November 2011


Seriously. Lemon Posset.

Ready? Okay.

Put one cup cream and 1/2 cup sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When it comes to a boil and begins to foam, pull it off the heat if it bubbles too much. Boil for three minutes, and stir in the juice of one lemon.

Pour it into two ramekins and put it in the fridge for at least three hours. It will firm up to be a very light, pleasant custard for two.

Simplest dessert ever in under 100 words. You can make it in five minutes for a large gathering on a Thursday!

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Let’s be honest. We all secretly hope for a bird that looks like this:

BUT…

in reality, we get a bird that looks like this:

Is there a difference? Yes. If your bird comes out looking like the first, great. Pats on backs all around. You may be able to perfectly roast a turkey year after year, bringing family and friends back around the table with the beautiful roast bird. Still, even with a turkey that looks like the second, it’s not really about looks. It’s not really even about taste. As we’ve heard conflicting stories over the years on what the Pilgrims actually ate that first fateful November night, butter might not have been on the menu as heavy as we use it today. There was venison, and swan. Some cornbread. Some English Cheese Pie as well, for what it’s worth. No pork. No ham. Over the centuries, we’ve taken the idea of the Turkey feast and run with it to suit our idea of what a bountiful harvest looks like, but what we really should be giving thanks for is that we have the access to not only foods of the fall harvest, but the means to procure it, and the ability to search out the smallest details that we believe makes our dinner memorable. More celebrated than the fact that we are able to bring the harvest to the table should be the thanks that we are able to enjoy the company and fellowship of friends and family, revel in conversation, smiles, and a couple bottles of wine, and pay tribute to the traditions that have served our dinners in the past. This year, I will raise a glass to sharing my meal with my parents and sister’s families, aunts, uncles and their families, my girlfriend, but also in appreciation of those with whom I’ve shared my Thanksgivings in years past.

For my friends from work, who have invited me to their houses for their meals where we ate vegetarian dinners cooked over ancient stoves- Happy Thanksgiving.

For friends from Chicago and beyond, who have opened their homes when we weren’t able to make it home for the Holidays- Happy Thanksgiving.

For my family members whose memories we carry with us every year, especially at the holidays. Wherever you happen to celebrate, and to whomever you happen to celebrate with- Happy Thanksgiving.

I’m not going to say much of anything on dessert, because I’m not much of a baker. However, as an anticlimax, I will give you a bunch of ideas that pop into my head for dessert. Ready? Okay, let’s go!

Pumpkin Pie- Store bought is always good, and you can definitely make one yourself at home, but do you really want to go through the hassle of roasting your pumpkin, scraping it out, blending it with milk, making a pie crust, etc. etc.? If you have a stellar recipe, I’d love to hear it. Usually, when I want to impress, I’ll buy the crust at the store, buy a couple cans of Libby’s canned pumpkin (side note: It’s actually hubbard squash, but it tastes just as good), and follow their instructions. It works every time.

Other dishes with pumpkin may include: Pumpkin flan, cheesecake,  tarts, cookies, etc.

Also in pies, a pecan pie or apple pie is always appreciated.

If you want, there are many recipes online that utilize ginger, such as a ginger spice cake made with Guinness.

You can make a tart with cranberries and apples, do some simple baked apples or poached pears with cinnamon, or something with chocolate or caramel.

My best friend’s family does a cranberry sherbet, and if you have an ice cream maker, make that. Use your fresh cranberries and and enjoy it.

Serve all of these with coffee or tea. They will be delicious.

Let’s move on to the main course.

Turkey

For the vast majority of Thanksgiving celebrants, the day is punctuated with the arrival of the Turkey, a massive bird with the crackly brown skin and a candle sticking out of the top to wish America once again another Happy Birthday. Here are some collected thoughts on how to make the best turkey for the Holiday table.

TURKEY PREPARATION:

First, buy a turkey. It can be frozen, but for the benefit of all involved, including yours truly who will be up to his elbows in turkey for the foreseeable future, buy it early and give yourself time and space to prep it for the big day. What does this mean?

