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Chile-grilled Turkey

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This past Sunday was Father’s Day.  While I didn’t get a chance to spend any time with my father (I did call him and talk to him for quite a while), we did have my father-in-law over for dinner along with my “favorite” mother-in-law (because she’s my only one!).  I also managed to get some long overdue things checked off my “To Do” list and spent some time with my own girls – so it was a good day all around.

Since I’ve been looking for an excuse to try a turkey on my pellet grill, I thought I’d give something new a try.  I started with a short brine soak (about 5 hours) that included a mix of salt and spices, and followed it up with a good rub of more spices before smoking and roasting it on the grill.  If you don’t have a grill that can smoke easily, then don’t worry.  I’m sure that over indirect heat on a gas grill, or even in the oven, this will still turn out great (you may want to increase the brine soak time closer to the “norm” of about 8 to 12 hours).  One of the keys to getting a good flavor into the meat is to put the rub under the skin.  Otherwise you’re just flavoring the skin…

Gather Up:

  • one whole turkey – about 10 to 12 pounds.
  • 1 cup sea salt
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 10 medium garlic cloves, peeled and pressed
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 dried ancho chiles – whole
  • 1 dried ancho chile – ground to powder
  • 3 arbol chiles – whole
  • 3 arbol chiles – ground to powder
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano (get the whole-leaf stuff)
  • 2 tsp additional chili powder of your choice
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

If you have a stock pot large enough to hold the entire turkey, grab it.  If not, then get your hands on a food-grade bucket, a small(er) cooler, or a deep roasting pan  – anything food safe that is large enough to hold the bird completely submerged in liquid, but small enough to still fit in your refrigerator.  Start out with 1 quart of water in the pot (or a sauce pan if you are using one of the alternative containers).  Heat while stirring in the salt until it is fully dissolved.  Add the honey and continue stirring until dissolved (if you let it boil, the honey may foam – just so you are warned).  Remove from heat and add in the pressed/crushed garlic, cinnamon sticks, and the whole chiles (both arbol and ancho).

Add another 1 to 2 quarts of COLD water to reduce the temperature a bit, then pour the liquid into your brining container (I’m using an over-sized lunch cooler).  Once in the container, add another 2 quarts COLD water (we’re up to 4 quarts COLD plus the original 1 quart warm), so the whole thing should now be below room temperature.  Clean out the inside of the bird – saving the tidbits for whatever other use you might have for them.  Dunk the bird into the brine, breast side down (if you can).  Add more cold water until the bird is fully covered.  Make room in the fridge and put it in there for no less than 5 hours (and up to 12 hours or so).

Remove the stems from the remaining chiles and place them into a spice grinder.  Grind until they form a fine powder (seeds and all), then add in the oregano, garlic powder, and additional chile powder (you can use more ancho and arbol chiles depending on if you’ve got more, or how spicy you want it – I simply ran out of them).  Pulse a few times to break up the oregano a bit and to blend everything together well.  Transfer to a small prep bowl.  Go do something else while the turkey brines.

Here comes the fun part – rubbing the turkey.  You might want rubber gloves for this…or at least wash your hands well when you are done.  Remove the bird from the brine and rinse under cold water.  Place on a kitchen towel and pat the bird drive.  Then, starting just to the side of the tail, pull on the skin with one hand and work a finger under it with the other.  Once you’ve got it started, you can enlarge the pocket by working a second finger in there and gently moving side to side until you can eventually get all of your fingers under the skin along the top of the thigh.  It may help to use the handle of a wooden spoon as well to get up farther (or get someone with small hands to help).  If you split the skin (like I did above), don’t sweat it – just try to be more careful with the rest of it.  Keep working until you can get your hand to touch pretty much every part of both thighs.  Then flip it over and do the same thing to the breasts – only starting up where the neck used to be.

When you’ve got the skin loosened up from the major parts of the bird, combine your chile powder blend with the olive oil and mix to make a paste.  Scoop a couple finger-fulls of the mixture up and smear it onto the meat under the skin – covering as much as you can.  Don’t be shy with how much goes under the skin, because you really want most of it to end up there.  Once you’ve got most of it under the skin on the breasts and thighs, then you can give the outside of the whole bird a quick rub for good measure.  Place the bird into a roasting pan breast side down.

Get your grill prepped for low indirect heat and smoking – I went for a temperature of 185 using a mix of hickory and mesquite.  Place the pan on the grill and let it smoke for 2-1/2 hours (add briquettes as needed if you’re using charcoal to maintain the heat).  After the 2-1/2 hours is done, turn the bird breast-side up (you can do this with your hands if you don’t touch the pan – it wasn’t that warm yet).  Stick a meat thermometer into the breast until it just touches the breast bone, then back it out a half inch.  Add fuel to get the grill temperature up to medium indirect (325 degrees) and put the lid on (this would be were those of you not using any smoke would start cooking).  Check the bird after 45 minutes to an hour, and continue cooking until the thermometer reads 160 degrees (about 1-1/2 hours after smoking for me).

Remove the bird from the grill and immediately cover the pan with foil.  Let stand an additional 10 minutes while you set the table and arrange all of the side dishes.  Then carve the bird and serve (sorry – I was too busy carving and forgot to get a picture).  Dig in!