Monday November 2, I was fortunate enough to be able to taste nine breeds of heritage turkey at Ayrshire Farm, which supplies many of our proteins here at the restaurant including chicken, guinea, pork, veal, and beef, not to mention outstanding organic produce. Frequent readers of the blog will remember that I have been to two other tastings this year, first chickens, then steers, and the results of the double-blind tastings have been fascinating, showing remarkable differences between the breeds.
This tasting, though it followed the same format as the previous two was just a bit different in that CBS Sunday Morning was filming a piece on Sandy Lerner and that I had the honor of being one of the "celebrity" judges, along with Anya Fernald, of Live Culture and one of the judges on The Next Iron Chef; Lisa Brefere of GigaChef; and Chris Edwards, chef of Patowmack Farm in Loudoun County.
One thing that home cooks might take away from this tasting is a conversation that we judges had while sequestered in a back room tasting our samples—with a TV camera, boom mike, and several still photographers clicking away. And that is that none of us are much in favor of roasting a whole bird. There is such a difference between the white and dark meat that they are best when cooked separately and differently. For myself, I like to take the breasts off, then brine and smoke or roast them. The legs, I want to slowly braise with bacon, wine, and mushrooms.
If you frequent the restaurant, you may notice that we often treat poultry (and by extension, rabbits) this way. You'll frequently see a lightly grilled breast of guinea or lightly grilled loin of rabbit on the same plate with a gratin of the rest of the animal, often braised with red wine, Virginia slab bacon, pearl or cipollini onions, and wild mushrooms.
I'm not suggesting you do this with your Thanksgiving turkey—no doubt all your guests are expecting the traditional whole roasted bird—but if you do get one of the heritage turkeys that we tasted, you might want to reconsider. They spend considerable time running around foraging and as a result, they have really muscular legs that you may find a little tough and chewy simply roasted.
We tasted Black, Bourbon Red, Chocolate, Midget White, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze, and White Holland turkeys, all raised identically at Ayrshire this year.
I found it interesting that we judges rated the Royal Palm highest (photo above courtesy of Wikipedia), while the rest of the crowd about 70 strong had a marked preference for the Midget White. I had the Midget White third on my card. I really liked the Royal Palm for not only the depth of flavor in the breast meat, but for the really intense dark meat. I don't want to speak for the other judges but I think we were all drawn to that delicious dark meat.
My hat is off to Ayrshire chef Rob Townsend for getting up at the crack of dawn and cooking not nine turkeys but eighteen, nine of which went into a gorgeous display in the dining room.