Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Giving Thanks in Moldova

So we all know how much Zachariah loves Thanksgiving.  It’s basically an entire day spent with loved ones doing one of my favorite activities: cooking.  A LOT of cooking.  Not the whipping up dinner kind, but cooking imbued with the meaning of three other themes dear to my heart.

Orange Basil turkey comes out of the oven.
Note it does not entirely fit in the pan.
  1. Loved ones.
  2. Coordinating entire meals, the one thing better than cooking, and the kind of complex logistical task generally left to militaries, which I nevertheless prefer to meet with at least a little improvisation.
  3. Food as cultural process worthy of great respect and eating as a political act, because eating locally in today’s world inherently is an act of dissention from a powerful political economic system. In such a world, Thanksgiving is a radically ecological holiday.  It’s food is seasonal, and it is one of the few days left when many American families cook, and are thankful, for having plenty to eat.
It says something that even during my years of vegetarianism, Thanksgiving was always an exception.

This year's lesson: removing that extra something, or,
"Whoa, that's a lot of neck."
Okay, so I love Thanksgiving, digression done.  I also, however, happen to have chosen an international lifestyle, meaning I often find myself outside the States, and certainly away from home, at the holidays.  Ask any expat and this is often one of the hardest parts of the job.  Once one embraces it, however, it can also be an incredible opportunity for holidays that, if not orthodox, are certainly memorable.  I’ll never forget my first Thanksgiving abroad, crowded onto the floor of a small flat in Budapest, or learning how to finish de-feathering a turkey by hand on the spot that Christmas in Spain with Hunter and Yeshe (and then brining it in an unused wastebasket…)

The turkey team
This Thanksgiving was no less memorable.  In Moldova, volunteers come together in Chisinau to execute a giant cross-cultural Thanksgiving.  We invite the Moldovan staff, and turnout averages between 70-90 people.  This year, that required four turkeys, four kitchens, and somewhere around 15 cooks divided into four teams.  In a moment of either extreme folly or hubris, yours truly volunteered to lead the turkey team.  Yes, that turkey.  As in, that one thing you can’t screw up on Thanksgiving.  Or in this case, those four things.  Luckily, I was cooking with two incredibly talented and experienced co-chefs.

Normally, one doesn’t get to experiment much with the turkey, but since we had four, I wanted to try something a little wacky.  So we did two normal turkeys, and on the other two we used an Orange Basil rub from The Splendid Table (recipes at end of post).

5 kg of potatoes, comin' right up!
One of my favorite things about this Thanksgiving was that it is easily the most locally sourced feast I’ve ever eaten.  We are lucky here in Moldova in that the climate means just about all the holiday staples can be grown right here.  With the exception of a few spices, hardly anything came from more than 100 miles away.  With the exception of a little dairy, this year’s Pumpkin Curry Soup, for example, all came from my own garden.

Lindsey, fresh from
killing turkeys, after I
outsourced my Pumpkin
Curry Soup to her.
This local sourcing included the turkeys, which made for quite the logistical operation.  We held our feast the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  The turkey’s were procured from a volunteer’s family, and were killed and cleaned Friday before.  The next morning, this four person killing team had to be on a bus at the crack of dawn to get them to Chisinau by 9am so that we could get the first two in the oven by 10:30 and hopefully have all four done shortly after the first wave of eating began at 3:00 in the afternoon.  For more on what was certainly a Black Friday for Moldovan turkeys, see Lindsey’s post, Thanksgiving OR: Oh My God There’s Blood Everywhere.

Some friends are more
helpful than others.
Watcha doin Craig?

As turkey team, we cooked at Peace Corps.  We shared the kitchen with a team tasked with making somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 kg of mashed potatoes.  This was my other favorite thing about Thanksgiving, a big kitchen full of friends (including Lindsey, my bestie here in Moldova).
Moving turkey with ladles.

One of the compromises of cooking in 
non-American kitchens is you either get creative or go down in a charred disaster real quick.  Measuring devices?  More like, “if it’s used to stir tea it must be a teaspoon.”  Condensed milk?  Condense it yourself.  Baking sheets?  Substitute frying pans.  Plus other fun surprises like single knife kitchens.

The feast!
The thing is, all those extra gizmos we’ve gotten used to in American kitchens, they don’t generally effect the taste much.  And you’re bound to end up laughing as three people try to move a hot turkey with a ladle that is bending under the strain.  (This is not, by any means, to say I don’t miss those gizmos, which definitely do have a time saving effect…)

All told, we managed quite well, or, at least well enough that more people said thank you than shouted about bad turkey.  And really, that’s what the day is all about.  When I finally sat down after 8 hours in the kitchen and Melissa asked me what I was thankful for, my response was one of the easiest thanks ever given: I’m thankful for serving in a country where we are all close enough to have the opportunity to come together as a Peace Corps family on Thanksgiving.  And for not being on the cleanup team.

Bob shows us how to carve a turkey.
Okay, everyone helped a little.

