Thanksgiving: The Real Meal

Celebrate with a heritage turkey raised naturally in New Mexico.

This Thanksgiving Day I plan to give thanks to New Mexico farmers like Pollo Real’s Tom Delehanty and Tracey Hamilton, who are rescuing venerable turkey breeds such as Spanish Black and Standard Bronze from the verge of extinction. In 1997, heritage turkeys were identified by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as the most “critically endangered of all domestic animals.” It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way to help save these breeds is by putting them back on our dinner tables, especially at Thanksgiving. Increasing the demand for the turkeys makes it more profitable for farmers to continue raising them.

Of course, choosing a heritage turkey isn’t just an exercise in altruism. Its deeper flavor and savor should make it the stuff of future family culinary legends, especially if you roast it in one of the ways suggested here.

Talking Turkey

All domesticated turkeys are descended from the wild turkeys of the Americas, first raised and bred as livestock by early Native Americans. There were many diverse breeds until as recently as 50 years ago. Since then, the Broad-Breasted White has become America’s Thanksgiving bird, an industrial breed comprising more than 99 percent of our supermarket supply. In a story all too familiar, the old breeds nearly died out because demand increased for these top-heavy turkeys, which can be grown quickly and cheaply.

A heritage turkey is a bird of another feather. First off, it’s an old breed, in most cases one recognized by the American Poultry Association sometime in the 19th century, and bred to be well adapted to a specific local environment. That’s not enough, however, for it to be classified as a heritage turkey today. It also needs to be raised through historic range-based production. A heritage turkey must be the product of natural mating; raised humanely in the outdoors and allowed to eat freely; and it must have had a relatively long life of six to eight months. The lifespan gives it time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass, for savory, firm-textured meat. In contrast, a typical Broad-Breasted White comes to market in just under three months. That may sound like a marvel of economic efficiency, but such turkeys put on weight so quickly they can neither walk nor procreate naturally, and are generally shot through with antibiotics because of health issues and confinement. When processed, they’re often pumped with a saline and oil solution to add weight, and someone’s idea of flavor, to the meat. You probably don’t need me to remind you that the retail cost of this kind of turkey is, well, chicken feed. The cost to our environment and to genetic diversity is sky-high.

When Tom and wife Tracey founded Pollo Real near Socorro, they couldn’t imagine raising chickens, turkeys, and other fowl the common way. In 1996, their poultry farm was the first in the country to be certified as organic. All of their birds peck around in the soil for bugs and graze on oats, chicories, and plenty of perennial greens. Tom doubts he and Tracey were the first folks in New Mexico to try raising heritage turkeys, but he knows they were the first to do it on a commercial scale.

Sourcing Your Bird

  • For holiday delivery, Pollo Real turkeys can be ordered beginning in October for November or December pickup in Santa Fe; first come, first served. Order through polloreal.com, the Pollo Real booth at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market, or at Tom and Tracey's brand-new The Real Butcher Shop, in Santa Fe's Solana Center, at 907 W. Alameda, just west of St. Francis Drive (realbutchershop.com). The new, 3,000-square-foot butcher shop likely is the first in the U.S. to be anchored by a pasture-raised poultry farm. In addition to heritage turkeys, the shop will offer all of Pollo Real's other poultry: chickens, guinea hens, and ducks. You'll be able to buy New Mexico Shepherd's Lamb (featured in our April 2012 issue), as well as Berkshire and Red Wattle heritage pork, and Red Devon and Black and Red Angus beef. By 2013, Tom plans to offer these goods by mail order.
  • Another New Mexico source for heritage turkeys is Tim Willms' Talus Wind Ranch near Galisteo (505-982-7782; taluswindranch.com).
  • Order early from Keller's Farm Stores in Albuquerque, or Whole Food Markets. However, the heritage turkey is unlikely to be New Mexico–raised.
  • Order by mail from Heritage Foods (718-389-0985; heritagefoodsusa.com). If you live elsewhere, a local meat market or Slow Food chapter (slowfoodusa.org) may be able to point you toward a nearby turkey source.

 

The Fine Print

Because the term heritage turkey is not regulated by the government, the words can be thrown around and co-opted about as much as “Hatch chile.” However, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Heritage Turkey Foundation, Slow Food, and Heritage Foods are a few of the respected national organizations that agree on the definition outlined above. Ask questions of anyone claiming to sell heritage turkeys and read the fine print. It might be well raised and grazed free-range, but unless it meets all the outlined criteria, it’s not a heritage turkey.

