10 November 2009

The bird has arrived

Yesterday was a big day for the turkey that will be the star of our Thanksgiving. Thanks to Nathan, we scored a locally raised bird from Zenger Farm, and since he was busy installing a floor on Monday, I picked up the bird.

Most of us don't think much about what a turkey really is when we're shopping for ours. They are hard and frosty and huge and have the word "Butterball" stamped on the label, right? Well it was hard for me not to think of the animal -- feathers, gobbler, feet and all. After all, I was instructed to come in the late afternoon because the birds were busy with the butcher all morning.

Our 6-pound Bourbon Red

That's why my breath was sort of taken away when I saw our bird, wrapped neatly in a clear plastic bag, pulled from the ice chest. It was beautiful. Pink, clean, skin flecked with large bumps from the quills. It just looked so different from the commercially-produced birds that I felt proud with it nestled in the seat next to me on the drive home. How great it was going to be to cook, I kept thinking.

Whether you were lucky enough to land your own locally-raised turkey or you'll be picking one up at the supermarket, it's time to shop. Here are some tips from Saveur magazine's November 2006 issue. And just thought I'd also mention that this is an example of why we keep our food magazines. Pull out yours from past years for holiday meal ideas. If you're like me, you'll have long forgotten what you read a couple of years ago!

A guide to buying turkey
  • CONVENTIONAL: This perennial favorite -- typically a Broad-Breasted White variety -- boasts an ultraplump breast that has usually (but not always) been injected with butter, water and salt; it will be labeled as "self-basted" if it contains these ingredients. Prices typically run $1 to $2 a pound; available at traditional grocery stores.
  • NATURAL: Sometimes these turkeys are labeled as "minimally processed" because they haven't been treated with artificial colors or flavor-enhancing ingredients. Natural does not mean organic. Those labeled organic have been raised according to specific rules established by the USDA. Natural turkeys are typically also the Broad-Breasted White variety. Natural birds start around $2.50 a pound, and you'll pay more for an organic. These are available at many grocery stores, and certainly at natural food markets.
  • HERITAGE: This category is made up old varieties such as Narragansett and Bourbon Red, the types of turkeys common in the U.S. before World War II. These breeds mature more slowly which can result in a slightly different flavor and texture than the conventional turkey -- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Pricing start around $6 a pound. They are most likely to be found from local farmers although some specialty markets may carry a select amount.
A note about fresh versus frozen: There's not necessarily an advantage to one or the other. Fresh turkeys are more commonly available now, but I've always encountered some stress when buying them from the grocery store. You want to make sure they haven't been previously frozen because the repeated freeze and thaw can do damage to the meat. If you want to by fresh and not freeze it, you'll need to wait until Thanksgiving week (hence the stress, I've encountered). If you buy your bird frozen, just keep it frozen until it's time to thaw. And it's typically the thawing part that sometimes does damage, not the freezing -- all meat, including turkeys, should be allowed to gradually thaw in the refrigerator over several hours or days, depending on the weight. Allowing it to thaw at room temperature is a food-safety no-no, and the cold water bath simply won't help a bird of any size thaw quickly.

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