Madison chef Tory Miller plans Thanksgiving dinner around the same main dish as most families — the turkey.
But the James Beard winner, who owns the Madison restaurants L’Etoile, Graze and Sujeo, a pan-Asian eatery that opened last summer, raises the bar on his holiday feast, preparing birds that are worth their calories. He says Thanksgiving provides a unique opportunity for chefs of all capabilities to step up their game.
“Thanksgiving dinner offers a near-perfect balance of culinary elements, from sweet to salty, from the richness of gravies to the tartness of Wisconsin cranberries,” Miller says.
Given his “slow food” and locavore ethos, Miller uses tricks and techniques that might be a little different from what we attempt at home. Take, for example, the bird itself.
“I try and pick a turkey from a grower I know,” Miller says. “Buying direct from the farm will cost you more, but it supports local agriculture and can introduce your family to new flavors.”
Heritage turkeys, now available online from growers statewide, were once on the verge of irrelevance, thanks to the ubiquity of Butterball and other supermarket birds.
During the 1990s, industrially raised Broadbreasted Whites replaced flavorful heritage breeds with a turkey that is factory bred under shockingly inhumane conditions. Broadbreasted Whites are so named because they have chests so disproportionately large that they often can’t stand, walk or mate. They’re artificially inseminated, and the chicks are raised in incubators after having their claws and upper beaks clipped so they can’t injure each other in the cramped, filthy cages where they spend their lives.
Fed with a diet heavy on corn to fatten them up, the birds are disease-prone due to their living conditions and are fed large quantities of antibiotics to keep them alive. The twin diets continue through the turkey’s abnormally fast 12-week growth cycle, after which they are shipped to the slaughterhouse for processing.
Heritage turkeys are raised naturally. While not as meaty in the breast, the birds make up for their lack of girth with richer and more varied flavors. In order to be considered a heritage breed, a turkey must be raised outdoors, mate naturally and enjoy a lifespan typical to that of a normal turkey.
The American Poultry Association currently lists about a dozen varieties that meet their exacting standards, including the standard Bronze, Beltsville Small White, Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate and White Holland breeds.
In Wisconsin, local farmers favor the American Bronze, one of the most flavorful varieties of heritage turkeys. They remind us why Thanksgiving was once such a highly anticipated holiday.
In addition to choosing a healthy and flavorful turkey, Miller marinates his birds for 48 hours prior to preparation. For a 15- or 20-pound bird, he prepares a water bath seasoned with two cups of kosher salt and one cup of sugar, along with coriander, allspice cloves and other herbs and spices.
Miller cooks the brine for 15 to 20 minutes and then cuts it with ice. The goal is to rapidly cool the brine and increase its volume to at least the gallon necessary to cover the turkey. Once set, the bird absorbs the solution, augmenting the natural juices.
On Thanksgiving Day, Miller removes the bird from the brine and dries it thoroughly. Turning his oven to its highest temperature, he cooks the bird for 30 minutes, searing the outside to keep the moisture and flavors in the meat.
Miller then reduces the temperature to 325 degrees and cooks the turkey for another hour. Since the bird expels some juices, the chef lets it rest for 30 minutes prior to serving.
A dressing of breadcrumbs, wild mushrooms, turkey livers, pork sausage and aromatic vegetables completes the entrée.
Some of Miller’s favorite Thanksgiving side dishes are white wine-braised Brussels sprouts, hickory nut-topped sweet potato casserole and gastrique of currants (rather than cranberries), which together complete a feast of unparalleled flavors.
Tory Miller’s Restaurants
1 S. Pinckney St., Madison
Madison’s original locavore dining experience, L’Etoile this year adopted a multi-course, prix fixe menu as a way to better highlight local foods and creative presentations. A three-course dinner is $65, with accompanying wines priced at $45. The seven-course dinner is $125, with wine selection at $65.
1 S. Pinckney St., Madison
Located across the hall from L’Etoile, Graze honors New York’s gastropub scene, elevating pub fare while keeping its sister restaurant’s local focus. Graze is the home of the $21 Graze Burger, stacking bacon, sirloin, ribeye, short ribs and caramelized onions between a brioche bun with Worcestershire-cabernet jus and Emmental compound butter.
10 N. Livingston St., Madison
Tory Miller honors his Korean heritage in this pan-Asian restaurant and noodle bar located in the street-level suite of the new 12-story Constellation apartment building. The menu includes Korean Ssam, a dish of lettuce-wrapped meats.