Five sustainable alternatives to turkey this Thanksgiving or holiday season

thanksgiving turkeyIf you expected to see “Tofurkey” anywhere in this article, you clearly aren’t familiar with my work. Nope, no textured vegetable protein here.

As a kid–an obnoxiously picky eater, at that–turkey was on my lengthy list of foods to avoid. I suspect it was the notoriously dried-out birds of my youth that caused my aversion. Today, I like turkey, but it’s honestly not one of my favorite eating birds: I much prefer a good roast chicken or a game bird.

Game birds–both wild and farmed–are popular throughout much of Europe, especially in the UK, France, and Italy. Goose and duck are frequently seen in Asian cuisine, depending upon the country and region. And now, game birds are growing in popularity in the U.S.. Quail and duck aren’t difficult to find on menus, but there’s also squab, guinea hen, partridge, wood pigeon, etc.. Some birds, such as goose, heritage breed turkeys, or wild game birds may be seasonal or require order well in advance; just to give you an idea, the turkey farmer at my local market has people start signing up for Thanksgiving birds in March.

If you can’t find these birds at your local farmers market on butcher shop, you can order them online. The important thing is to ask or research how the animals are raised, and make sure it’s in a humane, ecologically responsible manner (see end of article for more information).

With the proliferation of farmed birds (mostly small-scale operations) in the U.S., I’m hard-pressed to recommend you shoot yourself some dinner (although I’m behind roadkill), but hunting is a discussion for another day. For the record, while I don’t participate in it myself, I support hunting wildlife as a means of population control, as long as the animal in question is fully utilized.

As for you city slickers, just be aware that wild birds are much stronger in flavor, less tender, and in most instances need to hang for a few days so the proteins can break down and render the meat edible. So put away your bird call and shotgun unless you have the experience and permits, and do your shopping locally or online. No muss, no fuss, and trust me, plucking birds is a serious pain in the ass. Farmed birds are bred for more tender meat, are usually hens (also more tender and mild), and a great choice even if you’ve never cooked anything beyond a chicken breast.

Do note that goose and duck, are very fatty (the extra padding helps keep these aquatic birds buoyant) and you’ll need to render the fat before you can cook the meat. The key to successfully preparing most birds, however, is to not overcook them. Your butcher or any number of cookbooks will be able to tell you how to prepare them. Some good resources: Nose to Tail Eating (Ecco) by Fergus Henderson, and River Cottage Meat Book (10 Speed Press) by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Sourcing information for all of the following bird species can be found at the end of this article.

1. Goose
Goose was once a British Christmas dinner favorite (oddly, turkey is now the bird of choice), and it’s still popular in Germany. According to esteemed food writer Joan Nathan of Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook (Random House), German Christians traditionally ate goose for Christmas, and Jews cooked it for Hannukah. In her book, she provides a lovely family recipe for roast goose stuffed with chestnuts and apples that would make any Thanksgiving table proud.

[Photo credit: Flickr user turtlemom4bacon]thanksgiving turkeyGoose is considerably more fatty than other birds, so it’s not a good choice if you’re watching your cholesterol or calories (stick with white meat turkey). But it’s that layer of fat that makes the meat so succulent and juicy. It’s very rich, so a little goes a long way; ideal if you’re feeding a crowd.

2. Pheasant
The Common Pheasant is native to Asia, but there are over 30 subspecies that have been introduced all over the world as a game bird; it’s naturalized in Europe. In the U.S., we’re most familiar with ring-necked pheasant: the males are striking, with emerald- and crimson-colored heads. Farmed pheasant is growing in popularity on menus, and is similar to dark chicken meat in flavor

3. Quail
While tiny and full of bones (imagine gnawing on a giant hummingbird drumstick), quail is a great choice if you’re having a small gathering because you can serve one bird per person. They’re very dainty and require simple preparation. Just butterfly them, thread on skewers and toss on the grill, or pan-fry. Quail meat is dark, juicy, and non-gamey; it pairs beautifully with dried fruit such as figs, dates, or cherries. Toss grilled quail atop some bitter greens dressed with a bacon vinaigrette, add some plumped dried fruit, and let the cooking juices wilt the greens. Dinner is served.

4. Duck
Duck is commonplace on fine-dining menus nationwide. While technically white meat (as is goose), it’s similar to red meat: rich, rosy, and juicy with burnished, crackling skin. Many people are intimidated by cooking duck, but it’s one of the easiest alterna-birds to work with, especially if you just use breast, thigh, or leg meat. Breasts will have a thick layer of fat beneath the skin; you’ll need to score the skin in a cross-hatch pattern to help the fat render (Don’t throw it out! Store it in a clean, sealed jar, and use it to fry potatoes or other foods for extra crispy goodness). Grill or saute breasts; legs take well to braising or confit.

