Look Ma, no ovens
Thanksgiving. An unabashed celebration of gluttony and consumption. A holiday after my own heart. It’s a time when quantity and quality merge and fuse into a lustrous, roasted fowl the size of a small mountain – a gift that keeps giving days afterward in the form of sandwiches and pot pies.
For Americans, Thanksgiving is a holiday that, more than the treasures of friends and family, celebrates the obsession that bigger is undeniably better. SUVs may have hooked us onto foreign oil and big Macs may have grotesquely inflated our waistlines, but help me God if I ever meet my match in a turkey and admit defeat: “Could we really eat all that?”
This holiday is not about thinking logically, progressively, or healthily. For most of my life, and for most Americans, the holiday comes down to two things: you and that bird. Brine it. Clean it. Stuff it. Roast it. Carve it. And most important, eat it. And eat it. And eat it.
From the first time that my Chinese mother, devoid of any American culinary knowledge, handed me a bird and asked what I thought she should do, I have felt my destiny intertwined with the turkey’s. Mine was to perfect the cooking process; the bird’s was to become delicious. Over the years I’ve tweaked the recipe – adding this, subtracting that. The whole endeavor is tricky: The turkey is a fowl too large for all its meat to be properly seasoned, with a breast prone to drying out and legs prone to staying bloody. Plus, you only get one chance a year: No one’s going to buy a 15-pounder just because it’s Thursday.
In recent years, I’ve finally found solutions to most of my dilemmas. An overnight soak in a tub of brine, salty like the oceans and spiced with peppercorns and bay leaves, will keep the bird moist from its neck to that little fat pocket on its bum. Butter mixed with a paste of rosemary, thyme, lemon and garlic, rubbed on and stuffed under the skin of the bird will fuse flavor to the meat. A rubdown of lemon juice, salt and pepper gives the skin a caramelized shine.
Fill the cavity with actual stuffing and the turkey will take forever to cook – and might harbor some microbes. But a large sprig of aromatics in the cavity – rosemary, thyme, lemon, onion, garlic, to echo the skin treatment – will season the fowl from the inside. Throw the bird on a bed of onions and carrots and everything will melt and candy in the turkey fat. Roast until the joints feel loose when you wiggle the leg. Cover and let it rest. You’ll soon find out that a 13- pound bird for four people will not go to waste.
But even as I write this, I feel my heart sinking: The bird and I are not meant to be this year. For one, turkeys are more novelty than sustenance in China. If anything, the Chinese culinary philosophy – the smaller the size, the more flavors to be absorbed – is the philosophy that offers up creations like lazi jiding, chicken nuggets buried under mounds of crispy dried red peppers, peanuts and sesame.
Even if I manage to obtain a turkey for the price of a small motorbike, I will run up against the real brick wall. I do not have an oven. And woe be upon the holiday cook with such a dilemma.
So my birds and I are forced to adapt and evolve. I want to preserve the way a well-roasted bird sits in all its majesty at the center of the table, its skin gleaming and crispy. The obvious thing to do is to shrink the size but keep the form, and I go off in search of the smallest poultry that Chinese grocery stores have to offer. Cornish hens? Quail?
Carrefour offers me a small bird labeled ru’e, or baby goose. I give it a try. Using my toaster oven, I roast the little guy on the turkey principle, applying a lemon juice and salt rubdown for color, and stuffing it with thyme and lemon peel. To counter the goose’s departure from the gluttonous Thanksgiving tradition, I make a rich stuffing of mushrooms and sweet Chinese sausage. I pair the bird with a risotto-like purple rice stuffing, made on the stove. The ru’e emerges from the toaster all golden brown and extremely succulent. Elegant, if that’s the kind of thing preferred, but I feel the skinny little gosling lacks the kind of decadence necessary to carry such a holiday.
