UP WITH TURKEY

This Thanksgiving, do a Michael Jordan. Give your turkey a vertical leap. Cook it standing up.

Vertical turkeys cook much faster than those lie-down birds. They’re incredibly juicy. And carving is a cinch.

What’s the secret? The Spanek vertical roaster. Spanek vertical roasters have been used for years on chickens with marvelous results, but they’re just as good with turkeys. And if you use a Weber-style kettle grill instead of a conventional oven, you’ll end up with the best turkey you’ve ever had.

The Spanek vertical roaster is a metal frame that looks like a rough approximation of the Eiffel Tower. In fact, Anna Spanek was a cook in Paris when she created it. But it didn’t take off until her son Denis began to market it aggressively.

The turkey, sans stuffing (except for a small amount in the neck cavity), sits right on the roaster, legs forward and wings akimbo, as if it were about to do a strut. That’s all there is to it. No trussing. No basting.

The metal frame conducts the heat so well, the turkey cooks inside and out simultaneously. This sears in juices. You’ll notice that when you cook a turkey this way, there will be virtually no juices in the drip pan below, only a small amount of fat. The juices are in the bird, where they’re supposed to be. This is especially important for that all-too-often dry breast meat.

Because the turkey cooks inside and out at the same time, cooking time is faster. With the Spanek Grill, a 15-pound turkey takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours in the oven or on a kettle grill (vs. 3 1/2 hours cooked conventionally in an oven and three hours lying down on the grill).

And the more turkey you cook, the faster cooking goes. Instead of a 30-pound hulk, which takes so long to cook we don’t even want to think about it, cook two 15-pound birds instead. It will take about 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours in the oven or on a gas-fired grill.

Since two turkeys will not fit in normal 18 inch or 22-inch kettle grills, you’ll need the added room provided by special gall grills such as the Weber Genesis. Or you can use your oven.

Cooking on the grill frees up valuable oven space for those umpteen side dishes we demand of Thanksgiving. And there’s no need to worry about stuffing getting fully cooked inside the turkey because this turkey is cooked unstuffed (except for the optional neck cavity.)

An added advantage of the two-bird system is that you have twice as many drumsticks, twice and many wings and, let’s hope, fewer fights.

Unless you’re a master butcher, carving on Thanksgiving often resembles the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But carving a stand-up bird is much easier. The breast, which comes off easily in two large pieces, doesn’t fall apart when you slice it because it has so much moisture in it.

One final benefit of cooking your turkey on a vertical roaster in a kettle grill: You can set it and forget it. Light the fire, put in the bird, then, weather permitting, go play nine holes of golf. (Sorry, it cooks too fast for a full round.) Or stay home and watch football on television. But NO PEEKING! Lift that lid and the temperature in the grill plummets.

Here’s how to go vertical on the grill, step by step, with your Thanksgiving turkey.

STEP ONE: Place a 22-inch Weber type kettle grill in a non-drafty location. (Wind can severely lower the grill temperature.) Remove the top grill grate and bottom grill grate. Line the inside bottom half of the grill with foil, making sure bottom vents are not covered. Put back the bottom grill grate. You will not use the top grill grate. Line three bricks, no more than 2 1/2 inches thick, down the middle of the grate, perpendicular to the straight leg of the grill.

You can use an 18-inch kettle grill instead of a 22-inch grill. But for the grill lid to close securely without touching the turkey (a clearance of about 11 inches), you’ll need thin quarry tiles instead of bricks as a base for the turkey.

STEP TWO: Line a deep-dish pizza pan with foil or have a disposable foil pan large enough to accommodate your turkey. Spray the vertical roaster with vegetable spray (makes for easier cleanup). Get your seasonings ready. You’ll need about 1/4 cup of poultry seasoning or of all-purpose seasoning mix such as herbes de Provence. Or make your own with ingredients as simple as salt, pepper and crumbled sage leaves. Also have a tablespoon of paprika ready.

