Thursday, November 26, 2009

you know what i'm going to miss tomorrow? this:

what, you can't see that? let's zoom in, shall we:

aye yai yai. i miss that dog.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

are you ready? (or, T Day minus 1)

are you a list maker? i am. i've got lists all over the place, tucked away in books and in piles on the coffee table (much to the boy's dismay). a few years ago when i discovered Google Docs, my life was transformed. i keep all kinds of random junk up there, lists of stuff to take camping, lists of things i want to do in life; but most importantly, this is where i keep an excel spreadsheet of all the Thanksgiving food that the boy and i have made in the past three years (you can read about our Thanksgivings past here and here and here).

on this spreadsheet i mark down the name of the dish, the source (which cookbook, website, what part of the boy's brain the recipe is stored in), and a high level of the ingredients list so that i can get an idea of what the grocery bill will be before heading to the store. this year i'm also logging a reverse countdown of when dishes need to start cooking - countdown begins around 4 or 5 pm (when we sit down to eat) and goes backwards to yesterday, when i started making a few things like cranberry sauce and pecan pie.

this system works for me. what works for you?

a few weeks ago, we splurged and bought one of those countertop convection ovens, and frankly i've no idea how i got through life without it. i mean, i really don't know how i got through all this marathon cooking in the past without something like that in my life. i could have really used that thing this past summer when running our regular oven was unthinkable because the heat would be intolerable. yesterday i successfully made my first pecan pie in it (used regular bake function, not convection - i was afraid the pie would turn out too browned before its time). for the record, pie crust and i are not friends. i've not had great success with it, but i also haven't been practicing as much as i should have. this time around i think i did okay. i think part of my problem is not having enough patience to deal with it. pie dough is very finicky, it likes to stay cold and not be manhandled. i started the dough last weekend and froze it until the day before yesterday, when i took it out and let it thaw in the fridge. i used a Cook's Illustrated recipe for partially cooked crust, which uses both butter and shortening. the true test will be tomorrow when i bite into it, but so far i think it turned out alright. i need to work on making pretty edges à la Martha Stewart, but this is a good first attempt.

you know what frightens me? most pecan pie recipes call for a cup of corn syrup. the idea of that makes my teeth ache. i found a recipe (Cook's Illustrated) that calls for 3/4 cup of it, but i also figured What the hell, it's Thanksgiving. i've done so well on this Detox Plan, a little glucose won't kill me. Yet.

pecan pie reminds me of my Dad. he used to make it every year when i was a kid, and i believe that the recipe he used was one found on the side of the bottle of Karo Syrup. i never much liked the stuff growing up. in fact, i'll be honest, i don't think i've ever eaten pecan pie before. i made this one in honor of our friend Ken who is from South Georgia. Ken told the boy that he loves pecan pie, so i made him one. i will say that i was pretty happy with myself when i tasted the batter; perhaps that missing quarter of a cup of corn syrup is the key. i think pecan pie and i can be friends.

incidentally, how do you pronounce "pecan"? seeing as this is Ken's pie, i am now pronouncing it "Pee Can" (the South Georgia way), but others pronounce it "P-Cahn". my mom calls it "Pay Can", so i grew up with a distorted way of saying it even though my dad is Southern by birth. which team are you on?

wishing you all a fantastic Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A blathering dissertation on ... well, I’m not quite sure what (or, T-Day minus 8)

So I’m sure you’re wondering, especially after that last post, how the whole Great Detox of 2009 is going. Why, thank you for asking! It’s going really well, and I’ve managed to drop a few pounds in the process (the whole working out 6 days a week thing helped the pound loss too). And that whole thing I droned on about regarding not depriving myself, well it’s true. I’m not depriving myself. For example, last Friday night, the boy and I went out to eat someplace swanky, and I had scallops crusted with a layer of Asiago cheese, fresh pasta bathing in a pepper cream sauce, WARM CHOCOLATE CAKE! WHIPPED CREAM! And three glasses of Veuve Cliquot (or was it four? Bah, who’s counting). I had a grand ol’ time. The boy was eating lobster tail and we both dared each other to “do” a shot of butter (the butter in the ramekin which accompanied his lobster). I might have bet him 5 bucks to do it (which he didn’t), and let me tell you I was nearly tempted myself. Alas, the butter stayed put in its wee little ramekin.

