All-in-One Holiday Bird: Sear-Roasted Turkey Roulade with Cornbread Stuffing and Sage-Apple Gravy

Tony writes: I’ve been circling my laptop for the last couple of days, hopeful for some sort of urgent Thanksgiving missive asking me to the big holiday-culinary-troubleshooting dance. Nothing doing. So I gave myself a little pep talk (“Hey, nobody wanted to go with you to prom either…”) and finally formulated the question on most folks’ minds (and the one I’d been waiting for): What the hell are you going to make for Thanksgiving?  More specifically, what to do with the holiday bird?

Don’t get me wrong: I generally like turkey just the way it is. Unlike my beef with roasting a chicken, I don’t even object to trussing a turkey and making it look all pretty (provided you brine it first). But this year, I feel like making good better: making the turkey special and a little different, without going rogue and deep-frying it or taking a trip down Turkducken lane. So the idea is to make a roast turkey that’s kind of exciting and dressy, but still simple and tasty enough not to completely piss off traditionalists at the table.

The plan: Turn a boneless breast into a dressy roast, stuff it with a cornbread dressing, and finish it with a quick apple and sage gravy. The stuffing kind of airbrushes turkey breasts’ primary problem, which is that they can be a little dull; a large cut that’s kind of plain after a couple of bites. The stuffing breaks up this plainness and also adds some moisture. Roll a flattened turkey breast with a slightly Southwestern-ish cornbread and chorizo stuffing and then pull the mixture into the holiday mainstream with an apple-sage gravy made with the drippings from the roast turkey. The boneless breast should take 1 hour to prep, 1 hour to roast and feed about 8. And, of course, you can always throw the dark meat crowd a bone by tossing a turkey leg or drumstick into the oven as well; something to please everybody on this most important of feasts.

Note: Steps 1 -3 can be completed up to 2 days before Thanksgiving.

1. At the market: Pick up a boneless turkey breast (call the butcher ahead to make sure they have one in stock). A boneless turkey breast should weigh 3 to 4 lb and run you between $3 and $5/lb. Is it worth going all-natural, local, etc…? Depends. Over the years, I’ve been present at a few “blind” roast turkey taste tests where Butterball came out on top (something spongy and familiar about it). Most free-range, local birds have a more developed flavor and a truer texture. Still, if you can swing it, I’d try and go for the good stuff. It’s a once-a-year meal and this preparation will taste that much better with a good local bird.

2. Butterfly and (gently pound): Butterflying the breast (cutting it in half almost all the way through and then opening it up like a book) gives it a pocket for stuffing. But rather than stop right there (and seal the stuffing up, as if it were a clamshell), I prefer to give the breast a gentle pound to flatten it out. This makes it possible to top the breast with the dressing and then roll it up. The finished “roulade” not only looks dressier, but also offers a better balance of stuffing and turkey in each bite. To butterfly the breast, using a chef’s knife, cut horizontally into the side of the breast, pulling up the growing flap of meat to expose the inside of the breast as you cut away. Stop about 1/2-inch from getting all the way through. Using a meat pounder (or even a can wrapped a couple of times in plastic wrap), gently pound the butterflied breast so it has an even thickness of about 1/2 inch.

3. Quick brine: A brine is a liquid mixture containing salt and sugar, which, through the wonders of osmosis, can impart moisture and flavor to lean cuts like turkey breasts. Unlike the overnight brine suggested for a whole turkey, all it takes is 45 minutes for this mixture to do its thing and give the turkey breast a little extra juiciness (and apple cider sweetness). Heat 1 1/2 cups water in the microwave with 1/4 cup kosher salt, stopping and mixing every 30 seconds, until the salt completely dissolves. Add the water to a large bowl along with 2 cups apple cider, 1 cup ice cubes, and the butterflied turkey and let sit for 45 minutes at room temperature. Remove the turkey from the brine and pat dry very well with paper towel (this is important as the turkey won’t properly sear and brown if it has any moisture on its surface).

3. Stuff and roll: While the turkey is brining, prepare the stuffing, a Southwestern mixture of cornbread, jalapeno, and chorizo: Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it’s shimmering hot, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add 1 link chorizo (about 1/2 lb, cut in 1/2-inch dice) and cook, stirring, until it renders much of its fat and becomes browned and crisped, about 4 minutes. Add 1/2 red bell pepper (cored and finely diced) and 1 jalapeno (cored, seeded, and finely diced) and cook, stirring, until the peppers soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in 3 cups crumbled cornbread and 5 scallions (trimmed and finely diced) and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes so the cornbread soaks up the juices. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temp, about 10 minutes. Set the brined turkey breast flat on a cutting board (skin side down), spread the cornbread mixture in an even layer on top, and roll the breast over onto itself. Secure in 4 or 5 places with kitchen twine.

4. Sear: Browning = flavor (Maillard reaction) so this step is meant to intensify the turkey’s flavor (not seal in its juices as is often inaccurately attributed to searing).  Heat the oven to 375F for the roasting step to follow (step #5). Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a large heavy-based Dutch oven or a flame-proof roasting pan over medium-high heat until it’s shimmering hot, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the turkey skin side down and cook without touching for 2 minutes. Flip (or roll it 1/4 of the way over) and cook the other sides until browned , about 4 more minutes.

5. Roast: The final stage of cooking – finishing the turkey in the oven –  is simple and hands-free. All you have to do is roast the turkey until it hits 165F; make sure you have an instant-read thermometer for this: Transfer the turkey to the middle shelf of the oven and cook until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the roast registers 165F, about 55 minutes; start checking after 45 minutes. Note: make sure to use potholders when handling the pot – it will be hot! (I know: duh!, but forgetting is a bitch).

6. Let rest, make the gravy, and then slice and serve: Allowing a large roast to rest after cooking is essential to it maintaining its juiciness. Use this 15-minute window to make a quick gravy. Transfer the turkey to a carving board, tent with aluminum foil, and let cool for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, make the gravy: set the Dutch oven or roasting pan over medium heat along with any of its pan drippings on the bottom (there should be 2 to 3 Tbs. of fat). Add 1 shallot (finely diced), sprinkle lightly with salt, and cook, stirring until the shallot softens, about 2 minutes. Add 2 Tbs. chopped fresh sage and 2 Tbs. flour and cook, stirring to work in any browned bits on the bottom of the pot, until the flour colors a light brown, about 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth and 1/2 apple (peeled and cut in 1/4-inch dice) and cook, stirring occasionally to incorporate any browned bits, until the gravy thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in a splash of cider vinegar, and season with more salt, pepper, and vinegar to taste. Slice the turkey in 1/2 inch pieces and serve drizzled with the gravy.

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