Appetizers

December 9, 2013

Modernist, majestic and a bit of madness: Some very involved techniques for holiday cooking

I look at way too many food photos for my own good, but I’m always happy when my phone chimes and I see another picture of what’s cooking at Nate Simon’s house.

Appetizers

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I look at way too many food photos for my own good, but I’m always happy when my phone chimes and I see another picture of what’s cooking at Nate Simon’s house.

This past Thanksgiving, Simon, an anesthesiologist, friend and home cook extraordinaire, went to town on some turkey. While he gets his ideas from multiple sources — including his imagination and trial and error — Simon is a big fan of “Modernist Cooking at Home” ($140 list price, $119.32 on Amazon) by Nathan Myhrvold, as well as the modernist-leaning website, “Ideas in Food,” by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, who also have a hot new book called “Maximum Flavor” ($32.50 list, $20.79 on Amazon, $11.89 Kindle).

I was so impresed with what I saw of his Thanksgiving work, I asked him to explain his various techniques, products and approaches. Simon has a wife and two kids, and as you will see, they eat very, very well.

Here’s what Simon wrote for me (if you blow up your kitchen ruin all your food or lose your job because you obsessed over what follows, we cannot help you):

OK, here is the basic rundown of what I did. It ended up as six different turkey dishes (Asian glazed wings, sous vide breast, porchetta-style breast, thigh confit, drumstick rillettes, "turducken"), plus stock.

I got an 18-pound "heritage" bird from Corti Brothers. I also got two extra thighs, as well as some chicken thighs and duck legs.

I began the prep two days before Thanksgiving. I first removed the turkey wings, and divided those into two pieces each. I took off the legs and separated those into thigh and drumstick. The skin over the breast was removed in one piece. The two breast halves were taken off the bone. The wings, thighs, drumsticks, and one breast half were seasoned with a cure of salt, sugar (50% weight of salt), and Instacure #1 (10% weight of salt), which is curing salt (AKA "pink salt") that is 6.25% sodium nitrite. I used it mainly to get that "cured" flavor, not for preserving the meat per se.

The other breast half was butterflied to make it an even thickness, then scored and rubbed with a mixture of fennel seed, garlic, sage, salt, pepper, and olive oil. The breast was rolled and tied in the breast skin. (I should note that I cribbed this recipe/technique from Kenji Lopez-Alt at seriouseats.com .)

The extra thighs, along with the chicken and duck legs, were boned and skin removed. I cut them into thin strips, and added shallots, garlic, thyme, and sage that had been sweated in butter, along with salt (1% by weight), as well as Activa RM transglutaminase ( http://www.modernistpantry.com/activa-rm-transglutaminase.html ). The idea was to bind the three meats into one cohesive block of "turducken." The mixture was packed into two plastic wrap-lined loaf pans and refrigerated overnight (the Activa needs 12-24 hours to bind at refrigerator temps).

The turkey carcass was broken down a bit and browned, along with a couple of extra necks, in the oven, then cooked under pressure (15 psi) with an equal mass of water, along with carrot, onion, and thyme, for two hours. This yielded about two quarts of really nice stock.

The wings were made as a quick appetizer the day before Thanksgiving. I just browned them in a pan, and added rice wine, soy, hoisin, and a bit of fish sauce, simmered in the covered pan maybe 20 minutes, then reduced to glaze them.

Also day before Thanksgiving, I cooked the "naked" breast half in a makeshift sous vide setup, placing it in a Ziploc bag, evacuating the air as best I could, and letting it repose in a big pan of water on the stove, maintained around 145-150 degrees, for maybe 2 hours. I checked the internal temp to make sure it was at least 145 at that time, then chilled it. It was nice to have for snacks and sandwiches for the next few days.

On Thanksgiving, I put the thighs and drumsticks in a heavy pot with about a cup of olive oil, some garlic cloves, pepper, a few cloves, juniper berries, and thyme. I warmed it a bit on the stove, then put it in a 180 degree oven, where it sat largely hands-off for about eight hours.

The "turducken" pans were placed in a water bath and cooked in a 325-degree oven until done, maybe an hour or a bit more, then chilled. I served it the next day, and had leftovers for a few days. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos, but it had a cool marbled appearance when thinly sliced in cross-section, and it all held together just as I had hoped.

For Thanksgiving dinner, I browned the turkey "porchetta" in a pan, then finished in a 275 degree oven until about 145 degrees internal temperature. It was rested and served sliced. The breast was moist (helped, I'm sure, by the curing time, as well as judicious temp management), and had a heady aroma and flavor from the garlic-herb mixture, as well as a nice color from the cure. The confit thighs were crisped up in a pan and served as is, sort of family style. The meat just fell off the bone, and this was a surprise hit! I had no idea how this technique would work for the turkey, but I reasoned that it works well for duck, so it was worth a try. It was really good, not at all dry.

The confit drumsticks seemed like they would not be good candidates for just serving as-is; they had almost bone-like tendons throughout. So, I carefully removed the tendons and skin, and made rillettes, like one might with leftover duck confit. I put the meat in a stand mixer along with salt, pepper, some of the garlic cloves from the confit, and a bit of rendered pork fat, and beat it in the mixer until it was homogeneous and a bit creamy in consistency. This was rolled into logs in plastic wrap and chilled, served the next day. Also very tasty, and great to have around the house for snacks, appetizers, or whatever. It kept just fine for a few days.

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