Ham or turkey? Or maybe beef?
Every holiday season, home cooks agonize over their centerpiece meat. And like penitents preparing resolutions for the coming New Year, they resolve to do something different—or do what they always do, only better.
This year, we sought some professional help in four critical areas: meat selection, kitchen tools, techniques and recipes. We even offer some tips for those who want to go beyond tying up a roast, brining a turkey or smoking a ham.
The quest for a centerpiece protein can prompt a series of questions. How many people are eating? What are their expectations? How picky are they about medium-rare meat? What real (or imagined) allergies do they have? What about kitchen capacity? And perhaps most important: How competent and adventuresome is the home chef feeling? Adventuresome is more fun—and more memorable for your guests if things turn out well (and especially if they don’t).
A stuffed leg of lamb can be a beautiful centerpiece for at-table carving.
Let’s begin with something a little edgier: game. As it’s illegal to sell anything shot in the wild, that means visiting a butcher who carries the farm-raised variety, which will also has a less gamey flavor. Many restaurants serve venison, duck and rabbit, so many city dwellers have tried them. Even some supermarkets offer at least a modest selection of game.
Pheasant and duck are a great alternative to domestic poultry, and bison is a worthy alternate to beef. My go-to spot is the Country Butcher in Kennett Square, which offers about 20 different options. Start planning a couple of weeks in advance, just in case your butcher has to special order.
I’m never quite sure why more people don’t prepare lamb. A stuffed and butterflied leg can be a beautiful centerpiece for at-table carving. And what’s more succulent and red-wine-friendly than lamb chops— prepared individually or as a rack?
For a ham, see if you can find one from a heritage-breed hog or farm-raised wild boar, locally or by mail. And when it comes to turkey, Christine Herman suggests a special breast preparation. “Debone one, and then it can be stuffed and prepared like a beef roll,” says the owner of Herman’s Quality Meat Shoppe in Newark.
Speaking of beef, a whole filet—trimmed, roasted medium rare and sliced at the table— can be a delicious and beautiful entrée.
Standing behind the high counter at Janssen’s Market in Greenville, meat manager Marcus Dalnogare holds up his go-to tools. “For everyday cutting, I use a 12-inch steak knife and a six-inch flexible boning knife because it gives me easier cutting movements,” he says. “Here, we use plastic handles for sanitation. At home, I have wooden handles.”
The same holds true for his work areas— all plastic. Most of us working in our own kitchens wouldn’t give up our butcher blocks without a fight, although we may switch to plastic boards for cutting fish and poultry. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to rub coarse salt into cutting surfaces during cleaning.
Dalnogare uses a two-pound wooden mallet for tenderizing meats. Other instruments that may come in handy include a good slicing knife for cutting finished meats. A smaller blade—as in a sharp, rigid 12-inch boning knife—causes less damage to something delicate. Scissor-like shears are great for cutting joints, and you might want to think about a meat cleaver or saw. More on that later.
Every year during the holidays, Herman sells between 300 and 400 turkeys ranging in size from eight to 32 pounds. The first question she gets is always: “What size should I order?”
“The answer usually depends on two things: how many people and how many are children,” she says. “The short answer is one pound per adult and one-and-a-half-pounds if you want leftovers. Two kids equal one adult. If you’re just getting turkey breast, then three-quarters to a pound per person works.”
An amazing number of first-time cooks don’t know their turkey has “stuff” tucked inside (usually the neck and organs) that must be removed. The turkey should always be washed inside and out, and it’s a good idea to let one soak for a while with salt inside the cavity.
When is it done? Cook it 10-12 minutes per pound at 325 degrees on a rack within a pan. If the leg easily separates with a twist, it’s done— or when a thermometer in the leg reads 165 degrees. Herman also advises using a rack for beef so the meat doesn’t stew in its own juices.
For someone new to cooking, meats are always the most difficult—and they should be, because they’re also the most dangerous from a sanitation standpoint. Even seasoned cooks can screw up, especially when cooking for people with different tastes. So don’t hesitate to ask questions or ask for help from the butcher or experienced cooks.
I always view meat recipes as an exercise in triangulation, especially if stuffing or vegetables are involved. After checking cookbooks and going online, I typically look at three or four different recipes and then make my own hybrid version. Oh, and we haven’t talked much about ham—one of the easiest meats to prepare but often one of the blandest. Doc’s Meat Market in Hockessin has a bang-up online recipe for ham with Bourbon, molasses and pecans (docsmeatmarket.com).
Finally, if you’re only cooking for another couple, consider having your butcher debone and butterfly a leg of lamb or veal to stuff and tie up for a juicy and delicious centerpiece.
Whether they hunt game or have a large family (and freezer), a surprising number of people are getting into butchering their own meat. Camas Davis, a former editor of mine at Saveur, has set up collectives for consumers to learn meat cutting. “For those wanting to learn more, Adam Danforth’s books are the best for butchery and breakdowns (separating whole animals into smaller parts),” says Davis, who now runs collectives out of Portland, Ore. “They cover beef, pigs, lamb and chicken. Deer breakdowns are going to be the same as with mutton and lamb.”
Another good source for recipes and hunting and foraging information is Hank Shaw’s books and website (honest-food.net). Whatever your comfort level, there are always experts willing to help—cleaver in hand.