Friday, November 27, 2009

Me and The Turkey

I had never been more conscious of my bladder as I was on Tuesday at the corner of 77th and Broadway. Heck, I didn’t even realize that I had to pee until I walked out of the Fairway Market at 74th and Broadway while cradling a 17 pound turkey pressed against my midsection. How do these women who carry around babies and toddlers all day do it? I went about 5 blocks before I started saying silent prayers to miss the green light to cross each street (complete polar opposite behavior of my typical self) just so I could rest the double-bagged bird at my feet for a merciful moment before hoisting it up again and heaving breathlessly as I pressed onward. I really should start working out.

In addition to scolding myself for being so out of shape, and being in awe of mothers who tow their kids around the city (also in awe of mothers who push these huge babies out in the first place), I wondered if there was anywhere along my remaining 10-block journey that I could pop in for a quick restroom pit stop. Am I really comfortable with the idea of leaving a 17 pound turkey with the baristas at Starbucks just because I couldn’t make it 10 measly blocks? Am I really that weak? No, no, I can do this. One block at a time. Big exhale.

I finally made it all the way home to 89th and took care of business. After some rearranging in the fridge, I slid the big guy inside and collapsed on the couch for a good 45 minutes.

On Wednesday I called my mom to ask her opinion on brining. Brining is essentially soaking your bird in a saltwater bath for moisture and flavor. I brined my bird last year but I wasn’t sure if it made a difference. How do you know when to brine or not to brine? She said if you have a really fresh bird you don’t need to brine. My stepfather Ernie’s solution was much simpler: always brine. So brine I did. Also per his advice, I followed the recipe in The Joy of Cooking, which, for overnight brining, called for 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of water. I stuck my bird in a bucket with the brining water, and tucked him goodnight in the fridge.

On Thursday morning, The Turkey (I never did decide on a name for him this year) was ready to take his place on the giant roasting pan throne. I left a stick of butter out at room temperature covered it in white wine. I took out the neck and stuffed him with onion, carrots, celery, sage and thyme. I was just getting ready to give him the butter-wine spa pack treatment, when I realized I needed to tuck the wings under. I pushed, I pulled, I tried forcing unspeakable positions upon The Turkey. I could not, for the life of me, get the wings under. Do I really call my mom again? No, no, you can figure this out. Try it again. Push. Pull. Unspeakable. Dammit. Where’s my phone? Oh hi Ernie, you can help me with this. Are there any tricks to tucking the wings under? Try tying them? Ah yes, of course! Thanks gotta go!

I’ll try to describe the scene: me, wrestling with a large (approximately 1/7 my size) bird carcass trying to get him breast-side down so I can force his little turkey arms backwards to tie behind his back. I always feel a bit insensitive when I stuff a bird body cavity with vegetables, but yanking that string as hard as I could around those little bird elbows was utterly guilt-inducing. The real problem here is that at this point, I’ve had a couple of days to bond with The Turkey. I had to keep reminding myself that a.) It’s just a turkey, not my pet, and he’s already dead, and b.) I’m planning on doing much, much worse by cooking and eating his flesh.

After that unpleasantness, I rolled him back over and began the all-over butter massage, under the skin and over the skin. With the oven preheated to 425, I tied the legs (much easier than the elbows) and let him get brown for about 20 minutes before basting him and turning down the heat to 325. I spent the next several hours basting, tenting the breasts with foil, basting, taking his temperature, basting, temperature, basting, temperature, basting, and so on.

The breasts are done at 160 degrees. The thighs are done at 170 degrees. When it was all over, and the time came to eat The Turkey, after all that we’d been through together; the end result was amazing. The turkey was delicious. I don’t know if it was all the basting, the butter massage, the brining, or the bonding we did as I held him close on the way home from the market, but everyone loved The Turkey.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Big Day Countdown

The BIG DAY is almost here. I've been so giddy and preoccupied with what to cook that I haven't even thought about what to write.

Luckily, I have Mark Bittman. Author of a few of my favorite books, including a book that every chef should have in their library, How To Cook Everything, he also writes for the New York Times. His "101" features have become somewhat famous, and are always on the list of the "most emailed" articles on the day they are published. Most recently, 101 Head Starts On The Day offers readers 101 simple recipes to complete in advance of the BIG DAY, before the bird takes over your oven.

