New York butchers talk turkey

Kangaroo medallions. Suckling pig. Alligator. At O. Ottomanelli's & Sons, a family-owned butcher shop in New York, shoppers can take their pick of exotic meats and game. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, even New Yorkers with adventurous palates typically revert to tradition.

"Ninety percent of our customers order turkey for Thanksgiving," says Frank Ottomanelli, one of four Italian brothers who run the 68-year-old shop started by their grandfather on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. "The others might order ham, prime rib, or goose."

But not all turkeys are the same at Ottomanelli's. This year, says Frank, he and his brothers - Jerry, Peter, and Joe - are taking orders for five different types of turkey: wild, smoked, Bourbon Red heritage, natural (free of antibiotics and hormones) and organic (fed an organic diet), or natural and nonorganic.

Of the five, the most sought-after so far is the heritage turkey, which Frank says is becoming better known for its rich flavor, steaklike texture, and the humane, Old-World way it's farmed.

Heritage turkeys generally live longer (about 20 weeks instead of 10) than mass-produced turkeys, which reach slaughter weight faster. They roam freely outdoors and are fed organic feed.

But heritage turkeys come with a hefty price tag, and they are generally smaller than other varieties. "At about $5 per pound, they are double the price of other turkeys," says Frank. "This is mostly because they are so scarce. I could only get 100, but that's twice as many as last year."

Taught by his father, Onofrio, to always put the customer first, Frank won't be taking home a heritage turkey this year. Instead, he'll cook a 24-pound naturally raised variety. He and Genny, his wife of 38 years, are planning to host their two sons and their families, including two sets of twin grandchildren. While Frank does most of the cooking, the others will watch Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on TV.

With a twinkle in his eye, this grandfather in butcher's whites and a black baseball cap explains that it's customary for him to put down his apron only once Thanksgiving morning: when the Rockettes perform in the parade. "That's when Genny shouts for me. I can't stand to miss them."

Frank always cooks his turkey just the way his mother taught him: on a bed of vegetables - potatoes, carrots, and celery - seasoned with salt and pepper and slathered with extra-virgin olive oil. He first roasts the bird breast-side down for 20 minutes in a 500-degree F. oven. Then he flips the turkey over, stuffs it, rubs it with olive oil, loosely covers it with a "tent" of aluminum foil, and cooks it at 350 degrees F. for another three to five hours, depending on weight. (See sidebar for cooking tips.) A half-hour before the turkey is done, he removes the foil, so the bird turns a rich, golden brown. And he bastes his turkey only during the last half hour.

The Ottomanelli brothers often share this recipe with customers. Typically, it works well, he says. But when it doesn't, that's because "people either undercook or overcook" the turkey. "You have to get friendly with it," he says, explaining that one should check a turkey after about three hours to see if a leg moves easily. If it does, the turkey is done. He also warns customers not to trust pop-up timers that come with most Thanksgiving turkeys. "They aren't always right," he says.

As usual, Frank plans to make his mother's popular stuffing - but that recipe is a well-guarded secret, he says coyly. After a short pause, however, he backs down. "OK, I'll tell you the ingredients - most of them, anyway. I make it with our homemade Italian sausage, mozzarella cheese, chestnuts, bread crumbs, mushrooms, a lot of love, and golden raisins. Oops!" he exclaims. "I just told you the secret ingredient."

None of his brothers seems too fazed by this revelation. They are too busy scurrying around behind the counter, taking orders, and slicing and wrapping various cuts of meat.

"Business," Frank continues, "is picking up now that the holidays are coming." Still, he adds: "It hasn't been the same since 9/11." Many customers moved out of the area, a short subway ride from ground zero, and tourism dropped.

Which brings him to share a resolution he's made every Thanksgiving since Sept. 11, 2001. "The last thing I do before I sit down is look out my window, and if someone is walking by alone, I invite them in for dinner. So far, I haven't seen anyone. But maybe this year. I have too much to be thankful for not to do this."

Turkey tips: how to bake the best bird

Clueless how to cook a turkey? Don't despair. Several cookbooks offer good advice, including "The Joy of Cooking," "How to Cook Everything," and "Thanksgiving," by Williams-Sonoma. But an even more exhaustive resource for Thanksgiving Day cooks is that old standby, the Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL or The following tips are from the website:

Chill out

Frozen turkeys should be thawed well ahead of time, by using one of these methods:

• Place wrapped turkey, breast side up, on a tray in the refrigerator. Allow at least one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey.

• Place turkey, in its unopened wrapper, breast side down, and cover it completely with cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes. The minimum thawing time is about 30 minutes per pound.

Stuff it

If you want to cook your dressing in the bird, remember these dos and don'ts:

• Do prepare stuffing with cooked ingredients just before putting it into the turkey. Don't stuff the turkey the night before roasting.

• Do stuff only completely thawed turkeys.

• Don't pack stuffing tightly. Allow 1/2 to 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. If legs were untucked for rinsing or stuffing, return them to their original tucked position.

Check the temperature

When using an oven-safe thermometer, insert it into the thigh prior to placing turkey in the oven, and leave it in while the turkey roasts. Insert an instant-read thermometer into the thigh only when you want to check the temperature; don't leave it in the bird.

When is a turkey done?

Start checking for doneness a half-hour before recommended end time. It is done when a meat thermometer reaches 180 degrees F. when tested in the thigh; also, juices should be clear, not pink.

If the turkey is stuffed, the temperature should be 160 degrees F. in the center of the stuffing.

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