I have a terrible secret to admit. Before this week, I’d never roasted a turkey. How I’ve managed to make it to age 39 — and a food writer no less — without taking on such a responsibility requires some explaining. For many years, I've lived in China, where our oven was too small to fit a turkey. The Thanksgivings we’ve spent in the U.S. have been with my in-laws, who as New Englanders, take care of the whole tradition, with boiled creamed onions and other delicious time-honored family traditions.
This year in Cuba, I decided that I was ready for the challenge, given how many other cooking obstacles I’ve faced. And to make up for my lack of roasting experience, I cooked two turkeys this week. After a lot of reading on the internet about whether to brine, truss, or stuff, I decided to go with the advice of my Cuban housekeeper M since she makes the best roast chicken I’ve ever tried. We followed the same basic recipe: a spice rub, of salt, cumin, garlic, followed by a sprinkling of fresh oregano and and a good dousing of the juice of several sour oranges, a Cuban fruit that’s used just for seasoning. We pierced the bird all over with a knife and stuffed the seasoning into these crevices — that was the key to making it tender and flavorful, she said. Though we didn’t own a roasting rack, I’d lived long enough in Cuba to know how to invent one. I elevated the bird with a large sweet potato cut into flat 1-inch wedges. I bemoaned our lack of a meat thermometer, but that wasn’t necessary either, my housekeeper said. She would know when it was done when the juices ran clear and the meat was tender.
The first turkey I roasted was just ahead of Thanksgiving, for a talk I gave at the U.S. Embassy in Havana about the holiday. A couple dozen English-speaking Cubans attended, listening with interest. In part, it’s because there are no distractions like data plans and wifi in Cuba. But also, they were genuinely interested in this exotic American holiday called Thanksgiving that they’d learned about from Hollywood movies. I spoke about my husband Craig’s family’s traditions in New England. I talked about my immigrant family and how aside from the turkey, the meal at my house when I was growing up resembled a traditional Chinese dinner with stir-fried dishes like shrimp and snow peas and almond jello for dessert.
And then it was time to try the food. All the packaged, canned stuff that the embassy provided surprised them: the Pepperidge Farm stuffing; the pumpkin pie made from the canned stuff; and cranberry sauce from a can. It all looked like space food for a culture where processed foods are rare and unaffordable. “The stuffing tastes surprisingly fresh,” one of my Cuban friends remarked, even though the bread croutons had sat in a bag for many months, perhaps years. Everyone boldly tried the pumpkin pie, even though pie in Spanish means foot, and it, too got a fairly positive response. The cranberry sauce, on the other hand, drew mixed reviews.
It occurred to me how strong family traditions are when I tried to mash up the cranberry sauce and an American friend stopped me. She said that her family cut it into thin rounds. We had a similar disagreement about the stuffing — she insisted that it belonged in the turkey, while I had roasted the turkey without it, preferring a crisper, less mushy stuffing.
But no one disputed that the highlight was the turkey. Flavorful, moist, and tender, all that was left was just the bones and a few scraps of meat at the end of the event. And with that, a new tradition has been born in my household: the Cuban-spiced roasted turkey. That’s what traditions are like in the United States and for a American family living overseas. They’re constantly changing and reinvented, absorbing the people and the places with whom and which we become acquainted.
Cuban Spice-Roasted Turkey
1 defrosted turkey of any weight
Make a Cuban marinade for every 2 pounds of turkey: 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cumin, 4 cloves garlic, 1 bitter seville orange (or 1/2 of a navel orange and 1 lime), 1 fresh oregano leaf, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Melted butter, for brushing the turkey
Pierce the turkey with a knife, making 1-2 inch-deep slits on all sides of the carcass. Rub the Cuban marinade all over the turkey, massaging it into the meat, in its crevices, and in the slits. Cover and refrigerate it overnight.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan, or elevate the turkey using flat 1-inch wedges of potato or sweet potato. Brush the turkey with butter. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes. Turn down the heat to 350 degrees. Roast for another 1-2 hour depending on the weight, until the juices run clear and the meat is tender and easily pierced with a knife or until an inserted meat thermometer reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit. (A rough estimate of total baking time is 13 minutes for every pound.) Let sit for 30 minutes before carving.