Julia and Jacques just put their heads together and winged it

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

There are lots of ways to prepare Thanksgiving turkey, and many of them are not much harder than roasting or grilling a chicken. So why would we favor a method that calls for detaching the leg-thigh pieces and partially boning them, cutting out the backbone and wishbone, and trimming the wings and drumsticks?

Because Julia and Jacques did.

We have been tuned into Julia Child this year: watching hype for the film "Julie and Julia" build and dissipate; seeing "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" climb on bestseller lists; reliving her kinship with chef Jacques Pépin as they kitchen together in rerun TV land. Nostalgia has its place, but new and experienced cooks also profit from revisiting the friends' collaboration.

The 1999 episode in which they deconstructed the turkey, for "Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home," has been airing with some frequency on a local PBS station. The culinary masters made it look like fun. We consulted the companion recipe book from the show. The recipe was eight pages long. Not so fun.

Pépin remembers it more as a high-wire act: "We had talked about how to do the turkey a day before we shot that show," he said recently in a phone interview from Connecticut. "Julia had said, 'Let's try to bone it and stuff it.' I had never done a turkey that way before. What you see on camera is the first time, with no recipe, even different than what we had discussed."

He became a fan of slicing strategic cuts in big birds to help them cook evenly and faster. (He still makes slits at the joint of the turkey shoulder, and between the thigh and drumstick, in the bird he steams, then roasts for Thanksgiving each year.) Child loved wielding big hammers and such to illustrate the boning methods; Pepin says it looked dramatic but is not so necessary in the modern kitchen. A big, sharp knife and a small paring knife are all you need here.

For the Julia-Jacques recipe that includes a corn bread-sage stuffing, gravy and rich broth, he agreed that the amount of fat could be greatly reduced, which we have done in the accompanying recipe. "We always argued about the amount of butter," he says. "Julia liked a lot of butter. Cut it back, and you'll still be fine."

Pépin also says it's fine to use store-bought corn bread for the stuffing. He prefers corn muffins, which he says aren't as sweet, and a hot Italian sausage. Brining is not for him, though. "I don't think it makes a difference," he says. "At least not when I steam the turkey first."

In truth, the time spent prepping the Julia-Jacques turkey before it's roasted is time well spent. You've got bones upfront for making broth that is used later, for gravy. And it pays off on the platter, when the whole turkey breast is presented atop a mound of stuffing that has been flavored with the bird's juices (avoiding the bacterial worries that come from stuffing a turkey the regular way). The breast can be carved at the table without a wrestling match. The stuffed legs can easily be sliced into showy rounds, and the optional technique of removing tendons from the drumsticks just after they have been roasted (possible thanks to the removal of those drumstick ends) ensures optimal extraction of all that perfectly done dark meat.

Pépin suggested glazing the turkey with a recipe he included in "Jacques Pépin Celebrates" (Knopf, 2001). The mixture of apple cider vinegar, Tabasco sauce and salt crisps and colors the skin in a wonderful way. It was a good call, from a master always willing to improvise.


Julia and Jacques's Deconstructed Turkey With Corn Bread Stuffing and Gravy

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