Thanksgiving, a holiday that orbits around cooking and eating with family, would seem a likely favorite for me, growing deeper in meaning as I grew as a cook. My relationship to Thanksgiving held an inverted relationship with significance than I expected as Ive gotten older. I think it has something to do with the fact that going to college in Paris where Thanksgiving was just known as Thursday and nothing else. I got out of the habit of thinking of Thanksgiving as necessary.
However, in keeping with the guilt bestowed in me as a romantic, I cant avoid making a turkey and some version of a traditional meal. It feels sacrilegious, offensive to me as a cook, to eschew tradition entirely. Even this year, despite the fact that we are essentially taking a trip during the holiday for fun, just electing to travel during the chaos that is Thanksgiving week like total crazy people, I feel it is necessary to have some sort of Thanksgiving meal ready for us upon our return. Because, I say to myself, how could I not? Its Thanksgiving, after all. And the challenge of figuring out how to do it despite being gone for a week is the kind of thing that might actually make me like the feast this year, spoken like a true food editor who loves to find solutions and transform the seemingly impossible into something approachable. A puzzle that can be eaten: my kind of feast at its most inspiring.
The solution for this years feast arose from a pot-roasted rooster recipe I developed for my Catalan Food cookbook of Daniels combined with the inspiration to revisit wild rice like my dad used to put in his dressings when I was a kid. Marrying the two thoughts resulted in a pot-roasted half turkey, enough for our small table, a decadent pilaf base full of turkey drippings, and turkey stock, all of which was intended for the freezer. All very basic building blocks for a future version of myself, one who throws down a suitcase full of dirty laundry to run to the refrigerator, pull out the root vegetables Ive left there like some sort of exercise in time travel and manifest a simple and delicious meal worthy to gather around.
The idea of it feels like magic somehow, which I know will be tarnished by its reality. Maybe that is an inherent quality of holidays as an adult, I wondermaking plans with an optimistic and open heart, then having them realized in a way that contains complaints or bad moods or hurt feelingsjust human life, rather than a story.
I like things to be hard, Ive realized about myself. And I like any reason to bring my family together around the table, to share a meal and make memories over food. (Christmas is a whole other scenario I fiercely protect the traditions we have, there is no lingering feeling of redundancy or obligation.) On that level, Thanksgiving has a purpose. It is a moment in which stories are created, memories logged into a kind of family file, and it helps to form our shared narrative. When I consider that perspective, what Im offering to my sons as our Thanksgiving tradition this year is some combination of stubbornness, resilience and resignation: which feels somewhat like every other Thanksgiving tradition Ive ever heard of. This version holds reality and fantasy together in service of my family that results in a unique recipe, making it perhaps the most perfect Thanksgiving Ive ever had (and it hasnt even happened yet).
Make-Ahead Roast Turkey with Wild Rice
This recipe uses only half a turkeymy family is small and Im intending for this recipe to be frozen, so I needed to avoid excess. For the unused half, my suggestion is to follow the breakdown instructions included after this recipe, then do this recipe with the breast; I then ground the thigh and drumstick meat to make this breakfast sausage. Its not necessary to make this recipe ahead, either; it can be made on Thanksgiving easily, with the rice still available for a delicious pilaf on its own or used as an ingredient in a delicious rice stuffing after its scraped from the pan. I happen to have an exceedingly large Dutch oven that works ideally for this, but I understand its not a standard inclusion in everyones kitchen. A roasting pan topped with foil (when I call to cover the dish) works just as well. Save the trimmings from the carrot, onion, shallots and herbs to use in stock (recipe follows), along with whatever aromatics you have around.
1 medium whole fresh or thawed, frozen turkey (about 15 pounds)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened, divided
4 shallots, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/2 cups chopped celery (from about 3 stalks)
2 cups chopped carrot (from about 3 medium)
1 small bunch sage (about 20 leaves)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
Himalayan salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups wild rice
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 / Preheat oven to 375F with rack in lowest position to accommodate pot/pan.
2 / Cut bird in half: Place turkey on a well-stabilized cutting board breast-side down. (Remove any additional bits that are hiding inside the bird, like the neckbone or baggie of liver and gizzards; place them in a freezer-proof resealable bag and save for stock, or compost in an industrial setting where bones are permitted.) Use sharp poultry shears to cut along either side of backbone, from tail to neck opening, in two parallel lines. (This isnt easy, it takes some elbow grease and sharp shears help, but I have succeeded with all manner of equipment and believe in you. Persevere, its worth it.) Youve done it right when the backbone is removed in one long piece and the inner cavity of the bird is splayed open like a book. Use paper towels to pat the bird as dry as possible. Flip bird over so breast-side is facing up; use a sharp knife to cut between breasts. (Again, not easy. But again, its possible, I assure you.) Set one half of turkey aside to use later. Season both sides of other turkey half generously with salt and pepper. Work fingers underneath skin on breast and thigh and tuck about 5 sage leaves underneath each. Rub bird all over with softened butter (or pinch dots of butter all over bird if skin prevents it from sticking).
3 / Chop remaining sage leaves (you should have about 1 tablespoon); strip rosemary leaves from stems and roughly chop (you should have about 1 tablespoon). Set aside.
4 / In a very large Dutch oven or flameproof roasting pan, heat remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium until melted and foamy. Add shallot, celery and carrot and season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in sage, rosemary and bay; add rice and 5 cups water to pan. Place bird on top of rice; pour lemon juice over bird. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat.
5 / Transfer pot, still covered, to the oven. Roast until the bird is halfway cooked, about 30 minutes. Raise temperature to 475F; once preheated, uncover pot and roast until turkey is browned, juices run clear when the breast is pierced, and the thigh bone moves easily when prodded, 35 to 40 minutes more. Set aside to rest, uncovered, 10 minutes. Carefully transfer bird to a cutting board and carve or proceed to next step to prepare for the freezer.
6 / To prepare bird for the freezer: allow turkey and rice to cool separately and thoroughly. Once cool, transfer rice to a freezer-worthy container (quart container or zip-top bag work well). Divide turkey into piecesthigh, drumstick, bone-on breastand place on a wax paper-lined baking sheet. Transfer baking sheet to freezer and freeze meat until solid, about 2 hours. Wrap frozen turkey pieces in plastic wrap, transfer to a large freezer bag labeled with the date, and return to the freezer.
Makes about 1 quart
Note: I didnt mind boiling the stock, which I normally wouldnt do, because a clear stock isnt needed for gravy.
1 / Cut bones into pieces a few inches in length. Arrange turkey bones in a single layer on a baking sheet (just the backbone, cut into is sufficient if you arent breaking down the other half of the bird, but if you have, then any other bones you have are great here). Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
2 / Roast bones in a preheated 375F oven until deeply golden brown, about 1 hour. Transfer bones to a small stockpot; scrape in any accumulated juices and crust from pan. Add whatever other aromatics you have (onion, celery, shallot, carrot, herbs; about 1 to 2 cups is ideal). Cover bones with 4 quarts (16 cups) of water, preferably filtered, and bring to a fast simmer. Simmer stock, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by half, a rich brown in color, 4 to 6 hours.
3 / Strain stock (discard or compost solids). Season stock with salt and cool completely in refrigerator overnight. Transfer stock to a freezer-worthy container or zip-top plastic bag, label with the date, and freeze. (To thaw, transfer directly to a saucepan, or set aside in refrigerator overnight.)