While it's true that preparing the sides dishes ahead of time will ultimately make your life easier, there are other things that can come up that may need your attention. Like any big event (or like the Boy Scouts) you should always be prepared. Here are 10 other things to think about now that will make your life easier come the BIG DAY:

1.) Check your meat thermometer. Make sure it works properly. The bird is the main event, no matter how many sides you make ahead of time. An overdone or underdone bird will add unnecessary stress to you, the chef.
2.) If you're like me and you use your gigantic roasting pan once a year, wash it. It's probably a tad dusty.
3.) Do you have a gravy separator? You still have time to get one. You'll be glad you did.
4.) Do you have a potato ricer? You still have time to get one. You'll be glad you did.
5.) Get your knives sharpened. Do it now.
6.) Iron your cloth napkins for your guests. Class things up a bit. Last year I forgot about this detail until I was setting the table and the guests were arriving. Whoops.
7.) There are football games on Thursday. Set your fantasy lineup on Wednesday.
8.) Are you brining your turkey? Do you have a large, clean bucket? You can't use the same one that you currently use to mop the floor. Well, I guess you can, but do you want to?
9.) Have you ordered a turkey yet? Do you need to? Now would be the time.
10.) Do something relaxing. Take a bubble bath. Read a book in bed. Don't stress about the BIG DAY; everything will be delicious and everyone will be happy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fully Capable of This Shepherd Business

I am trying to enjoy this streak of warm weather. I really am. It’s just that…I’m completely in fall-mode and there’s no way around it. I can’t do summer anymore. Not in November. I’ll be ready for summer again sometime around February. I can be robbed of my winter and be forgiving. But not my fall.

Fall is the best time to eat a fantastic meal then snuggle under the covers. It’s when your bedroom is finally cool enough that you never want to untangle yourself from your down comforter; when you get all nice and toasty in one spot, and then roll over onto the cool spot of the bed, catching a small breeze from the chilly air outside of the bed so you burrow even deeper under the covers. Fall is always the time of year that I wish I could morph into a bear and hibernate for the winter.

So, even though it was 65 and sunny the other day when I ventured to the store, I was longing for cool-weather food. Something warm. Rich. Dark. Filling. Flavorful.

I had every intention of making some sort of Philly Cheesesteak-style dish until I stumbled across some ground lamb and decided on shepherd’s pie instead. I’d had shepherd’s pie before, so I understood the gist of it as I stood there with the lamb in my basket, trying to remember what other ingredients I might need. This is the kind of moment that cell phones are for, right? I’ll simply call my stepfather…who happens to have a killer shepherd’s pie recipe… I’ll just reach into my purse here… wait, what? No phone? Great. Perfect. I forgot my phone at home. Oh well, no big deal, I’ll just look up a recipe on… my… phone. Hmm. I didn’t realize how I much I rely on that little thing to get me through the day.

I let myself get flustered for about 2 seconds, and then I remembered that I am Fully Capable of Figuring Shit Out.

With the words warm/rich/dark/filling/flavorful, along with the mental image of an actual phone-less shepherd, serving as my inspiration, I grabbed potatoes, an onion, garlic, an eggplant, and a Portobello mushroom. After a quick internal run-through of my at-home staples (Red wine, check. Butter, check. Thyme and oregano, check. Tomato paste, check.), I ushered my herd of groceries home. I then proceeded to pour myself a glass of wine, reference a few shepherd’s pie recipes in my cookbooks to make sure I wasn’t totally out of my mind, spread my flock of ingredients out on the counter, and figure it out.

The beauty of a dish like shepherd’s pie is that you really can’t screw it up, so you might as well just throw whatever you want in the pot. You’ll be O.K. There is no one authentic recipe that you must adhere to; there are no strict rules. Every shepherd is different. Here’s the way this shepherd made her pie.

Recipe for Pseudo-Chic-Urban-Shepherd’s Pie:
  • A pound of ground lamb
  • One medium onion, diced
  • One Portobello mushroom, sliced
  • Eggplant, diced into small cubes, about ½ cup
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
  • 2 tbsp red wine (aka, a generous splash. Seriously. Don't actually measure this.)
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Potatoes, butter and cream for mashed potatoes

Make mashed potatoes by boiling cubes of potatoes until tender; drain, then mash with cream, butter, salt and pepper.

