Turkey is a popular meat in Italy, often providing a less expensive alternative to veal in dishes ranging from scalloppine to ossobuco. But a whole roast bird, Thanksgiving style, is a rarity. Back in Rome, I remember we had to special order our bird from a local butcher and presented it with much flourish, and each year we’d give it a name. (One year, I remember, it was ‘Dorotea’ or Dorothy, after the wife of a local handyman.)
While whole turkeys ready for roasting are readily available here in the US, in these days of smaller nuclear families they are not always very practical. In fact, even in our fairly numerous extended family, we hardly ever eat the whole bird on Thanksgiving Day. Giving away the leftovers can be a challenge. Truth be told, don’t let the turkey know, but the real stars of Thanksgiving are the sides—especially the stuffing and mashed potatoes!
And then, of course, there is the perennial problem of uneven cooking. No matter what you do, your breast will be done before your thighs and legs.
My solution is very simple: do what the Italians do and serve the breast, stuffed with a savory filling and rolled into a neat, sliceable roast. It cooks in less than an hour, using the classic arrosto morto braising technique, and makes for a beautiful formal presentation fit for a special occasion. And with all the flavor that the filling provides, even folks who prefer dark meat over the often bland breast meat (like me) will enjoy this dish.
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
1 turkey breast, skinned and butterflied (see Notes)
For the filling:
2 bunches of Swiss chard, trimmed of its stems
1-2 shallots (or half an onion) finely minced
A large nut of butter (about 2 Tbs.)
150g (5 oz) of cooked ham, cut into small cubes
75 g (2-1/2 oz) of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2-3 heaping Tablespoons of breadcrumbs, or more if needed
A good scraping of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
For the braising:
A garlic clove, peeled and slightly crushed
Salt and pepper
Step 1: If you bought the turkey breast whole, skin and butterfly it (see Notes). Lay it out flat on a cutting board, messy side up.
Step 2: Now begin to make the filling: Boil the chard for about 5 minutes, drain it and rinse it under cold water. Squeeze out all the water with your hands, lay the chard on a cutting board and chop it finely. Sauté the shallots (or onion) in the butter over gentle heat until it is perfectly soft, adding a pinch of salt and a few drops of water to prevent it from browning. Add the chard, mix well so that the onion and butter are well incorporated into the chard, and simmer for another 5 minutes or so. Let the chard cool. Add the chard to a large mixing bowl, then add the other filling ingredients and stir everything very well, until you have a uniform mixture. The mixture should be quite stiff; if need be, add more breadcrumbs, a bit at a time, until you’ve reached the right consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning—the mixture should be very savory.
Step 3: Lay the filling on top of the turkey breast, allowing a margin of at least 3 cm (1 inch) around the sides. Don’t pile the stuffing too high, as it will expand during cooking and make a mess. (You can always save any leftover stuffing for other uses—see Notes below.) Then roll the breast up gingerly, taking care not to let the stuffing fall out. Truss the breast up with string as you would a roast (see Notes below for details). If the stuffing begins to ooze out as you truss, just push it back in with your fingers. (If that doesn’t work, you may have added too much stuffing.)
Step 4: In a braising pan, preferably oval, just large enough to accomodate the roast, sauté the garlic clove until it is just lightly brown, then remove it. Raise the heat to high, add the roast and brown it well on all sides, seasoning well with salt and pepper.
Splash a bit of white wine on top of the roast, turning it to coat it on all sides. Now cover the pan, lower the heat and let the roast braise until it is done through, about 30-45 minutes depending on the size of the roast. Add a bit more wine or water from time to time to keep the pot from drying out. It is done when a meat thermometer registers 75C/165F. The meat should be fully cooked through, without a trace of pink, but don’t overcook it. As we all know, overdone turkey breast can be terribly dry.
Step 5: Remove the roast from the pan and let it rest on a cutting board for at least 15 minutes.
Slice it rather thinly (but not paper-thin) and serve in a serving dish, accompanied by the cooking juices for those who would like some sughetto. The dish can be served warm but is also delicious at room temperature. Leftover slices make a gorgeous sandwich filling.
NOTES: The only tricky part of this recipe is prepping the turkey breast for cooking. In many US supermarkets you can buy a turkey breast, pre-rolled and trussed or wrapped in a kind of netting. For this dish you’ll just need to untruss it and lay it out for stuffing. If you have bought a whole turkey breast, you’ll need to ‘butterfly’ the breast yourself. Begin by removing the skin, if there is any. Then lay out the breast, skin side down. Cut the breast in half, lengthwise, almost all the way through, letting the two halves fall to the sides, opening like a book (or, as the name so poetically implies, like the wings of a butterfly). Then cut those halves in half, in the same manner, so that the breast lays out in a more or less flat rectangle.
The other tricky bit is the trussing. You’ll need a long bit of kitchen string. (I just usually use an arm’s length, to be sure, and cut off any extra.) Starting from one side of the roll, run the string around the breast and tie it up tight with a simple slip knot, then pull the string down the length of the roll just a few centimeters/one inch and make another loop.
Proceed like this until you reach the other end. Then loop the string around the end and proceed on the other side until you’ve reached the opposite end. Loop the string around to where you started and make a final knot. Cut off any excess string. The most important loops are the ones on the ends; they should be tight enough to keep the stuffing from falling out the sides of the roll as it cooks. The process is less complicated than it sounds. A video is probably the best teacher—if you Google “how to truss a roast” you’ll find any number of useful demonstrations.
You can be really imaginative with the ingredients that go into the filling. The one here is classic and elegant—a very tasty. But you can let your imagination take its course. Instead of ham, mortadella is wonderful, or some crumbed and sautéed sausage meat. Some mushrooms, sliced and sautéed in olive oil, are another lovely addition. Instead of, or in addition to, grated Parmesan, add some cubes of fontina or taleggio. And instead of chard, you can use spinach or some other green, leafy vegetable you like. By the way, you can skip the sautéing of the chard in you want, as many recipes do, and just combine the blanched and chopped vegetable with the rest of the filling ingredients. The filling will be a bit less savory but still very good. If you wind up with extra stuffing, don’t throw it away; add more eggs to it and you can make a delicious frittata. And don’t throw away the stems you’ve trimmed off the chard leaves—they are perfectly delicious gratinéed in the same way you would fennel.
You can also take the filling in entirely different directions: one very common option is a thin frittata laid inside the breast. Or you can add just cubes or meat and cheese, or sage and pancetta. The combinations really are endless.
Finally, if you prefer, you can brown the turkey roll in a skillet and finish it off in a moderate oven (180C/350F), basting it with olive oil and/or white wine from time to time. The cooking time is a bit longer than for the braise, perhaps 45-60 minutes. This will produce a beautifully browned roast, but personally I prefer the braising method, as it makes for a juicier bird.