Turkey Lohr

seven-oaks-cab-sauvWhen planning a wine pairing for Thanksgiving Dinner, I’ve always heard of the ABC rule: anything but Cabernet Sauvignon. This year, I’m breaking the rule.

The issue is that turkey is not thought to contain enough fat or flavor to balance against the tannins of the Cab Sauv. By smoking the turkey on the Weber kettle grill, we ought to have the flavor part of the equation covered. I also plan to make gravy from the drippings, which should add some richness at table.

The wine will be a 2010 Seven Oaks from J. Lohr, splash decanted to soften the tannins a bit, a trick I learned to tame Malbec that grips so hard it pulls your tonsils out.

We’ll report back later in the week.

Turkey on the Rotisserie

turkey-on-rotisserie

In preparation for this year’s Thanksgiving Dinner, I roasted a whole turkey on the rotisserie over the weekend. In some ways, this is one of the most challenging things to cook, since it’s difficult to get the dark meat done enough without overcooking the breast.

Overall, it turned out just “alright.” Having done a marvelous job with a turkey breast awhile back, and a series of awesome whole chickens, I expected this to be over-the-top delicious. It certainly wasn’t bad, especially for a first attempt, but there are several things I would do differently next time.

1) Use a fresh turkey. The frozen turkey I cooked was “pre-basted.” This sounds like it would be a good thing, but it’s actually not. The addition of a brine solution prior to freezing actually changes the texture and taste of the bird in a way that is inferior to proper dry brining. For Thanksgiving, I’ll look for a locally raised fresh turkey.

2) Take more care with the seasoning and brining. Because the turkey was pre-basted, I didn’t want to overdo my own seasoning, particularly the salt. I limited my efforts to a little kosher salt, black pepper and herbs de provence rubbed on the skin a couple hours prior to roasting. I also didn’t stuff the cavity, thinking that this was a “dry run” anyway, and the additional aromatics wouldn’t add much. Next time, I’ll take care to properly dry brine a fresh turkey the day before, and to add plenty of citrus, onions, garlic, etc. to the cavity before cooking. My wife usually works some olive oil under the skin just prior to putting the bird in the oven as well. Although the rotisserie helps to keep food moist through self-basting, we may try her trick as well.

3) Choose your smoke wisely. I’ve been on a Cherry wood kick lately, loving the subtly sweet flavor it added to pork ribs and beef roast. In the case of turkey, I think a bolder smoke flavor would have been nice. I’ll likely use Apple, Hickory, or a mixture of the two next time.

4) I need an ice pack. One of the tricks Mike Vrobel suggests when roasting turkey on the rotisserie is to put an ice pack on the breast while it comes to room temperature before going on the grill. This has the effect of increasing the cooking time for the white meat, and allowing the legs and thighs to get up to well done without overcooking the breast. It’s listed as an “optional” step in his instructions, but I’ll definitely use it next time. The breast turned out alright, but the dark meat could have cooked just a bit longer to achieve “fall off the bone” tenderness.

A friend of mine sensed my disappointment in describing the meal as “alright” and commented that every meal doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. I suppose that’s right, although as much time and effort as goes into this particular dish, I’ll want to get it perfect next time. I think the adjustments mentioned above will make it worthy of our Thanksgiving table.

Let’s Talk Turkey

For Christmas of 2012, my wife gave me a rotisserie attachment for my Weber Kettle Grill. I’d wanted one for a long time, though the $150 price tag seemed a little too extravagant. The notion of roasting food on a spit, like the honeymoon scene in It’s A Wonderful Life, has always seemed romantic to me, and once the rotisserie arrived I could hardly wait to fire up the coals and roast something amazing with it. There was one problem. I had absolutely no idea how to cook with it.

I mean, of course I knew that the spit goes through what you’re cooking and you turn the motor on and it spins – but I didn’t know anything else about the process or preparing food for the rotisserie, how to set up the grill, how long to cook things, etc.

Luckily, in addition to a book on rotisserie cooking that was also under our tree for me, I did a little online search and found Mike Vrobel’s book Rotisserie Grilling and his site, Dad Cooks Dinner. I’ve come to think of Mike as the authoritative source on the subject, and his are among the first resources I turn to when I am researching something I haven’t cooked before. His dry-brined rotisserie chicken was the very first thing I cooked on my kettle rotisserie, and it’s still one of my favorite dishes.

