Kitchen Disasters R Us

It occurred to me the other night – as I frantically scoured out one of my favorite saucepans while flapping at the smoke alarm with a tea towel – that things in the kitchen don’t always go to plan.

burningkitchen
Please note – no kitchens were harmed in the making of this stock photo.

What had gone wrong? Well, I had been making mashed potatoes for myself in my new favorite manner, which is to simmer them in a bit of milk, and then use that milk for the mashing liquid. It takes a bit longer for the potatoes to cook but you lose none of the potato flavor to water, and you’ve already got hot potato-rich milk for the mashing.  Add butter, and it’s a great no-draining method for mash just so long as you don’t get distracted by the TV as they’re simmering.

Which, of course, I did.

Continue reading “Kitchen Disasters R Us”

Lessons Learned From Holiday Cooking

It’s a funny thing: while I’ve cooked the Thanksgiving meal more times than I can actually remember, it’s actually been a long while since I last cooked a proper Christmas dinner.

For years my sister and I had a tradeoff whereby I’d cook Thanksgiving dinner and she’d cook the Christmas lunch. After that, Christmas Day usually found me volunteering, or a guest at another meal, or just relaxing with a mince pie or twelve on my own, which can sometimes be all you want to do on Christmas Day if you’re working either side of it. The cumulative result of all those years; the tradeoffs, the working, and a heck of a lot of turkeys, has been that Christmas has been a holiday that- at least as a foodie- I generally let pass by.

But this year was different. This year I had a dear friend visiting from New York (expecting a full-on traditional British Crimbo feast), as well as a flatmate and a stray workmate who needed a Christmas Dinner to make up for the one that work was keeping them from. So for the first time in perhaps a decade, I would have to don my elf (not ready for chef) hat and make like the Spirit Of Christmas Dinner. Now lest you think that I write this in the spirit of self pity, let me assure you  that instead I found the challenge (for the most part) completely exciting. Not least because I could finally cook a goose, and also help make bread!

bread_and_goose

But cooking for Christmas isn’t just for the day itself; if you’ve got guests and such, it’s also cooking for Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve, and dealing with the leftovers that result. Also, as I learned, it’s about baking. Because if ever there’s a time of year to get out the rolling pin and the cookie cutters, this was it.

So I learned a great deal cooking, baking, and watching others bake over this past Holiday season. While I apologise for the length of time it’s taken for all I learned to settle in, I’d like to share what I learned with you. After all, with February upon us, who doesn’t want to be reminded of why we are currently fasting and not feasting? And rather than apologise for the length of a single post, I have broken it up into a multi-part series

  • flourymessLesson 1. Fear Not The Flour: I have an aversion to flour that borders on the phobic … ask me to open a bag of flour and I begin to twitch. (Read the whole post)
  • Lesson 2. Gird Fast Against Goose Fat: For lo these many years I had wanted desperately to cook a goose for Christmas dinner. I had read up on it, and had even assisted in the cooking of a goose previously. But however excited I was to prepare and cook this truly traditional British Christmas bird … (Read the whole post)
  • Lesson 3. Salad Not The Salmon: Really, it was a salad but as long as I didn’t call it a salad it went down a treat. (Read the whole post – with recipe!)
  • Lesson 4. Observe The Oven: It’s as traditional for the British to set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve as it is for them to smoke foodstuffs the rest of the year. This New Year’s I dang near managed both. (Read the whole post – with recipe!)

Holiday Cooking Lesson 4: Observe The Oven

It’s as traditional for the British to set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve as it is for them to smoke foodstuffs the rest of the year. This New Year’s I dang near managed both.

That wretched goose fat, you see, had managed to drip all over my oven during one of the many lypo-removal processes during Christmas Day. Although I had momentarily thought “Gee Patrick, best clean that up soonish or there’ll be a conflagration later”, the ongoing festivities during the Holiday week and sent the state of my oven spinning from my mind.

I was feeling a tad smug on New Year’s Eve. There were only three of us for dinner (myself, Pamela, and that non-leaf eater Natalie) so I had planned a simple roast chicken Othello for dinner, alongside some glazed carrots and and another rather special side instead of stuffing. All very simple, easy to prepare, and ready to just chuck in the oven.

Unless, that is, you’re having a glass of wine or two in the lounge as the oven heats up, and all three of you begin to question why your eyes are watering.

ovenfireAs I got up from my seat to investigate, my mind immediately returned to Irwin Allen. There was a definite haze in the air; a haze that smelled rather distinctly of goose fat. A trip to the kitchen instantly confirmed my fears. I had forgotten to clean the oven and now it had turned into the kind of high-performance smoker that would very shortly kipper anyone within a two mile radius.

Most people have long since finished dinner by midnight on New Year’s Eve. We were barely scraping our plates by the time the chimed tolled. This was entirely because I had to turn the oven off, wait for it to cool down entirely, and then give it a thorough cleaning and rinsing before I could get the New Year’s dinner back on track. Never in my life have I been so relieved to, instead of hosting a formal dinner for 10, be hosting a dinner for three so informal that the dress code was onesies.

And at least I started the New year with a clean oven.

Now the goose fat in the oven was not the only potential source of conflagrations that night. There remained the second loaf of Challah bread that Pamela had baked so beautifully on Christmas Eve. We had eaten the majority of the first loaf on Christmas Day, and the remaining stub had proved to go very nicely with my beloved Marmite for breakfast on Boxing Day. But that second loaf had remained, and been a bit of a sore topic. On more than one occasion Pamela had pointed out, with a meaningful glint in her eye, how well Challah serves as French toast. But glint though she might, she had happened upon a somewhat immovable object.

I happen to dislike French toast.

