On this chilly Michigan morning, I’m warming up a quart of rich, delicious turkey soup on the wood stove. Like pretty much everything else on the farm, it has a story.
We raised five turkeys this year. We brooded the baby poults along with a mixed batch of meat birds and pullet chicks we bought in mid-July. We didn’t really need five turkeys, but I figured it was a safe bet that at least two of them would die along the way. Fortunately for us, none did.
Anyway, after a week or so in the brooder, we moved all the birds out to a couple of movable pasture pens in the garden. All summer long, we moved those pens all over a large section of the garden that wasn’t being planted this year. All summer long, the birds happily mowed down their daily allotment of weeds and bugs. All summer long, they left their droppings behind for next year’s potato crop.
As weeks passed, and the birds grew, the pens got crowded. In early September, we moved all the pullets to the barn. They were easily old enough to free-range. We then began butchering the twenty or so Cornish Cross meat chickens. Every time I had some free time on a nice afternoon, I would butcher four or five of them. After a long day of squinting at a computer screen and building voter turnout models, I welcomed the opportunity to get my hands dirty doing something completely different. And there’s nothing quite as perfect as a summer evening with fresh pasture-raised chicken on the grill.
By late September, the five turkeys were down to one pen of their own. We used the remaining pen for a mother duck and her brood of ducklings. Day after day, they all continued to move around the garden. In late October, we turned Mother Duck and her brood loose in the barn.
That left the turkeys. They were now HUGE, and easily ready for butchering. Trouble was, I was still so busy with work, I didn’t have enough time to do it. Finally, when I returned from Washington DC after the election, I had my chance to begin chipping away.
A whole turkey, especially a fully-grown Tom, takes up an inordinate amount of space in the freezer. And how many families can use a turkey that large? We find it makes most sense to cut the turkey into pieces as we butcher it, and freeze the pieces separately. A leg quarter and a wing provides a full meal for our family. A breast piece can be thawed and used for two separate meals. And so forth.
That first turkey went into the freezer. I intended to butcher a couple more last weekend, but then we got some incredibly nasty weather; temps in the low twenties, blowing snow … sorry, but butchering just wasn’t going to happen. I threw a log on the fire and enjoyed an afternoon of football.
Tuesday afternoon of this week, the weather was clear enough to resume. Tom #2 woke up that morning having no idea he would become the centerpiece of this year’s Thanksgiving feast.
As I butchered, I carved off pieces of meat and added them to our large Crock Pot. I included a variety of white meat and dark meat. It ended up being able to hold basically a leg quarter, one full side of the breast, and part of another leg quarter. Both wings, a drumstick, the feet, and the carcass (including the neck) went straight into our big soup pot to simmer overnight. Everything else went into the freezer.
The Crock Pot was very full, but it could still take about a quart of water. I added this, and a quarter cup of salt, to make a nice brine solution. The whole thing then went in the fridge.
Early on Thanksgiving morning, I dumped the brine and rinsed the meat well. We then packed it back in the Crock Pot and seasoned it with basil, garlic, and paprika. I poured in some apple cider vinegar, and put a couple of chopped onions on top. Then it cooked on High all day.
By mid-afternoon, so much liquid had come off the meat, the Crock Pot was overflowing. This ended up being the most moist and delicious turkey you could imagine.
If the whole “Norman Rockwell” carve-the-turkey-at-the-table thing isn’t important to your family, I highly recommend giving the Crock Pot a try next year.
In the meantime, I have three more turkeys to take care of. I think we’re going to turn them loose in the barn tonight, as they’ve done about as much as can be done outside. Hopefully we’ll have enough good weather this coming week, so I can get all three of them into the freezer. The only mystery is which one will end up being the centerpiece of our Christmas feast.