Well-seasoned gobblers

Wrestling with 25lbs of cumbersome bird on Christmas morning needn't bring you out in a cold sweat, says Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
Dictionary definitions. Cold turkey - a state of anxiety, apprehension, and often panic, can be caused by withdrawal symptoms.

Hot turkey - a state of extreme anxiety, trembling apprehension and utter panic, familiar to home cooks, brought on by the thought of having to cook one for Christmas.

Short of booking the family on a plane to the Indian Ocean, there's no way most of us are going to escape this annual test of kitchen nerve.

It's going to be some big bird, turkey or goose, unless you decide to tackle suckling pig, which Rosie Grey and Ruth Rogers offer for an alternative Christmas dinner on BBC2 next week. In any case, these are all likely to be beasts which make the acquaintance of your kitchen but once a year.

So many decisions. The one of size; how big a turkey to buy in order to serve the required number of guests without either (a) starving half of them or (b) living on turkey salad, turkey sandwiches, turkey curry and turkey croquettes well into the New Year.

Then, choice of turkey. Frozen? (No, no, no). Intensively farmed, free- range, organic? White, black or bronze?

And what about pre-preparation? Are you going to buy a DIY bird or the supermarket state-of-the-art bird, ready-to-cook, larded, barded and stuffed, self-basting. And then there are arcane tips to consider. The restaurateur and television cook John Tovey says, roll up the bird in a sheet of muslin which you have first dredged in a pound of melted butter. I bet he's right.

And then, how long do you cook your bird? There are at least two schools of thought. Quick or slow. That's to say, very hot or very cool. Cool was not the word to describe disappointed readers who'd followed a certain cookery guru's advice some Christmases ago, for a no-bovver bird. He had rather cleverly suggested putting the turkey in a low oven before going to bed on Christmas Eve, on Gas Mark 12 . On returning from the pub (no, it wasn't Keith Floyd) at 2pm on Christmas Day, it would be found to be succulent and tender. Or, in most cases, not. Most have faulty ovens, grumbled the guru.

And then, when your goose is well and truly cooked (or turkey, suckling pig, whatever), it remains only to carve it. Only? Make life simple for yourself, Prue Leith once advised me, bone the turkey the night before, stuff it with a cooked ham and, on the day, roast in the usual way. Carving will be a doddle.

She advised boning up your boning technique by practising on a smaller bird first. A chicken. A quail. But she candidly admits she taught her brother how to do it. Every Christmas Eve he is the one who wrestles with the huge bird. I did take up the challenge and I don't deny that carving on the day was the greatest of Christmas pleasures. As a method it's highly recommended. Unfortunately, I don't have a brother, and turkeys have been left unboned in subsequent years.

Seasonal advice on choosing a turkey (box) is provided by David Lidgate, founder of the Q Guild of Butchers. But the Christmas Day recipe I've chosen is one that saves you from agonising over such decisions. It's by the television cook Gary Rhodes. He has been doing a great service to traditional British cooking, adding artful chef's touches to improve regional dishes which have been dying on their feet for want of skillful practitioners.

And what could be more user-friendly than his ingenious, no-waste Christmas turkey recipe below? It's easy now to buy the breast on its own, one weighing around 2kg/4lb will serve four to six, and you only have to double up for a larger group.

There being such a surplus of turkey meat around at Christmas, there is an alternative, mole poblano, the Mexican national dish. The wild turkey originated in the Americas, and it was Columbus who introduced it to Spain where it was bred into a farmyard bird. The first sent to English ports accompanied provisions of dried fruit from Turkey, so they were dubbed turkey birds. In France, contrarily, they were thought to come from India (d'Inde) hence their name in French, dinde.

Recipes for Mole Poblano aren't often offered to the British public. For one thing, the sauce contains chocolate, which strikes us as odd. But we're used to a sickly, sugary, milky product, and their's is unsweetened, fruity and bittersweet. You can equally use a bitter chocolate, with so- called cocoa solids of 60 per cent or more. The percentage is marked on each bar.

