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This recipe is simple enough for anyone (yes, you!) to do. Someone who has never cooked before could probably pull this off in a college dormitory kitchen so long as he/she has some basic equipment, patience with him/herself, and attention to directions. The description is long, but the process is easy.

Unlike cooking a whole turkey, you can make this recipe on a weeknight if you don't mind a mid-evening dinner. The aroma will get everyone drooling, and the crisp, golden skin will do the same, especially once your knife crunches down through it into the moist and succulent meat below.

In addition, you can use the leftover carcass and some of the meat to make a fantastic soup. This is especially useful if you are cooking for only yourself or for two people.

If you are cooking for just one or two and are on a limited budget, you might hesitate to cook something as monstrous and expensive as a turkey breast. But there are at least three reasons why you should give it a try:

  1. Buying large cuts of meat is one way to save money, but even so, look for sales. A 7 to 8 pound turkey breast typically costs (in 2004 U.S. dollars) around $17-$20. But just this past week at Giant Food there was a sale in which I picked up two such breasts at under $7 each -- just $0.99 a pound. Cooked one, froze one. A standalone freezer is a godsend if you can afford it and have room for it.
  2. Leftovers. You can do fantastic things with leftovers. Use'em and/or freeze what you can't use right away. I'm all for the methods of cooking which save time! Soup, sandwiches, tacos, casseroles, even things such as pizza, empanadas or calzones, stir fries, pies, pasta dishes...
  3. If you are living alone or there are just the two of you, there can arise the tendency to short yourself of "good stuff". For a long time, I only got turkey when I ate out, because even though I wanted it, I felt it was too much of a fuss. In that I was wrong, and that attitude is a sad one. You should treat yourself to some comfort food once in a while, no matter what your situation! And it's really not hard at all.

Equipment list, aka the hardware

  • a range (oven plus cooking surface) and potholders
  • strongly suggested: an oven thermometer
  • cleanup materials: sink, paper towels, soap for your hands, sanitizing agent for your countertops and such
  • meat thermometer (instant-read preferred)
  • some kind of timer
  • sharp knife, preferably a boning knife, and a carving fork
  • cutting board
  • tin foil
  • roasting pan with a v-shaped rack to hold the bird, or a) a 9" x 13" Pyrex pan or b) a cookie sheet and more tin foil -- crinkle the foil up into a loose snake, curl the snake into an big oval to hold the bird steady
  • mortar and pestle (if you don't have one, see below)
  • tongs or other means to lift a hot, heavy turkey
  • turkey baster or a spoon
  • not necessary but useful: a pyrex measuring cup with a spout on it
  • If you are making gravy: saucepan, sieve (or colander plus cheesecloth), bowl to catch sieved gravy, whisk (ideally) or wooden spoon

Ingredients, aka the software

My recipes tend to be formulae rather than precise specifications. Don't worry if you don't have all the items called for. Substitute or omit. If you make a mistake, chalk it up to experience, feed it to the dog, and try again. That is part of the art of cookery.

Optional, for gravy:

  • 2 to 3 carrots, preferably organic; scrubbed well, trimmed, chopped into 2-3 inch chunks
  • 1 to 2 stalks of celery, organic; rinsed, trimmed, chopped into 2-3 inch chunks
  • 1 onion, any size; peel off outermost layer of paper-skin, chop off the root and top end, and cut into halves or quarters (leave the other papers on)
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 to 3 cups chicken or turkey stock; in a pinch, use bullion cubes or (my favorite standby) HerbOx very low sodium granulated chicken bullion, dissolved in boiling water

The method

  1. Preheat your oven to 325°F. (If you are in a hurry, you can set it to 350°F, but don't go any higher than that.) If you don't have an oven thermometer, allow at least 20 minutes for oven heating.
  2. Put the garlic and the hefty pinch of salt into the mortar and pestle, and smash it into a fine paste. The salt will act as an abrasive agent. Don't be surprised if it starts to look very wet. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can try this with a second cutting board or plate and a fork, but it will require much more elbow grease. A second alternative is to put the garlic/salt on a cutting board and smack the living daylights out of it with a heavy frypan, then scrape the bits off the frypan and proceed from there with the fork. (The latter can be a tetch messy.)
  3. Mix the Essence/spices in with the garlic. At this point, if your garlic is not in a mortar, put it into a small bowl.
  4. If you have a pyrex measuring cup with a pouring spout, put your olive oil in that. Makes life easier. Pour a few drops of olive oil into the garlic, and keep on mashing. As you continue, you can slowly increase the amount of oil you add, from a few drops to a teaspoon or so at a time. Mash constantly! You are creating an emulsion. Eventually it will take on the appearance of a mayonnaise...which to me is always magical! (This is almost an aioli except without the egg and citrus.) Set aside.
  5. Clean the turkey:
    Take off the wrapping and rinse the bird under cold water, rubbing it with your hands inside and out to take off any loose bits. Don't cut yourself on any exposed bone. Shake it dry a bit and then set it on your cutting board. Pat it dry with paper towels -- you may need to lift the bird off the board and mop the board itself a time or two. With a knife and/or fingers, trim off any dangling bits, blood vessels, or pads of fat you might see.
  6. Loosen up the turkey's skin:
    Work your fingers under the skin as best you can. You want to loosen its attachment to the meat underneath, without ripping it off! Try to be gentle, although you may have to do a certain amount of shoving.
  7. Now comes the fun part: Use your hands and slather the turkey with the garlic emulsion. Get the emulsion under the skin and over the skin. If there's any left over, rub the interior as well. Your turkey breast almost certainly has the wings cut off; if there are pieces of meat/skin left over from this, try to tuck them back into the breast as best you can.
  8. If you are going to make gravy, put the veggies in the roasting pan first. Set the bird on your rack, breast side up. Tent it loosely with foil. Set your timer for 1 hour 45 minutes, and pop the bird in the oven. Halfway through, pull the bird out, tilt the pan to get the drippings and spoon it all over the bird, then re-tent. When you put it back in, reverse the pan's position from left to right. This helps counter any hot spots in your oven.
  9. After the timer sounds, pull the bird out and check its temperature. You are looking for 160°F. It probably won't be at temperature yet, but this is where you start checking. Take the foil tent off to start browning, baste once again, and set your timer for another 20 minutes. (Do NOT leave an instant-read thermometer in the bird -- put it in and take it out each time! Place it through the thickest part of the bird, being careful not to strike bone with the tip of the probe.) Repeat until you get to 160°F.
  10. Once you get to that temperature, remove the bird to a large plate or a clean board. Cover it back up with foil again and let it rest for a good 15 - 30 minutes. Carryover cooking will keep the temperature rising until it is at least 170°F, which is what you are looking for.
  11. No matter how good it looks/smells, do not, repeat, do NOT go cutting into this beautiful thing right out of the oven! Let it rest.