It’s true. I’m also not a huge fan of bread pudding, particularly if it has raisins in it. I’m not entirely sure why this is, other I’ve come to believe that a sweet custard should be poured over, rather than soaked into, desserts. And anyway the French name, Pain Perdu, always seemed to indicate precisely my feelings when faced with this particular breakfast entree.

Besides, I had something far more savoury in mind for that second loaf of Challah. I’ve always been intrigued by strata. I’m not speaking here of matters geological, but rather those savoury bread puddings that are becoming very popular brunch dishes. One thing I dislike about a sweet bread pudding is the lack of textural contrast, and another is the singular flavor not. With a strata, however, you get bacon, or mushrooms, or whatever you fancy in a one dish meal that will round out flavors and add extra texture and variety. So why not apply that idea to a side dish to accompany a roast chicken? It could take the place of stuffing, and by adding veg to it, could also replace the need for a starch and a third veg! (I must add here that although I was in possession of enough goose fat to give Gertrude Ederle a swim for her money, it was going to be a fair while before I was in any mood to contemplate the future use of same.)

So I came up with a recipe that would use up that Challah, alongside leftover bacon lardons, thyme, parsley and scallions, and also allow me to introduce portobello mushrooms into my New Year’s Eve dinner.

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CHALLAH STRATA WITH BACON AND PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS (serves 10)

You will need:

  • 3/4 of a loaf of stale Challah bread, cut into big fork-sized chunks
  • 8 portobello mushrooms, cut into fork-sized chunks
  • 200g (1small packet) smoked bacon lardons, such as panchetta
  • 8 scallions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (optional. The garlic is perfect if you’re serving this as an evening side, but brunch can be a little early in the day for that adorable allium.)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 5 whole eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon paprika dulce.
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

In a large frying pan, saute the mushrooms in oil and butter until black and meaty. Remove the mushrooms and reserve. Then add the smoked back lardons to the pan, and once they’ve rendered their fat and are crisping up, add the scallions and garlic. Saute for a couple of minutes, then add the bacon, scallions and garlic to the mushrooms and mix in the thyme. Leave to cool.

Beat the eggs, milk, and paprika together in a bowl and season with black pepper and just a touch of salt. Place the Challah chunks in a large bowl and pour over the egg and milk mixture. Gently push the chunks of bread down into the mixture to help it soak in. This will seem irretrievably sloppy at first, but fear not. Then stir in the mushrooms and bacon mixture, and add the parsley.

Pour all this into a buttered baking dish (a big one- this makes a big strata), cover in clingfilm, and leave in the fridge to set for at least 2 hours. Overnight is fine, so you can make this a day in advance if that helps!

When you’re ready to cook, preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4/350f/180c

Bring the strata out of the fridge a half hour before you’re going to cook it, to bring it up to room temperature. Then remove the clingfilm and put it in the oven to bake for 40minutes to 1 hour.

I used the remaining 1/4 of the Challah loaf to make breadcrumbs, which is no more difficult than whizzing it up in a food processor. I then took about 3 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs, mixed them with a teaspoon each of the thyme and parsley, seasoned, and then sprinkled them over the strata before it went into the oven to make a crunchy top, but that’s purely optional. This would also work well with a brioche loaf, or indeed any round or braided loaf!

Serve as a side dish with a roast chicken, or as a brunch main course with poached eggs and a green salad!

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The recipe was rather a success (even amongst the fungi-phobic at the table), and also proved to be the sort of side that you can cook alongside a roast chicken, with no changes in oven temperatures or any of that bother. I would also- with a tweak that I’ll list below- happily serve it if ever I am called upon to host a brunch. It’s hearty,flavorsome, and just stodgy enough to provide the ballast you need if you’re going to see the New Year in with a drink or three. It also makes for a big dish, so would be most suitable for a larger gathering.

So as the clock ticked down to midnight, and we toasted a new year (and no more big meals to cook in the foreseeable), I briefly pondered what my culinary New Year resolutions would be. And I’ve been pondering ever since, so here they are:

  • Learn to bake your own bread. It’ll fulfill your new found need to knead.
  • Find new uses for fat. (Seriously, I have so much goose fat in the freezer I keep mistaking it for ice cream)
  • Embrace the starter. You won’t be a true grown up dinner party cook until you do.
  • Never be afraid to put a twist on “breakfast for dinner”. I don’t have to go the eggs, bacon and pancakes route, but if living in a country where the breakfast/dinner lines are blurred anyway, why not embrace that? (Anyone finding me consuming a bowl of Apple Jacks for supper should, however, immediately report me to the relevant authorities. Who those authorities are is your problem.)

Holiday Cooking Lesson 3: Salad Not The Salmon

As I’ve stated previously, I was going for a rather traditionally British Christmas Dinner, and so had to make a starter. Because here in the UK, a first course for the Crimbo lunch is rather de-rigeur. As young Natalie said, “We have to have a first course, a fishy first course!”

Now I would normally have put my foot down on that score, not being a great fish fan, but fortunately for me, smoked salmon is as prevalent during the holiday season here as sausage rolls are the other twelve months of the year. And I happen to adore smoked salmon.

The trick lay in coming up with a smoked salmon starter that was light. There was going to be that rich, heavy main course to follow, and I didn’t want to add to any actual cooking on the day (or even before, what with all that baking). So I thought I’d make a smoked salmon salad, which would have been just fine if certain people with whom I share accommodation didn’t flatly refuse to eat anything with the word “salad” in it, let alone anything resembling a leaf.

So a classic salad was out.

smokedsalmon_dillNow there was no way in Christendom I was going to go to the bother of a mousse (I refer you to the previous evening’s oven usage), but how to maybe sort of emulate one? And what flavors to go with? The British (or rather the Scotch), it must be said, produce possibly the best smoked salmon in the world. But then they rather leave it at that, preferring to serve it on buttered brown bread with a wedge of lemon and perhaps a parsley garnish. Now there’s nothing wrong with that in general, but it ain’t what you’d call “festive”. So I had to cast my culinary cultural net in a distinctly Scandinavian direction to give my first course not only crunch and texture, but also some bold fresh flavors to contrast that silkily rich salmon.

