You’re throwing away the most flavorful part of the turkey

A few Novembers ago, during Thanksgiving week, I went to my local butcher shop. As I waited in a nearly block-long line, I watched customer after customer leave with a paper bag straining under the weight of a massive farm-fresh turkey. The man in front of me paid $82 for his turkey; the woman in front of him paid $112.

When I was finally face-to-face with The Butcher — a caricature of a man with a meat cleaver tattoo and a Bob Belcher mustache — I asked if he had any necks for purchase.

“What’s that sweetheart? Necks?” he shouted over the din of customers chatting and meat grinders whirring. “Waddya need ’em for? Your dog?”

I had a recipe that called for them, I replied.

He called to the back: “Noel, grab me a bag of necks for the lady!”

Noel, a wiry teenage boy who had a pack of Marlboro Lights tucked into the pocket of his grimy white apron, slung a heavy plastic bag onto the countertop scale. I reached for my wallet and jokingly asked, “What’s the damage?”

The Butcher rolled his eyes into the back of his head and lightly tossed the plastic bag of necks between his two palms like a pitcher preparing for an inning. “I mean, nobody buys these here,” he said.”How ’bout a dollar a neck?”

That was the year my Thanksgiving main cost $10.

That was the year my Thanksgiving main cost $10.

When thinking of a Thanksgiving turkey, it’s easy to mentally divide it into only two categories: white meat and dark meat. If you’re picky (or lucky, depending on your family), you may be able to score a more specific part of the bird, such as the legs or wings. Rarely, however, does anyone clamor for the turkey neck. In fact, in the case of supermarket turkeys, the necks are often removed or relegated to a slimy plastic bag of giblets that gets jammed into the cavity.

But I had just bought Chris Shepherd and Kaitlyn Goalen’s stunning James Beard Award-nominated cookbook, “Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World.” Of Shepherd, Penguin Random House wrote:

A cook with insatiable curiosity, he’s trained not just in fine-dining restaurants but in Houston’s Korean grocery stores, Vietnamese noodle shops, Indian kitchens and Chinese mom-and-pops. His food, incorporating elements of all these cuisines, tells the story of the city, and country, in which he lives. An advocate, not an appropriator, he asks his diners to go and visit the restaurants that have inspired him, and in this book he brings us along to meet, learn from and cook with the people who have taught him.

Flipping through the recipes —  braised goat with Korean rice dumplings and fried vegetables with caramelized fish sauce — I found myself lingering over one in particular: Vietnamese braised turkey necks.

At one of Shepherd’s first jobs as a chef, there was a sous chef named Antoine Ware, who would always ask for the chicken or duck necks left over from butchering whole birds for the menu. He would then braise the necks “into a brilliant stew with brown roux and Worcestershire sauce and serve it over rice for staff meal.” This version, Shepherd wrote, was distinctly Creole in flavor; Ware told him it was something that his mom, who was from Louisiana, used to make.

“Then one day, when visiting my favorite Vietnamese crawfish spot in Houston, Crawfish & Noodles, I saw braised turkey necks on the menu,” he wrote. “I ordered it and couldn’t believe how similar it was to Antoine’s version. It was basically the same thing, plus fish sauce. The synergy of it was amazing; here I was sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant, eating boiled crawfish next to pho, next to turkey neck that reminded me of a Creole friend.”

The subsequent recipe sounded phenomenal. It was packed with nuanced layers of flavor, built from smoked paprika, thyme, garlic, fresh-sliced onion, fish sauce, dark brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and Crystal hot sauce (of course!). That year, I carefully dried, braised and seasoned the turkey necks. As Shepherd promised, they were indeed delicious. I carefully packed up my Dutch oven with the punchy stew and took it to my best friend’s house, where we spent the day ladling it over fluffy white rice and sopping it up with sourdough toast tips.

It was perfect.

Much like oxtails, turkey necks require a little coaxing to become tender, hence why braising, which consists of lightly frying a cut of meat and then simmering it in a cooking liquid for a prolonged period of time, is an ideal method here.

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And like other cuts of meat that are cartilage, collagen and connective tissue-heavy — again, oxtails, but also like chicken wings and feet — turkey necks are tremendous for making stock. As the cartilage breaks down during the cooking process, which typically happens once meat reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit, collagen breaks down and turns into gelatin, which imbues stock and stews with a tremendously rich flavor.

Thus, if you aren’t looking to depart dramatically from a typical Thanksgiving turkey in the form of, say, Shepherd’s recipe, turkey necks are still worthwhile to seek out this time of year in order to pack extra flavor into seasonal favorites like gravy and stuffing by way of making a richer turkey stock.

And during a year — and a season — in which everything costs a bit more than in years past, thanks to issues like lingering supply chain issues and inflation, turkey necks reign supreme in the affordability department. Right now, you can get more than 2 pounds of turkey necks for $6.91 at H-E-B — which isn’t too far off from the $1 per neck deal that turned me into a convert.

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