Heritage Turkey on a Spit with Red Chile–Sage Butter and Red Chile–Sage Dressing

Please do not brine a heritage turkey.
Yield Serves 8 or more

Ingredients

10–11-pound heritage turkey such as Bourbon Red or American Bronze, with giblets and neck
1 pound miscellaneous turkey or chicken necks, backs, wings, or giblets
1 medium onion, chunked
2 celery stalks, chopped

Red Chile–Sage Butter

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves or
1 tablespoon crumbled dried sage
2 teaspoons ground dried New Mexican red chile

Red Chile–Sage Dressing

1 pound dense country white bread or
¾ pound French bread, cut in ¾-inch
cubes (about 9 cups)
6 ounces bulk Mexican-style chorizo
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter
2 heaping cups leeks, sliced thin (white and
light-green parts)
1½ cups celery, sliced thin
4–6 ounces button or wild mushrooms, sliced thin (optional)
2–3 teaspoons crumbled dried sage
1½ teaspoons dried thyme or dried marjoram, 
or a combination
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly milled pepper
Several cups turkey stock
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground dried red chile

Red Chile–Sage Jus

Pan drippings
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
Remaining turkey stock
Salt and freshly milled pepper
Fresh sage or thyme sprigs, or other herbs

Directions

For the Turkey

Please do not brine a heritage turkey. Most aficionados agree that the currently popular seasoning technique takes away from, or even masks, the superb natural flavor of the meat. I think the absolute best way to cook a heritage turkey is on a rotisserie, a common grill attachment these days. Preparing the turkey “done to a turn” lets the flavorful juices continually bathe the inside of the bird while the skin gets crackling crisp. Start preparing the turkey the night before, or at least four hours ahead of when you plan to eat. People love to see food roasting on a spit, so try to arrange the roasting time so that you can show off the turning turkey to arriving guests. You’ll bake the dressing separate from the turkey, in the oven, toward the end of the turkey’s roasting time. Make the herb-scented jus, a light gravy, from the pan drippings while the turkey rests before being carved.

Day-Ahead Preparations
Make Red Chile Sage Butter by combining all ingredients in a food processor and blending them into a uniform paste. Season turkey up to the night before you plan to roast it. Slip fingers under turkey’s skin to loosen it, being careful not to tear it. Rub turkey
generously inside and out with red chile–sage butter, especially under breast skin.

Truss turkey. Cut 10-foot-long piece of kitchen twine. Set turkey breast-side up on work surface. Starting with middle of piece of string, wrap it around ends of both legs, then crisscross string back and forth around turkey up to neck end. Pay special attention to wing areas—you want the wings flush against turkey’s body. Make sure turkey is lassoed snugly. When rest of string is wrapped around bird, tie string ends together.

With cleaver or heavy chef’s knife, chop turkey’s giblets and neck, and extra turkey or chicken parts, into 1- to 2-inch pieces. Place in stockpot or large saucepan and cook over high heat until pieces lose their raw look and begin to brown in spots. Cover pan, reduce heat to medium-low, and sweat meat 20 minutes, stirring once
or twice; after about 10 minutes, add onion and celery. Uncover, add 6 cups water, bring to simmer, and cook about
30 minutes. Strain stock and keep it warm. (Stock can be made two days before Thanksgiving, cooled quickly, covered, and refrigerated until needed. Reheat stock before proceeding.)

Make croutons for dressing. Preheat oven
to 325˚ F. Toast bread cubes on baking sheets for about 25 minutes, stirring once or twice, until lightly brown and crisp. Dump into large bowl.

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Fry chorizo in it until it begins to brown (about 5 minutes). Stir in leeks, celery, mushrooms, and sauté until vegetables are very soft (about 7 minutes). Add sage, thyme, salt, pepper, and scrape into bowl of croutons. Add stock 1 cup at a time, until bread is very moist but not soupy. You’ll probably use 2½ to 3 cups of stock. Reserve remaining stock for basting turkey. Cover and refrigerate dressing and stock until ready to proceed the following day.

Thanksgiving Day Preparations
Let turkey sit covered at room temperature 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove spit from rotisserie and fire up grill. Heat grill with lid closed. Use set rotisserie temperature, if your grill functions that way, or bring heat to medium-high.

Slide one rotisserie prong to far end of spit, facing toward center. Next, slide on turkey, neck end first, running spit through cavity. Secure neck end to prong. Try to lodge prong ends evenly in neck area to help balance bird’s weight. Slide on second prong, facing toward the turkey, and attach it to turkey’s legs.

