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Turkey breast with ta’am

I’m not a big fan of cooking meat–never really had a great knack for it, and the lack of easy access to kosher butchers and fresh, unfrozen meat for most of my working life has made it easier to move to dairy, vegetarian, and fish dishes as my mainstays. Out here in Pasadena, my Trader Joe’s carries reasonably priced kosher chicken, turkey, and occasionally beef. But in recent years, the Post, Iowa slaughterhouses that supplied the west coast kosher markets were treating both their cattle and their workers so badly before they were shut down that I just stopped buying meat altogether for a while.

In the past two months, though, I’ve tried to get back to cooking chicken once in a while–Trader Joe’s started carrying Empire poultry again, and my daughter and husband have been clamoring for it. But once you lose the habit of cooking meat, it’s hard to go back.

For one thing, chicken and turkey are so dense compared with fish and dairy. Doesn’t really matter how many or how few pieces you have, it still takes the better part of an hour to cook all the way through–something I’d forgotten about. Even microwaving doesn’t seem to help much. Contrast that with a fish fillet or steak in 15 minutes or less, an omelet in 5 minutes, filled pasta in 10. No wonder I don’t gravitate towards chicken now that I have a kid.

Still. I had a nice-looking half of a turkey breast, recent vintage (i.e., purchased a week or so before and stuck in the freezer, rather than one that had been buried in the freezer for 4 years unused and unloved. My personal record for this year: an abandoned rock cornish game hen from 2001!)

I knew from sore experience that it would take more than a day in the fridge to thaw properly, so this time I started 2 days ahead, and it seemed to go better from there. I also figured out enough time–at least 2 hours just in case, on a day when I wouldn’t end up frustrated and furious.

But turkey–I’ve never eaten turkey that was actively good. Well, not the white meat, anyway. Ta’am (“taste” in Yiddish and Hebrew), my grandmother’s first criterion for whether food was worth eating, is something I never really associated with turkey breast, and probably for good reason. A duty rather than a pleasure, and I always think it would have been better if it were chicken. What to do?

Then I thought about the way I often cook fish–brown an onion in oil, sear the fish on both sides, then microwave covered until the middle is just barely cooked through and still moist. The microwave didn’t seem like a good idea in this case because of the dense meat and my extreme impatience, but it’s pretty classic restaurant technique to brown poultry and then stick it in a hot oven to finish. Would it work for me? And then I remembered an article of Mark Bittman’s from a year or so ago–a flattened out braise of well-browned turkey pieces on top of sautéed vegetables that came out moist and tasting like something other than dried out dishrags in under an hour.

It took a little longer because I cooked it covered–afraid of drying the thing out entirely, and wanting to make sure it was cooked. Maybe next time I’ll try it the braver way and get it down under an hour.

But—-My version is a lot simpler and cheaper than Bittman’s, even though kosher meat is about twice to four times as expensive as regular. That’s because my version includes no fancy imported pork products like pancetta and guanciale (aka “chazerai, that greasy pig stuff” in Jewish circles). Or even unfancy domestic pork products.

It’s also better because it includes garlic, which Bittman has inexplicably forgotten in his haste to treyf up a perfectly decent dish. Somehow that man has really strayed from his roots…tragic. (What, doesn’t pork go with garlic, or am I missing something?)

Anyway. This came out really well–very moist, not hideously dense or seized-up, not oversalted, and beautifully savory–it tasted like something worth eating for its own sake, not like Thanksgiving turkey breast at all.  No gravy necessary–all by themselves, the pan juices would have made a good soup with the vegetables. It had ta’am.

Carrot, onion, celery–the classic base for any decent broth–give the turkey and the pan juices a lot of flavor, and so does the aggressive browning. But the garlic and the fresh thyme, along with a little wine, really pull it together. None of this is a new thing, but it really works.

Sage, marjoram or rosemary would probably also work–particularly sage, I bet–but I really like the thyme I get from my local Armenian corner grocery. It’s long-leafed and very aromatic, and very inexpensive compared with the prices in the supermarket. It feels like a luxury to be able to buy a whole bunch for 79 cents, not a miserly little plastic packet for two bucks, and know that I can throw a little into any dish with browned onions or tomatoes or peppers and get a huge kick of flavor from a sprig or two. But I know that unlike the champion cooks who come into the corner grocery and buy kilos of vegetables and huge bags of rice or kernel wheat at a time, I won’t use it fast enough to keep it fresh, so I rinse and freeze some of it in a sandwich bag for later.

Oven-braised turkey breast with thyme, not time (well, not too much)

  • split turkey breast (or two, or more if you need to feed a lot of people), rinsed, skin on, most of the fat pulled off, bones and cartilage cut out
  • 1 onion, chopped (scale up vegetables as needed)
  • 2-3 carrots and 2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
  • really fat clove of garlic (or 2-3 medium cloves), minced/grated/mashed
  • several sprigs fresh or 1/2-1 t dried thyme
  • olive oil
  • drizzle of dry red or white wine

1. Preheat the oven to 450F.  In a stock pot or dutch oven, fry the onion, carrots and celery in a few spoonfuls of olive oil. You can sweat the vegetables if you want–just cover and let them cook on medium-low heat for 5 minutes or so. Or turn up the heat to stir-fry and brown them a little after that–I think this makes it taste better. Once you have the vegetables the way you want them, remove them to a foil-lined roasting pan or to a bowl if you’re going to braise the turkey in the same pot you’re browning in.

2. Add a few more spoonfuls of olive oil to the browning pan and heat it up med-high. Make sure the turkey breast is well-drained of any juices and then pat on a little garlic (leave about half the clove for the actual roasting) and a sprig of thyme, and fry skin side down for several minutes until it starts to color well. A deep pan is good here to avoid spatter burns. Turn it and fry another couple of minutes.

3. Lay the cooked vegetables in the roasting pan and mix in a little of the remaining garlic and a sprig or so of thyme. Put the browned turkey breast on top of the cooked vegetables and add the rest of the garlic and a few more sprigs of thyme on top. Pour a little bit of water into the bottom of the pan, drizzle on a few spoonfuls of wine and more olive oil, crack a little black pepper on if you want to, and cover the pan with foil.

4. Roast for half an hour at 450F, turn the oven down to 400-425F, and roast another half-hour. Test for doneness–you’ll probably need to let it cook another 20-40 minutes after that. If you want the skin crispy, uncover it the last 15-20 minutes. Let it rest a few minutes before cutting into it unless you’re impatient like my family…

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