Size: For every person you’re having for dinner who eats turkey, plan on a pound to a pound and a quarter of whole bird weight to satisfy all appetites. I know which aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews like a light meat and which like a dark meat, so I adjust accordingly. PROTIP: Tom turkeys are the larger ones, and therefore have higher percentages of breast meat, but anything over a 14-16 pound Hen can yield a dry breast. No amount of injections or brining can provide the balanced, moist meat that comes with a smaller bird.

Organic vs. Natural vs. Butterball, etc.:

Does it really matter? Maybe. What you want to do is Read the Label. You’ll see on many labels that there is “Up to (x)% water or solution added.” What does this mean? It means that if you want a turkey with a skin that is crisp and brown, after you spend your days thawing it out, you’ll need to let the turkey rest in your roasting vessel overnight to let it drain. That’s resting, out of the package, skin exposed to the elements, so it’ll gain a tacky skin, or to use a culinary term, pellicle. 

There’s a constant debate that rages in the meat department, with people insisting on purchasing only organic meat. Those who are adamant in their support for organics swear by the tenet that Organic meat is only fed by GMO free feed. Still, there is no way to tell that a particular crop is GMO free without traceability and a whole mess of paperwork. More than half of our large crops (corn, soybeans and sugar beets) are raised with Genetically Modified seed, and the best the gross majority of meat purveyors can offer is an all-vegetarian diet. My belief is that the plain and simple all-vegetarian birds offer equal enjoyment. Since there is no discernable flavor difference between a GMO-fed bird and a non-GMO fed bird, I typically go with the one of lesser expense. As most people only eat one whole Turkey a year and not care where the turkey on their Subway sub comes from, it’s a concession that most of us should be willing to make.

At my store, we have Organic birds, All Vegetarian “Natural” birds, Pre-Brined, Fresh, Frozen. Which one should you choose?

If you choose a frozen bird, be aware that you’ll lose about a pound of water as it thaws. The skin will take longer to get crispy, and you may have to brine it.

A Pre-Brined bird is a good option, as is a turkey plus a brining kit. However, Brining kits are messy, and you’ll have to get a bucket, a plastic bag, and it’ll just be a huge hassle, adding 24 hours or more to your dinner prep process.

Pre-Brined birds are great. I had one for last year’s dinner, and it was moist and flavorful. No mess, brined in the bag, and ready to go. Some places call this a “Self-Basting Bird”. If you choose to dry season your bird, get your bird thawed, take it out of the bag, season it, and let it sit in the fridge overnight in a self draining pan. If you have your roasting pan, that will do.

Heritage birds are typically older breeds of bird that are leaner and more flavorful than your traditional store bought turkey, but for the price and inavailability of these birds in your area, they’re not the best idea. The extra five dollars per pound you spend on a turkey will not give your bird the clear cut advantage when serving it at the dinner table. When shopping for meat or wine, I ask people the question, and ask them to respond honestly: Can you tell the difference between a filet mignon and a good top sirloin steak in terms of quality? Does your palate know the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle? If in your mind, you answered no, save yourself the money and get yourself the less expensive option.

The Heritage Turkey

Want to do it all yourself? Get a brining kit, or find a recipe for a brine, buy a bag, a bucket, and get some water and a clear a large space in your fridge to let the turkey sit in your bucket overnight. Do not use your mop bucket.

Now, to thaw a turkey. If you get a frozen one, you’re going to need to take one day for every five pounds of bird weight to thaw it in the fridge. Do not thaw it in a tub, Don’t thaw it on the back porch if the temperature is going to get over 40 degrees. Fortunately in Chicago, the temperature today is perfect for thawing a turkey during the day. It sometimes dips below freezing at night, so it might not be the most favorable option, but it’s still viable.