Position turkey in center of spit and tighten prong bolts especially well—with pliers, if necessary—so that turkey can’t torque itself while turning. If your rotisserie has a counterweight that fits on the spit, secure that in place, generally angled outward from turkey’s back side. Attach spit to motor.

Place a shallow drip pan under turkey to catch drippings. (If your rotisserie sits directly over fire, keep pan as small as possible to avoid blocking much heat.) Turn
on power. Watch turkey rotate a few times to be sure it clears drip pan.

Close grill cover (unless manufacturer’s instructions say otherwise). Cook until an instant-read thermometer stuck in thickest part of breast reads 160° F. This should take 18 to 20 minutes per pound, or about 3 hours. Baste turkey three or four times at 45-minute intervals, with pan drippings if you have them; if not, with turkey stock. Don’t baste during last 30 minutes of cooking, so that skin has a chance to crisp. Avoid opening grill other than to baste, or cooking time can substantially increase. When done, turn off heat and rotisserie motor. Let turkey sit on spit with grill cover closed for 10 to 15 minutes.

While turkey is roasting, finish dressing. Preheat oven to 350˚ F. Butter 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Taste and adjust seasoning if you wish. Whisk eggs and
baking powder together and mix into dressing. Spoon dressing into baking dish, cover, and bake 25 minutes. Uncover and continue baking 10 to 15 minutes more, until lightly browned and crusty on top.
With heatproof mitts, remove spit from grill. Unscrew counterweight and prong bolts, and slide off turkey and prongs. Rest turkey on large cutting board. Pull off prongs and snip off twine. Tent turkey with foil and let sit about 10 minutes more.

Meanwhile, prepare jus. Pour and scrape pan drippings and browned bits from foil pan under turkey into saucepan. Warm over medium heat. Whisk flour into drippings. Whisk in remaining stock and bring to boil. Reduce liquid as needed to make thin gravy. Degrease if you wish, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve in gravy boat or bowl.
Arrange turkey on platter with herb sprigs around it. Accompany with hot jus and dressing. Carve and serve.

Creamy Green-Chile Spinach

A version of this sumptuous recipe has been a staple of my family’s table for special holiday meals since back in the 1970s.
Yield Serves 8 or more

Ingredients

¼ cup unsalted butter
½ cup minced onion
½ cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup half-and-half
½ pound grated mild or medium Cheddar cheese
2 pounds frozen chopped spinach, thawed
and drained
2 cups chopped roasted mild green chile, or a combination of mild and hot
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly milled pepper
Approximately 1 cup canned french-fried onions, crumbled

Directions

Once I became a food professional, I was embarrassed by the traditional can of French’s french-fried onions topping the casserole, so I dropped it, and instead added a finishing crunch with bread or cracker crumbs. I’m convinced, though, that the dish tastes best with that canned onion topping, so it’s what I’ve reverted to here. The dish is one heck of a lot greater than the sum of its (perhaps) odd-sounding parts.

Preheat oven to 350˚ F. Butter a medium baking dish. Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and celery, and sauté until vegetables are soft; about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour over vegetables, then cook another couple minutes, stirring frequently. Pour in cream and half-and-half and bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook briefly, until mixture is lightly thickened. Remove from heat and immediately stir in cheese. When cheese is melted, stir in spinach and green chile. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon into prepared dish.

Scatter french-fried onions over spinach mixture. Bake about 30 minutes, until bubbly and heated through. Serve warm.

Meringue-Topped Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Tequila

A puffy cloud of meringue replaces marshmallows on this side dish.
Yield Serves 8

Ingredients

3 pounds whole unpeeled sweet potatoes
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3–4 tablespoons silver or gold tequila
2–4 tablespoons packed brown sugar
3 large egg yolks


Meringue Topping
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/8  teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Directions

A puffy cloud of meringue replaces marshmallows on this side dish, dressing up the presentation while keeping the whimsy. Applesauce sweetens it, and a good splash of tequila adds a subtle but welcome surprise. (The tequila’s alcohol evaporates during the sweet potatoes’ cooking, but if desired, you can substitute a couple of tablespoons of milk or cream for moistness.)

