by Marilyn Noble
Among the many reasons to be grateful for living in the Southwest is the fact that for many of us, Thanksgiving is warm and sunny and perfect for grilling. Cooking the turkey on the grill has many advantages: You free up the oven for other dishes, you avoid the mess of having to clean a greasy roasting pan at the end of the day, and you can spend time outside on a day when people in colder climes are huddled next to the fireplace listening to crazy Aunt Sadie droning on about her cats or the drunk uncles arguing over who’s going to win the ball game.
Grilling the turkey is easy, but takes some attention. Start with a quality bird in the twelve-to-sixteen pound range. A pastured heritage breed turkey tastes like turkey used to when Thanksgiving was at Grandma’s house, but they can run upwards of a hundred dollars. If you’re a ninety-nine-cent-a-pound turkey bargain shopper, that seems astounding, but the end result will be a delicious, succulent bird. You can also find fresh organic or pasture-raised turkeys at Whole Foods or your local meat market in the three-to-four dollar a pound range. They really are worth the expense.
Choose your favorite flavor of smoking chips. Mesquite is common in the Southwest, and hickory, oak, apple, or cherry wood deliver different, subtle flavor notes. Soak the chips in red wine, bourbon, or brandy for added nuance. (That also gives you an excuse to have a bottle open, just in case the heated debate over whether or not Peyton Manning should be benched spills out of the house and into the grill area.)
Use a digital remote thermometer. That way you can leave the grill and take care of other tasks in the house. If you don’t have one (or want to invest in one), use an instant-read thermometer and start checking the breast and thigh temperatures after about an hour and a half of cooking. The breast should come up to 165 degrees F, and the thigh should be 170.
Use indirect heat and a drip pan to keep the flames down. If you’re using charcoal, arrange the coals in a circle around the bird and put the drip pan in the middle. If you’re using gas, heat the grill to about 325 degrees F, then turn off the middle burner and place the drip pan on it. Place the turkey on the oiled cooking grate above it. Leave the grill closed as much as possible — each time you open it, the heat escapes and it slows down the cooking process.
If the bird starts getting too brown, tent it with foil.
For gravy, simmer the turkey neck with an onion, bay leaf, and salt while the turkey is on the grill. You can then use the resulting stock as a gravy base. If you don’t want to tie up a burner for several hours when you’re trying to cook everything else, buy a couple of turkey thighs a few days in advance, then make stock and freeze it until you need it.
This recipe is adapted from Southwest Comfort Food, Slow and Savory. The flavors are definitely Southwestern, but you can vary the spices to your own taste. Use a combination of rosemary, thyme, and parsley instead of the chile powder and cumin, or any combination that suits your palate. If you don’t want to do it on the grill, this recipe also works beautifully in the oven.
Barbecued Southwestern Turkey
1 turkey, 12-16 pounds, fresh or thawed, if previously frozen
1 cup softened butter
2 tablespoons red chile powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 orange, cut into eighths, peel on
1 apple, cored and sliced
1 onion, quartered
Remove the turkey from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Make the compound butter. In a bowl, mix the butter, chile powder, cumin, garlic, black pepper, and salt until well combined. Set aside.
Remove the package of giblets and the neck from the turkey. Rinse the turkey and pat dry inside and out. Rub the butter on the inside cavity, and then, using your hands, loosen the skin beginning with the breast, and rub the remaining butter under the skin over the entire turkey. Place the orange, apple, and onion in the cavity of the bird, making sure not to overstuff. The heat needs to be able to circulate through the cavity. Cover the wing tips and leg ends with foil so they don’t char. Don’t truss the legs together because the turkey won’t cook evenly.
Heat the grill, either gas or charcoal, using the indirect method, to about 325 degrees F. Place a drip pan under the grate where the turkey will sit. When the grill is heated, add some smoking chips if desired. Place the digital thermometer into the breast of the turkey under the wing, and place the turkey breast side up on the grate above the drip pan. Close the grill.
Keep an eye on the temperature, checking once after about 90 minutes to make sure the skin isn’t getting too brown. If you’re using charcoal, add more as needed to keep the temperature constant. The total cooking time should be three to four hours.
When the breast temperature is 165 degrees F, remove the turkey from the grill, tent with foil, and allow to rest for twenty to thirty minutes before carving.
Marilyn Noble is Rio Nuevo’s cookbook and blog editor, and has written four cookbooks including Southwest Comfort Food and The Essential Southwest Cookbook. She is also the co-chair of the Southwest/Mountain Ark of Taste committee and the Colorado governor for Slow Food USA.