RAFAEL MATEO is a man of many flavors. By day he is a teacher, with a flock of seventh and eighth graders in East Harlem, and by night a devoted cook and wine lover who is planning to open his own cafe and wine bar. He is also a writer, working on a book of recipes and lore inspired by his Haitian and Dominican heritage. That is, when he’s not on the mat: he is a serious martial artist with black belts in judo, Kokushi-ryu jujitsu, Tomiki aikido and karate.
With such a taste for life, Mr. Mateo is not about to settle for the proverbial flavorless Thanksgiving turkey. Not when steps can be taken to improve its lot. The turkey, after all, is not wholly responsible for its banality. The problem is a want of imagination. Overly plump of breast and drained of color, the big bird is trotted out each year for its moment in the carving table spotlight, its alabaster slices dry, monotonous contrasts to the far more vivid companions on the plate.
But when Mr. Mateo finishes with a turkey it is anything but bland. The exterior is crisp and a deep, burnished coffee brown, almost daring you to reach in for a nibble as it is being carved. The meat — even the breast — is rich with character, and each bite is packed with a complexity that did not come naturally to the turkey.
How can this be? The answer is a recipe that virtually tattoos the bird with flavor, developed by Mr. Mateo’s grandmother Madeleine Marcelin in Haiti, where she and her husband, Andr?lived before fleeing the Duvalier regime in the early 1960’s. To this day Mr. Mateo loves to watch her cook, observing each movement and technique.
”She has the hands of a chef,” he said. ”Anything she touches somehow is magically transformed, whether it’s a boiled egg or anything else. She looks at something once, and she knows exactly what to do to it.”
Those who are not familiar with Haitian cuisine assume that everything is hot and spicy. While it is true that chilies have an important place in the pantry — Mr. Mateo uses Scotch bonnets in his turkey preparation — good Haitian cooking is more accurately characterized by piquancy in which the heat of the chilies is balanced with garlic and thyme, vinegar, tangy citrus or earthy beans. The flavors are vibrant, a perfect approach for livening up an essentially blank canvas like a turkey.
Mr. Mateo begins by, as he puts it, ”Creolizing the turkey.” With a paring knife, he makes an intricate network of slits all over it: breast, thighs and legs. (The wings are optional.) The slits are about a half-inch long, a half-inch deep and maybe a half-inch apart, and he uses his fingers to widen them. He then rubs the turkey with lime juice.
”I use it basically like soap,” he said. ”It gets rid of anything on the turkey. I also think the acidity acts as a balance to the heavier things that you eat.”
Then comes the good stuff. First, Mr. Mateo inserts deep into each slit a paste he has made by mashing garlic, salt, thyme and oregano with vinegar and lemon juice. He follows the garlic paste with a bit of French ham, and then some diced red pepper, Spanish olives, red onion, parsley and, finally, slivers of Scotch bonnets.
It can be time-consuming, but a well-organized cook can do it all in an hour and a half for a 20-pound turkey. As a last flavor-enhancing touch, he pours a bottle of dry red wine over the turkey — the slits help absorb the liquid — and leaves it to marinate in a refrigerator overnight.
This last step is an American adaptation. In Haiti when his grandparents were younger, refrigeration was a luxury. They raised turkeys in their backyard. When it was time to cook one Mr. Marcelin would feed lemon juice to the turkey as a disinfectant and, after it was killed, brine it for four hours.
Nowadays, cooks still brine turkeys, or have someone else do it for them. And while a brined turkey is an excellent candidate for Creolizing, the red wine marinade helps give the bird moisture and character, making brining optional.
Cooking the turkey the next day is the easy part. Mr. Mateo makes a basting liquid with some of the marinade, along with chicken stock, olive oil, vinegar, tomato paste and the ground spice mix called achiote, which, with the red wine, gives the turkey its wonderful color.
While the turkey is roasting, Mr. Mateo prepares the other Thanksgiving dishes that will surround it: earthy red beans and rice; stuffed mirliton, a pear-shaped vegetable also known as chayote that is given added zest with minced chilies; a quichelike carrot casserole; a creamy macaroni and cheese; and maybe a simple green salad. For dessert his grandmother’s bread pudding, redolent of star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, may call for a taste of Barbancourt, the national rum of Haiti.
But the turkey is the star of this meal, its luster returned by the Haitian preparation. This is a turkey that you won’t want to wait until next Thanksgiving to taste again.
Adapted from Rafael Mateo
Time: 3 to 3 1/2 hours, plus overnight marinating
8 cloves garlic, peeled
Salt to taste
8 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
8 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs oregano
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 4 lemons)
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 20-pound brined or kosher turkey, trimmed of excess fat and skin, and rinsed; neck and giblets reserved
6 limes, halved
2 tablespoons adobo
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup ham, finely chopped
2 Scotch bonnet peppers, diced
8 sweet small peppers known as cachuchas or ajicitos dulces, or 1 large Cubanelle pepper, seeded and cut into 1/3-inch dice
1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup manzanilla olives with pimento, finely chopped
20 capers, finely chopped
1 bottle dry red wine
1 teaspoon ground achiote
6 ounces tomato paste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1/2 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced.
1. To prepare for marinating the turkey, use large mortar and pestle or small food processor to mash or pur?garlic with pinch of salt, 5 sprigs parsley, 5 sprigs thyme and oregano. Transfer to bowl. Add lemon juice, 1 tablespoon vinegar and 2 teaspoons water. Set aside.
2. With long paring knife, make slits 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches deep about 1/2 inch apart all over turkey, including legs and wings. Widen slits with fingers or spoon.
3. Rub limes over turkey, squeezing out juice and massaging into the meat. Discard halves and excess juice.
4. Sprinkle turkey all over with adobo, and season with salt and black pepper to taste.
5. Strain the garlic-herb pur? reserving liquid. Place pur?in a mixing bowl, and add chopped ham, Scotch bonnet peppers, sweet peppers, chopped onion, olives and capers. Mix well. To protect hands from being irritated while handling the hot pepper mixture, wear thin latex or rubber gloves.
6. Press large pinches of the hot pepper mixture into turkey slits. If any mixture remains after holes are filled, place it in cavity, along with reserved neck and giblets.
7. Place turkey in deep nonreactive pot, and pour reserved juice from garlic pur?on top, massaging it in well. Pour wine over turkey, cover and refrigerate overnight.
8. To prepare for roasting turkey, set oven rack low. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
9. Reserve 3 cups of wine liquid, and set aside. Discard rest.
10. Into wine, stir achiote, tomato paste, remaining tablespoon vinegar, olive oil and chicken stock.
11. Place turkey in roasting pan along with sliced onion and redbell pepper and remaining parsley and thyme. Pour half the wine mixture over turkey. Reserve rest for basting.
12. Begin roasting turkey breast side up, basting every 15 minutes. Every 30 minutes for the first two hours, flip turkey, first breast side down, then breast up. After the first two hours leave breast side up, and continue roasting and basting 60 to 90 minutes longer. (Turkey is done when thickest part of breast registers 160 degrees on meat thermometer and thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees.)
13. Remove from oven; cover with foil, and rest 20 minutes before carving.
14. Strain pan juices into small saucepan, skim off and discard fat and serve drippings as gravy.
Yield: 12 servings.
Photos: A PIQUANT BIRD — Rafael Mateo, below, tucks a garlicky paste and slivers of Scotch bonnet peppers, near left, into slits in his turkey. It is a trick he learned from his grandmother, who developed it in Haiti.; A GOOD SOAK — Mr. Mateo pours a bottle of red wine over the bird, then marinates it. (Photographs by Julien Jourdes for The New York Times)