Perhaps the most difficult culinary job of the year (of ANY year) is that of roasting a turkey so that the breast meat and the leg meat are both succulently cooked. In best scenario cooking, the turkey legs will be juicy and tasty and the white meat will be dry and tasteless.
It could hardly be otherwise: here are two meats that need quite different cooking temperatures yet they are in the oven together with the same heat and for the same length of time.
Over the years I’ve read dozens of ways of keeping the white meat juicy and tasty and I’ve even had a few ideas of my own, but none of them have worked — except for one I came across on Thanksgiving 16 years ago.
My answer to this problem (although I never tried it as I never attempt to roast a turkey) was to cut off the legs and start roasting them before the rest of the bird was put into the oven. If roasting times were calculated correctly then both meats would be at their optimum point at the same time.
The drawback here is that we wouldn’t be able to carve the whole the turkey roasted to a lovely golden colour — a potent Christmas Day icon so many people must have…without it, Christmas isn’t Christmas.
Some people drape the bird with a thick muslin cloth heavily impregnated with lard or oil. The idea is that this will keep some of the heat away from the breast and the lard or oil will help to lubricate it and keep it juicy. But the breast still dries out by the time the legs are cooked.
Another method that sounds good in theory, entails making a very moist stuffing, loosening the skin over the breast and then squeezing in as much stuffing as possible.
This is the same idea as the oil-soaked muslin cloth: the stuffing acts as a barrier between the breast and the heat, and as the stuffing cooks, its fats and juices keep the breast moist. A nice theory, but it doesn’t work. The stuffing and the white meat are overcooked and dry by the time the turkey is extracted from the oven after a five-hour roasting.
However, at a Thanksgiving lunch 16 years ago I finally came across a beautifully golden roast turkey with brown meat and white that were cooked to perfect succulence.
It was at the La Calatrava flat of American actor and playwright Harry Tierney and his wife Leona di Marco, the theatrical director who at that time had a school in Palma for young actors, with whom she produced plays, some of them written by Harry.
Leona was a marvellous cook and some years before I knew them she had published a book on Italian cooking. I had eaten several times with them and other friends of theirs, usually Italian food but also, on one occasion, a memorable traditional Easter Monday roast lamb lunch with all the trimmings.
On that Thanksgiving Day 16 years ago it was roast turkey in the best American style and it was just too good to be true. If I hadn’t been there and eaten it, I simply wouldn’t have believed that Leona could have brought off that degree of succulence in both brown and white meats roasted together in the same oven heat. I considered it to be a miraculous achievement.
So how did Leona do it? Well, there were no miracles involved. She did it by reading revised edition of an old all-purpose American cookbook, The Joy of Cooking by Irma and Marion Rombauer. It was first published in 1931 and a couple of years previously Ethan Becker, the son of one of the original writers, had brought it up to date.
This new edition contained a little culinary trick that it well known in Majorca but is never applied to turkey: it entails leaving the whole turkey in a strong brine for about 10-12 hours.
And that’s all there is to it. When the turkey comes out of the brine it is carefully dried and roasted in the normal way — no oil-soaked muslin cloth, no stuffing under the breast skin — and white and dark meats end up deliciously juicy.
The turkey flesh absorbs some of the strong brine and as it cooks its salt content makes it retain more of its natural juices than it normally would lose during several hours in a hot oven. The turkey loses a great deal of liquid during the roasting but it’s the extra liquid it has taken on, not its natural juices — which is where the flavour is.
So it is inevitable that when the brown meat is ready, the white meat (which by that time would normally be dried out and tasteless) still has plenty of natural juices and, therefore, lots of moisture and flavour.
This is how Leona cooked her 6.5-kilo Thanksgiving turkey. She made a brine with eight litres of water to a kilo of coarse sea salt crystals, which is four times as salty as sea water: in other words, very salty.
Leona simply dissolved the salt in cold water but you my find it more convenient (and quicker) to pour two litres of boiling water over each half kilo of salt and letting the salt dissolve before adding the rest of the water.
Leon didn’t have a pan big enough to hold the turkey, so she improvised by putting the turkey and the brine into a large double plastic bag which she tied and kept overnight in the deep laundry sink on her balcony.
The turkey soaked in the brine from 10pm until eight next morning when Leona rinsed the bird well, inside and out. She then dried it carefully, inside and out, with lots of kitchen paper.
The Joy of Cooking recommends baking the stuffing separately, but Leona preferred to stuff the bird and also did extra stuffing in a separate container.
Leona covered the 6.5-kilo bird with tinfoil and roasted it for four hours at 160C after which she removed the tinfoil so that the skin took on a nice golden colour — another 45 minutes or so.
There were more than enough pan juices to make gravy.
Them most amazing aspect of Leona’s turkey was the white meat. It was incredibly juicy and its texture was loose and light instead dense and compact, which is what happens when it’s overcooked.