Today is Friday. If you’ve got a monster frozen bird of 20 lbs. or above, pull it out of the freezer today to start thawing. Nothing promotes a dry, overcooked bird like a partially frozen turkey in the oven. The outside is firm and tough, and the inside, along the bone, is still pink. This is less than ideal, and for those who are eating, you must make sure that it is fully cooked and rested before you slice into it for service.

When your turkey is fully thawed or out of the bag, treat your bird like the hero centerpiece that it is, but first, remove the neck and/or giblets from the cavity and from between the breast. Boil them in about a quart of water with some holiday herbs, and you’ve got yourself a stock that you’ll use for the gravy later. Use the Peking Duck method of prepping, which is separating the skin from the meat. Just run your fingers between the breast meat and the skin covering the breast. This not only makes a pocket for putting little bits of flavor, such as herbs, sliced garlic or pats of butter, but also serves to give a little bit of room for the rendered fat from the skin to bubble and baste the breast meat. For those who have families who jump for the white meat, this is an important and imperative step that cannot be ignored.

Tuck the wings back behind the breast, so it looks casual and doesn’t leave anything flailing. This will stabilize the bird during cooking and carving, and also hold the neck skin in place as it cooks.

Like This. Ferris Bueller wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving.

If you want, put some sage leaves, sprigs of rosemary or chives underneath the skin, and arrange them in whatever pattern you like. It creates a nice effect on the finished bird. As you let it drain before cooking, you’ll notice that the skin shrinkwraps back to its original state around the breast, so nobody will be the wiser except you and your tastebuds.

Cooking the Turkey:

If you’re starting off by browning the skin, preheat your oven to 425°. If you want to brown the skin as the last step, preheat to 325° to 350°. If you want some aromatics in there, (and believe me, you do), rough chop a couple of carrots, some onions, and a few sprigs of parsley and thyme, tossed with a little bit of oil, salt and pepper. Place them in the bottom of your roasting pan, as they will also add to the complexity of your pan gravy. Oh yes, you will be making a pan gravy.

If you’re browning your turkey first, leave it in at 425 for about 30 minutes, then cut the heat down to 325. You want about 15-20 minutes per pound as a cooking time, so if you have a 15 pound turkey, you leave it in there for a minimum of 225 minutes, or 3 hours, 45 minutes. Most ovens aren’t the most even with their heating, so I recommend rotating the pan 180 degrees in the oven halfway through to make sure it’s even. Moreover, if you want a super delicious bird, but don’t care about how it looks, place the bird Breast side down. There is more fat in the dark meat, and it will roll down to further baste the breast during cooking. I don’t expect anyone to do this, but I’ve done it before, and it works out.

At this halfway point, you have decisions to make. How does the skin look? Is it dark? Is it crispy? Does it need more liquid? You can always have a cup of melted butter and broth whisked together on the side with which to brush the turkey. Straight broth doesn’t always help. It needs a little extra fat to stay moist and offer more crispness. If it is too dark, you can cover your bird for the last half of cooking. If it is not dark enough, baste it with some fat and put it back in.

Make sure you have a probe thermometer. These days, they’re found in almost any store directly across from the turkeys. It is a wise investment. Halfway through the cooking, check the temperature in two key places: directly inside the breastbone of the turkey, and between the leg and the breast meat. The first temperature check is to ensure that your breast will cook all the way down to the bone, and the second place is the last location that will cook on a bird. Most places say that you need the breast to temp out at 180°, but that will be overdone. Just give yourself a preliminary idea of where your meat is in its stages of cooking. With that, if it’s running a fever, don’t panic. Just let it ride for another hour, and check it again in the same basic place.

Fast forward an hour or so. If you’ve stuffed the bird, check the temperature of the stuffing in the center. It should read 165°. An in the bird stuffing can’t really be overcooked, because it will be basted by the juices from the bird. Since it is lubricated by turkey juice, it needs to register the 165° for safe food handling techniques as deemed appropriate by every food sanitation and safety class I’ve ever taken.

