Bread Pudding with Bourbon Drizzle

Monday, November 29, 2010

One of my favorite desserts is a good bread pudding. Probably the best I'd ever had was this little cafe in Idyllwild, CA. It was owned and operated by some German immigrant old lady and her daughter. They had a feast of various baked goods including the best damn cherry danish you'd have in your life. Well, every night they'd take all the leftover baked goods (croissants, danish of various types, breads) and combine it all in a subtly spiced bread pudding. It was to die for. My version here pays homage to the cherry in their bread pudding that was such an unexpected tart and sweet surprise, but uses easier to find and work with dried cherries. The addition of currants and subtle holiday classic spices like cinnamon and allspice add color and flavor to this pudding that's just perfect for the holidays. I also make it extra special (and tasty) with a super fast bourbon caramel to drizzle on top. And powdered sugar...naturally.

Holiday Bread Pudding with Bourbon Drizzle
12 cups (about a loaf's worth) of French or Italian bread, day-old or older
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups milk
6 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
3 Tbsp vanilla extract
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg or mace
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup dried currants
confectioner's sugar for dusting

For the Bourbon Drizzle:
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup bourbon
1/3 cup + more as needed of heavy cream

Cut or tear the bread into 1-inch sized pieces. Cut off the crusts if you like; leaving the crust one will make for crunchier/tougher pieces in the pudding. Place bread in a large mixing bowl. In another bowl, gently whisk together the cream, milk,eggs, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and salt . Pour this egg mixture over the bread. Add the melted butter and mix with a spatula or your hands. Press the bread down and into the egg mixture, helping it soak. Let the bread soak at least 30  minutes (preferably 45). You want a good amount of that liquid to be absorbed by the bread, so soak it longer if you need to. This can even be done overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray or butter a 9x13 casserole dish (or around that size).

Add the dried cherries and currants tot he bread mixture and give it all a good toss. Then pour the bread and fruit mixture into the buttered casserole dish and bake in oven for about 40-50 minutes, or until bubbling and center has firmed up.

While the bread pudding cooks, make the bourbon drizzle.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the sugar and brown sugar all at once and whisk until melted and dissolved, about 2-3 minutes. Then lower the flame or remove the pot from the stove and add the bourbon all at once. Be careful -- the bourbon will react instantly with the hot sugar and start bubbling and spattering, so don't be're doing it right. Return to medium-low heat and continue to cook until the bourbon sauce thickens a bit and alcohol is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Add your cream and whisk in to combine -- this will smooth out your drizzle and give it all a nice consistency. Set aside to pour over bread pudding.

To serve, slice out a good portion of bread pudding into a bowl or plate. Drizzle generously with the bourbon drizzle and then top with sifted powdered sugar. Serve piping hot with some more bourbon!

Conversely, you can take out the bourbon and top the bread pudding with a caramel sauce and some vanilla ice cream.

Thanksgiving Leftovers: The Goodness Continues

Friday, November 26, 2010

Just 'cause the main event is over, doesn't mean you have to start from scratch again. Thanksgiving in particular yields some pretty insanely good leftovers. I know the rules go Day 1: Rewarmed Thanksgiving Repeat; Day 2: Sandwiches; Day 3: ???. Most people start to wonder what to do after. Here are some really quick and easy ideas to work in those Thanksgiving leftovers.

Shepherd's Pie
This is really forgiving dish that can be made a few different ways, but uses pretty much everything leftover from a standard American Thanksgiving. You want to put your turkey cut or shredded into pieces in the bottom of a casserole dish and top it with some leftover gravy. If you don't have gravy, then heat some chicken broth on the stove and add some cornstarch to quickly thicken it. Now you have gravy. On top of that go some chopped veggies you use; green beans, carrots, peas, corn, etc. Then top it all off with a heaping of leftover mashed potatoes. If you haven't got the mashed potatoes but have leftover roasted yams, then go ahead and mash those up (without skin) and mix in some butter, then put that on top. Pop it in the oven and cook about 15 minutes or until the potatoes (whichever you used) start to have a golden brown.

With some simple addition of olive oil or pesto and fresh mozzarella cheese, you can transform most leftovers into an entirely different dish. Simply prepare your pizza dough as usual, top with some olive oil or pesto, top with your leftovers of choice and pieces of mozzarella cheese and bake!

Yes, tacos. Turkey is like chicken, so salsa and guacamole are going to go with it beautifully. You can make the jicama slaw I posted before to go with too for an amazing leftover dish. And that leftover cranberry sauce would be killer here as well.

Turkey Chile
Prepare chile as usual or (gasp) open a can, and add some pieces of turkey at the end.

Potato Cakes
Leftover Mashed potatoes do 98% of the work for you here. Simply combine mashed potatoes, 1 egg lightly beaten, and some fresh herbs (preferably chive) in a bowl and form into little patties. Chill for 30 minutes then fry up in a saute pan with oil until golden and crispy on both sides. Serve as is or topped with smoked salmon.

Bread Pudding
Leftover bread from Thanksgiving can be cubed up and tossed with eggs whisked together with heavy cream, milk, vanilla extract, simple spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and added with dried fruits like raisins or cranberries and baked for a simple dessert!

French Toast with Turkey and Bacon
Similar idea to above, but this time you're making a French toast base. Top each slice with some turkey and bacon and top with drizzled maple syrup for a next day brunch!

Turkey Eggs Benedict
Yes, I'm serious. Do English muffins or even some leftover bread from Thanksgiving and give it a toast. Top with thinly sliced turkey, a slice of tomato if you like, and top with poached egg. Do the hollandaise if you like or a lower-cal and tastier pesto!

Hot Brown
The traditional Kentucky Derby food happens to be made for Thanksgiving leftovers too. Check out the blog for the recipe that comes together in 10 minutes!

Turkey Hash
Simple cube up your leftover potatoes or sweet potatoes and saute with some onions and peppers. Top with some cubed turkey and fried eggs.

Cobb Salad with Turkey
Lettuce, tomato, onion, bleu cheese, boiled egg, and turkey. Done.

Turkey Cornbread Casserole
Yes I hate casseroles as a general rule, but this one works! Whip up some cornbread batter and pour it over some turkey and leftover veggies. Top with shredded cheddar cheese and bake until cornbread is done, about 15 minutes. Serve hot!

Do's & Don'ts: Mashed Potatoes Edition

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

With Thanksgiving tomorrow and mashed potatoes being a staple on the table, I've been reading many articles offering advice for perfect mashed potatoes and comments from readers on their own takes. Some are great advice while others are simply horrifying. Please trust me here on this blog and forward this posting on to your family and friends. Help me save them from themselves.

As Jacques Pepin says, often the simplest appearing dishes are in fact the most difficult to make. It's not because of complicated recipes or multiple steps, but rather a combination of reliance on quality ingredients and perfectly executed technique. Mashed potatoes will fall into this category.

Everyone has their version, their grandma's version, their so-and-so's distant relative from the old country who came on the May Flower to America who brought with them the mashed potatoes recipe given to them from Moses at Mt. Sinai. I get it: your recipe is important. That's all great but I pit my mashed potatoes against your any day of the week. And I will win. This is because I follow some simple rules and accept some basic truths.

Basic Truth About Mashed Potatoes #1: They are fatty and not good for you and this is why you love them. They involve carbs (potatoes) and fat (butter and cream) and sodium (salt). If they do not involve these things, the mashed potatoes suck. This is why I don't eat mashed potatoes every day.

Basic Truth About Mashed Potatoes #2: There are no shortcuts -- it does not count if you make them from a box mix. Seriously? We can't peel and boil some potatoes? I don't want to hear anyone say they make their mashed potatoes from a box. Ever. This is for long voyages by sea and apocalyptic scenarios when potatoes are scarcely to be found.

Basic Truth About Mashed Potatoes #3: They must be made and consumed fresh. Your window of keeping mashed potatoes warm is very small before you completely compromise the integrity of the dish. The good news is they are very easy and fast to make so there is no reason why you should be making them a day or even a hour in advance.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's proceed with some Do's and Don'ts for mashed potatoes.

DO use Russett or Yukon Gold potatoes for your mashed potatoes. All the others are too waxy or tough or starchy and won't yield themselves as well to the classic fluffy and creamy mashed potatoes we're going for.

DO peel your potatoes. Otherwise it's called smashed potatoes and not mashed potatoes (but also very, very yum).