The solution, when it came to me in the wee small hours of December 23rd, was deliciously simple: something between a mousse and a salad! A melange! So on Christmas morning I mixed softened cream cheese with creme fraiche, added some chopped dill and wholegrain mustard, and then used that mix to swathe some diced green apple and cucumber, and left the lot to set in the fridge. Then all I had to do was grill slices of rye bread to get that lightly toasted effect, let them cool a bit, then dollop my melange onto the bread and surround it with generous slices of smoked salmon.

Let me tell you, it was an utter and palpable hit with all concerned. Really, it was a salad, in a thick dressing, but as long as I didn’t call it a salad it went down a treat.

In fact, so pleased was I with the results that the recipe (see below) is a keeper, and one I’ll adapt for future parties, dinner or otherwise. It was easy to prepare, did not require the use of the oven when other courses were being cooked, and could even be made a day or two in advance, and is really adaptable. I’m thinking I’d chop the salmon into the melange, and then serve as canapes on little toasted rounds of rye bread.

And, a couple of bowls aside, I didn’t even need to clean anything up afterwards.

SMOKED SALMON MELANGE (serves 6)

You will need:

  • 1 small cucumber, peeled, de-seeded, and diced
  • 2 tart green apples, peeled, cored and diced
  •  juice of half a lemon
  • 1 small 200g tub of cream cheese, left overnight to soften ( Iuse low-fat, but as ever that’s up to you!)
  • 2 heaped tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream ( as above, fat-wise)
  • 2 teaspoons wholegrain mustard
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
  • 6 slices rye bread
  • 200g- 12 generous slices of smoked salmon

First, place the diced cucumber in a colander or sieve over a bowl, sprinkled with 1 teaspoon sea salt, and toss to mix. Then place a small plate over the cucumber and weigh the plate down. Leave for 1/2 hour. This will help the salt draw the excess water out of the cucumber, which brings out more of the cucumber flavor, firms up the texture, and stops the cucumber from making the melange go all watery as it sits in the fridge..

While the cucumber is draining, toss the diced green apples in a small bowl with the lemon juice. the lemon juice stops the apple from turning brown while it’s waiting.

In a larger bowl, beat the cream cheese and creme fraiche together until smooth and thickened. Stir in the mustard and fresh dill, and season with a little black pepper. (You shouldn’t need salt. The salmon is salty, and remember those cukes!) Stir in the apple and cucumber, and put in the fridge to set until you need it (This will sit in the fridge quite happily for a couple of days). It won’t go as firmly set as a mousse, but will hold together nicely.

Toast your rye bread slices on a griddle pan only enough to give them those grill marks. You still want the bread to be toothsome rather than totally crunchy. Let the toasted slices cool.

When you’re ready to serve, simply dollop a generous portion of the apple/cucumber melange onto each slice of the rye bread and surround, as artistically as you are able, with 2 slices of the smoked salmon!

You could, if you so wished, chop up the salmon and add it to the melange. This would turn your first course into something of a Scandinavian bruschetta, but I see nothing wrong with that. You could also cut the rye bread into small rounds, toast them and serve the melange in little dollops on them as canapes.

Holiday Cooking Lesson 2: Gird Fast Against Goose Fat

For lo these many years I had wanted desperately to cook a goose for Christmas dinner.

roastgoose I had read up on it, and had even assisted in the cooking of a goose previously. But however excited I was to prepare and cook this truly traditional British Christmas bird, with all its delightfully Dickensian connotations, I was a tad unprepared for all the distinctly Dickensian imprecations that would follow. Roasting a goose, you see, is not at all as simple as roasting a chicken or a turkey. There may not be any brining involved- and there’s certainly no basting- and nor do you have to turn the bird over, or adjust temperatures, or slap a butter-soaked muslin cloth over it. But boy is there preparation, not to mention much more frequent trips to the oven than basting would incur.

To begin with, once you’ve got your goose home you have to remove any excess fat from the body cavity. Now I was lucky, in as much as I’d ordered my goose from an excellent supplier and so the goose arrived with that fat pre-bagged for me. Can I just say it was a real big bag? A much larger bag than the one that held the giblets, in fact. And the thing with a goose is, that big bag of mushy white stuff is- as far as fat goes- merely the icing on the cake.

When you remove the goose from its wrapping, the first thing you notice is just how much fat there is larding pretty much the entire body. Well they’re water fowl, so of course that’s necessary for them, poor dears. But all that fat has to render out as you cook the goose, and that’s what creates the yuletide yuckies, as well as the previous eve’s prep.

So in the midst of all the stirring and the rolling and the kneading and the baking (and the flour), I had to spend a bit of time repeatedly stabbing the goose all over with a skewer. This creates holes in the skin that allow all that fat to seep out as it roasts. Then, with the goose placed on a rack over a tin, I had to douse it in boiling water. This shrinks the skin, opening up those holes, and also dehydrates the skin a tad, so that once you’ve finished the final pre-roasting process, you should have the perfect makings of deliciously crispy goose skin. And that final bit of the process? Well various sources indicated that I should leave the goose “somewhere draughty”, or “by an open window for several hours” to ensure the skin was fully dried. Now while you might well believe that all homes in the UK are “draughty” or that winter here is the optimum time to leave windows open, you’d be quite wrong. The windows in my flat all seal quite nicely, thank you, and when they’re open a Force 4 gale sweeps through the joint.