(When working with poultry, it’s always a good idea to have everything you need out ahead of time. This prevents touching surfaces with hands contaminated by the raw bird. Always wash hands thoroughly with soapy water after working with raw poultry.)

STEP THREE: Remove giblets from the inside of a 15-pound turkey. Cut off the tail (it will help to make the turkey sit lower in the pan). Reserve tail and giblets for gravy stock (see recipe).

Rub inside of turkey with seasoning. Spray outside with vegetable spray and rub on seasoning. (Seasonings adhere more easily if turkey is sprayed with vegetable spray first.) Sprinkle outside of turkey with paprika. Set turkey on Spanek roaster. The top of the roaster should pop through the neck cavity. Push the bird down until it does. Legs should be in front. Tuck wing tips under and back. No need to truss. If you wish, you can cover wings with foil to prevent excess browning.

If stuffing the turkey, put stuffing (see recipe) in the neck cavity until full but not too tight. Don’t seal, just cover with the flap of skin. (This amount of stuffing will serve only three or four people. Bake the remaining stuffing, moistened with turkey stock, about 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven.)

STEP FOUR: Put the vertical turkey in its pan on the bricks in the grill. Cover with the grill lid to make sure that the lid covers securely. This is vitally important. If the top of the turkey prevents the cover from closing securely, push the turkey down farther on the Spanek roaster or cut off a small portion of neck that protrudes from the top of the turkey.

Remove the turkey while the fire is being lighted. Put 3/4 of any wood chips (mesquite, hickory, etc.) that you may want to use for flavoring in a small aluminum container and soak in water, fruit juices or wine. In a chimney lighting device or by whichever method you prefer, heat 60 briquets until hot (see Q&A below). Put 30 briquets on either side of the bricks on the bottom grill grate. (All the briquets do not have to be at the same level of heat. Put hotter ones on top of less hot ones.)

STEP FIVE: Put turkey in its pan on the bricks. The breast should be facing the straight leg of the grill. Drain the soaking wood chips. Put the remaining dry chips on top of the wet chips and place chips on the grate in front of the turkey. Close lid securely. The lid vents should be opposite the straight leg of the grill. Make sure all vents, top and bottom, are wide open. Don’t touch that lid for two hours and 15 minutes.

Remove turkey and check to make sure it is fully cooked by pricking the deepest part of its thigh. Its juices should run clear. Better yet, test with an instant read thermometer in the same location; the thermometer should register 165 degrees.

Oven temperatures may vary, so roasting times given are approximate. It’s always a good idea to keep a thermometer inside your oven, so that you can know exactly how the temperature inside the oven compares with the outside dial. If, for some reason, the turkey is not fully cooked, put it in a 400-degree oven until it reaches the appropriate temperature, or put it back into the grill if the coals are still hot. (See Q&A below.)

Remove the turkey, while still on the vertical roaster, to a carving board by lifting it with the blunt side of a chef’s knife. Wrap loosely with foil and let it rest 15-20 minutes. Carve the turkey, saving any juices that fall from carving to use in gravy or to moisten meat on the platter.

OVEN METHOD: Follow steps two and three while preheating the oven to 450 degrees. Cook 30 minutes at 450. Lower heat to 350 and cook 1 3/4 hours longer. Let turkey rest at room temperature 15 minutes, loosely covered with foil, before carving. Juices should run clear and an instant read thermometer should register 165 degrees.

TWO TURKEY METHOD: Prepare two 15-pound turkeys as in steps Two and Three. Put in separate pans or in one large pan. Before you begin cooking, make sure the grill is large enough to accommodate both turkeys.

Whether cooking in a conventional oven or large gas grill, cook on high (450 degrees) for 30 minutes. Turn heat to medium (350 degrees). Cook for 1 3/4 to 2 hours more for a total cooking time of 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove turkeys, check to make sure they are fully cooked as above, and let rest 15 minutes (loosely covering with foil) before carving. (In some gas grills, it may be necessary to cover the very top of the turkeys with foil for the last hour to prevent excess browning.)