Enter the duck. Once you (or your butcher) work a little knife magic and debone a breast, it’s hard to go wrong with a duck. The bird’s fat reserves make it hard to overcook, and scoring the skin will allow the extra fat to render off quickly while cooking. Classic duck a l’orange is roasted whole, but if I had the oven space to roast a whole duck, I’d probably roast a giant turkey instead. So I choose the breast and leg.
Ambitious home cooks will buy a half duck, debone the breast and cut off the leg, then simmer the leftover bones to build stock for a sauce. But you don’t have to do all this work. Reduced fresh orange juice without the stock will do just fine and create a pretty, shiny glaze over the skin. Serve the duck with sweet potatoes tossed with caramelized onions, and it’s not a bad Thanksgiving dinner at all.
Lastly, I try one recipe in the tradition of keeping the stuffing inside the bird. One of my favorite poultry recipes comes from Mark Bittman, who dared stuff chicken thighs with greenery. The trick to the dish is to debone and butterfly the thighs to an even thickness; and restrain yourself when it comes to the stuffing. I use spinach, sunflower seeds and raisins. Use extra stock to make a sauce and you’ll have enough gravy to accompany a big mound of mashed potatoes.
Roasted Baby Goose (photo above)
4 baby goose, Cornish hen, or quail
2 lemons, sliced in half
Large bunch of thyme
2 tablespoons butter
Preheat (toaster) oven to 220 degrees Celsius (425 degrees Fahrenheit). Clean, wash and dry the birds. Rub the birds all over with the sliced lemons. Season with salt and pepper. Slice the rind from the lemons and place the rind, along with the thyme, in the cavity. Place birds in aluminum foil, leaving breasts and thighs exposed. Dot breasts with butter. Roast for 25 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the birds. The fowl is cooked when you stick a knife in the bird and the juices run clear.
Purple Rice Stuffing (not pictured)
2 cups purple rice
3 cups water
½ cup diced sweet Chinese sausage
Large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups assorted mushrooms
2 tablespoons fresh sage
Wash and soak rice in water for 20 minutes, then drain. In a heavy pot, sauté sausage in olive oil until it just starts to brown. Add onions and garlic, then sauté until translucent. Toss in mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Add rice and water; bring to a boil, then a simmer. Cover and cook until rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Stir in fresh sage and adjust seasonings. Serve hot.
Duck with Spiced Orange Glaze
4 duck breast or legs
1 teaspoon peanut oil
2 shallots, minced
A 2-inch cinnamon stick
Small chunk of fresh ginger
2 star anise
2 cups freshly squeezed tangerine or orange juice
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Score the duck skin. Heat oil in a pan and sear the duck breast, skin side down, for about two minutes or until golden brown. Flip and sear the meat side for one minute. Roast in oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, reserve a tablespoon of the duck fat in the pan and use it to sauté shallots until translucent. Add spices, sautéing until fragrant, then add orange juice and boil to a syrupy consistency. When the duck is cooked, immediately spoon glaze over the meat. Let it rest five minutes. Slice and serve with sauce on the side.
Stuffed Chicken Thighs (photo above)
¼ cup of raisins
4 cloves of garlic
1 medium onion
¼ cup of sunflower seeds
Pinch of crushed red pepper
½ kilo spinach, chopped
6 chicken thighs, deboned and butterflied to even thickness
½ cup of white wine
1 cup chicken stock
Soak raisins in warm water until plump, or for about 20 mins. To make the stuffing, sauté garlic and onion in oil for about five minutes or until translucent. Add raisins, sunflower seeds, salt, pepper and crushed red pepper; sauté for one minute. Add spinach and cook until wilted. Cool the mixture. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Place a spoonful of stuffing at the edge of each thigh and roll it up. Secure with toothpicks or tie with string. Roll chicken in flour and shake off excess flour. Sauté the chicken rolls in olive oil on high heat until golden on all sides. Deglaze pan with white wine. When the wine has been reduced by half, or after about three minutes, add chicken stock; cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Slice rolls and serve with sauce.