Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Throwdown

I know I'm far from the only person who cooked yesterday and the day before, but for me, Thanksgiving is the culinary holiday to end all, and I want to share with everyone what I made!

I don't have anyone to cook for besides Steve, and the holiday always sneaks up before I'm ready to even think about entertaining, so I usually don't.  Nevertheless, I've been cooking a real Thanksgiving dinner every year since I moved into my house - mainly because I wanted to see if I could do it, and partly so that I'll have some experience with it should I ever find myself contributing food to extended family gatherings during the holidays (a task that, for now, mostly falls to my dear Aunt Kaye in Chesapeake, VA).  For years I worried that I'd find myself married and having to cook for in-laws from hell without ever having made a turkey or pork tenderloin before, undercooking the meat and sending everyone to the emergency room with food poisoning.  So, I've rehearsed for such an occasion four years in a row now and (to my knowledge) not made anyone sick.

So here's how I spent my day yesterday!

Turkey with herbs and citrus
This is the turkey recipe I've followed each year.  For the most part, this was the same as Giada's recipe.  The main differences are that I doubled the "butter" and olive oil and used Earth Balance instead of butter for the butter-olive oil-herb mixture for the skin.  Since Earth Balance is pretty salty, I skipped salt here.  Also, I didn't have any herbes de Provence on hand, so instead I used a dried Italian herb mix consisting of oregano, rosemary, basil, marjoram and sage.  Close enough for rock 'n roll.  I stuffed the cavity with the orange, lemon, onion and herbs and rubbed the butter-oil-herb mixture on the skin the day before and left it in the fridge overnight.  Where the recipe says to add broth and herbs and throw it back in for 40 minutes, I went up to an hour for peace of mind (the cook time in this recipe has never seemed quite long enough for a 15-pound bird, so I leave it a little longer at each step) and because I had sweet potatoes and stuffing in the oven at the same time.  I didn't use low-sodium chicken broth as recommended, so where it says to add one final cup of broth to the roasting pan, I just added water.  This can get really salty if you're not using the low-salt and salt-free items indicated.  When it was finally ready to come out of the oven, I made the gravy pretty much the same as in the recipe, except that where it says to spoon off the fat from the strained pan juices and then cook some butter and flour, I spooned off the fat (green in color from the olive oil), put that in a saucepan and whisked in some flour, followed by the rest of the pan juices and additional chicken broth.  The greenish-brown color of the roux changed to a normal light-brown gravy color as soon as I added the de-fatted pan juices and broth.  This also needed no additional salt, so when it was ready to serve I just added pepper.  Num-num!

Carrot and fennel stuffing
I decided this year that I'd had enough of Emeril's cornbread and andouille dressing recipe - it's a good meal all by itself (hot Italian turkey sausage is a good substitute for the andouille), but very complicated when you're working on other dishes.  Instead, I went hunting for simpler recipes and found this one, which gave me an excuse to go to the store and pick up some fennel.  I did use carrots but skipped the apricots because a) I wasn't dying to have them, and b) Wal-Mart didn't have any when I went looking for them last weekend.  No biggie - it was good with all the other veggies.  The biggest difference between this recipe and what I actually made, besides the absence of apricots, is that I didn't use a baguette.  I happened to have a loaf of Pepperidge Farm buttermilk bread in the freezer, so I toasted and cubed the slices over the weekend and then stored them at room temperature until I was ready to make the stuffing.  Not sure how many cups that was, but it was 14 slices and, with the rest, fit into a 9" x 13" casserole dish.  I had to go up to 5 cups of broth because the larger amount of bread didn't seem to be soaking it up, and then I left it in the oven about an extra 20 minutes because it seemed a little soupy after the first 20 minutes.  (So maybe I didn't need the extra broth?)  I was bummed that it appeared to have burned when I took it out of the oven, but when I tasted it, it didn't seem burnt so much as caramelized.  Maybe the buttermilk in the bread had something to do with it?

Sauteed kale with radishes
I bought a bunch of radishes with tops last week on a whim - and then didn't do anything with them.  It occurred to me that Thanksgiving would be just as good an occasion as any to use them, but in what?  I'd only ever used them to spice up greens before.  Steve doesn't really like any greens other than kale and fresh spinach.  Since we've been eating a lot of the latter recently, I decided to go for the kale.  The idea was to have a healthy alternative to creamed spinach or greens cooked with salted meat.  This is by far the easiest side dish I made yesterday, although the baked sweet potatoes with streusel (below) were a close second. 

