Make Mine Marinara

As I’ve stated many times before, I’m a big believer in “Big Batch Cooking”. Few things in life comfort me as much as the knowledge that-come what may, I have a big batch of my ragu, or my mother’s Poor Man’s Stroganoff, or just chicken stock, filling up my freezer, just waiting to be either heated and eaten, or turned into something else to be heated and eaten.

But as the days lengthen and the temperature warms up I generally turn away from slightly heavier fare. I don’t necessarily want a creamy stew, or even a meaty spag bol. I start to crave lighter meals. But I do still want to be prepared; to have something other than that trusty chicken stock on standby for either a quick pasta supper, or maybe just a flavoursome sauce for fish.

And that’s when I feel the urge to make a big batch of marinara sauce.

Marinara sauce, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a sauce made from tomatoes, onions, and herbs,” is one of the best possible standbys to have in your fridge or freezer. It is of course your almost basic tomato sauce. Marinara sauces are much lighter and fresher than you might think – at least when made at home and not laden with extra sugar and preservatives etc (no, I don’t believe in a store-bought pasta sauce).

pizza_sauce As such, it’s the perfect sauce for summer. It’s not only brilliant on pasta, but is also the perfect base for topping homemade pizzas, a delicious accompaniment to a grilled piece of chicken, fish, pork, or even steak.  What’s more, since it’s more of a staple of Italian-American rather than Italian cuisine (trust me, there’s a difference), it leaves you a lot more room to experiment since you won’t be hindered by the strictures of tradition.

Marinara is incredibly easy to make, and all from easily obtainable kitchen staples. I don’t use fresh basil in my marinara, for one very simple reason: I like my marinara to be a base, a starting point. From that base sauce, when I’m reheating a portion of it for whatever purpose, I can add that basil (which only works when fresh, and is assertive when used in any sauce), capers, dried chilies or black olives (though I almost never use black olives as I loathe them- no Putta in the kitchen, I), vodka, or cream!

sauce_makingOnce you have this basic sauce as that starting point it will save you loads of time –in the future. A good marinara does take a bit of time to make. Tomatoes, whether you use canned or fresh, take a good couple of hours to cook down properly and lose that potentially sour raw edge.

But a lot of time does not equal a lot of effort and there’s not much actual effort here. Just the odd bit of pot-watching, stirring, and some deeply pleasurable squishing. The squishing may in fact be my favorite stage. If you’ve got kids (with clean hands) this is actually a great sauce to get them to help you with.

So here’s my recipe for a good all-round Marinara (Italian culinary purists, look away now):

Marinara Sauce
(makes 6-8 servings)

You will need:

  • A couple of good glugs of olive oil
  • 1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes (optional. I like my Marinara to have a little bit of a kick, but then the older I get, the more I get my kicks where I can)
  • 1 20 cl mini bottle (or a big glass) of good dry white wine- you can use red,and in winter that’s what I use- but I like the lightness of white in the summer months
  • 6 400g cans of peeled Italian plum tomatoes in tomato juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • Salt and pepper

What to do:

  • In a large deep, lidded saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium low flame until it’s fragrant. Then throw in the chopped onions and a good sprinkle of salt (the salt will stop the onions from catching). Let the onions saute until they soften and turn translucent. This will take a good ten minutes.
  • Once the onions are like mushy window panes, toss in the garlic, the oregano, and the chili flakes (if using), stir, and let them cook for just a minute or two. Then raise the heat just slightly, and pour in the white wine. Let the wine simmer until it’s reduced by at least half.
  • While the wine is reducing, it’s time for the fun part! Place a colander (ideally plastic or enamel) over a large bowl, then tip in the six cans of plum tomatoes. Then with absolutely clean hands, start squishing the tomatoes between your hands until they are a messy pulp in the colander. Give them a stir with a wooden spoon to send any juice they’re holding down into the bowl.
  • Once that wine is reduced by half (the onion/garlic/oregano mixture should look like a distinctly wet slurry), tip in the tomatoes from the colander. Give them a stir in the saucepan, then add the juice from the bowl and the tomato puree. Stir vigorously for a minute to mix in the puree then let  it come to a steady low simmer.
  • Season with one more sprinkling of salt and a good grind of pepper then just put the lid almost but not quite entirely over the pot, and let it simmer away for about 2 1/2 hours, giving it the occasional stir and taste.
  • After 2 1/2 hours, the sauce should have reduced by about a third, and have a good, thickish and slightly chunky consistency, as well as a deep cooked tomato flavor spiked with just that note of onions, garlic, wine and herbs.
  • At this point I personally let the sauce cool down a bit, then puree it with an immersion blender. That’s because I find the sauce is more versatile if it’s smooth and velvety (which it so deliciously is). If you like the more “artisan” nature of a slightly chunky sauce, buon gusto!