So round about one am I found myself blow-drying a goose. It was quite a nostalgic experience, given that it’s been at least a decade since I’ve had enough hairs on my head to require anything more than a quick muss with a towel. But there I stood, gently wafting the blow dryer back and forth across the goose until I was sure there was no residual dampness on that skin. I was momentarily tempted to ask the poor bird if it had any plans for the weekend.

Come Christmas Day, it was time to stuff and roast. I must add at this point that one of the great advantages of cooking a goose is that, relative to the bird’s size, the body cavity is enormous. This means two things:

  1. that you can fit enough stuffing into the cavity to feed everyone without resorting to a secondary tray in the oven, and
  2. that it doesn’t in fact affect the bird’s roasting time. You don’t have to keep the bird in the oven just to cook the stuffing through, which has always been one of the great disadvantages with a large turkey or chicken. You just keep that bird cooking at a nice steady temperature until your goose is cooked.

But then, instead of visiting the oven occasionally to give the bird a quick baste, you have to visit the oven every 15 minutes or so to perform a far more tricky procedure.

You have to remove the fat that has rendered off the bird and into the tray before it spills out of the tray and turns your oven into the kind of inferno that would set Irwin Allen’s heart tingling. And let me tell you, that is a process. You take the tray out of the oven. Your remove the goose and rack to a safe location. You tip that hot liquid fat into a second equally safe repository. You then return the rack with the goose on it to the tray and return the tray to the oven. It’s not a complicated process; just one that, if you’re like me (and I refer you once again to my borderline dyspraxic state), can become rather fraught. There can be the odd spillage which, if gone unnoticed, can cause future problems.

So while some of you may recall the worrying amounts of liquid my frozen “self-basting” turkey produced at Thanksgiving, it was nothing compared to this. Truthfully, the only comparison I can come up with is that early video game where babies were being tossed from a burning building and you had to catch them before they broke. And Christmas Day is just not the day to let a baby break.

But you know, I got through it, and having that pre-rendered goose fat to hand when it came to roasting the potatoes was heavenly. The frequent trips to empty the roasting tray did cause me to par-boil the first batch of potatoes to the point of near enough mush, so a second batch had to be par-boiled on the fly, but all came good in the end (I have since learned to par-steam, not boil the potatoes. Makes for a more malleable spud) and Christmas Dinner was complete. I’d happily roast a goose again, though perhaps next time I’d be wearing a full-on fire retardant outfit whilst doing so.

I just wish I had thought to clean the oven afterwards.

Holiday Cooking Lesson 1: Fear Not The Flour

This Christmas, I finally worked through one of the main reasons why I’m a cook and not a baker. It’s not really because I prefer the instinctive nature of cooking as opposed to the scientific nature of baking (although I do), or that I prefer to taste and adjust as I go, rather than give up control and just wait for the results (although, again, I do). It is really because I have an aversion to flour that borders on the phobic. It’s true. Ask me to disembowel a small bird or animal and I wouldn’t bat an eye even if the kitchen wound up looking like an abattoir. But ask me to open a bag of flour and I begin to twitch.

I’m not gluten intolerant. I’m just intolerant when it comes to glue. I hate, loathe and despise cleaning the inevitable mess that flour makes, and I become anxious when I have gluey, pasty hands. This is largely because I am so preternaturally clumsy as to be unable to transport a quarter cup of flour from a bag into a bowl without producing the kind of dust cloud that made the Joad family take to the road.

I have usually cooked or baked in very small kitchens (such is often the lot of a single foodie), so any mess as I cook rapidly prevents the next step of cooking from happening. That’s taught me to be a real “clean-as-I-go” kind of cook- which really is no bad thing- and really it’s easy to scoop up the onion peel or give the counter a quick wipe as I proceed to the next stage. But throw a floury surface into the equation and I rapidly become a tad overwhelmed.

flourymessI try wiping with a dry paper towel first, but that just creates a floury miasma in the kitchen.

Then I go in with that damp sponge, and suddenly it’s like I’m in competition with the Elmer’s Glue Factory (no horses were harmed in the writing of this post).

There’s just a mass of gluey sticky mess all over the counter. And the time it takes to scour through all that, and then go out and buy a new sponge (if not a new counter) puts me right off the idea of baking for a good long while.

I feel much the same way about any recipe that calls for dipping something in flour, then egg, and then breadcrumbs, or even just a batter. I must refer you once again to my naturally kack-handed state when I say that I am completely incapable of adhering to the “keep one hand clean” rule. Instead, I wind up adhering to everything else and the whole “breaded” cooking experiment comes to a grim close with me desperately attempting to turn on a kitchen faucet with my elbows.

So I had some serious misgivings about the baking onslaught that I knew this Christmas would bring. My flatmate Natalie had already been talking for weeks about making her own mince pies, and more nervous-making yet, my friend Pamela was en route from New York determined to bring some Challah cheer to this year’s festivities. I was beginning to have visions of this being truly a white Christmas, and not in a Bing Crosby sort of way.

But I must say that stepping back (never easy for me in a kitchen- you think your mother backseat drives?) and letting Natalie and my other lovely flatmate Robin get on with rolling out the pastry and cutting out pretty and personal pie lids for each of us, was really rather soothing. In fact, more than soothing. Mince pies are one of the most wonderful British Crimbo culinary traditions, especially if working food retail during the holiday season tends to make you feel more Helter Skelter than Holly Jolly. Just that warm, fruity, brandied smell, and then the warm crunch of the pastry followed by the melting tart sweetness of the soused fruit (it helps if you’re a little soused too) is guaranteed to get you into more of a festive spirit.

Plus, they cleaned it all up afterwards.

challahAnd then my dear friend Pamela blew into town with recipes for Challah bread and gingerbread cookies, and on Christmas Eve I just had to give in to the blizzard of flour that was to come. Because oy, was there flour. Flour for the bread, flour for the cookies, flour for the work surface for the kneading of the bread, flour on the work surface and on the rolling pin for the rolling out of the dough for the cookies. I am fairly certain that at one point there was flour on the ceiling.

