About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Puddle Turkey

I've always had a lot to be thankful for and with Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) right around the corner, I find myself thinking about some of the big family gatherings we had when I was a child.  The magnificent spreads my Grandmother always laid out.  How, as children, we would wait to see how quickly "Uncle Jimmy" would fall asleep on the couch after the meal (as he invariably did every year), snoring so loud that the walls of the old farmhouse almost shook. The year that it snowed so hard our family could barely make it the one mile back from my grandparents' farm to our house.  The sad first Thanksgiving after my grandmother, the perennial culinary ringmaster of family gatherings, passed away. 
Some more recent Thanksgivings also stand out.   
2000: A Bachelor Thanksgiving
For our very first Thanksgiving after having moved here to the Ranch in 2000, we had barely gotten running water and rudimentary off-grid electricity going.  The kitchen was effectively non-functional and Kathryn had to travel to Kansas to see her family.  The "bachelor Thanksgiving" ended up being a pre-gurgitated turkey roll, instant mashed potatoes, fake gravy from a powder and a store-bought mince pie, eaten all by myself.  It was completely pathetic. 
1998 The Neighborhood Event
Then there was the time in Tucson AZ in the late 1990's when we invited all our neighbors who "didn't have family" to dine with us.  It was a huge feast for which I prepared four types of turkey (traditional roast, smoked, deep fried and grilled)  plus dozens of sides, salads and relishes, assorted breads and rolls, all followed by 3 types of pie (pumpkin, mince and apple - with ice cream)  - all home made, from scratch, of course.
And speaking of different ways to cook a turkey, here's one Thanksgiving that will always be remembered in our family...
The year of the Puddle Turkey
We were all gathered in Cornwall CT in the early 1980's.  I was put in charge of doing the turkey and stuffing for the family gathering.  Others were taking care of the sides and rest of the meal.
My mother had reminded me that there’s almost never enough stuffing to go around for the requisite third helpings or for leftovers and to make sure that there was plenty.  Now, I have something of a reputation for over-doing my cooking quantities and this was one of the few times I can ever remember anyone in my family actually cautioning me not to make too little of anything and I was up for the challenge.  
My mom was right (of course!); there is almost never enough stuffing.  Many, many years before, a family holiday tradition was born in order to help alleviate this problem.  Realizing that the whole problem was that the darned turkey birds were just too small inside (never mind that we never cooked anything less than a 24-pounder) to hold enough stuffing, somebody had the brilliant idea of making “Outside Stuffing” as well as the traditional “Inside Stuffing”. 
Granted, warming up a pan of stuffing is nothing new (restaurants almost never actually cook any stuffing inside a bird for numerous logistic, timing and health & safety reasons), but my ancestors decided that the Outside stuffing should be something special.  What they did was cook it slowly for a LONG time, so long that the top half inch or so of the crust dried almost completely into marvelously crunchy bites, almost like herby croutons - only better.  When mixed up, the Outside Stuffing was a real adventure for the mouth, each bite a mix of moist, buttery bread intermingled with crispy herbed crunches that explode against the teeth.  Another big bonus of the Outside Stuffing is that it can hold a lot more gravy (another turkey dinner accompaniment of which there is seldom enough!) without getting soggy.  Wonderful good, that Outside Stuffing is!
Even with that one approach to the stuffing shortage problem already accomplished and still I had been warned not to run out.  What to do?  Well I figured the only other thing to do was to make more Inside Stuffing.  But how to do that?  I mean a turkey is only so big on the inside… or is it??  I had an idea!
I had heard about a Paul Prudholmn specialty called “TurDucEn”.  It was a Boned-out turkey, stuffed with a boned out duck, stuffed with a boned out chicken, each of the birds also stuffed with a different and appropriate stuffing.  Paul’s trick was to bone out each of the birds without breaking the skin, or cutting it apart in any way.  In culinary school I had seen a weathered old black chef de-bone a chicken without breaking the skin (“keep da meat on da meat and da bone on da bone” he would mutter over and over as a mantra as he worked) so I even knew the rudiments of what to do.  All I had to do was apply what I knew about doing a chicken to de-boning a 20-something pound turkey whole, fill it up with stuffing and voila!  With all the bones gone there would be lots more room for stuffing right?  Hey!  Even a bonus, I could brown up the bones, make a stock the day before the big meal and be able to make extra gravy to boot.  Great Idea!
Well, things never really go as one plans do they?  As it turns out turkeys are a lot tougher than chickens to work with.  I mean their bones can be BIG and hard and inflexible, much more so than those in a chicken.  I’ve done this exercise on chickens since then several times and they are a piece of cake compared to that turkey.  I swear it fought me every step of the way, but I kept the “meat on the meat and the bone on the bone” as the old chef had taught me and eventually it was done.  Every single bone from that bird, except those in the drumsticks and wings, was in a pile on the counter and I was left with…  
Well, it’s kind of hard to accurately describe what a big fully de-boned bird looks like if you haven’t seen one.  My wife had certainly never seen one and it was at this time she strolled into the kitchen.  Kathryn is something of a traditionalist when it comes to holidays (aren’t most of us?) and Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday where things are supposed to be “just so” and not to be messed with.  I had not told her of my brainstorm for stuffing survival so she had no idea what I was working on when she came in.  For the longest time she just stood there staring at the cutting board and the pink and white blob sitting there.  After a bit her hand came to her mouth and she said “OhmyGawd! That’s the TURKEY??!!”.  
