The Call of the Wild Turkey

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To try the recipes mentioned in this post, click here for Hank's turkey Marsala and here for his turkey risotto with sage.

Well, it looks like spring turkey season will pass me by—again—without me getting a chance to get into the field. Thank God Holly got out this season, and was successful! Now we have a nice 13-pound turkey to eat.

But before you can eat it, you need to pluck it. Turkeys are hard to pluck. I suppose you could wet-pluck them like a pheasant, but you'd need a really big kettle of water. So we mostly dry-pluck them, which is a long, un-fun business. Fortunately for me, I was away when Holly shot her bird, so I didn't have to help pluck. I just get to cook it. Schweeet ...

We don't shoot many turkeys—each one is a rare gift we don't want to waste. So I am giving it the same "everything but the quack" treatment I give ducks and geese, only instead of a quack, this time it's a gobble.

I started by breaking down the turkey, which is just like breaking down any game bird, or a chicken for that matter, only the bird is a lot larger.

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Holly A. Heyser

First I remove the feet, which I save, and then I remove the legs. Great huge meaty legs! Turkeys do more running than flying, so they will be tasty, but loaded with sinew; I'll eventually confit them, or Holly will use them in a Mexican mole. After that go the wings, also gigantic. These will see the same fate as the legs.

That leaves the breast. A wild turkey breast is not like a domestic turkey's: this is the main difference between the two, as a wild bird's flavor is remarkably similar to one of those heritage turkeys you can buy. If you've only eaten Butterball, think turkey flavor times 10. But I digress.

A wild turkey breast is really six cuts of meat, not four. Domestic turkey breast is wide, like Dolly Parton. Wild ones are more like Kate Moss, or whoever the waif du jour is these days.

Both birds have large "tenders" on the inside part of the breast, which need to be pulled off. They are in fact tender, but they each have a wicked tendon running through the center that needs to be dealt with before cooking; you can chew on one for days and it won't break down.

The narrowness of the wild bird's breast lends itself to slicing each half-breast in half again. It is exactly the same concept you use with fish: there is a thin "tail end" that is in fact closest to the tail on a turkey, too, and a wider "center cut" that is up near the neck.

What do you do with those thin slices? Why make cutlets, of course.

Wild turkey cutlets, pounded a bit between wax paper with a rubber mallet or empty wine bottle, are every bit as tender as domestic chicken—and way more flavorful. I started with a simple wild turkey Marsala.

There's nothing like a slab of breaded and fried meat, slathered with the sweet-rich Marsala wine and butter or olive oil. Holly and I devoured this dish in seconds; it was one of those "no talk, must eat" meals.

My recipe for turkey Marsala is bare bones: pounded turkey cutlets, butter and olive oil, a simple breading, rosemary, and lots of Marsala. I fry a little garlic in the oil beforehand for flavor, too.

Breasts are easy, though. After all, everyone loves them, right? Left with a carcass, I moved on to turkey broth. I have no real set recipe for turkey broth. Sometimes I roast the neck and carcass, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I toss ginger in there, sometimes not. I always cook the bones and stray bits of meat a long time, though, and only follow up with veggies and spices in the last 90 minutes; I think this keeps the flavors cleaner.

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Holly A. Heyser

Broth is also where the feet come in. There is a lot of collagen in the feet—and once you hack at them with a cleaver to open them up to the water, that collagen adds body to your broth. And yes, I washed them first.

What do you do with the broth? Well, it's a great warm-up in winter, it freezes well, and it is perfect for soups and stews. Or, you could do what I did: make a wild turkey risotto.

Again, my version is simple; I want the ingredients to shine. I use a good Carnaroli risotto rice I got from Scott at Sausage Debauchery, the turkey broth, fresh sage, and good pecorino cheese. No meat. It's not needed if your turkey broth is strong enough. A lot of the Italian seafood risottos have no visible fish in them, either—it's the broth and the rice that make the risotto sublime.

On to the giblets. I normally save livers for my liver ravioli recipe, but last week at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference I saw Chef Brad Farmerie of the New York restaurant Public demonstrate an odd yet delicious take on liver: a crème caramel.

Weird, huh? Chef Farmerie's version actually tasted good: definitely like a flan, but with savory, warm flavors and just a hint of liver. I actually thought it wasn't livery enough. He served it with roasted grapes, crisp pancetta, and some watercress.

I floundered around with the structure of this for a while, and then I emailed Farmerie, who was gracious enough to send me his recipe. Armed with this blueprint, I started work making my own version: wild turkey liver crème caramel.

I switched out Farmerie's Asian flavors (curry, soy sauce, kombu, five-spice powder) and added Worcestershire sauce and French quatre épices. I traded his watercress for wild arugula, grapes for dried figs soaked in balsamic vinegar, pancetta for my homemade lardo, and Farmerie's maple syrup in the caramel for some local dark honey.

Oh yeah: and I doubled the amount of liver.

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Holly A. Heyser

Looks pretty cool, eh? I think so. But it was pretty much an epic fail.

First, I have only large ramekins, so it took forever to set. And it's a waaay too big portion. I don't make caramel often, and it burnt a little; not a good flavor there. As for the custard itself, well, Holly almost gagged and even I thought it was pretty nasty.

I am guessing that because I used two eggs (a pair of small pheasant eggs that I had lying around—don't ask ... ) instead of the one large chicken egg, the flavor was too eggy. And doubling the liver was a real mistake. Guess that much irony livery stuff really mangled the structure of the custard.

Oh well, I really liked the crispy lardo (duh!), and the balsamic-soaked figs and wild arugula were what I wanted, too. I also liked the background notes of the quatre épices and Worcestershire. So I do have something to build on.

When I finally get it right, I will let you all know.

Recipe: Wild Turkey or Pheasant Marsala
Recipe: Turkey Risotto with Sage

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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