Summer Infusions Underway

What do you do with too many lemons and a ginormous mint plant? Well, if you are me, you grab the vodka and you start infusing.

lemon_peel
As I found out last year, making lemon vodka is super easy. And if you ignore all the advice about letting it sit for two week and let it sit twice or three times as long, what you get is so smooth and so lemon, you’d swear it was limoncello.

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The mint infusion is an experiment. We go a chocolate mint plant this year instead of standard mint. It’s still mostly minty – but there is that faint hint of chocolate mint as well. Not consistently warm enough out to infuse cream for ice cream yet (that’s coming son though) so I figured vodka was worth a try. Also, based on research, I am drying some leaves to add to coffee beans. They may also get added to a very strong ground coffee for the inevitable supply of cold brew iced coffee I intend to make this summer.

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And no – this does not lead to massive lemon wastage. You can freeze lemons (whole or quartered with or without zest) quite easily – just wrap them foil or plastic wrap and pop the wrapped fruit in a freezer bag -and use them for juicing later on. Which is what I shall do. And considering the size of the mint plant, some of that may well end up in the freezer as well.

World Milk Day. One of Many Days

Today is World Milk Day – not to be confused with National Milk Day in the US.

bottle-and-glass-of-milkActually a lot of countries have a national day devoted to milk but the FAO picked June 1 to bring everyone together on the assumption that no one would mind a second day spent talking ‘moo-juice’ (as my uncle Allen would say). Of course, they also declared the last Wednesday in Sept each year to be World School Milk Day so it’s possible that the folks at the FAO have a TEENY milk obsession.

But never mind that – Did you know that milk is one of the most commonly thrown away/wasted foods by households in developed world? Of the roughly 360,000 tonnes of waste milk that is poured down British drains each year, almost half of it is  designated as “avoidable waste” – the result of too much being served. The rest is discarded for being sour or past its sell-by date. Which reminds me – we’ll have a “sell by/best by date” discussion at some point as well because other than baby food, none of those days are regulated or consistently defined. Recipe for confusion!

So, what do you do if you are a small but busy household where the milk is only half used by the time you realize the date was a week ago and it’s smelling a bit odd? You either buy smaller containers of milk or you find a way to use more. The latter does not mean you must drink an extra glass every day. In fact, most adults I know don’t drink glasses of milk at all. Most of the milk here at TransAtlantic Towers goes into coffee, baked goods or white sauces. Just use milk in additional ways.  Make rice puddings, soups, poach some fish – make a panna cotta. You can even use the milk once it’s “gone off” if you’re gonna be baking. WOrks well in lots of biscuits, muffins and breads.

Or – buy the smaller container.

May is Salad Month!

What gives you more scope for experimentation and improvisation than a salad?

Winter salads, summer salads, entree salads, starters salads, side salads. Salads in all shades of green, tomato salads, egg salads, rice salads, potato salads, tuna salads, pasta salads, chicken salads – it’s all good.

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Now that the weather is warming, chicken Caesar salad will be appearing more and more in the kitchen at TransAtlantic Towers. There may even be a bit of home made Caesar dressing happening. We can also safely assume there will be herb salads galore because the TransAtlantic kitchen garden is bursting with all sorts of herby goodness – not the least of which is a mint that looks ready to take over the world. But the mint is another story for another day.

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Right now – the issue is salad and as May is Salad Month, we’ve tossed together a mix of our fave salad and salad related posts.

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You’ve got so many options – so get tearing, tossing and tucking in. Happy Salad Month!

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.)

Looking at Leftovers: Bread, Part 2

We were talking about leftovers – and then specifically about leftover bread. One of the best ways to use up leftover bread is – as I said at the time – French toast.

So let’s talk about French toast. Or eggy bread, if you prefer that name. Not only is it a great way to use bread that has started to go stale or which would otherwise be thrown away, certain breads and bready things we have on hand at holiday time make an extra special treat out of a an already treat-like dish. More on this later.

