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Forget the whole roast and get the most from your turkey

A perfect whole roast turkey carved at the table with all the trimmings has a significance at Christmas time that supersedes, for many home cooks, the importance of achieving the best results in terms of moist and succulent meat. But the fact is, it is all but impossible to have the breasts cooked just to the right point of moistness in the same amount of time it takes to cook the leg, thigh and wing meat until it is perfectly tender.

For some years now, our Christmas roast has been the American “Turducken” method, whereby a deboned turkey (only the leg bones remain) is stuffed with a duck and a chicken (deboned, of course) with layers of stuffing between each bird. This involves a great deal of work but is well worthwhile and, as there is no carcass, the stuffed body of the three-bird combination takes considerably longer to cook than a whole bird, allowing time for the brown meat to become tender whilst the fat of the duck skin and the layers of stuffing keep everything moist.

This year, however, rather than a “Turducken” we decided to invest in an organic turkey, which is considerably more expensive than a normal supermarket bird. Considering the price and in anticipation of the quality in terms of taste and texture, I felt this was too good to combine with a chicken and a duck so decided on rolled and stuffed breasts to be cooked separate from the legs, thighs and wings.

One of the big advantages of this method, apart from the obvious benefit of giving different cooking times as required for the best results, is that we have the carcass to use for stock and gravy which can be made a day or two in advance. Everyone loves a good real gravy, so let’s start with this.

Stock and gravy from the turkey carcass

Once your butcher has removed the breasts, legs/thighs and wings, have him break up the carcass into manageable-sized chunks, leaving all of the fat intact. What we want here is a brown stock, so the first step is to roast the carcass until golden brown.

Spread the carcass pieces evenly over a large oven tray, drizzle with a little olive oil and roast for around one hour at 200°C. Remove the browned carcass pieces then spoon off the fat from the pan and add the meat juices to a large saucepan along with the carcass pieces, and a few sticks each of chopped celery and leek. Cover with cold water. For the carcass of a large turkey, this will take at least 5 litres so you do need a very large saucepan.

Bring to the boil and simmer gently for around one hour to make a delicious turkey stock.

If you estimate you need 1 litre of gravy, strain 1.5 litres of the stock into a separate pan (save the remaining stock for soup or future gravies) and add 500ml of Ruby Port, or a mixture of Port and Madeira. Bring to the boil and simmer until reduced by half. This is the base for your gravy, to be added to the pan juices from the roast on Christmas Day and thickened as desired when ready for serving.

The rolled breast

Most butchers here in the Algarve will be happy to roll and stuff your breast for you, but if, like me, you prefer to use your own stuffing then you will have to take this on at home. The breasts need to be removed with care, keeping the skin between them intact along with some of the skin from the underside of the bird. Lay the breasts flat, skin side down and season with a little sea salt and pepper. Then place stuffing in the cavity between the breasts and on the flap of skin on either side before rolling. Use the excess skin to fully cover the meat and then tie up with string to hold everything in place.

Season the skin or make a rub with your chosen flavourings.

Roasting times will vary depending on size but as a rough guide, estimate around 2/3 of the time needed for the brown meat. Using a meat thermometer inserted into the middle of the roll, the temperature should be around 70°c for moist meat. Leave to stand for 20 minutes before carving.

The brown meat

Add some stuffing to any spaces under the skin of the legs and thighs, season the skin and wings, and roast at 150°C in a preheated oven until the internal temperature of the thigh reaches 80°C and the skin is dark and crispy.

Serving could not be easier. The brown meat can all be removed from the bones, cut up and served on a warmed platter for sharing around the table. And although carving the rolled breast may not have the same ceremonious appeal of a whole turkey at the table, perfect slices of moist meat and stuffing make for much better eating than dry breast carved from the bird. And you will have an excellent gravy to boot.

Merry Christmas!

By PATRICK STUART [email protected]