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Published November 19, 2010, 12:00 AM

Prairie Faire: Experience, planning trump turkey troubles

In the realm of cooking, sometimes experience is the best teacher. Thanksgiving always serves as a good reminder, because the stakes are high and the main course is big.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

In the realm of cooking, sometimes experience is the best teacher. Thanksgiving always serves as a good reminder, because the stakes are high and the main course is big.

The first time I cooked a turkey, I didn’t have a large enough pan. I squeezed the bird into a pan that I had, so I ended up with a pale-skinned, undercooked turkey registering about 120 degrees in some places. That’s 45 degrees shy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 165-degree current recommendation for poultry.

When I transferred the bird onto a tray to finish the cooking process, I had lots of hungry guests armed with forks. That’s a little intimidating for a young cook.

So, I bought a large disposable pan the next year. This time, I didn’t do a full medical exam of the bird prior to cooking. As I was slicing the meat, I hit paper. I hadn’t retrieved the giblets and neck from the internal cavity.

Turns out, the giblets and neck were fully cooked, and the paper they were wrapped in wouldn’t have posed a safety hazard. If they would have been wrapped in plastic, the melted plastic could pose a safety concern.

I, however, quickly disposed of the turkey innards prior to serving dinner. I have my pride.

After cooking many Thanksgiving dinners, I now am fully equipped. I even bought an electric roaster oven that is used almost exclusively at Thanksgiving. All I have to do is preheat the electric oven to 325 degrees, place the bird on the rack and put on the cover. My oven is available to cook everything else.

To ease cleanup, you can use cooking bags in a roaster oven as long as the bag doesn’t touch the sides, bottom or lid. However, you should not use brown paper bags from the grocery store. These bags may emit fumes from the ink or glue in the bag, and they may catch on fire.

Some people bring their turkey outside to cook on a grill or in a smoker. If you decide to use a covered charcoal grill, be sure the bird weighs less than 16 pounds. Do not stuff the bird, because cooking the stuffed bird to 165 degrees will take longer than what is considered safe.

If you decide to use a covered gas grill with a single burner, be sure to place a pan of water under the grate to create indirect heat. Then place the turkey in a roasting pan on top of the grill.

One of the more novel ways to prepare turkey is to deep-fry it in a large cooker outdoors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that the bird weigh no more than 12 pounds. Be sure that you use the appropriate amount of oil and take safety precautions to prevent anyone from being burned by the hot oil.

Be sure to heat the oil to the proper temperature (350 F) to minimize the amount of oil absorbed by the bird. Only completely thawed, unstuffed turkeys are safe to deep-fry.

What if you forgot to thaw the bird and you have a houseful of company arriving in a few hours? You could go out to dinner. However, you do have a couple of other options.

You can thaw a frozen turkey under cold water at a temperature of 70 degrees or lower. However, you also can cook an unstuffed turkey from the frozen state as long as you cook it in a conventional oven. Cooking a frozen bird will take 50 percent longer than a thawed bird. You may need to prepare some appetizers to keep your guests happy while they wait.

If you’re lucky, you will have a few leftovers to enjoy after the holiday.

Here’s a recipe with a Mexican flair, courtesy of University of Massachusetts Extension:


Turkey Tostadas

2 cups cooked turkey, cut into bite-size pieces

2 Tbsp. taco seasoning

1½ cups water

4 corn tortillas

¼ cup refried beans, low-fat or fat-free

¼ cup Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, shredded, low-fat

½ cup tomatoes, chopped

½ cup lettuce, shredded

2 Tbsp. onions, chopped

½ cup taco sauce

Optional toppings: low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt or guacamole

Wash and prepare the vegetables. In a large skillet over medium heat, combine turkey, taco seasoning and water. Bring mixture to boil, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Place tortillas on a cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for four to seven minutes or until tortillas are crispy. Spread tortillas with a tablespoon of beans. Top with one quarter of the meat mixture and cheese. Return tortillas to oven to cook for two to three minutes or until the cheese is melted. Top with tomatoes, lettuce, onions and taco sauce. Garnish with yogurt and guacamole, if desired.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 240 calories, 4 grams (g) of fat, 21 g of carbohydrate and 420 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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