First a basic French toast. This is a stripped down, very basic recipe. You can scale up or down, raise the sweet or savoury aspects at will. It’s utterly and completely up to you, your tastes and what you have on hand.

These amounts will serve 4 people with 2 slices each.

Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 4 teaspoons of butter
  • 8 slices bread – could be french bread, could be challah, could even be sliced white – though I tend to believe you need a more robust bread for French toast to be at its best.
  • You can also add nutmeg, a pinch of salt, a bit of caster sugar to the soaking mixture … it’s completely up to you. You could switch the taste profile completely and make a savoury seasoned version, if you want. It’s bread. It will take on whatever you add to it.

Directions

  • Beat egg, vanilla and cinnamon (and whatever else you’ve decided to add, if anything) in shallow dish. Stir in milk.
  • Dip bread in egg mixture, turning to coat both sides evenly. If it’s chunky, crusty stale bread, really let it get fully saturated. If it’s just slightly stale sliced white, a quick dip on each side will do. Soak/coat only as many slices as you will be cooking at one time.
  • Melt butter over medium heat then fry each slice of bread (melting more butter in the pan as needed) until golden brown, then flip to cook the other side.
  • Transfer the French toast to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven while cooking the rest of the slices.
  • Serve with your toppings of choice: maple syrup, icing sugar, jams, fruit, etc.

Now, what about this extra special, holiday time version? For the bread, use pannettone!

But there are lots of other ways to use up bread, as I mentioned. Here are some details on how to go about tackling those:

croutonsBreadcrumbs: Bread doesn’t need to be stale – in fact, its best if you use dry but not stale bread. On its way to stale at most.

  • If you’re making them by hand, use a coarse box grater (yes that thing you use to grate cheese) and grate the bread loaf directly on it. If you prefer to use a food processor (and this is easiest if you are making a LOT of breadcrumbs), cut the bread loaf into small cubes first for an even result. Don’t make the cubes TOO small or your crumbs will be too powdery.
  • Pulse lightly until you get an even, nubbly result.
  • Once you’ve got your breadcrumbs, you need to dry them out completely and give them a bit of colour. Spread them onto a baking sheet and place into a low oven (150C/300F) for about 20 minutes, moving the crumbs gently about 10 minutes in.Watch them for the light golden-brown colour and then they’ll be done.
  • Dry breadcrumbs can be stored in a cool, dark place in an airtight container for a few weeks. Or – also in an airtight container – in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Croutons: super easy! All you need is bread, a bit of melted butter or olive oil, salt, Parmesan (not strictly necessary but we like it) and powdered garlic (again, this is something we use – you may not want to).

  • Cut the crusts off the bread and cut it into slices – it’s often easier to cube this way but if you like crusts, leave them on by all means.
  • Cut the bread slices into cubes.
  • Toss the bread cubes in the butter or olive oil until evenly coated. Sprinkle with  salt, cheese and garlic. Or  – any seasoning, really. Paprika? Go on!
  • Spread the cubes out on an non-greased cookie sheet and bake at 180C/350F for 15 minutes or until browned.
  • Let them cool and store them in an air tight container. They’ll keep in a cool, dark place for a few weeks.

More leftover discussions and suggestions coming soon. But for now, I gotta go make a cake.

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.

Tartiflette a la Dungeekin

I promised a full report on the tartiflette and here it is – from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you TransAtlantic Towers’ star cook – dungeekin.


Let’s be honest – Deb is right*. We all waste MASSES of food, and I’m as much of an offender as anyone else.

So when she suggested doing a series of pieces on using leftovers I of course applied Rule 3** and turned my culinary mind to how I could use those little bits of things from other meals that would otherwise head into Banbury’s composting bin. It also appealed to one of my personal peccadilloes – this ridiculous belief that you can’t eat well cheaply. More on that, I hope, in another series.

Last night, then, having produced triple-cooked chips (a triumph from Heston and one I urge you to try yourselves) with a mushroom, brandy & peppercorn cream, I was left with a bit of a dilemma – how to use up the potato offcuts from the chips and the leftover cream sitting in the fridge?

