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Lynne Rossetto Kasper offers ultimate Thanksgiving turkey

November 15, 2018

After stumbling upon a Thanksgiving turkey recipe in a 2007 issue of Saveur magazine, Ill admit that I was hesitant to proceed. The directions filled an entire page, and the process seemed complicated. Exhaustingly so.

But the recipes author is Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Shes the guiding voice on American Public Medias The Splendid Table, and since shes incapable of disappointing this devoted listener, I dove in.

Eight years later thats eight hugely successful Thanksgiving dinners later, and I have the gushy guest testimonials to prove it I cant imagine celebrating my favorite holiday any other way.

Ill 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 thats deeply juicy and gently imbued with apples (a flavor, and a scent, that I forever associate with autumn) and skin thats dark, crispy and succulent.

Truly, its 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. Heres a summary:

Why bother with brining? Most of the turkeys we eat, well, theres not a lot of flavor there, she said. The thing about turkey that is so great is that its 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, whats the point? You really want to overwhelm. Which explains this brining formulas two heads of garlic.

Whats with the apples? Theres this thing about this business: You have to come up with a new turkey recipe every year, thats 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, Id love everyone to buy heritage and organic, a bird thats been petted and only walked on pearls, and all of that, she said. But to me, a heritage bird is not something you brine, its not something you go crazy with, because its already got that natural flavor. With a recipe like this, one thats full of character, you can use the cheapest supermarket bird you can get, although not a self-basting one, because thats 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 recipes fresh cider. It has the depth that sweet cider doesnt, 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 youll 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. Its not. The brine recipe calls for ⅓ cup dried ancho chile powder, which could be alarming to some spice-wary cooks, but it shouldnt be. I love ancho chiles, and I always use them in a brine, she said. Theyre not going to overwhelm. Theyre velvety; theyve got sweetness. You dont get heat, you never really know its 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. Its so interesting. Ive never heard anyone talk about umami in dried chiles. Id like to think that some scientist somewhere is working on chile umami.

Why basil? Because I love basil, she said. To me, its 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 dont work well with it. The sweetest herbs dill, tarragon they dont. I thought it would lend a sweet, herbal quality to the apple, something that wouldnt overwhelm, because theres 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. Thats 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 youve 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 isnt exposed to that high heat, except for the last 45 minutes or so. Ive 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 Im doing a slow-roast technique, she said. Dont stuff this one. When youre roasting with very high heat, and youve already brined it, it wont work. But when Im slow-roasting, which I dont 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. Heres something I never said in the original recipe, she said. Dont cover the [roasted] turkey while its sitting out. Theres debate over this, but I think that covering the bird softens the skin, because the heat rises, and it steams. Id 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, theyre going to end up in asylums.

The meals real centerpiece. Its gravy, she said. One of the things that Im hopelessly proud of is my gravy, I have an obsession with gravy. Gravy is everything. Its the secret to life. Its creating the layers of the flavor; thats 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.

Dont forget to have fun. Heres the thing I say every year, and its 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 cant expect.

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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