When I was a child, goose was the centerpiece of the Christmas Day table. Ordered in advance by my grandmother from a local farmer, the freshly plucked bird was liberally seasoned with salt and Watkins-brand pepper, packed with bread stuffing, and roasted slowly in her largest speckleware roasting pan. It always reminded me of my favorite scene from A Christmas Carol:
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family…
In Dickens’ time, clubs were established so people could save all year for the holiday bird. Not a bad idea in hindsight. Today, a visit to the modern equivalent of the poulterer’s for goose could set you back $100.00 or more. (Whole Foods appears to have one of the best prices on goose this year at $6.99 per pound. By comparison, turkey there goes for $2.49 per pound.)
Why so pricey? I spoke by phone to Jim Schiltz, a South Dakotan, whose family is the largest producer of geese in the country. Geese, he explained, are more difficult to raise than turkeys and do not thrive if confined. Eggs are hatched in the spring and the young goslings then spend the next several months foraging for grass and weeds. (In fact, some organic farmers use flocks of “weeder” geese in their fields instead of herbicides.) They mature in the late fall which makes them a natural choice for the holidays.
Goose meat is dark, lean, and very rich with more in common with red meat than turkey or chicken. Like duck, the breasts can be served while still pink; they needn’t be cooked to 165 degrees, the USDA recommendation for poultry. Also like duck, geese throw off an incredible amount of fat as they cook, fat you’ll want to capture for roasting potatoes or other root vegetables, making savory baked goods, or even popping popcorn. Goose leg quarters and breasts can also be confited, i.e., cooked slowly in fat until the meat is silky and fall-apart tender. (Goose fat, which has a relatively high smoking point of 370 degrees, can be frozen for up to six months.)
But it’s wood smoke (hickory, pecan, or fruitwoods) that really takes these birds over the top. You can smoke them from start to finish at temperatures between 225 and 275 degrees. Or you can smoke-roast them—a term Steven coined—at higher temperatures to achieve cracker-crisp skin.
• Start by removing any giblets from the main cavity of an 8- to 10-pound goose, thawed if previously frozen. Discard the giblets or reserve for another use; goose liver makes an especially luscious pate.
• Trim any excess skin and/or fat away from the neck or main cavities.
• Using poultry shears, remove the first joint of the wings.
• Prick the skin all over with a large needle, the tip of a knife, or the tines of a fork (avoid piercing the meat). This helps the fat drain off.
• If desired, brine the goose, refrigerated, for up to 24 hours using 1 cup of kosher salt for every gallon of water. This helps keep the goose meat moist.
• Place on a rack in a shallow roasting pan and refrigerate, uncovered, for up to 24 hours, to dry the skin.
• Stuff the main cavity with apple or orange wedges as well as onions and fresh herbs, such as sage, bay leaf, or thyme. Season the outside of the bird with salt and pepper.
• Set up your grill for smoke-roasting (indirect grilling) and preheat to 325 degrees.
• Arrange the goose (still on the rack in the roasting pan) on the grill grate. Add a handful of soaked smoking wood chips to each pile of coals. Replenish the wood chips and coals as needed.
• Smoke-roast the goose until the temperature in the thigh reaches 170 degrees when read on an instant-read meat thermometer, basting every 30 minutes with the pan juices. Begin checking the temperature after 2-1/2 hours. If the goose browns too quickly, loosely cover it with foil.
• Spoon off the accumulated fat, strain, and refrigerate or freeze.
• Let the goose rest for 20 minutes before carving. Serve, if desired, with Steven’s Red Currant Port Sauce.