I remember my first, humble offering of a homemade dish, to my then-fiancé. Almost ten years ago. It was a pasta dish, store-bought penne, with a homemade sauce and a sprinkle of mozzarella. I was so proud of myself for making the effort. I thought it was perfection: pasta cooked al dente, swimming in a garlicky, tomatoey brew, islands of caramelized cheese on top. Finally, I mused. Finally, I have proven myself worthy of my own kitchen. Its gleaming appliances will not mock me now!
“Needs more cheese,” he said.
Ah, well. Such is life. We have such high expectations for things, unreasonably high in some cases. I had high expectations for myself as I began my foray into cooking; I have a Stanford-Binet validated IQ of 153 – surely, cooking cannot be difficult. My kitchen begged to differ – ill-equipped, ill-provisioned, a veritable cornucopia of fail. All the pretty recipes and all the smarts in the world were not going to help me prepare a single mouthful of enjoyable food without some basic tools and skills.
The turning point was receiving two cookbooks for Christmas, the year after the Bowl of Pasta Fail – I’m Just Here for the Food and I’m Just Here for More Food by Alton Brown. I had become a fan of Good Eats, deeply appreciative of his focus on cooking techniques and the science of food. Knowing *why* I was doing certain things at certain points of the cooking process was far more valuable than simply being told to do them in a recipe.
When I started baking bread, I had to re-orient my thinking from time as a basis of measure to feel and look. A basic bread dough isn’t fully developed until you can windowpane the dough – work to stretch a walnut-sized ball with your fingers, until it is thin enough to let light through. It doesn’t matter if you knead by hand or machine or time, if it doesn’t windowpane, it isn’t ready for shaping. I don’t pay attention to recipes anymore, not like I used to. If I bake (non-bread), I think of ratios – I look at the ratio of sugar to flour, of liquid to dry good, of leaven to flour; my oven dictates the baking environment and time, without regard to what the recipe creator’s oven did. If I cook, I think of techniques – what is my mise en place, what protein am I dealing with (if any) and how is it being treated.
I continued to fail along the way. I was 36 before I produced my first edible pancake, 38 before the first croissant emerged from my oven without emerging from a cardboard tube first. I sometimes followed recipes without thinking, not realizing until I put the first bite in my mouth that the recipe was off in seasoning. Sometimes, I let a recipe tell me when my food was done rather than my senses.
Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. Dinner isn’t ruined because it needs a little salt. A steak isn’t ruined, if I cut into it and find it needs another minute or two in the oven to finish to my desired doneness. A cake is still edible if it’s a bit brown and a bit lopsided.
Twice a year, it matters – Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those are the two times per year that I cook with the intent to eat leftovers for a few days hence, that I will cheerfully spend 11 hours in the kitchen for a meal that will take no longer than an hour to eat. I don’t want to have to place salt on the table to combat under-seasoned food. I don’t want to look at a lopsided, slightly-burnt dessert. I don’t want to eat a dinner roll that is a mini-paver or a bit underdone. I want every dish of food I place on the table to be the embodiment of my decade of learning, a showcase, a palace of gastronomical delight.
I cooked a lot of whole chicken this year in preparation for the turkey. I studied brining, played with roasting techniques, stuffed and rubbed and patted my birds with all variety of fats and herbs and spices. In all my play, I found that the simpler I kept things, the better the result. So, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I embarked on producing the best roasted turkey, ever. (Yes, it’s hyperbole; someone will come along and quibble, and debate will rage. That’s okay – we will hone perfection from this fierce stew of disagreement.)
The Brine. For 2 gallons of brine, I stirred 1 cup kosher salt, 2 cups table salt and 1 cup granulated sugar into room-temperature water until dissolved. That’s it. No citrus, no herbs, no heating or cooling brining liquid.
The Turkey. 12.5 pounds of fresh bird. I prefer fresh to frozen; I don’t want to deal with days of thawing meat in my fridge, and I was okay with paying $1.39 per pound to not deal with thawing. I figure, that’s the cost of two or three whole chickens (two if organic, three if not), I’ll get three days of meals from the bird, it’s worth the investment.
The Preparation. The bird went into the brine breast-down for 14 hours, then spent 5 hours in the fridge on a drying rack breast-up and another hour on the counter coming to room temp before roasting. I laid out a bed of fresh rosemary from the garden in the roasting pan, topped it with the bird, then stuffed the bird with a quartered yellow onion and a handful of fresh sage leaves (also from the garden). I seasoned the top of the bird with salt and pepper.
The Baste. Every 30 minutes with melted unsalted butter.
The Roast. Since my diva oven likes to scorch the ever loving fuck out of food, I used lower temperatures than is typically given for high-heat/low-heat roasting. I gave the bird 30 minutes at 400 degrees, 2 hours at 300 degrees, and another 30 minutes at 200 degrees. At that point, it was 4pm and I hadn’t planned to serve dinner until 5pm. I feared my turkey was going to turn into turkey jerky if I let it wait in the oven for my other food to be done on time, so the bird came out to rest and I sped up my schedule for finishing the remaining dishes.
Tasting Notes. Beautifully seasoned, moist without being mushy. Hints of sage and rosemary that provided depth to the flavor but not overpowering. The skin was crispy, buttery and evenly browned. Despite the brining, I was able to take a few teaspoons of rosemary and sage-infused drippings for gravy – the roux was 1 part drippings, 2 parts unsalted butter, 2 parts flour.
That turkey was simply a masterpiece. I will dream of that bird as I prepare its smaller cousins the rest of the year, seeking to regain that slice of paradise.