brainfood: Fowl play

Turkey, if I may be forgiven for stating the obvious, is like chicken. But there are turkeys and turkeys, as there are chickens and chickens
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The Independent Culture
It is mildly unfair of my colleague Simon Hopkinson to describe turkey so disparagingly as a "boring bird". I write this as I face, on the morrow, the ordeal of the traditional American Thanksgiving, with its arch-traditional menu of bird, glutinous veggies, marshmallow and pumpkin. And once a year, on such a Thursday, I share some of Simon's views. Not because of the turkey. But because of the unimaginative thing it is to pop an indifferent bird into an oven and expect it to come out a treat.

Turkey, if I may be forgiven for stating the obvious, is like chicken. There are turkeys and turkeys, as there are chickens and chickens. And there are ways of dealing with them in the kitchen that are far more imaginative than traditon allows. But I think we should start by recognising that the domestic bird, in its several varieties, is not what our remoter ancestors ate. The first Spaniards who fell across the Mexican pavo thought it pretty terrific food compared to most fowl, including the guinea-hen. It was big; it was tasty; it was wild; it was plentiful. Of these adjectives, only the big remains, and that has to do with its domestication and marketing.

Certainly, when it reached France, who called it the Coq and Pule d'Inde (hence the modern French words, dindon and inde), it was treated with the greatest of culinary respect, precisely because it was tastier than other domesticated fowl. Describing this taste, and this distinction, is a risky business, but I would venture that the meat of the turkey, whether white or dark, is more sombre, more subtle, "lower" in register than the chicken. In other words, it still contains some vestige of its wilder past, like a memory of runnng about between forest and strand. It is also, relative to other domestic fowl, a mature beast, being rather better full-grown than young.

Generally speaking, most national cuisines differ from ours in the handling of the big bird: where we cook it whole, they break it down into its component parts: breast and legs. Even whole, however, it can be a treat, if dealt with honourably. This most definitely does not mean filling up its carcass with supermarket stuffing. A stuffing is meant to aromatise and moisten a roasting fowl; if it overwhelms, which sage and forcemeat do, it defeats its own purpose. Both mushrooms and chestnuts are plentiful in the late autumn, and I suggest stuffing with either.

Mushroom stuffing: prepare the bird's own liver and gizzard, plus a few chicken livers, cutting them into reasonable bits; fry 250g/8oz mushrooms in olive oil for about 20 minutes; add coarse breadcrumbs, lard, pepper, salt, a clove of garlic, choped parsley and two shallots, chopped; bind all the ingredients with two whole eggs and heat in ... well, goose fat if you have it, if not any fat of a fowl. Stuff very tightly.

Chestnut stuffing: take something over a pound of chestnuts, prick the husks, grill them in the oven or in the fireplace ashes; skin them and flatten with a fork (that way the taste exudes); add 250g/8oz coarse chopped pork, two shallots, herbs to taste, parsley and bind with two whole eggs. Stuff tightly.

In both recipes, remember to sew up the cavity!

A stuffed turkey must cook for 13-15 mins per pound, and must be frequently basted. Blast in a hot oven for 10-15 mins, then turn down to medium.

If you do not fancy a whole bird, both breast and legs make delicious dishes. As Marcella Hazan correctly notes, one of the glories of bolognese cooking is the local cotoletta di tacchino; unfortunately, as this requres white truffles, most of us will have to forego it. But the principle is the same, and the result still very good, without truffles. Slice the breast fairly fine (about 1cm/3/8"); dredge them lightly in flour; fry quickly in plentiful butter for about a minute a side; remove and add pepper.

Preheat the oven to hot.

Add a wine glass of dry white wine to the butter in the pan, loosening residues. Lay your fillets of breast in a single layer in a baking pan you have coated with the liquid from your frying pan. Sprinkle generously with freshly-grated Parmesan. Cover each breast with a slice of prosciutto; add a little more Parmesan and sprinkle with remaining butter from the pan. Cook in oven until cheese melts, which should be in a little over five minutes.

As leftover turkey is always a problem (and quickly dries with refrigeration), you might want to try this favourite family adaptation of a very traditional Italian dish, which we simply call Turkey with Spinach, though it is a distant cousin of Tetrazzini.

Slice your leftover turkey as whole as you can manage; separately reduce 2-4 pounds of spinach, and squeeze to remove most of the cooking juices; carefully butter a baking pan and lay down a thin layer of spinach, to which you add an equivalent layer of turkey; complete this first layer with freshly-grated Parmesan, a very moderate amount of mozzarella cut into little cubes, and a sprinkling of Romano cheese. Repeat layers until you have almost filled the pan; then pour over a bechamel or white sauce in quantity sufficient to reach the top layer. Sprinkle generously with more Parmesan and cook in a medium oven for about a half an hour. (Be careful if you add salt, as both spinach and Parmesan, not to speak of Romano, are inherently salty.)

Bland? Tasteless? I certainly don't think so. Age, our William wrote about Cleopatra, could not wither her, nor custom stale; adding that other women "cloy the appetites they feed". He wasn't writing a turkey, nor about a turkey. For here, it is dreary routine and ingrained custom that spoil most fowl