DON'T under or overcook your potatoes! You want them easily pierced by a fork or knife, but not falling apart into teeny tiny crumbled pieces either. It's not a huge deal if you overcook them; it's better to overcook than undercook. But still pay attention and really try to get them at their maximum texture. This will ensure a perfect flavor and texture for your mashed potatoes. Undercooking will leave you small little pebbles of undercooked potato that will be oddly crunchy when eating.

DO use butter. I don't care if you use it cold or melt it, but you need to use butter. The only difference between melted butter and cold butter is that the softer the butter the easier and faster it will incorporate into your potatoes. That's all.

DON'T use margarine instead of butter in a desperate attempt to save on calories. It will make your potatoes oily and have a peculiar taste to them. And heads up: you're not saving that much in calories anyway! Just eat less of the potatoes!

DO use cream. You can use heavy cream, light cream, whipping cream, or sour cream. Cream gives you the fat percentage needed to help the potatoes when mashed and whipped keep a nice form. When you use milk your mashed potatoes will turn out thinner. Especially if you like to serve them with gravy then use cream. Only difference when you use sour cream is it will give the potatoes a slightly tangy taste (which can be very delightful). Buttermilk is fine too and will give you that tangy flavor as well.

DON'T use fat free milk or anything under whole milk fat percentage-wise. You will end up with potato soup.

DO use kosher salt when seasoning. Save the course sea salts for finishings. Kosher salt will season and melt in better with the potatoes. When using a courser sea salt like fleur de sel you run the risk of having pockets of salty potatoes and other pockets unseasoned. Kosher salt will give a nice even flavoring throughout every bite.

DON'T use instant mashed potatoes boxed mixes. They taste nothing like real mashed potatoes. They taste like cardboard. And are not delicious.

DON'T use evaporated anything. I've seen some people say they use evaporated milk in their mashed potatoes and then it mixes with the water from the potatoes and gets thicker....WHY??????!!! Use the real godamn milk!

DO use cheeses to help give your mashed potatoes depth of flavor. I like grated sharp cheddars, hard cheeses like parmesan or romano, and even smoked goudas. You actually want a really hard cheese that you can grate finely to help melt into the mashed potatoes. Super soft cheeses with flavored rinds like brie or camembert won't work; their flavor is too strong and will more than overpower the potatoes. But a little of the salty cheeses like mentioned above will add just the right balance.

DO use some fresh herbs for color and flavor. I like any green herb especially thyme and the classic chopped chives or scallions.

DON'T make your mashed potatoes too far in advance; they are best served fresh!

Hope these tips help you this holiday season serve up the best spuds ever!

Ricotta Salata with Roasted Garlic, Lemon, and Thyme

Appetizers and snacks don't have to be labor-intensive whatsoever. Many times, the combination of just a couple of fresh and key ingredients can make the best dish. Such is the case with ricotta. Naturally a little sweet and super creamy in texture, ricotta is one of those ingredients that can take on whatever flavor profile you give it. Here, the sweet and slightly nutty goodness from roasted garlic and fresh herbs make a velvety textured dip that's a perfect creamy contrast to toasted bread slices. And a little sprinkle of course sea salt offers a salty crunch to every bite.

Ricotta Salata with Roasted Garlic and Thyme
1.5 cups ricotta cheese
1 head roasted garlic (recipe here)
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbsp fresh thyme
freshly ground black pepper
course sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
thinly sliced toasted bread slices

Combine the ricotta cheese, garlic, lemon zest, thyme, and a drizzle of olive oil in a small bowl. Top on toasted bread and sprinkle with some sea salt and black pepper. Serve.

Kitchen Basics: Roasted Garlic

This is one of those ingredients that can catapult a dish from great to amazing. Garlic in its raw state is strong, extremely flavorful, and slightly acidic. And amazing for many dishes as we know. But when you roast the garlic, you transform that strong flavor into a more subdued, concentrated slightly nuty sweetness that is incredible on its own or as an ingredient to build an entire dish around.

Roasted garlic sounds complicated and strange. I mean, take a garlic head and look at it -- how the hell are you suppose to roast this thing? Well turns out it's stupidly easy. And a lot faster than you'd think. All you need is:
  • whole garlic heads
  • olive oil or vegetable oil
  • aluminum foil
Simply preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Peel off the outmost layers of the garlic.Then using a sharp knife, cut the top 1/4 inch off the head of the garlic, exposing the cloves.

Drizzle the tops of the exposed cloves with a little oil and cover with aluminum foil.

Place on baking sheet and roast in oven 30-35 minutes until garlic is very tender. Let stand to cool until easily picked up by your hand. Now you have roasted garlic!

At this point, you can squeeze out the roasted garlic cloves and into an air-tight container. The roasted garlic will keep up to 2 weeks this way for you to use as an ingredient for other dishes. If using immediately, go ahead and scoop out how much you need. You can also pick up the entire head and squeeze out the garlic, or use a fork to help you.

You can serve the roasted garlic heads just as is as a dish on to itself. Simply sprinkle some course sea salt and freshly ground black pepper right on top and serve with thinly sliced toasted chiabatta slices.

Add some roasted garlic to your mashed potatoes, dips, purees, pasta dishes, or even soups or stews.

Traditional Green Bean Casserole

Monday, November 22, 2010

A lot of Thanksgiving is about traditional American food. And as much as I hate to admit it (and I really do hate admitting this), it's going to involve some sort of creamed or condensed soup in a casserole. I'll be honest with you -- I'm not a fan of casseroles and anything that uses cream of something from a can. But I realize that other people do, and a big part of their Thanksgiving dinner involves the time-old tradition of Casserole.

This of course, refers to Green Bean Casserole. Almost as much a staple at American Thanksgiving dinner tables as the turkey and mashed potatoes, it's a part of life I need to get over. And yes you need the fried onions on top.

When researching recipes to post here I thought best to go to the queen of American cooking, Ms Paula Deen. So here's her recipe for a pretty easy and basic green been casserole...with the onions...that is as American as apple pie. Might as well make that for dessert too!

Green Bean Casserole     recipe courtsey of Paula Deen from Foodnetwork

1/3 stick butter
1/2 cup diced onions
1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
2 cups sliced green beans
3 cups chicken broth
1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
1 (2.8-ounce) can French-fried onion rings
pinch of House Seasoning (mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic powder)
1 cup grated Cheddar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Saute the onions and mushrooms in the butter. Boil green beans in chicken broth for 10 minutes and drain. Add the green beans, mushroom soup, onion rings, and House Seasoning, to taste, to the onion mixture. Stir well. Pour into a greased 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Bake for 20 minutes, then top the casserole with the Cheddar and bake for 10 minutes longer, or until the casserole is hot and cheese is melted.

Autumn Wild Rice with Dried Fruits and Pine Nuts

Everyone does bread stuffing for Thanksgiving, which admittedly I love as well. But sometimes it's nice to change it up with rice. I developed the following recipe paying attention to both the flavors and colors of fall. Sometimes it's nice to also see the traditional burnt oranges, golden yellows, deep purples, and specks of bright greens in our food as well as the decorations in and around our homes. In fact, food can act in and of itself as a decoration on the table -- a delicious and edible one at that!

I tend to prefer to use seasonal ingredients because they are at their peak within that season. Why use a tomato in January if it tastes like shit? Pointless. Use broccoli instead when it's in its most glorious state. So for this dish, I take a page from history and use dried fruits as the body of my dish. You can use any dried fruit you wish for this rice dish -- truly anything would work here -- but I like the colors that dried apricots, cranberries, cherries, and mango give to the dish. And together with fresh green herbs and some warming spices, it's a wonderful side dish for your Thanksgiving meal as well as for any fall and winter week night dinner.


Autumn Wild Rice with Dried Fruits and Pine Nuts
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil + 3 Tbsp for saute
1 large onion, chopped
6 large garlic cloves, minced
freshly ground black pepper
kosher salt
1 cup wild rice
1 cup long-grain white rice

1 3/4 - 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 Tbs fresh mint, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, leaves picked off the stems
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped small
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup dried cherries
2 Tbsp dried mango

Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and season with some salt and pepper (a pinch of each is fine). Cook on medium heat until onion becomes softened and lightly golden around the edges, about 10 minutes. Adjust the heat on the stove if you have to so onions don't burn. Add the garlic and coook another minute until garlic is fragrant. Add the wild rice and mix to combine. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover with lid, and simmer until rice is just under tender (just under al dente), about 40 minutes.