The brine solution is an old trick used by Majorcan cooks — but with suckling pig (lechona) and never turkey. Most Majorcan cooks I know soak a whole lechona in brine overnight before roasting it.
The French also like to use brine on all cuts of pork. The flavour of pork chops is greatly improved after a two or three hour soak in a saline solution. But no one seems to have thought of giving turkey a good soak in brine before roasting it — until Ethan Becker updated his mother’s cookbook.
All poultry roasted for a festive occasion will always be extra special if it is done with the right stuffing. Some food writers say it doesn’t matter if the stuffing is in the bird or baked with the bird in separate container. Those who subscribe that school of thought do not understand the stuffing’s role in the roasting of a bird.
We often add elements to a dish because they enhance the main ingredient, but it sometimes happens that two items in a dish are mutually beneficial. This is the case with stuffing for poultry, meat or fish. The main ingredient absorbs some of the herby-spicy flavour of the stuffing, and some of the juices from the poultry, meat or fish seep into the stuffing and help to enrich it.
So stuffings should always be cooked inside the bird. If you want extra stuffing, then pack it into a separate container and bake it for an hour or so at appropriate time. But it will never be as delicious as the stuffing you scoop out of the bird.
Any stuffing recipe you ever came across is but a basic guideline, a theme on which you can play any variation your palate dictates. If the list of ingredients doesn’t include thyme and that happens to be your favourite herb, then by all means add some.
Stuffings aren’t especially labour-intensive, but at Christmas and other festive occasions they do call for extra work. If you don’t have enough time, or someone who can do the stuffing for you, then avoid those recipes that call for excessive chopping or other preparation — such as shelling chestnuts.
Basic stuffing recipe
The most basic stuffing of all is made with nothing but bread, eggs and seasonings. You will need: 800 grs crustless Majorcan country bread (ask or pan moreno mallorquín), 1 or 2 cups of milk, 3 heaped tbsps of butter (or more if necessary), 1 finely chopped onion, 1 or 2 eggs, salt and pepper to taste, lots of chopped parsley (or another herb of your choice).
Soak the bread in milk, squeeze out excess liquid and mash to a pulp in mortar or with a fork. Sauté the finely chopped onion in the butter and add to the bread.
Add one beaten egg, salt and pepper to taste plus lots of chopped parsley, or other herb. If the mixture can take another beaten egg, add it. Stir well to produce a soft but not runny mixture and stuff the bird. This stuffing is ideal for a large free range chicken (pollo campero, in Spanish).
Christmas can be a busy and stressful time, so for the following chestnut stuffing I suggest you use the shelled and peeled chestnuts at the dried fruit stalls in the Mercat d’Olivar. Get them at the Gelabert stall, which has the fastest turnover on all its products. For Christmas shopping at the Mercat d’Olivar it’s best to be there at just before 8am. Service will be quick and easy.
Chestnut stuffing recipe
For this chestnut stuffing you will need: 700 grs of shelled and peeled chestnuts from Gelabert, 6-8 crustless slices of Majorcan country bread, 1 cup milk, 3 tbsps butter, 2 eggs, 1 finely chopped onion, salt and pepper to taste and lots of chopped parsley.
Put the chestnuts into a suitable saucepan and cover well with water. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 30-45 minutes, by which time they should be soft. If not, continue to cook until tender and chop into small pieces.
Soak the crustless bread in milk, squeeze out excess liquid and mash to a pulp. In a suitable bowl, cream the butter with the eggs, add salt, pepper, onion and chopped parsley. Mix in the mashed bread until the ingredients are well blended and tip in the chopped chestnuts. Taste and correct seasoning, if necessary. If you prefer a drier stuffing, add toasted fresh breadcrumbs until you have your preferred consistency.
For those who prefer two stuffings for a turkey, this sausage one is ideal. Do part of each stuffing inside the turkey and bake the remainder separately for an hour or so.
Sausage stuffing recipe
You will need: 1.5 kilos Majorcan pork sausages with skins removed, 1 large onion finely chopped, 150 grs finely chopped celery stalks and leaves, 300 grs crustless Majorcan country bread soaked in milk and squeezed, 3 finely chopped chicken livers, plus thyme, parsley, salt and pepper to taste.
Sauté the onion and celery in a suitable saucepan until soft, add the sausage meat and sauté for another 10 minutes. Add chopped chicken livers and cook, stirring constantly, for another five minutes.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the thyme, parsley and the breadcrumbs. Mix thoroughly. Taste for seasoning and add extra salt, pepper and herbs, if necessary.
Stuffing for duck or game recipe
Apples and prunes pair nicely to make an interesting stuffing for duck or game. For one kilo of Granny Smith apples you will need 150 grs sugar, 400 grs prunes soaked in tea overnight and stoned, 50 grs butter.
Peel and core the apples, slice and put them into a saucepan containing just enough water to prevent them from burning. Add sugar, prunes and butter. Bring to the boil over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, then cover and simmer very gently until as thick as jam, about 90 minutes. Cool before using.