Of all of North America's culinary traditions, there's nothing more clichéd than the ritual roasting of the turkey, an act that tends to conjure up family angst without providing any gustatory payoff.
Roast turkey is a dish from our stodgy, white-bread past, when Canadians and Americans took little joy from their sustenance. Turkey tends to be under-seasoned, overcooked and above all, bland -- which is why so many people actually hate the stuff.
While the turkey is in fact native to North America, it's a recent arrival in southern Manitoba. The wild turkeys you see running around St. Norbert, Birds Hill Park and the Pembina River Valley were introduced in the late 1950s, according to the birding bible The Birds Of Manitoba.
It's not clear whether wild turkeys have ever adapted to our sub-Arctic climate, as breeding records are scant. It's possible Meleagris gallopavo survives by hiding out in barns and other shelters during the depths of winter.
What Manitoba does have is multitudes of domestic turkeys, which are best consumed after they've been smoked on Hutterite colonies. But at some point in your life, somebody -- probably a family member, but quite possibly a mean-spirited friend -- will force you to roast one of these wretched creatures yourself.
If this has happened to you this weekend, relax -- you still have one day until Thanksgiving. And that means you have time to transform your bird into something edible, through the magic of saltwater brine.
After being immersed for several hours in a bath of salt, sugar, spices and water, the obnoxious turkey can become almost resistant to overcooking and drying out.
Thanks to the power of brine, any novice cook can roast a turkey and still stand to eat the end result. Brine also works fantastically with chicken, which I personally prefer to roast over turkey any day.
A basic brine involves just salt, water and sugar. But you can add pretty much any other seasoning. The following recipe employs juniper berries, which are not actually berries but the fleshy seed cone of Juniperus communis, one of Manitoba's most common plants -- and most easily harvested wild seasonings.
If you can't find a common juniper in your neighbour's yard, head to a specialty grocer and buy a bag of dried berries. They also can be used to season soups or ground into a rub for barbecued meat.
This recipe also calls for a hot pepper and some booze, but you can forget about either if don't like heat or can't stand the taste of alcohol.
The idea behind the brine is to make the hated turkey not just palatable, but enjoyable. And if you still can't get around the family-angst aspect, you can always go out for Chinese food.
ROAST CHICKEN OR TURKEY
One chicken, fresh or defrosted
Half a cup of sugar
Three quarters of a cup of kosher salt
10 to 15 juniper berries
Four to eight cloves
Five to 10 peppercorns
One habanero, Scotch bonnet or red-hot cherry pepper, stemmed and halved
One sprig of fresh sage leaves
Half a bottle of unwanted bourbon, Scotch or Irish whisky (optional)
Two tablespoons of butter
Ground pepper, salt and paprika to taste
One cup of leftover dry wine or one cup of chicken or vegetable stock
MAKE THE BRINE: Using a spice grinder, mortar and pestle or pepper mill, coarsely grind the juniper berries, cloves and peppercorns. Pour four cups of water into a stockpot large enough to hold your bird. Add the ground juniper berries, peppercorns, cloves, salt, sugar, hot pepper and sage. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and whisky, if desired. And five to 10 more cups of cold, depending on the size of the pot. The brine is ready when it's cool; use ice cubes if necessary. Do not get impatient, as warm brine is a perfect medium for bacterial growth.
BRINE THE BIRD: Place the turkey or chicken in the brine, ensuring it is covered with liquid. If you must, place a heavy lid from a smaller pot on top of the bird to ensure it's submerged. Cover the pot and refrigerate 12 to 24 hours.
PREP THE BIRD: Preheat an oven to 375 F. Remove the turkey or chicken from the brine and drain all the liquid, taking care to discard all the spices, herbs and hot pepper. Wash your hands. Melt the butter, then brush it over the exterior of the turkey or chicken. Rub the whole bird with salt, pepper and paprika. Place in a roasting pan.
COOK THE BIRD: Roast the turkey or chicken as you would normally: You'll need at about 75 minutes for a chicken and several hours for a turkey. Don't worry about overcooking the bird, as the whole purpose of brining fowl is to ensure it won't dry out. When in doubt, stab the thigh with a meat thermometer. The bird is safe to eat when the deepest part of the thigh reaches 175 F.
MAKE A PAN SAUCE: When the bird is cooked, remove the roasting pan from the oven and place the turkey or chicken in another pan to rest. Place the original roasting pan, now full of juices and bits of skin and fat, on the stove. Add the wine or stock and turn the burner up to medium-high. Stir the pan sauce as it heats up and scrape up all the bits from the pan. Add any juices from the resting bird. After the sauce boils, remove it from the heat and strain the pan sauce through a sieve. Pour the pan sauce into the narrowest glass you can find and spoon off the fat from the top. The sauce is now ready to accompany pretty much anything.
CARVE AND SERVE THE BIRD: Don't worry about making this look perfect. If you've roasted a chicken, remove the wings and legs and set them on a platter. Then carve out the breast meat, pull out the thigh meat and place it all on the platter, with pan sauce on the side.
If you've roasted a turkey, remove the entire breast from the carcass and slice it on a cutting board. (The traditional carving method, which involves trying to remove layers of breast from the whole bird, is an idiotic waste of time and energy.) Pull out enough dark meat to fill out the platter and serve with the pan sauce.
Wait, what about gravy? If you insist on it, whisk a tablespoon of flour into a splash of water and slowly stir the mixture into the strained pan sauce. Then heat and stir until it thickens. Personally, this, too, is a waste of time and a terrible use of a perfectly good pan sauce.