Now add the white rice. The reason why you don't add the rices at the same time is because wild rice takes a lot longer to cook than white rice; if you added them at the same time either the wild one will be too undercooked or the white one will dissintegrate. Cover the pot with a lid and simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and both rices are nice and tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, combine the rest of the olive oil (1/4 cup), lemon zest and juice and whisk to combine. Pour this "dressing" over the rice right in the pot. Add the parsley, mint, thyme, pine nuts, and dried fuits and toss to combine. Place in a serving platter and serve hot or at room temperature. Can also be served cold.

Apple Torte with Breadcrumb-Hazelnut Crust

This recipe comes courtesy of Lida Bastianich, a food goddess and Italian Cuisine Maven. Although ethnically she's Croatian, her family moved to Italy when she was young and there she fell in love with the food and the culture. She's now an expert on Italian cuisine, bringing together the historic rustic with refined skill. And I love her recipes.

This one for apple torte featured in Bon Appetit magazine's October issue is a wonderful dessert for the season, and a perfect dessert for a holiday meal like Thanksgiving or even Christmas. It's a little labor-intensive, but the work is sure to pay off. And if you're serving a more rustic meal and want to go out of the traditional American box, this is a perfect dessert for you!

Apple Torte with Breadcrumb-Hazelnut Crust
2 pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 inch wedges
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup hard apple cider or dry white wine
8 cups fresh breadcrumbs made from crustless Italian or French bread (finely ground in food processor)
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and husked
10 Tbsp sugar, divided
3 tsp finely grated lemon peel
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup whole milk
6 Tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter cut into 1-inchpieces
powdered sugar for garnish
whipped cream for garnish

Special Equipment: 9-inch diameter tart pan with removable bottom

To make the apple filling, arrange the apples in an even layer in a heavy skillet. Sprinkle the apples with the 1/3 cup of sugar, and pour the apple cider over it. Cover and cook over medium heat until apples are tender, turning the apples over occasionally about 8-10 minutes. Uncover, then continue to cook the apples until the juices evaporate about 10 more minutes. You want to turn the apples over a couple of times so they don't burn. Remove from heat and let apples cool completely in the skillet.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread the breadcrumbs on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until dried and lightly golden, about 20 minutes. Cool.

Gind the hazelnuts in a nut grinder or food processor until finely ground. Add 3 cups of the toasted breadcrumbs mixture and 6 tablespoons of the sugar and process a few seconds to combine. Transfer this mixture to a large bowl. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar, lemon peel, and salt to the mixture and stir with a fork to combine. In a small saucepan, combine the milk and butter. Stir over medium heat until milk is warmed through and butter melts. Pour the milk-butter mixture right over the breadcrumb mixture. Stir with a fork until moistened -- the dough will be very sticky. Let the dough rest in the bowl until the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Transfer 1 cup of the dough to a floured work surface. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Press out to a 9-inch round and wrap it in plastic wraps. Chill at least 1 hour for the top of the crust.

Transfer the remaining dough to the work surface, flatten it, and press or roll it out into a 9-inch diameter to fit the bottom of your tart pan. Transfer to the tart pan and using your fingers, push the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. You want the dough to come up about 1/2 inch above the sides -- you're going to fold over this extra dough on top of the top dough when you're done so make sure to give yourself enough overhang to do this! Once your dough is nice and fitted in, cover it with plastic wrap and chill it for an hour so the tart can keep its shape when baking.

Now it's time to fill and cook the tart.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Fill the pie crust with the apple mixture. Place the top crust you previously rolled out right on top of the apples, then fold that 1/2 inch overhang over the top crust and press it together to seal it. Don't worry if it doesn't look perfect -- this is called "rustic" and imperfections can be covered with powdered sugar later. You do want to make sure the crusts meat so that the apples filling can stay inside and not ooze out during baking though.

Bake in oven for about an hour, or until the crust is deep golden and crust begins to pull away from the tart pan. Don't worry if the top crust starts to crack; this is normal. Let the tart cool completely in the pan at least 2 hours before removing. Carefully remove the sides of the tart (the bottom will remain or you can very carefully remove the bottom as you slide it off an onto your serving dish) and transfer to a serving platter or cake stand. Dush liberally with the powdered sugar right before serving, and top each slice with a dollop of whipped cream.

Week Night Yum Yum: Oyako Donburi

Friday, November 19, 2010

This is one of my all-time, top 10 favorite dishes. Hands down. It's one of my go-to meals when I feel sick and is so comforting and delicious on a cold day. And so incredibly easy to make it turns out! For a while I'd just order it from my local Japanese take-out joint, but sadly where we live right now we're a wee bit too far out. So necessity + desperation has made me figure out how to make it myself at home! And it turns out it's way easier and faster than ordering delivery or driving out to get take out! 

Although traditional donburi is made with dashi, I substitute easy to find chicken broth with much success. Yes you need the mirin or rice wine vinegar, with a preference for the mirin. And sushi rice is the best rice to use because it's sticky and naturally a little sweet. I also top mine with some nori for added crunch and iodine for my thyroid issue. 

It's cheap, it's easy, it comes together in 20 minutes, and is delicious. My kids love it and The Hubsters goes nuts for it. Make it today.

Oyako Donburi
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 small white onion, very thinly sliced
1 chicken breast, sliced very thin (1/4 inch thick) across the grain
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 scallions, half cut into thick diagonals and other half sliced thinly for garnish
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp mirin or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp granulated sugar
1.5 cups chicken broth
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
prepared sushi rice
torn nori for garnish (optional)
Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan or wok until very hot. Add the onion and cook on high heat for about 3 minutes. Add the chicken and cook another 3 minutes -- don't panic, the chicken will finish cooking soon. Add the carrots, garlic, ginger, and half of the scallions (the diagonal half) and mix in, cooking another 2-3 minutes. Add the soy sauce, mirin/vinegar, sugar and broth all at once and cook 3 minutes. Next, add the beaten eggs all at once right on top. Leave it alone and let it cook right on top of the chicken-vegetable mixture for a good 2 minutes. Then taking a spatula or wooden spoon, begin vigorously stirring the egg mixture from the middle. Don't worry if some of the egg starts to coddle in the broth -- this is normal. The egg is going to both thicken the sauce a bit and also cook into scrambled eggs. Cook the mixture until eggs are set and chicken is cooked through about 5-7 minutes. You'll still have some liquid left over.

To serve, portion out the prepared rice into bowl. Top with generous helpings of the chicken-egg mixture, including spooning the liquid over it. Top with sliced scallions and nori if using, and serve piping hot.

Prepared Sushi Rice
2 cups sushi rice
3 cups water

In a rice cooker or pot with lid, combine the rice and water together. Set to cook  on rice cooker. If using a pot, bring water and rice to a boil and then cover with lid, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until water has evaporated and rice is tender. Stir it a couple of times in the pot to prevent sticking during the cooking process. No need to stir it if using a rice cooker. Serve hot.

Oven Beef BBQ: The Solution to the Rainy Conundrum

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I love BBQ. Like, I love BBQ. You know how we have soulmates? I think we have soul-foods. And for me, BBQ is one of those. It's everything you want and more: sweet, tangy, savory, soft, a little crunchy, and simply heaven. But when the rain comes out and colder temperatures, we sadly have to put our smoker away for the foreseeabile future and say goodbye to BBQ.

But where there's a will, there's a way...

Who says I can't have BBQ in November? Just takes some imagination. And a trusty Dutch oven and killer spice rub.

In the oven I don't get the same smoke ring obviously because I'm not smoking the meat, but by adding a small dash of Liquid Smoke I can get the taste and the smell. And using the same rub gives the meat the same sweet and tangy flavors I so crave. By slow-cooking the meat in a tightly lidded cast iron pot or Dutch oven, you can mimick the "low and slow" process enough to get the same tenderness. In conclusion: I've come pretty damn close. Not perfect; it can never be the same as a good smoke, but pretty damn close. You can do pork shoulder, beef brisket, chuck like I did here, and even chicken this way. The key is to use a good rub and keep it "low and slow" just like we do outside with our wood chips. And leftovers make some killer toppings for pizzas, tacos, and sliders.

I bought some chuck the other day and didn't really feel like pot roast again (chuck is the preferred cut for pot roast). I felt like BBQ. So I figured it out. And the end result was awesome: the texture was much like pulled pork but with the deep flavors of beef. I loved this. And the meat was covered in the sweet and thick honey-based braising sauce. It caramelized and gave the chuck an amazing rich color and flavor. Loved.

So without further adieu, here's my adaptation to smoking in the rain using Dr. BBQ's perfect recipe for spice rub and my super quick BBQ braising sauce. You will love this. I promise you.

