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Food Matters: How to brine a turkey without the mess, plus a classic Texas sweet potato casserole

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
This Sweet Potato Bake with Pecan Topping recipe was originally printed in an Austin cookbook called “Tastes & Tales From Texas…With Love.” It was republished in “The Best of the Best from Texas” cookbook that came out in 1985 and would be a perfect addition to a traditional Texas Thanksgiving meal.A dry-brined turkey takes a little planning ahead, but it’s much easier for the average cook to prepare than a wet-brined bird.

THANKSGIVING

Skip the soaking turkey and try a dry brine

New York Times food writers Kim Severson and Julia Moskin have turned their friendly cooking rivalry into a fun new book called “CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance” (Ecco, $29.99). In it, Severson outlines her favorite way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey that gives you the benefits of brining the bird but without the hassle of trying to find a place to refrigerate a 5-gallon bucket filled with salt water and a turkey. For this recipe, you will need to start the brining process two days ahead of when you plan to serve, but the result is a turkey that is far more moist and flavorful than any bird that has simply been basted with juices while roasting.

Dry-Brined Turkey

One 12- to 16-lb. turkey, preferably a heritage or pasture-raised bird

About ½ cup kosher salt

1 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper

10 fresh thyme sprigs

1/2 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 small onions, halved

2 small apples, cored and halved

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 cups water or white wine

Two days before serving, rinse the turkey and pat dry. Rub all over with the salt, slipping salt under the skin where possible and rubbing some into the cavities; use about 1 tablespoon per every 4 pounds of bird. Put the bird in a large plastic bag and refrigerate. On the second night, turn the turkey over.

A couple of hours before cooking, remove the turkey from the bag and pat dry. Put in a roasting pan and allow to come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle half the pepper into the main cavity of the turkey and add the thyme, parsley, half the onions and half the apples. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Put the remaining apples and onions in the neck opening and tuck the neck skin under the bird.

Rub the butter under the breast skin and over the thigh meat. Sprinkle the bird with the remaining pepper. Roast for 30 minutes.

Remove the turkey from the oven and reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Cover the breast of the bird and the wing tips with foil. Add 1 1/2 cups water (or white wine) to the roasting pan and roast the bird for another 2 hours or so, depending on size; figure on 12 minutes a pound for an unstuffed bird. Remove the foil from the breast in the last half hour so it browns.

When the turkey has roasted for 2 hours, begin to test for doneness by inserting an instant-read thermometer (digital is best) into two different places in the thigh, making sure not to touch bone; it should be about 160 degrees.

When it is done, tip the turkey so the interior juices run into the pan. Remove the turkey to a rimmed baking sheet or a serving platter, cover with foil and then a damp kitchen towel, and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour the fat and drippings from the pan into a measuring cup. Add the ½ cup white wine (or broth) to the pan, stirring to deglaze it, and pour that into same measuring cup. The fat and drippings can then be used to make gravy. Serves 10 to 14.

— From Kim Severson, co-author of “CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance” (Ecco, $29.99)

COOKBOOKS

Cookbook series is 62 books, 17,000 recipes and 30 years in the making

Barbara Moseley and Gwen McKee met on a golf course near Brandon, Miss., more than 30 years ago. Both women loved to cook, and McKee and her husband ran a small cookbook business called Quail Ridge.

The friends set out to create a book that featured the best recipes from home cooks in their state, so they reached out to Junior League chapters, churches and other nonprofits that might have already gathered recipes for community cookbooks.

“This was back in the dark ages before the Internet,” Moseley says, so they typed letters to food writers, chambers of commerce, tourist bureaus and book stores to ask if they knew of cookbooks published in their areas and then waited for a reply.

In 1982, they published the first book: “Best of the Best from Mississippi.” They then searched for the best recipes from Louisiana cookbooks and then took on Texas, whose first “Best of the Best” cookbook came out in 1985. (A second Texas book followed in 1996.)

The “Best of the Best” series now has more than 60 books that have collectively sold more than 3 million copies, and Moseley and McKee are still gathering recipes for future editions and publishing specialty books through Quail Ridge. (The books are available online at quailridge.com and in book and gift stores, including those inside Cracker Barrel restaurants.)

“We didn’t know it was going to mushroom into such a big project,” Moseley says now. They have visited all 50 states, traveling more than 100,000 miles and scoured an estimated 10,000 cookbooks to find the best recipes that represent each state.

It’s a lifelong project that Moseley says has brought the friends closer, literally. For most of the time they were working on the books, they lived in towns about 30 miles apart (“a long distance call,” Moseley recalls), but about 10 years ago, Moseley and her husband and mother moved into a house on the same street as McKee.

“It has been a real adventure, seeing our country and meeting so many people,” Moseley says. “It’s been such a blessing.”

Sweet Potato Bake with Pecan Topping

3 cups sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed

1/4 cup milk

1/3 cup butter, melted

1 tsp. vanilla

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 tsp. salt

For topping:

1 cup pecans, chopped

1 cup brown sugar

3 Tbsp. flour

1/3 cup butter, melted

1 cup shredded coconut, optional

Mix mashed sweet potatoes, milk, butter, vanilla, eggs and salt. Spoon into a 1 1/2 quart oiled casserole. Combing topping ingredients and sprinkle over sweet potatoes. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. Serves 6.

— Originally printed in “Tastes & Tales From Texas…With Love” by Austinite Peg Hein and reprinted with permission in “Best of the Best from Texas Cookbook,” edited by Barbara Moseley and Gwen McKee