Last year’s turkey.

This year, my sister convinced her husband and in-laws to have a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, so she’s making turkey on her own for the first time. She called me up, asking for tips and recipes. She talked about how excited she was for the Thanksgiving meal and how she wished we were making it together. I felt oddly like a proud mother, eager to see how her first turkey would turn out. And we both found ourselves wondering how exactly we got so deep into a culture so not our own.

For years we told ourselves we didn’t care for turkey. We were perfectly content with our Thanksgiving banh hoi or lamb hotpot or bun bo hue. But somewhere along the way, I changed my mind. In recent years, I’ve realized that I look forward to traditional Thanksgiving dinner more and more. I don’t live near family, and even if I did, almost all of my and my husband’s extended family is Asian, so I don’t have that problem of multiple Thanksgiving dinners in a row — if I even get a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at all. The whole thing is still rather novel to me. My enthusiasm has yet to extend to pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce, but I do so love the sweet potatoes with toasted nuts and browned, bloated marshmallows that are crisp on the outside and foamy on the inside; the creamy mashed potatoes with gravy made from pan drippings; and most of all — the turkey.

My sister and I spent most of our childhood Thanksgivings at church… eating Chinese or Vietnamese food. We also lived in Canada, where I feel Thanksgiving (which falls on a Monday in October) does not have quite the weight that it does in the US.

When we moved here at the start of my high school years, I was a bit surprised at how much effort families took to be together for Thanksgiving — it seemed like a bigger deal than even Christmas. True, this is a four-day holiday here, rather than Canada’s three-day. But still, the hoopla that surrounds these four days! I mean, a parade for Thanksgiving? And then there’s the football (and what could be more American than that?). And the whole Black Friday madness (the Canadian equivalent is Boxing Day, which falls after Christmas). Even the unofficial rule that no Christmas songs or decorations should make an appearance until after Thanksgiving adds to the grandiosity and anticipation of the weekend, like two holidays rolled into one. In Canada, there was no such definitive and controversial dividing line between the two seasons (there’s still Halloween, after all!), whereas here, putting up the Christmas tree together on the Friday after Thanksgiving can be a ceremony in itself.

Mise en place.

Ironically, the first traditional sit-down Thanksgiving meal I ever had was in southern France, where I spent the holiday with a kind American missionary couple whose church I attended. I was 20 years old, still fully Canadian but also an American resident by then (I’m now a dual citizen), and I spent the day helping the family cook — roast turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, candied sweet potatoes (which I had for the very first time), pumpkin pie, even cranberry sauce out of cans that had been brought over from the motherland long ahead of time and carefully stored for the occasion.

Newly inducted into this holiday tradition, when I returned to the US for my remaining college years, I roped my sister into helping me make turkey together for Thanksgiving at home. Perhaps it was because American food was our realm, not our parents’, whose style eschewed exact measurements. Telling my dad, who tests for flavor by tasting raw meat, that he has to stick a thermometer into the turkey to check for doneness is just a lost cause. Even now, many of my relatives still opt for seafood or fancy Asian food for Thanksgiving, and I might too if I spent the holiday with extended family and in a town where more Asian ingredients were available. Just last month, my parents spent Canadian Thanksgiving with relatives in Toronto, and my uncle ordered a whole roasted suckling pig! I’d have no trouble giving up the turkey in that case — but I have to say, I don’t think I’d want to do it every year.

Since I’ve been married, turkey has always been part of my Thanksgiving, and I kind of like it that way. In fact (and this is actually a rather embarrassing confession), I find myself taking greater measures each year to ensure that I get my fill of turkey during this holiday, which sometimes includes either getting my own turkey (if I’ve spent Thanksgiving at someone else’s) or getting an additional turkey on Friday, when prices are slashed.

Now before you judge me, please hear me out…

First, you might have noticed from previous posts how much I love chicken. I can eat chicken every day forever. So, turkey is a lot like a really big chicken.

