Some people dread the holidays. The preparation, the out of town guests, the shopping, it’s enough to make one red as a wattle. I have worked plenty of Thanksgiving Days. Planning, prepping and executing Tom Turkey for thousands who were smart and decided to leave it to the professionals. No fuss, no muss, no cleanup. Others who stay at home plan the day with exacting detail like the D Day Invasion while others fly by the seat of their pants. Be your approach mirror Eisenhower or bomb like Erma Bombeck, one thing for sure. Take stock of the situation.
The bird takes center stage on Thanksgiving Day. Golden brown, glistening breasts, plump thighs, but it’s the accoutrements that make the bird shine. Those kitschy turkey day standards, sweet potato casserole with browned mini marshmallows. The green bean casserole with Campbells condensed cream of mushroom soup and mandatory canned fried onions as the topper. Why settle for fresh cranberry sauce? Simply buy a can of Ocean Spray crimson coagulated mass, open both ends, push out and voila. A perfect red round tube to astonish family and friends showcasing your expertise on operation can opener. It’s Erma approved.
Of all those silly sides, the must have item is gravy. No matter how succulent the bird is. Or the divinity of the sweet potato marshmallow mash, down to the last crunchy morsel of the green bean casserole. It don’t mean a thing if the gravy doesn’t sing. Gravy is the connector, the conduit from which the meal flows. I’m fastidious about turkey gravy, a downright freak.
It all begins with the stock. Technically, it’s broth. The difference between stock and broth is simple. A stock is made strictly from bones. A broth is made from meat. Bone broth is all the rage now. Honestly, there is no such thing. Since broth is made by simmering meat. That meat may have a bone attached, but it’s meat. A broth is tastier, with a distinctive hardiness as compared to a light stock. I remember seeing bone broth for the first time at the local grocery store. I picked it up, stared, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” I examined every bottle and box of bone broth. Scanning the ingredients, the first was one was, bones. One listed chicken feet as a secondary ingredient. The usual things followed, although vague, such as vegetables, salt, and seasonings. The beef label listed only bones and a few other items. It reminded me of the old Wendy’s commercial, Where’s the beef?
Companies don’t know what they are making while misnaming it, in pursuit of money, money, money. Cue the O’Jays please. Move to the consumer groove, buying bone broth like it’s the greatest thing since Swanson’s TV Dinners. All in the name of Palio. Do yourself a favor, make stock and or broth at home, freeze, and have available for later use. It’s an extension of a well stocked pantry. Most important, you will know exactly what is in it.
Back to the meat of the matter. I assemble the usual ingredients. Mirepoix, a fancy French word for chopped carrots, celery, and onions. The ratio is 50% onions, 25% each carrot and celery. Bay leaf, fresh thyme, parsley stems, black peppercorns, whole garlic cloves. Collectively known as aromatics. They perfume and flavor the broth. With a small square of cheesecloth, place the aromatics in the center. Bring the ends together and tie with butcher twine. Leaving enough length to tie the end to the pot handle. Here’s another French lesson, This is a sachet d’épices, literally, a bag of spices.
Not to be confused with its naked cousin, bouquet garni, translation, garnished bouquet. Naked because it’s not wrapped in cheesecloth. It’s a bundle of herbs tied together. Usually thyme, bay leaf, and parsley. However other herbs such as rosemary, tarragon, savory maybe be used along with vegetables like celery, carrot, parsnip, and leek. I have added the zest of lemon or orange for a burst of acid and brightness. The vegetables sandwich the herbs and then bound with kitchen string. The purpose is the same, to impart flavor and aroma into the item being cooked. Bouquet garni, sachet d’epice. It’s the old Steve Martin joke, those French have a different word for everything.
Two weeks before the fourth Thursday in November I’ll buy 10# of turkey necks and wings. Give the poultry a good rinse in cold water. Simply put the necks and wings in pot with a healthy shot of kosher salt. Some chefs salt broth or stock, some don’t. Those who don’t contend it’s a base that will be seasoned during the process of its intended use, soup for example, or a sauce. When there is a reduction involved, the salt content will intensify. However, when making a broth/stock adding salt heightens flavor. Thus creating a better tasting product. Which is exactly why I salt.