We were idly discussing it when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall came to my rescue in the form of River Cottage on the TV – and a simple tartiflette.

A BRIEF DIGRESSION INTO PEASANT FOOD

As with so many good dishes, tartiflette is French peasant food – taking what’s left and making something salivatingly good from it. And it’s all the better for it.

Even if we’re not committing the sin of ready-meals (urgh), we have all forgotten how much good stuff there is that we normally waste. We do our shop, buy this bag of veg or that punnet of mushrooms, make one dish then forget about them – and by the time we need them again, they’re sludge in the bottom of the fridge. And when we make our Sunday roasts, we might remember to save the carcass for stocks but how often do we use the leftover meat? Other than Christmas, I find that too often the leftover meat just sits there, drying out, until it’s thrown away while I’m prepping for the next weekend’s Sunday lunch.

That’s wrong on a couple of really fundamental levels. I’m not going to go all ‘waste not want not’ – I hate that phrase anyway – and neither am I going green-wonk ecological on intensive farming and all that. But think about it. We liked that meat or those veggies when we cooked the first batch. If we used the second in a different way, why wouldn’t we like them again?

And secondly – if you look on any restaurant menu, you will see things that, historically, were designed to re-purpose leftovers into something filling and enjoyable. Cassoulet, carbonara, hotpot, frittata – all were designed to eke out the mileage of those precious little remaining bits of protein in the peasant diet, and do so in an enjoyable way. We’d eat it in a restaurant – why have we lost the skill of peasant food at home?

But I digress.  Back to dinner.

TARTIFLETTE A LA DUNGEEKIN

A quick squint in Transatlantic Fridge #1 showed that I had plenty to make a good supper. I added a couple of extra potatoes to bulk out the leftovers, but my only purchases for the whole dish were the two cheese & mustard scones we bought from this morning’s trip to the wondrous BakerGirl.

So the ingredients were:

  • about 4 cold cooked potatoes (boiled in this instance), chopped into bite-size chunks;
  • 2 leftover bacon rashers from yesterday’s bacon sandwiches;
  • a big handful of oddments of smoked ham;
  • 4 cloves of garlic (if you don’t ALWAYS have garlic in your kitchen, we can’t be friends any more);
  • half an onion (I keep part-used onions in a bag in the fridge and sometimes get around to reusing them);
  • 200ml double cream;
  • a big handful of grated cheese (Cheddar in this instance, but anything would work).

And the steps are:

stir_tart

  • Preheat the oven to 200C and put a heavy pan (ideally one that can go straight into the oven) on the hob on medium heat, with a splash of oil in it.
  • Fry off the bacon and once it’s coloured a little and sizzling, turn the heat down a smidge and add the onion, the ham and the garlic. I just halved the garlic cloves but you could press or sliver them if you don’t like huge chunks of sweet cooked garlic…
  • Let it all sweat for a couple of minutes, then add the ham and the potatoes and turn the heat back up to medium, letting it all cook together. Watch for the garlic and potatoes to just start to ‘catch’ on the pan a little and start to brown and maybe break up a bit, moving everything round the pan occasionally. If it sticks a little bit that’s fine, it all adds flavour!
  • simmer_tartOnce it’s all cooked through, turn the heat down to low and add your cream, stirring until everything is coated and covered. Then bring the heat back up to medium. At this point I added the leftover mushroom sauce I had, just to add another note – but unless you have a brandy & mushroom sauce left in the fridge, you can skip that bit.
  • Once the cream is starting to bubble and the meat juices are colouring the cream, add a small amount of the grated cheese and stir through.
  • Top the dish with the rest of the cheese, and pop the whole dish straight into the oven for about ten minutes until it’s browned on top and bubbling all over.
  • Serve on crusty bread (or Bakergirl savoury scones if you live near me) to soak up that rich, unctuous, bacony-cheesy cream – and marvel at a dish that cost you next to nothing that you’d smilingly pay ten quid for in a French bistro.

tartiflette2

Leftovers. You know they make sense.


