Tropical Thanksgiving with… Chester?
“Tradition simply means that we need to end what began well and continue what is worth continuing”
– Jose Bergamin, Spanish Writer
Thanksgiving was never my favorite holiday – in large part, I think it’s mainly because my family would NEVER let me near the kitchen. I decided that this year, I was going to do Thanksgiving my way – ironically, I decided to start my own traditions in a country that is completely oblivious to Thanksgiving. I figured I’d do the traditional dishes, with a trained cook’s touch : roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, corn, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie with whipped cream… not too difficult, right?
Um, wrong. This adventure turned out to be a major lesson in adaptation for me. I went into the market with the mindset that I would be able to find everything I needed – half an hour later, I realized I was not going to find anything I needed. With my limited knowledge of the language, I had to completely re-think the entire menu the night before Thanksgiving.
- There are no cranberries in Brazil. Anywhere. Frozen, dried, canned, fresh – nothing. Plan B? Gravy.
- Turkey is incredibly expensive here. Plan B? The butcher suggested a Chester – I went for it.
- I wanted to put goat cheese and pecans in my stuffing… I couldn’t find either of them anywhere, and since I’m mildly allergic to walnuts, I re-thought the stuffing recipe and I ended up with Paiu, a type of sausage that is normally only used in feijoada.
- Canned pumpkin does not exist here… good thing I thought ahead and smuggled some in from the US 🙂
- Most of the milk and cream here is UHT Tetrapacked in boxes so it’s shelf-stable… it does not whip. It has a very bizarre taste and texture. Alex’s aunt had to run out at the last minute to a specialty store to find fresh cream, which is also very expensive here.
- Neither of us knew how to translate “Allspice” when we were at the market – we spent 15 minutes sniffing 3 dozen spice baggies before we ended up hesitantly buying something that smelled like allspice but was called “Pimienta Siria” (Syrian Pepper). Thankfully, our noses were correct.
- The common aluminum pie tins you see everywhere in the US for $1 are non-existent here. I ended up having to form my pie dough into a tart pan – the crimping on the edges looked really sloppy, since the tin was 4″ deep and the pie only came up half way.
- The Oven. Like most Americans, I’m virtually retarded in metric conversions. I had to google a temperature conversion chart to figure out how to set the oven. I’m also used to electric ovens with heat from the top and the bottom… a bake setting. This oven is gas, and it doesn’t have settings. Consequently, nothing browns on the top because all the heat is on the bottom. I frantically egg-washed my exposed pie crust during the last 15 minutes of baking when I realized it still looked unappealingly raw. It turned out OK, but it’s definitely not the best I could have done.
After a lot of improvisation and totally abandoning most of my plans, I managed to come up with a decent meal. We bought a whole Chester bird and one turkey leg. I brined them overnight in water, salt, black pepper, a bunch of paprika, bay leaves, allspice, and cumin. I started them both with an under-the-skin butter rub, then an over-the-skin oil rub, followed by a little more salt and pepper. Chester was then trussed and roasted for about an hour before I added the mirepoix (onion, celery, and carrots) and a malagueta pepper to the bottom of the pan. Since I had no idea what a Chester tasted like, I pretty much basted the crap out of it, just in case it was a drier bird. Once the skin got crispy and brown (different oven, thankfully) I took Chester out to rest and sprinkled some flour over the mirepoix and let that cook until it was nice and bubbly, about 20 minutes or so. I blended everything together, and the gravy barely needed any additional seasoning – the drippings from the brine were almost perfect.
For the stuffing, I diced the sausage and sautéed it to render the fat. I added garlic, some more mirepoix, and Chester’s insides (ssh, don’t tell my guests!) – the liver, heart, etc. – to flavor the mixture. I used two day old french bread cubes, lightly covered them with chicken stock, and tossed everything together with some chopped cashews. It turned out surprisingly good – at the last minute, I sprinkled it with a little bit of parmesan cheese to give it a nice gratin topping.
Alex’s family was all happy with dinner, so I’d consider it a success.
Out of curiosity, I did some research on the “Chester” bird today… I wanted to believe that I was buying some type of indigenous bird that was traditional for the holidays. It turns out that Chester – wait, Chester® – is a trademarked, pumped-up chicken, the result of a genetic selection project by biologists at Brazil’s second-largest food processor, Perdigao.In 1981, the company’s research and development team succeeded in breeding a chicken that concentrated 70 percent of its meat in its breast and thigh portions. The bird costs less than turkey and has more meat than a standard chicken, helping it win two-thirds of Brazil’s poultry sales during the year-end holiday season. Compared with Chester, turkey costs a third more per kilogram, takes longer to cook and produces more leftovers, which families lacking a refrigerator have no place to store safely. About 90 percent of Chester sales occur during the Christmas season and almost all are in Brazil. The bird is often cooked in a pineapple sauce and accompanied by farofa (the manioc flour dish mentioned in my feijoada post) .
I have to say – as much as I’m against genetically engineering any form of life, especially when it makes an animal so large that it can’t even walk – Chester was actually pretty darn good, especially when compared to a Tyson genetically engineered chicken. It didn’t have a weird, artificial yellow to the skin, and it actually had flavor. The bird was very moist. The texture of the meat did look slightly weird – it looked almost like a translucent white piece of meat, but it didn’t taste artificial. I have to hand it to the scientists on this one – they did a good job. However, now that I know about how it’s made and raised, I definitely won’t buy it again.
Have you ever learned something about a food you tried and liked that made you never want to buy it again? Is there any such thing that would make you swear off a product?