Anatomy of a Turkey Dinner
More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is all about food. For restaurants and chefs, this is the meal when every guest will revel in the presentation as well as the taste of each and every delicacy—beginning with the entrée that rules the roost. Unrivaled as the Thanksgiving dinner focal point, turkey sets the standard for every side dish, dessert, and beverage on a restaurant’s holiday menu.
Whether holding court at the head of the buffet or plated as an individual serving, the turkey stands testament to a chef’s diligent planning and patient execution of a meal that, in the best scenario, celebrates traditions while leading diners on a culinary exploration of new worlds.
Achieving the coveted crispness of skin surrounding meat that remains succulent and moist requires the perfect blend of spices and soaking.
“We brine turkey for two days in salt, water, brown sugar, peppercorns, roughly chopped onion, and slices of orange,” says Brian Feirstein, executive chef at Cask 63 in Scottsdale, Arizona. “And we put lots of butter under the skin—a compound butter with sage, thyme, and rosemary, or whatever fresh herbs we have. This helps crisp the skin and keeps the meat nice and moist.”
Similarly, Gregory Wiener, executive chef, Top of the Rock at the Buttes Resort in Tempe, Arizona, says they brine turkey for about 24 hours in a solution of sugar, salt, herbs, and spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, bay leaf, thyme, and garlic. Then they coat it with olive oil, garlic, fresh parsley, thyme, and chives—and baste it every half hour while it cooks.
Another technique for retaining moisture is to debone the turkey. “You can roast only the breast and legs, and you have more control when you roast it deboned because each part cooks at a different rate,” says Christian Gautrois, executive chef, Praline Bakery & Bistro, Bethesda, Maryland.
But even before the bird is in hand, decisions must be made about the type of turkey to be served: Whether white or dark meat? The most affordable choice or a pricier organic variety?
White Meat vs. Dark Meat
White meat wins every time and is the most popular part of the bird, even though dark meat is more tender, says Marilyn Schlossbach, principal partner of Kitschens Hospitality Group in Asbury Park, New Jersey. And Praline Bistro’s Gautrois concurs, pointing out that for every five people who want white, only one will want dark meat.
As people have become increasingly health conscious, the popularity of white meat has flourished. However, Feirstein notes, “There are those who prefer the dark meat, because it has more flavor and moisture due to the higher amount of fat.”
Weiner uses the dark meat year-round in the form of ground turkey or braised turkey, and says, “We get it much cheaper than the breast meat and I feel it is a much better product.”
Turkey may be cheaper than most other proteins, but the price per pound is increasing, particularly if you want free-range or organic poultry.
“Free-range fresh turkey costs $3 to $3.45 per pound,” says Feirstein, but he thinks it’s worth paying more for the free-range birds. However, he doesn’t insist on organic turkeys, opting to source from farms he knows and trusts.
Schlossbach usually stays away from organic turkey because of the cost. “It’s about double and the customer doesn’t always understand the difference in price,” she explains.
Conversely, Weiner selects young, free-range organic turkeys, typically pays $2.80 per pound, and says the cost of organic turkey is worth it. “I think it makes a significant difference in taste, but maybe for the average Joe, it’s more about doing the right thing.”
Pairing the perfect holiday poultry with a beverage recommendation that complements the meat and spices of the season is also a prime consideration.
“With turkey, plan to offer guests both a red and a white wine,” advises David Mirassou, wine expert and sixth-generation member of America’s renowned winemaking family at Mirassou Winery. “For the red, Pinot Noir is a lighter bodied, versatile choice that pairs well with turkey and many traditional side dishes. For the white, a sweet and refreshing Riesling matches well with turkey, as well as with cranberry sauce.”
For those who prefer beer, Greg Engert, beer director and partner, Birch & Barley/ChurchKey in Washington, D.C, says, “For Thanksgiving dinner, I seek out brighter styles of beer, like Belgian saison, which has herbaceous hop dryness and peppery yeast aromatics that work well. The sweet malt notes of the Belgian saison sing with the delicate sweetness of the turkey, while the stuffing’s sage dovetails with the beer’s aromatics.
“For the darker flavors, I turn to Belgian dubbel, which has a darker malty sweetness and red fruit quality that complements the darker sweetness and earthier notes of dark turkey meat, cranberry sauce, and root veggies.”
As for the ideal Thanksgiving cocktail, Will Primavera, director of food and beverage at Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel, says, “Your chosen spirit should have acidity to cut through the richness of the turkey, and make sure your creation has layers or depth. Nothing is worse than a cocktail that falls off your palate within seconds of your first sip.”