 * (editor’s note: You are ALL witnesses)

** Rule 3, according to my father-in-law: “if in doubt, say ‘yes dear'”. Words to live by.

Tarting Up Weekend Leftovers

I may or may not have mentioned that @dungeekin (taking cues from Heston Blumenthal) made triple cooked chips the other night. If I did not mention it, it’s quite likely because I was far too busy stuffing my face with the amazing meal in which the chunky chips featured. Behold!

Anyway, it was delicious but that’s not why I mention it today. I mention it today because it led to another discussion about using leftovers.

In the course of conversation, dungeekin mentioned that the chips (while a bit faffy but totally worth it) did leave him with rather a lot of cut up potato leftover and he didn’t want to waste it. We determined that the best thing to do was google some ideas for using them up the next morning. We then sat down to digest and watch a bit of River Cottage.  I can’t recall exactly what episode of which series – but I think it was one of the Winter’s on It’s Way episodes and Hugh did a sort of “use your leftovers to make a tartiflette” dish using leftover potatoes! SERENDIPITY! That’s what we decided would happen to our leftovers. More on that later once said tartiflette is underway. But it ties in with my recent focus on leftovers since it uses any number of things we often have lying about waiting to be used up:

  • a couple of  bacon rashers
  • some bits of cold ham, cut into small strips
  • cold cooked potato (baked, boiled or even roasted)
  • a slice or two of thickly sliced bread (which I confess we do NOT have at the moment but which will be replaced today with GORGEOUS cheese and mustard scones from Bakergirl. Yes, the same Bakergirl I wrote about the other day.)
  • some cheese
  • a few salad leaves

In fact, here’s the recipe from the show:  Tartiflette Toastie. It’s a slightly deconstructed version of the classic dish – and frankly, I rather like the deconstructed nature of it. Makes it even more perfect as a way to round out a casual weekend at home.

You can even make it more “leftover” focused by tossing some homemade breadcrumbs on it or tossing in shredded chicken from a previous meal’s roast. I’m totally adding this to my next of “Looking at Leftovers: Bread” post. And quite frankly to my “Looking at Leftovers” Potato” post when I get to that.

Full report on the tartiflette to follow.

Investing In Home Made Stocks

Making a good stock may be all about reduction,
but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

Every few months I invest in a day of contemplation in the kitchen. And that day usually starts with opening the freezer door and contemplating the fact that I’ve got enough carcasses in there to give the Donner Party a run for their money.

Now before you go thinking that this blog is getting too dark for your tastes, let me assure you that I speak of chicken carcasses. Whenever I roast a chicken, I wrap the remnants in clingfilm and stuff them in my freezer, ready for when I need to make chicken stock. So every few months, when my current supply is about to run out, I invest a day in making a fresh batch.

I’ve been making my own chicken stock for a few years now, and of all the foodie habits I’ve picked up, it’s possibly the most useful and rewarding. Useful, because not only has it taught me about the patience necessary in learning to respect the processes of cooking well, but it’s also taught me to make use of the bits I might otherwise throw away. It’s also useful because it gives me that time, when I can’t stray too far from the kitchen or for too long, to indulge myself in fabulously foodie contemplations. As for the rewards, they’re perhaps like dividends; not so obviously immediate, but all the more rewarding when they do come home to roost.

Investing the Time

Now I use the term “invest” advisedly, because making a good chicken stock (or any stock, really) does take about a full day from start to finish. It’s not that making stock is difficult, or even that you have to pay it close attention throughout, but it does take a very long time to cook- about seven hours- and you do have to be around to skim from time to time, and then to sieve, and then to skim again, and finally to pour into suitable containers and freeze. Making stock is a bit like a day spent doing laundry; most of the time you’re not actually needed, but you do occasionally need to fluff and fold.

So why do I do it? Why do I give over a whole day to cooking something I’m not even going to eat that night, or the next night, or might not even use for weeks to come?

