Photo: Alma E. Hernandez /For The Express-News
Funnel cakes and chicken on a stick get lots of love, but if you were to name one signature festival food, it would be hard to beat a giant smoked turkey leg.
It’s a meal fit for a king, and the arrival of Fiesta means that San Antonians are about to gobble them up in large quantities.
“I don’t care who you are, you gotta buy a turkey leg at some point during Fiesta,” said Joe Doria, longtime manager of Bolner’s Meat Market at 2900 S. Flores St. “And the bigger, the better.”
Jumbo turkey legs, which are harvested from the toms and can weigh upwards of 3 pounds each, have a lot going for them. They can be consumed on the move and are relatively inexpensive (about $10). But most importantly, they look cool.
Turkey leg demand is so high from Fiesta vendors that Bolner’s starts stockpiling them 45 days in advance from various smokehouses throughout the South. Doria wouldn’t go into specific numbers, but he said turkey leg sales have more than doubled in the past decade.
“It’s classic fair food, but it’s also one of the healthiest, because it’s grilled and smoked, not fried,” said George Geary, author of “Fair Foods: The Most Popular and Offbeat Recipes from America’s State & County Fairs.” “I would like to know what happens to the rest of the turkey, because those legs look like they came off a dinosaur.”
I’m not one to rain on anybody’s Fiesta parade. If you have a preferred vendor that you seek out every year, continue to do so. Just understand that these things are incredibly easy to make at home, and your favorite booth on the corner may be cheating a tad.
Most of the jumbo turkey legs sold are pre-smoked and then simply reheated in a drum pit, grill or off-set unit for a couple hours before the event.
You can get them raw at a deep discount: $1.89 per pound raw at Bolner’s vs. $2.89 per pound smoked.
The key to making them at home is to treat the legs the same way you would a full bird. They absolutely have to soak in a seasoned brine, either overnight or up to 24 hours in advance of cooking them.
I add pink curing salt (often called Prague Powder #1, sold locally at select grocers and stores such as Academy and Bass Pro Shops) to the brine, which helps give the legs that signature pinkish-red tint. Be sure to heed the directions with the curing salt. It’s dyed pink so it won’t be confused with traditional table salt because it’s toxic in large quantities.
Once the legs have properly soaked, the smoking process is easy with your preferred wood of choice. I’m a big fan of smoking poultry with hickory or apple wood, but I know folks in South Texas do love their oak and mesquite.
If you can maintain a 250 degree temperature in the pit, a batch of turkey legs will finish in about four hours. Resist the temptation of opening the door for the first two hours of the cook. After that, feel free to check on the legs in 30-minute intervals, giving them a turn and a spray of apple cider vinegar to help maintain moisture.
Once the legs hit an internal temperature of 165 degrees (make sure the gauge isn’t touching bone or it will give an incorrect reading), they are ready.
The process is so easy that you should consider adding a turkey leg or two to the pit anytime you are committing to a long cook for a pork butt, brisket or a few racks of ribs. It can add some Fiesta fun to your meals all year long.
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