Whenever turkey time gobbles around, I’m reminded of the many feathered alternatives that I prefer to eat—most sampled in travels far and wide and all well-seasoned with nostalgia.
My least favorite Thanksgiving meal is turkey, whether wrestling the big bird down as a cook, or searching for savory, mellow morsels as a diner. While I’ve considered serving red meat, which is near and dear to me, some kind of poultry seems more fitting for this day. Perhaps because, as poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” And hope-rewarded is, certainly, what Thanksgiving is all about.
The following are my non-turkey favorites for Thanksgiving!
Squab. My hands down favorite poultry is this small teasingly gamy bird with its moist meat, tender bones and silken skin. When squab is called pigeon, many Americans blanch, fearing perhaps that their dinner was netted in city parks. Ancient Egyptians savored pigeons and raised them in towering white dovecotes. No surprise then that in four visits I made to the country between 1953 and 1995, I found the then gracefully friendly Cairo to be a mecca for squab eaters. The prime source was Alsabbiah, then a 100-year old cafe in the midst of the din of the exuberant hawking and bargaining of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. In this big spacious setting, the so-called Hamam Meshwi were gilded over smoldering wood flames that were kept bright with fans made of turkey tail feathers fluttered by cooks. The smoky, savory birds were heaped onto platters, two to three per person, for unbridled, finger-licking joy.
My other great squab indulgence came via an almost opposite style of preparation by way of that traditional French bistro dish, pigeons aux petits pois, a subtly complex homage to that bird. It was braised with bacony slivers of lardon, and garnished with tiny green new peas and pearl onions. The bird profits from slow, nurturing simmering that results in irresistible juices and tantalizing aromas. I enjoyed the dish with the acerbic and reliable French restaurant critic, Gilles Pudlowski, A.K.A. Pudlo, in a now bygone Paris bistro. Our conversation and the heavenly pigeons remain inseparable memories.
Duck. The most ingenious and stunningly delicious recipe for duck was created by some long-forgotten genius of a Chinese cook who invented Peking Duck, A.K.A. Beijing Kao Ya. Each duck is hung in cool moving air for 24 hours so that skin becomes taut and when roasted easily separates from flesh as the fat melts out. The result is parchment-crisp skin folded into delicate pancakes along with earthy-sweet hoisin sauce and wisps of scallions and cucumber. The most amazing Peking Duck that I ever had was at the Da Dong Hotel in Beijing. Female guests were served the dish with diamond bright sugar crystals to be sprinkled on in honor of an empress who thought feminine palates too delicate for salt. The contrast of the coarse sweet crystals against the crisp, savory skin was truly a gustatory revelation.
Nothing could differ more from the Chinese masterpiece than the almost as amazing corned duckling with frozen cream horseradish that I had long ago in Denmark. Birte Rohweder, a cooking school teacher and TV chef, served me this meal in her rustic country cottage outside of Copenhagen. The duck had been heavily coated with salt and left to chill for 24 hours, then was simmered in broth along with headily aromatic root vegetables. When done, it was skinned, boned and served forth in large, juicy filets, topped with melting mounds of frozen, salted whipped cream spiked with freshly grated horseradish. Simple, red-skinned boiled potatoes came alongside with an orange-green-and-white border of freshly poached leeks, carrots and turnips.
Goose. Bob Cratchit’s triumphant goose would be no match for the epic specimen I had one merry December 25th in the pop-up Christmas card of a city that is Austria’s Salzburg. As prepared at the legendary Goldener Hirsch Hotel, the robust bird was roasted to crisp-but-moist perfection, its golden skin seeming like one huge crackling. The rich, dark meat was offset by winey red cabbage and airy dumplings. A lavish meal appropriate for days of visiting confectionery baroque churches in Mozart’s hometown.
Quail. Birds in small packages can provide maximum flavor, never more so than by way of compote de caille en gelée as I once had it as a cold appetizer at Au Crocodile in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg. The tender little boned quail was stuffed with foie gras and braised in rivulets of butter, then chilled to set in a tawny, wine-scented aspic. Small though it was, it packed more of a seductive scent and flavor than any turkey ever could.
Pheasant. The Upper East side of Manhattan may not be geographically far from my Greenwich Village home, but stylistically it is worlds away. The neighborhood was the setting for an unforgettable Pheasant Souvaroff, a great classic that is one of gastronomy’s most elaborately sensual delights. It was prepared by Alain Sailhac, then the chef at Le Cirque, as a birthday surprise for me. The golden bird was baked in a big cocotte in the company of foie gras, truffles and madeira. To retain its aroma and moisture, the cover was hermetically sealed to the pot with a rope of dough. When broken open in the dining room, it emitted a divine scent that turned nearby diners green with envy, as in “Why am I not having that, too?”
Chicken. The world’s most popular and versatile poultry is, of course, chicken, and, so it would seem the perfect egalitarian bird with which to honor Thanksgiving.
Certainly, the two extraordinary chicken dishes I have had in France garner the gratitude of informed gourmands, none more so than Poulet Farnèse as prepared in the suavely rustic Auberge des Seigneurs. Set in the laid-back impressionist Provence town of Vence, at the center of this cozy restaurant’s dining room is a huge wood-burning fireplace that is used to roast a number of signature dishes. The drippings from the garlic-and-bay-scented bird were whipped into a light sauce and finished with crushed roasted hazelnuts. Enough said? It was so good, I convinced the chef to allow me to publish the recipe in my book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.
The other chicken dish I’m grateful for is the masterpiece prepared by Joël Robuchon in his original Paris restaurant, which combines Poularde en Vessie with another haute cuisine triumph, Poularde en Demi-Deuil (literally in half-mourning). Just one breast of the chicken was dressed with slices of black truffles slipped under the skin (half-mourning), which was then all enclosed in a ballooning pig’s bladder with herbs and root vegetables to be poached to sublime perfection. It was served with opulent mashed potatoes—one pound of butter for each pound of potatoes—a recipe all too easy to follow.
But I have had amazing chicken outside of France as well. In Italian, a mattone is a brick, and Pollo a la Mattone is a crunchy, savory creation that I saw demonstrated in the handsome Tuscan cooking school of Giuliano Bugialli, the country’s top food writer and teacher. A small bird, split down the backbone and flattened (A.K.A. spatchcocked), was seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper then gently fried in a terracotta dish, while weighted down with a brick-like terracotta press. The chicken emerged juicy, crisp, earthy and elegant all at once, a nibblers delight especially in the verdant air of the Chianti hills.
Yaki means grill and a tori is a bird, and Yakitori proves that bits and pieces of chicken can be every bit as tantalizing as slices and chunks. As I had it at Toricho, a small slice of a restaurant in the middle of the swirl of activity that is Tokyo’s Ginza, the tiny bamboo skewered morsels were served at a counter where the nuggets of chicken and giblets, sometimes alternating with chile peppers, were served one-by-one hot off the grill. I dipped them into a spiced salt, which made for sublime nibbling. It’s hard to imagine more succulent offerings, including such outré parts as pearly chicken testicles, and for a change, darkly moist duckling.
Chickening out in Istanbul, Turkey, I observed the preparation of Çerkez Tavuğu, a Circassian dish being demonstrated by the late Ekrem Yeğen, considered the Auguste Escoffier of Turkish cuisine. He taught home-cooking to brides just above his much celebrated, eponymous restaurant. This sensuous cold appetizer began with supple, cooked shredded chicken breast meat that was mantled with a walnut mash blended with moistened bread, salt, pepper and hot paprika. All was topped with drizzles of walnut oil and spiced with paprika, combining a rose-dawn glow with midday heat.
Anybody rethinking turkey?