Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thanksgiving Healthy Recipes: The Perfect Turkey

Thanksgiving Healthy Recipes: The Perfect Turkey

Assuming you and/or your guests are not vegan or vegetarians the bird is going to be the star of the show. If nothing else goes right this is the make it or break it championship game of Thanksgiving. Get the turkey right and folk singers in a tryptophan daze will tune their instruments while finding words that rhyme with your name. Get it wrong and pizza delivery is not a healthy choice but it may be your only choice. So let’s get it right. Don’t worry, it’s actually pretty easy if you follow some basic turkey rules.

Our objective is to make an absolutely delicious meal with the healthiest ingredients and methods possible. Thanksgiving is all about home cooking rather than prepared foods so half the battle is already won. Now we just need to watch what ingredients are selected.

Obviously we are going to need to buy a turkey. By the middle of November the stores will be full of them. If you look at the ingredients labels on most of those you will want to skip them. Seriously, don’t buy a frozen turkey resting in a slurry of chemicals and unnecessary sodium. The preservatives and flavorings used in major brands mostly fall under the FDA term “Generally Regarded As Safe”. Would you fly in an airplane design the engineers called “Generally Regarded As Safe”? With food the adverse effects of a bad diet are far more gradual than when something goes wrong while hurtling through the atmosphere at a couple of hundred miles an hour in an aluminum tube but the negative result is ultimately the same.

Now that we left our shopping cart in the frozen food section of the big box store that also sells grocery items we may need to go to what I call one of the hippie food stores. Your favorite grocery store may very well have some good turkey options as well so check. What we are after is a turkey with an ingredients label that pretty much stops at turkey. Most of these guys are frozen solid. If the bird you get is not you can ignore the thawing instructions to follow. In either case an organic bird raised on non-GMO feed with no hormones or antibiotics would be ideal. 

To figure out how large of a bird you will need figure on a pound to a pound and a half per person. This is based on the total weight of the big frozen block of turkey, bones and all. More bird means more leftovers. I love Thanksgiving leftovers. If your math works out to well over 20 pounds consider getting two smaller birds. They will be easier to fit in your freezer and fridge and they will take less total time to cook. You will also have the option of two different preparations that way.  

 Iceberg Ahead!

If you have done the Thanksgiving meal before you have probably had nightmares about forgetting to thaw the bird. You have to thaw the bird which takes time. The safest way is to put a tray or pan underneath the bird in its packaging to catch drips and place it in the refrigerator on the lowest shelf for 1 full day for every 5 pounds of turkey. The fastest way is to thaw it in water. Make sure the turkey is sealed in a leak-proof wrapper and place it in a vessel large enough to completely contain it. Add cold tap water to cover. Change the water every 30 minutes and allow 30 minutes of thawing time per pound. We tried the refrigerator method one year and found that our fridge was too cold so we ended up using the water method. Either way you need the bird to be completely thawed for cooking. 

To brine or not to brine, that is the question. Whether tis nobler to suffer the introduction of sodium and sugar in the hopes of a juicier bird, or to remain as pure as possible in our selection of ingredients thus avoiding the slings and arrows of obesity and hypertension. Shakespeare never brined a turkey. This is a true fact because you are reading it on the internet and it is written by a reliable source that didn’t check. If you have no idea what brining is or why I am destroying classic literature I shall not belabor the point and this paragraph is now at an end.


Now we are almost ready to start cooking, but first we have to decide what method to use. The most common choices are frying, smoking, or roasting. Frying is out for health reasons and because it is a leading cause of accidental fires in the United States on Thanksgiving Day. Smoking the whole bird is a delicious change of pace from the traditional roasted bird but it comes with some health controversy. Some of the byproducts of wood smoke are ugly and there are health concerns about eating too much smoked meat. We are going for the healthiest choice so that means roasting. 

Secret Roasting Weapon

Since I gave an annoying argument against brining we need a roasting method that will result in a juicy bird. This has traditionally meant basting. I hate basting. So I am going to recommend something that has worked very well for me every time. Reynolds makes a nifty thing called an oven bag for turkeys. By cooking the bird inside this bag the juices don’t all escape and you get the maximum input from the herbs and seasonings used. Full directions come in the little box with the bag. Their recipe calls for some flour, butter or oil, and a list of herbs and seasonings. Make sure you use the flour or the bag could pop. I recommend a healthy version of flour and go with gluten-free if you or your guests are sensitive to gluten. Two tablespoons of butter is going to add a lot of flavor for only 210 total calories so go for it. 

Herbs and seasonings aren’t exactly tricky but if you don’t have much experience in using them it would be best to go with the one’s recommended on the recipe from Reynolds. For salt I like the flavor and nutrient benefits of the pink Himalayan sea salt. That stuff can be pricey but we found it for cheap in a swell little grinder at the big box store where people shop in their pajamas. I also like fresh ground pepper rather than the powdered kind. It just has more flavor. My wife doesn’t like pepper so I usually add mine at the table. If you are making stuffing/dressing that will be cooked separately. Do not cook it inside the turkey. 

Work Your Magic

The moment has arrived. This is what we have been discussing at length and it is what you have been training for. You are ready. Let’s make sure you don’t make a rookie mistake with three important pointers. 

  1.  Number one is to handle raw poultry as though it were a toxic substance. Keep it from coming into contact with any other food and consider everything it touches to be contaminated. This includes your hands that you are going to wash thoroughly with soap and water after the bird is safely in the bag.
  2. Number two is to check every possible cavity of your thawed bird for little bags of turkey goodies. There is usually more than one. Take those out and save them for another purpose.
  3. Tip number three is to plan ahead for taking a hot and heavy object out of a hot oven in a couple of hours. I highly recommend putting whatever pan you are using for the actual turkey on top of a sturdy cookie sheet for safe handling. I like to use the disposable aluminum turkey pans and those are particularly flimsy. You don’t want flimsy with twenty pounds of steaming lava in your oven mitts. Thanksgiving is no fun sitting in the emergency room next to some dude with no eyebrows who didn’t follow his turkey frying instructions.

I will defer again to the simple recipe that came with your Reynold oven bag for the cooking time for your turkey. It is based on the total weight of the turkey. As the minutes turn to hours your house will begin to smell like a Norman Rockwell painting. I have no idea what that means. 

Ninja Time!

The turkey is done and it is positively magnificent! Let it rest for at least thirty minutes before carving. Now let’s put your ninja skills to good use. 

  1. Using a very sharp knife and a two-pronged fork to steady the turkey, cut through the skin between the breast and leg. Force the leg away from the turkey and cut through the joint to separate the leg completely. Use your hands to rotate the leg away from the turkey to locate the joint. Repeat with the other leg.
  2. Separate the drumsticks from the thighs by cutting through the joint between them. Leave the drumstick whole, but slice and debone the thighs. 
  3. Next, slide your knife along one side of the breastbone, keeping the knife as close to the breastbone as possible. Gently force the breast away from the turkey until you can remove the breast in one piece. Repeat with the other breast.
  4. Cut through the joint to remove the wing from the breast, then slice the breast meat.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

 You did it! The meal is not only fantastic but it is made from the healthiest possible ingredients. Gather together with your family and friends to enjoy a time of feast and fellowship. Don’t forget to give God thanks for His provision and the people He has blessed into your life. May He bless your Thanksgiving.

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