Craig LaBan's incredible barbecued turkey
It's that boasting time of year again, when people begin campaigning for the crowns of Greatest Kitchen Martyr and Most Ingenious Holiday Chef.
This is marked by animated exchanges - often between folks who really cook no more than once a year - relaying tales of Herculean efforts in Thanksgivings past.
"You cooked for how many people last year? Oh, you poor thing!" the conversation typically begins. "We had twice that number. . . . "
At least in Center City, where most rowhouses are so obviously small, the purported guest lists never exceed double digits. Instead, the fantabulous stories usually revolve around miracles of culinary efficiency - of feasts emerging in immaculate glory from postage-stamp kitchens equipped with little more than a fancy toaster oven and a George Foreman grill. (And, ahem, a good prepared-foods store nearby. )
Some of these feats - including mine - may even be true.
I call it "Thanksgiving by Fire," and not simply because it involves persuading 17 relatives to cram into a living room/dining room/foyer not suited to host more than 12. This holiday really involves open flames, and I'd have it no other way. Because my Weber charcoal grill makes the best darn turkey in the world.
It's so good that small children who previously looked with suspicion upon any poultry that wasn't presented as a deep-fried nugget were suddenly doing battle with grown uncles for drumstick rights.
Not to boast, but it's true.
Now, I know all about the various other cults of turkey gimmickry - the deep-fried turkey, the mail-order tur-duck-en, the Big Green Egg turkey, the vegan tofurky.
But this tradition, now in its fourth edition, began purely as a practicality, as a way to both cheat my one-oven city kitchen and cater to guests' different dietary needs.
And it works like a charm, leaving the oven space for side dishes and a pan of extra turkey breasts that take up less space and cook more quickly. I cook kosher breasts so the more observant members of my Jewish family can eat turkey, too. But we often need the additional meat, since the dome-shaped kettle does limit the turkey's size - 18 pounds max - and it ought to be a squat bird at that. It may be the grill's only drawback.
What it lacks in size, though, the barbecued turkey makes up in flavor and ease.
The first requirement is the right kind of grill - a charcoal kettle equipped with movable coal baskets for indirect heating (that is, on the sides of the turkey, not directly beneath it) and flip-up side grates to allow for easy refilling without cooking interruptions.
And of course, you also need a good bird, and for this we buy a fresh, never frozen, naturally raised turkey each year from the Fair Food Project in the Reading Terminal Market (other stores, such as Whole Foods, and some farmers markets also carry these).
Third, I swear by the power of the brine, a 24-hour submersion in heavily salted-sweet water that infuses every pore in our turkey's flesh with garlic, herbs and juniper. The trickiest part of the brine is finding a good neighbor, preferably one heading out of town, with enough spare fridge space on Thanksgiving eve to accommodate the trash-bag-lined wastebasket filled with our bathing beauty. (Thanks, Joe and Dawn! )
Then, when showtime arrives, it's time to dress it up. I remove the turkey from the brine, and rub it with cut lemons, a nice sheen of olive oil, a dusting of smoked paprika, and fistfuls of fragrant herbes de Provence. The cavity gets full seasoning, as well, plus as many lemon and orange halves and heads of garlic as can fit inside.
When the barbecue is up to temperature (around 350 degrees, according to the thermometer mounted in the grill lid), I place the turkey directly on the grates over a drip pan, cover, and let it roast.
With minimal attention - occasional coal refills, a little basting - the grill's knowing heat works magic within three hours or less, transforming that pale turkey into a wonder bird, a package of gushing juice and sublimely tender meat wrapped in a crackling crisp of mahogany brown skin.
And then, when your conventional oven suddenly blows a fuse at 4 p.m. (as mine did last year, just as guests were starting to arrive), you'll find that grill is good for heating stuffing, too.
Craig LaBan's Charcoal Grilled Turkey
Makes 12 servings
15-18-pound turkey, preferably never frozen
2 lemons, cut in half
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons smoked Spanish paprika
1/2 cup herbes de Provence
1 orange, cut in half
1 head garlic, halved
1 bunch thyme
6 bay leaves
1 bunch parsley
1. Remove the turkey from the brine, dry, and remove the wishbone. Rub the entire bird with juice from one lemon half. Smear the whole turkey with olive oil, then season generously (both inside and out) with salt and pepper, paprika, and herbes de Provence. Stuff the cavity with remaining cut lemons, orange, garlic and herbs.
2. Truss turkey cavity closed. The inside thighs should be slightly exposed to heat (not tied too tightly against the body), but the legs should be tied loosely so they do not hang over direct heat and burn.
3. Prepare the grill by placing an aluminum pan for drippings with a little water in the bottom between two coal side baskets, then preheat the briquettes. For a 22 1/2-inch grill, count 50 briquettes to begin. When the coals are well-started, divide them evenly (about 25 each) into each side basket. Open vents on the lid and bottom, place the cooking grate over the coals, and close the lid until the kettle reaches about 350 degrees.
4. Place the turkey on the grate above the drip pan and cover with the lid. Add about eight coals per side every hour (or four every half hour) to maintain temperature. A 15-17-pound unstuffed turkey should take from 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 hours to cook. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the bird is cooked: when the thermometer registers 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh, or 170 degrees in the breast.
5. Remove, cover with foil, and let rest a minimum of 45 minutes before carving.
- Grilling techniques from Weber; recipe from Craig LaBan
Per serving: 251 calories, 170 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 68 grams fat, 496 milligrams cholesterol, 413 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes enough for one 15-18-pound turkey
8 quarts water
2 cups coarse kosher salt
1 cup packed brown sugar (or honey)
1 bunch thyme
6 to 8 peeled whole garlic cloves
2 tablespoons black pepper
1 tablespoon juniper berries
1. Prepare a container large enough to hold a turkey, but small enough to fit inside a refrigerator, by lining it with a sturdy trash bag. (A plastic office wastebasket works well.)
2. Place turkey inside.
3. Mix half the water well with salt and sugar. Pour over turkey, and add thyme, garlic, pepper and juniper.
4. Add remaining water, then tie trash bag to seal tightly. Place in refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Adapted by Craig LaBan from a standard brine recipe
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.