Choosing right bird is key to holiday feast

The bad news is that a turkey is, yes, generally a rather big bird.

The good news is that, if you're a turkey-roasting novice, that task is much easier than you probably imagine.

The even better news is that you can choose a smaller, maybe more flavorful - if less traditional - option for your Thanksgiving bird.


First, we'll talk turkey. The starting point for a really good turkey, according to Johannes Bernau, executive chef of The Charcoal Room at Santa Fe Station, is a really good turkey - "organic, free-raised turkey, as opposed to something that's been jacked up on hormones and frozen," he said.

The second point is one on which Bernau and Joshua Crain, executive room chef at American Fish at Aria, are in total agreement: brining makes a better bird. Their formulas, however, are slightly different.

Crain favors a mixture of about 2 gallons of water to a scant 2 cups of salt and a generous half-cup of honey.

"You can put into that whatever kind of aromatic you'd like," he said. "Lemons, bay leaves, peppercorns, lavender, rosemary - however you'd like to impart flavor. Bring that to a boil; make a tea. Cool it."

Add the turkey and brine for about 12 hours in the refrigerator.

For each of the 16 turkeys he'll prepare at The Charcoal Room, Bernau plans to use a mixture of 2½ gallons of water, 2 cups of salt, 1 cup of sugar, a handful of fresh thyme, two bay leaves, a handful of parsley, and two carrots, three onions and two celery sticks, cut in large dice.

"You want to bring it up to a boil," he said. "That's what brings out all the flavors of the aromatics."

Cool and then chill to refrigeration temperature, add the turkey and refrigerate for two days, he said.

And Bernau offers a caveat: If you're using a supermarket turkey, be sure to check the label to ensure that it hasn't been injected with a solution. That usually means added salt, he said, and so brining might make the turkey overly salty.

So might leaving it in the brine too long, or using a solution with too much salt, Crain added.

Neither Crain nor Bernau favors stuffing the turkey with anything other than more aromatics. Crain seasons the inside of the bird and adds lemon, orange, garlic, thyme and bay leaf.

Bernau uses bay leaf, thyme and parsley inside the bird, and roasts it on a bed of carrots, onions and celery (not the same ones that were in the brine).

Both recommend open-pan roasting at low heat - Crain favors 300 to 325 degrees, Bernau 275 to 300 degrees.

Crain always oils the skin, usually with olive oil, before putting the bird in the oven. He trusses it to pull the legs up against the breast to add protection against overcooking. Toward the end of the roasting period, he removes the trussing and spreads out the legs and thighs to allow more heat into them - "ideally finishing about the same time as the breast," he said.

Bernau said a lot of cooks forget one important step: Let the bird rest about 45 minutes after removing it from the oven and before carving it. Rather than trust a timing method, he said, use an instant-read thermometer (available, especially at this time of year, at supermarkets and discount stores as well as specialty stores) and remove the turkey from the oven when it reaches 150 degrees. You want the finished temperature to be about 165 degrees, he said, and since the turkey will continue roasting after it's been removed from the oven, take it out at about 150.

Toward the end of the roasting period, he bastes the turkey with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, mint, thyme and minced parsley.

And, well, that's all there is to it. If you can, recruit an experienced carver, because that tends to be the most difficult part.

Turkeys usually start in the neighborhood of 10 pounds. Supermarket birds usually are no more than 20 or 22 pounds, but you can get larger birds through special ordering. Chemaine Jensen, co-owner of Village Meats & Wine, 5025 S. Eastern Ave., said she's seen them as big as 34 pounds.

But even a 10-pound bird will serve about five adults with hearty appetites, with leftovers.


If your party will be smaller than that, you may consider going with a turkey breast or another type of fowl. Jensen said she'll have bone-in turkey breasts, which range from about 5 pounds to 10 to 12 pounds; turduckens (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken, with stuffing in and around the birds), which run about 15 pounds; pheasants, 3 to 3½ pounds; guinea fowl, about 3 pounds; ducks, 3 to 4 pounds; and geese, 10 to 12 pounds.

At The Butcher Block, 7625 S. Rainbow Blvd., owner Ron Lutz said he'll have boned, rolled and tied turkey breasts, 9 to 12 pounds and 12 to 14 pounds; bone-in turkey breasts, up to 14 to 16 pounds or larger; turduckens, 15 pounds; turducken rolls, 4 pounds; geese, 12 to 14 pounds; and ducks, 3½ to 4 pounds.

Most local supermarkets also carry turkey alternatives, including turkey breasts, capons, ducks and geese, and Cornish game hens.

And even the turkey experts sometimes choose an alternative bird.

"We always celebrated Thanksgiving with my dad's side of the family," Crain said. "We did a turkey, obviously, and also a goose. The goose was stuffed with sauerkraut - part of our German heritage."