There are three main breeds of duck sold commercially: Pekin, Muscovy, and Moulard. Pekin are the most tender and mild, while Muscovy are large, meaty, and stronger in flavor. Moulard are a Pekin/Muscovy cross; they’re larger, more fatty, and stronger in flavor than Pekin, and are usually raised for foie gras.

5. Squab
A more civilized term for pigeon, these aren’t your standard “rats-with-wings” variety. Squab are eating pigeons, and the meat is similar to duck–very juicy and rosy in color, with an almost livery flavor. Think of it as a smaller duck in terms of cooking technique.

Speaking of park pigeon, when I lived in the Bay Area, there was a semi-factitious activist group advocating the consumption of the out-of-control resident pigeon population (something I’d be completely behind if these birds weren’t such carriers of disease). To prove their point, they cooked up a bunch of captured birds in a San Francisco park one day and had a well-documented pigeon picnic. I’ve always found that hilarious.
thanksgiving turkey
Sourcing

Even if you decide to just stick with turkey or switch to chicken this holiday season, the most important thing–besides technique–is to start with a great bird. It’s worth the extra expense to get a pasture-raised animal that’s been supplemented with exercise, sunshine, plant matter, and foraged bugs. You’ll taste the difference, but it goes beyond just flavor.

Industrially-raised poultry (i.e. chicken and turkey) are the taste equivalent of Styrofoam with bland, watery meat plumped with saline solution; their feed is often supplemented with arsenic to produce pinker meat and act as a growth promotant and antiparasitic. They’re hybridized to grow quickly and possess outrageously oversized breasts (because that’s the part most people prefer to eat). Factory farming is also an inhumane, environmentally devastating industry with far-reaching impacts upon human health (Click here for more information on sustainable-vs-industrial turkey farming).

Sonoma County Poultry sells Liberty Ducks (actually a strain of Pekin ducks adapted to a slower, less stressful growing process) ships nationwide. Grimaud Farms of California’s San Joaquin Valley sells Muscovy duck and guinea fowl online

D’Artagnan is a well-regarded purveyor of specialty foods. They have a strong focus on sustainability and humane poultry and game bird production and procurement, and sell farmed quail, pheasant, quail, goose, squab, poussin (technically, young chicken, although sometimes game hens are sold under this name); capon (castrated rooster, which makes for flavorful, tender meat); guinea hen, and wild Scottish wood pigeon, grouse, pheasant, and Red-legged partridge online

Mad Hatcher Poultry
in eastern Washington produces quail, squab, poissin, and quail (heritage turkey and rabbit, too).

[Photo credits: roast goose, Flickr user Herman Saksono; cook, Laurel Miller]

How to Buy and Cook Duck Legs

Foods of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong-style

Chinese New YearThe Chinese are the butt of a lot of jokes for their propensity to eat “anything.” While a wee bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that the national diet is more diverse than that of the Western world. The combination of thousands of years of poverty, numerous wars, the rather imperial tastes of various ruling dynasties, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diverse geographical and climatic landscape make for a highly regionalized and complex cuisine.

Food, then, is an intrinsic and incontrovertible part of Chinese culture, perhaps no more so than during the weeklong celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which begins February third. And if there’s one place that knows how to throw down, it’s Hong Kong. The city is hosting it’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year (CNY) festival February 3-17th, and in honor of the Year of the Rabbit, I thought I’d give a little breakdown on the culinary side of things.

Quick history lesson: As this isn’t a political dissertation, let us just say that many residents of Hong Kong don’t wish to be called Chinese, which doesn’t change the fact that this article is on CNY. As you likely know, HK is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the mainland, after this former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The term “Hong Konger” generally (but not legally) refers to someone originally from HK, but Wikipedia informs me that the more generalized “Hongkongese” is catching on amongst the Western press. I didn’t see any mention of this being considered offensive, so I’m sticking with it. Please feel free to comment and provide a correction if I’m mistaken).

[Photo credit: Flickr user jinny.wong]Chinese New YearI had the good fortune (fortune being a theme that repeats itself endlessly during Chinese New Year) to be in Hong Kong for the festivities a few years ago, and it proved a fascinating crash course in Chinese culinary culture. I actually went to eat my body weight in dim sum, but found myself pleasantly sidetracked by an orgy of New Year’s foods. I also learned it’s hard to dislike a place where the standard (translated) greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” My inner eight-year-old was also delighted to discover that, while “Gung Hay Fat Choy” may mean “happy new year,” “fuk” means “prosperity,” and “yu” means “abundance,” or “surplus.” Fuk yu! Hee.