Another barrier to making a Mole Poblano is the mythology that attaches to it. A Mexican visiting a friend of mine in London made a delicious one for me, with chicken rather than turkey, and revealed the secret of his success had been the spicing.

He produced a plastic bag which might have been the contents of a vacuum sack. His grandmother had sent him to England with a blend of no fewer than 60 mole spices, herbs and flavourings. There were about a dozen kinds of dried chilli to start with, mulatos, anchas, pasillas, many common herbs such as rosemary and thyme, familiar spices such as ginger, allspice, coriander, cumin, and others unfamiliar such as sassafras.

Just to use all these spices would miss the point, my new friend Hernandez explained: they had to be mixed in the proportions ordained in the family recipe, passed down the generations.

In the face of such resistance, one might leave it at that, had it not been for the publication recently of a striking tragi-comic romantic novel called Like Water for Hot Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, an exquisitely beautiful, best-selling Mexican book.

The book progresses via a series of a dozen recipes woven into the text. Here, Tita is preparing mole poblano...

"The almonds and sesame seeds are toasted in a griddle. The chilli anchos, with their membranes removed, are also toasted - lightly, so they don't get bitter. This must be done in a separate frying pan, since a little lard is used. Afterwards, the toasted chillies are ground on a stone along with the almonds and sesame seeds.

"Tita, on her knees, was bent over the grinding stone moving in a slow, regular rhythm. Under her blouse her breasts moved freely, since she never wore a brassiere. Drops of sweat formed on her neck.

"Pedro couldn't resist the smells from the kitchen and was heading towards them. But he stopped stock-still in the doorway, transfixed by the sight of Tita in that erotic posture. Tita looked up without stopping her grinding and her eyes met Pedro's. At once, their passionate glances fused so perfectly..."

TALKING TURKEY

BUTCHER DAVID LIDGATE'S GUIDE TO CHRISTMAS TURKEY

Frozen: Even when fully thawed (allow 24 hours at room temperature) the meat lacks flavour.

Free-range: The most flavour, due to exercise developing the muscles.

Organic: Good flavour, because birds are likely to have the best feeds.

White turkeys: An organic, free-range bird is fine.

Bronze (Cambridge Bronze) turkeys: Maximum flavour.

Black (Norfolk Black) turkeys: The original colour of the wild turkey. Not much meat but good flavour.

Cooking times: Many home cooks overcook their birds, says David Lidgate. As a guide: 5lb birds require 112 hrs; 10lbs - 2 hrs; 15lbs - 234 hrs; 20lbs - 312 hrs; 25lbs - 412 hrs.

Roasting: Start roasting turkey at 400F/200C for 30 minutes then turn down to 350F/177C. Baste occasionally. Turn over for last half hour to brown the breast. The turkey is ready when the juices run clear.

GARY RHODES' ROAST TURKEY BREAST WITH LEMON AND HERB STUFFING

Serves 4

1 x 1.75kg/4lb turkey breast

6-8 large carrots, halved lengthways

300ml/10fl oz chicken stock

2-3 tablespoons veal or beef jus

For the stuffing:

112 tablespoons cooking oil

4 large onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed (optional)

grated zest of 3 lemons

1 heaped teaspoon chopped fresh sage

12 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

12 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

450g/1lb fresh white breadcrumbs

salt and freshly ground pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

juice of 1-112 lemons

1-2 eggs, beaten

knob of unsalted butter

To make the stuffing: warm half the cooking oil in a pan and add the finely chopped onions with the crushed garlic, if using. Soften the onions over a medium heat. Add the lemon zest and chopped fresh herbs and continue to cook for six to eight minutes until the onions are tender. Leave to cool. Add the breadcrumbs and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Then mix in the juice of a lemon. Taste the stuffing, it should be rich in flavour with a bite from the lemon. If you feel it needs a little more bite, then add the juice of the remaining half lemon. Now add enough egg to ensure that the stuffing holds together once cooked.

It's best to stuff the turkey a few hours before cooking, even the night before. Place the turkey breast on the work surface and make an incision for the stuffing at the thick end of the breast. The turkey can now be filled with the stuffing. To hold the stuffing in the cut end during cooking, several methods can be used.

