Since we do not celebrate Thanksgiving in our part of the world, and all over Europe, turkey, duck, occasionally goose, and on Kea usually rooster, is the central dish we serve for Christmas.
I, too, cook poultry for our friends and us, and instead of potatoes I roast pieces of quince, carrots and maybe some yams and/or mushrooms. A very satisfying baked polenta –from David Tanis’ brilliant recipe— will accompany the bird, and I will probably begin with a salad of roasted butternut squash with a tangy tahini-garlic-lemon sauce, and/or braised red and white cabbage with cranberries.
Preparing and Roasting the Bird: I start at least two days before the feast. I get the bird well in advance, as in most cases it has to be ordered since I like to get local meats and avoid the frozen turkeys. I ask my butcher to spatchcock the turkey or rooster I plan to roast. The technique looks much easier than it actually is, especially if you deal with a big bird and you have not particularly strong hands, as is my case. I reserve the backbone to boil along with the neck and the gizzards, to make the stock that I will use for basting and for the vegetables in the pan.
I rub the bird inside-out with plenty of sea salt and a fair amount of coarsely ground black pepper, along with dried oregano, cumin, allspice, and ground coriander seeds. Don’t be stringy, use at least 1/2 cup of this spice mix, or of my aromatic Aegean Herb & Spice Mix. Place the bird cut-side up in a pan lined with kitchen towels, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The next day turn the bird upside down on the pan, usually adding more spices, and store in the refrigerator again until the day you plan to roast it. On that day you need to take it out of the fridge 3-4 hours before you put it in the oven to bring it to room temperature.
I heat the oven to around 400 F (200 C) two hours before I serve the bird –maybe a bit more, or less depending on the poultry’s size– and after brushing it well with a mixture of olive oil and fresh orange juice (2 parts olive oil-1 part juice). I place the bird on a rack which I position over the pan in which I have arranged my vegetables/fruit: quince pieces, thick carrot slices, mushrooms, whole or halved garlic cloves, and thick slices of onion if you like, after tossing them with olive oil, salt, pepper and some of the broth from the backbone, etc. I roast in the middle of the oven for about 45 min. to 1 hour, basting every now and then with the olive-oil-orange mixture, and then I arrange a few thin orange slices over the almost cooked poultry, and continue roasting for about 30 minutes more, or until done. If at some point it seems to dry out, I spritz with water a couple of times. When it is done, I cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest for 5-10 minutes before transferring to a warm platter to bring to the table. I like to serve the vegetables in a separate warm platter or bowl.
EXPERT ADVICE: In any event, after I described my crude way of roasting chicken and rooster, I think you are much better off watching how Jacques Pépin explains the correct method so beautifully! And if you want something more amusing and unusual, check Bill Buford’s video in the New Yorker.
Baked Polenta: I use David Tanis’ brilliant recipe, leaving the grain to soak in the clay casserole with 4 cups water for about 20-30 minutes before covering and transferring to the oven –I don’t drain it. Then, after baking for 40-45 minutes, I stir in xinomyzithra –the wonderful, tangy fresh, ricotta-like cheese from Crete. But since this is not something one can get everywhere in the world, I suggest a combination of crumbled feta and ricotta and of course I add grated Parmesan, or a good, aged graviera.
I cannot wait for the next day to enjoy any leftover polenta spread on a shallow dish, topped with leftover vegetables from the pan. Slow-heat covered for about 45 minutes, then uncover and broil for a few minutes to caramelize the vegetables!
Roasted Butternut Squash with Garlic-lemon-mint Tahini Sauce: Peel and halve the squash, take out the seeds, and cut into bite-size pieces. In a bowl toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, cumin, ground coriander, and allspice, then spread in one layer on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake in the center of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until easily pierced with a knife.
To make the sauce, mince 1-2 cloves of garlic and toss with 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1/4 cup lemon. Let marinate for at least 1 hour, better overnight in the refrigerator. When you are about to serve, whisk 1/2 cup tahini with the lemon-garlic mixture; taste and adjust the flavor and texture with more lemon juice, and water or white wine if it is too thick.
Serve the roasted squash sprinkled with plenty of fresh, torn mint leaves, and the tahini sauce on the side.
And to START, before we sit at the table: Besides our favorite thinly sliced Avgotaraho with my freshly baked bread, I often whip-up a Kumquat and Smoked Cheese flat bread using part of the same dough; or I may bake one with slices of dried figs over Gorgonzola, Rockford, Stilton or any good blue cheese you like, sprinkling it with rosemary. Both we as well as our friends love these meze as we enjoy them with a glass of crisp, bubbly wine from the north of Greece, or with Tear of the Pine, the a unusual, slightly resinated, aromatic assyrtiko we love!