Sunday, November 28, 2010

Last of the Thanksgiving Recipes

This is our sixth year of cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and I think I am finally figuring out a few things. Sort of. Last year's potluck event with friends was the easiest ever, and I sure missed them this year when they were with family. But, the situation offered up a challenge. Is there a make-ahead Thanksgiving when one household is doing all the cooking?

Mostly, yes. While Wednesday was a lot of work, Thursday was free. Well, if "free" means housecleaning to you. Either way, the extra time on the holiday allowed me to remember such important hostess tidbits as "Is there enough toilet paper in the guest bathroom?"

Have to confess, I've messed that one up before.

Everything was prepped with minimal cooking. Even the mashed potatoes, which, a good friend and food editor explained to me, "restaurants make them ahead all the time!" Here's how:

Roasted Garlic, Parsnip and Potato Puree
2 entire heads of garlic, unpeeled and whole
1 tsp. olive oil
1.5 lbs. parsnips, peeled and cubed
3 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes, diced, no need to peel
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup lowfat milk
1/2 cup parmesan, grated fine
3 tbs. butter
1 bunch thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the root end off the garlic heads, drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Wrap in foil and roast for 40 minutes or until soft and golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Place the parsnips and potatoes in a steamer for 40 minutes, until fork tender. While that is going place the butter, milk and half and half into a sauce pan. Add the thyme and heat to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain over a large measuring cup, discarding the thyme.

Squeeze the garlic cloves out of the husk into the work bowl of a food processor. Add the parsnips and potatoes. Pulse as you drizzle the milk mixture until you get a nice smooth, thick result, but not a liquid puree. Scrape this into an oven-safe baking dish that looks nice also for serving. Cool, cover and store for the next day's feast.

One hour ahead of the meal, heat the oven to 350 degrees, reheat, covered for 40 minutes. Uncover and finish browning for 10 minutes. Of course, this requires a second oven, or a potluck event where someone else is doing the turkey. Alternatively, you can reheat these in a crock pot if you only have one oven. A bit of parmesan sprinkled on top before browning makes a great presentation, too.

This is also fantastic for Christmas when you may serve something like prime rib, roast or duck. Next post ... Turkey soup.

Book Giveaways!!!

I've been guilty of procrastinating ... usually not for three months! August's book winner is Sarah (St)! At Our Table is headed to her table! Finally.

For September, October and November I am making up some time here and doing three book giveaways! So, be sure you comment below to win since I will be doing three drawings. Odds are good, right? To enter, leave a comment below with your pick of the three and I will do my best to draw from the names for that book so you have a chance at your favorite.

Book giveaways are:

Roger Ebert's The Pot and How to Use It

If you know the backstory here, Ebert is a critic and writer who lost his lower jaw to cancer. He can no longer eat, yet he wrote this book based on his personal experiences pre-cancer when he was trying to regain his health, losing a significant amount of weight. The book's recipes are often healthy ones, based on what Ebert learned from nutrition experts along the way. The text began as a blog post, and still reads that way with reader comments and reader recipes included.

Human nature being what it is, we only truly appreciate things when we no longer have them. This facet gives a special insight to Ebert's journey as a food writer who can no longer eat. Backed by his Pulitzer Prize winning writing skills, this one is a good read, not just recipes.

The Good Neighbor Cookbook by Sara Quessenberry and Suzanne Schlosberg is the next giveaway this month. Take a moment to think about every cookie exchange, new baby, funeral, block party, and new move-in that happens around you. Or, do you not even know your neighbors and wish you did? This book cleverly organizes recipes around each type of event in the lives of your community and gives some insight into why each event is significant and why these recipes are a fit.

The food is comfort food, reminiscent of the classic dishes we've been taking covered to the house next door for years, with updated approach and more sophisticated flavors; Summer Corn Salad with Chiles, Lime and Feta for example, or Roasted Almond Chocolate Chip Cookies. Show up with a few of these and the neighbors may forget all about how bad your lawn looks.