Add enough cold water just to cover the necks and wings. Crank the burner on high and bring to a good simmer. A brown foamy substance will appear. Official culinary term, scum. With a ladle skim the scum and discard. Avoid boiling the broth, this imparts scum and other nasties into the liquid. To assist in scum removal, move the pot forward. Set it so the front one quarter of the pot is off the burner, with the remaining three quarters on the heat source. This will cause the back of the pot to roll the impurities upward and forward collecting at the front of the pot to ease the skimming. This is known as a convection simmer. After the impurities are skimmed rendered fat will follow. Fat is your friend, and you want to save every drop as it rises to the top.
After the liquid has simmered for a good hour and a half and most of the fat has been removed and reserved, add the mirepoix and aromatics and return the pot back to full contact with the burner on a slow simmer. Bubbles should just slowly break at the surface. Cook for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. The reason to add the mirepoix and aromatics after skimming and defatting is for the broth to fully absorb their flavor. Otherwise the goodness is wasted on foam and fat.
Kill the burner, strain the stock in a chinois if possible. If not, a cheesecloth lined colander works well. Save the wings and necks. Place the broth in a suitable freezer container and allow to cool to room temp. Discard mirepoix and aromatics. Pick the neck and wing meat. Lots of uses for that. Such as, tacos, a salad, soup garnish, in pasta, or freeze for later use.
Once the broth has cooled there may be a small layer of fat on top. Remove that, add to the reserved skimmed fat, cover and keep refrigerated. Or if making in advance freeze the stock, then place in refrigerator 48-72 hours before Thanksgiving Day. Homemade stocks should not exceed 3 days of refrigeration. Wings make excellent broth due to the high amount of collagen. When the broth is chilled it becomes a state of discernible coagulation. Think turkey Jello, it may sound unappetizing, but to a chef, a jelled broth is damn near an aphrodisiac. Just the thought of it makes me want to get jiggy with it.
Ensure you have a proper stock pot. Stainless steel, reinforced bottom. Don’t use aluminum. Cookware, like knives, is an investment. Spend the money now so you don’t spend more money later. Go to a restaurant supply store, pick the pieces you need, opposed to a department store and buying some inferior pot and pan set. I own two heavy duty reinforced stock pots. But my go to pot is well over 60 years old. It’s a special pot. It was my mother’s. It’s Revereware, as in Paul. He started Revere Copper Company in 1801. As a silversmith he made copper sheathing for naval vessels. The heritage and durability of the pot makes me burst into Yankee Doodle Dandy. Just stick a feather in my toque and call me macaroni. It’s not reinforced but has a copper clad bottom and stainless steel construction. This pot has cooked a shipload of spaghetti. A metric ton of marinara. A gazillion gallons of goulash, and a pallet of paprikash. It was shaken, not stirred for home movie night. Making popcorn for the family’s Saturday night cinema.
The pot is a culinary time machine. Transporting me to a simpler time in the Heartland. Where I played outside all day long. Upon bursting in the house past sunset, it smelled like home. Over the last two decades deliciously different layers of kitchen history are continually added to the pot. Perhaps unimportant to anyone else, but significant to me. Contributions such as lobster bisque, gumbo, shrimp and grits, game consommé, cioppino, lamb navarin, osso bucco, coq au vin, and beef bourguignon. My Filipina wife Doti has introduced the flavor of the Philippines. Blessing the pot with kari kari and chicken adobo. Every time I use it its like catching up with an old friend. A soulful celebration of food. Reminiscing of meals past, rejoicing for meals present.
Let’s get back on course and finish the all-important gravy. Eyeball the amount of turkey fat, add an equal amount of flour to that and cook slowly to achieve a tan color and have the consistency of wet sand. Set aside to cool. This is the roux to thicken the broth. Meanwhile, place turkey broth in pot and bring to a boil. Then slowly whisk in the roux to a little at a time to thicken. A small hand immersion blender is perfect for this. Once all the roux is added pour about 1/4 -1/3 cup of heavy cream into the mixture while still blending. This will homogenize the gravy, create a silky finish and enhance mouth feel. Adjust seasoning with salt and white pepper. Strain through a chinois if you have. If not, just go with. Chopped fresh sage is always welcome, or slowly poach the giblets in the broth, cut into small dice and add to gravy.
Taste the Freedom.