Cooking Up a Thanksgiving Tradition Outdoors
There’s something to be said for following the same rituals year after year. Turkey signals Thanksgiving, but in our house so does cranberry sauce (homemade with pineapple, pecans, and fresh ginger, as well as the canned variety), oyster and bread stuffing, mashed potatoes with roasted garlic, not to mention creamed spinach and pureed squash. Pecan pie, cranberry cheesecake, pumpkin pie. Ah, yes, there is real safety in tradition, but the rebel in me is screaming this year.
Why might I veer away from my mother-in-law’s famed and infamous jello mold (made with crushed canned pineapple and orange sherbet)? Why would I want to introduce new flavors — like blood orange and fresh ginger — to the pureed squash? Why might I make a pumpkin brittle to crumble on top of our salad, with local blue cheese and tiny cubes of tangerine?
Sure, it’s fun to shake things up a bit, but there’s also a deeper, more profound reason I need to make this Thanksgiving different. It’s the first year that one of my children won’t be here. My oldest daughter is now living and working in China, and her absence will be a huge gap at the table. My mother-in-law will be spending the holiday in California with my sister-in-law, instead of sticking to the usual tradition of having her here. Her absence, too, will be deeply felt. So when we go around the table this year and each talk about something we are grateful for, I will undoubtedly say what I always say (“I am so grateful for my family and friends and my health,” or some such version of that sentiment). I will also undoubtedly keep to tradition and wipe away my unwanted, but always-predictable flood of tears (while my youngest daughter shakes her head in embarrassment and sighs “Mom!”).
You might think that this year, more than ever, I would want to stick to tradition to try to fool myself into thinking that everything is the same. But I know it’s not, so it feels like the right time to make some changes in the food served at our holiday feast.
We will have turkey (I’m not that much of a rebel!), but it will be grilled. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary, but trust me — with this clan it is. Last year when I was a testing recipes for a grilling book (which will be out next spring) I decided to try grilling a whole turkey. I figured it might be a good idea, but worried the turkey meat would dry out. Not only did grilling the bird turn out to be one of the simplest recipes I experimented with, it was also one of the most successful.
The beauty of grilling a turkey is two-fold: it frees up the oven for all those fabulous side dishes you want to keep warm, and it forces you outside and into the fresh air.
Here’s the deal: take a turkey — 10 to 12 pounds is ideal, and I wouldn’t go bigger than 14 pounds — and clean it well inside and out. Season it, inside the cavity and out on the skin, with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. You can also add fresh chopped thyme, rosemary, sage and/or basil and a few cloves of finely chopped garlic.
Next, make the fire. You will be grilling the turkey whole using a method called “Indirect Grilling.” If working with a charcoal grill, heat a good amount of charcoal until hot. Spread the coals on either side of the grill, leaving the middle part of the grill without any charcoal under it. If working with a gas grill, preheat the grill to 450 degrees and turn off the burner directly in the center of the grill. No matter what method you’re using, place a disposable aluminum drip pan directly under the center of the grill – it will be used to catch the juices and fat that drip off as the bird cooks and not create a mess of your grill.
Place the bird in the middle of the grill where it doesn’t have direct heat underneath. Cover and cook about two hours or until the juices in the cavity are no longer pink and when the drumstick is gently jiggled it feels loose. You don’t need to baste the birds or do a thing. (I told you this was simple!) The turkey will cook faster than it will when roasted normally in an oven so keep an eye on it, particularly during the last thirty minutes of the grilling time. Look for a deep crispy brown skin. A 10 to 12 pound bird will feed about ten to fourteen people, but leftovers are crucial so figure a pound per person.