 

Preheat oven to 400º F. Pierce sweet potatoes in several places with fork tines, then bake whole directly on oven rack 50 to 60 minutes, until very tender. Reduce oven temperature to 350° F.
Butter large shallow baking dish.
When cool enough to handle, scoop sweet potatoes from skins and mash with potato masher, or rice them with ricer, into large bowl. Mix in applesauce and butter. When well combined, add salt, cinnamon, and tequila and brown sugar to taste. Stir in egg yolks until they disappear into mixture. Spoon into prepared dish.
Just before baking, make meringue. Beat egg whites with electric mixer on high speed. When egg whites are foamy, sprinkle in cream of tartar, then gradually add granulated sugar. Continue beating several minutes, until egg whites are glossy and hold soft peaks. Spoon meringue over sweet potatoes, covering whole surface if you wish, or simply mound it in several poufs. Bake about 30 minutes, until meringue is lightly browned, and sweet potatoes are heated through and bubbling.

Baked Cranberry– Red Chile Sauce

Make the sauce a day or two ahead to preserve oven space.
Yield Makes about 2½ cups: enough for 8 modest portions

Ingredients

12-ounce bag cranberries, fresh or frozen
¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons mild-flavored honey, such as
wildflower or orange-blossom
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon ground dried red chile
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as
Grand Marnier or Triple Sec (optional)

Directions

Many folks boil cranberries for sauce. I, however, like the deeper flavor that comes from this easy oven-baked method. Make the sauce a day or two ahead to preserve oven space. If your family really likes cranberries, make a double batch. The sauce adds the perfect tangy-sweet note to turkey sandwiches.

Combine cranberries, sugar, honey, and water in small baking dish and cover. Bake 50 minutes. Uncover, stir to melt undissolved sugar, and return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes more. Cranberries are ready when soft, with a syrupy sauce. Remove from oven and immediately stir in orange liqueur. Let sauce cool to room temperature, then chill for at least an hour. If sauce thickens too much to spoon easily, stir in a bit of water before serving.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

All creamy- dreamy confection, this cool cheesecake tastes lighter than you might expect.
Yield Serves 12

Ingredients

Crust
6 whole graham crackers
½ cup pecan pieces
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Filling
1½ pounds cream cheese (softened)
1½ cups granulated sugar
1 15-ounce can pumpkin purée (or 2 cups
homemade pumpkin purée—see sidebar)
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
5 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup heavy cream

Directions

Pumpkin wraps up our menu, but in a different form than the proverbial pie. All creamy- dreamy confection, this cool cheesecake tastes lighter than you might expect. The cheesecake cooks in a bain-marie, or water bath, a fancy name for a pan of hot water that helps keep the temperature and humidity of the oven very consistent around the baking dessert. Later, the water helps the cheesecake cool gradually, reducing the chances that it will crack.

For the crust
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position. Preheat oven to 325° F.
Combine graham crackers, pecans, and sugar in food processor, pulsing until just ground together evenly. Don’t overprocess, or pecans will become too oily. Toss mixture with melted butter.
Press crust with fingers into 9-inch springform pan, pushing about 1 inch
of crust up pan sides. Use small spoon to help smooth and even it out.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes, until browned and fragrant. Cool on wire rack while making filling.


For the filling
Using stand mixer fitted with flat paddle beater, beat cream cheese and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy; about 1 full minute. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add pumpkin, vanilla extract, lemon juice, and spices. Beat until well combined; about 1 minute more on medium speed. Scrape down sides of bowl, then mix in 3 eggs on medium-low speed. Scrape down sides once more and beat in 2 remaining eggs and cream on medium-low speed.

Putting the cheesecake together
Place cooled springform pan on piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil large enough to come up outer sides of pan. Press foil so that it adheres to pan. Pour filling over crust and smooth surface. Place foil-wrapped springform pan in roasting pan.
Heat about 1 quart water just to a boil. Place roasting pan in oven. Carefully pour heated water into roasting pan.
Bake 80 to 90 minutes, until cheesecake is just barely set at center. An instant-read thermometer inserted into cake should read about 150° F.
Keeping springform pan in roasting pan with water bath, transfer to baking rack to cool. After 10 minutes, run paring knife around inside of springform pan. Let cool 1 hour. Remove springform pan from water bath and discard foil. Set pan with cheesecake on wire rack. Cool completely—at least 1 hour more. Cover top of cheesecake pan with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to overnight.

To serve
Run paring knife around inside of springform pan again. Remove sides of pan. Place cheesecake on decorative platter or pedestal. Slice with knife dipped in glass of hot water between cuts, then wipe off with paper towel.