I know it sounds as though we are starving ourselves, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m eating roughly every 3 hours or so. Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. The snacks have been mostly good quality granola bars and fruit – I’ve eaten enough pears to fill a tree. Thank God for pear season, seriously. Those things are so good, I can’t get enough of them and I’ve been eating them daily (along with apples and bananas) for two months straight. Gone is the white rice, replaced by brown rice, which if you’ve never had it before, tastes a lot better than white. Gone are potatoes – for the most part. I made Brunswick stew the other night with some leftover smoked pork the boy made, and I did cut up a few red potatoes to toss in there, but not as many as I previously would have. I’ve become friendly with all the different squash varieties in the produce aisle, things I’d never heard of before. They beckon me from their bins, all shades of red and orange and brown and green. I treat them all as I would a butternut squash (perhaps boring, but this works for me). Peel (if I’m in the mood, sometimes I don’t peel). Chop into cubes. Toss on a baking sheet with salt, pepper, a handful of chopped herbs (whatever I have available, sage is always a safe bet), and a carefully measured out tablespoon of olive oil. If you’re worried that the oil amount won’t cover it all, toss with your ridiculously clean hands to ensure even coating, or even use a pastry brush. You can even toss in a couple of roughly chopped garlic cloves for a bonus burst of flavor. Bake at 350 or 375, depending on your mood, and test with a fork after a half an hour. It could take up to 45 minutes. You can smoosh these up into a purée, or you could toss in the blender with some stock and call it soup. Or you could serve as a side. It’s pretty damn tasty and very healthy.

So we’re not using butter in our cooking (except for that whole shot dare thing), and we’re not eating cheese, and I’m being very frugal in my doses of oils when sautéing anything. During every trip to our local friendly Kroger grocery store, I have to walk through the cheese department on the way to the produce; and do you know that blue cheese has a wee little pipsqueak voice? It does! You’d never know, seeing as it’s strong in flavor – you’d think it would be all bellowing at me. But it calls to me in its pipsqueak voice, and I ignore it. Because I know when I really want to eat some, I will. Just not right now. Everything in moderation.

Segue into Thanksgiving. Yes, I’m going to eat my Dad’s stuffing. Yes, I’m going to make a big humongous village- sized crème brulée. And pear caramel cheesecake! And DEEP FRIED TURKEY (oh, and a roasted one too, for good measure). and the most buttery, sour creamed, dairy-filled, smoothest mashed potatoes ever. And homemade yeast rolls. Like I’d mentioned in a previous post, part of why I’m doing this whole GD of 2009 is that we’re coming up on the Big Eatin’ holidays. And big eating is about to begin. So next Thursday we’re going to eat like pigs, and be thankful that we can do such a thing. Then we’ll be back to lighter food by the weekend. And I’ll send the boy to work with the remnants of Thanksgiving dessert to share with his people (best not to keep things like that around the house).

This exercise in moderation (or quality control, or quantity control, whatever you want to call it) has been eye opening in a way. It makes me appreciate all the foods that I am not indulging in, such as the taste of butter, or a good ice cream. I savor those flavors even more now that I’m not having them all the time. We took three hours over dinner on Friday; we could have taken less time, but we were totally enjoying the hell out of ourselves, taking pleasure in each and every bite of food. People always envy restaurant critics, but lately I’ve come to realize I could never have that job – I think that my appreciation of food in general would wane. Eating out wouldn’t be enjoyable anymore; it could become trite. I hope I never get to that point in my life.

the above squash, a mix of butternut and red kuri, were blended into tasty soup.

my dad's cornbread and pecan stuffing, or T minus 9 and counting

Recent phone conversation with my mom.

Me: so what are you and Dad doing for Thanksgiving?
Mom: we might go to Phoenix to see your brother... but, tu sais, I don’t think I weel go. Your brother, he wants to fry the teur-kee. (audible shuddering heard through the phone).
Me: what’s wrong with that? fried turkey is delicious.
Mom: mais, eets so fattening! eets greasy! Quelle horreur! Well no wonder you are fat, you eat that?
Me: yes and it’s not nearly as fattening as you think. If you deep fry something on super high temperature, the oils won’t seep through (enter into scientific monologue)...
Mom: (cuts me off) Non, mais, that ees wrong. Teur-kee is not fried! And where do yoo put the stuffeeng? Eet falls out. You cannot fry the stuffeeng, non?
Me: well, no it can’t be stuffed if you fry it. so just make the stuffing on the side.


Me: mom? Hello? Are you still there?
Mom: Mais... stuffeeng ees not made on the side! Stuffing is in the teur-kee! Mais, nobodee makes it on the side! Non, that’s it, I am not going to Phoenix.

