Houston has been described as “the new Creole city” – a busy port town where many cultures merge to form a thrilling new humanity.
So what does that have to do with Thanksgiving? Quite a lot. Anywhere you have great diversity, you’re going to have a mash-up of ideas and traditions that eventually become the norm.
Which brings us to our Thanksgiving Day turkey. This year the Chronicle tapped Jim Mills, chef/partner of Cherry Pie Hospitality (State Fare Kitchen & Bar and Star Fish restaurants), to share his recipe for what he calls “three-step” turkey. It is essentially a bird that has been dry-cured with salt and sugar then rubbed with an herbaceous butter slather. The turkey is cooked hot at first then slowed down to finish. It is a fragrant, moist bird with a mottled skin and classic, herbal flavor.
But it also sings a Creole city hymn. Mills, known to many for his nearly 20 years at The Houstonian, credits a friend and former co-worker at the hotel, Weli Jabour, for the inspiration behind the distinctive holiday turkey.
Mills recalls a conversation with Jabour about how his mother roasted meats back in the day. Of Iraqi descent, Jabour explained how his mom would make a paste of onions, garlic and herbs that was spread on lamb and cooked at a high temperature so that the paste formed a nubby crust. Then she would cover the meat in foil, reduce the heat and roast the meat slowly to doneness.
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“I thought that would be great for turkey,” Mills said.
After some experimentation, Mills has perfected the recipe that he said yields a tender, juicy bird fragrant with aromatics. “It’s exceptionally moist. Most turkey breasts are dry, but this method keeps it super moist.”
“Some people don’t like to experiment on Thanksgiving because it’s completely about nostalgia,” said Mills, who pairs his hybrid turkey with a classic gravy recipe. “But some people do experiment, especially young people who don’t have traditions and are looking for new directions.”
That “new directions” group might be larger this year after Hurricane Harvey destroyed so many homes and ruined beloved family recipes with its floodwaters. Recipe ideas – from classic preparations to new flavor paths – are surely welcome as the city gets back on its feet.
“Houston is about change and all the many cultures that come together,” Mills said. “There’s plenty of room for us to learn from each other, particularly when it comes to food.”
Herb Roasted Turkey in Three Steps
Courtesy Jim Mills
1 all-natural young turkey, 12-14 pounds
1½ cups kosher salt
½ cup sugar
1 yellow onion, finely diced
¼ cup carrot, peeled and finely diced
¼ cup celery leaves, loosely packed
¼ cup Italian parsley leaves, loosely packed
¼ cup garlic, roughly chopped
1 bunch green onion, white parts only, sliced thin
20 leaves fresh sage
½ cup butter, unsalted, melted
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1½ teaspoon black pepper, ground
½ cup olive oil (in mister or spray can)
Step 1: The Cure
Remove neck and giblet bag from turkey and wash well in cold water inside and out. Remove the plastic doneness indicator from the breast if supplied. Remove tips and second joints and reserve for gravy (recipe follows). Let the bird drain, then pat dry with paper towels inside and out.
Mix together the kosher salt and sugar in a bowl. Place turkey in a shallow pan. Begin by placing 1 cup of the cure in the cavity. Use your hand to spread it as evenly as possible all around the inside. Turn bird onto breast and pour about ½ cup of the cure onto the roasting pan. Scoop up some of this with your hand and rub the cure onto back of the bird. It should be thick but uniform. Turn the bird on its back and set in the roasting pan. Pour remaining cure over the bird, using your hand to pack it onto the breast, legs and thighs. It should be applied thickly, as if the turkey were frosted with snow. Set the pan on the counter and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.
After an hour has elapsed, wash the bird with cold running water inside and out very thoroughly. It is important that all the curing mix be removed. Let the bird drain in the sink for a few minutes, turning it variously to facilitate removal of as much water as possible. Pat dry inside and out with paper towels.
Step 2: The Rub
While the bird cures, prepare the rub. Place yellow onion, carrot, celery leaves, parsley, garlic, green onion, sage, butter, dry mustard and pepper in a blender jar. Set blender jar on motor and purée until a chunky paste is formed.
When the cured bird has drained, towel it off again inside and out, and place about half the rub in the cavity. Spread it as before, then truss or use the plastic trussing found on most turkeys. Start spreading the rub on the outside, beginning with the back. When this is done, set the bird on its back on an oiled rack set in a shallow roasting pan. Spread the rub in a layer over the breast and on the thighs and legs. Spray well with oil.
Step 3: The Roast
Place the bird in an oven preheated to 375 degrees. Roast for 40 minutes, turning the pan and spraying the turkey with more oil about halfway through. After 40 minutes, remove the turkey and set aside. Turn oven off and open the door to let heat escape for 5 or 6 minutes. Then close door and turn oven on; set to 250 degrees. Cover the turkey with aluminum foil, crimping around the edges but not touching the breast. Return turkey to the oven. Baste after 25 minutes or so, and again every 25 minutes or so thereafter. Roast turkey until a thermometer inserted in the inner thigh – but not touching the bone – reads 165 degrees. Depending on the size, this should take about 2½ hours.
When the turkey is cooked, carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven. Remove foil and let stand at room temperature for 15-20 minutes before carving. Using a baster, put drippings in a fat separator or measuring cup and let stand 10 minutes to allow fat and stock to separate. After removing the fat, the drippings may be used to finish the gravy or drizzled over the meat after carving.
Perfect Turkey Gravy
Courtesy Jim Mills
Makes about 2½ cups
3 teaspoons canola oil, separated
3 turkey wings (purchase in poultry case)
2 turkey second joints (from turkey recipe)
1 turkey neck
1 onion, peeled and cut into large dice
2 ribs celery, large dice
1 medium carrot, cut into large dice
5 cups water
1 bay leaf
¹⁄8teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Instructions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spread a baking sheet with two tablespoons canola oil. Place turkey wings, second joints and neck on the sheet and set in the oven to roast. Roast about 40 minutes or until well browned, turning them over halfway through to evenly brown. Remove from the pan. Pour any drippings into a fat separator or a narrow bowl. Let stand until the fat rises. Skim off the fat, reserving 2 tablespoons for later.
Set a large saucepot over medium-high heat. When heated, add remaining tablespoon of canola oil, swirling to coat the bottom. Then add onion, celery and carrot. Sauté until well browned, about 8 minutes, stirring often. Add turkey wings, joints and neck along with the water and any reserved liquid from roasting. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a slow simmer. Add bay leaf and thyme. Let cook for about 4 hours. Carefully skim any fat or foam that forms on the surface. Do not let the stock boil.
When the stock is done, remove turkey pieces and strain through a fine sieve into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil then turn down to a fast simmer and reduce the stock by about half. Remove from heat when sufficiently reduced and let cool.
Place another saucepan on medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of pure fat reserved from the roasting of the turkey parts. Let heat a minute, then stir in flour until smooth. Cook flour until it is brown, stirring continuously. When browned, turn heat down and continue stirring until pan cools. Slowly add stock, using a wire whisk to incorporate stock and roux into a smooth mixture, then place back on the heat and stir often until the gravy reaches a boil.
Carefully skim any foam that rises, then turn down the heat to a simmer and let cook about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and finish with the butter. May be kept warm until needed.