Alternatives to Turkey on Thanksgiving

Deep-fried turkey? Vegetarian "turkey?" Turducken? Jason DeRose reports on the latest alternatives to the traditional turkey-centered Thanksgiving feast.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Come Thanksgiving, culinary magazines and newspaper food sections try to convince home cooks to try something new and complex: deep-fried turkey, Southwestern barbecue turkey or--How about this?--miso-massaged turkey encased in puff pastry. But why tempt fate when just making an oven-roasted turkey can go so horribly wrong? NPR's Jason DeRose spoke with some cooking instructors and served up this report.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

In the quest for the most complex Thanksgiving recipe, recreational chef Steven Tobiason(ph) is a front-runner. He's combining two of the most difficult turkey recipes he could find.

Mr. STEVEN TOBIASON (Chef): The first one is the turducken, which I believe Paul Prudhomme invented: a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey.

DeROSE: They all need to be deboned, which Tobiason admits could result in mangled bird carcasses. The second part of Tobiason's scheme for culinary glory is the Thompson turkey: a bird spackled with a flour, water and spice concoction every 15 minutes for eight hours.

Mr. TOBIASON: And as the turkey's baking and you're basting it with this plaster, it hardens and it turns into this ugly, nasty, smoky black shell.

DeROSE: But beneath the shell, Tobiason says the turkey is juicy and golden brown.

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

Ms. COURTNEY KANTOS(ph) (Chef): Welcome, everyone. My name's Courtney, if I haven't met you already. Make yourselves at home.

DeROSE: Courtney Kantos is a third-generation chef who's been teaching meat-free Thanksgiving classes at the Chopping Block Cooking School for the past five years.

Ms. KANTOS: We're making mushroom tarte tatin, apple sage quinoa stuffing, glazed root vegetables, and then for dessert, sweet potato pie.

DeROSE: Kantos calls quinoa the supergrain of the future. It was a staple of ancient Aztec cuisine and contains all the necessary amino acids. But what, no tofu?

Ms. KANTOS: Here at the Chopping Block, I feel we support another vegetarian option. I don't know that people really like the Tofurkys too much.

DeROSE: Kantos says the biggest pitfall when it comes to vegetarian cooking is that people are afraid of salt and unsure how to use spices. Speaking of flavor enhancers...

(Soundbite of machinery)

DeROSE: ...The Spice House in Evanston has had to increase its cinnamon grinding fourfold to keep up with demand. Owner Patty Erd says while the old standbys of cinnamon and sage are as popular as ever, she's noticed customers with lists of more unusual seasonings as well.

Ms. PATTY ERD (The Spice House): One of the recipes for a curried pumpkin soup had, I think, seven or eight spices, ground coriander, cumin, cardamom, mustard seeds and, oddly enough, even curry leaves.

DeROSE: Erd says Spanish-smoked paprika is also very big this year, as is candied ginger added to pumpkin and sweet potato pies.

Ms. REBECCA WHEELER (Chef): Whenever I try to branch out, it's not very well-received.

DeROSE: Chef Rebecca Wheeler teaches at the Wooden Spoon Cooking Shop and Cooking School in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.

Ms. WHEELER: I love to experiment, but what I found is that it seems that most people, especially when it comes to Thanksgiving, they want the classic good comforts of tradition and the things that they associate growing up.

DeROSE: So on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Wheeler teaches traditional Thanksgiving for beginners.

Ms. WHEELER: So I'm going to wrestle with the bird over here and get him into our rack so that we can talk about how we're going to roast the turkey. OK?

DeROSE: This class is most popular, because it focuses on roast turkey, green beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. Nothing fancy. Still, Wooden Spoon owner Trina Sheridan has a theory why people risk rococo recipes such as turduckens or curried turkeys.

Ms. TRINA SHERIDAN (Wooden Spoon Cooking Shop and Cooking School): When we cook food for people, we say we love you, and when you try something really hard, you're like, I really, really love you, and I really want to show how much I love you. I took on this big task.

DeROSE: But Sheridan contends a 12- to 15-pound oven-roasted turkey, seasoned with nothing but butter, salt and pepper, is a big enough expression of love. Jason DeRose, NPR News, Chicago.

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