Oven Beef BBQ with Big Time Spice Rub and Quick BBQ Braising Sauce
1 (3.5-4 pound) round chuck, at room temperature
1/4 cup Big Time BBQ Rub (recipe follows)
2 cups apple cider or juice
1 cup honey
3/4 cup ketchup
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp Hungarian paprika
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cayenne (optional)
1/4 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp ground mace
freshly ground black pepper
few dashes Liquid Smoke

Special equipment: cast iron pot or Dutch oven

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Rub the Big Time BBQ Rub all over the chuck, getting into the crevices as well. All over. You may need to use more if using a larger cut of meat. You want the entire meat covered in an even layer with the rub. Be generous and don't be shy about it.

Place the chuck in the Dutch oven and pour the apple juice around it (not on top). Place the lid tightly on top and place in oven (middle rack in the middle ove the oven) and cook for 3 hours. Check once every hour to make sure liquid isn't evaporating too much; if all the liquid evaporates, add more juice 1 cup at a time).

In the third hour, make your BBQ braise. Combine the honey, ketchup, vinegar, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, cayenne if using, clove, mace, and a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper in a small bowl. Whisk all the ingredients together to combine. Add the Liquid Smoke if using -- a few drops or dashes is fine (about 2-3 -- it's powerful stuff!) and set aside.

Take the chuck out of the oven and remove lid. Pour the BBQ braise right over the top of the chuck. Check for tenderness as well -- the chuck should be starting to get soft but not be quite fork tender just yet. Top with the lid and return to the oven for another hour - hour and half. Check every half hour for tenderness and keep spooning the braise liquid over the meat. You'll know when it's done when the meat just falls apart when you pierce it with a fork, and the braising liquid has thickened up considerably. Break up the meat and mix it into the BBQ sauce. Serve hot.

Big Time BBQ Rub:    recipe courtesy of Ray Lampe, aka Dr. BBQ
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1/4 cup granulated brown sugar
1 Tbsp granulated garlic
1 Tbsp granulated onion
2 Tbsp paprika
2 Tbsp chili powder
2 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground nutmeg

Combine all ingredients and store in air-tight container. Yields 1.5 cups worth of rub.

*if you can't find "granulated" (which means a courser ground), then you can use powdered onion and garlic instead.

My Notes:
You can do this same process with pork shoulder or beef brisket. Just adjust time in oven according to size of meat. You know it's done when the meat can be easily pierced with a fork and falls apart.

Serving suggestions: bleu cheese mashed potatoes, maccaroni and cheese, cheese and jalapeno cornbread, cole slaw, buttered corn.

Turkey Talk: Roasting A Turkey and Gorgeous Gravy

Monday, November 15, 2010

In the on-going debate of what's a better turkey for Thanksgiving: brined or roasted?, I decidedly fall on the roasted side. Admittedly I've never brined a turkey before. But that in and of itself says something -- I've never had to. Because I've always successfully roasted a turkey to a moist perfection.

Roasting anything comes down to technique. It's one of those opportunities in cooking where it really depends on your abilities rather than quality of ingredients. Don't get me need good quality stuff to work with, and that can only maximize your success. But often a roasting technique (like grilling) can separate the men from the boys, or the savvy from the inane as it were. My mother for example has simply obliterated perfectly wonderful turkeys with her improper roasting technique. So if you can get that part right, you're more than halway there.

Roasting is not braising. Braising is easy -- you put all your ingredients in a big pot, add some liquid, cover with lid, and cook in oven for a few hours until everything is super tender. Roasting on the other hand, involves some attention and moving around. You need to adjust temperatures to lock in juices, add some aliminum foil here or there to help the thicker parts cook while not burning the thinner parts, and even manually moving whatever your roasting around so all the sides can get done. Techniques like basting -- the process of taking up liquid and distributing on the meat -- helps get every inch browned up nicely without having to manually rotate the thing constantly. But overall, you do need to be an active participant in the roasting process.

That said, roasting properly sounds a lot more duanting than it really is. All you need to do is abide by a few rules and pay attention.

Here we go...

Rule #1: Use a room temperature turkey!
I can't state this enough either. Your turkey must be at room temperature for maximum roasting success. A turkey is a thick piece of meat -- the outside is going to get warmer faster than the inside. When you're roasting the same thing happens. If you're turkey is cold straight out of the fridge, you run the risk of undercooking the inside and overcooking the outside. What will happen is the top layers will get done and look golden and beautiful, you'll insert your meat thermometer and find the inside is still quite underdone, so you have to keep cooking it, and then when the inside is done the outside is nice and dry.

To avoid this, your entire turkey needs to be the same temperature. By using a room temperature turkey, the deeper inside is the same temperature as the top, so now you have maximum control and can cook the entire turkey evenly. This simple but crucial step will guarantee a moist turkey. You may say "well why not just use a cold turkey straight from the fridge -- the whole thing is cold!" Yes, but again the outside will cook faster than the inside. And the colder the inside is the longer it's going to take to cook through.

Seasonings are stick easier to a room temperature turkey as well.

Rule #2: Season with salt, pepper, and dried herbs and spices only!
When roasting, you're going to expose the meat to some high intense heat, both directly and indirectly. Fresh herbs have water in them, and water when exposed to high heat will evaporate quickly. This ends up burning whatever holds the water. So to put it simply: if you use fresh thyme on top of your turkey, it will burn in a half an hour. Black. Finished. But dried herbs have had that moisture already taken out. So they are much friendlier to the roasting process.

Fresh herbs are fabulous and preferred to season inside the turkey. Fresh herbs have more concentrated flavor, so they are great to use. When you place them inside the cavity of the turkey, they're protected by the turkey, so they won't burn. So keep to this simple rule: fresh herbs in, dried herbs out.

Rule #3: Lubrication is the key to success and flavor!
Turkey has some fat to it. The entire skin of the turkey is fat, and will yield golden delicious yumminess to your gravy later. But he still needs a little help to keep moist for such a long time in the oven.

Two traditional and preferred methods are used for lubricating the turkey (or chicken): oil and butter. Oil is nice because it has a higher smoking point, meaning it can handle higher temperatures and for longer periods of time before it burns. Butter conversely contains milk solids in it, and when exposed to high temperatures for too long, will burn and turn black and taste nasty. However, butter has considerable more flavor than oil, so it's preferred for its taste. And butter generally gives you the best perfect golden color you're looking for when roasting a turkey or chicken in particular.

You can use either for turkey. Just remember if you use butter then you'll probably have to loosely cover the turkey at one point with foil so it doesn't burn. And using room temperature butter is best so it can spread easily and evenly on the turkey!

Rule #4: Add some liquids!
Turkey is bigger than chicken. Duh. It therefore needs a longer time to cook in the oven. They way you can help a turkey get browned and keep its moisture is by adding moisture. This is done vis-a-vis basting. You can use any liquid you like: fruit juices, broth, wine or beer even, or combinations of those. Water is technically fine too but why use it? It has no flavor and will dillute your roast. Chicken broth works best for roasting chicken or turkey, and I've successfully used apple, orange, and pineapple juice as well. You don't need much -- only a cup or two that you pour into the bottom of your roasting pan. And another upshot is the liquid helps keep the golden drippings from the turkey from burning, and thus gives you the base of an excellent gravy to follow.

Rule #5: Lock in those juices!
Probably Misake #1 people make when roasting their turkey is they put it in at a 350 degree oven for a couple of hours. Misake. Unless you've brined that turkey first and already infused that moisture and seasoning into that turkey, this is the best way to assure a dry turkey. The most important part of roasting is manipulating that temperature so you can lock in the juices.

To do this, you need to start the turkey at a high temperature -- 400 degrees -- before you finish cooking it at 350. What this does is blister the outside of the turkey. You're basically searing the outside of the turkey, creating a crust. This crust then is going to lock in the moisture inside of the meat, preventing it from drying out as you continue to cook your meat through. This is the most important step in roasting anything, especially poultry. Then you reduce your temperature to 350 to continue cooking the inside, and you use the basting technique to help the entire turkey get evenly browned.

Rule #6: Use a thermometer so you don't have to guess!
Turkey is poultry and needs to be full cooked through. Undercooking turkey can make you very sick (hello food poisoning!) so it's imperative you know when your bird is done. Turkey because it's bigger can be a little funky though, and appear done on the outside but not quite done on the inside. Best bet is to use a meat thermometer. This way there is zero guessing and you know exactly when your turkey is perfectly cooked. Using a thermometer helps you to not overcook your turkey as well. So invest in one if you don't have one already. You don't need anything battery-operated and super fancy; just one that you can stick into a meat and the gage is easy to read. I like using the ones that can stay in the oven, so you're not constantly poking the meat -- you just insert the thermometer, roast, and watch the temperature go up.

