Tasty turkey: Chef Vicki Leach shares turkey tips for your Christmas feast

December 23, 2009 10:48:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Traditional turkey with all the trimmings is a popular choice for the holiday table, with the added bonus of leftover turkey for sandwiches, soups and casseroles. 


Chef Vicki Leach, of the Mississippi University for Women Culinary Arts Institute and the Viking Cooking School, took time out of a busy schedule to share tips for preparing a delicious centerpiece to a festive meal.  


There''s no reason to be intimidated by the big bird, she says. 


"Whether it''s cooking a turkey, or just cooking in general, sometimes people are afraid," she has observed. "The way you learn is by making mistakes. If your turkey falls apart, just slice it up, put it on a place, and it''ll be wonderful." 


There are almost as many ways to prepare and flavor a turkey as there are cooks. The ultimate goal is to produce a moist, tender turkey, with golden brown skin and great flavor.  




Thawing reminders 


Chef Vicki recommends thawing the bird in the refrigerator. A general rule is to allow at least one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey 


If time isn''t on your side, "in a pinch, you can thaw it, still in the package, in a cold pan of water, with a slow steady stream of water flowing over the top until thawed completely," Leach says.  


According to the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-288-8372), minimum thawing time will be about 30 minutes per pound. No matter how pressed for time you are, don''t thaw the turkey at room temperature; that can lead to bacterial growth. 




Oranges, onions 


The chef shared one of her favorite ways to prepare a turkey worthy of the occasion.  


"I like to do mine stuffed with oranges and onions," she said, efficiently assembling ingredients in the Culinary Arts Institute kitchen. (Apples, celery and fennel can also be used.) 


In addition to quartered oranges and onions, she gathers melted butter, chicken broth, salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and garlic on a tray. A meat thermometer is at hand. 


With paper towels, she pats dry a thoroughly thawed turkey, brought to room temperature. She then rubs in, by hand, salt, pepper and poultry seasoning -- on the inside, too.  


If you don''t like poultry seasoning, a spice rub can be used, Leach says. "Men especially are particular about the spices they use when they cook. Even Creole or Cajun seasonings are OK, just watch the salt content and adjust the salt and pepper accordingly." 


Then, into the turkey go half of the oranges and onions, a clove of garlic and fresh herbs. 


(When it comes to traditional stuffing, Chef Vicki strongly recommends cooking it separately from the turkey, never inside it. "Bacterial growth from incorrect internal temperatures can cause an issue," she cautions. "Resist the urge!") 




Foiled fowl 


After balling up a piece of aluminum foil, Leach places it inside the turkey neck, to plump out the cavity and keep the oranges and onions in place during cooking. More oranges, or apples, can be placed here, too, depending on the size of the turkey. 


After rubbing more seasoning on the bird, she trusses it with cotton butcher''s twine.  


"You can find the twine at the hardware store or kitchen shop," she notes. 


After a brushing with melted butter, the turkey is ready for the roasting pan. Chef Vicki prefers a pan with a rack. In the bottom go chicken broth and the remaining oranges, onions and herbs. 


Time and temperatures 


Leach cooks her turkey at 425 degrees for the first 45 minutes, then reduces the oven to 325 degrees for the remaining cooking time, which will vary with the size of the bird. (An 8-12 pound turkey, for instance, will usually require two and three-quarters to three hours total. A large 18-20 pounder will need four and one-quarter to four and one-half hours.) 


"The most accurate way to cook a turkey is by temperature," she said. "Use a meat thermometer; just remember not to place it on a bone. I generally cook to 165 degrees and pull the turkey. Remember, there is such a thing as carry-over cooking, where the temperature will continue to rise even after meats are pulled from the oven."  




White and dark 


"In a turkey, you have both leaner (white) and fattier (dark) meats in one package," says Chef Vicki. "As a general rule, you cook fattier meat differently from leaner. So the trick is to cook it using the best method to entirely cook the dark meat, without overcooking the white meat." 


She continues, "We all want the perfect bird, pretty on the outside and still edible, but we don''t understand the cooking process as a whole -- that leaner meats need a higher temp and shorter cooking time; fatter meat can get by with lower temperatures for longer cooking times." 




Holiday memories 


Leach''s own mother had a rather unusual turkey routine. 


"My mom used to start her turkey breast-side down instead of up. Her theory was that all the fat from the legs and thighs would ooze down into the breast meat and make it more tender. We didn''t have pretty birds, but they sure were delicious. And I make it a point to never argue with my mother," she shares, smiling. 


And what does an accomplished chef serve on special days? 


"Our holiday dinners are always the same -- turkey, dressing and gravy and the traditional casseroles I''ve served since my children were little and before I went to culinary school.  


"I only tried one time to veer away from tradition; I thought I''d be cute and try a gourmet holiday dinner. I was met the next year with a list of the appropriate foods for the holidays, with a promise to never stray again!" 








One 10-12 pound fresh or frozen turkey (if using frozen, thaw completely) 


Two fresh whole oranges, quartered 


Two large onions, quartered 


Two cloves garlic, crushed  


2-3 tablespoons poultry seasoning, purchased or mix your own 


4-6 cups chicken broth or water, or combination of both 


Salt, pepper 


One stick melted butter 


Small sprigs fresh herbs  




For poultry seasoning: 


3 tablespoons dried sage 


1 tablespoon dried parsley 


1 tablespoon dried rosemary 


1 tablespoon dried thyme 


1/4 teaspoon dried celery seeds 


(Rub together with fingers to combine the flavors.) 




n Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove the turkey from the refrigerator one hour before you want to place it in the oven; unwrap it and remove the giblets. Pat dry (inside, too) with paper towels. 


n Season the inside of the turkey cavity with salt and pepper, as well as with 1-2 tablespoons of poultry seasoning, rubbing the bottom and top of the cavity to evenly distribute seasoning.  


n Stuff the turkey with half of the oranges and onions, one clove of garlic and the fresh herbs. (My favorites are parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.) 


n Using butcher''s twine, tie the legs together to prevent splaying during roasting. Place an aluminum foil ball in the neck cavity (more oranges, or apples, can be used here, too.) Tuck the wing tips under to hold the neck flap in place. 


n Season the exterior with more salt and pepper and additional poultry seasoning, rubbing liberally into the skin. Brush with melted butter and place on the rack in a roasting pan. 


n Place remaining oranges, onions and herbs in the roasting pan and add chicken broth. Place in the 425-degree oven for 45 minutes. Baste the bird with pan drippings.  


n Reduce the heat to 325 degrees and cook, basting two to three times, until a meat thermometer displays an internal temperature of 165 to 175 degree (165 for the thickest part of the breast; 175 closer to the thickest part of the thigh.) Total cooking time depends on size.  


n Remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before serving to allow juices to redistribute.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.