Sunday, November 18, 2007

Alton Brown's Turkey

A few years ago, we had (temporarily, it turns out) trimmed down the number of people at Abe's family's Thanksgiving meal. Where we usually have a crowd numbering about 30 or so, on this particular year, there would be only about 8. My mother-in-law usually makes the turkey, but her oven had been unreliable for a few years and was finally kaput and awaiting replacement, so because our number was so small, the task automatically fell to me.

I've cooked a good many things in my life, but up until that point, a Thanksgiving Turkey wasn't one of them. Needless to say, I was glad to know that if I wrecked it or dried it out past the point of palatable, very few people would be affected. Even so, I know the reception that dry turkey receives (not good, not good at all), and I figured that if we were going to spend that much time and money preparing a big bird for this feast, it may as well be really good. So I studied up. Boy, howdy, did I study.

I watched hours of Thanksgiving-related shows on the Food Network, scoured cooking magazines and websites for helpful hints, and I can honestly tell you that one TV special--Alton Brown's "Romancing the Bird"--and its turkey recipe changed my life. I followed all of his instructions to the letter, except for the brining, even investing in a digital cooking thermometer with an alarm on it.

The results were astonishing.

It felt as if it had been years since I'd had a piece of turkey I had enjoyed, and now, here was a 30-pounder (I know) that I could enjoy every morsel of! It was tender, it was flavorful, it was juicy . . . it was good eats. Good work, Alton.

After all was said and eaten, here's what I think helps make Alton's turkey great: 1) the aromatics, which not only keep the cavity from drying out, but also impart a wonderful flavor to the meat, and, most importantly, 2) the thermometer. With this thermometer (mine cost $10), you insert the probe into whatever meat you're cooking (turkey, in this case), set the alarm to go off when the meat has reached a desired temperature, and walk away. Never, ever, ever trust a pop-up timer that comes with a turkey--they will almost always cause you to dry out your turkey. With this digital thermometer, there's no chance that your turkey will get overly done. It will be perfect--moist and juicy every time.

There's also the fact of the resting. Give your turkey a good half hour to rest out of the oven before you carve into him--that way he'll retain all of his juices and stay moist. Don't worry that he will get cold; there's plenty of mass there to keep him piping hot.

This year, I plan to give brining a try. I hear it makes a remarkable difference in the flavor and juiciness of the bird. And I figure, if Alton's recipe is as good as it is without the brine, it will be even better with it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving! And if you're cooking the turkey this year, definitely invest in a digital thermometer with alarm--you will wonder how you ever made a turkey without one!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Pineapple-Almond Rice Pilaf

This recipe was born of necessity one night when I was making Hawaiian Ham Steak. What goes with Hawaiian Ham Steak? I thought. Not noodles. Not mashed potatoes. Maybe au gratin potatoes, but we eat so many potatoes as is; we need a rice dish.

Well, I have this leftover pineapple. And I love rice pilaf . . . how can I make this work?

I found a recipe for "Rice Baked in Chicken Stock" in The Joy of Cooking and modified it a bit so it would use up the remaining pineapple and also include almonds (just 'cause I love 'em.). This recipe is very easy, and mostly hands-off, once you get past the browning part. It's prefect with the Ham because its flavors won't overwhelm the Ham and complement it very nicely; also, you can begin preparing it, and in the time it's finishing in the oven, you can put together the ham dish. Nice!

Pineapple-Almond Rice Pilaf

1/2 c. chopped onion
1/2 c. slivered almonds
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) butter or margarine
1/2 lg. can pineapple chunks, drained; quarter the chunks
1 1/4 c. uncooked long grain rice
2 1/2 c. chicken broth or stock
2 Tbsp. dried parsley
2 Tbsp. melted butter (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a heavy, lidded saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, rice and almonds to the butter and saute until onions are translucent and the rice and almonds are beginning to toast. Add pineapple, and stir to combine. Then add chicken stock and parsley, stir to combine, and cover with lid.

