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This month turkey is in the spotlight on American tables as the star of the Thanksgiving menu.
Highlighting turkey is a healthful custom, according to Steven Pratt, author of Superfoods Healthstyle, who recommends enjoying turkey three or four times a week. "Skinless turkey breast is rich in heart-healthy nutrients," he writes, and notes that turkey is high in the beneficial substances common to meats but is valuable for "what it doesn't have: lots of saturated fat."
Among the majority of American cooks, who roast the bird whole, a major concern is how to serve the meat hot, thoroughly cooked and not dry. Some are so anxious about dry meat they have adopted a Louisiana specialty - deep-fried turkey. It has become so popular that big pots for frying the whole birds are now prominent at housewares stores.
I am not recommending this potentially dangerous cooking technique. My choice is braising or stewing turkey. Although you don't have the drama of bringing a whole browned, roasted bird to the table, the trade-off is in the ease of preparation. Besides, the meat often is more delicious when braised, as the liquid keeps it moist.
With moist-heat techniques, you can cook the bird a day or two ahead; braised or stewed turkey, unlike roasted or fried turkey or sauteed schnitzel, reheats beautifully. Getting the turkey to the table nice and hot is not a problem; if you've braised a big piece, you can slice it and reheat it gently in the sauce. That saves you the trouble of carving the turkey at the table.
European cooks have developed simple, savory recipes for braising turkey. "Turkey has been so popular in Rome for so long that most Romans don't realize the bird is native to Central and North America, brought to Europe in the 1500s," wrote David Downie, author of Cooking the Roman Way. In Rome turkey is often braised on the stove top with plenty of wild herbs. Downie seasons turkey thighs by inserting chopped rosemary and garlic in incisions in the meat, then braises them with white wine, thyme and chicken broth and comments, "The longer and slower it cooks, the better it is."
Ada Boni, author of Il Talismano della Felicita (in Italian), originally published in 1929, wrote that at home turkey parts are cooked more often than whole birds. For her turkey stew with mushrooms, she cooks turkey pieces and dried mushrooms with a "pesto" of carrots ground with onions, celery, parsley and cured meat, moistens the dish with dry white wine and finishes it with tomato paste.
Naturally, wine is a popular braising liquid in neighboring France too. In her book on French country cooking, Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare, my friend and former colleague from La Varenne in Paris, Jane Sigal, recommends an easy-to-prepare entree of turkey drumsticks in red wine. To make it you brown the turkey and simmer it with Burgundy wine, onion, carrot and a bouquet of bay leaf, thyme and parsley stems. The wine turns into an aromatic, rich-flavored sauce.
Some cooks choose chicken stock as the braising liquid, especially for cooking white-meat turkey. To make turkey breast with apples, Darra Goldstein, author of A La Russe, braises boneless turkey in chicken stock with aromatic vegetables, thickens the broth with flour, then bakes the sliced turkey in its sauce along with sauteed apples. Yolanda Nagy Fintor, author of Hungarian Cookbook, makes turkey paprika by cooking turkey legs in chicken broth with garlic, paprika, sauteed onions and mushrooms. Bucharest-style turkey, in Lesley Chamberlain's The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe, is also seasoned with garlic and paprika, and simmers with white wine, leeks, green peppers, eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes. This kind of turkey, stewed with plenty of vegetables, is the kind I favor too, as in the French recipe below.
LANGUEDOC TURKEY STEW WITH RICE AND VEGETABLES
You can braise large or small cuts of turkey, light or dark meat; just cook the meat until it is very tender when tested with the point of a knife. For this colorful, cognac-accented entree from Languedoc in southern France, a region known for its good quality poultry, I use turkey wings or drumsticks. I prefer meat on the bone, because it produces a delicious sauce. Turkey breast will probably need less time, depending on the thickness of the piece.
2.5 kg. small turkey wings or 3 to 6 turkey drumsticks, patted dry
4 to 6 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
350 grams carrots, diced
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
800-gram can tomatoes, drained, chopped
1 /4 cup cognac or brandy
5 cups water
2 bay leaves
teaspoon dried leaf thyme, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
225 grams green beans, broken in 2.5-cm. pieces
1 cups frozen peas
1 cups long-grain rice
Cut each wing in two pieces at joints, or in three pieces if wing tips are attached. In a large heavy stew pan heat 2 or 3 tablespoons oil. Add turkey pieces in batches and brown them over medium-high heat; transfer them to a plate.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat it. Add onions and carrots and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until onions soften. Stir in garlic, then tomatoes and cook one minute. Return wings to pan, add brandy and bring to a boil. Add water, bay leaves, thyme, salt and pepper and return to a boil. Cover and simmer, turning turkey pieces over once or twice, for two hours or until tender.
Discard bay leaves and wing tips. Leave large (arm) wing sections in cooking liquid. Remove smaller sections, take meat off bones and cut it in thin strips; reserve. Measure 3 cups of cooking liquid through a strainer and reserve for cooking rice; return vegetables in strainer to pan. Simmer turkey and vegetable mixture uncovered for 10 minutes. Add green beans, push them into liquid and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Add peas and simmer for five minutes or until vegetables are tender.
In a heavy saucepan saute rice in 1 or 2 tablespoons oil over low heat, stirring, until rice is transparent. Add measured liquid and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 18 minutes or until rice is tender. Off heat, stir in turkey strips and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve rice from one serving dish, and turkey wing pieces and vegetables from another. Serve sauce separately.
Makes 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author ofFaye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook.
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