A Guide to Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving is a feast for eaters, but it can be a chore for cooks.

Those of us in charge of the menu can become slaves to the same dishes year after year. We have to make the same turkey, the green bean casserole, the marshmallow-drenched sweet potatoes or risk the rebuke of our holiday dinner guests.

Chef Ben Barker grew up in just such a family.

“I came from a family where the side dishes didn’t change,” Barker says. “If you didn’t have traditional sides, there were howls of protest.”

Barker soon cast off the shackles of his family’s holiday menu after he went home with his future wife, Karen, for her family’s Thanksgiving feast. (Both were students at the Culinary Institute of America at the time. The duo is now the force behind the Triangle’s only James Beard-winning restaurant, Magnolia Grill in Durham.)

Ben Barker recalls that Karen’s cousins, Iris and Steve, were “accomplished and fearless home cooks.” They changed the first courses and sides every year; never repeating one. The only steady item on the menu was Aunt Dora’s turkey, although it was far from your typical roasted and stuffed centerpiece. Her bird was stuffed with cloves of garlic, and a paste of crushed garlic, paprika and oil was rubbed on the outside. The intense garlic mellowed after roasting inside and outside the turkey, and was basted with the bird’s juices. The bird “came to the table redolent of garlic and pristine in its simple glory,” the couple wrote in their cookbook, “Not Afraid of Flavor.”

The Barkers have since improved the recipe, instructing home cooks to slather the bird in duck fat (available at Cliff’s Meat Market, 100 W. Main St., Carrboro; it’s usually on hand, but call for availability – 919-942-2196). They share their recipe for Thanksgiving Turkey With “140” Cloves of Garlic in that book, acknowledging Aunt Dora as well as James Beard’s revival of the classic Provencal dish, Chicken With 40 Cloves of Garlic.

While this turkey has become a constant at the Barkers’ holiday table for the last 23 years, it could be the recipe to reinvigorate us home cooks for this year’s holiday feast.

We understand that repetition can turn an act of love into a chore. Once it becomes a labored act, it’s not fun anymore.

We want to inspire you, spark your creativity in the kitchen, get you excited about the dishes you will be putting on the table this holiday season.

Turkey with 140 Cloves of Garlic

1 (21- to 25-pound) fresh turkey, preferably a free-range organic bird (see note)

Salt and black pepper

4 large sprigs fresh sage

6 large sprigs fresh thyme

6-8 fresh bay leaves

As many peeled garlic cloves as you can stuff inside the turkey’s cavities

2 cups cold rendered duck fat, melted butter or olive oil

THE DAY BEFORE: Remove turkey from wrappings. Remove giblets and neck and refrigerate. Wash turkey inside and out; dry thoroughly and put it in the refrigerator, uncovered, overnight to dry the skin and cavity. Remove from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking.

PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Season the interior and neck cavities liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Divide sage, thyme and bay leaves between the body and neck cavities. Place as many cloves of peeled garlic into each cavity as possible; secure neck skin with a skewer or toothpick and tie legs with butcher’s twine.

USE your hands to slather duck fat, soft butter or olive oil on all the exposed skin of the turkey. Season liberally with salt and pepper and position the bird in a roasting pan, breast down. Place the neck in the roasting pan; reserve remaining giblets for another use.

ROAST turkey breast down on the bottom rack of the oven for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and turn breast-side up. Use a pastry brush to baste all surfaces with melted fat from the roasting pan.

RETURN to the oven and roast for 10 minutes per pound, basting thoroughly every 20 to 30 minutes (total roasting time will be about 4 hours and 15 minutes). Be careful not to overcook; test doneness by inserting a skewer into the inner thigh muscle; juices should be barely pinkish and the flesh still moist.

REMOVE the turkey to a cutting board to rest 20 to 30 minutes. Extract the garlic cloves from the cavity and complete the gravy (see recipe). Pour off all fat from the roasting pan. Use the neck as a snack on while waiting to carve the turkey, or shred the meat and add to the gravy. Deglaze the roasting pan with a little chicken stock so you can add the juices to the gravy.

CARVE the turkey and transfer the meat to a platter.

NOTE: You can use a smaller turkey. Roast it for 45 minutes, then 10 minutes per pound. A 16-pound turkey should take about 3 1/2 hours.

Yield: 20 servings.

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