Check the breast meat temperature. Is it hot? 165-170° is sufficiently cooked, and since the beast is large, it will exhibit characteristics of carryover cooking after you pull it out of the oven and let it rest for twenty minutes. The internal temperature will continue to rise about ten degrees as it keeps cooking from the residual heat from the oven and roasting vessel.

Check the temperature between the thigh and the leg. Is it at least 165°? Okay, good. If carving at your house is not a huge production, you can easily separate the leg quarters from the breast by slicing between the joints, and returning the dark meat to the oven for another 20 minutes while the breast meat rests and absorbs the juices from cooking. You can also remove the stuffing if it isn’t temping out, put it in a casserole dish, and throw it in the oven for 20 minutes as well. It’ll still be moist and flavorful.

So, Carve your turkey from the bone into Breasts and Leg quarters, removing the wings. If the turkey is cooked all the way down to the bone and you leave a little bit on, you can still pick at it and put it in the pile on the side, or just take a couple of bites yourself, since you deserve a reward after cooking such a beautiful bird.

Now, what are you going to do with that dirty pan?

Remember from earlier, where I told you to make that giblet broth? Okay, some of you didn’t do that, but I hope you have some kind of broth available. You’re going to need about a quart of chicken broth.

Pour all the drippings from the pan through a strainer (to catch all the vegetables), into a bowl. There should be juice at the botton and some fat on top. Skim the fat off the top and put it back in your roasting pan. If your pan can’t go on the stove, scrape out all the bits from the bottom of the pan and throw it in the bottom of a heavy saucepan with this turkey fat. Turn it over low to medium heat and add a pat or two of butter. When the butter melts, start whisking in enough flour until it becomes a paste, like you’re making a roux. Let it simmer for a few minutes until it starts to bubble and brown just a bit. When this happens, start whisking in your broth 1/2 cup at a time. Depending on how thick you want your gravy, add less liquid for thicker, more for thinner, and keep in mind that the flour is your thickening agent, and with the heat, will do the thickening work for you.

When all your liquid is incorporated, let it come to a bubble and stir constantly for 4 to 5 minutes until desired consistency is achieved. Remove it from the heat, adjust your seasoning with salt and/or pepper, and pour it into your favorite gravy boat and sprinkle with fresh thyme. Congratulations! You have now made a great pan gravy!

I found a recipe that a friend of mine posted online. She has a hungry brood of kids, and this recipe for biscuits is a quick way to satisfy everyone’s appetites.

So far, I have mixed the dry ingredients, and in an hour or two, I’ll add the milk, roll out the dough, and pop these babies in the oven. Soon, we’ll have a bounty of fresh biscuits to enjoy.

***

From Crystal Bailly’s Biscuits Recipe:

I make my own self rising flour, it is super simple and makes really nice biscuits. 1 C of Flour

1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Mix well.

For the biscuits, I tend to make large batches because I have a small army of kids, and who doesn’t like biscuits? So..Preheat oven to 425

5 cups of the self rising flour

1 stick COLD butter ( real butter) or about 1/2 Cup vegetable shortening

Mix these in large bowl by hand, I use my finger to just break up the shortening and butter. This was the first time I used butter, and I left the pieces of butter about pea sized. They melted and helped make the layers I think. You can use just shortening, I do that a lot too and it works just fine.  Just mix with your fingers, squeezing the pieces until mixed well. You won’t feel any huge chunks, and the butter pieces will be bigger. Now add the milk. I just used 1% since that is what I have in the fridge. You can use buttermilk just as well I am guessing. 🙂 I didn’t measure this, sorry!  I use a large metal spoon and mix in enough milk so everything is moist but not soaking wet- Think wet playdough texture. Do not over mix! Now turn it out on to a floured countertop. It should still be wettish, and sticky.  I usually just fold it over on itself two or three times, maybe a few more. This folding in half helps with the layers too. Roll out to about 1/2 inch thick and cut however you want. Don’t twist the cutter though! They won’t rise as well.  I use a biscuit cutter, but use anything! Cook in middle of the oven until just light brown, they don’t take long, under 12 minutes I think, you can always split one in half to check for doneness.