Place in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand a few minutes before you remove the lid. Then stir in melted butter (optional, of course), and serve alongside the ham, pineapple, and glaze.

Pilaf serves 4-6 as a side dish.

"Hawaiian" Ham Steak

There are certain things you can be sure of, when you're approaching a new dish: Whenever you see the phrase "French" vanilla on your ice cream, you know that it has eggs in it. Likewise, call anything "Florentine," and it will undoubtedly include spinach. That's the way it is with "Hawaiian"--its inclusion in the name of anything usually means that there's pineapple in it somewhere. Do Hawaiians have a corner on pineapple? So Florence-ians (or whatever they're called) have a corner on spinach? Are the French the only ones who use eggs in ice cream? Hardly. These are culinary stereotypes, people. Culinary stereotypes I will now perpetuate.

My apologies to any Hawaiians I might offend in the process.

One rainy, fall day, I was trying to think of what to make for dinner when our house was STRUCK BY LIGHTNING! The house was fine, but when the bolt struck, I was touching ham with one hand and a can of pineapple chunks with the other. The jolt ran a current through me from the ham to the pineapple, I had a moment of supreme clarity, and this dish was born!

Not really. There isn't much back story to this dish; I don't even remember when I started making it. But it's so (embarrassingly) easy and so (surprisingly) good, I have to share it with you. So here's all the back story I've got: I thought ham and pineapple with a brown sugar glaze sounded tasty, and slightly tropical, but didn't want to prepare an entire ham, so I found these Ham Steaks and hawaiianized them.

Sorry, Hawaii, if this really has nothing to do with you, but it was a tasty dish and needed a name, and besides, it had pineapple in it, so my hands were tied. Here's my simple recipe for

Hawaiian Ham Steak
approximate time: 10 minutes

1 lg (1lb. or greater) bone-in ham steak
1 lg. can pineapple chunks, drained, divided, juice reserved
2 Tbsp. brown sugar

Preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly score the fat around the ham steak to prevent curling, and place in the pan. Brown on each side, about 1-2 minutes.

Drain the pineapple chunks, reserving the juice, and quarter the chunks (or, alternately, you could buy the giant can of Dole Pineapple Tidbits and skip the quartering.). Toss half of the pineapple bits into the pan, still over medium-high heat, until they start to brown and caramelize a bit. Then add all of the juice and the brown sugar to deglaze the pan, and whisk to combine. Allow mixture to come to a boil and reduce slightly, then add the ham back into the pan until it is warmed through. (Save the other half of the pineapple bits to make Pineapple-Almond Rice Pilaf, a great accompaniment)

Cut the ham into sections (removing the bone) and serve with the caramelized pineapple. Drizzle with the sauce, and say Aloha to great flavor!

Serves 2-3.

Maple-Sesame Bacon Fried Rice

I hate to say it. I really do. But at the risk of sounding like a cheesy broken record, I was sure I'd hate this dish when I first heard about it. It's fried rice, but it sounds like breakfast: eggs, bacon, maple syrup. When I think of fried rice, I don't think of waffles. I was sure this would just be strange.

Sigh. But if you've read posts of mine before, you know the ending: I loved it. Of course. How predictable. One of these days (maybe even later today) I'll post a recipe that I was sure I'd love . . . and did.

This recipe originated (in my life, anyway) with my mother-in-law. For years, my in-laws tapped sugar maple trees and had the sap boiled down into syrup, which they then sold. It was quite an operation: they would work out a system with their neighbors wherein they'd tap their trees, and in exchange for this privilege, they'd give the homeowners a share of the syrup. Each tree would be drilled several times and have surgical tubing inserted for the sap to run through, then the tubing would run over to a central barrel which would collect the sap. Then, every day or so, someone in Abe's family would come along with a truck with a massive collection tank on it, and use a pump to empty out the barrels. Then, the sap would be delivered to a man who ran a syrup-making operation. He'd process and bottle the syrup for them, then they'd collect it and sell to others. In fact, one of my first dates with their son was an afternoon of collecting sap from all the trees in the neighborhood and taking a tour of the syrup-making building. It was a grown-up field trip.