And as I mentioned above, don’t just think of a Marinara as being a sauce for pasta or pizza; remember that grilled fish! Or that steak Pizziaola! Or go fabulously 80s retro and use it as a dipping sauce for deep-fried mozzarella!

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Related Posts:

Super Easy Two Ingredient Biscuits

Have just made a batch of Two Ingredient Biscuits (that’s biscuits in the American sense). So quick, so easy that it’s almost ludicrous. I used a 2in biscuit round and made 8 biscuits.

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You can make these is practically the same time it will take to read two fabulous foodie posts. Care to try it? Continue reading “Super Easy Two Ingredient Biscuits”

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!

Easy-Peasy Donuts for Donut Week

Happy National Doughnut Week!  Let’s get this out of the way immediately – doughnut or donut. We all know what we mean and I’m sure I speak for many when I say, “stop quibbling – let’s eat!”

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So donuts. You could buy them, of course. Or you could make them. Sound ridiculous? Not at all.

Making donuts can be as easy or fiddly as you choose to make it but they never take too much time. If you wanna go wholly homemade, feel free – the Pioneer Woman has a wonderful step-by-step recipe to follow. I choose to take the easy route with cheater’s donuts. I also choose not worry too much about the strict definition of donut vs biscuit vs beignets. These look and taste just as donut-y as anything I’ve had from the grocery store. Bottom line: when the donut craving hits, this version works wonders.  I like glazed or sugared. I’ve also done “adult” donuts with rum-infused glaze. But possibly that’s another story for another time.  Let’s go with sugared donuts for ease.

You will need:

  • 2 cans of biscuits (makes about 8 donuts and 8 donut holes)
  • Granulated sugar
  • Vegetable oil

Directions:

  • Layout the biscuits on a cutting board
  • Use a round cookie or biscuit cutter to cut your donuts out.
  • Use a smaller cutter, wide pastry tips or coke bottle cap (or something similarly sized) to cut the hole in the center of each donut.
  • Heat 2-3 inches of oil on medium/high. You need the oil to be more or less 350ºF. To test to see if it’s ready, drop a small piece of dough in it. It should sizzle immediately. If nt, wait and bit and try again
  • Place donuts and donut holes in the oil for about a minute on each side, until golden brown. Don’t do too many at once or you bring the temperature of the oil down too much
  • Remove from oil and place on a paper towel to soak up the excess oil.
  • Put some sugar in a small brown bag (those bags to store mushrooms in work very well) and shake each donut in the bag until coated.

Eat and enjoy! And if you have kiddies about, let them do the sugar shake. They love that sort of thing.

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You can also dust your donuts with confectioners/icing sugar; glaze them (a classic glaze is quick and easy – see below); coat them with chocolate and sprinkles … anything you want.

A classic donut glaze:

  • You will need:  2 cups powdered sugar,  1/4 cup milk and  1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Directions: Whisk the ingredients together until smooth. Once your doughnuts are cool enough to handle, dip top-side down into the glaze. Put on racks to let the glaze harden.
  • Top Tip: make the glaze after the donuts to fill the time – also means the donuts are ready to go when the glaze is at its most dippable consistency.

So, in the words of Fred the Baker: “Time to make the donuts.”

