How to cook a dismantled turkey

The legs and thighs are separated from the

The legs and thighs are separated from the body of the turkey, and cooked for different times, and without stuffing, to insure that each kind of meat is cooked to perfection. Then the turkey is reassembled for a beautiful table display before serving. (November 8, 2006 ) (Credit: Newsday/Ken Spencer)

It sounds sacrilegious, I know. Roasting the turkey breast and legs separately for Thanksgiving may strike you as altogether wrong-headed, like serving a standing rib roast for July Fourth, shish kebab for Easter or cupcakes at a wedding (which, come to think of it, has become fashionable lately in certain circles).

But consider that your guests spend maybe 30 seconds gazing at the turkey before it is whisked away to be carved (and, frequently, mangled). Consider all the crazy things you do - brining, flipping, tenting, shielding, trussing - to ensure that the white and dark meats are done at the same time.

Consider all the time and space occupied by that one ridiculously bulky bird, while uncooked side dishes circle the oven like jets attempting to land at JFK during peak traffic. Now consider that cooking a dismantled turkey solves all these problems and results in the best-tasting, easiest-to-carve bird you will ever serve.

Your butcher does all the heavy lifting. In a matter of minutes, he will remove the legs at the hip and bone out the thighs. Then he will cut out the backbone and the surrounding rib cage. With these bones, you will be able to make the richest turkey stock imaginable, and this, in turn, will result in the best gravy you will ever have.

The night before Thanksgiving, you will season the turkey, and since the breast and legs are no longer attached, you can season them differently: lemon and thyme for the delicate white meat, sage for the gamier dark meat.

On Thanksgiving Day, you will simply put the breast on a large baking sheet, and, 30 minutes later, add the legs. In less than two hours, your turkey will be done. Breast done first? Take it out and let the legs continue to cook. And, since a legless turkey sits much lower in the pan, you will have more shelf space in your oven for potatoes, stuffing and all the other side dishes clamoring for heat.

If you care to present the cooked bird to your guests, you can make a very credible-looking whole bird by placing the legs back in their anatomically correct positions and disguising any gaps with strategically placed herbs and fruits.

Carving the dismantled turkey is a breeze: You will remove the two breast halves and slice them crosswise. The thighs, now boneless, can be sliced crosswise as well. The wings and drumsticks will testify to the fact that this neatly sliced, elegantly seasoned and perfectly cooked meat did, in fact, come from one single bird.

A BUTCHER'S GUIDE

You can dismember a turkey yourself, if you have a good heavy cleaver and aren't afraid to use it. Otherwise, ask your butcher to perform the following operation:

1. Remove the legs at the hip bones. Leave them whole (i.e., drumsticks attached), but remove the thigh bones.

2. Separate back and ribcage from breast and remove. Cut out backbone and neck, if attached. Trim any meat or little bones from edges of breast.

3. Cut backbone, rib cage and neck into pieces no larger than a cell phone. Reserve, along with thigh bones and giblets (if desired) for stock.

RECIPES

DISMANTLED TURKEY WITH THYME BUTTER AND SAGE

The quantities given below are for a 14-pound turkey.

For a larger bird, increase accordingly.

1 (14-pound) turkey, legs separated from the breast; neck, backbone and thigh bones removed (see box) and reserved for stock (see below)

1 small bunch thyme

1 lemon

1 small shallot

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 stick butter, softened and divided

1 small bunch sage

For garnish: bunches of thyme and sage

1. The night before Thanksgiving, season the breast and legs. For the

breast's thyme butter: Remove thyme leaves from stems; you will need about 2 tablespoons. Grate zest from lemon; you should have about 2 tablespoons. Finely mince shallot, about 2 tablespoons. Combine thyme, zest and shallot with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper. In a mini processor (or with a mortar and pestle) process the seasonings with 6 tablespoons of softened butter and work until fully combined. Scrape into a small bowl.

2. Starting opposite the neck end, gently pull skin away from the breast until you can fit your hand in. Spread thyme butter liberally and evenly on the breast meat. Pat the breast skin back down and then rub skin with a little more butter. (You will have some butter left over; save it for enriching the gravy.)

3. For the legs: Combine remaining 2 tablespoons butter with a good amount of salt and pepper. Remove sage leaves from stems. Starting at the thigh, gently pull skin away from each leg. Smear meat with seasoned butter. Place sage leaves flat on meat in as decorative a pattern as possible. Pat skin back down and rub with a bit more butter. With kitchen twine or foodloops (thefoodloop.com lists retailers), tie around thickest part of thigh.

4. On Thanksgiving, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place breast on a large baking sheet and place in oven. After 30 minutes, place legs on baking sheet. Unless your oven is incredibly even-heating, after 30 minutes, turn baking sheet 180 degrees. If breast starts to get too brown, put foil over it. Bake another 30 minutes and then start testing temperature of both breast and legs. The breast should come out when an instant-read thermometer placed near the breastbone registers 165 degrees. The legs are ready when the thighs are 175 degrees. A 14-pound bird should take 1 3/4 to 2 hours for the breast; 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours for legs. (For a 20-pound bird: breast, 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours; legs, 1 3/4 to 2 hours.)

5. Remove breast and legs from pan and allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before carving. When pan is cool enough to handle, drain drippings into a heat-proof measuring cup or bowl. As they stand, the drippings will fall to bottom and the fat will rise to the top. Skim off fat and reserve both fat and drippings for gravy.

6. For presentation purposes, a reasonable approximation of a whole bird can be achieved by placing the breast on a platter and flanking it with the legs. Camouflage any gaps with bunches of herbs or grapes.

7. To carve, remove wings from breast and serve whole. Run carving knife along breastbone to remove each breast half in 1 piece. Cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. For legs, cut boneless thighs crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices; serve drumsticks whole.

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