So as you can imagine, they're all about maple syrup in their household. His dad will pour it over ice cream, drink it in coffee, even use it to sweeten water for drinking. Still, I thought using it in Chinese food was a stretch. When I saw Nancy pouring it over rice and celery, I thought she was nuts. But then I ate it . . . and ate some more. And, man--it was different, but in a really good way. Really good.

I've made a few modifications to her original recipe to (marginally) up the nutrition- and Asian-quotient. I know it will still sound strange when you read the list of ingredients, but it's delicious! Give it a try!

Maple-Sesame Bacon Fried Rice

4-5 c. cooked rice (preferably made the day before)
4 eggs, scrambled
3 ribs celery, diced finely
1 c. minced onion
9 strips of bacon (but I've used more on occasion), 3 Tbsp. rendered fat reserved
1/2-2/3 c. frozen peas
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
3 Tbsp. maple syrup
1 1/2-2 tsp. soy sauce

Fry up bacon in large frying pan until almost crisp and fat is mostly rendered. Remove bacon from pan to drain and cool, and reserve 3 Tbsp. of the rendered fat. (if it hasn't rendered that much, add a little vegetable oil to the pan to make approx. 3 Tbsp. of fat to fry in.) When the bacon is cool, chop it up into pretty small pieces--larger than bacon bits, smaller than slices. Simultaneously, scramble the eggs (I do this in a separate pan, but you could also do it in the hot pan with the other stuff--that's up to you.).

To the pan (and the 3 Tbsp. fat), add the celery and onion, and saute over medium heat until the celery is beginning to get tender. Then add the rice, bacon, scrambled eggs, and peas. Up the heat to medium high, and start stirring.

In a small bowl, whisk together the sesame oil, maple syrup, and soy sauce. Drizzle over the warm rice mixture and stir to combine.

You can be the judge of when it's done--make it piping hot and a bit crispy, or just warm it all the way through. Either way, just make sure the peas are thawed and warm. Then enjoy!

Serves 4-6.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Menu-Plan Monday

Well, folks, I wasn't able to write down my recipes next week, so Soup Week will be postponed until I can get those done. In the meantime, here's this week's menu. I will post several of the menu recipes this week!

Potato Wedges

Steakhouse Salad

Maple-Sesame Fried Rice with Bacon
Egg Rolls

Tomato Soup
Grilled Cheese

Hawaiian Ham Steak
Pineapple-Almond Rice Pilaf

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shepherd's Pie and Garlic Smashed Potatoes

Ask my mother what my favorite food is. Go ahead, ask her.

I'll wait.

Mashed potatoes, right? Does she know me, or what? I could eat mashed potatoes almost daily. In fact, I could definitely eat potatoes daily (and I'm sure my husband feels that we do, some weeks), whether they be au gratin, fried, roasted, baked . . . but always and especially mashed. Creamy, hearty, filling, soul-satisfying, and loaded with carbs, mashed potatoes have everything I look for in a food.

So when I met this dish called Shepherd's Pie (in St. Croix, USVI, of all places), whose base is ground beef, gravy, and corn and whose top is--wonder of wonders!--a sheet of fluffy mashed potatoes, I was immediately enamored of it and needed it in my life as a permanent fixture. I guess you could say I enjoyed it.

I then did what any beef/corn/mashed potato-obsessed person would do: I went straight home and re-created the recipe. Now, a disclaimer: this is not authentic Shepherd's Pie. So if you're British and your Mum made this dish for you growing up, you'd better get the recipe from her, because this is definitely an American knock-off, and it probably won't cut it for you. Real Shepherd's Pie has lamb; this does not, because I only eat lamb at the occasional passover or when I'm on a missions trip in the Faroe Islands. And most Shepherd's Pie recipes call for a tomato product in the base, but I don't enjoy the tomato/potato combination, so I leave that one alone. So forgive me for straying so far from the original, but whatever you call it, this casserole is scrumptious, low-brow, and most importantly, easy to prepare.