"I would personally love to do a duck or a goose," Bernau said. "It's still a very seasonal item, and it's delicious."

Because ducks and geese have a lot of fat under the skin, he recommends cutting a cross-hatch pattern through the skin and fat, but not into the meat, and then pan-searing the breasts.

"Once you do that, place it in the oven," he said. "Same temperature, but it goes a lot faster."

"For small families, you could do something like Cornish game hens," Crain said. "And a nice little duck is always festive."



10 7-grain bread slices (15 ounces), cut into ½-inch cubes (about 8 cups)

1/3 cup butter

1 large onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 cup chopped celery

4 cups moderately packed chopped fresh kale

1 medium butternut squash (about 1½ pounds), peeled, seeded and cubed

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage, or 2 teaspoons rubbed dried sage

¾ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper

½ cup smoke-flavored almonds (from 6-ounce can), chopped

1 can (14.5 ounces) chicken broth

1 16-pound turkey, thawed if frozen

Fresh sage leaves (optional)

No-stick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread bread cubes on bottom of large shallow baking pan. Bake 30 minutes, or until lightly browned and dried, stirring occasionally.

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and celery; cook and stir 5 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Add kale and squash; stir to combine. Cover; cook 6 minutes, or until kale wilts, stirring occasionally. Stir in chopped sage, salt and pepper.

Place browned bread cubes in large bowl. Add vegetable mixture, almonds and broth; toss to combine.

Remove neck and giblets from body and neck cavities of turkey; refrigerate for another use or discard. Drain juices from turkey; pat dry with paper towels. Fill neck cavity with part of the stuffing. Turn wings back to hold neck skin against back of turkey. Fill body cavity completely with stuffing. (See note.)

If desired, loosen skin from breast by carefully working fingers under skin over breast. Place several whole sage leaves on breast under skin. Secure edge of skin with toothpicks.

Place turkey, breast up, on flat roasting rack in shallow roasting pan. Spray with cooking spray.

Roast for 4 to 4½ hours (after 2½ hours, cover breast and tops of drumsticks with foil to prevent overcooking), or until meat thermometer reaches 165 degrees when inserted in center of stuffing and 180 degrees when inserted in deepest part of thigh. Let stand 15 minutes before removing stuffing and carving.

Note: Place any extra stuffing in casserole dish. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake. Bake, covered, at 325 degrees for 30 minutes, or until meat thermometer reaches 160 degrees when placed in center of stuffing.

Serves 16.

- Recipe from Butterball


1 5- to 6-pound Long Island duck (also known as Pekin)

2 cups boiling-hot water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425 degrees.

If necessary, cut off wing tips with poultry shears or a sharp knife. Remove and discard excess fat from body cavity and neck, then rinse duck inside and out. Prick skin all over with a sharp fork. Fold neck skin under body, then put duck, breast side up, on a rack in a 13-by-9-by-3-inch roasting pan and pour boiling-hot water over duck (to tighten skin). Cool duck, then pour out any water from cavity into pan. Pat duck dry inside and out, reserving water in pan, then rub duck inside and out with kosher salt and pepper.

Roast duck, breast side up, 45 minutes, then remove from oven. Turn duck over using 2 wooden spoons, and roast 45 minutes more. Turn duck over again (breast side up), tilting to drain any liquid from cavity into pan. Continue to roast duck until skin is brown and crisp, about 45 minutes more (total roasting time: about 2¼ hours). Tilt to drain any more liquid from cavity into pan. Transfer to a cutting board and let stand 15 minutes before carving. Discard liquid in roasting pan.

Serves 4.

- Recipe from Gourmet magazine



2 1¼- to 1¾-pound Cornish game hens

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 pieces thick-sliced bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces

20 to 24 pearl onions

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Wrap a brick in aluminum foil and place into the oven to heat.

Place a game hen breast side down on a cutting board. Using scissors or poultry shears, cut from the neck to the tailbone to remove the backbone. Once you remove the backbone you will be able to see the inside of the bird. Make a small slit in the cartilage at the base of the breastbone to reveal the keel bone. Grab the bird with both hands on the ribs and open up like a book, facing down toward the cutting board. Remove the keel bone. Cut small slits in the skin of the bird behind the legs and tuck the drumsticks into them in order to hold them in place. Season on both sides with salt and pepper.

Fry the bacon in a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. Once crisp, remove the bacon from the skillet and reserve. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. Immediately add the two birds to the pan, skin side down. Add the onions to the pan around the edges. Top the birds with the brick and allow to remain on the heat for 5 minutes. Place the pan in the oven and cook 10 to 15 minutes, or until the thigh meat reaches 170 degrees. Remove from the oven and allow the bird to rest for 5 minutes before serving with the onions and bacon.

Serves 4.

- Recipe from the Food Network

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at or 702-383-0474.