It is November and that means Thanksgiving is right around the corner. This year (2013) Thanksgiving falls on November 28, the absolute latest it can be in the month. Thanksgiving is a time for family, for giving thanks, football, and eating WAY, WAY too much.
For me, Thanksgiving was always about hanging out with a lot of people, mostly family. Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and other family friends all stuffing our faces with food that grandma made. When I moved to Florida, I started inviting other grad students who couldn’t get home for Thanksgiving over to my house for turkey dinner. It started with just a couple of people, but after 7 years of graduate school (yes, it took me a while) we had a fairly large turnout.
Once we get older and have families, we usually have somebody else in our life that has a family too. And unless you have moved far away from family, this may mean going to hang out with the in-laws. For some people this is great, and for others, it isn’t. Not only are you possibly dealing with people who treat you like a prisoner at Git’mo, or their personal whipping boy (or girl), you may also be dealing with people who think that canned green beans are a proper side dish. I have found out that some people don’t know how to cook a turkey properly. Thanksgiving turkey does not need to be dry.
Note: we actually have a “Thanksgiving in May” party where we have Thanksgiving dinner with our friends, you know, the people you really want to be hanging out with. Not that weird uncle that likes talking about bodily functions.
My Thanksgiving turkey practically oozes when you cut into it. My specialty, and really the only way I have cooked a turkey over the last 13 years has been smoking it. I have not brined any of my turkeys because I haven’t needed to. I almost never have leftover turkey for sandwiches (unless I purposely save some while I am carving). I have used several recipes over the years while smoking my turkey, but I keep coming back to one. I have pretty much stuck with this recipe for the last 7 years.
My recipe is a variant from The Whole Chile Pepper Book by Cyd Riley and Dave DeWitt (though my edition is by DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach). This book is out of print, but you can still get it through amazon and some of their affiliates. This book is amazing if you like chile peppers of any heat scale or from any part of the world. They talk about types of peppers, some history, and give some great recipes (Blue Corn and Crab Enchiladas – amazing!)
The recipe I use is from page 328, Smoked Turkey with Orange Cascabel Chile Oil. Note: there is some heat to this recipe, but not that much, and it can be dialed down or up. Also, the heat is only on the turkey closest to the skin.
As you can see, this recipe calls for a 10 pound turkey and you brush it on, use a bigger turkey and inject it under the skin, more on that later. Also it calls for dried New Mexican (also called Anaheim) chiles and Cascabel chiles. Now that I am back in California, I can actually find Cascabel chiles, but in Florida, they were nowhere to be found. I also do some variation on their recipe, mainly with the use of fresh peppers, not dried. This is my breakdown of ingredients (do this the night before, if not two nights before Thanksgiving:
- · 2 fresh (not dried) Anaheim or Poblano chile peppers, stems and seeds removed, chopped fine.
- · 1 fresh jalepeno chile pepper stems and seeds removed chopped fine (Optional, or add more for a bit more heat.)
- · ½ cup peanut oil (if you are allergic, use canola or avocado oil – both of which have a high smoke point. You might need a bit more oil depending on your turkey size.
- · 4 cloves of garlic – who am I kidding, I use a full head of garlic, minced or chopped fine.
- · ¼ medium onion (yellow usually) – chopped fine.
- · 2 tablespoons orange zest (I get a big orange, and get all the zest off of that)
- · 2 teaspoons of finely chopped ginger.
- · Pepper
- · A turkey – assume at least one pound of raw turkey per person. If you only have 5 or 6 people, go with a minimum 10 pound turkey.
Directions: Heat the oil in a large pan (the book says 325, but I don’t have a thermometer) over medium high heat. Toss in chiles and onion and cook for a minute or two, or until they start to go translucent. Drop the heat to medium, add the rest of the ingredients, and cook for about 2 minutes more. Remove from heat and give it a couple minutes to cool down.
From here, you can toss it in a blender and puree, but I find that the blender (or mine at least) doesn’t chop it fine enough, so I use a stick blender. The stick blender is one of my favorite kitchen items, and mine came with a mini food processor that I use to do all of my fine chopping for the ingredients (there is a link at the bottom of the page to buy one from amazon, please go that route, and help keep DashingDad.com on the internet). Blend the mixture until it is super fine.
