. [The memorable Thanksgiving when Rossetto Kasper immersed her imagination into North Africa lives on at splendidtable.org. Use “Moroccan Turkey” as key search words.] “I just got to thinking about doing layers of apple flavors. You know, apple in the brine. A bit of Calvados in the broth. And apples in the actual pan with the turkey — you use the apples as a rack — and they turn to cream almost, and they become part of the gravy.”
No need to overspend. “Of course, I’d love everyone to buy heritage and organic, a bird that’s been petted and only walked on pearls, and all of that,” she said. “But to me, a heritage bird is not something you brine, it’s not something you go crazy with, because it’s already got that natural flavor. With a recipe like this, one that’s full of character, you can use the cheapest supermarket bird you can get, although not a self-basting one, because that’s going to add water.” As for the imported (and expensive) Calvados, “Save yourself $20 and buy apple brandy,” she said.
Going beyond the Granny Smith. For this recipe, “You want a tart apple for the way its character plays against the other ingredients,” she said. “Very sweet apples tend to go flabby on the palate when mixed with savory ingredients. Tart ones hold their own. Haralson, Regent, Viking, Chestnut Crab Apple, Cortland, they all do the job. Our co-ops often carry wide varieties.”
Go ahead, mix it up. Rossetto Kasper suggests substituting hard cider for the recipe’s fresh cider. “It has the depth that sweet cider doesn’t,” she said. Go the all-dry cider route, and she suggests increasing the sugar a bit. “Or, instead of adding extra sugar, what I might do is add an extra apple, that way you’ll really get that full apple effect,” she said. “And a good dry hard cider is probably the perfect thing to serve during the meal. It may be better than wine.”
That looks spicy. It’s not. The brine recipe calls for ⅓ cup dried ancho chile powder, which could be alarming to some spice-wary cooks, but it shouldn’t be. “I love ancho chiles, and I always use them in a brine,” she said. “They’re not going to overwhelm. They’re velvety; they’ve got sweetness. You don’t get heat, you never really know it’s there, but it seems to open things up a bit. It has that umami quality of opening up flavors. I love the word ‘fulsome,’ the way it fills your mouth. It’s so interesting. I’ve never heard anyone talk about umami in dried chiles. I’d like to think that some scientist somewhere is working on chile umami.”
Why basil? “Because I love basil,” she said. “To me, it’s the greatest blending herb. Basil comes up behind things and wraps itself around them without ever overwhelming. Everyone loves it straight, and there are few herbs that don’t work well with it. The sweetest herbs — dill, tarragon — they don’t. I thought it would lend a sweet, herbal quality to the apple, something that wouldn’t overwhelm, because there’s already a lot going on.”
Flipping the bird, literally. After starting the roasting process with the bird turned breast-side down, Rossetto Kasper turns it breast-side up. “That’s my mother,” she said. “Does this happen to you? You spend years learning, and investigating the work of the most gifted, famous people in the field. And what you find out is that you’ve learned exactly what your mother told you and you ignored. My mother always cooked turkeys breast-side down, with the theory that the juices run into the breast. Do they? Perhaps. But the breast — which is the leanest meat — isn’t exposed to that high heat, except for the last 45 minutes or so. I’ve always turned my turkeys — I use potholders, and then they go straight into the laundry, by the way — because I like the result. And I like living dangerously.”
To stuff, or not to stuff. “I always stuff a turkey, but only when I’m doing a slow-roast technique,” she said. “Don’t stuff this one. When you’re roasting with very high heat, and you’ve already brined it, it won’t work. But when I’m slow-roasting, which I don’t really do anymore, I like to stuff it because I love the flavor. But, and this is important, I always stuffed it the moment before it went into the oven, and nothing in the stuffing had to be cooked. Generally, not even a raw egg went into it.”
Post-roast. “Here’s something I never said in the original recipe,” she said. “Don’t cover the [roasted] turkey while it’s sitting out. There’s debate over this, but I think that covering the bird softens the skin, because the heat rises, and it steams. I’d rather have a slightly cooler bird, but a bird with crisp skin, because the skin is the best part of the turkey. But the people who think that everything on the Thanksgiving table has to be as hot as Hades? Well, they’re going to end up in asylums.”
The meal’s real centerpiece. “It’s gravy,” she said. “One of the things that I’m hopelessly proud of is my gravy, I have an obsession with gravy. Gravy is everything. It’s the secret to life. It’s creating the layers of the flavor; that’s the way my family made gravy. You know, you brown something, then you reduce wine over it. And then you reduce it again, and then you reduce broth, and you keep boiling it down, until you have a flavor base that will knock you out. ”
Don’t forget to have fun. “Here’s the thing I say every year, and it’s true: You never remember the perfect Thanksgiving,” she said. “You hope that people remember the turkeys that we prepared, but what they remember is the fun stuff, the stuff that we can’t expect.”
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