EAT!

***

Okay, so I followed this recipe, and it’s easy. It’s so easy, in fact, that between 2 of us, we polished off a 1/2 batch (2 cups flour) of these biscuits. I made them small, and we had about 20 of them.

Guys, biscuits are good, and super simple to make. I don’t bake. At all. It’s easy, if you’re not a baker but really like food, to make these. For added flavor, you can add some cheese, or some fresh herbs. Maybe next time, I’ll try it out, but for right now, I’m going to sleep this batch off.

Did I mention how easy this was?

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The remaining biscuits. They rose!

In trying to figure out how to address what kind of things everyone wanted me to write, what people wanted me to include in these blog posts, it was a tradeoff between walking the traditional line and coming up with something a little bit different. A few times during the holidays, my mom has made these brussels sprouts with a lemon poppyseed dressing, and they turn out delicious. Without further comment, here is the recipe:

5 T. light olive oil
3 T. fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 t. poppy seeds
1 t. minced garlic
1/2 t. Dijon mustard
1/4 t. salt
pinch cayenne pepper
1 egg
8 carrots, sliced into 1/2 inch thick coins
1 lb. fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed (peel outer layer, slice X in the stalk)
1 T. chopped green onions (optional)

Whisk oil, lemon juice, poppy seeds, garlic, mustard, salt, and cayenne pepper together until well blended. Gently heat sauce over low heat until warm. In separate bowl, break and beat egg until homogenous. and whisk in the sauce a spoonful at a time to temper egg and prevent curdling.

Steam carrots and Brussels sprouts until tender-crisp; drain. Toss with sauce.
Serve hot or at room temperature, sprinkled with green onions. Serves 4-6.

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How To Prepare Green Beans

Green Beans are pretty simple. I like to keep them looking fresh and green, and this can be arranged by blanching them ahead of time, and quick finishing them right at service.

Get out your big pot. Fill it with a good amount of water so that when you drop your beans in it doesn’t slow the boil. Crank it to high, cover, and let it heat up while you prep the beans.

If the beans have the stems or strings, take them right off. Sure, it’s not that fun, but think of all the time you’re saving by doing this ahead! Eat your heart out, Clarence Birdseye*!

Think about how many people are eating. You want to do a serving forkful for each person. To count would be silly, but to estimate, it would be about 10-15 beans.

Grab a big bowl from your cabinet. Fill it with a lot of ice, and then cover the ice with water.

Next, heavily salt the now boiling water in your stockpot. You want to do it when the water’s boiling, because if you do it at the beginning, all you’ll be achieving is a thorough chemical scouring of your pot.

Toss a couple handfuls of beans in, and let them go for about a minute, until they become a deep, verdant green. When this happens, pull them out with a spider, slotted spoon or tongs, and plunge them immediately into your ice bath. This arrests the cooking process and temporarily preserves the fresh greenery of the chlorophyll blooming. No shabby canned beans for YOU this year. Oh, no.

If the water needs to get back up to a boil, let it, and add some more beans, blanching and shocking them in small batches until you have no more beans to cook. It is important that you have a lot of ice in the cold bath, because you want to stop the cooking process immediately. Add more if you must, because a giant bowl of beautiful green beans will go quickly, but a pile of limp and languid overcooked beans will sit untouched, or merely eaten out of obligation and not joy.

Once all your beans are blanched and shocked, fully cooled down, drain the water from your ice bath and put all your beans in a ziploc in the fridge until you’re ready to finish them. This can be achieved by a quick flash in the pan for a minute or two with some butter and almonds, or with a pat of butter, some shallot, and a bit of fresh thyme, pepper, and then covered for a minute with a splash of white wine to quick steam them.