But somehow it was all right. Now at points in my childhood I had participated in the making of gingerbread cookies before, but my hand to God, this past Christmas Eve was the very first time I had participated in making actual bread. Of course I’ve made banana bread (and even gingerbread loaf) countless times, but in truth neither of those is really bread. They’re just delicious cakes masquerading as bread because they’re baked in a loaf tin.

This time, taking part in the many, many stages of making Challah, I was actually party to the damping of the yeast, the working together of all the ingredients so you get that dough, and then the proving (where you put it in a bowl and hope that somewhere in a chilly London apartment will actually allow it to rise), and knocking back and kneading (where you make like Simon Cowell and knock all hope and air out of it) and then the proving again and the knocking back and kneading again. So I learned that while I might dislike pasty hands, I love the feeling of kneading dough. And I really loved the part of the Challah process where the dough is rolled into sausages and braided, giving the bread its traditional shape during its last prove before going into the oven. Yes all that kneading and rolling and braiding meant more flour was being sprinkled onto the work surface, but any anxiety I might have otherwise simply floated away at the surprising joy of actually sharing a kitchen, as well as learning a new- and very exciting- skill.

Plus Pamela cleaned it all up afterwards.

Just as well, because while we were making Challah, we were also making gingerbread cookies. After an early blip at the supermarket where we couldn’t find the molasses for which the recipe called, we rejected treacle and decided to substitute maple syrup instead (Incidentally, this is yet another example of the US/UK language divide. I’ve since discovered that molasses and treacle-and golden syrup too- are all the same thing, just with different names). Now the gingerbread also meant a dough that had to rest (this time in the fridge) and then be rolled out on a floury surface, but as we were doing this between stages of kneading the Challah dough, it all just seemed to blur rather pleasantly together. Or perhaps I just could no longer see through the flour. Anyway there’s just something so elementally, childishly joyous about decorating little gingerbread men, even if your aesthetics have become a tad more adult. It turns out you can give a gingerbread man a sparkly speedo if you’re careful.

So by the time the gingerbread men had been decorated, and baked, and iced, and two beautifully golden braids of Challah bread had also emerged from the oven, I was on the way to becoming a baking convert. I’d finally come to enjoy the interaction with a dough the same way I enjoy the interaction with a sauce. That same personal, intimate attention is there, just in a different form. So if I have a New year’s resolution for this year, it’s to bake more, especially bread.

Though it’ll be a plus if someone else cleans it all up afterwards.

Lessons Learned From This Thanksgiving (With A Recipe For The REALLY Pesky Leftovers!)

Even though I’ve cooked the Thanksgiving meal more times than I can count, every year I learn new things.

These lessons can involve anything from seating plans (always keep the two most politically extreme guests at extreme ends of the table – after all, Thanksgiving is about creamy onions, not crummy opinions) to planning your ingredient storage (buying four big bags of perishables a week in advance is not a good plan if you share a small fridge with two other people – you may find that it’s relations and not radishes that perish) and – of course, dealing with leftovers (see recipe below).

Most of these are practical, but some of them are more emotional. After all, that particular day is about giving thanks for something.

So here’s what I’ve learned this year:

LESSON 1. IF IT’S FROZEN, LET IT GO.

As God is my witness, I am never cooking a frozen turkey again. Budgetary constraints and the fact that frozen turkeys are generally all you can find in UK supermarkets until Thanksgiving morning  (I remain convinced that the British do this on purpose) have always meant I’ve resorted to the frozen bird in the past. But no more. I will sell my body or soul to order a fresh turkey from a good butcher if I have to. I’m done with the two days of waiting for it to defrost while it takes up all the room in either your fridge or bathtub and all the room in your head because you’re worrying it’s going to slay your guests with salmonella due to incorrect defrosting.

Also, all frozen birds here all “self-basting”, which means they’ve been injected with unpredictable amounts of saline solution- the purpose of which is to keep them moist while they’re frozen, not while they cook.  This means that, aside from even just starting from fresh,  I can’t even try out brining the bird, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years.

This year was the final straw. Sure, the turkey defrosted just fine and nobody contracted food poisoning – or so I presume. I have yet to receive any notifications of impending lawsuits or a visit from the Centre For Disease Control –  but as the turkey roasted, it began to produce frankly worrying amounts of liquid in the pan. So much so that as I removed the bird to rest, the roasting pan was full to brimming. Now I had covered the bird in bacon, and had rubbed herb butter between the breast and skin, and I had poured a half a cup of cider into the pan as the bird roasted, but this was just thin watery liquid, not melted fat and apple-y reduced juices. One early-arriving guest went so far as to ask whether I was “Doing something really advanced, like braising the bird.”

Nope. What I had on my hands was not Advanced Turkey, but Absolute Terror. Yes, the turkey itself was fine, but I make my gravy from- and in- the roasting pan. No way was this flavorless flood going to become a deep rich thick gravy. This bird had so much water injected into it that it had washed all the meat juices and even the cider away. At almost the last minute, I was going to have to make gravy from scratch. Which leads me to:

LESSON 2. THAT INVESTMENT IN HOMEMADE STOCK REALLY PAYS OFF.

Thank goodness I had recently made a big batch of chicken stock, and thank GOODNESS I had a rare moment of prescience and defrosted more than I thought I would need. With pan gravy now down the pan, I was going to need it after all. So cue the frantic whisking together of butter and flour in a saucepan to make a roux, followed by the addition of the remaining cider (which I had equally presciently not imbibed) and then that prescient supply of stock. It wasn’t the fabulously flavorsome pan gravy I’d been planning on, but it was at least a sauce of sorts.