I did what I could to reassure her that it would turn out OK (though my own confidence was a bit shaky by this time).  I mean it really looked BAD.  I explained my whole plan and after taking it all in she finally said she could see the potential of the project.  Eventually we were laughing pretty hard about the poor bird’s sorry/saggy looking condition.  Kathryn then came up with the less-than-complimentary (or so I thought at the time) name for the dish of  “Puddle Turkey” because of the way it looked on the cutting board.  The name has stuck to this day.
We played with the bird for a while, lifting up the different parts, peering through the gaping hole in it from one end to the other, waving its wings around etc.  Eventually Kathryn says “Gosh, that’s really going to take a LOT of stuffing to fill it up, don’t you think?”.  I hadn’t really looked at the size of the opening until now and I saw what she meant.  There was a LOT of room in there.  The whole plan had been to be able to re-assemble the bird, truss it up and roast it so it looked like a normal holiday bird.  Nobody was supposed to be able to tell it was different until I, with a flourish of the carving knife in front of all the guests, sliced clean through it’s middle, exposing all that wonderful stuffing.  Surprise!
Now I was a bit worried.  We had stocked up on Pepperidge Farm Herbed Bread Stuffing.  (Let me interject here that I am an unabashed and complete stuffing snob.  There is no other stuffing in the world as far as I’m concerned and if you come near me with any of that stove-top crap I’ll likely throw it right back at you!  So there!)  Anyway we had 4 or 5 bags of stuffing which I quickly made up and shoved into the orifice.  It barely began to fill the void.  Oh-oh.  Kathryn was good enough to go out and buy up the remaining stock of PF Stuffing at the nearest store, returning with 8 more bags.
I made up two more batches of 4 bags each and started working in earnest on the bird, getting the stuffing into every nook and cranny, making sure to pack it solidly.  I worked steadily and as quickly as possible, trying to judge if Kathryn might have to make another stuffing run (she had already called and confirmed the availability of 7 more bags between two different stores within reasonable driving distance).  I thought things were going pretty well when I realized something.  The stuffed turkey was getting bigger than the whole un-stuffed one had been.  The darned thing was STRETCHING!  It was puffing up like a balloon and getting all out of shape.  NOW what was I supposed to do?  I wasn’t even sure it was going to fit in my roast pan anymore.  Arrrrrrrrrrgh!
A short time-out and a quick glass of wine later and I was calmed again but no easy solution came to mind.  The bird was getting harder to work with, kind of floppy even with all the stuffing in it, I was getting really low on more stuffing AND it just didn’t look right at all.  Kathryn then made some comment about the poor thing needing a face-lift, tummy tuck or maybe a botox treatment.  And I got another idea (Ain’t she a great inspiration?).  I gently rolled the bird over and did a big tuck on the backside, gathering up several inches all along where the backbone had been and tied it together with twine, taking up most of the slack in the body, in effect giving it a lift!  It worked pretty well.  With a little more stuffing and some minor trussing it did look mostly like normal stuffed turkey.  It fit in the roast pan with just a bit of persuasion and it even still fit in the oven!
The cooking time was a little different than on any of the charts, taking longer than usual because bones apparently conduct heat through the body during the cooking of a normal turkey.  I was prepared for this and it got to the correct internal temperature and it came out, on time, with everything else.  After transferring it to the carving platter, I trimmed up a few strings and brought it to the table.  Nobody, at least, laughed or said, “What the hell happened to your bird?”  I really don’t think anybody noticed anything different about it at all.
As planned I parted the beast right down the middle with a single clean slice of the knife to the ooooohs and ahhhhs of everyone around the table.  The bird was well cooked and flavorful, the stuffing tasty and more than plentiful.  As a matter of fact there was actually too much stuffing, not really a surprise having used 12 bags!  Everybody thought it was a novel and creative way of solving the stuffing dilemma but no one actually asked me to do one ever again (which was most definitely just fine with me).
2010 Thanksgiving
Nowadays, here on the Ranch, we grow almost all of our own food.  From the heritage beef, whey-fed pork, and free range chickens we raise and butcher right here, to the bounty from our gardens and greenhouse, every meal is a kind of harvest festival for us but Thanksgiving is still a special holiday. This year I think we'll go uber-traditional all around and leave the Puddle Turkeys to someone else.

Here’s the full menu for T-day (subject to modification)…

·         Assorted Black Mesa Ranch goat cheeses with "sour doe" toasts.
·         Twin Roast Baby Turkeys*
·         Bread Stuffing w/ Apricots & local pecans ("inside" and "outside" versions)
·         Giblet Gravy
·         Buttery Mashed Potatoes
·         Fresh Yams with cinnamon and chipotle
·         Winter Vegetable Medley (carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas etc)
·         Brussels Sprouts w/ Mushrooms in Goats' Milk Sauce with nutmeg
·         Cranberry Sauce (2 kinds)
·         Deep dish Apple pie w/ homemade vanilla bean ice cream
·         Pumpkin pie, Bourbon whipped cream

* OK, these are not technically "baby turkeys". I've never cooked a turkey smaller than 22 lbs for Thanksgiving before (even if it was just the two of us) but the grocery store in town apparently got severely shorted on their bird order this year and the biggest ones they had were all under 14 lbs. So I got two. They look like big chickens to me but I was lucky to get any at all. 
Fair warning... It's getting into our crazy time here at the Ranch with the Holiday crush coming on fast.  This will likely be the last post for a while!

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