Rule #7: Let that turkey rest before cutting!
Another big mistake people make with any meat they grill or roast is they cut it too soon. You need to let your meat "rest" for a few minutes before cutting so the juices can redistribute and settle down. When you're cooking, the heat activates the juices and they move -- they're literally moving all throughout the meat -- so if you cut too soon then the juices will run right out an onto your carving board or platter. That juice, that moisture, is what makes meat taste tender. So if you lose it on your carving board, you're left with a dried meat. By letting the meat rest there on the platter, the juices move back and settle into the meat. So when you cut, the moisture is still in the meat rather than on your counter top.

Here's some basic roasting techniques from A to Z for your turkey. Do whatever flavor combination you like, stuff it with whatever; this roasting technique won't change.

1.  Position the rack in the lowest third of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

2.  Taking a room temperature turkey, season it as you wish. Rub butter on the outside first, concentrating more on the breast. Season liberally with salt and pepper and other spices, or use your prepared spice rub. Season the cavity of the turkey with salt and pepper and stuff it with whatever you are using. Place turkey on roasting rack in roasting pan. You are now ready to roast.

3.  Loosely cover the turkey breast with aluminum foil and roast for 20 minutes at 400 degrees.

4.  After the first 20 minutes, the turkey will start to render some of its natural juices. This is Liquid Gold and must be preserved for gravy flavorings. It cannot be allowed to burn. To preserve this, simply add your liquid directly to the bottom of the roasting pan now and use a whisk or wooden spoon to gently melt the pan drippings into the liquid.

5.  After adding the liquid, continue cooking the turkey at 400 degrees for 40 minutes.

6.  Reduce the temperature down to 350 degrees, remove the foil from the turkey breast, insert your oven-proof meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, and check on the liquid. Add some more (another 1/2 cup to 1 cup) as needed. You don't want the liquid to completely evaporate in there, but also not to create a soup either. You want to have about 1-2 cups worth of liquid in that pan at this point so you have something to baste with. If you're thermometer is not oven proof, then don't worry about the temperature yet.

7.  Continue roastint the turkey at 350 degrees for another hour and half or until the thermometer reaches a  temperature of 165-175 degrees. If you're using a meat thermometer that is not oven-safe, then insert the thermometer always in the thickest part of the thigh to check the temperature.

8.  Once temperature is reached, remove turkey from oven. Transfer turkey to a platter and cover with aluminum foil. This is called "tenting." You're allowing the turkey to "rest" so juices can redistribute. Let turkey rest at least 20 minutes before carving. Take advantage and make the gravy while the turkey rests.

You are now ready to serve, carve, and eat your perfectly roasted turkey. Enjoy it!

And to make that Gorgeous Gravy...

Strain out the turkey pan juices from the roasting pan. Place in a small saucepan and heat on stove. Skim off fat if you like using a spoon. Add 1-2 cups of chicken broth to the solids. Add a mixture of 1 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 1Tbsp cold water to the gravy and whisk to combine. The gravy will thicken instantly. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Place in gravy service bowl and serve immediately.

Thanksgiving Appetizer: Guacamole de Pepita Tostada (Guamaole with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds)

Cannot begin to tell you how much I love this recipe. Recently picked up a copy of Fiesta at Rick's as a treat to myself, this recipe is from Rick Bayless. Love the texture and flavors going on here, and love the use of pumpkin seeds. Would make an awesome and unexpected appetizer this year for your Thanksgiving dinner! But I'm warning you -- it just may outshine the turkey itself!

Toasted Pumpkin Seed Guacamole
3 medium-large ripe avocados (about 1 1/4 lbs)
1/2 small red onion, chopped small
1/2 - 1 fresh serrano chile, stemmed, seeded and chopped fine
2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro + leaves to garnish
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice (usually 1 lime)
3/4 cup hulled, toasted, salted pumpkin seeds + more for garnish

Cut the avocados in half and take out the pit. Scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Coursely mash the avocado with a fork. Add the onion, serrano chile, and lime juice and mix to incorporate.

Place the pumpkin seeds in a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Scrape down the sides and run the processor until the seeds are a chunky-looking paste. Mix this paste into the avocado mixture. Taste and season with salt. To serve, scoop guacamole into a serving bowl and garnish with the cilantro leaves and some toaste pumpkin seeds.

*Rick recommends serving this particular guacamole with sliced jicama and cucumber.

Sunday Dinner: Stewed Beef Brisket with Carrots and Onions

As the weather is getting colder here in Seattle, I'm finding myself cooking more and more inside. Goodbye outdoor grill and smoker -- see you in 7 months! (sigh) So when the weather gets tough, the tough get going vis-a-vis my handy dandy Le Crueset Dutch oven. You can make miracles in that thing. One pot + everything thrown in + slow roast = Holy Shit Goodness. And it's a super easy clean up which rocks if you're a busy mom like myself.

The other day I felt like beef brisket and potroast. Together. So I combined the two flavors and did a brisket potroast style with carrots, onions, garlic, and savory herbs. Everything cooked nice and slow until so soft and tender, and it was the perfect warming meal on a cool fall night. This recipe serves 2-4 easily for a family meal, but can be doubled to feed a crowd. A bright green salad like mache or arugula simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice is a nice punch of color and bright flavor as well. Enjoy it.

Stewed Beef Brisket with Carrots and Onions
1 (4-pound) beef brisket, at room temperature
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper -- course ground if possible
2 white onions
4 carrots
2 celery stalk
6 cloves garlic
2 large bay leaves
1 tsp dried oregano
5 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried)
1 sprig fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp dried)
1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes with juice (recommend: San Marzano)
3 cups beef broth
1 cup red wine or stout beer, or 1 cup additional beef broth
1 Tbsp cornstarch + 1 Tbsp cold water

Special equipment: Dutch oven or other oven-proof ceramic/cast iron pot with tight fitting lid

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Take the brisket and pat very dry with paper towels. Discard the paper towels. Sprinkle very generously with salt and pepper all over the brisket, including within the crevices and folds. Place the brisket in the Dutch oven and set aside.

Peel the onions and trim off the ends. Cut each onion in half and then cut into 1/2 inch thick slices. Dump them right on top of the brisket. Next, take the carrots and peel them and trim off the ends. Trim off the ends of the celery as well. Then chop the carrots and celery into 1 inch thick chunks. You want to try to make the carrot and celery pieces around the same size so they cook evenly, so this means you make have to cut the top portion of the carrots or celery where they are thicker in half first, and then into chunks. Place on top of the onions and brisket. Next add the tomatoes right on top. Season vegetables with a little salt and pepper -- about a teaspoon of each will do nicely -- to taste.

Peel the garlic cloves and trim off rough stem end. Smash the garlic with the flat side of your knife and roughly chop. Add the garlic to the vegetables and beef. Then add the bay leaf, oregano, thyme, and rosemary.

Add the beef broth right on top, as well as the wine or beer if using; if you're not planning to use wine or beer then go ahead and add the additional cup of beef broth then. You want to cover the beef about 3/4 of the way up and leaving about 1 inch from the top of the brisket to the liquid line, but not completely submerge it in liquid. If your brisket is "shorter" than normal, then hold back on the broth a little. Place in oven and cook for about 3-3.5 hours or until liquid has significantly reduced and most importantly, beef is fork tender. Meaning, the beef can be pierced with a fork and the meat is so tender it starts to break up.

You want to check on it once every hour, spooning the vegetables up and over the beef to help flavor it and to move them around on the bottom and sides so they don't stick.

To finish off the roast, take the brisket out of the oven and set on a stove-top. Carefully remove the beef from the pot and onto another plate while you thicken the sauce. In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and water. Then heat the vegetables and sauce on the stove-top on medium heat. Once simmering (it'll take under a minute), add the cornstarch mixture and stir with a wooden spoon. The sauce will thicken within 30 seconds. Take off of flame and now ready to serve.

To serve, simply cut the brisket in 1/2 inch thick slices and return the meat and any juices back into the pot. Spoon out some beef and vegetables and sauce into a plate. Garnish with freshly chopped parsley if desired and serve hot!

Serving Suggestions:
Mashed potatoes
Dinner Rolls
Mache, Arugula, or Watercress salad with lemon vinaigrette

Makes great leftovers -- can be reheated right in pot or in the oven for 15 minutes on 350 degree oven.