However, it did throw my schedule out of whack. I’d been planning to have the gravy made and left to simmer for an hour or so, while I calmly and coolly laid the table and greeted guests in a relaxed if not soigne manner before gathering them at the table and carving the bird like a suave swordsman. The plan was to have everything bar one dish done and keeping warm well in advance. That one dish? Well, I always like to serve one lightly cooked vegetable side dish to counter all that starch. This was clearly no longer to be, as the potatoes were still simmering and not yet ready to be mashed, and I had barely toasted the almonds for my sautéed Boston fine beans. Which brings me nicely to Lessons 3 and 4.

LESSON 3. EARLY ARRIVAL MEANS EARLY ASSISTANCE.

When it comes to cooking a feast for six or more, no man is an island. Especially when the gravy situation is, well, grave. Fortunately for me, my dear friend Steven had arrived early from points North and is no mean cook himself. So following his polite offer of assistance, he was immediately pressed into service with the mashing of potatoes (of which more in a moment) as well as the supervision of the sauteeing of beans. They had only to be tossed into a wok with a knob of butter and given the occasional shake while he got on the the more manly task of mashing and then whipping, and I had a stiff drink while I laid the table. The next arrival was then pressed into carving the bird while I had another stiff drink. The alternative would have been me hacking at the turkey or committing Hara Kiri. But the point was that what with my schedule having run adrift, I was going to need some towing from friends to steer it back on course.

LESSON 4. MILK IT.

mashed-potatoesBy this I do not mean that I gave in to histrionics. Rather, I mean that when making whipped potatoes (or just mashed, but giving them a good beating with a whisk makes them lighter and airier), never again will I boil them in water first. In another moment of prescience (perhaps I should give up this foodie lark and take to reading palms- or at least never attempt T-Day dinner again) I had already decided try something I had seen US tv chef  Tyler Florence do, which is to boil the potatoes in milk.

FOLKS, TRY THIS AT HOME.

The difference in flavor is exponential, as you’re using the liquid in which you cooked the potatoes to mash them as well, so all that potato-ey taste gets right back into them. Plus, your milk is already hot so you don’t have to heat the milk up separately – cold milk going into mashed potatoes being a huge no-no unless you want potato glue. And you don’t even need to drain the potatoes!

Just use about a third as much milk as you would have water, and let them simmer steadily with the lid half off the pan instead of boiling them like the clappers. The milk will reduce down to just enough to ensure a creamy but by no means soggy mash. You do have to be a tad vigilant to ensure then pan doesn’t boil over, as milk is wont to do, and to shake the saucepan from time to time so the potatoes don’t stick, but you’ve eliminated an entire labor intensive step! You may even find, as I did, that I didn’t need anywhere near as much butter as I usually do. Really, the mash you get has such a full-on flavor that it requires no sour cream, no chives, no fancy adornment at all. In fact so pleased was I with the results that I got quite emotional.  Which segues neatly to lessons 5 and 6.

LESSON 5. DON’T GET CORNY.

At Thanksgiving it’s far too easy for me to over-egg the corn pudding, so to speak. It is after all a bit of a blockbuster of a feast, and since I have always cooked this feast on the wrong side of the pond I do tend to over-stress the American-ness of the meal. I have even, in years past,  gone so far as to make it about “American Ingredients And Immigrant Influences” to such an extent that the meal came with a side order of historical lecture. Not only must the centerpiece have been turkey, but there must have been potatoes, there must have been pumpkin, there must have been pecans, and there absolutely must have been corn. And everything must have been intricately flavored.

This year, as the rest of the guests had gathered and we all finally sat down to eat, I learned that I had finally hit a balance between what was fulfilling for my pretensions and was  just pleasantly filling for my guests. Yes, all the above were present and accounted for (although the pumpkin was in fact butternut squash as I’ve yet to meet a person this side of the Atlantic who can bear pumpkin pie so I had to go with a roasted savory alternative), but I had taken a far more balanced approach to flavorings and was more circumspect with my number of sides.

My stuffing was complex in taste and texture, with Italian sausage and wild rice and apples and dried cranberries, but the potatoes were as simple in flavor as can be. I had roasted the squash with garlic and sage and chili, but had just sautéed the Boston fine beans and tossed in toasted almonds. Neither the potatoes nor the beans were bland, but rather straightforward, so that the more complex sides and the turkey itself stood out. I had finally hit that balance on the plate.

And as for the corn, in previous years I have not only served cornbread, but also served a corn, bean and pepper hash, or made my guests suffer through the indignities of eating the corn on the cob – which may be delicious, but does lead to rather a lot of gnawing amongst company. This year, just cornbread. Cornbread with herbs and scallions (I’m not a monk), but just cornbread and no further kernel-related sides.

sidedishes

LESSON 6. DO GET CORNY.

Thanksgiving, as it should be, is an emotional day. And while this particular cook may go through a variety of emotions throughout the day- most of which are best experienced alone or at least unwitnessed- the best of them are that bittersweet mix when you sit down at the table and think about who is there and who isn’t. You start to think about the passage of time and what that passage brings and what it takes away. And as we were taking turns around the table expressing gratitude for one thing in our lives, I was thinking about the stuffing I had made.

I have always made a rice-based stuffing (except for one disastrously experimental year when I learned that no, you cannot replace cornbread with wholemeal bread and expect pleasant results), and that rice stuffing has always been based on my mother’s. Now over the years I’ve adapted it, replaced her bacon with chorizo, added chestnuts and sherry, and tweaked it in other ways, but the premise has always been the same. It has always been at least distantly related to my mother’s stuffing.

And I have always had Thanksgiving with at least some of my family. In fact, the years I’ve skipped Thanksgiving have been the years I couldn’t share it with family. So this year has been the first time I’ve ever made this meal with no member of my family at the table. My sister has just emigrated to the US, leaving me just one nephew here in Britain, and he couldn’t come. So as I looked around the table at my guests, all dear or new friends, I realized that the stuffing I had made this year was kind of representational; it was the first stuffing of the rest of my life.

