What goes into a GOOD turkey?

Jefferson Monroe of the GOOD Farm raises turkeys responsibly right here on Martha’s Vineyard.

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As the days get shorter and the leaves begin to amass (somewhat overwhelmingly) on lawns across the Island, people are settling deeper into the off-season, and preparing for what often proves to be a rather hectic but special time of year. 

It’s a time when families get together to celebrate, give thanks, and eat an often inordinate amount of food — in my case, it’s stuffing.

Thanksgiving is almost here, and while many may have already gotten their holiday bird down at Stop & Shop, or from one of the benevolent food donation organizations on-Island, there are local options for pretty much all the trappings you could possibly imagine on your table this year.

The highlight of any Thanksgiving feast is conventionally the turkey (vegan or vegetarian households may abstain from this tradition). Some go for the behemoth birds, while others prefer a more manageable portion without the need for consolidating leftovers.

Apart from the recipe you use to cook your turkey — of which there are many — the most essential element that determines a perfect Thanksgiving bird is quality of the bird.

For Jefferson Monroe, owner of the GOOD Farm and co-owner of the Larder in Tisbury, raising livestock in a responsible way is a ruling aspect of his practice. Because he wants to be able to feel good about the food he is putting out to families, and ensure that food is of the highest quality possible, Monroe uses a system called biomimicry.

“It’s basically where you look at how an animal or a plant grows and behaves, and mimic aspects of that behavior in ways that are advantageous for both the plant or animal, and whoever is growing it or raising it,” Monroe told The Times during a visit to Thimble Farm.

At Thimble, Monroe raises about 85 broad-breasted white turkeys, and prepares them for processing soon before Thanksgiving rolls around.

The turkeys roam around in a fenced area, have access to grass and insects, and are fed at regular intervals. “They are allowed to do things that a turkey likes to do, but we control where they are all the time,” Monroe said. “By the point that the turkeys are about a week before we process them for Thanksgiving, they have access to this quarter or eighth of an acre they can graze and wander around. But when we get them in initially, we start them in a brooder, and in a covered pen that we move every day.”

It’s a mutual benefit for the staff at Island Grown Initiative, who own and operate Thimble Farm, because the waste from the turkeys is a natural nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and the grazing from the birds “pulses” the grass, Monroe said, and allows grass to die back and feed the soil.

Although the methods used by the GOOD Farm are relatively conventional compared with many other small-time livestock farms, the process looks completely different from the way large industrial farms send turkeys en masse to grocery stores across the country.

According to Monroe, most turkeys available in grocery stores are raised in California, as it’s the largest turkey-producing state in America. “Most turkeys are raised in what look like giant airplane hangars — these sprawling spaces where they are allowed to run around a little, but the density is pretty high, and they never see a speck of grass,” Monroe said. He added that if one turkey gets sick in a large poultry house, it’s easy for infection to spread through the population.

The turkeys Monroe raises are exposed to the elements, which can affect size and speed of growth because they are using more energy to regulate body temperature. On top of that, turkeys raised outside of 24-hour poultry houses are not able to eat throughout the night, so their growth is limited. “All of those things combine to lower the speed with which they get to market, but having a more varied diet in terms of the birds eating grass and insects, that adds a ton of flavor to them,” Monroe said. 

He noted that variations in temperature during the day and nighttime hours while outside mean the birds tend to put on more fat, which also lends to the flavor. 

Currently, all Monroe’s turkeys at Thimble Farm are reserved, which he said tends to happen quickly around Thanksgiving. “It’s a shame people really only tend toward turkey around Thanksgiving, because they are delicious and they are really fun to raise,” Monroe said.

On the Friday before Turkey Day, all the birds will be processed, and organized based on who wants what size. “Basically, a lot of organizing these 20- to 30-pound footballs — we always make it clear to people that there might be some variation in size,” Monroe said.

At the core of his love for farming, Monroe said, is the goal of living an ethical life and being proud of the food he produces. “The things you eat are super-impactful for the world at large. It’s really terrible when animals are treated like machines, so we avoid that,” Monroe said. “I really enjoy spending time providing food to people that is healthy and local, but also acting as a model for how other people can do the same.”

Monroe has prepared turkeys an assortment of different ways for Thanksgiving — roasted, deep-fried, shawarma — pretty much anything you can think of. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that roasting a whole turkey is doomed for failure — the large legs want to cook longer, while the breast meat dries out,” he said.

Here are two recipes for two different parts of the turkey that Monroe enjoys.

Dried Cherry Turkey Legs

2 Tbsp. oil

2 turkey legs (ask your butcher to remove from your bird if you don’t feel comfortable)

3 onions, roughly chopped

2 cups dried cherries

2 Tbsp. chopped sage

1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced

1 cup dry white wine (or dry vermouth)

The night before, season the turkey legs liberally with salt. The day of, heat oil in a heavy-bottomed braising pot over medium heat until shimmering, and brown the turkey legs on all sides. Remove legs and cook the onions until golden, deglazing with some wine if need be. Next, nestle the turkey legs into the onions and add the cherries, sage, ginger, and white wine, along with enough water to mostly cover the legs. Bring to a boil, and then lower heat to a low simmer and cover. Turn the legs every 45 minutes to an hour, and after the first hour, season the liquid to your liking. After about three hours, the meat on the legs should pull away. I like to turn off the heat at this point, and let everything meld, after another check of the seasoning. You can shred the turkey and use the whole lot as a gravy substitute, or slice it and serve with the cherries and onions around.

Roasted Turkey Breast

Turkey, legs removed

Pan drippings, or olive oil or butter

Brine (see below)

On Monday, place de-legged turkey in brine bag and cover with brine. If you don’t have room in your fridge, buy a small cooler and pack ice around your brine bag. Be sure to secure the top so you don’t feed any Island raccoons. 

On Tuesday, check to make sure you still have ice on your bird, and that the raccoons are held at bay.

On Wednesday, drain the turkey, and store uncovered in your fridge. This will help the skin dry out so it will crisp up.

On Thanksgiving, preheat your oven to 300°. Place turkey in a roasting pan and roast, breast up, basting with pan drippings or rubbing with olive oil or butter every 30 minutes. I usually do the 20-minutes-per-pound estimate and start checking with a meat thermometer about 1.5 hours prior to when it’s expected to be done. When measuring the thickest part (don’t reuse the same measuring hole!) and it reads 155°, take the turkey out, crank the heat up to 400° in the oven, give the turkey one last oily rub, and roast for 10 to 15 minutes, until the bird achieves the golden hue you’re looking for. Let the bird rest for 20-plus minutes, and carve for the table.

Turkey Brine

Place turkey in brine bag, and measure out how much liquid it takes to cover the turkey. Drain and discard liquid; this is how much brine you will need for your turkey. Here is the ratio: Multiply by the number of gallons of brine you’ll need for your turkey.

12 cups ice water, plus 3 cups water

1 cup apple cider

1 cup salt

sprig sage

sprig thyme 

sprig rosemary

1 Tbsp. peppercorns

Bring three cups water, apple cider, salt, sage, thyme, rosemary, and peppercorns to a boil. Stir to dissolve salt, and let cool to room temperature. Combine with remaining ice water, stir to mix well, and pour over turkey. This is for 1 gallon of brine — multiply by how many gallons you need to cover your turkey.

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