In general, plan for: 12-15lbs (5.4-6.8kgs) turkey for 10-12 people / 16-18lbs (7.25-8.16kgs) turkey for 14-16 people / 19-22lbs (8.61-9.97kgs) turkey for 20-22 people

Orange Basil Turkey #1
Basil Orange Roast TurkeyFrom American Public Media’s The Splendid Table
·         Seasoning Blend:
  • 1/2 of a medium red onion
  • 6 large cloves garlic
  • 1 tightly-packed cup fresh basil leaves
  • Grated zest of a large orange
  • 1 teaspoon mild chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon each dry oregano and ground allspice
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • Juice of half the orange
  • 1/4 teaspoon each salt and fresh ground black pepper
·         The Turkey:
  • 16 to 18 pound turkey (set aside neck, giblets and wing tips for gravy)
  • 2 carrots, peeled
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 1 bottle dry white wine 
1. Combine all seasoning blend ingredients in food processor and finely chop.
2. Preheat oven to 325°F. and set a single rack as low as possible in the oven. Slip the seasonings under the turkey's skin wherever you can. Rub the rest over the interior and exterior of the bird.
3. Line a large shallow roasting pan with the carrots and celery. Set turkey on them breast side down. Roast 15 minutes to the pound, or until an instant-read thermometer tucked into the thickest part of the thigh reads 175°. Shift the turkey every so often to keep breast from sticking.
4. After turkey has been in oven for 30 minutes, pour 1/3 of the wine over the bird, and baste frequently with pan juices. Continue adding wine over the next hour. Then baste with pan juices. During the last 30 minutes, carefully turn over turkey to brown breast area. Remove turkey from oven, arrange on a large platter, tent loosely with foil, and let rest 30 to 45 minutes in a warm place while making gravy and finishing the rest of the meal. Carve turkey at table.

Turkey: Traditional Recipe
  • 1 turkey, approx. 15 lbs (6.8kgs)
  • Juice of a lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil or melted butter
  • 1/2 yellow onion, peeled and quartered
  • Tops and bottoms of a bunch of celery
  • 2 carrots
  • Parsley
  • Sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme
Turkey Preparation:
Remove the neck and giblets (heart, gizzard, liver). Use the heart and gizzard for making stock for the stuffing. The neck can be cooked along side the turkey or saved for turkey soup.

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (204C).
2. Wash out the turkey with water. Pull out any remaining feather stubs in the turkey skin. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
3. Lather the inside of the cavity with the juice of half a lemon.
4. Take a small handful of salt and rub all over the inside of the turkey.
5. For flavor, put in inside the turkey a half a yellow onion, peeled and quartered, a bunch of parsley, a couple of carrots, and some tops and bottoms of celery.
6. Close up the turkey cavity with either string (not nylon string!) or metal skewers. Make sure that the turkey's legs are tied together, held close to the body, and tie a string around the turkey body to hold the wings in close.
7. Rub either melted butter or olive oil all over the outside of the turkey. Sprinkle salt generously all over the outside of the turkey (or have had it soaking in salt-water brine before starting this process). Sprinkle pepper over the turkey.
8. Place turkey BREAST DOWN on the bottom of a rack over a sturdy roasting pan big enough to catch all the drippings. Cooking the turkey breast down means the skin over the breast will not get so brown. However, all of the juices from the cooking turkey will fall down into the breast while cooking.
9. Add several sprigs of fresh (if possible) thyme and rosemary to the outside of the turkey.
No I did not know how to carve
a turkey before this experience.
Or after.
10.  Put the turkey in the oven. Recommended cooking time is about 15 minutes for every pound. For the 15 lb turkey, start the cooking at 400F (204C) for the first 1/2 hour. Then reduce the heat to 350F (176C) for the next 2 hours. Then reduce the heat further to 225F (107C) for the next hour to hour and a half.
11. If you want the breast to be browned as well, you can turn the bird over so that the breast is on top, and put it in a 500F (260C) oven or under the broiler for 4-5 minutes, just enough to brown the breast. Note that if you do this, you will have a higher risk of overcooking the turkey breast. 12. Start taking temperature readings with a meat thermometer, inserted deep into the thickest part of the turkey breast and thigh, a half hour before the turkey should be done. The dark meat in the thigh should be about 175F (79C). The white meat in the breast should be 160F (71C) to 165F (73C). If you don't have a meat thermometer, spear the breast with a knife. The turkey juices should be clear, not pink.
13. Once you remove the turkey from the oven, let it rest for 15-20 minutes.
14. Turn the turkey breast side up to carve it.

Mmmm....thick cream for a Pumpkin Curry Soup!
We used the pan juices to make some excellent gravy the traditional way.  Due to the wine, the orange basil turkey had a lot more juices for the gravy base, but surprisingly the Traditional turkey produces much more flavorful pan juices.  Adding some red house wine to the water in which the necks boiled also added some nice flavor to the gravy.  We also put the traditional turkey on a vegetable rack; these racks plus those from inside the traditional turkey made for an extra easy side of delicious roasted vegetables.

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