Apple Pie: A Perfect Ending To A Perfect Meal

Friday, November 12, 2010

Honestly, who doesn't love a piping hot apple pie? Ok, maybe Little Girl since she's kind of not that into cinnamon these days. But most of us (and her eventually) do. And it's a perfect dessert for Thanksgiving especially if pumpkin pie isn't your thing.

Apples are in season in fall, and many markets boast an influx of many different varieties as well to choose from. A classic apple pie involves the perfect balance between the sweet and tart, soft and flaky, and brought home with the warming spice of cinnamon. Apple pies, like most pies, seem daunting to make for an inexperienced baker. And frankly for experienced cooks like myself who don't do that great with baking. But once you get into it, it's actually not that hard. Fruit pies in particular offer a less-experienced cook/baker a great chance at success. If you let the quality of your ingredients do the talking, you don't need as much effort to force something great to happen.

There are many different kinds of apples you can work with. Some are naturally sweeter like Honeycrisps, while others are decidedly tart like Granny Smiths. The art in apple pie making comes in how to balance out these flavors. By adding lemon juice you can make the overall filling more tart; or sugars and honey more sweet. You need to taste the apples you plan to use first to determine how sweet or tart they are, and then adjust from there.

Here's my recipe for a basic apple pie. I generally like to use Fuji and Honeycrisp apples for my pies. I find they keep their texture and have the perfect natural balance between sweet and tart.  If you can't find Fuji or Honeycrisps, then I like using Braeburns and Pink Lady's, although definitely make sure to taste them first and adjust with lemon juice as needed as these variations in my opinion taste a bit sweeter. Apples to avoid using for apple pie inlude the McIntosh and Golden Delicious because they will not keep their texture during baking and instead turn to mush, and Granny Smith. Yes, I said it. I abhore using Granny Smith apples in pies. Unless they're organic from a local farm and just-picked, then forget it. Most commercially sold Granny Smiths are underripened and taste like styrofoam soaked in lemon juice. You'll find yourself adding at least a cup of sugar to the recipe and at that point, it's just a caloric mess. Just use apples that are naturally sweetened!

Apple Pie
1 recipe basic pie crust (recipe here) or store-bought pie crust, chilled
8 medium sized Honeycrisp or Fuji apples
1 tsp orange or lemon zest

1 Tbsp lemon or orange juice
1/4 cup all purpose flour, sifted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light or dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp brandy or cognac (optional)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 small pinch (1/4 tsp) ground mace or nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Peel and core the apples. Cut them into 1/4 inch thick slices and place in a large bowl. Immediately add the zest and juice, and toss well making sure the apple pieces are coated in the juice. The juice will help prevent the apples from oxidizing and turning brown while you prepare the rest of the dish. Add the flour, sugars, vanilla, spices, and brandy or cognac if using. Toss well to incorporate flavors and set aside. Don't worry if the juices seem rather thin -- the flour and brown sugar will help thicken the juices during cooking.

Cut the chilled dough in half -- you're going to use one half to make the bottom of the pie and the other half to make the top of the pie. Take one half of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface with a rolling pin until it's 1/4 inch thick. Don't worry if it's round or oval or even rectangular -- just make sure its going to fit into your pie pan! Carefully lift and place your dough into your pie pan, and using your fingers, gently form the dough into the pan's shape. Cut off the excess dough. Check out this previous posting on rolling out pie crust dough for help and pictures.

Pour your apple mixture inside the pie pan, juices and all. Then roll out the other half of the dough like you did before. Then gently lift the dough and carefully place it right on top of the apples. Trim off excess dough, leaving about 1/2 inch - 1 inch around. Take that extra dough and crimp it around the edge of the pie pan or make a decorative pattern. Whatever you like. Then take a knife and make 4 2-inch long slits in the top dough -- this will allow steam to escape during baking so your pie doesn't die.

Place pie pan on top of a baking sheet in case juices spill up and over -- the sheet will catch these instead of the bottom of your oven which is considerably harder to clean. Bake for 30-45 minutes or until crust is golden. Let pie cool 20 minutes before cutting. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Turkey Talk: How To Choose A Turkey

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In our modern day and age, we've really managed to complicate even the most simplest of tasks. Like which turkey to use for Thanksgiving.

Back in the day, you'd shoot the one you wanted. End of discussion. He was all-natural, hormone-free, free-range to his little gobble heart's content. Your biggest problem was cooking his ass.

Nowadays we have many different options. Frankly too many options in my opinion. Fresh or frozen? Which is better? Does free-range really taste different? What the hell is a kosher turkey anyway? Yes, we often find ourselves a week before Thanksgiving staring at the aisle in our markets going "huh?" while life seems to just pass us by.

So the million dollar question this Thanksgiving is How Do I Choose A Turkey?

And here's my answer.... doesn't fucking matter. It's totally up to you. Many "purists" would have you buy fresh, from the farm, yada yada and that's great. I've also worked with frozen with great results. It's totally up to your own personal preferences. But let me break it down for you further to help you along...

1. Fresh or Frozen?

Here's the biggest difference between fresh turkeys and frozen ones: the fresh ones aren't and never were frozen. They've remained above 26 degrees. Technically, a turkey doesn't freeze at 32 degrees like liquid. Betcha didn't know that! Nope -- 26 is the magic number for old Sam there. So for a turkey to be considered "fresh" he needs to be kept over 26 degrees. Fresh versus frozen is more an issue of where the turkey is coming from. Some farms prepare their turkeys and freeze them as early as the winter before Thanksgiving. Yup -- that's about a year old there. Meats can stay frozen that long with no repercussions, except it will dull the flavor a bit in the sense you won't get that quitessentail Turkey Taste.

Turkey is a gamier meat than chicken. Although similar in texture and color, it definitely has a distinct gamy (read: "wild") taste to it. Frozen turkeys tend to taste less gamy because the freezing process sort of dulls them, while the fresher the turkey obviously the more like turkey the turkey will taste.

So in conclusion:

If you like the taste of turkey (want a gamy taste) then definitely go with fresh turkey.

If you like a more muted turkey taste, then go with frozen.

2. Organic v. Non-Organic

You know where I come down on this one. In terms of taste there is no difference. But if you or the people you're making the dinner for (kids) are sensitive to hormones, antibiotics, etc. then definitely go for an organic turkey.

3.  Kosher Turkeys and The Complication of The Brine

They also offer kosher turkeys which I think is wonderful. Kosher turkeys are already salted, inside and out. The kosher process (forgive me Jewish friends for oversimplifying it here) involves a humane slaughter of the animal by an authorized religious slaughterer called a shoshet who kills the animal with religious intent. Kosher also means all blood must be drained out of the meat (well gets technical because blood is still in the meat but that's a whole other blog posting) so they do this process where they soak the slaughtered meat in water, then cover it in salt, then wash it again a few times. Now it's kosher meat to work with.

So in terms of cooking, if you're going to use a kosher turkey then my strong advice is to refrain from brining unless you find a kosher recipe using a specific brine that takes into account the prior Kind-Of-Brine that happened when the meat was first slaughtered.

I've read and heard that kosher turkeys are actually quite wonderfully flavorful.

4.  Flavor-Injected Turkeys

Oy vey...

Look. My mother used Butterball turkeys all my life growing up. It yielded pretty good turkeys, notwithstanding her constant overcooking the damn thing. Some turkey purveyors offer turkeys injected with flavors. At first this sounds odd and ...a little violating to the turkey frankly. But it's a wonderful flavoring technique to prepare meats. In fact serious BBQers often use injections before they smoke their meats, especially if they're working with poultry.

Injecting flavoring simply involves placing a marinade (oil, juice, herbs, seasonings) into a really, really big syringe and then shooting the turkey up with the flavored concoction. It's often concentrated in the breast where meat tends to dry out faster. Especially if you plan to smoke your turkey, I highly recommend injecting it with your own marinade or buying an injected with seasonings bird to use because the moisture you've now placed inside will keep the bird moist as it cooks over a long period time on the outside.

If you're planning to roast, you can go ahead and use one as well. Personally I've achieved a moister bird simply by roasting the damn thing properly, and as my mother has demonstrated repeatedly, you can kill a turkey twice by overcooking it. And no butter-marinade-injected nothing will help you. Crack won't help that bird wake up from that kind of oven abuse.

So it's strictly up to you whether you'd want to use one already flavored or not.