1 Simply hold together with three or four cocktail sticks.

1 Brush egg white on the turkey and press together. This will seal once hot.

1 The turkey can be sealed by sewing together with cook's string.

1 The turkey can also be wrapped in buttered foil. This will hold in the stuffing and prevent the meat becoming dry.

Leftover stuffing can be placed in an ovenproof dish and cooked separately.

To cook the turkey: Pre-heat oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. First colour the turkey in a roasting pan with the remaining oil and knob of butter until golden. This will work even if the meat is wrapped in foil. Once coloured, I like to place the carrots in the pan and sit the turkey on top. This will prevent the meat from colouring too much on its base and becoming dry and leathery. Cover the turkey with some butter papers and place in the pre-heated oven. The turkey will take approximately 114-112 hours. This will roast the bird and also cook and set the stuffing. During the cooking process, baste the breast every 10 minutes.

Once cooked, remove from the oven and allow to relax for 15 to 20 minutes before carving. The carrots will also be roasted and full of turkey taste. These, of course, can be served as a vegetable.

The juices left in the pan can be used as a gravy. Warm the pan on top of the stove and add the chicken stock. Bring to boiling point. This can now be poured through a sieve and used as a cooking liquor or boiled to reduce by half, and some jus or alternative added to give a sauce consistency. Then just slice the turkey and serve.

Recipe from Open Rhodes Around Britain by Gary Rhodes (BBC pounds 16.99)

MOLE POBLANO

It's getting comparatively easy now to buy the fruity, hot dried chillies of Mexico (wholefood stores usually have them). Ideally, they need to be slightly toasted in a dry pan to develop their flavour, and then soaked in boiling water for about an hour before use.

Without using the (dreaded word) leftovers, you can actually utilise any chunks of cooked turkey (or chicken) for this dish. The sauce, nutty, fruity, hot and sweet, needs to simmer for an hour (mind it doesn't burn). It should be a beautiful, red-brick brown colour, like a thin satay sauce in texture, but with the kick of a mule. Double up the amounts of chilli if you dare. Then, preferably in the oven, bring meat and sauce together, and cook through for up to an hour (covered with a lid or foil). Here's a simplified version.

MOLE POBLANO Serves four

4 turkey portions

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

salt and black pepper

sunflower oil for frying

Base of sauce:

12 onion, chopped,

3 peeled cloves of garlic, cooked with onion

1 stick of cinnamon or 2 teaspoons cinnamon powder

For the sauce:

1 pint chicken stock

2 tomatoes from a can, or 1 tablespoon tomato puree

25g/1oz bitter chocolate

Mexican dried chillies; mulatos, anchas, pasillas (at least 1 of each), or 2 teaspoons chilli powder

slice of bread, fried, or crumbled dry tortilla

1 teaspoon sugar

12 teaspoon salt

Thickeners:

25g/1oz skinned almonds, toasted and chopped

25g/1oz skinned peanuts, toasted and chopped

Garnish:

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted

optional additional extras; 12 teaspoon each of freshly toasted and ground aniseed, cumin, coriander, 25g/1oz raisins

Marinate turkey pieces in vinegar, with salt and pepper in a bowl for one hour. Wipe dry and fry in a little sunflower oil till golden brown on all sides. Set aside.

Pound the onion and garlic and cinnamon (or put in a blender) and using a tablespoon of oil fry the puree gently for five minutes. Stir to avoid burning.

Mix, together with the sauce ingredients, in a blender, return to pan and simmer slowly for half an hour before adding the nuts. Cook gently for another half hour. Stir to avoid burning.

In a medium oven 350F/180C/Gas 4, combine sauce and turkey in a casserole and cook, covered, for one to one and a half hours, till turkey is tender. (If you're using pre-cooked meat half an hour will suffice). Taste for doneness. (If you have too much sauce, use for other dishes.) Serve on or off the bone, in its sauce, and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and additional extras, if desired. Traditionally eaten with rice, beans and corn tortillas.

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