Cranky Pom/Cranky Apple

This is a cranky pom. It’s quite tasty. It is a drink based on the earlier cranky apple, a cocktail I made up ages ago.

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One evening, I found myself with a bottle of cran-apple juice, some vodka, dash or two of lemon, and a bit of something for fizz (I believe that on that particular evening, it was lemon seltzer). Since the ingredients didn’t explode or smoke when I put them together, I drank it. Eventually I concluded that the optimal proportions were:

1/2  cran apple juice
1/2 sprite or seltzer (if you feel bubbly)
vodka to taste
lemon juice to taste
lime to taste

The cranky pom is the same as the cranky apple except I didn’t have cran-apple juice one day – all I had was cranberry-pomegranate. What they hell, I thought. … and still no explosions or smoke.

So I grabbed a bendy straw and had at it.

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 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.

Delicious Distractions

Contrary to circumstantial evidence, I really AM working on Part 2 of Looking at Leftovers: Bread. The thing is that I got distracted – by food and cooking, as it happens so I am giving myself a pass. For now.

frenchtoastThis is not to say that bread and what to do with leftovers has gone completely by the wayside. As I suggested in Part 1, a really excellent option for leftover bread is French toast (or eggy bread, if that’s what you prefer to call it). Something not unlike breakfast at TransAtlantic Towers this AM.

But long before that came the distraction First – I was distracted by a follow up trip to Bakergirl (which I went on about at some length). Second, I was overcome by a coffee cake idea I had try out despite being home ill from work Tuesday. Coffee cake, as regular readers will know, is kind of a thing with me and I’ve been trying to figure out a simpler, straightforward way to rustle some up without all the faff.

Faff, in my world, is special ingredients and things that get in the way of the coffee flavour. Nuts may be common in coffee cake but not in mine. It’s not that I want something intensely coffee-ish. I don’t. I want a distinct coffee undertone. But I don’t want it competing with anything else.

And I don’t want to think about it too much. Like I said – no faff.

Here’s what happened. I was home ill, as said but in the afternoon I was feeling a bit more myself (extra sleep and a few ibuprofen do wonders) and I wanted a bit of cake. I was not feeling well enough to go to the store however and I only had two eggs. So I decided I would weigh the eggs and make a simple Victoria sponge based on the weight of the eggs. After all, a Victoria sponge (that’s pound cake, my fellow Americans – a butter cake is a butter cake is a butter cake) is all pantry staples in this house so no shopping needed.

So there I was, weighing and measuring with the oven already pre-heating when suddenly I thought, “Wait a minute – if I swap the caster sugar out for dark brown and add some espresso powder – that ought to do SOMETHING coffee cakish!”

And so I did. What could it hurt, I thought. This was a sort of “use up what I had cake anyway and I wasn’t planning on serving it to guests. And so that’s just what I did.

  • Pre-heated the oven to 180 °C / 350 °F
  • Weighed the two large eggs. Measured the same weight of self-raising flour, dark brown sugar and room temp, softened unsalted butter.
  • Mixed the flour, sugar and butter together until thoroughly combined and fluffier than before.
  • Added the eggs, mixed some more – keeping at it until smooth.
  • Added a dash of vanilla (don’t ask – I didn’t measure. But a good sized dash
  • Added a tablespoon on espresso powder (powder, not granules)
  • Mixed until thoroughly incorporated.
  • Bake for 40-45 minutes depending on your oven.

I rotated it half way though but that’s because I know my oven’s hot spot. You may want to. You may not want to. Know your oven, this is what I have learned. For a full recipe (using 3 or 4 eggs) I would have used a 2lb loaf  tin but this was a partial recipe thanks to a lack of shopping so I used a 1lb tin and it came about halfway up. Your results will vary depending on how much batter you end up with.

And do you know what I ended up with? An awesome, light, coffee infused sponge.

I was thrilled. So much so that instead of finishing up the bread post, I am going to tackle the coffee cake again – but this time, turning it into mini-loaves and muffins.

Fingers crossed, people.

