Thanksgiving tips: Not feeding a crowd this Thanksgiving? Roast a turkey breast
Editor’s note: For the next three weeks, the Wednesday High Life food section will include recipes and tips to create a successful Thanksgiving meal, no matter the size of your holiday gathering.
Let’s say that this year’s Thanksgiving feast is going to be a more intimate affair than the usual cast of thousands, yet you still want turkey. It can be done.
Instead of cooking up a whole bird, why not go with a turkey breast? “Because,” you reasonably reply, “white meat turkey tends to turn out dry as cardboard.” And indeed, that’s certainly a possibility, especially if you overcook it, which is easy to do. Happily, I’ve figured out just how to have your turkey breast and eat it, too.
Working on a cookbook several years ago, I came across an old Italian recipe for roast chicken. It required you to stuff a mixture of cheese and vegetables under the chicken’s skin before roasting. Intrigued, I gave it a whirl and was absolutely flabbergasted by the results. Not only was the flavor a knockout, but the meat — including the white meat — was the moistest I’d ever eaten.
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It occurred to me that this scheme might work just as well with turkey as with chicken. Having finally put this theory to the test, I can say that it translated beautifully.
The secret, I think, is that the stuffing underneath the skin insulates the meat. My stuffing combines sauteed onion, garlic and shredded zucchini with Parmesan and ricotta cheeses, all bound together with fresh breadcrumbs. But feel free to experiment, as I’m sure that any moist stuffing would do the trick.
Of course, it’s still important to avoid overcooking the bird. But you also need to make sure you cook the meat to a safe temperature. This is a balancing act. Cooking the bird to 165 degrees is the best bet for safety, but that doesn’t mean you need to leave the bird in the oven until it reaches that temperature. Meat continues cooking even after you pull it from the oven. So if you leave it in until it hits 165 degrees, you’ll actually cook it to about 170 degrees.
My solution is to pull it out of the oven at 160 degrees. As the meat rests on the counter (20 minutes is ideal), it reaches 165 degrees. Resting also allows the juices in the turkey to redistribute so that when you slice the bird, the juices don’t all come streaming out, leaving you with dry turkey meat. And by the way, to get an accurate reading when you take the bird’s temperature, be sure to insert the thermometer deep into the meat — not just into the stuffing and not next to the bone.
When you finally carve the breast, make sure every slice has a little bit of stuffing and skin at the top. Also, while this turkey is wonderfully delicious as is, this is Thanksgiving, after all, and folks expect gravy with their turkey. You can whip up some pan gravy while the breast is resting.
ITALIAN-STYLE ROAST TURKEY BREAST
(Start to finish: 3 ½ hours, with 1 ½ hours active; serves eight.)
2 medium zucchini (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
3 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (made by pulsing 4 slices firm, white bread in a food processor or blender)
½ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
Ground black pepper
5- to 7-pound bone-in turkey breast
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Set a rack in the lower third of the oven.
Using a food processor or box grater, coarsely grate the zucchini. In a colander, toss the grated zucchini with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and then let it drain over the sink for 20 minutes. A handful at a time, squeeze out the zucchini to remove excess liquid. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme, and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the zucchini, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, and stir in the Parmesan, breadcrumbs and ricotta. Season with salt and pepper.
Use paper towels to pat dry the turkey skin, and then rub with a bit of oil and season with salt and pepper. Using your fingers, a chopstick or a grapefruit knife (my favorite), gently separate the skin from the meat on the breast, being careful not to tear it and leaving it attached at the edges. Stuff the zucchini mixture evenly under the loosened skin of the turkey (this is a messy project; just do your best), and then place the turkey on a rack set in a roasting pan. Cover the breast loosely with foil.
Roast the turkey breast for 1 hour. Remove the foil, and roast for an additional 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the turkey reaches 160 degrees. If the turkey starts to brown too much, cover it again with foil. Transfer the turkey breast to a platter, and let it rest at least 20 minutes before carving.
Sara Moulton is host of public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals.” She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including “Cooking Live.” Her latest cookbook is “Home Cooking 101.”
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