Second, when my sister asked me yesterday if there is really any difference between chicken and turkey, I told her, yes, turkey is bigger. Which is obvious, but what this means is that you get more of your favorite parts — skin! wing! bones! I also told her this means it’s worth investing more time and effort into making than your average chicken, which means you get an even nicer-tasting bird and more of it. I have taken to brining my turkey, which helps it stay moist and flavorful. I also feel like turkey develops a smokier taste than chicken (and in Chinese, turkey is literally “smoky chicken”).

Third, and this is the Asian in me talking, I can’t stand eating big slabs of boneless meat! I happen to love slowly gnawing away on bones until they are all picked clean. Can you imagine doing that at the Thanksgiving table? (This may sound rather labor-intensive or simply disgusting to non-Asians, but really, there are fewer pleasures in life than eating meat on the bone.) This is why I like to have turkey (with bones) in reserve for eating in the comfort of home, even better in my pajamas. The big portions of boneless meat (like the breast) I save to turn into other dishes.

Fourth, I am very possessive about my turkey carcass. I nearly freaked out one year when someone almost threw my entire turkey carcass (which actually had quite a bit of meat on it still) into the trash. Whatever bones I do not get to are saved to make soup… which in turn gets made into turkey jook (congee or rice porridge).

So, you see, whether I’m spending Thanksgiving at someone else’s house and I have not made the turkey, or I have guests over and (like the dutiful Asian hostess) want to be sure they have more than enough to eat and leftovers to bring home with them, everything works out with the simple solution of buying turkey at reduced prices the next day. Instead of going shopping, I stay home and roast turkey on Black Friday. You could say it’s in keeping with the American tradition of excess. Or maybe that is just our family tradition of excess when it comes to food.

Plain old classic American Thanksgiving turkey, just the way I like it.

Now, at thirty years of age, sixteen years of living in this country, and actually only two years of roasting turkey on my own for the main Thanksgiving dinner, I guess I’m still somewhat of an American Thanksgiving novice. Each year I’m surprised to find myself adopting more and more of the customs, like getting up early to hunt for Black Friday DVD deals or switching to full-on Christmas mode (but no football, please). Because I’m normally quite particular about how I identify myself, I’m actually rather shocked at my complete lack of desire to incorporate elements from any of my other cultural heritages into Thanksgiving (with the one exception of making turkey jook the day after). I’m still very much a fan of the classic Thanksgiving dishes, like sage roasted turkey. I’m reluctant to sneak in a single Asian- (or other ethnic-) inspired dish or even ingredient to shake things up, make the menu more updated, contemporary, multicultural, PC, what have you. No, Thanksgiving is one of those rare times when I fully and unabashedly embrace my American self. And I quite enjoy it.

Thanksgiving Roast Turkey
Serves 10-12, or 2 for 5-7 days :)
Adapted from various sources

Here is the recipe I’m giving my sister for a 14- to 16-pound turkey. Another option for getting moist turkey without brining it is to roast it breast-side down, so the back fat runs down to baste it (this results in a less pretty whole turkey, but is ok if you serve it already carved). But I love the skin, and I think the skin on the breast side is less fatty and gets crisper when roasted breast-side up, so I prefer to brine.

Because I live in a teeny tiny apartment and have no room for such things as a roasting pan, I just buy a disposable aluminum one and place a steaming rack (the kind you put inside a rice cooker or wok to steam dishes) inside. Then I position the turkey on top of the rack.

Aside from the salt and sugar proportion, the rest of the ingredients are pretty flexible. I use less salt than most recipes, to make sure the turkey doesn’t end up too salty (I serve it with gravy anyway), and I only brine overnight and rinse it thoroughly before roasting. I also like to use brown sugar and apple cider vinegar — the same two things my family uses for wetting rice paper to make spring rolls brown and crispy.

