Turkey? What's the occasion? Aha, that's the whole problem with turkey. It's one of those unfortunate dishes -- like fruit cakes (Christmas) and baked ham (Easter) -- that is so solidly linked to a specific holiday that we have trouble imagining it, or cooking it, at any other time of the year.
I'm not saying you can't find turkey during the rest of the year. But you have to look for it. And where you generally find it, covered with mayo, is nestled between the bacon and the lettuce in your basic club sandwich.
This is a shame. Turkey has many virtues other than just tasting good. Usually there is enough meat on a single bird to feed both your mob and a full set of visiting in-laws. Then, too, it's the leftover champ of the Free World -- useful for soups, gravies, salads and hashes. And there's always enough to fit nicely between the lettuce and the bacon in the next day's club sandwich.
Turkey -- what's the occasion? Maybe the turkey itself should be the occasion.
The Staples: Make sure you have these on hand: garlic, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, butter, paprika.
The Shopping List: One turkey (10 pounds will do nicely); 4 pounds of potatoes; 1 small package of cream cheese; 3 onions; 1 1/2 pounds of string beans; 1 lemon; 1 orange; 4 ounces of grated parmesan cheese; 1 quart of ice cream.
There are several distinct advantages to preparing this un-Thanksgiving turkey. In the first place, you don't have to cook all the side dishes that people consider part of the holiday tradition. Secondly, you don't have to follow the traditional baking methods that too often produce a bird just a bit on the dry side.
3 P.M.: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Today we're going to be using a Dutch oven; that's the large baking dish with the tight cover that fits into the oven. If you can't locate one of those, it's possible to get by with a deep baking dish and a tight covering of metal foil.
As the oven heats up, you prepare the paste that you're going to smear over the turkey. Mince three cloves of garlic. Add a large pinch of paprika, a generous amount of salt and pepper and enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to form a paste. Paint this over the surface of the bird.
Peel 2 medium-sized onions and cut them into small chunks. Place these in the turkey cavity. Slice the orange into thin slices and lay these slices over the entire surface of the turkey.
At this point, if your wife happens to wander into the kitchen, she may make an observation: "That's no way to cook a turkey!" Don't listen. It may not be the standard way to cook a turkey, but in some families it has become that.
3:15 P.M.: Put turkey in the Dutch oven and make sure cover is tight. Place the pot in the preheated oven.
4:15 P.M.: Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees. Remove cover (or metal foil) and every 20 minutes or so, baste the bird with its own juices.
5:15 P.M.: Remove the orange slices from the body of the turkey. Add a slight dusting of paprika. Return the bird to the oven for its third and final hour of baking. Continue to baste it periodically with the pan juices.
5:30 P.M.: Cut the tips from the green beans and then, slice the beans lengthwise. (Cutting off tips of beans is one of the world's dullest tasks and you may want to con one of the kids into doing it.) Peel 1 small onion and chop it fine. Add a colve of garlic, minced. And the grated parmesan cheese, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar. A pinch of salt and pepper. Set this aside until beans are cooked.
6:10 P.M.: Drop potatoes into boiling water. Boil potatoes until fork passes through then easily -- usually about 20 minutes. Drop the string beans into smaller pot and boil for just a few minutes, until they are tender. Drain the water away from the beans and add the parmesan mixture; keep warm over low heat until ready to serve.
6:15 P.M.: Check turkey for doneness. If drumsticks seem loose in their sockets, bird is cooked through. A second test: jab a sharp knife into the turkey thigh; if the liquid that escapes is yellowish or clear, the bird is well done. It it's still pink, more cooking time is required.
6:30 P.M.: Remove potatoes from boiling water and mash with an electric beater. Cut a stick of butter into small pieces and add these to the hot potatoes along with the small package of cream cheese. Beat until smooth and add salt and pepper to taste.
Much has been written about the proper way to carve a turkey. I have read these instructions every year, and I have never yet managed to summon up the requisite surgical dexterity. You will soon discover that any method that separates the meat from the rest of the turkey will be just fine with the family.