The book says to brush it on the turkey, I like to inject the mixture under the skin, which seals in the flavor and locks in moisture. So, prepare your turkey the normal way: defrost it, rinse it off and then set it on whatever thing you have. I have a “turkey lifter”, which makes it a lot easier to transport it from the kitchen to the smoker and back. I also don’t split it like the book says, I keep it whole.
To inject the stuff into the turkey, you need a flavor injector, which is basically a syringe with a very large needle (again – a link for one from amazon is at the bottom). This is why you want the stuff blended really fine, otherwise it gets caught in the syringe and that sucks. Also, spend the extra bucks and get the stainless steel needles, not the plastic ones as they clog up much easier and are a huge pain to clean.
Add the sauce to the syringe, you can either pour it in from the top or try to suck it up the needle. Pouring it from the top requires a funnel and a chopstick to encourage the stuff to go down the hole. Sucking it up from the needle has its own issues, but see what works for you. Also, the needle will be contaminated with raw turkey juices, so if you want some sauce on the side, set some aside (I never do).
To inject it into the turkey, use your fingers and grab the skin at the top of the breast, about 2 inches from the backbone (usually there is a thin spot or hole already in the area, probably from the de-feathering process), and pull up. Place the needle into the hole, so that it goes under the skin – don’t stab the meat. Inject small amounts of sauce throughout the breast. You can get nearly the entire breast from that one spot (assuming you don’t have a 28 pound turkey). Repeat the process on the leg and thigh if you want, then do it again on the other side. I usually leave the appendages (leg, thigh, wings) on one side without sauce, just in case somebody has issues. Any leftover sauce gets either squirted into the cavity and/or brushed onto the outside.
Right before I put the bird in the smoker, I put the zested orange (stabbed a few times, or cut in half), the rest of the ¾ onion, some fresh rosemary, and fresh sage into the cavity. I don’t know if this does anything, but I think it helps with adding moisture and flavor. Before I found this recipe, I put in a granny smith apple and a yellow onion.
Cover the turkey with foil and put it in the fridge to absorb the flavors. I put the turkey lifter into my roasting pan. Note: this will take up a large amount of fridge space, so plan accordingly. Now for the smoker. I have a Brinkmann Smoke ‘N’ Grill, which can also serve as a charcoal grill. Before my gas grill, I used it all the time, but now it is just used for smoking meat. It is also fairly inexpensive. My smoker has three levels: the top for the meat, the middle for the water bowl, and the bottom for the charcoal. Smoking an entire turkey can take a long, long time. Once during a very cold Thanksgiving, it took me 18 hours to cook a 14 pound turkey, but my grandmother told me about a very cool trick. Smoke it for 4-5 hours, then finish it off in the oven. Same great flavor, a lot less time.
I buy a small bag of charcoal (not match light), and put it into the bottom (charcoal) bowl. I use some lighter fluid to get it started, and I get the coals going.
Once the coals are ready (the flames are no longer visible and the coals are turning white on the edges), I put the water bowl in place. You can leave the water bowl in the smoker when you get the coals going, but I find that the coals do better with it out as they get more oxygen to burn. I also have a high heat tolerance, several years manning a pizza oven will do that.
To the water bowl, I add water, fresh rosemary (I have a rosemary shrub), some salt, and maybe some onion quarters. Again, I don’t know if this does anything, but in my mind it adds flavor.
Then I put the turkey on the top grill and put the cover on.
For the smoking part, you need wood chips. I usually just buy some hickory or mesquite wood chips at the store, but if you have an apple, pecan, or some other hard wood tree, feel free to use that. If you use chips, I recommend getting some of those small tin foil bowls. You fill the bowl up with chips and put it through the smoker door and place it on top of the coals.
I use my BBQ tongs for this, my heat tolerance isn’t that high. You may have to fold the bowl into a boat-like shape to get it to fit through the door. This is a trick I learned from Alton Brown and Good Eats. The wood doesn’t burn as fast and smokes more, adding more flavor.
Replace the chips about every 45 min to an hour, and check the water bowl after 2 hours. If the water is getting low, add some more. Keep this up until your coals aren’t producing heat anymore (about 4 hours), then transfer the turkey to a 350 degree oven.
Once that is done, carve it, plate it, and don’t be surprised if there is nothing left for sandwiches the next day. For carving, here are a couple of youtube videos from Alton Brown, one with a regular knife and one with an electric knife.