Mary Englebreit's Fan Fare Cookbook ... 120 Slow Cooker Recipe Favorites
Finally, after I get done with the holiday cooking in December, I am probably going to need more time to work out and less time cooking. I've been eyeing the crock pot with new affection and interest in one-pot meals. Should you find yourself in the same mindset, you might find the easy comfort food in this book a great guide for the busy new year ahead.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Culinary Misadventures Redux

If I had to pick my favorite post for just plain fun, it would be this one I authored and am re-posting now ... Happy end of week before a Holiday! Tomorrow, look for a recipe for Roasted Garlic Mashed Parsnips and Potatoes.

I am not Tony Bourdain. There is no camera crew following me around the world filming my lunch special. I don’t have to suck it up for the viewing audience and eat raw baby seal. It’s a good thing, as Martha would say. It’s a really good thing.

Even so, I’ve managed to be adventurous enough in palate to consume an odd item or two along the way. I've shared pounded kava root with the chief of a Fijian village. Had sushi right off the boat, parasites and all. Tried everything from mountain oysters and sea urchin gonads to quite possibly road kill. I didn’t ask, the cook didn’t tell. Some of it was even tasty. Some.

An occasional culinary mishap is the price of admission for those willing to bite deeply into the Sandwich of Life. The trick is to know when to eat. And when to run. It’s good to be a fast learner.

I grew up in a rural area, as my spouse puts it, “So, this is where the UFOs land!” Folks out there are not opposed to doing a bit of hunting and gathering. Well, a lot, actually. Kids brought guns to my high school all of the time. They were in racks in the pickup windows. We had a whole taxidermy room in the biology class. I kept my lunch in the fridge with the "projects." Nothing says "Lunch!" quite like having to reach in past Sparky the Wonder Squirrel forever frozen in mid-flight over your PB&J.

No big surprise that the annual fundraiser for the Future Farmers of America Club was an event called the “Wildlife Supper.” The wildlife supper was cooked by all of the moms. There were always tons of pies and sheet cakes, potato salads, canned green beans, and, uh, wildlife. This pretty much included anything that could be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, or run over with a pickup. Sometimes all four.

The last year they hosted the fundraiser, I decided to get my Jed Clampett on and try some barbecued raccoon, and a side helping of possum. These were not good choices. This was my first lesson. While ‘coon is tolerable, if a bit gamy and stringy, possum tastes exactly like it smells. If you’ve never smelled a possum, then you should know that they smell just like they look. Even if you have seen a possum, this photo just says it all.

Like I said, it’s good to be a quick learner. However, even the most schooled of we culinary adventurers can be caught unprepared. A fellow foodie from work and I often head out for lunch to find new and different places to eat. This particular occasion, he had Cubans on his mind. Not the cigars, the sandwiches.

He’d spotted a new place near the Hispanic neighborhood downtown. It’s an area I love to go eat in, but one where I hate to park. The main lot is under a bridge, and usually inhabited by a huge flock of pigeons. The piles of pigeon dung are immense, and any time in the lot guarantees the need for a car wash and/or a shower. I dashed out of the car, hand over head, and ran for daylight. Funny thing, the pigeons were no where to be found, even though there was plenty of pigeon “evidence.”

It was a lovely summer day, high noon, outdoor seating and not a single other person in the tiny restaurant. Run. But J. was out for a Cuban, and the massive sign on the door advertised as such. Cuban it was. After scanning the menu repeatedly, I decided to ask what the special was.

“Guatamalen Tacos,” I was told. “It’s a specialty of my co-owner. His mother’s recipe.”

The sign is now flashing RUN, RUN, RUN AWAY. I ordered the tacos. Out they came, stale tostada chips with cabbage, carrots, onions, and what was supposed to be chicken. The meat was gray. I could not recall a single cooking method that produced gray chicken. Black chicken, pink chicken, raw chicken, but not gray chicken. It did not taste like chicken. I tried to place the flavor, this mildly pungent taste. Gamy like, like … a wildlife supper. Oh. My. I glanced over at the deserted roost under the bridge. Then I wondered, was I was eating The Other Gray Meat? No, couldn't be. Maybe it was just old chicken, that's why it was gray. Sure.

I just now did a Google search on the term Guatemala Taco. I can't type what I found. It's vile, worse than a Southpark marathon on late night cable. I wish I hadn’t looked. Oh, I wish I hadn’t. Run, run, run. Run, Lassie, get help, no, not the pigeons, Lassie! Lassieeee!!

