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The fourth Thursday in November approaches and the evening is filled with family stories, anecdotes, warm hugs from loved ones who haven’t seen each other all year, memories, laughter, and of course, a delicious meal.
We’re celebrating Thanksgiving – in the U.S. perhaps the most important celebration of the year, a time when families gather to pause from the hectic pace of modern life. And as with all memorable occasions, it centers around a meal, be it simple or elaborate. The reason is all the same: to give thanks for the good fortune to enjoy another day and celebrate family.
This quintessentially American tradition is perhaps the most widely adopted by millions of immigrant families who have made this country their new home. But we Latinos have put our own touch on Thanksgiving, imbuing it with the flavors from our old homelands and traditions. Cubans and Puerto Ricans have adopted pork as the main course; some families opt for duck instead of turkey. Still others prefer fish. The accompanying dishes vary from yuca with mojo, to ripe plantains and tostones, to a variety of salads, pasteles, tamales and any other delicacy from our hemisphere.
What is certain is that for Latin taste buds, the usual Thanksgiving turkey might be OK the first time. That’s why so often we hear that “I made it the traditional way, but next year I’m going to change the recipe.”
To be sure, Thanksgiving is not about the meal itself, but the wonderful opportunity to get together as family, and in a certain way, hold on to our cultural traditions, which in the U.S. go back to the early 17th century. That’s why on Thanksgiving for Latin families, familiar flavors return from our childhood and our countries and cities of origin. The recipes abuela made return to delight us, even if abuela never made it to the United States. Whole generations savor these flavors while remembering old times and switching often from English to Spanish and back, all the while enjoying the present and the past.
Even if some may not relate to old traditions, the classic questions such as “How did you season your turkey?” and “How did you get it to stay juicy?” will be repeated often across our continent. The truth is that turkey, while abundant in flesh, requires a few tricks and techniques to makes sure some parts, such as the breast, stay juicy. For this, two things are key: The marinade, and the cooking temperature and time.
Brine is a solution of salt and water that can be sweetened with sugar, molasses, honey or corn syrup to give the turkey better flavor and a golden skin.
Brine was traditionally used to preserve certain foods, such as fish, and has been enhanced with other ingredients to produce what we now know as a marinade. The principle is the same, only that in a marinade you have ingredients such as oil and acid, which can come from sour orange, lemon, vinegar or wine. Spices such as oregano, cumin, pepper and chiles can be added according to the cook’s preference. The important thing is that the meat bathe in those juices so it can tenderize and come out juicy.
Later, it will have to be dried a bit and at a not too high temperature, which varies according to the type of meat. It’s then left in the oven to cook the required time while maintaining juiciness.
Thanksgiving has crossed borders and is now celebrated in many homes in Mexico, Central America and South America. Those who went north in search of a better future later returned to their countries with an important celebration: a feast that brings us together as family, one which we have added the flavors of our traditions and cultures. There’s no doubt, that often, it taste better. For the chance to celebrate each year, let us give thanks and raise a toast!
What follows is my take on turkey: Turkey with Peruvian Pisco and Ají Panca (Pavo borracho al pisco)
1 turkey, 10-12 lbs.
2 tablespoons margarine
3 Spanish onions, quartered
6 carrots, diced
6 celery sticks, diced
2 extra-large plastic bags for the turkey
For Brine Preparation:
1 gallon water
¾ cup table salt
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
10½ ounces ají panca (Peruvian red chile pepper)
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried cumin
10 to 12 garlic cloves
2 cups pisco
Cleaning and Brining
1. Wash the turkey and remove giblets from the body cavity.
2. Mix the salt, sugar, black peppercorn and water.
3. Place the turkey in the plastic bag and add liquid mixture. Close the bag and refrigerate for 20–24 hours.
4. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse and dry.
5. Crush the garlic and mix with the thyme, oregano, cumin and red chile until a paste is formed. Rub the entire turkey, including its body cavity, with this mixture.
6. Place the turkey in a plastic bag. Mix the remaining red chile mixture with the pisco, and baste the turkey — including the body cavity — with this liquid. Place the turkey in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
7. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Remove turkey from the plastic bag and discard the liquid.
8. Rub the margarine on the turkey, particularly under the breast skin.
9. Place the carrots, onions and celery in a metal roasting pan. Place the turkey over the vegetables and cover with aluminum foil.
10. Bake the turkey until the internal temperature of the drumstick is close to 165ºF and the breast is close to 160ºF. (Use a meat thermometer.)
11. Take off the aluminum foil from the turkey 30 minutes before removing it from the oven, and raise the oven temperature to 425ºF to brown it. Let the turkey rest for 10 minutes before carving.
* Total cooking time should be 15–17 minutes per pound of turkey.
* The juices left in the roasting pan may be strained and used as gravy.
Watch the video of this recipe.
Other recipes by Denisse:
Pastelón de Yuca y Pollo
Polvorosa de Pollo (Venezuelan-style Chicken Pot Pie)
Cod in Tomato Sauce
Mexican-Style Shrimp Ceviche
Pulled Chicken with Jalapeño-Honey Mustard Panini
The Mexican Tamale: A Delight for the Palate
Shrimp Asopao with Pigeon Peas