Below, I've posted three recipes: one for the Original Shepherd's Pie (a la St. Croix), one for Skillet Shepherd's Pie, and one for good old Garlic Smashed Potatoes. Enjoy!

Original Shepherd's Pie

1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lg. sweet onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced finely (optional)
1 1/2 c. frozen corn (or peas, or a mixture of both)
1 envelope brown gravy mix (two if you like it really saucy; in that case, double the water, and bump the thyme up to 3/4 tsp.!)
1 c. cold water
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
ground black pepper to taste
4 cups prepared mashed potatoes

Preheat oven to 375.

Brown ground beef. Add onion and garlic and saute over medium-low heat until onion is soft; drain.

Push the beef off to one side of the pan. To the pan, add the brown gravy mix, water, thyme, and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer for a minute or two, until the gravy thickens.

Spread the beef and gravy evenly in the bottom of a casserole dish. Sprinkle the corn uniformly over top of that, and gently spread the mashed potatoes over top of the corn. Dot the top with small bits of butter and sprinkle with paprika. Bake for 35 minutes or until the top is as golden brown as you like it. Then stick your head in it like Mama's Little Piggy and enter a coma of bliss!

Serves 4-6.

Shepherd's Pie Skillet

(see above ingredients)

Prepare ground beef, onion, garlic, and gravy as in the original, but add the frozen vegetables directly to the skillet with the beef and gravy and let simmer for 3-5 minutes. Skip the oven altogether and serve over a big pile of mashed potatoes.

Serves 4-6.

Garlic Smashed Potatoes

6-7 lg. russet potatoes
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 Tbsp. butter, sliced
1/2 c. warm milk (microwave at medium power for 40 seconds or so)
1/4 c. sour cream
Black pepper

Scrub potatoes thoroughly and chop into roughly 1-in. cubes. Do not peel unless you are motivated to do so--I am most certainly not. Place in a large sauce pan with your chopped garlic and just cover with water. Place over medium high heat. When the potato pot comes to a boil, add a tablespoon or two of salt to the water. Cook potatoes until easily pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.

Drain well; add potatoes and garlic back to the hot pan and wait 30 seconds or so for some of the moisture to evaporate. Add butter to potatoes, and mash away with your potato masher until they are as lump-free as you like them. (We like them fairly lumpy at our house.) Gradually stir in milk until the potato/garlic mixture is almost moistened enough. (Leave them a little bit stiff and dry, because you're going to add the sour cream next, and you don't want them to end up soupy. You can always add more milk later if the sour cream doesn't get your potatoes to your desired level of creaminess, okay?) Add the sour cream, and stir to distribute it well. Season with pepper to taste.

Serves 6 as a side dish.
(Try these potatoes topped with French's French Fried Onions--delicious!)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Menu-Plan Monday

Happy Monday, all! This week is supposed to be cold in our neck of the woods. Yay! More soul-warming comfort food! Coming up this week, look for my recipe for easy Shepherds' Pie and an even faster skillet version for busy nights!

Next week, I will be doing a series of posts on soups (my favorite!). I originally thought this week would be a good Soup Series week, until I realized that I have never written down accurate recipes for some of the soups I make most often. I just throw stuff in until it tastes right, which is not super helpful when other people ask for the recipe. So this week, you'll find said soups on the menu--I plan to make them and record once and for all exactly what I put in them and the process involved.

In the meantime, here's this week's menu!

Shepherd's Pie

Chicken and Broccoli Alfredo

Western Ribs
Mac and Cheese
Steamed Peas

Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

Taco Soup

Choir Retreat--Family Fends for Itself --Film at Eleven

Mama will be out of town with friends! Yay!