Everything is different this year. And the way we celebrate the holidays will not be the same. That doesn’t mean bad, it just means different. It isn’t advisable to gather huge groups of family and friends around the table, so I say use this opportunity to create new traditions or try new recipes. I know there are so many traditions involved in Thanksgiving (Aunt Sue’s sweet potatoes! Dad and Uncle Tom frying turkeys! Cousin Bertha’s pumpkin pie!) but think of this year as a chance to do something different. I mean, we love Aunt Sue’s sweet potatoes, but maybe it’s time to try something without marshmallows. Over the next weeks, I will share some new ideas for a simpler celebration, starting here with the star of the show.
And I am guessing most gatherings will be smaller this year, so that gives some room for maneuvering. After years of the 20 pound bacon turkey and a brief smoked whole turkey interlude, my small family gathering of ten has started to serve turkey breast on the big day. Last year, I served a simple plain turkey breast (the better for leftovers) and a smoked turkey breast, plus this beautiful bacon wrapped breast stuffed with a delicious filling packed with fall flavors. And as it happens, this is the perfect dish centerpiece for a scaled down feast.
This preparation takes some time but can be prepared over several days – stuffing made on Tuesday, turkey rolled and tied on Wednesday to be cooked on Thursday. I truly find this turkey to be delicious without any embellishments, but you can serve it with gravy if you can’t have Thanksgiving without it. This turkey does not produce drippings, so to make my Make Ahead Gravy, roast a turkey leg or two with some chopped vegetables and use those drippings – there is the bonus there of some dark meat if you’ve got someone who prefers it.
Fennel and Pancetta Stuffed Turkey Breast
½ tablespoon fennel seed
2 ciabatta rolls or a piece of ciabatta, about 6 ounces
8 ounces diced pancetta
1 medium fennel bulb
¼ cup flat leaf parsley
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 boneless, skinless turkey breast (about 2 pounds)
About 12 strips of thin cut bacon
- Toast the fennel seeds in a dry medium skillet until lightly brown, fragrant and beginning to pop. Transfer the seeds to a plate so they don’t continue cooking. Let cool to room temperature, then place in a ziptop bag and crush them lightly a rolling pin (or in a mortar and pestle).
- Cut the stems from the fennel but reserve some of the feathery fonds. Cut the bulb in half, then cut out the triangular hard core. Dice the fennel into very small pieces (you could pulse rough chunks of fennel in a small food processor). Cook the pancetta in the skillet until it begins to render its fat. Add the diced fennel and cook until soft and glassy. When the pancetta is cooked through and the fennel is soft, place it, including the rendered fat, in a large bowl and leave to cool.
- Tear the ciabatta into small pieces and pulse into crumbs in a small food processor. Add them to the bowl with the pancetta. Finley chop the parsley and add it to the bowl. Add the crushed fennel seeds, season generously with salt and pepper and stir to combine. The fat rendered from the pancetta should make the stuffing moist enough to stick together – if it does not, add a drizzle of olive oil until it does. You don’t want a thick paste, just for the filling to stick together when you pinch some between your fingers. You can make the stuffing up to a day ahead of spreading it on the turkey.
- Place the turkey breast on a piece of waxed paper. Use a sharp knife to cut through the breast lengthwise, but not all the way through. You want to open the slit turkey breast open like a book. Place another piece of waxed paper on top of the turkey and use a mallet or rolling pin to pound the breast into a rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Don’t go crazy on the turkey, just whack the breast a few times to thin it out, keeping as rectangular as possible. Spread the stuffing over the turkey breast in a thin even layer, leaving about a ½ inch border. Starting with a short end of the rectangle, carefully roll the turkey breast to enclose the stuffing.
- Spread a large piece of plastic wrap on the counter. Lay bacon slices next to each other, touching, on the plastic. Use as many slices as it takes to completely cover the turkey. Place the rolled breast, seam side up, on the bacon, then bring the bacon slices around the turkey. You want the slices to just overlap a little, so cut off any excess. Enclose the whole breast in bacon, even tucking some over the ends. Turn the turkey seam side down on the plastic. Next, tie the package up using cotton kitchen twine. Here is a link to a video that shows you how to tie a roast, but you can also take short lengths of twine and tie them at intervals along the roast and tie a lengthwise piece to hold the bacon on the ends. When the breast is nicely tied into a package, wrap it tightly in the plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. You can refrigerate it for 24 hours before cooking.
- When you are ready to cook the turkey, preheat the oven 375 degrees. Line the bottom of a roasting pan (like the one that comes with your oven) or a rimmed baking sheet with foil to make cleanup easier. Place a roasting rack on the pan (if you do not have a roasting rack, make a snake of crumpled tinfoil and curl it into an S. Unwrap the turkey and place on the roasting rack and cook for 1 ½ hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees on a meat thermometer (this is slightly under temperature, it will rise). Raise the heat to 425 degrees and cook to brown the bacon, about 15 minutes. Remove the turkey from the oven and tent loosely with foil. Let rest for 10 – 15 minutes, then snip off the twine, slice and serve.