I didn’t bother to tell her that for the last 9 years, I’ve been using my dad’s stuffing recipe and cooking it on the side as a dressing instead of in the bird. She already had a mental vision of me chowing down on a whole fried turkey by myself. I am currently the Golden Child, so I’ll milk that 15 minutes for all it’s worth.

I think what’s great about Thanksgiving as a whole is that everyone in the US celebrates it, no matter what other country they’re from. The Vietnamese ladies at the local nail salon I go to were only too eager to tell me about what they would be eating for Thanksgiving the last time I was there and asked them about it (I had a somewhat difficult time keeping up with their chatter though. Also, I found it interesting to note that their husbands or brothers did most of the cooking, daily or Thanksgiving or otherwise). My mom holds on to her French identity quite fiercely, but tends to abandon it somewhat come Thanksgiving. She once told a French-born cousin of mine that she needed to give the traditional Thanksgiving a chance. My cousin is somewhat anti-American, which makes total sense don’t you think, considering her husband makes a fantastic living making money in the US and they live quite lavishly in some swanky house in Palo Alto.

I find it interesting too that people like my mom, who is always on the up and up when it comes to gourmet foods in general, simply cannot fathom cooking the stuffing on the side rather than in the bird. She falls into that Old Guard of cooks, the ones who’ve been making their turkeys the same way since 1950 or 1960 (in the case of the boy’s grandmother, who’s been making hers the same way since WWII, and this year is no different). The side dishes have changed (my mom hasn’t served cranberry sauce from a can since I was a wee tot), but the turkey remains the same. There is something quite comforting about this. I’m all about traditions and have a few of my own, but I’m also all about trying new things. Although frankly, there isn’t anything new anymore about people cooking their stuffing on the side anymore.

This is my dad’s stuffing recipe, which I’ve adapted somewhat from the original because I’ve added a few ingredients (like apple) and switched out the breakfast sausage for andouille and bacon. I don’t use the turkey neck and the giblets like my dad does, nor do I shove the stuffing in the bird cavities. You can if you want to, though. I have no idea where the original recipe was taken from – I want to say one of those Time Life cookbook series that were popular in the early 1970s. My dad faxed me a copy of it with my mom’s scribblings in the margins, and over the years I’ve added my own scribblings.

You can make your own cornbread here, or use those packaged dried bits. They're going to get rehydrated anyway, so in the interest of time, they're not a bad choice to use. my personal preference is to do something in between. This is when those 80 cent packages of Jiffy brand corn muffin mix come in handy. make two packages of cornbread a couple of days before the Big Day and store whole in a zippy lock type bag until ready to crumble up into the stuffing.

Mr. Phillips’ cornbread and pecan stuffing

all this is to taste. you can add less or more of each item.

1 lb breakfast-type sausage, or if you want more of a kick, andouille sausage
couple strips of bacon cut up into bits
1 ½ cups chopped onions
½ cup chopped celery
3 to 5 cups of coarsely crumbled cornbread (start low, add as you go if you want - 5 cups seems like a lot to me)
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 chopped apple (Granny Smith holds up well)
¼ cup bourbon or whiskey or cognac or sherry
¼ cup chicken stock
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

1. In a large skillet, cook onions over medium-low heat with a pat of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, a teaspoon of sugar or brown sugar, stirring often. it will take a long while for them to caramelize, but you want that tasty good flavor, so start those and do something else in the meantime. when dark and browned and caramelized, remove from pan with a slotted spoon into a large bowl and start on sausage.

2. Remove sausage from casing and over medium heat, brown the sausage, breaking up with a fork and mashing the meat as you go. When no trace of pink is left, remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate. Discard most of the oil. You can use the same pan to cook a few strips of bacon or use another pan. When bacon is crispy, remove to paper towel-lined plate.

3. Discard most of the oil in the skillet, but leave some for cooking and flavor. Sauté the celery until soft. Remove from skillet and put in the large bowl.

4. Add the drained sausage and bacon, the pecans, apple, cornbread, bourbon, chicken stock, herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Mix gently. Taste to see if you need to add more of any herb or seasoning. If it's not moist enough, add a touch more chicken stock. If it's too moist, add more cornbread. Place the whole of this into a buttered casserole dish and bake on 375 for 30 to 45 minutes (depending on your oven) until nice and hot. If you're making this the day before, cook for 30 to 35 minutes, and reheat the next day. Toss it into the oven right when the turkey comes out until it's warmed through.