The Tasty Combo
A Big Turkey Like No Other
My father-in-law, Albert used to wait tables at a Chinese restaurant up in Harlem, New York when he was young. He was such a nice character even the chefs there liked him. This is unusual, because cooks always deem themselves superior over the waiters and scold them whenever there is a chance. But Albert was different. With his smarts, energy, charm and English skill (a big deal amongst blue-collar Chinese workers), he actually won the respect of those once snobby chefs. So every Thanksgiving and Christmas, much to the delight of my wife and her siblings, Albert was able to bring home a very tasty turkey complimentary of that Chinese restaurant.
As you know, turkey itself is not very tasty; and its breast meat may be tough to some if you don’t cook it right. Perhaps that’s why people make stuffing and other condiments to make the feast more enjoyable. Grandpa Al’s turkey is different. The chefs mixed several kinds of unique Chinese goodies as marinade to make this bird like no others out there.
Albert had since retired, but the tasty Chinese flavored turkey never stopped being served. Grandpa Al was now the chef. The marinade sauce was the same or perhaps improved, and the cooking and serving methods remained somewhat unchanged – he would place the bird on a rack in a large roasting pan with a small amount of water on the bottom; roast it at 350oF for four to five hours; baste the turkey with the juice that has dripped down into the pan; make gravy with the juice; and dip the meat in the gravy before serving, etc.
The family was growing when I joined them years later. Perhaps because I had shown enough interest and a certain amount of talent in cooking, Albert decided that it was time to pass the torch and showed me all the stuff.
For a couple of years, I tried some different variations, such as using a variety of herbs instead, but quickly got vetoed. The family loved Grandpa Al’s turkey – no contest!
By now, this family had grown to around fifteen hungry mouths and counting; a big bird no less than 20 pounds was always necessary to feed them. The sheer size of the turkey posed a challenge for me trying to keep the white meat tender and juicy. Using the normal roasting technique would expose the big bird to high and dry heat for hours, risking drying up or even burning the breast while leaving the inside of the thighs uncooked.
After some research, I figured out a different approach. I love vegetables and wouldn’t consider a meal complete without some. So veggies were what I wanted to put in the mix. I lined the bottom of my very large roasting pan with the most common items: onions, celery, potatoes, carrots, etc., plus some dried Chinese black mushrooms for extra flavor. Then I laid the 20-plus pound turkey – covered with Grandpa Al’s marinade, inside and out, top and bottom – directly on the bed of veggies. Finally I sealed the whole pan tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil before leaving it in the refrigerator overnight ahead of the big day.
This method yielded an unexpectedly pleasant result: it cut the cooking time almost in half! Concerned that the heat might need an extra push to penetrate the aluminum foil, I initially set the oven temperature to 450o and lowered it to 400o after half an hour. Two hours later, I was surprised to see that the internal temperature of the bird, as indicated by the inserted meat thermometer, had almost reached the recommended level of 180o F. So I unwrapped the pan, lowered the oven temperature back to 350o and basted the turkey with the very rich gravy from the bottom of the pan for the next 30 minutes until the big bird was done.
That was an instant success. The turkey looked good, and it was all cooked.
“This is actually pretty good!” declared one brother-in-law, who had never been a fan of turkey.
“So tasty! How do you do that?” inquired another brother-in-law, an Italian fellow who has tasted many a turkey in his day.
And a guest who came for Thanksgiving begged for a doggie bag...
Of course, it had to get approved by the master. “It’s so moist and tender” was the judgment. The torch was officially passed.
Every now and then I asked: “How do you guys want the turkey this time?”
“Just make it exactly the same.”
Grandpa Al’s turkey is that good.
Now, in case you are interested, I am writing the recipe down so you can try it for yourself. You may need to visit an Asian grocery store for some the ingredients.
Grandpa Al’s Turkey
Guaranteed to Be Juicy and Tasty
A large turkey, 20 pounds and up preferred
If frozen, make sure to thaw in refrigerator 4 – 5 days prior to marinating
Hoisin (or Hoy Hsin) Sauce 1 jar (appr. 15 oz)
Ground Bean (or Black Bean) Sauce 1 jar (appr. 13 oz)
Fermented Bean Curd 1 jar (appr. 12 oz)
Ginger Root (fresh) 10 oz
Garlic (fresh) 2 large bulbs
Scallion (fresh) 2 bunches
Chop and mix all ingredients in food processor, remove to large bowl and set aside.
The Veggie Bed
Carrots 4 medium
Celery 8 outside stalks
Onions 2 large
Potatoes 4 medium
Chinese Black Mushroom 1 handful
Thoroughly clean and cut all veggies into desired bite size, mix and set aside.
The Roasting Pan
16”L x 14”W x 4”H or larger, non-stick preferred.
- Line bottom of roasting pan with veggie mix;
- Thoroughly rinse turkey, remove excess fat, pat dry with paper towels and place on veggie bed;
- With hands, rub marinade onto turkey, back side first, then cavity and breast side. Try to get as much marinade under skin as possible. Make sure entire turkey is covered with sauce. Allow turkey to partially submerge in veggie bed but not touch pan;
- With heavy-duty aluminum foil, tightly cover turkey and roasting pan;
- Insert meat thermometer into inside of thigh, toward center of turkey;
- Leave turkey in refrigerator overnight.
- Preheat oven to 400oF, place roasting pan in oven and set timer to 21/2 hours;
- Check thermometer during last half hour as cooking speed may vary;
- Remove turkey from oven when it reaches 170oF, carefully remove aluminum foil and replace turkey in oven;
- Lower oven temperature to 350oF, periodically basting turkey with gravy from veggie bed for next half hour or until thermometer reading reaches 180oF.
- Use sharp knife;
- Remove wing and drumstick sections first;
- From side, cut into breast meat horizontally along thigh level;
- From top, cut down vertically along breast bone. Both breasts will come off easily.
- Place each whole breast on serving plate and thinly slice meat against grain. Keep slices in form;
- Lace cut meat with gravy yielded from veggie bed and serve;
- Garner vegetables from veggie bed and serve as side dish;
- Cut dark meat off legs and thighs, etc. and serve as desired.
There you have it, Grandpa Al’s turkey! Remember that this is home cooking, and I always advocate flexibility in home-cooked meals. Nothing has to be exact, that is. So use your imagination, use alternatives wherever you see fit, and more importantly, surprise yourself and your guests!