So, now I know. More than I ever wanted to. I did find a reference to someone actually eating a real taco in Guatemala, and I am feeling a bit better. What would we do without this Internet thing? Not know the truth about Guatemalan tacos, for one.

I recovered from the incident. Well, as far as I know, we’ll see after the lab tests. The next adventure came along sooner than I had planned — the next day. I was ready this time. Queasy, perhaps, but ready.

It was Friday, a half day Friday. So, my husband and I went to an Asian furniture store that was having a closing sale. There was a lot of really interesting stuff in the store. Possibly the most interesting item was the store owner, who insisted on following us all around the place telling stories non-stop about life in Korea and visits to other parts of Asia. Every part of the store. Non-stop.

At one point, we were on the loading dock. The owner was going to show us something on a truck. As he tried to open the rusted lock, he groaned and grabbed his lower back. He then described his long-standing injury, in great detail.

The his voice got quiet, and his eyes got a bit wild. He looked around and came in close to us.Run, oh dear, sweet child, run.

“Ever hear of a Two-step Charlie?” he whispered. There was no one else on the dock. I do not know why he was whispering. “It’s a snake from Vietnam, if it bites you, you might live two more steps.” His eyes glowed, kind of like Kaa, the boa constricter in the cartoon Jungle Book. (Trusssst in meeee …) He ran off to the small, dingy bathroom where there was a cabinet. From this cabinet he pulled a gallon jar filled with cloudy liquid and a couple of filthy shot glasses from the back of the toilet tank. Run while you still can.

When the light hit the bottle, I saw floating in it a huge and very dead black snake. It had been dead for a long time, reminiscent of a 20-year-old dusty jar off the shelf in my old biology classroom.

“It’s snake wine!” the owner went on. “I drink it for my back pain. Just one little shot and I don’t feel a thing, the venom, you know. It’s diluted by the alcohol. You should try some!”

I eyed the grimy shot glasses in his hand. Frankly, I am not sure which scared me more, the glasses or the wine. I felt my leg muscles twitch violently. I had the car keys. I could make it. One-step back Charlie, two-steps back Charlie. I was leaving my spouse in closest reach of the owner. "Sorry, honey, it’s been a bad week with the tacos and all …”

Just then the owner dived back into the bathroom, jar in hand, thankfully. “Oh, if you think this one is potent …”

Oh, please, no. Please, please, no.

“The Albino Two-step Charlie is even more venomous!” Another cloudy jar of doom proffered. Another step toward the door. Quiet, quiet, so he doesn’t see … "trusssssst in meeee, jusssst in meeee ..." Oh, sweet Julia Child in heaven, no ... three-steps back Charlie.

“But, then, I could get into trouble for giving someone something so strong!” he gloated. Some kind of testimony to his bravery for drinking a decaying reptile carcass in grain alcohol. Hey, it’s not a worm, but, you go for it. I did. I ran. We ran. Politely, quickly, but we ran.

Back in the safety of the parking lot, my husband looks at me and says, “Hey, how about tacos for lunch?”

Oh, help me. Please, please, help me.

There were no tacos that day. It was all I could do to order the tamales wrapped in banana leaves. I was not packed for another culinary adventure. I was ready to sit home and eat a peanut butter sandwich. Although, peanut butter has been an adventure trip in and of itself lately what with the salmonella and all.

In fact, should you want to go new places and try unpronounceable, exotic ingredients, and risky meat substances, you need look no farther than the nearest drive-thru. Tires hum on the hot pavement. Windows down, Pink Floyd on the radio. Your adventure beckons like neon arches on a dark, deserted highway. You'd better runnnn, run, run, run ...

Opening Day: A Gatherer Goes Hunting

I am about to tread into controversial ground. In hunting boots.

Anytime you bring up “meat” in sustainable circles, that single word brings to mind a hundred issues. First, it is the least environmentally-friendly food group as we currently produce it, and is too often associated with food-borne pathogens as a result of factory farm and industrial-scale slaughter practices.

But beyond that is a deeper issue, a vestigial primal instinct within that perhaps we civilized humans would rather not acknowledge. Meat must come from an animal. That animal is killed to provide it. Consumers are too far removed from this fact. We don’t buy a cow. We buy sirloin in neat, sealed packages. Or, we get a double-cheeseburger in a box through a window.

