Maple-bourbon smoked turkey

Time 40 minutes
Yields Serves 6 to 8
Maple-bourbon smoked turkey
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
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The airfares to Europe are really good this November. I thought I’d mention that because I’ve been spending a certain amount of time thinking about Thanksgiving week in Tuscany, where I could be drinking Brunello and eating wild boar chops instead of stuffing sage leaves under the puckery skin of a bird. In Pienza they’ve never heard of Thanksgiving, but they can point you to fresh pecorino showered with truffles. The sweet potato casserole with marshmallows can wait.

2017 has been a tough year for everyone in America. It is useless to deny it.

But I won’t be going to Italy this week, and neither will you. We will bake our pumpkin pies, and dry bread for our stuffing, and wonder whether to go with something from Sonoma or an Alsatian Pinot Gris. We will resign ourselves to making half the Brussels sprouts vegan because that’s how some of the family rolls. We will put buttermilk in the mashed potatoes and caramelized onions in the green beans. We will contemplate making fresh Parker House rolls, but probably end up glazing store-bought ones with extra butter instead.

Because when you are the cook at Thanksgiving, no matter where your sentiments may lie, family and friends are drawn toward the center of your world, a calm, fragrant place where the wine is well-chilled, the Lions game is on in the den, and you the mulling spices in the cranberries are the same from year to year to year. You will make turkey, whether Filipino-style adobo, Cuban-style with garlic and lemon, with tomato gravy and relajo the way Salvadoran friends usually do — or the way your grandmother learned to do it from her grandmother. You will let someone else fuss with the green salad, the flowers and the playlist. You will wish you had three ovens and 12 burners. You will somehow make do.

Is there chaos in the kitchen? There’s always chaos in the kitchen! But it all gets resolved somehow, even the year when a three-year-old cranks the oven temperature up to 550 and it is a full half hour before anybody notices. Does your first-grader think mushrooms are the most disgusting things in the world? Chop them a little and she won’t notice them in the stuffing. Do two guests snipe like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis when they both bring the same pie? Proclaim both of them delicious. If you’re lucky, it will all be forgotten by the second glass of Scotch.

I was making Paula Wolfert’s straw potato cakes stuffed with braised leeks for a dinner party one night when the giant pancake, which had always been so reliable, shattered into a dozen pieces when I tried to flip it in the pan. The crisp, brown shards would not go back together. In a panic, I served the stuffing by itself as a side course. And the dish of plain, rich creamed leeks zapped with quite a lot of freshly ground pepper turned out to be more popular with my friends than the more complicated version ever had been. I think the slight sweetness and the autumnal flavor fits perfectly in a Thanksgiving dinner, halfway between a vegetable and a condiment, right in the place where some of my fancy acquaintances like to serve elaborately prepared pearl onions. Some Thanksgivings I like the leeks even more than I do the well-garlicked string beans and the caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon.

— Jonathan Gold

My Thanksgiving dinner table never looks quite like the Norman Rockwell version. There’s always a turkey, some variation of a potato dish, and cranberry sauce. But because my Chinese grandmother is an excellent cook, we usually have a mound of fried rice, char siu spare ribs and a bowl of sticky rice cakes on the table. Those cakes are always the star, the bowl in the center that everyone reaches for, and the one dish you’ll decide to have extra of in place of dessert. They look like mini white disks about the size of a quarter, and when they are cooked, they turn into chewy cakes that crisp up on the bottom of the pan. My grandmother tosses them with sliced celery, chile she grows in her garden, re-hydrated shiitake mushrooms and plenty of lap cheong, the Chinese sausage that tastes better than bacon. They are a staple on our Thanksgiving table, and it’s simply not a proper holiday without them.

— Jenn Harris

Every year at my house, we host what we call the “Long Table Thanksgiving.” It’s a simple tradition, and it does a lot to minimize holiday stress. We provide the birds, and everyone else brings a side dish. These Thanksgivings started out small enough, a modest gathering of family and friends. The first year, we had just under 20 guests; every Thanksgiving since, our gathering has grown a little more, and we moved the festivities outdoors. This past year, we had more than 80 guests, and cooked six turkeys. Every year I roast a turducken, which — colossal meat-fest that it is; picture a chicken stuffed inside of a duck stuffed inside of a turkey — takes several hours in our only oven. Eventually, I added deep-fried and barbecued turkeys, all cooked outdoors. The barbecued turkey is simple to prepare — brine in a mixture of cider vinegar, bourbon, maple syrup and herbs, then smoke over apple or hickory chips in the Weber outdoors as volunteers set up tables and chairs. It takes 2 to 3 hours to smoke, gently taking on a rich brown hue as cooks. That aroma — of applewood, maple and bourbon — is the smell of Thanksgiving for me.

— Noelle Carter

I grew up in a Midwestern boarding school next to an apple orchard, so we had what would now be called heirloom apples stowed along the school hallways in crates, like forgotten luggage. As it was a Quaker school, we also had the nostalgia of oatmeal, though that famous guy in the broad-brimmed hat on the oat jar is as much a weird stereotype as the guy on those Washington football jerseys. So when it came time to make dessert for Thanksgiving, my mother — a prairie pragmatist — did what was for her far more logical than baking a pie: She cut up a ton of those apples (unpeeled), topped them with a mixture of oatmeal and flour, butter and cinnamon, and just put the pan in the oven. Years later, my mother is no longer with us, but her crisp is, loaded with more spices, and paired with a bowl of unsweetened whipped cream the size of a soup tureen. My sister and I learned how to make very servicable pie, but when there is so much else to do for the biggest food holiday of the year, we appreciate the simplicity of our mother’s crisp. (It is also very good for breakfast.)

— Amy Scattergood


Toast the mustard seeds in a pot over medium-low heat just until they start to pop, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cider and water to the pot, and stir in the salt, one cup maple syrup and the bourbon. Add the crushed rosemary sprigs and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside until the brine cools to room temperature.


Place the turkey in a large non-reactive container and pour over the brine. Place a plate over the turkey to weigh it down so it stays submerged in the brine. Cover and refrigerate overnight.


The next morning, remove the turkey from the brine and dry with paper towels. Place the turkey, uncovered, on a rack and refrigerate until about an hour before cooking.


About an hour before cooking, prepare the smoker or grill to cook over low, indirect heat: Set up a drip pan underneath where the turkey will smoke, and fill with water (or the liquid used to soak the wood chips). Shortly before cooking, adjust the heat as needed to maintain a temperature right around 250 degrees and add the soaked chips to start smoking. Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the remaining maple syrup; this will be used to baste the turkey as it cooks.


Baste the turkey and place it (breast-side up) over the drip pan in the prepared smoker. Adjust the heat as needed (add several coals to either side of the grill as needed if using a kettle grill) to keep the smoker between 250 and 300 degrees; replenish the chips as needed to keep smoking for the first hour. Baste the turkey every 20 minutes or so to keep it moist.


Cook to an internal temperature of 160 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh, 2 to 3 hours (timing will vary depending on the size of the turkey and heat of the smoker). To crisp the skin, open the vents of the grill or smoker to increase the heat, and continue to cook the turkey for 5 to 10 minutes more.


Remove and set aside 15 to 20 minutes to rest before carving.