Maybe Ghanoush: A Dip For The Unpredictable Eggplant

You know how when you try a dish and you love it so much you can’t wait to try it again? Then you do try it again but you loathe it the second time so you don’t have it again for ages. THEN you happen upon it again years later and this time you love it again? Only the next time you try it you’re back to hating it? no? Okay, maybe you don’t.

Ghanoush As it happens, I do. Because that has been my specific experience with Baba Ghanoush. I have it, I love it. I have it again, it’s way too bitter and smoky for me. And it’s not necessarily that it’s been well made at one establishment and then poorly made at another. I’ve gone back somewhere that has served delicious Baba Ghanouosh before and found it really unpleasant on the return trip. So what was the problem? Surely it had to be me.

I’d resigned myself to having a wildly erratic sensory relationship with this Eastern Mediterranean “salad” of roasted eggplants, tahini and garlic ( I say “salad” in quotes because although it is indeed a salad in that it’s a mix of vegetables, I struggle with the notion of calling anything a salad when its primary texture is an occasionally delicious mush), and made a sort of vow never to order it again but instead sample it when somebody else did. I definitely thought it’s was too unpredictable for me to even attempt to make it myself.

Except that sometimes you’re putting together the menu for an eastern Mediterranean dinner, and instead of a formal first course you want to go with a drinks/dip/chips starter. And that old standby of tzatziki is frankly depressing to you now, houmous is so prevalent these days as to be obnoxious, you ALWAYS loathe taramasalata, but you still need a dip that is tune with the rest of your planned dinner.

And that’s when I came back to Baba Ghanoush. Give it a go, I thought. After all, it’s not difficult or strenuous to prepare, and your guests may like it more than you do. I looked at various recipes, and decided to go with garlic and chili flakes and omit the semi-traditional tomatoes. Why the omission? Because here in London we’re at that point in the year when it’s just that bit too late to find a decent fresh tomato. And it was while pondering the seasonality of the tomato that it  hit me.

 

eggplant_smMy erratic relationship with Baba Ghanoush was most probably not down to some epicurean psychosis on my part, but rather the sheer unpredictability of its main ingredient.

Eggplants are terribly unpredictable. You never quite know how bitter an eggplant will be once cooked (they are incredibly bitter raw), or how much oil they will soak up in any given cooking process, thus rendering them either greasy and flavorless or greasy and bitter.

That’s why there are so many hints and tips and processes and traditions and downright superstitions out there about eggplants, and how to cook them.

  • Do you salt and  press and drain and rinse?
  • Do you no longer need to salt and press and drain and rinse?
  • Even if you’re a sodium-phile like me, can you bear to go through the process of salting and pressing and and draining and rinsing every time you want to cook with eggplant?
  • Can you always remember the order of the salting and pressing and draining and rinsing?
  • One source will authoritatively inform you that eggplants are bred differently now, so the above process is no longer necessary.
  • A second source will authoritatively inform you that could not possibly be true of all eggplants, and you should still go through the above processes just to be safe.
  • A third source will authoritatively inform you that only are both your first and second sources incorrect, but that you are in fact dealing not with eggplants but with aubergines. That third source is likely to be British or French.

At any rate, I realized that all of the above are contributory factors to why I haven’t cooked with eggplants for well over a decade. All that “do you-don’t you” fuss and effort is enough to put me off, even in my more adventurous moments.

But the great thing about cooking eggplants for Baba Ghanoush is that you roast them whole. This is, in fact, the only bit of actual cooking required. So that’s what I did. I oiled them, seasoned them well – even remembered to prick them several times with a fork first. If you don’t prick them and just set them to roast in a medium high oven for about 40 minutes, they do tend to explode,. This leaves your oven looking like some intergalactic being died a horrible death in there. Pricking them allows the steam building up inside them to escape, so after that roasting time they look not unlike a deflated dirigible.

So I let them cool while I mashed two cloves of garlic into a paste with thyme and chili flakes, then scraped the insides of the eggplants into a bowl and mashed them together with the garlic paste and some tahini, and stirred in some olive oil and lemon juice. And you know what?