How would we feel about meat if it were not so easy? What if the first step in that roast recipe was "Pull the trigger?" I decided to find out for myself.

Well, not all by myself. Each year, millions of hunting permits are issued, and 16 percent of those are now issued to women — a 72 percent rise in women hunters overall. Many of those women are taking to the woods not for a trophy — despite the novelty I would enjoy of finally having a “nice rack” — but to feed their families during a tough economy.

While hunting isn’t sustainable as a food source for every household in our nation, it is an important activity for the overall management of the deer population. With the reduction of natural predators, the deer population has risen from an estimated 500,000 nationwide in the 1900s to 25 to 30 million currently. Deer overgraze on young trees, reducing habitat for other species and cause deforestation.

Each year, the overpopulation of deer cause hundreds of millions in damage to agriculture crops, $60 million in New York state alone, and an estimate $750 million to the timber industry nationwide as well. Without enough habitat, deer end up living in close proximity to populated areas, resulting in 1.5 million “car vs. deer” accidents yearly. A current program in my own state opened up hunting in a local park due to fears that the overpopulation of deer — an estimated 200 per square mile — would result in a significant spread of Lyme disease.

Armed with these statistics to bolster my conscience, and a .30-30, I headed to the woods with two friends, both seasoned hunters, and both very patient with a novice. Deer hunting is not that easy, actually. You can invest days of time and end up eating mac-and-cheese if you were counting on venison. Or, in earlier days, going without.

My friend had spent hours scouting on his land, putting up deer stands, even planting milo and fruit trees to feed the deer for the coming harvest. Compared to the lifestyle of feedlot beef, these deer have it far better — and are killed more humanely by a skilled hunter.

Skill being the operative word. If you are born after 1966, you are not required by law to take a firearm safety course in order to get a hunting license, even though you should. This is a good idea not just for the deer, but your fellow hunters. As a matter of conscience, you should also know how to aim the rifle and shoot well for the least suffering of the animal. This means time to practice.

You are also required to know the laws in your state that determine the size and sex of deer you are allowed to shoot. It may seem ironic, but all the hunters that I know are advocates for conservation of wildlife. Hunting license fees are also a major source of revenue for each state’s conservation department.

And, you are required to get up way before dawn and freeze your butt off in a deer stand for hours, days even. All in hopes of that moment when you hear the crashing in the woods of a large buck, your heart pounds, you check to see if he is of legal size, yep, you raise the gun and aim, contemplate this moment of life and death, then wonder, “Did we remember at 4 a.m. to put a round in the chamber?”

Then, your moment is gone and so is the deer. And, you end up firing that round off trying to put your old school .30-30 back on safety. No deer, but I sure did nail that tree branch below. I just don’t know how to cook it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thanksgiving: Ginger Pear and Cranberry Tart

I have a little tradition of my very own that is centered around Thanksgiving. Each year, I try to make one unique dessert. The tradition started with the Vanilla Sweet Potato Pie with Brown Sugar Pecan crust and keeps evolving. I've not yet done a pumpkin dessert. Crazy, huh? This year's dessert, I taking the cranberries off the menu as a side dish and putting them in the dessert course. Also, adding pears. A fall harvest? Why do apple and pumpkin and pecan get all the love? So, pears it is.

Ginger Pear and Cranberry Tart
For Crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup almonds
3 tbs. sugar
1 tbs. candied ginger
1 stick butter
1/3 cup cake flour (not self-rising)
1/2 tsp. Salt
4-5 tbs. Ice water

For Filling:
8-10 red pears, peeled, cored and sliced
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 tsp. ground anise
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tbs. candied ginger
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out with back of knife
1/4 tsp. Salt

For the crust, put the almonds in food processor and pulse to chop fine. Add the flours, candied ginger, salt and sugar to the food processor next and pulse to combine. Add cold butter one tablespoon at a time and pulse a few times until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add ice water one tablespoon at a time and pulse just until dough starts to come together. You may not need all the ice water. Less water is best. Try not to overmix. Gather dough into a ball and flatten into a flat disk. Cover in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour and up to a day.

