Over the years, we’ve come to enjoy our Christmas turkey feasts with more than a bit of Chinese flair. I usually glaze the bird with soy sauce and sesame oil, stuff garlic under the skin and serve sticky rice stuffing packed with black mushrooms, Chinese sausages, dried chestnuts and fried shallots. And it is invariably delicious.
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Recently I tried something even more different than a whole roast turkey: It is French in origin, but incredibly Chinese in spirit. In one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home” (Knopf, 1999), I learned from Julia Child and Jacques Pépin that deboning a turkey is not as terrifying as it sounds and ends up making this dish much like the East China specialty called “eight treasure duck.” This turkey recipe also left us with the makings of lots of good stock — if we don’t just eat the munchilicious bones.
Preparing the bird as directed in the recipe called “Julia’s Deconstructed Turkey” gave us a very moist meat stuffed with that savory rice. It is easily sliced up into beautiful servings that can be eaten with chopsticks.
Now, that makes my guests really like turkey!
‘Chinese’ Deconstructed Turkey
Serves 8 to 12
For the rice stuffing (yóufàn 油飯; makes about 3 quarts):
8 dried black mushrooms
¼ cup dried shrimp
1 cup (6 ounces) dried chestnuts
Filtered water as needed
2 cups thinly-sliced shallots
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
4 cups long-grain sticky (aka glutinous or sticky) rice (see Notes)
6 cured Chinese sausages (lop chong and/or duck liver) (see Notes)
Giblets from turkey, optional, chopped and fried in 2 tablespoons oil until light brown
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
Fresh ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
For the turkey:
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 (12 pounds, more or less) fresh or defrosted frozen turkey pre-brined in a 6% salt solution (see Notes)
1. Start the rice stuffing at least two days and up to five days ahead of time. Place the mushrooms, shrimp and chestnuts in separate bowls, rinse, and then cover each ingredient with cool filtered water (at least 1 cup water for the mushrooms). Let them plump up overnight. Cut off the mushroom stems and save them for stock, and then strain and reserve the soaking liquid; cut the caps into small (½-inch) dice. Pick out and discard any shrimp that are discolored, cut off any sandy veins, and chop the shrimp finely. Peel off the mahogany skins on the chestnuts, especially in the folds, and cut the nuts into small dice.
2. Make fried shallots and shallot oil by separating the sliced shallots into rings so that they fry quickly and evenly. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat until a wooden or bamboo chopstick inserted into the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Sprinkle in the shallots, reduce the heat to medium, and slowly fry them until they turn a golden brown, stirring often so that they do not burn or cook unevenly. Remove the fried shallots to a plate and strain the oil; reserve ¾ cup of the oil for this recipe and use the rest of this delicious oil for something else, like this incredible cilantro salad, which would be great as a side dish and look very Christmasy.
3. Two days before the big dinner, rinse the rice in a strainer and then place it in a medium work bowl. Cover the rice with cool tap water and soak for around 2 hours. Drain the rice and steam it for about 40 minutes or until cooked but still chewy. Remove the rice from the steamer, spread it out in a thin layer on a baking sheet, and let it cool; chill it, if you have the time, as this makes it less likely to mush up. (If you have a rice cooker, you can skip the soaking and just cook it according to the cooker’s directions; it will be considerably softer when cooked this way.) You can also break the turkey down a day before you cook it as directed in Step 4, but do not stuff it until right before you roast it, as bacteria will breed all too happily in that environment.
4. Cut the sausage into pieces no larger than ¼-inch dice. Heat a wok over medium-high heat and then add the oil. Toss in the chopped shrimp, chestnuts and mushrooms, and then stir-fry them for a couple of minutes to release their fragrance. Add the chopped sausage and fried shallots to the wok, and then add half of the mushroom soaking liquid and cold rice. Toss these together, allowing the liquid to loosen the clumps; add the rest of the mushroom liquid when the rice becomes dry. Sprinkle on the sugar, toss some more, and taste before adjusting the seasoning. (The rice will be baked with the turkey and its glaze, meaning this stuffing will become saltier and richer from the glaze brined meat, and so should not be salted completely to taste at this point.)
