Turkey can be tough. And so can life. As Thanksgiving approaches, I can’t help but recall all the dry, overcooked — and tough! — turkeys I’ve had over the years. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the cooks! It’s just that when it comes to turkey, one of the most common complaints is the near impossibility of cooking it thoroughly without drying out at least some of its parts, if not most (or all!) of its parts. The challenge is real, y’all. With a bird that big, if you are oven roasting it in the traditional manner, there’s almost no way around it. There is no such thing as “even cooking” with a turkey!
Of course, you could always fry the turkey, which is a popular alternative here in southern Louisiana. There are other alternatives too, such as brining. Soaking the turkey in a saltwater mixture with herbs and spices for hours and hours will certainly yield a bird that is tender, juicy, and flavorful. All very desirable qualities in a turkey, indeed.
But today I want to share a special recipe with you, one that I am very grateful I was given. When my wife and I entered into marriage (19 years ago this month!), we each brought a favorite cookbook. For my wife, it was an autographed copy of Emeril Lagasse’s Louisiana: Real & Rustic. For me it was Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? by the “Queen of Cajun Cooking,” Marcelle Bienvenu.
What I did not know at the time was that Marcelle helped Emeril write Louisiana: Real & Rustic. In that cookbook, Marcelle shares a turkey recipe from her Aunt Git … a recipe that my family has adopted (and slightly adapted) since 2008. It is our Thanksgiving turkey recipe. It’s called a Pepper-Stuffed Turkey, and it is stuffed with pepper — jalapeños, Tabasco peppers, sport peppers — and it even has cayenne in it! But it’s probably not as hot as you might think it would be; most of the heat of the peppers is cooked out. There’s definitely a kick, no doubt about that. But it’s not as strong as you might imagine. However, I guarantee that this will be the juiciest and most tender turkey you have ever eaten. It’s our favorite.
Oh, and incidentally, I had the privilege of interviewing Marcelle Bienvenu in 2009. After the interview, she autographed my copy of Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?, and she signed Louisiana: Real & Rustic right next to Emeril’s signature. We cherish those cookbooks in our house!
And speaking of thanksgiving, let me just say that there is something almost miraculous about gratitude. To be able to name and to thank God for specific blessings in your life is an act that will radically transform your day-to-day experience. When life is hard, and giving thanks is tough, you could say that gratitude is the perfect medicine. It can take a tough life and make it tender … and full of flavor.
1 turkey (about 12 to 15 pounds)
2 sticks of butter, cut into ¼-inch slices, then cut in half
8 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons cayenne
1 large sweet yellow onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
8 to 10 sport peppers or Tabasco peppers (pickled in jar)
5 to 6 ounces of banana peppers, chopped
3 tablespoons pickle juice from the sport pepper jar (or for a little less heat, the banana pepper jar)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Put the butter slices in a glass mixing bowl and add 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of cayenne. Note: It’s better to work with very cold butter. You want to try to season all the butter slices without them melting together. I put the butter in the freezer for about 20 minutes before slicing and seasoning it. After it is seasoned, it should go back into the freezer for at least 30 minutes.
In a small glass bowl, combine 4 teaspoons of salt and 2 teaspoons of cayenne. In a larger bowl, combine the onion, bell pepper, garlic, sport peppers, and banana peppers. Add 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of cayenne to the veggies, along with the pickle juice from the peppers.
Remove any innards that came packed in the turkey, and rinse the turkey in cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. Note: Working with the turkey can be tricky. You need to prepare a work surface that will prevent the turkey from sliding around. You might want to use a large pan. I prefer to place the turkey on a large kitchen towel laying directly on the kitchen counter. My method necessitates a thorough cleaning of the counter afterward, but I don’t mind. Turkeys are slippery, and once my hands are into butter, peppers, and cayenne, I don’t want to have to chase that turkey around the kitchen. I want it to stay put. You will, too.
Lay the turkey breast-side up with the cavity facing you. Lift the skin flap and make 2 or 3 slits on either side of the breastbone on the inside of the cavity. Be careful not to slice all the way through the turkey and pierce the skin. Note: I found the original wording for this step (and the next step) in Louisiana Real & Rustic a bit confusing. But that was only because I had never done it before. After making this turkey a few times, I have come to the conclusion that you just have to make the slits the best way you can. Do what works. The whole point is that you will be stuffing the slits with the seasoned butter and the pepper mixture. Keep that in mind as you read the following directions.
Insert 2 or 3 slices of the frozen seasoned butter into each slit. Then spoon about ¼ teaspoon of the salt and cayenne mixture into the slits. Then insert 1 teaspoon or more of the veggie mixture into the slits. Push it all in with your finger.
For the drumsticks, pull each leg out gently to expose the inner thigh. Carefully pull the skin back enough to make a slit following the bone line of each leg. Follow the same method above to stuff those slits with seasoned butter, salt and cayenne, and the veggie mixture. You can also add some of the salt and cayenne to the inner thigh where the skin was pulled back. This is also a good place to put any extra veggie mixture you might have after stuffing the rest of the turkey.
For the wings, turn the turkey around so the neck is facing you. Follow the same sort of process you did with the drumsticks. You want to make the slit in the wings following the bone line from shoulder to “elbow.” Repeat the stuffing process on both wings.
Season the outside of the turkey with any remaining salt and cayenne. All leftover seasoned butter and veggies can be placed inside the cavity of the turkey (and between thigh and leg).
Secure the wings and legs as you would any turkey: Fold the wings back behind the “neck,” and secure the legs with kitchen twine.
Place the turkey in a deep roasting pan (you’re going to have lots of juice!) and slide it into the oven. Roast the turkey at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes to get the browning process started. Then lower the temperature to 350 degrees, and cover the turkey with a lid or with foil. Bake for 3 to 3½ hours.
Once it is done, remove it from the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes before carving.