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If you’re tired of finding new, inventive ways to make the same old Thanksgiving turkey taste different, maybe it’s time to revisit your approach. Sure, turkey is traditional, but it’s not the only bird on the block. In fact, there are a host of easily sourced birds that can make a huge impact on your holiday meal.
Maybe we shouldn’t be eating as much turkey anyway. A few years ago, the Food Animal Concerns Trust found that six of the United States’ top turkey producers used antibiotics to aid with animal growth. Use of antibiotics has been known to increase the prevalence of foodborne bacteria and illness. To say nothing, of course, of large-scale farming practices, which are often inhumane and ecologically unsound.
Creative alternatives to the big bird ― which take less time to cook than a giant turkey, for the most part ― have some wider benefits, including health and environmental ones. Partridge cooks in 30 minutes. An ostrich filet has less fat than white meat poultry. These are options that taste great and make sense when we look at the culture of eating and of Thanksgiving from a broader perspective. Read on for more interesting alternatives to roasting a turkey this year.
Duck may be smaller than turkey, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in flavor.
Doug Corwin, president of Long Island’s Crescent Duck Farm, which stretches back four generations, is responsible for 4% of the country’s duck production. On his 140-acre farm, he raises ducks that can reach about 6 pounds, enough to feed four people.
“Duck is something that stands out on its own,” he said. “You can garnish it, if you want, but you can eat it alone. Turkey is great, but are you going to eat turkey alone, based on its taste? We’ve got a big advantage over the other sources of poultry in that we do have this natural moisture that the fat provides. It gives our birds an awful lot of taste.”
Since duck is waterfowl, Corwin explained, it has a certain amount of skin fat to aid with buoyancy. “The skin fat naturally bastes the bird and makes it very, very moist,” he said. “Combining a little bit of fat to add moisture to the product adds a succulent taste that kind of shines on its own. If you ate a plain piece of turkey breast … it’s going to be kind of a bland meat.”
Because ducks are smaller than turkeys, those hosting a large affair will need more than one to serve at dinner. But these birds also cook faster and, owing to their high content of dark meat, are less prone to overcooking. Plus, Corwin said, “A duck leg is about 8 ounces, and one or two of them on a plate is a manageable size.” This is a particularly good option for homes where white meat isn’t a commodity. “We don’t have the white meat that turkey has,” Corwin said.
Pheasant is a small game bird that is perfect for roasting. It’s a lean, flavorful bird with approachable flavors for those just introducing game birds to their oeuvre. In the wild, pheasants feed largely on grain. Birds run about 2 to 4 pounds (not unlike a chicken), but the meat is leaner, more savory and more flavorful than other traditional birds. You can cook several at one time.
Actually, it’s a healthier option, too. Pheasant has less fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than chicken, turkey or beef. A 3-pound bird serves two to three people, but some retailers offer price incentives for shopping in bulk. Since most American pheasants come from specialized farms, like MacFarlane Pheasants in Wisconsin, they suffer from fewer of the issues attributed to large-scale chicken and turkey production, like hormone and antibiotic use, and unsanitary and inhumane breeding conditions. MacFarlane, which has bred pheasants since 1929, raises its birds on 180 acres of land and then ships them to distributors in the United States and Canada. It also sells its fully dressed birds online.
For those with smaller families, partridges are an excellent option. Birds weigh in around a pound apiece, meaning that each guest can have his or her individual bird ― an elegant, beautiful way to serve Thanksgiving dinner.
“I often refer to partridge as the gateway game bird,” said Abra Morawiec of Long Island’s Feisty Acres, who raises chukar partridges. “They’re kind of like a tiny chicken. They have white meat on their breast, and then they have dark meat on the thighs and legs.” Morawiec suggested adding extra fat in the cooking of these lean birds, which “taste like pasture-raised chicken.”
Because they’re small, partridges cook quickly. In a 400-degree oven, they take about 25 minutes to cook. “I love stuffing them with figs and wrapping them in bacon,” Morawiec said. “That’s a really nice flavor combination. You could also just simply salt and pepper them and roast them with any sort of fall or winter herbs in the cavity. They stand up really well to seasoning.”
Since Feisty Acres raises only 150 partridge a year ― 100 of which go to the farm’s CSA members ― they limit distribution of their birds to local Long Island customers, who can buy them at New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket on Wednesdays. The retailer D’Artagnan sells wild red-legged Scottish partridges online, as well.
Brothers Lance and Todd Appelbaum were so entranced by ostrich meat that they based a business model on it. Their company, Fossil Farms, located in northern New Jersey, began with ostrich meat in 1997 and now supplies all kinds of exotic meats, including ostrich’s cousin, emu. Fossil Farms’ ostriches, which are some of the most widely available in the United States and can be ordered online, are raised without antibiotics, hormones or steroids, and are fed a vegetarian diet of alfalfa hay, corn and soybean meal.
“Ostrich is the other red meat,” Lance Appelbaum said. “It has lower fat, calories and cholesterol than skinless, boneless chicken, and it tastes more like filet mignon.”
The meat, he said, also has a smaller environmental footprint than beef, making it an eco-conscious choice for meat eaters looking for something different. Most ostrich meat is sold in steaks or filets, which may seem a little precious for Thanksgiving dinner, but Fossil Farms also sells a 3-pound fan filet.
“The fan filet is really good for roasting whole,” Lance Appelbaum said. “The USDA wants you to [prepare] ostrich the way that you would beef. Because of its very lean fat profile, it’s best to prepare it rare to medium-rare.”
The average goose, Schiltz said, has a “richer flavor” than other poultry, is around 11 pounds and feeds about six people. Birds can reach 14 pounds, for larger groups.
“They’re self-basting,” Schiltz said. “They have a lot of fat between the skin and the meat. So, as they cook, the fat renders through the bird. When they’re done, it’s moist, but not overly fatty.”
Unlike turkey, which requires the addition of external fats to preserve moisture while cooking, geese have their own built-in moisture regulation system. Even better, they don’t require the tedious work of basting. Geese consist entirely of dark meat. “On goose, there is no such thing as white meat,” Schiltz said.
But don’t cook a goose like a turkey, Schiltz warned. “When you try to cook goose meat fast, it just tightens up, so it comes off as tough. The goose grease is going to smoke at 370, so it’s important to put some water in the bottom of the pan,” he said. “We like to cover it for the first couple of hours. We allow for 23 minutes per pound.” Goose is done when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Schiltz Foods sells its free-range geese ― both raw and precooked ― online.