One of the next things I tried was a turkey breast, and it was so delicious that my wife decided I should be responsible for our Thanksgiving turkey this year. Since a whole turkey involves a lot of special setup and variables, we figured it would require a test run, so that’s what I’m doing this coming Sunday.

Vrobel’s step-by-step advice on the matter will obviously be the game plan for the day, beginning with his demonstration of how to truss and spit the bird. Since I’ve had good luck with chickens and with the turkey breast, I’m expecting the whole turkey to be wonderful, but there is one further thing I have to learn between now and Sunday – how to carve.

I know. One might expect that at 56 years of age a guy would know how to carve a turkey, but through the years we always seemed to travel to someone else’s home for Thanksgiving dinner, and over the last decade or so, my wife’s father was always with us to carve. Honestly, I’ve been a bit timid in the face of the pressure. So I never learned. In fact, even for more pedestrian fare, I tend to shove off the carving duties onto my wife. Lack of confidence is an awful thing.

Finally I am determined to do it despite my insecurities, and (thankfully) I ran across this video from the New York Times a few years ago, and happened to have logged the URL. They make it look simple.

Wish me luck!

My Plan For Ribs

Many, many years ago, I used to cook on a water smoker. It was a Brinkman Sportsman model, if memory serves. In addition to smoked salmon (caught on fishing trips to Lake Michigan), I liked to smoke a ham and a turkey on it for New Year’s Eve. The ham would go on the top rack, and its drippings would baste the turkey on the lower rack.

Since my wife is not a huge fan of smoked foods (nor of the smell of the smoking process) I haven’t replaced the smoker, which I abandoned in a move for various reasons more than a decade ago. Although either a Komado style ceramic smoker or a Weber Smokey Mountain is on my short list for future barbecue equipment purchases, since I decided to smoke some St. Louis Rib racks this weekend, I’ll have to cook them on my trusty Weber Kettle.

Here are the challenges.

1) I have no experience with the cut of meat. Other than the advice people give to cook them “low and slow” there are a lot of other parts of the process that seem shrouded in mystery, including “secret rub” recipes, methods with names like “minion” and “3/2/1” – and almost too many recipes and techniques out there to fathom. Should I slather the ribs with mustard before putting on the rub? Should I mop them, or not? Researching and sorting through the volumes of information on how to cook “championship” ribs has occupied most of my non-work waking hours for nearly two weeks.

2) By far, it looks like the biggest challenge will be that of controlling the heat on my Kettle to keep it in the 225 to 250 degree range, which most folks seem to agree is essential to cooking tender, mouth watering ribs. A water smoker would make this easier, but I’ll have to make do.

Here’s the plan.

1) I settled on a rub recipe based on dozens or so that I found in research. It includes paprika, black pepper, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, nutmeg, turbinado sugar and a little cayenne. I’ll salt the ribs and let them rest awhile before rubbing. I also may put some brown mustard on them to add flavor and help to adhere the rub.

2) I’ll spray the racks every hour or thereabouts with a combination of port wine and apple cider vinegar.

3) The grill setup will be a pile of charcoal on each side, with a drip pan full of water in the middle. I’ll start with four lit coals on each side, and let them ignite the others throughout the five or six hour cook time. This is the “minion” method mentioned above. I’ll also have to close the vents on the bottom of the kettle most of the way in order to slow the flow of oxygen to the fuel and keep the temperature low. Cherry wood chunks will provide the smoke, and I have a simple (analog) thermometer that I can place in a vent hole on the top of the kettle to monitor the temp. I figured that using the old style thermometer would help keep me from constantly fidgeting and tweaking over two-tenths of a degree here or there.

4) After three hours of cooking, I’ll get the ribs into some foil with a little dribble of the mop sauce and let them mostly finish cooking that way. I’ll take them back out and sauce them (with Sweet Baby Ray’s, of course) for the last 30 minutes or hour of cooking. Our friend, Ken, who turns out the tastiest rib tips I’ve ever eaten, says that I should put some chopped onions in the coals toward the end to help flavor the meat as well.

If it all goes well, Sunday dinner this week ought to be grand. We’ll have baked beans, slaw, and roastin’ ears as sides, and I suspect that I’ll be consuming a bit of a certain beverage brewed with hops.

I’ll likely be posting pictures of the process over on Instagram and Flickr, and will definitely have a full update here after we see how they turn out.

Wish me luck!