Holidays frequently suck for shiftworkers. You either spend the entire day doing nothing but sleeping and working, or else spend half of it working and the other half of it running around like a madman, trying to scrape some semblance of cheer out of your growing exhaustion.
This Thanksgiving, I chose the former, leaving my wife and kids to the in-laws and sleeping through the first half of the day. I rolled into work at 5:30 that evening with a lofty goal: cook something resembling a Thanksgiving dinner, without so much as an oven.
I had formulated a plan a few days before, and even laid the groundwork on Wednesday. Instead of a roasted bird, I was going to make a turkey breast ballotine or roulade, filled with as many Thanksgiving flavors as I could reasonably combine, and braised in an electric skillet. Thanksgiving in one pan.
The day before, I made turkey stock at work. Turkey bones, about five pounds of them, got a good sear in a hot stock pot, then an eight-hour simmer. Carrot, onion, celery, bay leaf and peppercorns were added for one more hour; any longer, and the veg would fall apart and cloud the stock, soaking up the precious liquid in the process. I then strained the stock, chilled it, and stuck it in the fridge for the main event.
Toward the end of that shift, the entire office already smelled like Thanksgiving. My coworkers were displeased. Not with the smell, mind you, but with the fact that it was a lie of sorts, as there was no food to accompany the appetizing aroma. Call me a stock tease.
Thursday night began with the making of stuffing. Mushroom duxelles and shallots cooked down in the fat from diced andouille that I had browned in our temperamental electric skillet. The heating element basically creates a ring of heat in the center, which scorches, with dead zones all around its perimeter. It's fun getting things to brown without burning them.
The sausage and mushroom mixture went into a bowl while I wiped the pan out, then sliced and diced a lovely loaf of challah from Three Brother's Bakery. I toasted the rich golden cubes, then mixed them into the bowl, along with a handful of chopped dried cranberries, a few chopped sage leaves, and a bit of chopped parsley. It tasted, smelled, and looked like the holidays.
Next, the bird. I had asked the butcher if they had any skin-on, boneless turkey breasts. I had been given a package and sent on my way, with his assurances. As soon as I removed it from its wrapping, I could tell I had been duped. It had its skin intact, sure, but it also had its bones. Boning out poultry is not that difficult, so I set to work separating the bird from its ribs and keel bone. Pretty quickly, I realized that this bird had been very oddly butchered. The muscles had been strangely separated from one another, making it impossible to debone the breast into one piece. This put a significant damper on my plans to butterfly the breast open a few times, till it was thin enough to stuff and roll.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
So I took a few strips of bacon I had on hand for a side dish of shaved Brussels sprouts sautéed with lardons, and laid them in overlapping strips on my cutting board. On top of these went the segmented turkey breast, each piece butterflied to an appropriate thickness, arranged jigsaw-puzzle fashion into a shape somewhat like a butterflied turkey breast. I was hoping the bacon barding would hold it together, and allow some enzymatic action (and fat) to glue the whole thing together a bit during cooking. It did so beautifully.
I stuffed it, rolled it carefully, and tied it up with butcher's twine. A quick, hot sear, followed by a low, slow braise in turkey stock, and dinner was ready. I rested the turkey and defatted the braising liquid. I made a quick roux with flour and fat reserved from the stock-making process from the day prior. It made a glorious gravy, redolent of turkey, but with a sneaky lacing of pork and smoke from the bacon. The turkey benefitted similarly from the bacon, showing the traces of a smoke ring from its porcine wrapper, and tasting deeply savory. The stuffing did its work, rounding up the rest of the traditional flavors.
My coworkers ponied up a few dishes to go alongside, and it actually resulted in something very close to a feast. One had promised a pie from his wife Sharon, a pie-maker of some repute in Northern Michigan and Southern Florida. Another had offered up her son Gabe, a chef at an area country club, to make something for us. Sharon sent the pie (pumpkin with a streusel twist) along with a lovely oyster and wild rice stuffing. Gabe sent his mom in laden with cranberry sauce, roasted winter vegetables, roasted pork loin, home-made pickles (one spicy, one sweet), and broccoli rice and cheese casserole. The pickles, in particular, were excellent. I stole a few, wrapped with cold slices of pork roast, while I was cooking.
For dinner on the 30th floor, working night shift, it was pretty damn good. I've seen worse spreads put out on actual tables in actual homes. When my wife asked how my night had gone, her condolences for my having had to work on a holiday quickly faded. As I described our repast, I think she almost wished she'd had to work, too. Maybe that's why she actually let me nearly choke to death on spices the following day. . .