2 gallons water
3/4 – 1 cup kosher salt, depending on how long you brine (use the lesser amount if brining longer); use half the amount for table salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
(optional: 1-3 cups of orange juice or apple cider; cut back some on the water in this case)
1 orange, including peel, cut into slices
1 Tbsp or a small handful of black peppercorns, slightly crushed with mortar and pestle
1 onion, cut into chunks
8 cloves garlic, smashed
6 bay leaves
any other herbs, fresh or dried, you like (rosemary, sage, thyme, and parsley for example)
1 brining bag

1 14- to 16-pound turkey
olive oil or melted butter to rub
2 lemons
1 large onion, cut into chunks
2 ribs celery, cut into 2-inch sections
1-2 carrots, cut into 2-inch sections
1 apple, quartered
fresh or dried herbs (rosemary, sage, and thyme, for example)
1-2 cups chicken/turkey stock, apple cider, or white wine, or a combination of these (optional)

pan drippings
2 Tbsp flour
turkey giblets for turkey stock (optional)
any combination of chicken/turkey stock, apple cider, cream, or milk (optional)

1. Brine: Put all of the brining ingredients (except the bag, obviously) into a stock pot and bring the whole mixture to a boil, stirring to make sure the salt and sugar fully dissolve. Turn off the heat and let the mixture completely cool. Remove the bag of giblets from the turkey (reserve for stock or gravy), and rinse and clean the bird. Put the turkey in the brining bag and pour in enough of the cooled brining mixture to completely cover the turkey (if there isn’t enough liquid to cover, just add more water). Put the whole bag in the refrigerator overnight, for about 8 hours. I try to stand the turkey on one end, either in a large pot or propped between other large items in the fridge, so that it stays fully submerged in the brine. Otherwise, if it’s only partly submerged, you’ll want to flip the turkey halfway through its brining time to make sure it brines evenly.

2. Roast: Preheat oven to 450°F. Take the turkey out of the brining liquid and discard the brine. Rinse the turkey thoroughly under cold water. Pat it dry with paper towels. (If you have time, you can also put the turkey back in the fridge uncovered at this point, to let the skin air-dry, which will make it crisper when it roasts.) Rub the outside of the turkey with olive oil or melted butter, massaging some of it under the skin into the flesh. Squeeze some lemon juice into the cavity of the turkey. Prick 1 whole lemon with a fork and stuff it inside the cavity, along with any remaining lemon after squeezing and most of the onion, celery, carrot, apple, and herbs (you can also insert some of the herbs underneath the skin). Stuff the remaining aromatics into the neck cavity. Truss the bird first by folding the flaps of skin over the cavities on both ends and securing with small metal skewers, then tucking the wings under the neck/shoulders and tying the legs together with kitchen string. You can add a cup or two of chicken stock (or turkey stock made from the giblets, or combination of that and white wine or apple cider, keeping in mind this will also flavor your gravy) to the bottom of the pan to keep any drippings from burning or evaporating too quickly. Roast the turkey according to any directions on the package, or at 450°F for 40 minutes, and then at 350°F until the breast meat reaches 160°F and the thigh meat 170°F (about another 4 hours or more, depending on how big your turkey is). Alternatively, try this Alton Brown flash cooking method — 30 minutes at 500°F, then about 2 hours at 350°F. When the turkey reaches the appropriate temperature, tent loosely with foil, and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving, so that the meat continues to cook a bit and absorb the juices (if you cut into it immediately, the juices will all run out). If carving ahead of time, prepare a piece of foil to cover the dish you’ll serve the sliced turkey on. As you carve, have someone help you lift and replace the foil as you add turkey slices to the dish. This will help keep the meat warm.

3. Gravy: While the turkey rests, make the gravy. Pour all but about 2 tablespoons of the pan drippings into a fat separator or another container. Set the pan over two burners on medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of flour to the remaining drippings and whisk together to form a roux. Scrape up any brown bits stuck to the pan. Stir until all lumps are gone and the roux begins to brown. Slowly whisk in some combination of the reserved pan drippings (with fat removed), apple cider, chicken or turkey stock, cream, or milk — enough to get about 2 cups of gravy. Scrape up any brown bits still stuck to the pan. If there are still lumps in the gravy, strain through a sieve. Check for flavoring and, if necessary, add salt and pepper to taste (it should already be a bit salty from brining).

4. Give thanks!