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The Thanksgiving turkey, broken down into parts and surrounded by all the fixings. (Credit: John Ross)

Perhaps the crowning glory of Thanksgiving dinner is that moment when you bring the golden roast turkey to the table and set it in front of the host or hostess to carve.

But after that fleeting moment you are left with a messy job of trying to separate the parts of a bird that may be vastly overcooked or, worse, has blood flowing from the joints. One alternative is to break the turkey down the day before cooking into the legs and thighs, the breast and the backbone. Now you can make a rich stock with the bones; you can braise the legs and thighs for complete doneness and lots of flavor; and you can roast the breast to juicy perfection. You can even make a beautiful presentation at the table.

Here is how it is done:

Breaking down the turkey
Remove the giblets from a whole turkey of 12 to 15 pounds and rinse under cold water. Place it breast side up on a cutting board.

Loosen the leg and thigh by cutting the skin between the breast and thigh area. Bend the leg section back to expose the joint, then cut and bend it further to break the joint open. Run your knife through the thigh joint to separate it from the body. Repeat on the other side.

Turn the leg/thigh piece skin side down and cut through the joint, using the thin line of fat as a guide. Repeat on the other side of the turkey.

Now remove the wings by cutting a small circle around the wing bone where it joins the body. You will expose the joint and then just cut through it and remove.

Finally, grip the neck bone and cut down and away from yourself on either side of the backbone. This will separate the large backbone from the breast. (I use a boning knife, but poultry shears also work well.) Remove the backbone and all the loose cartilage that surrounds it. You will be left with a bone-in turkey breast.

Making the stock
Place the backbone, giblets (except the liver), neck bone and other trimmings in a roasting pan along with 1 chopped carrot, 1 rib of celery and a coarsely chopped onion. Roast at 400 degrees for 45 minutes.

Put the roasted bones into a large soup pot. Put the roasting pan on the stove and add 1 cup water. Bring it to a boil, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits of flavor. Pour this into the soup pot along with enough water to just cover the bones. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a bare simmer.

Make a “bouquet garni” by tying together the white part of one leek, a bay leaf, 6 parsley stems and 3 fresh thyme stems. Add this to the pot along with 12 whole peppercorns. Let the stock simmer for 3 hours, then strain and chill overnight. (This will result in a deep and delicious stock that will end up in the best gravy that you ever tasted.)

Braising legs, thighs and wings
Heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons canola oil.

Sprinkle kosher salt and ground pepper over the turkey parts. Brown them in the sauté pan at high heat, working in batches to avoid overcrowding.

Set the browned parts aside and reduce the heat on the sauté pan. Add 4 ounces pancetta and let it cook until just crisp. Remove and set aside.

Add 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped carrot and 1 chopped stalk of celery. Season with 6 leaves of fresh sage, chopped, and a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves. Cook for 5 minutes at low heat and transfer to a roasting pan.

Deglaze the pan with 1 cup water and add to the roasting pan. Place the browned turkey legs, thighs and wings on top of the vegetables in the roasting pan. Pour in about 2 cups turkey stock. It should come up about one-third on the sides of the poultry. Place in a 300-degree oven, uncovered, and cook for 2 hours. Remove and cover with foil in a warm place.

Roasting the turkey breast
Make an herb butter by dicing 1 stick of butter and placing it in a bowl. Add 1 teaspoon minced garlic, the zest of 1 lemon and 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon chopped thyme, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper. Mash this mixture together with a dinner fork and let come to room temperature.

Run your fingers under the skin of the turkey breast, being careful not to tear the skin. Smear the herb butter under the skin, leaving some to spread on top of the skin.

Raise the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Put the turkey breast in a V rack and set it in a small roasting pan. Place in the oven and cook until the internal temperature is 150 degrees. Remove, cover with foil and let sit for 30 minutes. (The internal temperature will rise to about 155.) Allow about 1 1/2 hours for the breast to cook. Cooking to this temperature will result in a very moist, tender white meat that is cooked through.

Preparing the gravy
While the turkey is cooking, place the remaining stock in a saucepan on the stove and bring to a boil. Let it reduce a little, then reduce the heat to a simmer.

When the braised legs come out of the oven, place them on a platter and, using a slotted spoon, remove the cooked vegetables from the pan and pile them around the turkey. Strain the remaining liquid into a bowl. Skim any fat from this broth and add it to the simmering turkey stock.

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan and stir in 6 tablespoons flour. Let this roux cook at low heat for about 10 minutes, or until it gives off a nutty aroma.

Whisk this into the simmering stock and bring it to a boil. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.

Presenting the turkey
Begin by removing the turkey breast meat from the bone. Using a sharp knife, cut down the center from the top and follow the bones on either side to remove the two breast pieces. Place the boned breast meat on the platter with the braised dark meat and cooked vegetables. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and bring to the table. You can now easily carve the white meat on a small cutting board and remove the dark meat from the bones.

Note: I found that this method produced all three elements (white meat, dark meat and gravy) at their best. The dark meat was fully cooked and fall-apart tender, the white meat was tender and succulent, and the gravy was the best ever. And best of all it was easy to serve.

John Ross