5. Size DOES matter!

Obviously the bigger the turkey the more people it feeds, so you need to take that into consideration when choosing your turkey. A good rule of thumb is 1 pound per person you're planning to serve. However, based on my personal experience feeding Europeans who eat approximately twice the amount of normal Americans, I've deduced the following chart to help you:

# of People        Turkey Pounds
4 or under         6 lbs; or 1 turkey breast
6-8                   10 lbs
8-10                 14-16 lbs
10-12               16-18 lbs
12-14               20 lbs
14-16               20-24 lbs
16-18               24 lbs
18+                  26-30 lbs; better idea is to just get 2 turkeys at this point to ensure even cooking

My chart will feed everyone, give you leftovers, and have everyone be happy.

Hope this helps and Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble gobble!

Turkey Talk: More Tips For Brining

Here are some great tips I picked up for magazines and the web to help you in your brining endeavor. Please email me any more questions and I'll research them for you!

Salt for Brining

Not all salts are the same. There's iodonized table salt, uniodonized table salt, sea salt, kosher, course sea, various colored and textures combinations of salts. Some are good for baking, some are preferred for cooking, some are preferred for finishing, and lastly some are favored for their dissolvability in liquid which makes them more desirable to use in a brine. A good rule of thumb for a brine for a basic 14-16 pound turkey using most available basic salts we have in the market:

Table Salt (without iodine) - use 1 cup

Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt - use 2 cups
Morton Kosher Salt - use 1 1/2 cups

Refrigeration Is Mandatory

First, before you even decide to brine anything, you need to make sure you have room to keep the brine. If you're planning to do a turkey, then buy a 5 gallon bucket and see if it can fit in your fridge.

If it doesn't, then you need to go to Option B: Find turkey brining bags that will hold your turkey. They make some as big as 20 pounds. Check out this link from What's Cooking America's online store for brining bags and more supplies. Now see if you have room for your bag of turkey in your fridge.

If not, there is still hope with Option C: Get a cooler. One of those big tailgate guys and throw your turkey bag brine of goodness in there. Adjust with cooling packs as needed. Do NOT use ice please -- you can control the temperature in the cooler with ice packs much easier. If you don't have ice packs then take gallon-sized freezer bags and fill them with ice cubes. You just spent days defrosting your turkey; let's not refreeze it right before cooking! The basic goal is to keep your turkey under 40 degrees.

How Long To Brine?
This will directly depend on how large your turkey is. Obviously, a smaller turkey will need less time to brine while a larger one will need longer. So make sure you plan ahead with your defrosting time and brining. Here's a good table to help you:
Whole Turkey 12-14 pounds     10 hours
Whole Turkey 14-16 pounds     16 hours
Whole Turkey 17-18 pounds     18 hours
Whole Turkey 18-24 pounds     20-24 hours
Turkey Breast                            5-8 hours
Again, these are estimates. Give or take 2 hours is great. So for example if you forgot and leave your 14 pound turkey for 18 hours, you're not going to ruin the whole dish. The longer you leave the turkey in the brine, the saltier is will get. Conversely, if you need to pull the turkey an hour before brine then don't sweat it either. Do not leave your turkey longer than 30 hours even if it's 24 pounds!
Other Spices and Flavorings
You can create vertually any flavor combination you like. You're limited only to your imagination! Here are some commonly used combinations and liquids used to create the perfect brine. Tailor it to what else you plan to serve at the table. If you have decidedly sweeter dishes for the sides, then a more savory turkey would balance out the meal. Conversely if you have all savory dishes, then perhaps a sweeter turkey would be a nice touch.
  • fresh rosemary -- woodsy smell; slight pine; very aromatic; savory; balances out sweet very well
  • fresh thyme -- slight woodsy smell; hints of lemon; bright flavors; use in savory
  • fresh marjoram -- like a cross between thyme and oregano; citrus and savory flavors; savory
  • fresh sage -- strong savory flavor; deep woodsy smell and flavor
  • fresh oregano -- very pungeant; savory; strong base flavor
  • bay leaves -- deep, rich flavor; savory; slight bitter undertone which acts nicely to balance out flavors
  • black peppercorns -- peppery, slightly spicy; used in savory and to balance out sweet
  • red peppercorns -- consdierably sweeter than black; often in briningn to balance out salt and spicy
  • allspice berries -- hints of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg; gives underlying warmth in taste and smell
  • juniper berries -- peppery in flavor similar to black peppercorns; historically used for brining
  • star anise -- licorice like flavor; sweetness used to balance out spicy and savory
  • cinnamon sticks -- warm and distinct flavor; used to bridge sweet and savory flavors together
  • coriander seeds -- sweet flavor with hints of savory; used as a bridge again
  • fennel seeds -- similar anise flavor like star anice although not as strong; much more mellow
  • cumin seeds -- smokey flavor; works very nicely with sweet and savory
  • mustard seeds -- slight spicy flavor
  • raw onion -- used as a base flavor for sweet and savory
  • raw garlic -- used as a base flavor with punches of intense savory
  • celery -- slightly bitter taste used as a base flavor
  • apple juice -- sweetener
  • peach juice -- sweetener
  • orange juice -- sweetener with hints of sour
  • chicken broth -- sweetener with hints of sour; used as a base flavoring
  • white wine -- dry or sweet wines used as a baseline for flavor profile in brining
  • beer -- used as a baseline for a brine
  • granulated white sugar -- sweetener
  • brown sugar -- sweetener; hints of molasses
  • molasses -- sweetener; more concentrated than sugars
  • barley malt -- sweetener; more concentrated than sugars but with a bitter taste as well
  • honey -- sweetener

Turkey Talk: To Brine or Not To Brine....THAT Is the Question!

[Alton Brown's Good Eats Brined Turkey; picture courtesy of Foodnetwork]

Every Thanksgiving people take to their corners for the epic fight...

"And in this corner we have The Briners. Dedicated to soaking their bird in salty goodness, they stand by held fast that this guarantees the moistest of birds. Adding some herbage and it's a sure fire hit for dinner. They scoff at the pitiful ones who roast simply, relying on stuffing and seasoning to flavor their meat, and on their oven to keep it moist. Word.

And in this corner we have The Roasters. They don't bother with stupid multi-day preparations -- for them one transfer of heavy poultry is quite enough. They rely on their skills as seasoners and roasters, and with the help of Magic Butter manage to coax out a wonderfully moist turkey with incredible flavors. Their secret weapon: insanely good gravy that comes from the pan drippings based on natural turkey juices, butter, and herbs and seasonings. Booyakasha!"

So what's the real difference here? What the hell is brining actually?

Brining is the process of marinating meat in salted water seasoned with spices for at least one day. Basically what happens is the process of osmosis. Remember that from biology in high school? In turkey terms, we're basically hydrating the turkey's cells by way of salt water -- so when it cooks and moisture leaves, we've already pumped it with enough moisture so then when it's roasting only half of the moisture leaves the turkey meat, retains some,  and thus leaves a moist and tender turkey meat.

The brining process is quite easy: a lot of cold water, a lot of good salt (preferably course sea salt or kosher salt), various spices and herbs like bay leaves, pepper corns, allspice berries and others, and the turkey. Some recipes have you add some sugar or fruit juice or broth as well. You place the turkey in a large container then pour this salted water mixture over it, and leave it to marinate for at least a day, preferably 3. Then you take the turkey out, pat it really dry, stuff the cavity and roast it off.

Many BBQers like brining their poultry before smoking as well. If you're planning to smoke your turkey this year, then you probably want to do a brining beforehand.

Brining is a technique preferred for poultry since white meats tend to get drier faster than red meats (red meat is fattier and that fat helps keep the meat from drying out while cooking). It's also been applied to cheeses as well, most notably to feta cheese and Limburger cheese.

But back to turkey...

I've talked to people who absolutely swear by the process of brining. It's very easy and the huge upshot is your turkey is already seasoned and ready to go -- since your brine liquid is so concentrated with salt and other spices, you've already infused your turkey with seasonings. So instead of the seasoning sitting on top of the turkey, they're all throughout the meat inside. No need to re-season. Simply lubricate the bird on top with oil and roast away. Brined turkeys often don't burn either since you're not worrying about herbs getting too brown on top. And brined turkeys are less maintenance during the cooking process -- again since you've already ensured the moisture inside the turkey, no need for basting.

[turkey in its brining liquid in 5 gallon sized bucket; picture courtesy of What's Cooking America's website]
But some less-appealing aspects is it requires a lot of preparation. First, you need a 5-gallon tub that can hold the turkey and brine in. Then you have to refrigerate that. Imagine putting a big paint bucket in your fridge. Exactly -- that would be the only reason why I've personally never brined a turkey. If you live in a colder place like the east coast, you can leave the brine bucket in a cold place like your garage overnight or something. But if you live in California then it gets trickier. They do have brining bags you can buy as well that can hold up to a 20 pound turkey so it can fit easier into your fridge.