There are many avenues to take after this. For a quick and delicious sauce, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a pan. Add equal parts flour and stir until it is absorbed into a paste. Cook it over medium heat for two to three minutes until it starts to smell nutty and begins to show signs that the flour will brown. When this happens, whisk in two cups of milk, a dash of nutmeg, a pinch or two of sage, and stir until the mixture bubbles and thickens, about two minutes. When this happens, add some shredded swiss cheese and incorporate it until it melts. Finish with black pepper and serve alongside the beans.

You know what I haven’t done? The absolute mainstays. The Classics. Here they are, unflinchingly mine, but tasting like yours.

Green Bean Casserole

So you’ve got your beans, right? Great. They’re blanched and shocked, waiting to be dressed. Here’s how to do your green bean casserole without any oven time.

Slice a carton of mushrooms. Dice one yellow onion. Put a pat of butter in a pan over medium heat, and let them sweat and cook down until the onions are translucent and the mushrooms are brown and shiny. They’ll release a lot of moisture. Season them with salt and pepper and remove half of the mixture from the pan, transferring to a bowl. To the bowl, add a carton of heavy cream and puree with the mushroom mix. When it is smooth, pour the cream mixture back in the pan with the mushrooms, and let it come to a bubbling boil. When it does, cut the heat to low and whisk in a tablespoon of flour. Keep stirring. The mixture will thicken. When it does, turn off the heat.

Put your beans in a serving dish. Pour the Mushroom cream over the beans and coat them with the mixture. Now, one thing that I refuse to compromise on is French-Fried Onions. I know they exist, but like so many other things such as French Fried Potatoes, Ketchup, Marshmallows, and a host of others, you never really appreciate them until you try to make them yourself.

Sidebar: French Fries? There’s a reason why we shouldn’t eat them every day. If we had to make them from scratch, there would be far fewer people with heart disease. To be done correctly, the intensive labor associated with making french fries is so high, and in small batches with such little reward, that if we were forced to make our own, most would make the conscious choice not to, because as a sedentary culture, we’re far too lazy. 

Wow. Sorry. I blacked out there for a moment. What were we talking about? French Fried Onions, yes. The onion that rarely exists in nature without a little elbow grease and a lot of vegetable grease. Just buy them. Buy a canister. There is nobody I know who has a book full of recipes that call for French Fried Onions. This dish is the only one. You can eat them once a year, on top of the beans. That’s it.

Open the can, and put some of those babies on top. Do you need to cook them? I don’t recall the strong desire to cook them. I think you don’t. I’m going to say no. No, you don’t.

Okay, great. You now have your green bean casserole.

Cranberry Sauce

Easiest thing ever. Go to cupboard. Open can. Plop can into dish. Put on table.

Dinner is served.

I know that canned cranberry sauce is a staple and a mainstay of many a holiday table, but since the cranberry is in season and so plentiful around the holidays, why not take advantage of fresh cranberries and make your own sauce? On every bag, and I do mean every bag, of fresh cranberries sold around the holidays, there is a recipe for cranberry sauce/dressing/etc. It most often consists of three things: Cranberries, sugar, and citrus.

The easiest thing to do, if you have a Food Processor, is to cut an orange into wedges. Do not peel it. Throw it in the food processor and pulse it until it becomes a pulp. Pour the macerated orange into a saucepan. Most recipes call for up to two cups of sugar, but that’s unreasonable. I tend to think they add that much to make it palatable to children. I say to add 1/4 to 1/3 cup, just enough to cover the orange matter with a short dusting.Whatever extra sweetness you need will come through with the citrus. Cover it with a half/cup of water. Stir to mix everything together, and turn the heat to medium high.  Boil the mixture or stir until all the sugar is dissolved from the heat. Add your bag of fresh cranberries and return to a boil. Turn it down and simmer for 10 minutes.

Now, you’ve got cranberry sauce.

*of the Frozen Foods Birdseyes, known as the father of Modern blanching/freezing techniques.

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