Well like I said, it’s an investment. That day will probably yield about 12 cups worth of chicken stock, which may not seem much. But those 12 cups will more than cover gravies for Thanksgiving and Christmas (not to mention any other roast chicken dinners in between), perhaps a risotto or even two, or , maybe an emergency chicken soup for a sick flatmate or friend,and most certainly a fabulous poaching liquid for chicken breasts. A poaching liquid that is not only recycle-able, but that even improves with every use. Excellent dividends indeed.

Which leads me to an excellent example of investing in stock. When I was but a college junior, before I could even call myself a foodie, I spent a summer working at an upmarket deli in Washington DC named Food & Co. One of my allotted tasks there was to poach chicken breasts. That process involved taking huge amounts of amber jelly from a tub in the fridge, bringing it up to heat,and then poaching the chicken breasts for about 10 minutes. The first time I completed the task I was about to pour the liquid down the drain when the owner (a wonderful woman named Elisabeth Siber) shrieked in horror and threw herself between me and the sink.

“I’ve been working on that stock for YEARS!”, she cried. “Do you have ANY idea what that stock is WORTH?”

It turned out she had been nurturing that stock, and using it time and again to poach more and more chicken breasts, which not only gave that bland avian white meat incredible flavor, but also served to deepen the flavor of the stock itself. Which would, in turn, yield yet more flavorsome breasts. Talk about protecting your capital. And it’s worth noting that she was by no means the only culinary professional to follow this practice. In fact the opposite is true. Probably the single most highly valued foodstuff in any decent restaurant kitchen is the stock. It ain’t there on sale or return, nor is it a high-end seasonal ingredient. But it’s the base of any good sauce, or soup, or risotto. It’s in fact the flavor backbone of such a wide variety of dishes that it is  a good stock on which most chefs depend. And so they husband their stocks with extreme care. After all, a professional stock can take five days to prepare.

Creating Culinary Value

So compared to five, what is one day? Especially when just that one day turns your culinary liabilities- that leftover chicken carcass, that last onion, those straggly bits of parsley, and that aging carrot that have been cluttering up your fridge- into fabulous liquid assets.  The only real financial outlay I ever encounter when making stock is having to buy celery, which although unpleasant, is certainly not expensive. If, unlike me, you can actually abide celery in any other context, then you probably already have some anyway! And the process of making the stock- simmering that huge pot gently for five hours or so, and then sieving it and simmering it again for another hour at a higher heat to reduce it- may leave you with less than you started out with, but if the quantity of your stock has diminished, it has actually intensified greatly in flavor. It has far greater value than when you started. We’re talking going from culinary penny to epicurean blue chip here.

veggiestockAnd you can diversify. I usually only make chicken stock because it’s it’s such a great all-rounder. But you can make vegetable stock with any leftover legumes you’ve got hanging around. Try mushroom stock! You can make beef, lamb, pork, or even ham stock from any meat you cook that still  has bones. All you need is water, heat,  those veg and herbs and seasoning and patience, and you can make culinary capital out of almost any gastronomic investment you’ve already ( made.

Yes, you can buy pre-made chicken stock (although that famous canned low sodium chicken broth that American tv cooks sing praises to is not readily available here in the UK, where the Oxo cube still reigns supreme). But why spend instead of investing? Your freezer may be small (mine is, and I share it with two others), but isn’t it better to stuff it with what you’ve made rather than what you’ve bought? After all, as a frozen asset home made stock thaws beautifully. So you can share.

Because that stock in which I’ve invested a day is all about shares. Yes, I cook for myself, and yes, I make stock for myself because I love that I can . But I know full well that when I’m glorifying in my little pots of gold at the end of the stock-making process, I will be sharing them with people I love. They will become the gravies at Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as sauces at dinners in between. Or it may become soup to share or give away. Making a good stock may be all about reduction,but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

So I am more than happy to invest a day, every few months, in making stock. And that day – when I have to be nearby to skim from time to time, to watch the vociferousness of the bubble and maybe turn the burner up or down a tad under the pot – that day gives me that day of contemplation I first mentioned. That day we all need from time to time, when you contemplate what you’ve got, and what you’ll make of it.

And shouldn’t we all invest a day, now and then, in taking-if not making- stock?