I had finally branched away from the stuffing I had been tinkering with all these years. Yes, it had rice in it, but wild rice instead of plain, and it was only an ingredient. This was not even a distant cousin of my mother’s stuffing. I was making something new, at least to me.
I  had been making my mother’s stuffing all these years because I was cooking for the family of my childhood; my mother’s family. All that tinkering was just my way of expressing and asserting myself, of making that stuffing mine too. And I’d held on to it, variations and all, over these last few years because she was gone and never going to make it again. So who else would?

Well the beautiful thing, the thing that really freed me to let that dish go, was this: shortly before she left, my sister asked me for my mother’s stuffing recipe. She has moved to live near my brother in the US, and he had asked for the recipe. To serve at Thanksgiving. They (really we) hadn’t been able to share the Thanksgiving meal for well over a decade, but this year they have. And my mother’s stuffing, in it’s original form, is being served. I may not have been at their table and they may not have been at mine, but I felt very close to them both as I ate my Thanksgiving meal, and grateful. Grateful (though I’ll miss her) that my sister is starting a new life, grateful that my brother gets to share a Thanksgiving with this family of his alongside his new family, and grateful that my mother’s stuffing will live on in our family. Which may well be corny, but a certain amount of corn is not only right, but downright necessary for Thanksgiving.

LESSON 7. THAT RECIPE FOR LEFTOVER TURKEY AND PESKY BITS

The Thanksgiving meal went down splendidly. We all stuffed ourselves, drank too much, and had a thoroughly good time. And as they were cleaning up (Lesson 8. At Thanksgiving, Whomsoever Cooketh, Cleaneth not) and I was putting away the leftovers, I was pleased to note that for once I’d gotten my proportions just about right. Sure there was loads of turkey left over, but there was really just a couple of portions of stuffing left, and maybe one portion of whipped potatoes. Just enough of the sides, really, to be hoovered up over the next day or so. It’s rare that I manage that feat.

What I did have lots of, however, were bits and pieces of ingredients for the meal; a half a bag of pecans that weren’t needed for the pie, a few scallions left over from the cornbread, a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, a green apple that was surplus to the stuffing requirements, the other half of that lemon I used stop the apple I did use from turning brown.

These are the leftovers that I find really pesky. They’re not the ones that will get hoovered up over the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend. They won’t get popped in the microwave for a quick midnight stack, or turned into a sandwich (or not yet) or one of those legendarily odd but delicious American leftover turkey recipes, like Turkey Tetrazzini, which to the uninitiated is best described as a curried turkey lasagne. They’re the ones that will grow stale in the cupboard or wilt in the fridge as they lie there unnoticed by me until it’s too late for me to put them to use.

But not this year.

Because this year – the year that Fabulous Foodie tackles all leftovers possible – I have decided that no ingredient will be left over, and no slices of turkey breast will be left to get more and more dry as they await being loaded into sandwiches, while those leftover bits of dark meat will cling to a frozen carcass in my freezer. This year, I give you:

PESKY LEFTOVER TURKEY SALAD

Think a Waldorf salad, except as a sandwich filler; from perhaps a more reasonably priced hotel. And without that beyond pesky celery.  Although should you be a raw celery fan, it might actually be chopped and serve this salad/sandwich filler very well. Provided you are so culinarily insane as to contemplate such a thing.

You will need:

  • 3 cups turkey meat, white and dark, chopped or shredded into roughly equal bite-sized pieces.*
  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 tart green apple, peeled, cored, and chopped into small chunks then tossed in the juice of half a lemon (see what I did there?)
  • 1 heaped teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1/2- 1 cup toasted and chopped pecans (I had 1/2  cup. If you’ve got more, start another pie!)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon and pepper seasoning (or the rind of 1/2 a lemon and a dang good grind of pepper if you absolutely will not buy pre-mixed stuff)
  • 1 1/2 cups low fat mayonnaise (2 if you like a more “loose” salad)
  • A good pinch of salt.

Mix all the ingredients up to the mayonnaise in a large bowl, mixing and tossing with your hands to distribute evenly. Then fold in the mayo with a large spoon to make sure everything is evenly coated. Wait five minutes then taste for salt. if you’re using lemon and pepper seasoning you may not need it.

You could, if you are mayo-phobic, dress the salad with a good thick plain yogurt instead. I think of this as a sandwich filler for the week ahead though, which may call for the preservatives in a commercially produced mayo. And I listed low-fat mayo, but that is only because that’s what I generally use. Absolutely no reason why you should.

*please do not segregate white meat from dark, especially when it comes to leftover turkey recipes like this. The dark meat holds all the hope you have left of retaining any actual turkey flavour as the leftover sandwich week goes on.

So I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, with family, or friends, or both. And I look forward to next year’s feast, with lessons learned, and more lessons still to come. And I’ll be thankful for them too.

Tasty TransAtlantic Christmas

Christmas at TransAtlantic Towers isn’t a traditional Dickensian picture. It’s much more a traditional New York Jewish Christmas – Chinese food and a movie(s). But as we are in the UK and not NYC, it’s a homemade Chinese feast rather than take away or a scrumptious selection of dishes at – in my case – Pig Heaven on Second Avenue or Evergreen on First. Your restaurant may vary. We’ll have Chinese-style, sticky spareribs, stir-fry of chicken and oyster mushrooms, fragrant shrimp, fried rice, noodles and sauteed veg. Behold last year’s spread:

chinesefood_2012

Some of the kitchen activity IS given over to a Christmas tradition – in that Dungeekin’s “project salt beef” is underway. This has been part of their family Christmas for decades, cooked by his grandmother and mother before him and a recipe that is, to put it mildly, always evolving. This is a side of beef that, after an 11 day marinade, undergoes a slow (6-8 hours) and low (60C/140F) cook. This is in preparation for Christmas 2 down at Che In-Laws. We do the whole gifts, tree, turkey thing once Sprog has joined us – hence Christmas 2. Lucky boy, Sprog.

