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A BEAUTIFUL BIRD

Set the table for success by following a few basic tips. If you fancy a turkey with more complex tastes, simply add seasoning.

Because so many of us roast a turkey just once a year there is a lot of pressure to get it right. A bad case of turkey anxiety isn't uncommon on the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

It doesn't need to be so. Turkey is relatively easy to get right. Short of dropping the cooked bird on the floor or forgetting to remove the plastic bag of giblets, there are basically only two things that you can get wrong: undercooking it or overcooking it.

Undercooking is easy to fix - cook it longer. If a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh (without touching the bone) does not read 165 degrees, keep cooking it. Overcooked turkey is just dry, which might be one reason so many people insist on serving it with gravy. It's a way to moisten the meat.

Some other tips:

Thawing the bird. The most important thing to remember about turkey is, if you buy it frozen, give it plenty of time to thaw. The safest method is to defrost it in the refrigerator, which takes 24 hours for every 4 or 5 pounds of turkey.

If you realize you don't have time to thaw it in the fridge, you can defrost it by submerging it completely in cold water, after first making sure it is tightly wrapped so no water gets in the package. It only takes 30 minutes per pound to thaw it this way - six hours for a 12-pound bird, 10 hours for a 20-pounder - but the water must be changed every 30 minutes and the turkey must be cooked immediately after it is defrosted. If you don't have enough time to thaw it in water, you can defrost it in a microwave.

How long to cook. The length of time in the oven depends on the temperature. Some people prefer to begin at 400 degrees or more for the first hour, then drop it down to 325 degrees. Some keep it at 325 the whole time. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it should never be cooked at a temperature lower than 325.

At 325, figure on about 15 minutes per pound for a whole bird up to about 16 pounds (a breast alone will take 25 minutes per pound). A big turkey over 16 pounds has a higher meat-to-bone ratio and will only require 13 minutes or so per pound. The only way to make certain it has been cooked the proper amount of time is to check with a meat thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. The temperature should read at least 165.

If you don't have a meat thermometer, the turkey will be cooked when the leg joint moves easily in the socket and the juices run clear when you pierce the skin with a fork.

Let it rest. The turkey will taste best if you let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes before carving it. You can keep it warm during this period by covering it with a little pup tent made out of aluminum foil.

Going fancy. The great thing about a turkey dinner is it can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. The only flavorings you really need are salt and pepper. If you prefer it a little fancier, make the skin crisper and browner by rubbing it first with softened butter. A sprinkling of paprika over the top will add a subtle, sweetly warm spice, and you can bring even more flavor to the table by putting onions, carrots, celery, garlic and lemon halves in the cavity.

It's simple and delicious. And making the taste a little more complex is just as easy. Sage, rosemary and thyme all go well with turkey - just put them in the cavity, too - but using all three would create too many competing flavors. A little parsley wouldn't hurt, for the sake of the song, but a bay leaf or two is a better match for turkey.

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EASY

Basic Turkey 101

1 whole turkey

Salt and pepper

1 carrot, halved, optional

1 stalk celery, halved, optional

1 onion, halved, optional

1 lemon, halved, optional

1 bay leaf, optional

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. If you are using a frozen turkey, make sure it has been thoroughly thawed, and don't forget to remove the plastic bag of giblets. Season the turkey, inside and out, with salt (if needed) and pepper.

Put optional carrot, celery, onion, lemon and/or bay leaf (if using) in the cavity. A small or medium-sized bird might not have room for all of these elements.

Before putting the turkey in the oven, determine how long it will take to cook. A turkey weighing less than 16 pounds will need about 15 minutes per pound. A turkey weighing more than 16 pounds will take about 13 minutes per pound. If you have put vegetables in the cavity, it will take a little longer.

Place the turkey in a roasting pan, breast side up. If the pan has a rack, fill the bottom of the pan with 1/2 inch water. Cook in oven for 1 hour. If the skin is turning too brown, cover it with a tented piece of aluminum foil. If it isn't brown enough, continue roasting breast side up a little longer.

Carefully turn the turkey breast side down. If the skin starts to turn too brown, cover with a tented piece of aluminum foil. Continue roasting until a thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees or until the thigh moves freely in its joint and the juices run clear. Remove from oven, keep warm with a tented piece of aluminum foil, and let rest 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

Note: A 12-pound turkey will feed 8 people and provide leftovers.

Source: Scripps Howard

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MODERATE

Mustard-Sage Turkey

1 turkey

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped, or 2 teaspoons dried sage

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 carrot, halved, optional

1 stalk celery, halved, optional

1 onion, halved, optional

1 lemon, halved

1 bay leaf, optional

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. If you are using a frozen turkey, make sure it has been thoroughly thawed, and don't forget to remove the plastic bag of giblets. Season the turkey, inside and out, with salt (if needed) and pepper.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and sage and cook until garlic has mellowed, about 1 minute. Stir in mustard until thoroughly mixed together. Brush the mixture all over the turkey.

Put optional carrot, celery, onion, lemon and/or bay leaf (if using) in the cavity. A small or medium-sized bird might not have room for all of these elements.

Before putting the turkey in the oven, determine how long it will take to cook. A turkey weighing less than 16 pounds will need about 15 minutes per pound. A turkey weighing more than 16 pounds will take about 13 minutes per pound. If you have put vegetables into the cavity, it will take a little longer.

Place the turkey in a roasting pan, breast side up. If the pan has a rack, fill the bottom of the pan with 1/2 inch water. Cook in oven for 1 hour. If the skin is turning too brown, cover it with a tented piece of aluminum foil. If it isn't brown enough, continue roasting breast side up a little longer.

Carefully turn the turkey breast side down. If the skin starts to turn too brown, cover with a tented piece of aluminum foil. Continue roasting until a thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees or until the thigh moves freely in its joint and the juices run clear. Remove from oven, keep warm with a tented piece of aluminum foil, and let rest 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

A 12-pound turkey will feed 8 people and provide leftovers.

Source: Scripps Howard

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