Thanksgiving with Extra-Virgin

"And then there was the Thanksgiving when I deep-fried the turkey in extra-virgin olive oil", an epic way to celebrate Thanksgiving with our star food columnist.

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins for Women In Olive Oil (text and photos)

You all know that Thanksgiving, which is about to happen, is a beloved holiday for most Americans (meaning United Statesians). Without the constraints of religion or ethnicity, it’s an old-fashioned harvest celebration, a chance to give thanks for all the blessings received throughout the year. (Native Americans don’t like it because of its association with Europeans invading their homeland, but it is really a harvest gathering-in, and nothing to do with Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.) It’s a time when families come together, along with friends or lonesome strangers who might be temporarily on their own. In 2020, however, with the terrible coronavirus raging, Thanksgiving will be a subdued affair. Instead of extended families gathered around a table heaped with traditional offerings—roast turkey with cranberry sauce and seasonal vegetables (squash, brussels sprouts, broccoli, sweet potatoes or yams, cauliflower), and lots and lots of pies—this year it will be just the immediate family and some of us may well be feasting all by ourselves.

A traditional Thanksgiving may seem a long way from the olive oil kitchens of the Mediterranean but extra-virgin is high on my list of holiday essentials. The new oil is ready, at its freshest, and it’s time to give thanks for this bounty. Most of my vegetables get a lavish bath of olive oil, both in the cooking and in the garnishing. Brussels sprouts, for instance, combined with chestnuts and a touch of garlic, are roasted in oil and then dressed with a little fresh oil and a spritz of lemon when they come out of the oven, right before they get sent to the table. The technique works well with other vegetables that grace the board—carrots, parsnips, beets, cauliflower, kale.

And the turkey? The bird should be liberally basted with extra-virgin olive oil, with a generous amount of chopped herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) and more of that garlic. But I confess I’ve never been a fan of turkey, which has always struck me as dull, dry and boring, its only virtue being size—big enough to feed a crowd and then some for next day’s turkey sandwiches. In Tuscany we scorned the bird and instead took advantage of our capacious living room fireplace to spit roast a handsome loin of cinta senese pork, rolled, porchetta-style, around seaasonings of garlic, fennel and sage, rubbed liberally with olive oil, and slowly rotated before the fire for hours and basted periodically with its own drippings and a slosh of a good robust Chianti.

But one November after an absence of several years, the result of illness and other unavoidable demands on my time, I returned to my Italian home just before Thanksgiving. Immediately I started making plans for the holiday, which my family has celebrated with enthusiasm in Madrid or Paris, Beirut or Hongkong, or back in the States, but most enthusiastically in our home abroad in Tuscany. In the event, that year there were several family members who would be there along with fellow olive oil producers from Provence who arrived with their cat, plus friends from Rome and Florence and a gay (in both senses) American couple who were “doing” Italy that year. So we would be 16 around the farmhouse table, dining, as usual, on pork, chestnuts, kale (cavolo nero) from the garden, and other delights of the season.

And then I discovered eight liters of olive oil in the back of our cantina, tucked away in a small stainless steel fusto, a gift from a neighbor at least four years earlier and somehow forgotten during the time I was absent. What to do with four-year-old oil? Throw it out? Use it for furniture polish? It was perfectly good oil—that is, it wasn’t rancid or musty and even if it was rather flat in flavor and aroma, it still smelled clean. Perfect, I thought, for deep-fat frying.

I had heard about fried turkey but never tried it. In fact, my American friends are always shocked to learn that we seldom have turkey for Thanksgiving. (In my mother’s Maine house it was more often lobster on the festive table.) But turkey this year? Maybe deep-fried, I thought, since we had the oil in which to do it.

I assumed I could get a small turkey in Tuscany but I was mistaken. At Fernanda’s butcher shop in Cortona, they were gross. So instead of a whole turkey I made do with a hind quarter of a huge bird—the quarter itself weighed close to eight pounds. I put it in the largest stock pot in the kitchen and filled the pot with enough oil to cover the bird. Or its quarter. Then I set the meat aside while I warmed the oil, slowly because I didn’t want to risk burning the oil or altering its composition. A jam thermometer in the back of the kitchen-tool drawer was a life-saver as we slowly heated the oil to 355ºF (about 180ºC). At that point I added a handful of fresh leaves from the bay tree in the garden and a good spoonful of fennel seeds, and with the flavorings simmering away, we lowered the turkey section into the bubbling oil.

Surprisingly, in just a little over half an hour it was done—165º F. (75º C.) according to the meat thermometer, another serendipitous find that I stuck into the fleshiest part of the bird. And it was the finest turkey I have ever eaten—in fact, to be honest, it was the only fine turkey I’ve ever eaten. The outside was crisp, a little crunchy but not at all tough; the inside was tender and very juicy. It was utterly unlike any other turkey of my experience. And I think I’ll do it again this year with my leftover 2018 oil. Of course, there’s no gravy to soak into mashed potatoes, but we will have our fresh, new extra-virgin olive oil from the 2020 harvest to lavish on baked potatoes instead. What a feast!

About the author: Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food writer and journalist with a long list of publications to her credit, including books, magazines, and journalism. She divides her time between a home on the coast of Maine and an olive farm in the hills of eastern Tuscany. Nancy is the author of eight books about food, mostly about Italy and the Mediterranean, including Virgin Territory, recounting her experiences in the world of olive oil. She has been a staff writer for the New York Times food section, publications director of the American Institute of Wine & Food, and a founding director of Oldways Preservation Trust. Semi-retired, she is sitting out the pandemic in a small town in Maine and hoping to get back to Italy for this year’s olive harvest.

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