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A 21st-Century Take on Turkey

Published in Gourmet Live 11.16.11
Kemp Minifie carves up the clichés to serve this year’s bird four revelatory ways

At long last, I declare mutiny on the centerpiece of the bounteous Thanksgiving meal! I’m talking turkey about the whole roast turkey, stuck in its Norman Rockwell idealism, proudly planted on the platter in all its burnished glory amid a tableful of admirers. Decade after decade, come November, this image is reinforced on the covers of practically every food and women’s magazine.

Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and we’re still trying to get to turkey perfection by roasting it whole? I don’t care what other food professionals say: Turkeys, unlike chickens, are just too big to benefit from the dry heat of an oven. If you love your white meat moist, then your dark meat is going to be a little pink and wobbly; if you love your dark meat rich and tender, the breast will be overcooked and dry. Either way, the irresistibly crispy, golden-brown skin will lose its crackle within minutes of exiting the oven as it’s softened by the moist heat radiating from the bird.

And how long does the turkey stay whole, anyway? Just long enough to get the oohs and aahs and make the gravy. After that, it’s reduced to slices of meat.

I say we upend our rigid traditional approach and take a tip from restaurant chefs who’ve figured out the best way to serve turkey dinners to hundreds of customers in one day: Roast the bird in parts, so that each is done to perfection.

Most chefs butcher their own turkeys, cutting the drumsticks and thighs free from the breast, but no way am I suggesting home cooks attempt to disjoint the bird themselves. If you have a butcher, ask for a 14- or 15-pound turkey to be cut into pieces: one whole breast, two drumsticks, and two thighs for serving, saving the wings, the back (cut in half), and the giblets (minus the liver) for stock. But it’s even easier to purchase the turkey in parts, which are available year-round.

Once I decided on a deconstructed bird for this year, here’s how I went about highlighting the components: Instead of simply roasting the different cuts in the oven, varying the cooking times to suit each type of meat, I focused on the qualities I love in each. I then set out to show off those attributes to their fullest in separate recipes for the four parts. Read on to sample my sensational recipe for drumsticks, which transforms them into crowd-pleasing sliders. And to see the full set of my turkey recipes, download the Gourmet Live app, where you can earn “A Revolutionary 21st-Century Thanksgiving”—our complete holiday recipe collection—as a Reward for reading this story.

Because the majority of Americans prefer the breast to the dark meat of the thighs and drumsticks, I kept the breast preparation simple. Roasted on its own, with a simple sweet-and-sour glaze made from agave nectar and sherry vinegar, it’s so moist and tender you don’t need the gravy to lubricate it, but you’ll want the luscious sauce anyway, because it mingles well with all the elements on the plate.

When it came to the thighs, grilling them seemed like a great idea waiting to happen, since so many people use their grills at Thanksgiving. There’s only one small bone for you to remove, then the thigh meat turns into turkey steaks that—when slathered with a mashed garlic and chili powder paste—are a perfect match for the smoke and mild char of the grill. If you can’t use your grill, you can always broil them.

Because there’s a fair amount of fat in the thigh skin, there’s a good chance of flare-ups, so I pull the skin off first and save it, along with the skin from the drumsticks, to make a separate batch of turkey cracklings. If this sounds mysterious to you, trust me—cracklings are a serious challenger to the everything’s-better-with-bacon notion. I pair them with a shredded kale salad that gives new meaning to the word superfood.

Next up, drumsticks: Ordinarily, they’re a pain to carve because of all the tendons running up and down the leg. But slowly braise them in a barbecue sauce tinged with as much of the chipotle chile’s smoky heat as you wish, and the meat falls away from the bones, all set to be turned into Chipotle Barbecue Pulled Turkey Drumstick Sliders with Brussels Sprout Slaw.

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