And also, you once you've brined you can't really control the salt. What if the turkey isn't salted enough? Too late -- you have to trust that the brine penetrated in the turkey and stayed in during the roasting process. There's no way to check if the turkey is salted enough before cooking because it's raw. And a third downside is brined turkeys tend to not yield enough juices to make gravy. If you're planning to serve turkey gravy, then you'll have to make a totally separate batch from scratch. Which is very easy to do.

If brining is your thing, check out a very easy and basic recipe from Alton Brown. It's a good introduction for basic brining technique that yields a good bird for an average sized turkey (14-16 pounds).

Good Eats Roast Turkey
1 (14 to 16 pound) frozen young turkey

For the brine:
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 gallon vegetable stock
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger
1 gallon heavily iced water

For the aromatics:
1 red apple, sliced
1/2 onion, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
4 sprigs rosemary
6 leaves sage
Canola oil

2 to 3 days before roasting:

Begin thawing the turkey in the refrigerator or in a cooler kept at 38 degrees F.

Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.

Early on the day or the night before you'd like to eat:

Combine the brine, water and ice in the 5-gallon bucket. Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed, cover, and refrigerate or set in cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once half way through brining.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Remove the bird from brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard the brine.

Place the bird on roasting rack inside a half sheet pan and pat dry with paper towels.

Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick, and 1 cup of water in a microwave safe dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Add steeped aromatics to the turkey's cavity along with the rosemary and sage. Tuck the wings underneath the bird and coat the skin liberally with canola oil.

Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees F for 30 minutes. Insert a probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 161 degrees F. A 14 to 16 pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting. Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil or a large mixing bowl for 15 minutes before carving.

Thanksgiving Appetizer: Beer and Cheese Plate!!!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Let's face facts here: most of the time, those of us entertaining are women, and our men play a backseat (albeit crucial) supporting role. We go crazy with the elegant dinner -- everything color-coordinated, glass and crystal this and that -- but forget that at least half of our guest list involves men. Mostly men who are watching football that day.

Men drink beer. They may drink wine with you, but if football is on, they must as per Manly Man Rule #34: drink beer if football is on within a 10 mile radius. So I thought this year I'd throw my own wonderful man a bone, and serve up some more manly eats to munch on during the game while I prepare the fancier dinner. Then he can drink the wine from the crystal with me later.

Beer has two things that go with it: nuts and cheese. You can't go wrong with that. But just because you're having beer and nuts and cheese, doesn't mean you have to sacrifice the elegance either.

Check out my brilliant compromise to manly football watching meets fancier dinner party! My menu most affectionately called: Haha I Fooled You It's Still Elegant Cheese Platter For Beer.

Here's what you need....

1.  Beer
Pick out something more special, with richer colors and textures that you can savor rather than down quickly. I asked The Hubsters aka Resident Beer Expert to recommend some beers for Thanskgiving and here's what he had to say:

"Short answer is that it really depends on the type of beer a person prefers, and how much you intend to eat later on. The one thing you probably want to avoid on Thanksgiving is filling up on too many beers -- it'll sabotage your ability to pack away the turkey.  So go with something tasty that you really enjoy because you probably won't be drinking a ton of it.

  • If it has high alcohol content like Chimay's various labels (white, red and the "grand reserve" blue), all the better. 
  • A personal favorite of mine is Kronenbourg 1664, which is a premium French lager that uses top end hops to give it a full, satisfying layer of flavors.
  • Sam Adams' "Boston Lager" (the main beer it sells) is always a solid choice. 
  • But you can't go wrong with locally brewed Red Hook's ESB (interestingly enough, Red Hook recently opened a brewery in New Hampshire). 
  • If you're into hops, an IPA from your local brewery is nice.  Here in the Northwest, I've enjoyed Ninkasi's IPA (from Oregon), as well as its double-IPA "Tricerahops." 
  • In terms of great beers that are becoming increasingly available, you can't go wrong with Stella Artois for something on the lighter, refreshing end. 
If you have no clue what to get, worst case scenario is to grab an ale or lager with a really interesting label -- odds are if the brewer put a lot of thought into their label, they put a lot of thought into their beer."

2.  Cheese
Many cheeses go with beer, so that's the good news. Beer has strong flavor, so this is no time to be shy -- you want some cheese with equal "heft" to stand up to the rich and complex beers. Try 1-3 different kinds of these:
  • Chimay -- just like the beer, they make cheeses that are designed to go with their beer; you cannot miss with a Chimay beer and cheese combination!
  • Sharp Cheddar -- Beecher's Flagship is really quite extraordinary with beers; the sharper the cheese the better, so serve it as a wedge on the platter and offer a cheese knife for people to help themselves.
  • Gruyere -- close to a lesser-sharped cheddar in terms of texture and flavor, it's a milder but still wonderfully nutty flavor that goes quite well with beer; cut into cubes and place on platter; go imported Gruyere from Switzerland if you can find it -- it's the best!
  • Aged Goudas -- Rembrandt in particular has a wonderfully nutty flavor that compliments beer, but any aged gouda would do you just fine; you can cut into pieces or serve it as a wedge.
  • Smoked Mozarella -- this is really a wonderful cheese that will add different texture to your cheese platter for beer; the inside is still creamy and soft but the outside is a wonderfully sweet and smoky flavor that just goes wonderfully with beer, especially smoky IPAs; cut it up into cubes and add toothpicks if you like.
  • Aged Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano -- offers wonderfully salty bites to go with the beer; you want to serve these in big wedges with a cheese knife so people can chisel their piece right off.
  • German Butter Cheese -- this is hard to find but excellent if you can
  • Limburger -- a very creamy German cheese with a texture like camembert and flavor like Gruyere; it's my only exception to the rule about creamy cheeses with beer; this is just wonderful spread on crackers with a good hefty beer; serve as a block with cheese knife that can be spread on crackers or bread.
When doing a beer cheese platter, this is no time to be fancy and pussy. I don't want any bries or camemberts, triple creams, goats (aged or not), or any bleus of any type whatsoever. Those are for wines and fancy cocktails. I want to see hard, aged, in-your-face flavored cheeses from Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and the US. Maybe Canada. I don't know -- I don't trust Canadians.

3. Crackers
Make it easy on the poor bastards (and yourself!) and just do assorted crackers. By them at Costco. Don't do fancy sea salt crusted this or that, or fancy little slices of bread -- no one cares for this. Just do good ol' fashioned crackers. I'm talking wheat rounds, vegetable rectangles, pepper-crusted water crackers...that stuff. And to be perfectly honest with you, sneaking in a few Ritz for shits and giggles wouldn't hurt either.

4. Nuts
The Hubsters is a huge fan of the mixed nuts. They drive me nuts (no pun intended) because everyone eats the damn peanuts first, then someone bitches about who was the asshole who ate all the peanuts, and then the almonds get consumed in a very close second, then cashews, walnuts, and everyone leaves the Brazilian nuts last. Yes, it's in that order. I don't just bugs me. So do this: pick a damn nut and stick with one kind.

But again, you don't have to be all un-gourmet about it. Try these nuts that are awesome with beer:
  • dry roasted, sea-salted shelled peanuts
  • smoked almonds
  • chili spiced pistachios (they won't know what hit 'em!)
  • or my personal current obsession: rosemary and garlic marcona almonds
Oh ya, this is kind of off the charts good. Guaranteed -- these almonds will be GONE in less than 10 minutes at your party.

Rosemary and Garlic Marcona Almonds
2 cups roasted and salted marcona almonds imported from Spain
2 large cloves of garlic
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary
1 tsp safflower oil

Take the garlic and smash it with the flat side of your chef's knife. Remove the skin and cut off the dried end part. Heat the safflower oil in a saute pan on low heat. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook on low heat about 5 minutes -- you're infusing the oil with the garlic and rosemary. Toss in the almonds and coat well. Remove garlic cloves and discard. Pour almonds and rosemary in a serving dish. Ready to serve.

If you like you can leave the garlic in like I do because The Hubsters loves raw garlic, but if you're having guests then it's best to remove it.

And there you go! Save the wine for the dinner and do assorted artisinal beers with complimenting cheese platter this Thanksgiving or holiday party for your guests! Easy on you so you can focus on dinner, everyone is very happy with the munchies, and it's a new take on the classics.

Happy Thanksgiving and cheer a toast for me!