Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Secret To Groovy Gravy At Thanksgiving

Pasture to plate, farm to table, nose to tail, and let's not forget my favorite--heads & feet--when it comes to
How does your turkey stock stand up?
poultry, it's time once again to take a good, hard look at not only how we vote with our food dollars, but how we reduce waste by extracting as much nutrients as possible from the animals that have given their lives to sustain us. Today, more people are making the switch from inhumanely, industrial-raised, antibiotic and chemical laden to locally, pasture-raised with non-GMO birds that  have not been mutilated, trucked  hundreds (if not thousands) of miles and have met with the most gruesome of end only be to dunked in toilet bowl cleaner, embalming fluid and acid to reduce the super bugs harbored in their inflamed digestive and respiratory tracts.
Rich stock from heads & feet makes the BEST gravy

Almost twenty years ago, I began raising heritage turkeys in the foothills of the Ojai Valley where they feasted on stone fruits, citrus and avocados that fell from the trees in the orchard I lived. I only raised about two dozen, enough for myself, neighbors, friends and co-workers. Bourbon Reds were my favorites, but no matter what I did they never developed the larger breasts that everyone associated with their holiday meal. But they were tasty!

Butchering day was always balmy, usually in the high 60's, low 70's. We'd set out two pots of scalding water on the Camp Chef Cooker so that when one got foul and cool a fresh one was ready. A bottle (or two) of great wine, good music and my helper was always sent home with the bird of their choice for their own holiday meal.

"What you do wit da feet?" my Thai co-worker asked when I put up the sign for turkey delivery at the software company where I was working at the time.

"Dog treats," I responded.

"No, no, no...I want them, all of them," she responded in earnest. And so when delivery day arrived, so did a bag of forty severed bird legs.

On the following Monday I returned to the office to find a fifty dollar bill on my desk with a note of thanks. While that had been the average price for a whole bird, I was a bit taken back by the amount for....well, what I had considered the scraps.

All clean & ready to simmer.
Upon trying to return the money to my co-worker, she insisted while tearing up. "That was the best time my family had since leaving Thailand. We hid them into movies and ate. Just like home. Feet and  heads, best parts."

"Heads?" I questioned.

"Oh yeah, make best soup, very good!" she responded excitedly. Seeing as her husband owned one of the best Thai restaurants in town, I could hardly disagree.

As the years rolled by and I purchased a farm and raised more turkeys, my curiosity got the better of me. At first, I started making stock from the feet. The first time I did it I realized that I failed to properly clean the feet as I shared pictures with my Thai friend.

Just like taking off a glove.
"Why you no clean feet first? You put them in pot dirty," she admonished me, "You peel dem first, take off toenails." I felt like a fool, but lesson learned.

And so as the years went by, I began to clean the feet and include them along with the rest of the giblets. If customers didn't want them, they could simply toss them out or feed them to their dog. But for some reason, the mention of heads just stuck in my mind.

Fast forward a few years to the advent of the Paleo/Primal movement and the maturing of the sustainability movement. The more I learned about the nutritional benefits of the parts that normally get tossed out, the more I began to experiment. Bone broth became standard fare in my home not just for its culinary attributes but as a health elixir.

As I became more deeply in tune with the animals I was raising, the mindfulness that they were giving up their lives, the choice to limit what I wasted, I toyed with the idea of those heads again and asked my processor to save the heads along with my hearts, livers, gizzards, necks and feet. They came back in a bag, but were fed to the dogs as treats instead. I felt like a failure.

But when I started using a new processor this season for my poultry, he asked if I wanted to keep the heads as well as the feet. I said, "yes" and then I began cooking them down for stock in my crock pot.

Wow. Wow...effing, wow!  It was one thing to eat the feet, but the combs, the wattles, the snoods! What incredible stock I made throughout the season and here I was at Thanksgiving wanting to simmer down those big, fat heads along with the feet this year, but there was only one problem....I didn't raise any turkeys.

Yep....I'd opted for raising a dozen batches of broilers this year instead of my little T. rexes as I like to call them. There's only so much Hoop Coop space and pasture to go around. Either I could do broilers or I could do turkeys, but I couldn't do both.
Popping off the outer nail.

Given that the local Amish and Mennonites have gotten into the turkey act, I figured I'd let their numerous brood take care of the labor instead of me. Plus, at all my metropolitan markets there were plenty of people raising turkeys to the point I didn't feel as if I'd be letting down any of my customers. Instead, they got a steady stream of fresh broilers throughout the market season. Worked for me.

Although I had procured my bird from a fellow farmer, I'd failed to asked for the feet and heads so I contacted my processor whom I knew was dispatching my organic feed dealer's holiday birds. Yes, they did not want their feet and heads. Yes, I could have them. Score!

But when I picked up my goodies, I realized that neither the heads nor feet had been prepared for simmering. This is one thing that many producers fail to inform their customers to ready heads & feat for making the BEST stock they will ever have.

Heads....while they may be devoid of feathers, one must still give them a good scrubbing to remove all the external dermis. Additionally, the outer beak and chitinous membrane in the nostrils is also easily removed after scalding.

Feet.....turkeys are, indeed, little T. rexes. Their feet are scaled just like reptiles. Prior to cooking, one must remove the outer scales and the toe nails. It's practically like taking off a glove. If the toe nails don't come off as easy as you would like, simply use a regular ol' dinner knife to pop them off from the nail bed which will yield the most awesome gelatin for your stock. Sound gross? Wait until you make the gravy and don't need any flour to thicken it to a silky consistency.

I know this may be too much for the everyday consumer, but for those of you who are really concerned about sustainability, animal welfare and most importantly, your own health, when you purchase a turkey (or chickens) from your favorite local farmer, next time make sure to ask for the heads & feet!

The scales from cleaned feet.

The bones from a batch of broth.
Filtering the broth.
For all the people who have called or asked me how to make the best Thanksgiving gravy ever, here is my recipe. I like to make a double batch (ie. a full quart) so there are enough leftovers for my favorite post-Thankgiving leftover delight of Waffles & Gravy.

Sandra's Groovy Gravy Recipe
2 cups Turkey Broth
1/4 cup pan scrapings (optional, if you want a smoother gravy)
1/2 cup of either white wine or cider (pear cider makes an out-of-the-ballpark gravy)
1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
Salt & Pepper

In a sauce pan, bring the broth and scrapings to a simmer. Thoroughly mix the arrowroot powder with the wine/cider and then whisk into the simmering broth. Stir until gravy reaches desired consistency. Season to taste.

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