Gravy

  1. The bottom of your roasting pan should have roasted veggies, some/all of which may look burned, plus oil and various gooky looking things. (Yes, those are technical terms!) Pour 2-3 tablespoons of the oil into a saucepan (discarding remaining oil, if any...and there may not be) and add in all of the veggies and browned/burnt looking bits.
  2. Bring the saucepan to medium heat. Slowly add the 1/4 cup flour and stir constantly for 2 minutes with a whisk (or wooden spoon if you don't have one.) Slowly whisk in the stock. Bring to a boil -- keep stirring -- and let boil about 3 minutes or until thickened to your liking.
  3. Strain the gravy. Use your spoon to push the stuff in the strainer around so the liquid stuff gets out around the veggies. Then pitch the veggies; they've given up all their love. Taste the gravy and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and/or other items as you wish.

Carving

  1. If you've never carved a chicken or turkey before, fear not. It can be done.
  2. A sharp knife and a steady working surface are vital for safety. Hint: Get a kitchen towel or a paper towel damp. Place it under your cutting board. This will keep the cutting board from sliding around on your countertop while you are working.
  3. When breast-side up, a turkey's basic bone structure (so far as you need to know) resembles an inverted Y. The two breasts lie along either side of the stem of the Y, with the ribs slanting out at an angle. In between them is the keel or breastbone, a tough partition that is mostly cartilage and NOT something you want to eat.
  4. The basic idea in carving is to cut with a knife/pull with your fingers the two breasts off of the bones below, and then slice the boneless breasts to serve them, allowing a bit of crispy skin with each slice. With your knife and/or your fingers, feel for the outer edge of the keel and just start slicing downward. The ribs will stop the knife and provide a plane of cutting. Your first time doing this will probably be ragged on the bone side, but it's not a big deal. It will be fine. (What I find myself doing is using the knife for the first few cuts, and then once it's started, using my fingers to pry the meat away from the ribs. If you try that, be careful not to burn yourself.)
  5. At the neck end, the wishbone starts at the keel and then divides out onto either side. It is easiest in terms of carving to pull the wishbone out first, but doing that is not so simple (especially with a hot turkey) so you can just cut around it if you have to. Don't be surprised if the neck end of the breast is a bit raggy as a result. On the other hand, that meat is some of the most tender there is (third to the scallops, which won't be on a turkey breast, and the tenderloin, which will be) so you can also just take the cook's privilege and gnosh it down yourself.
  6. If you do make a mess of the carving, just say to yourself this: "Never apologize, never explain." Don't panic. So long as it tastes good and your consumers aren't total snobs, they really won't care, and if you cover up the evidence with an artful mound of stuffing or smashed potatoes, other vegetables, parsley, etc., chances are they will never notice.
  7. Whatever you do, do not throw away that turkey carcass! It can become the base of one heck of a good soup later on. For the mean time: Once the carcass has cooled to room temperature, place it in a large zip-top bag, suck all the air out of it, and freeze it.

Sanitation and storage

  1. If the turkey meat is pink near the bone: As long as you cooked it to the proper temperature, there is no need for concern. Reference: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/pinkturk.htm, http://www.metrokc.gov/health/foodsfty/turkey.htm
  2. Be sure to sanitize anything that has come into contact with raw poultry. This includes (but is not limited to) you, the cutting board, the countertop that was under the cutting board, and your sink.
  3. If you have made gravy and do not use it all up on the first go, then with each re-use, bring it back up to a rolling boil before serving.
  4. If your leftovers are staying around for a while, section it up, wrap well and freeze it, making sure to note date, contents, etc.
  5. If in doubt, throw it out.
  6. If you have to thaw a frozen raw turkey breast prior to cooking, see http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/tbthaw.htm
  7. The skin won't be crisp any more after you store it in the refrigerator.

Fine points

  • If you have the time, make the garlic/spice emulsion ahead of time, rub the turkey and then refrigerate it (well covered) for 2 - 24 hours before cooking.
  • Smashed fresh rosemary makes the world better. Add it to the rub, stuff it inside the bird... mmmmmmmmm!
  • If you like citrus, scrub a lemon well, cut it in half, squeeze it (minus the seeds) into the emulsion, then stuff the squeezed halves inside the breast cavity before roasting.

Suggested side dishes

References and sources (in addition to those already mentioned)

  • Personal experience
  • http://www.foodsafety.com/
  • http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/tbcook.htm
  • http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes/recipe/0,,FOOD_9936_15815,00.html as well as much learning gained by watching Food Network shows

Enjoy, and Namaste.

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