WAY TOO BITTER AND SMOKY!

But I’d bought some Greek yogurt to serve alongside my main course and had some left over. So before I could panic and dash out to get the ingredients to throw together a last-minute houmous, it did just occur to me to add a tablespoon or two of the yogurt to my currently bitter bowl. And baba my ghanoush if the yogurt didn’t solve the problem. That yogurty creamy tang not only took that bitter edge away and brought out the sweetness in the smoke, but it also softened the chili bite and underscored the lemony freshness, and gave the dip a lighter, whipped texture.

SAVED!

My only concern now was whether my “on the fly” approach to Baba Ghanoush was going to mar an otherwise culturally accurate menu of Mussakhan (that’s chicken roasted with onions and sumac on a bed of Arab flat bread), and Jordanian carrot salad served alongside rice with fried pine nuts and almonds. But the more I looked into it, the more I discovered that Baba Ghanoush is but one name and version of a veritable buffet of eggplant mushy “salads” that hail from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean,from the Greek Melanzanasalata to the Egyptian Muttabal. So I comforted myself with the thought that somewhere in the Levantine, at some point in time, somebody bust have tempered a bitter eggplant dish with a spot of yogurt long before it ever occurred to me. My guests, of course, didn’t bat a culturally specific eye and just dove right in.

I have now made this dish a few times, with varying levels of yogurt to match the varying levels of bitterness from the eggplant. It has been a massive crowd-pleaser each time I’ve served it so I now feel confident enough to offer my recipe to please your crowds. I can’t, in all good faith, call it Baba Ghanoush, because it does have the yogurt, and not the tomatoes or the onions. But I’m happy to settle for Maybe Ghanoush.

MAYBE GHANOUSH

You will need:

  • 2 medium-sized eggplants (or aubergines, if you must)
  • 3 tablespoons tahini (I use light tahini, but the fat content is up to you)
  • 2 fat cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme ( 1 chopped and the other just picked)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of two lemons
  • 2-3 tablespoons Greek yogurt (again, I use non-fat, but as with the tahini…)

What to do:

  • Preheat your oven to 400f/200c/Gas mark 6
  • Using a paper towel, give your eggplants a light coating of olive oil and season well. Do remember to prick them all over with a fork, or you will get that “ET in a blender” effect all over your oven walls. Place them on a baking tray and roast for about 35-40 minutes.
  • After 35 minutes, press them lightly with a wooden spoon and they should immediately collapse in a satisfyingly Hindenburg-esque manner. Leave them in the oven for a further 5 minutes then take them out of the oven and let them cool for 30 minutes.
  • While the eggplants are cooling, crush the cloves of garlic (preferably in a mortar and pestle with a healthy pinch of sea salt flakes) into a smooth paste, then grind in the chili flakes and the chopped thyme until you have achieved amalgamation.
  • Cut the cooled eggplants in half lengthways, and scrape out the seeds and flesh onto a cutting board. Eggplants can be a bit stringy when roasted, so give the flesh a good rough chop. Then decant the eggplant flesh (it will still have a touch of the HR Gigers about it at this point) into a large bowl, and mash it into mush with a fork or a potato masher.
  • Stir in the tahini and keep stirring as you add the crushed garlic, chili and thyme paste, making sure that both the tahini and paste are completely dispersed. Then stir in the olive oil and the lemon juice. Season well, and give it a taste.
  • You may find that you got lucky with the eggplants and don’t need the yogurt at all, but I do believe the yogurt gives it that little extra tang and creaminess even if the eggplant isn’t too bitter. So start with 2 tablespoons of the yogurt, stirring well in, and give it a minute before you taste and decide if you need that third tablespoon.
  • If you’re happy, then it’s ready to decant into your serving bowl, where you should then sprinkle the surface with the remaining thyme leaves for a hit of herbal color. Serve with pitta bread, or toasted pitta bread, or even crudite.

Maybe Ghanoush keeps very well in the fridge for a couple of days, and in fact tastes even better the day after you make it, so feel free to make it in advance. Just bring it up to room temperature before serving.