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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bacon, Apple, and Sage Turkey: A Holiday Hit

It's All About The Barding

Holiday time is once again upon us and flocks of “perfect turkey” tips are waddling around everywhere. (Turkeys don't fly, you know; ask the folks at WKRP in Cincinnati.)

I hit upon this simple recipe for moist, tasty turkey many years ago. We've adapted it slightly and it is now our “go to” preparation for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time we want to serve a really perfect turkey. We usually cook three or four turkeys every holiday season and we've never had a bad one yet. It's all about the barding.

I know what comes to most minds when the word “bard” is used, but the culinary application has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Not that The Bard didn't have a few things to say about culinary matters that could be appropriate for the holidays: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.” – Henry IV Part I: act 2, scene 1. Or perhaps, “Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast, and but twelve persons there; is this true?.” – Antony and Cleopatra: act 2, scene 1

Barding involves preparing a cut of meat for roasting by covering it with strips of fat. The fat of choice is almost always some form of bacon. You can bard almost anything. Even the cheapest cuts of meat will benefit from the application of bacon, and the more expensive cuts – bacon-wrapped filet mignon, for instance – will be that much more delectable. But barding works particularly well on poultry. It's basically a deliciously foolproof self-basting method. We'll get to the details in a minute.

First, gather your ingredients:

1 medium onion, cut into 8 wedges, divided
2 apples (any sweet variety), cut into wedges
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 (12-lb.) turkey
1 (12 oz) package bacon
1 (6 oz) can apple juice concentrate, thawed

A quick note about the bacon: this is not the time or the place for expensive cuts of lean, meaty, artisan bacon. Nope. You want the cheapest, fattiest store-brand bacon you can find.

Equipment-wise, you'll need a roasting pan with a rack, and a thermometer. I highly – I'll emphasize that again – HIGHLY recommend a probe thermometer. Buy it for the big bird and you'll find yourself using it for lots of other things, too. The probe part of the thermometer gets stuck in the bird. A cable runs from the probe to a monitor that you place outside your oven. Set the monitor to 165° F and just walk away. When the thing beeps, the bird's done. No hassle and no guesswork. Yes, you can use an instant-read thermometer, but it's a pain, what with having to open and close the oven door – which affects the temperature and hence the cooking time – and makes little holes all over your bird unless you manage to hit exactly the same spot every time you check the temp. An old-fashioned meat thermometer works, too. But I'll swear by the probe variety any day. Please,whatever else you do, don't rely on those stupid little plastic “pop-up” thingys that they package with some turkeys. They are absolutely useless and are the cause of more dry, overcooked birds than almost anything else. Optionally, you may also want some butcher's twine, a bulb baster, and some turkey lifters.

Now, here's what you're going to do:

Make sure your turkey is thoroughly thawed and patted dry with paper towels. Don't forget to remove the plastic bag with the giblets. Unpleasant things happen if you forget.

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Scatter half of the onion around the bottom of the roasting pan and put the rack in place. Place the turkey on the rack. Some people advocate placing the bird “upside down” (breast side down) on the rack, as this allows the juices to flow into the breast meat as the bird cooks. And that's okay. For this recipe, though, the old “right side up” placement works best.

Make a compound butter by combining the sage, the thyme, and some salt and pepper in a small bowl. Mix the herbs and spices thoroughly with the softened butter, then gently lift the skin of the turkey and apply the butter mixture directly and liberally to the breast, taking care not to tear the skin as your work. You might want to remove extraneous rings and things. Save about a tablespoon of the butter for later. (You're doing this because it will add flavor, help retain moisture, and aid in achieving a nice, crispy skin.)

Rub the reserved butter around the inside of the cavity, then place the remaining onion in the cavity, along with the wedges of apple. (You're doing this for flavor and moisture. Apples and onions are very juicy and as they cook, they will release their moisture and flavor into the interior of the bird.)

If you're going to truss your turkey, here's how you do it: Place the turkey breast side up. Cross the legs and loop a piece of butcher's twine over, around and under the crossed legs several times, tying it off securely. Tuck the first joint of each wing under the body of the bird. Now you've got a nice compact package that will cook evenly and be easier to carve. This is where most people stop. And that's fine. Some people go a step farther and lace up the cavity. Meh. If you want to go to the trouble, you'll need to do it first. And you'll need trussing pins or needles. Then you start by passing the pins through the skin on both sides of the cavity. Beginning at the top pin, lace a piece of twine back and forth as you would shoelaces. Pull it snug and tie it securely at the bottom. Pull the neck skin over and fasten it underneath with trussing pins or toothpicks. Now you can truss the legs and tuck the wings under as previously directed. Me, I just truss and tuck. The lacing is usually reserved for stuffed birds (keeps the stuffing inside) and we're not going to get into a discussion here of the health hazards presented by actually stuffing a bird with stuffing.

Arrange slices of bacon over the breast and legs. (Again, moisture, flavor, and crispiness.) Some people do elaborate basket weave patterns and such. Some even tie the bacon blanket in place with twine. Again, meh. Just make sure the bird is covered. Then loosely tent the breast with foil.

If you're using the probe thermometer that I highly recommend, now's the time to place the probe. Proper placement is essential. Insert the thermometer about 2 1/2 inches into the thickest portion of the turkey breast or into the inner thigh near the breast. Make sure the thermometer does not touch a bone. This applies whether or not you're using a probe thermometer; same rules go for instant-reads or plain old meat thermometers. (Another quick tip: when inserting a regular thermometer into the turkey breast, insert it from the side. The thermometer is easier to read and more accurate than when you put it in from the top.)

Okay, into the oven! Bake for about an hour, then remove the foil and the bacon. I usually discard the bacon. Some people break it up and serve it like cracklings. Your choice. Some people also leave the bacon in place for the entire cooking time. Again, your choice. But if you choose to do that, you'll sacrifice your golden brown skin because the bacon will insulate it and keep it from browning.

Assuming you have removed the bacon, continue to bake the turkey for 30 to 40 minutes; then baste with the pan juices. Bake an additional 30 to 40 minutes and baste again. Now, pour the apple juice concentrate over the turkey and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes.

A word about basting: it's not entirely necessary, especially with the compound butter and the bacon providing lots of fat and moisture. Most people do it because Mom did it and Grandma did it and Great-Grandma did it, etc. Because poultry skin is fairly impermeable, you're not doing much for the moisture content of the meat. From that aspect, basting is like pouring water on a raincoat. Most of what you achieve through basting is extra flavor and extra crispness. The only place you really need to baste with this recipe is when you add the apple juice concentrate near the end of the process. And besides, all that opening and closing of the oven door makes it harder to maintain even heat in the oven, thus prolonging your cooking time.

Your turkey is done when the temperature reaches 165°F measured in the breast or 175°F measured in the thickest part of the thigh.

Using lifters or tongs, tilt the turkey to drain any juices from the cavity into the roasting pan. Remove the turkey to a carving board, cover it loosely with foil, and allow it to rest at least 20 minutes before carving. DON'T SKIP THIS STEP.......unless you like dry turkey. Trust us, the bird will remain nice and hot until you're ready to serve.

(Note: if you plan to make gravy from the pan drippings, be aware that the smoky flavors of the bacon and the sweetness of the apples and apple juice concentrate may affect the character of your gravy. You may like a smoky, sweet gravy. If not, prepare a more traditional gravy using butter, flour, and chicken broth.)

Buon appetito! And Happy Holidays!

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