New Year’s is a time of elaborate banquets, rituals, and symbolic foods and dishes, some of which may only be offered during this time. Oranges have long been associated with good fortune in China, because the word orange sounds similar to “ji,” which means good luck. Colors are also emblematic. Red apples or oranges adorned with red ribbons are ubiquitous, because the color is equated with happiness, while vegetables such as celery, spinach, and lettuce with the roots attached symbolize vitality. Homes and businesses offer a “tray of togetherness,” filled with candied lotus seeds and roots, water chestnuts, winter melon, and coconut, as well as paper lucky money pouches containing chocolate coins.

In addition to various activities that correspond with the spiritual aspects of CNY, the Hong Kongese go all out when it comes to holiday meals. At the beginning of the week, the Yau Ma Tei fruit market in Kowloon (one of HK’s best dining districts) is packed with shoppers, primarily wives and grandmothers, who come to purchase ingredients for “family reunion dinner.” Celebratory foods include sweet dumplings filled with lotus paste or crushed nuts and coconut; lin gou, a sticky rice cake; barbecued (cha siu) pork meant for offerings at Buddhist temples; pig’s trotters or tongue; black land moss (a fungus representing wealth), and carp (profitable year ahead).
Chinese New Year
The first day of the new year is vegetarian, as the plants are believed to store good fortune in their roots. Each subsequent day has a different theme, and corresponding foods that must be offered. The second day, for example, is the Day of Commencement, in which lavish meals featuring seafood and poultry are served, in order to encourage a productive start to the new year of employment. Speaking of seafood, try taking a ferry to nearby Lamma Island for a beachfront feast, where you choose your own seafood from dazzling displays.

Yau Ma Tei during this time is a special treat. Tofu vendors hawk great blocks of bean curd, live poultry and seafood are chosen and dispatched to order, butchers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with whole pig carcasses weave through the crowd, and dumpling vendors pinch off pieces of dough and deftly fold them into savory bundles.

There is also a collection of food stalls adjacent to the market, where you can feast on roasted meats, cheung fun (rice noodle sheets) stuffed with prawns, or congee for less than the price of a Happy Meal. For more cheap eats, don’t miss out on a bowl of HK’s famous wonton noodles; Mak’s Noodle Ltd. in the Central district (77 Wellington St., 2854 3810; there are also outlets in other districts) is the bomb and will set you back just a few bucks.

The best way to experience traditional new year’s foods, however, is to wrangle an invite to someone’s home, or gather a group for a banquet at one of Hong Kong’s better Cantonese restaurants, such as Tai Woo (locations in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui–which has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants–and Shau Kei Wan), or Super Star Seafood (Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui). I love them both, and they’re 2010 winners in HK’s Best of the Best culinary awards. Both restaurants also have good dim sum although they aren’t traditional dim sum houses.
Chinese New Year
Hong Kong draws visitors from around the world for what is dubbed the International Chinese New Year. There are temples to visit, an over-the-top parade (best described as the bastard child of the Disneyland Main St. Electrical Parade, Superbowl Halftime, and an Asian game show), but it’s the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour that is truly one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever beheld.

That stunning harbor, combined with the seemingly endless array of places to eat, drink, and shop; bustling streets pulsating with neon, and abundance of five-dollar foot rubs make HK a great place to spend a couple of hedonistic days, no matter what time of year it is. You can always start your new year’s resolutions when you get home.

For more information on Hong Kong and ICNY events, click here.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

Boba

Boba Boba Balls
Boba World, Westwood – that’s where it all went down for me. A life long disdain for tapioca, gone in several small slurps. One boba, two boba, three – Slurrrrp! Slurrrp! As a child, tapioca was the magic word to make me scrunch up my face, turn the other direction and run like a mad coyote in the wind. These days I can’t get enough it. Just the other day I cruised over to a local Vietnamese owned spot to grab a cool Green Tea Boba smoothie. As I was slurping up the tapioca balls I started to wonder what caused the change of heart after so many years. It took only a few minutes for brain freeze to kick in and knock me from my train of thought. Who cares? As far as I’m concerned boba’s good and unsurprisingly there are several Americans who are so out of touch with this delightful treat On my quest to find some gentle facts for the timid tourist exploring boba for the first time this is what I uncovered:

  • Wikipedia notes that Boba (pronounced Buo Ba in Mandarin) is the tapioca found at the bottom of bubble tea or boba milk tea. The literal meaning for the word is slang for “big breast/nipple” as the tapioca balls resemble a mother’s nipple. Hmm – I never thought so, but that’s certainly something to chew on. Can someone confirm?
  • Boba balls are made from Cassava.
  • There is a village in Vas county Hungary named Boba. Wonder if boba drinks are popular there?
  • A now obsolete Italian word – boba, means “stupid.”
  • Bobafind.com provides several recipes to making your perfect drink in the comfort of your own home.

It might do first-timers some good to swing by the recipes page first to see what the heck is going on in these deliciously wild beverages before going in and making their own funny face when offered the tapioca balls.