Next Thursday, eight out of 10 Americans will sit down to a turkey dinner. To supply the demand, 45 million birds will meet their maker in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.
Our national bird might well have been the turkey. Benjamin Franklin thought it "a much more respectable bird, and withall a true original native of America." The bird was already domesticated when the Spanish reached Mexico in 1518. The Aztecs ate it with a sauce made from chiles and unsweetened chocolate. (The preparation survives in the Mexican dish mole poblano .) Europeans, usually finicky about New World foods, adopted the bird with gusto: A 16th-Century German cookbook listed 20 turkey recipes.
One of the problems with turkey is that it's a party animal. You need at least 10 people to eat a small one. If you have a smaller group, you might want to serve a game bird, such as partridge, pheasant and quail. They are loaded with flavor and perfect for celebrating Thanksgiving when you have only four to six guests.
Game birds include, in descending order of size, wild turkey, goose, duck, pheasant, partridge, grouse, squab, dove, thrush (the alouette of the French children's song) and, the most delicious of them all, woodcock. Game is leaner than chicken or duck, which makes it a boon with dieters. Prone to drying out, it does best with a moist cooking method, like stewing or braising. Another way to keep game birds moist is by wrapping them in bacon or other fat.
Game used to be available only to hunters, but more and more of it can be found at specialty markets and butcher shops. True wild game has the richer (and in many cases, muskier) game flavor. The pen-raised birds, on the other hand, are free of such inconveniences as feathers and wayward buckshot. Game farms have proliferated around the United States; many sell their wares by mail order.
Looking for something different for this Thanksgiving? Here are some offbeat ways to prepare turkey and some game bird recipes for serving small crowds.
In pre-Columbian times, chocolate was consumed as a spice, not a sweet. Its bitterness goes well with the pungency of chiles. This recipe comes from "The Complete Book of Mexican Cookery" by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz (Bantam Books: 1968).
MOLE POBLANO (Turkey With Chile-Chocolate Sauce)
1 (8-pound) whole turkey
1/4 cup oil or lard
6 ancho chiles
4 pasilla chiles
4 mulato chiles
2 onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 sprigs fresh cilantro
1 tortilla or toast slice, diced
1 pound (3 medium) tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
Cut turkey into individual serving pieces and place in pan along with salted water to cover. Simmer 1 hour and drain, reserving 2 cups turkey stock. Blot turkey pieces dry.
Heat oil in large skillet. Brown turkey pieces, batch at time, on all sides. Transfer turkey to platter and reserve fat.
Wash chiles. Tear in halves and remove stems, veins and seeds. Soak chiles in cold water to cover 1 hour and drain. Place chiles, onions, garlic, cilantro, tortilla, tomatoes, almonds, raisins, anise seeds, cloves, cinnamom, coriander seeds, black pepper and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds in blender and puree to smooth paste.
Heat reserved fat in turkey pan. Add pureed chile mixture and cook over medium heat 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and stir in reserved turkey broth and chocolate. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Gently simmer 10 minutes. Sauce should be very thick.
Return turkey to sauce and cook over low heat 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Correct seasoning. Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons sesame seeds over mole poblano and serve at once. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Partridge is the game bird for people who like dark meat. This recipe comes from the Hermitage Inn in Wilmington, Vt.
ROAST PARTRIDGE WITH DIJON MUSTARD SAUCE
1 partridge, cut in half
3 tablespoons butter, melted
Freshly ground pepper
1 shallot, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 strips crisply cooked bacon, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Brush partridge with 2 tablespoons melted butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast bird, skin side up, in oiled pan at 500 degrees 10 to 12 minutes, or until cooked to taste.
Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in heavy saucepan. Add shallot and sauce over medium heat until tender but not brown. Add white wine and boil until reduced by half. Add whipping cream and cook until reduced by half. Stir in Dijon mustard, bacon and parsley. Correct seasoning to taste. Pour sauce over partridge and serve at once. Makes 2 servings.