5. On the morning of the feast, but before you start working on the turkey, make the glaze by simmering together the soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine and garlic for about 2 minutes; pour it into a small bowl and have a pastry brush on standby. Place the oven rack in the lower third of your oven, heat it to 350 degrees F and put a baking sheet on that rack to protect the rice and meat from drying out.
6. Rinse the turkey with hot tap water, pat it dry with paper towels and place it on a plastic cutting board. To bone the turkey, you can either do it as Jacques Pépin shows you in this video, or you can follow Julia Child’s directions, as follows: First remove each whole leg from the carcass by cutting through the joint attached to the back, being sure to keep as much extra skin on each thigh as possible as the skin will shrink as it cooks. Cut open each thigh and remove the bone, and then use a heavy cleaver to cut off the joint at the bottom of each leg (this is important; see Step 8). Spread open the thigh meat, brush it with a bit of the glaze and then mound about ½ cup of the rice on top of each. You can then either skewer the thighs closed or use kitchen twine to wrap around them and keep things tidy. Place the thighs (top-side down) at one end of an oiled roasting pan (the bottom of a broiler pan is just the right size) and brush the tops with the glaze.
7. Next, prepare the breasts: Remove the whole breast from the carcass by first cutting out the wishbone and then using a knife to loosen the meat all around the edge of the whole breast; again, keep as much of the skin on it as possible, as it shrinks and then crisps up deliciously. Scrape the whole breast free by working up and over the breastbone. Lay the breast skin-side down on the cutting board and brush a bit of the glaze on the flesh. Now, mound the rest of the rice at the other end of the pan and place the breast on top of the rice, covering it well. Finally, remove the wings from the turkey, cut off and set aside the tip sections, and push the wing joints up against the rice so that they don’t dry out. Brush all the skin here with the glaze. (Toss the rest of the bird into a stockpot and make turkey soup or else roast it separately for a pre-feast feast.)
8. Roast the bird for about 90 minutes; start basting after about 30 minutes, using up the rest of the glaze for this until the juices start to flow. Turn the legs over after an hour of cooking. At this time, remove the wings as they will cook the fastest. (Cover all the meat on the platter loosely with foil to keep it warm.) When the skin is golden, check the thickest part of the thighs with an instant meat thermometer: they should register 175 F when they are done. Let the legs cool for about 10 minutes, and then use needle-nose pliers to pull out all of the tendons from the ends of the legs; be thorough, as these tendons can be very irritating.
9. As for the breast, it is done when the thermometer registers around 165 F in the thickest meat area near the shoulder. Use a wide spatula to carefully transfer the entire breast to the cutting board and then slice it against the grain. Use that spatula to move all of the really crispy and delicious bits of the caramelized stuffing to the platter before arranging the breast meat around it. Remove the skewers and/or twine from the legs, slice them across the thighs, and then slice off pieces of the legs before positioning them too next to the stuffing. Tuck some greens in, if you have the time, but my guests are usually reaching for the turkey before I can garnish it.
You can find long-grain sticky rice, as well as dried black mushrooms, shrimp and chestnuts, in most Chinese markets. The dried chestnuts lend a great smoky flavor to the stuffing, but frozen or fresh ones can be substituted. Long-grain sticky rice is often from Thailand and is different from short-grain, which tends to be mushier.
Cured and slightly dried Cantonese sausages are at their best this time of year, and two of my favorites are sweet pork (làcháng 臘腸) and duck liver sausages (yāgāncháng 鴨肝腸). They can be found in most Chinese grocery stores in vacuum-sealed bags; refrigerate them after opening.
Already brined turkeys are usually available right next to all the other turkeys. An unbrined turkey can be used instead; amp up the seasoning accordingly.
Top photo: Taking a Chinese approach to a recipe from a cookbook by Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. Credit: Carolyn Phillips