Roll the dough out between sheets of plastic wrap to about a 14-inch round. Peel off top layer of wrap and then invert dough into tart dish, remove wrap. Trim the edges to fit. Cover crust with plastic wrap. Place dish with crust in the refrigerator to chill while you make filling.

Place rack in bottom third of the oven. Preheat oven to 400°F.

Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Very important if you like this pan and do not like scrubbing. Add the sliced pears, 1/2 cup sugar and the candied ginger and toss to combine. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 1-1/2 hours. You will need to check this and turn the pears every 20-30 minutes. You will also wonder, "How will all those pears fit in one tart?" They cook down. A lot. When done, they will be just golden on the edges and the sugar will be syrupy.

Remove from oven and allow to cool. Leave the oven on. In a bowl, combine the cranberries, spices, vanilla bean seeds and salt. Add the cooled pears and what syrup spoons up with them from the baking sheet. You may have some syrup left on the baking sheet, and this is fine. Save it for pancakes. Really.

Toss the filling mixture gently so the pears don't fall apart. Then arrange it in the chilled tart shell. Bake at 400, in the lower third of the oven for about 50-55 minutes, or until the tart dough is just golden brown. Allow to cool to nearly room temperature before serving. You may also make ahead through the baking and put back in the fridge to chill. Then, bake in the oven while everyone is eating (and getting seconds).

This is over the top with some type of alcohol-infused whipped cream. But, vanilla bean gelato works just great by me, and who needs another dish to prepare?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's on for Thanksgiving?

Honestly, things are still a bit undetermined around my house for the holiday. But, I have plenty of recipes to choose from for the holiday menu. Can you tell Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday?

Here's a list of favorites that I have made the last two years:

Brined. Definitely. Now, keep in mind we get a pastured bird, one that has not been injected with salt water like many familiar grocery store turkeys. If your bird has been injected, no need to brine since this will not work. The spouse has Turkey Duty.

Yep, salad is a must since I found local sources for my greens for Thanksgiving. Here's some favorites that we've served for the holidays.

The Sauce

The Green Vegetable

Sweet Potatoes


Also, I love the Serious Eats recipe sharing going on now in their Thanksgiving section. It makes me want to do a whole new menu all over again!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

School Lunch: Healthier Chicken Nuggets

Ali and I are taking a look at school lunch and some tips for packing a decent lunch and dealing with the "competitive" foods offered at school. If your school menus look like the ones I deal with, there's a whole lot of nuggets in the mix.

Ali deals with a far more picky eater than I do, and if you are having serious food battles, you should check out her post. As for the school lunch wars around here, it's mostly a fight to keep the ground we've gained toward raising a healthier eater and not losing our hard won turf to the lure of the school cafeteria with nuggets and pizza for main courses. Chips and Cheetos, chocolate milk and even ice cream as USDA-acceptable sides.

Here's a healthier, homemade version from our book:

Golden Crisp Chicken Nuggets
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1-1/2 pounds)
2 tbs. plain whole milk yogurt
1 egg, beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs (you can use Italian-seasoned for flavor)
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tsp. dried Italian herb blend or Pizza Seasoning (
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut the chicken into nugget size pieces.

Mix the egg and yogurt together in a shallow dish. Place another shallow dish next to it with the breadcrumbs, panko, grated cheese, herbs and seasoning. Keep one hand for the "wet" hand and one for the "dry." Mix the chicken in the egg-yogurt mix, then using the "wet" hand, move pieces to the breading mix. Use your dry hand to sprinkle the crumbs over the top and turn to coat each piece well.

Repeat, placing the battered nuggets on a baking sheet. If you have ever crossed up your wet and dry hands, you'll know it — your fingers will be well coated!

Bake the nuggets on a cookie sheet for about 25 minutes, or until the internal temperature at the center of your thickest nugget is 180 degrees. Don't over bake.

So, why plain yogurt? Some of the best, real fried chicken starts with a soak in buttermilk to give the chicken that bit of tangy goodness. Yogurt has a similar flavor, but a thicker texture that will help this baked version hold onto the crumb mixture. The panko is a light and crisp breading, it gives the nugget that great crunch that you normally don't get with baked versions.