The holiday season is to the home cook what a howling blizzard is to the captain of a fully loaded 747 approaching O'Hare Airport. It's showtime; it's the time you earn your keep. While pilots are dealing with bad weather, home cooks are grappling with turkey in particular, how to make it appealing, or at least presentable. The key factors here, moistness and flavor, are interrelated, since much of the flavor in a bird is in its juices. Turkeys, despite their monstrous bioengineered breasts, are famously lean, and did I mention it isn't just a blizzard, it's 30 below with gusty winds, and the landing gear is stuck?
For the past few years I've flirted with the idea that turkey might respond to the confit treatment: slow, gentle cooking while immersed in fat. The usual confit subject is duck, which is actually a self-sustaining fat ecosystem: enough fat can be rendered from a duck to cook its meat in. Turkey, on the other hand, requires a subsidy, either duck fat reserved from earlier confit operations, or reserved duck fat with lard.
Since I don't keep lard in the house and didn't feel like buying and butchering a whole turkey for an experiment, I began small, with a single turkey tenderloin, the pound or so of boneless flesh that stands in so nicely for pork in so many roles. I seasoned the tenderloin, let it stand in the fridge overnight, rinsed it off, immersed it in duck fat in a small heavy pan, brought it to a simmer on the stovetop, and then put it into a 200-degree oven for about three hours.
Although I had no particular expectations about the result, the result was nonetheless startling. The meat seemed to have contracted in the fat Seinfeldian shrinkage and when I cut the tenderloin open, it had become dense, almost like chilled fudge. At the bottom of the pan lay a shallow layer of extruded juice, whose departure no doubt had contributed to the meat's collapse. I sliced the tenderloin into pâtélike slices and served the heated juice (captured with a gravy separator) over the top as a salvage-operation sauce, but all of this fuss only partly concealed the unusual deadness of the meat.
Next time (if there is a next time): meat on the bone will have to be involved. That's the brainstorm of the moment.
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