Last-minute tips for buttery, spicy holiday bird

Wednesday’s food section before Thanksgiving puts me in a quandary every year.

Correct me if I’m wrong in the belief that readers want to see a holiday-related story. But how helpful can it be the day before the biggest home-cooking event of the year, for which most menus are planned days if not weeks in advance?

Last year, I went the leftovers route with help from Mary Shaw of Ashland Food Co-op, who had tackled the topic for store customers. One of her “low-stress” Meal Solutions was reprinted today with my Season to Taste column in this month’s Joy magazine.

In past years, we’ve profiled local ranchers of heritage-breed turkeys and even run stories from our news service for lack of any better ideas. But I’ve always wanted to come up with some last-minute tips that cooks actually can incorporate the day before. This year, with help from local chefs Sandy Dowling and Constance Jesser, who each taught side-dish classes last week, I think I came up with a few usable ideas, even at the 11th hour.

Dowling’s cranberry relish would be an effortless departure from the usual cooked cranberry sauce while her green beans could become a staple for my mustard-loving husband. Even if you don’t want to shake up anything on the menu, dispose of that extra pumpkin puree (most of us buy two cans, right?) the following day in her deliciously moist and spiced muffins.

For a wee bit more effort to heighten the meal’s presentation, try Dowling’s roasted onion flowers. When I asked her where shoppers could find sweet onions that small, she recommended simply trimming away the outer layers to size and then chopping up the trimmings for use in stuffing and other dishes. Find these recipes and more in our online Recipe Box

One of my favorite cooking shows, “Barefoot Contessa,” recently offered a few other quick adjustments for a bit of holiday excitement. If you usually put button mushrooms in your stuffing, leave them out, then marinate the caps in some olive oil and Marsala wine. Fill the whole mushroom caps to heaping with your stuffing mixture, then bake.

Or try a compound butter. “Barefoot”’s Ina Garten suggested white truffle, (also touted by Dowling and Jesser) rubbed all over the turkey and under the skin. No need to baste the bird; just roast according to U.S. Department of Agriculture timetables for the bird’s size, 4 to 4 1⁄2 hours at 325 F for a 15-pound turkey. I confess that I like to start the bird at a higher temperature, which Garten also recommended, to seal in the juices, then lower the temperature and tent the bird with foil if it’s browning too quickly.

The best way to ensure a moist turkey, as I told a friend this week, is simply not overcooking it. When the thickest part of the breast registers 165 F on an instant-read thermometer, take it out of the oven and let it rest for at least 20 minutes, during which it continues to cook and juices redistribute.

Try this recipe for compound butter or a simple spice rub, which Jesser mentioned in today’s story. Because there are so many directions this technique can take, I didn’t pin her down to one. But this is a good start courtesy of the Detroit Free Press. Find more ideas on our Holiday 101 page.

MCT photo


Compound butters are a simple way to add flavor to your holiday turkey. You can make them with a variety of flavor combinations such as fresh herbs, spices, seasonings and aromatics. Softened butter is mixed with the flavorings and then smeared under and on top of the skin. Try using parsley, marjoram, thyme or rosemary, adjusting the amounts to taste. Also include salt and fresh cracked black pepper or your favorite all-purpose seasoning.

Aromatics like chives and garlic do particularly well. Citrus zest will give it a bright flavor, while spices such as a mix of chili powders, cumin, smoked paprika and coriander will punch up the flavor.

Here is a basic recipe for a 15-pound turkey:

Mix together 1 1⁄4 sticks (10 tablespoons ) softened butter, 2 cloves crushed garlic, 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning, 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon kosher salt or coarse sea salt, 1 1⁄2 tablespoons freshly chopped, mixed herbs.

Follow these steps to butter the bird:

Step 1: In a small bowl, mix together all the herb butter ingredients.

Step 2: Make sure turkey is dry. Slightly loosen the skin under the breast at the larger cavity opening. Slide a thin plastic spatula between the skin and the meat. Push it gently to loosen the skin from all over the breast, and some of the legs and thighs.

Step 3: Using the same spatula, take about 4 tablespoons of the butter mixture and place it under the skin on one side of the breast. Slide the spatula out, leaving butter under skin. Repeat with another 4 tablespoons for the other side of the breast. Now press on top of skin to spread the butter all over, as much as you can, underneath.

Step 4: Evenly rub the remaining 2 tablespoons all over the outside of the turkey.


Smoky Seasoning: Mix together 2 tablespoons unsalted butter; 1 tablespoon canola oil; 2 tablespoons favorite chili powder, such as Ancho; 1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder; 1⁄2 teaspoon cumin; 1⁄2 teaspoon onion powder; 1 teaspoon smoked paprika; 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Adjust seasoning as needed. If you want it smokier, add more paprika. If you want it with a little kick, add a hot chili powder.

Rub about 3⁄4 of the mixture under the turkey skin on the breasts, legs and thighs. Rub the remaining over outside of turkey.

Mustard glaze: In a small saucepan, mix 3⁄4 cup pure maple syrup, 1⁄2 cup dry white wine, 1⁄3 cup Dijon mustard and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter. Bring to a simmer. Divide mixture in half. During the last hour of roasting, brush some of the glaze over the turkey. Brush again after 30 minutes. Remove from oven and serve remaining glaze on the side.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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