Thursday, December 4, 2008

Very Fine Fowl

This is the bird that changed my mind about turkey. It's an 11 1/2 pound Bourbon Red "heritage breed" from Hilltop Pastures Family Farm. That's Tom and Sara Austin, who brought turkeys and other grass-fed meats to our Thanksgiving market.

I had just about given up on the traditional Thanksgiving bird after too many anxiety-inducing turkey day experiences. There was the year we tried to grill-smoke the bird and, following a friend's stern admonitions not to even think about lifting the lid for an hour, went inside for a glass of wine. When we came back expecting to see good progress on creating a bronzed and smoky bird, we found the grill and turkey stone cold, the skin glazed with a gray film. I had forgotten to open the vents to keep a low fire going. As we stood there grimly contemplating the frigid, sooty fowl, a chunk of ice broke off from the dormer downspout, bounced off the deck overhang and hit me smack in the forehead. Ouch, I said. That's going to leave a mark. Or words to that effect.

I tried brining one year, the method du jour among turkey gurus. It did create a juicy bird--juicy with salty tap water. When I sliced the breast I was appalled by the saline flood that poured forth. Meat is not supposed to look like that. And, that salty liquid ruined the drippings for gravy, the best part of the Thanksgiving meal (well, next to the stuffing!).

And who doesn't feel a general fatigue with the annual barrage of tortured strategies to keep the breast from drying out until the legs are done, the perennial kitchen song-and-dance of Is it done yet? Is it overdone? Are those juices clear? Or are they pink? Will it be delicious? Or will we die?

But, while I don't really relish the idea of turkey dinner, others in the family do; and I like a challenge, and did relish the chance to try a pasture-raised heritage breed (that's sort of like heirloom vegetables--less standardized, old-time varieties that have been gradually phased out by commercial operations, which are now being rediscovered by small-scale producers).

Long story short, that Bourbon Red was wonderful. Seasoned with only salt and pepper, a few herbs and aromatics stuffed into the cavity (thyme, sage, celery leaves; leek, onion, carrot and garlic), it went in a 350 oven for about a half hour; it was getting nicely brown by then so I turned it down to 325 for another 45 minutes. I basted it just a couple of times with some butter melted into chicken stock. It really did cook in just an hour and fifteen minutes, and because we expected it to take considerably longer, it sat around for quite a while before we ate. Just before serving I separated the legs and breast (on the bone) from the carcass and put them in a low oven to warm a bit.

Even with that not very gentle treatment, it was great. The white meat (of which there was plenty, contrary to what some people think about heritage birds) was dense and moist and...turkey-flavored; except much more flavorful than a grocery store bird. The dark meat, off the big, meaty thighs, was something else again. Like the breast meat, it was denser and moister than is typical, with a wonderful slight gaminess that made me think of duck breast, or venison. Truly delicious, and revelatory.

I can't really say how much of that bird's qualities were the breed, and how much was due to the pasture-raising. As with all great local foods, the specifics are all-important. It's about the terroir, the place-specific taste of a thing, as well as about the skill and care of the people who produce it. Tom and Sara also brought traditional broad-breasted white turkeys to the market, and I've heard that those were unusually flavorful birds, too.

The movement in local-seasonal-sustainable foods is toward pasture-raised animals. The Austins are fans of Shannon Hayes , the author of several well received books, including The Grassfed Gourmet. Her pastured turkey cooking tips are well worth consulting next time you plan to prepare a large fowl--or just want a good laugh.

To find producers of grass-fed meats in your area, try your local farmers' market, or consult Slow Food USA's website to find a chapter near you. Here's another resource that the Austins link on their website: EatWild .

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

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