In a heavy pot with a lid, melt the butter over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic, mushroom and eggplant, and cook for several minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Season with salt, pepper, one tsp of thyme and one tsp of oregano. Stir in the wine, and let simmer for a minute or two. It should smell reallllllly gooooooood. And it should look warm/rich/dark/filling/flavorful:

Add the ground lamb to the pot and mix. Add the remaining tsp of thyme and oregano, and season with a little more S & P. Once everything has been combined and the meat has started to brown, cover the pot to let the meat finish cooking.

Heat the oven to 350. Spoon the lamb mixture into a pie plate and spread out to fill the bottom. Spread the mashed potatoes out over the top of the meat, and score the edges with a fork. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes. Drink wine, eat the pie, and then pass out under a down comforter until next spring.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sinful Soho Treats

The weather was so nice this weekend, we just had to get out and go walk around. Wanderlust and curiosity drove us to Soho, where, after devouring cheeseburger spring rolls at Delicatessen, we rambled into Rice to Riches.

Before I discuss Rice to Riches, I must describe the cheeseburger spring rolls. It's cheese, plus burger, wrapped in wonton and deep fried to a crisp. It's a heart attack waiting to happen, so naturally, I absolutely adore it.

There's not much of a story behind Rice to Riches (essentially an ice cream parlor, but instead of various flavors of ice cream, it serves various flavors of rich pudding) other than the fact that I had seen it in some movies and was curious about its existence. Also, my husband happens to love rice (and tapioca) pudding, while rice (and tapioca) pudding happens to be one of my biggest fears. No, seriously. Snakes. The Ocean. Dark tunnels. Pudding-that-I-have-to-chew.

So, I figure, if I am ever to over come my fear, it would be more likely to happen over a bowl of rice pudding with a snappy name like "sex, drugs, and rocky road" or "the edge of rum raisin."

The shop itself is really fun - heaven if you love rice pudding - but it wasn't enough to convert me to a fan. I'll stick with paying $6 for a cup of ice cream, thankyouverymuch. Although I might return closer to the holidays for their limited-time flavor, "I'll take eggnog for $200 Alex" because I really like the name.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Knowing how to cook, at least possessing some basic knowledge, is so empowering. One of the best aspects of knowing how to cook, in my opinion, is when you reach that point in your development as a chef where you can decide exactly what you want to eat and create it for yourself. When you are able to flip through a cookbook and say “I think I’ll make this,” and know that you have both the skills and tools to make it.

I have not always been able to do this. I remember, not so long ago, the certain cookbooks on my shelf that I would never open because everything in there scared me half to death. Fish sauce? Braising? Boning a duck?? English, por favor! Don’t get me wrong, I did learn many kitchen basics by growing up in a foodie household, but I never really had the confidence to wield a 10” chef knife with authority until I participated in cooking classes.

I highly recommend taking cooking classes. No matter your background or experience, everyone can benefit from cooking classes. To be able to take a few simple ingredients and magically transform them is a skill that will enrich your life. Obviously my favorite place on the planet for classes is Kitchen Conservatory in St. Louis, which I have mentioned before, but if you can’t make it to Missouri, do a search of classes in your area and pick out some that interest you. Most places offer Culinary Skills courses that take a comprehensive approach to knife skills and meal prep, which is a great way to build a lot of know-how in a short amount of time.

I also recommend good knives.

If you happen to have a particularly stubborn, thick-skinned pumpkin on your hands, I recommend a hammer. This was the scenario I faced on a recent Sunday afternoon. Me vs. the 5 lb sugar pumpkin that just wouldn’t break. I ditched my good Wusthof knives early in favor of a hammer that still had my name and college dorm room number scribbled on the handle in black sharpie. I finally beat the pumpkin in half. Not quite the peaceful afternoon of cake-baking I had envisioned. It was more like an afternoon of a vicious, unmerciful beating, but at least I got my cake.

Like I said – one of the best aspects about knowing how to cook is when you can decide exactly what you want to eat and create it for yourself. For my birthday cake (a few weeks late; who’s counting?) I flipped though my favorite dessert cookbook and said “I think I’ll make this,” while pointing at a recipe for pumpkin cheesecake with a gingerbread crust, topped with spiced pecans.

And guess what? I did.

Know what else I recommend? Buying the cookbook, Classic Stars Desserts, by Emily Luchetti. I give up enough of her recipes from that book on this blog that I’ll probably start to owe her royalties soon. That book is chock-full of amazing goodies; not once have I made something of hers that I didn’t love. The recipe for pumpkin cheesecake is on page 189.