BREAD STUFFING

  • 2 1-pound loaves sliced white bread
  • 5 ribs celery, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch crescents
  • 1/4 to 1/2 pound butter or margarine
  • 4 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons sage (dried leaves, not powder)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Dip bread, two slices at a time, lightly in warm water and squeeze out excess moisture. Crumble bread (not too finely) into a large bowl. In a large, preferably cast-iron, skillet, saute celery in 2 tablespoons butter until just tender but not brown. Add to bread. Add two more tablespoons butter to pan and saute onion until translucent. Add to bread. (This goes faster using two skillets.)

Crumble sage leaves between your fingers and add to bread mixture along with salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly and adjust seasoning.

Melt remaining butter in 2 skillets over high heat (or do in stages). Add bread mixture and fry until bread is golden brown, stirring to avoid burning and to brown evenly. Don’t overcrowd the pan or it will be too hard to turn over stuffing easily. Remove stuffing to a large pan to cool. (Stuffing can be made the night before.) About 8-10 servings.

TURKEY GRAVY

  • Tail and giblets from turkey
  • 1 small carrot, chopped
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • Salt to taste

Rinse giblets and tail (set aside liver to cook separately) and put in a large saucepan with the vegetables, bay leaf and about 3 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, skim scum and simmer 2 to 3 hours. Strain (you should have about a quart of stock), reserving meat. Keep stock hot.

Meanwhile, fry liver or bake until cooked through. Chop heart, liver and gizzard and set aside. Heat butter in a saucepan. Add flour and cook until nutty brown, stirring frequently with a whisk. Add 2 cups hot stock and whisk thoroughly until gravy comes back to a boil. Simmer until gravy thickens, about 10 minutes. Add giblets. Season with salt.

Add any juices from the turkey after it has been carved. If gravy is too thin, add a mix of softened butter and flour, a teaspoonful at a time. If it’s too thick, add more stock. Makes 2 cups.

VERTICAL Q&A

You’ve got questions? We’ve got answers.

Q: Where do I get a Spanek roaster?
A:
At many good cookware stores or from Denis Spanek’s website, http://www.spanek.com/roasterQB.html. Cost is about $22 for chrome and $25 for black non-stick.

Q: How about some tips for lighting the charcoal?
A:
Chimney-type charcoal lighters work best if filled no more than 2/3 full, about 45 briquets. To light the 60 briquets needed for the turkey, you can keep adding crumbled sheets of newspaper to the bottom of the chimney until you are sure the briquets catch on. (It took me about six sheets.) Or you can try this "Scout Method" from "The Grilling Encyclopedia" by A. Cort Sinnes (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.95): Crumble two or three sheets of dry newspaper in the bottom of the grill, under the fire (lower) grate. The draft holes at the bottom of the grill should be completely open. Put fire grate into position. Lay a couple of handfuls of twigs on grate over the newspapers. Mound briquets on top of twigs. Light newspaper.

Q: What if I have a gas kettle grill?|
A: Follow the same procedure as the oven method from step two on.

Q: Is it done yet?
A:
I found that 2 1/4 hours on the grill produced a turkey that was safely done (165 degrees internal temperature) with the optimum amount of moistness. If you like your poultry well done, leave it in the grill an extra 15 minutes. The turkey will be a little drier but still moist.

HOW TO CARVE A VERTICAL BIRD.

  1. Where the drumstick meets the thigh, push the leg down and away from the body of the turkey.
  2. Cut through the joint where the thigh is attached to the body, and remove the leg and thigh. Separate the thigh from the drumstick.
  3. To remove the neck cavity, cut just below the neck, following the line of the wishbone. Remove the cup that contains the stuffing.
  4. Remove the wings. Cut down one side of the breast bone and across the ribs, pulling down the breast half. Repeat with the other side.
  5. Put breast half on cutting board, cut side down. Hold top of breast with your hand or a fork. Slice thinly, cutting away from you.
  6. Have a very HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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