We’ve had a Bourbon Red heritage turkey from Caveny Farm sitting in our freezer for a number of months, waiting for the perfect dinner opportunity. Bourbon Reds are just one of several breeds of turkeys that were popular meat birds in the first half of the 20th century, but fell out of favor once the Broad-Breasted White turkey began to dominate the commercial meat market. In fact, most of these older heritage breeds were in severe danger of extinction by the 1990′s. It’s only been in the last few years, with the increased interest in non-factory farmed food, that their numbers have improved slightly. Slow Food USA has been a major proponent in saving these breeds by encouraging small free-range farms to nurture the turkeys and by getting the word out to farm direct & farmers market buyers.
In order to be classified as a heritage turkey, breeds must meet three qualifications: they must be able to mate naturally, they must be capable of a long and productive lifespan, and they must have a slow growth rate. It’s important to note here that these are three qualities that Broad-Breasted White turkeys do not possess. Industrial farm turkeys reach market weight at 18 weeks, and because of this fast growth rate, their bone and organ structure is usually poorly developed, and would not allow the turkeys to live much beyond their slaughter age. Also, industrial farm turkeys cannot breed naturally due to their oversized breasts. Heritage turkeys, on the other hand, can take up to 30 weeks to get to market weight, and are able to breed and live as long as a wild turkey.
A combination of birthday and Mother’s Day celebrations yesterday finally gave us a great excuse to cook up our turkey. At first, we intended to spatchcock the turkey and roast it on our charcoal grill. However, the weather turned cold and windy, with sporadic rain showers, and so we decided to butcher the turkey into 5 parts for roasting on the gas grill. The first obvious difference between a heritage turkey and the commercial turkeys available at the local grocery store is in the proportions of the bird: the leg sections are much larger, and the breast is much smaller. This particular bird obviously ran around quite a bit at the farm.
The second obvious difference is in the color of the meat. I find that pasture raised poultry is always more pink in color than industrial poultry, which nearly always has a yellowish color. But this heritage meat was red – dark red leg meat and slightly lighter red breast meat. The leg meat looked very similar to duck meat. There was also a thicker fat layer on this bird – something else that doesn’t have time to develop on an industrial farm turkey.
Once roasted, the breast meat was light in color and very moist and tender. The leg meat was definitely dark, and was much firmer than the white meat. We kept the seasonings to a bare minimum – salt and pepper, with a baste of herb butter at the end. There was no mistaking this turkey for a Butterball; the meat was flavorful, but had a texture more similar to pork than chicken. Caveny Farm’s website recommends cooking the turkey in parts, and I would agree with that. Overcooking any part of this bird would be a crime.
Even though we were cooking turkey, I stayed away from other traditional Thanksgiving side dishes; I wanted to keep the entire meal seasonal and local. We started the meal with cream of asparagus soup, and I paired the turkey with a fresh salad from Erehwon Farm and an asparagus & wild mushroom bread pudding. Creme brulee with fresh, golden yolked eggs followed for dessert. All of the ingredients, aside from the gruyere cheese in the bread pudding, were obtained locally. The bread pudding was outstanding – I combined a recipe out of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with a couple other online recipes. My take on the recipe follows.
Asparagus and Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding
- 1 1 lb loaf french bread, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1 lb fresh asparagus, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 1/2 lb wild mushrooms, any variety, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 2 TBSP butter, plus more for greasing the pan
- 6 large eggs
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 lb gruyere cheese, shredded
- 1/2 cup fresh chives, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
Begin by drying the bread cubes, either overnight on a sheet tray, or in an oven.
Blanch the asparagus in boiling water for 1 – 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks, until the asparagus is bright green. Drain and place in an ice water bath. Set aside.
Heat the butter in a saute pan and add the mushrooms. Cook until tender and the moisture has evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Whisk together the eggs and milk. Drain the asparagus well. In a 9 x 13 baking dish, layer 1/2 of the bread cubes, followed by 1/2 of the asparagus, mushrooms and chives. Sprinkle 1/2 of the cheese and pour 1/2 of the egg/milk mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat with a 2nd layer of all ingredients. Let sit for about 20 minutes, occasionally pressing down on the casserole to submerge the bread in the custard. Bake for 45 minutes until the pudding is puffed and set, and the top is golden and crusted.