Most of us remember when cooking a turkey was only an annual event. The rest of the year turkey was rarely seen at supermarkets. But times have changed; poultry consumption is at an all-time high, with beef taking a back seat. Turkey parts join their chicken counterparts when it comes to availability and selection, with a similar proliferation in recipes for turkey. You can buy that big bird ground, cut up, or in boneless cutlets. In terms of protein, turkey compares favorably to red meat; with the skin removed, it has only a fraction of the fat. Compared with chicken it’s just as low in fat and lower in cholesterol, but taste-wise it’s more flavorful. Turkey can also be less expensive, depending on local sales.
So where do all the best turkeys hang out? In the freezer section of your local supermarket? Not likely. Those poor turkeys were drug addicts who died before their time. Mass-produced turkeys are fed antibiotics and growth hormones — literally, turkeys on steroids. These pumped-up birds have a short life before reaching the butcher, who may use additives to prolong freshness or yellow dye for visual appeal. Worse yet, some turkeys are injected with a self-basting substance meant to impersonate butter.
But with just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, what options are available? Let your fingers do the walking and call your local grocers, butchers and health food stores to find out where naturally raised turkeys are sold. In Chicago we buy our turkeys at Whole Foods. These turkeys are raised without machinery on an Amish farm called Kauffman’s Farm. They’re free-range, so they’re leaner (from all that exercise) and they’re less likely to be riddled with bacteria because these turkeys don’t suffer from the effects of mass production. The taste is also much improved, as the results of our last few Thanksgivings bear out. I know, you’re complaining that these turkeys usually cost more, but that’s because they live a long and happy life, requiring more feed and attention.
Our first experience with naturally raised turkeys was a few years ago when we lived on a farm not far from our relatives. One year they decided to raise two turkeys for the holidays. By Halloween those turkeys had grown to a tremendous size and had developed some impressive watchdog characteristics. No stranger that drove onto the farm dared set foot out of the car with two chest-high, 40-pound turkeys lunging at them.
Besides terrorizing, these turkeys liked to let our nieces and nephews chase them around the outside of the house. We watched this movie-like event through the big picture window with a soundtrack of “gobble-gobble scream-scream” until the turkeys turned around and chased them, “scream-scream gobble-gobble.” Those watchdog turkeys were never eaten for Thanksgiving but continued to guard the farm and chase the children or let the children chase them for the next few years.
Look for sales, especially the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is a good time to buy turkey parts, such as thighs, for a low price. I simmer them in a soup pot with water, debone the turkey, and freeze it in bags of containers for casseroles, enchiladas, or soups. Save the stock for soup or freeze for later. Additionally, try ground turkey instead of ground beef or pork for meatballs, meat loaf, tacos and chili. Don’t tell, and the family may not notice the difference.
The following are a few out-of-the-ordinary ways to use the festive fall bird.