As there’s nothing I need to do while this whole Chinese food prep and salt beef cooking is going on, I like to do a bit of leisurely “site” seeing of a foodie nature. It’s a sort of virtual version of that “nice walk” everyone’s Dad seems to suggest over here just after everyone has eaten their own weight in poultry and Brussels sprouts. It’s warmer than going outside (and this year drier) Gets the ol’ taste buds going, the brain cells firing (in view of the annual resolution to blog more) and also keeps me out of Dungeekin’s way. 🙂 So, what have I found this year?

  • Cooking with … the hairdryer? Well, it’s NPR so it MUST be legit, right? I can totally see it being useful for s’mores but I hesitate on the whole turkey thing
  • Alexia pointed me in the direction of the history of the chocolate chip cookie, and really I don’t know why they make history in school so dry and dusty when clearly there are tastier options to study.
  • Thoroughly enjoyed Christmas Around the World over at The Kitchn and found much food for thought (pardon the expression) in 75 Expert Essential for Home Cooks in 2013. I think their definition of essential is more elastic than mine.
  • The list-loving Forbes can’t let anything alone and has come up with “What You’ll Eat Next: Food Trends 2014” all of which were things we all saw on the rise over the past several years. So they are both list-loving and late the party. Also – vegetables aren’t a trend. They are a given.  Much more fun is the related Huffington Post list, “Food Trends 2014: What’s Coming Up and What’s Passé” – because it includes passé. I love kicking things (even food) when it’s down. That said, I quibble with anyone who says “Out with fried chicken.” I won’t even mention the LUNACY of saying  – and forgive me – “Out with bacon.”
  • There are – of course – several relevant food observances – Pumpkin Pie Day (Dec 25) though as I have said elsewhere I’m not wholly convinced this was the best choice for Dec 25.  There is Candy Cane Day (Dec 26) which is also a puzzlement since by then – you’d think everyone would have had enough.  Dec 27 is Fruitcake Day – see earlier comment re candy canes but December is also fruitcake month so I’m even less convinced fruitcake needs an actual DAY. And of course, Dec 30 is Bicarbonate of Soda Day. Two days too early if you ask me. But no one did. So happy bubbles to one and all. 🙂

And I leave you with this, a favorite Christmas time quote of mine:

“Christmas? Christmas means dinner, dinner means death! Death means carnage; Christmas means carnage!”  — Ferdinand the Duck in the film ‘Babe‘ (1995)

Transatlantic Kitchen Weekend Report

Transatlantic Weekend Summary: Christmas food shop largely done & in freezer, salt beef brine underway, found both an excellent new(ish) pie pub & fab Oriental supermarket in town.

Christmas food shop: Turkey crown this year, not whole turkey. Ridiculous to do a whole turkey when there is SO much other food sitting there as well

Salt Beef: really requires it’s own post but in brief – this is one of @dungeekin’s family traditions, passed from his grandmother to his mother to him. Whatever else is on the menu for Christmas, this is always included. Even the prep for making it infuses the house with the smells of the season. The process is – well, ever evolving is the best way to put it. As @dungeekin explains elsewhere:

“It’s an Indian recipe that my grandmother brought over in 1950. Trouble is she’d never actually made it herself so it was done from her memory and evolved over the years – first her, then my mother, and now me.

Over time in the pursuit of tenderness, it’s gone from a month of brining in a saltpetre mix (hand-studded with lemon and cloves) to two weeks in the spiced salt/sugar solution. I don’t think it’s ever been the same twice. This time I’m trying a more intense brine, marinating for just ten days and long cooking at just 60C in a spiced liquor to maximize moisture.

New Food Finds: We had several hours to kill while the Transatlantic Towers Transport Vehicle was being serviced – so we wandered about, looking at window treatments (because now that Transatlantic Towers is being painted, the current curtains are a bit shabby). But one cannot live by curtains alone so we also poked through the Oriental supermarkets (making a plan for a return visit with the car because we intend to make substantial purchases of spices and other dry food stuffs) and going out to lunch.

For lunch, we decided we would try a new place – new to us and relatively new in a general sense – Puddingface. It’s menu is pie past – of the ‘chicken pot’ or ‘steak and kidney’ variety. We’d walked past it a couple of times while walking around the town centre and once again, we paused to discuss whether to try it this time around or next time when suddenly a woman walking by said “They have the BEST pies. Be hungry because there’s a lot of it – but they are the best.”

Well, that decided it for us. We’d read some good things but how often do you get a spontaneous review just standing around on the street? If the food is good enough to inspire that sort of word of mouth, it’s got to be worth trying. Boy are we glad we did.

The place has been done up very nicely – colorful and spacious (so many places these days cram tables in fat too tightly). The menu isn’t VAST but has something bound to please no matter what you’re in the mood for pie-wise. The service was prompt and pleasant. The food delicious and plentiful – the pies are a very good size and they certainly don’t stint on portion size for the veg and chips either. After a lunch that size, we were fairly sure we wouldn’t be needing dinner and we were right.

All at what I consider to be an excellent price for a meal of that quality and size. Will definitely go back again. And as we went in about 1:15 or so, we were stuffed to the gills that evening (even with all that walking) and skipped dinner.

And that’s all I have to report at the moment. Today is a more “at home” day – a bit of cooking (there’s a sea bream in the fridge) and maybe some planning and discussion of culinary gardening and kitchen space. If anything notable or especially tasty occurs, I’ll let you know. 🙂