2 tbsp Earth Balance
1 bunch radishes (about 6-8 radishes), halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch kale, chopped and rinsed in several changes of water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

In a large enough pot to hold all the fresh kale, heat Earth Balance over medium heat.  Add radishes and cook until softened, about 3-5 minutes.  Add garlic, stir and cook another 2 minutes.  Add kale, salt and pepper and stir well to coat with Earth Balance and mix with radishes and garlic.  Cover, lower heat to medium-low and cook until kale is wilted, about 10 minutes.

The nice thing about this dish is that, although very simple, it comes out tasting like you put more effort into it than you did.  Steve asked what the secret ingredient was and seemed surprised when I gave him the rundown.  People who like greens with vinegar can have their vinegar, but I've often found that salt (in moderation, of course) is just as easy a way to take the edge off of fresh greens.

Sweet potatoes with walnut streusel
For the most part I followed Tyler Florence's recipe.  However, since it was just us, I only put two large sweet potatoes in the oven.  For the streusel, I only used 1/4 cup of butter, brown sugar and flour and substituted chopped walnuts because Steve doesn't like pecans. 

I had some misgivings about doing this instead of a sweet potato souffle because you don't always know how good the sweet potatoes are until they come out of the oven.  Luckily - or maybe because they were locally grown? - the little piece I pinched off after taking them out of the oven was sweet enough not to need mixing with brown sugar or cinnamon. 

This brings us to dessert, which we did get to share with an evening guest:

Citrus pound cake with cranberry syrup
Just like the recipe says.  This is probably the first cake I've ever made without baking powder or soda, but by following the directions exactly, it came out.  I made the pound cake first because I wanted it to be room temperature when served, and the heat requirement was different than for everything else on the menu.  My friend Usa (who ran the NYC Marathon this year and finished in 3:50) came over in the evening for dessert and wine.  I made the cranberry syrup and served it up with the cake when she got here, and we talked about German restaurant experiences in the Columbia area (she's from Germany) and, of course, the marathon.  This rare visitation had me thinking that I really should plan better so that I can enjoy holidays like this to the fullest.  Steve's always good company, but it's still nice to have guests every once in a while.  Next year?

One last thing about the food: after Usa left and I started clearing away the dishes used to make the syrup, I discovered that the strained cranberries make a delicious homemade cranberry sauce!

So...having proven several times over that I can indeed make an edible turkey, I'm thinking that next year I'll scale back and make something that only calls for the turkey breast.  More on that next year.

Stay tuned to see what I do with all these leftovers through the weekend.  Hope everyone is enjoying their Thanksgiving weekend and not being trampled underfoot by Black Friday shoppers!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cleaning out the Fridge for Turkey Day

I took ill last weekend and didn't do much cooking for a few days.  So, when I noticed that some zucchini and an onion in the fridge were both looking like they'd seen better days, I decided to make a batch of soup to aid my recovery.

The bowl pictured here is reheated leftovers that I photographed after I started to dig in.  Soups are so often better the next day!

2 tbsp olive oil
2 zucchini, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cans (14.5 oz each) chicken broth
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 can (15 oz.) diced tomatoes
1 can chick peas, drained
1 can navy beans, drained
2 tsp dried Italian herbs
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a 2- or 4-quart saucepan.  Add zucchini and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add onion and cook until all vegetables are translucent, another 3 to 5 minutes.  Add chicken broth, diced tomatoes and tomato sauce and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer.  Add chick peas, navy beans and herbs, stir well and cover.  Simmer, stirring occasionally, until soup is bubbly, about 20-25 minutes.  Add salt and pepper before serving.

Several days last week I went through some fresh spinach and pita bread by making spinach and feta pitas for lunch.  Just when I thought I'd saved the spinach on hand from spoiling, Steve surprised me with another bag of spinach.  As it turned out, a container of ricotta cheese that Steve had picked up in case we needed to make an emergency lasagna was also nearing its expiration date.  So guess what I did with my Friday afternoon off from work?

Pretty much the same thing as the zucchini lasagna I last made over the summer, substituting about 8 cups of chopped fresh spinach for the zucchini and yellow squash.  I discovered that it's not a bad idea to nuke the spinach for a minute or two and then drain off the liquid so that it doesn't cook out while the whole thing's in the oven.  Luckily, or because I made it a couple of hours ahead of time, it held together just fine when I cut into it for dinner.  Steve had some for lunch yesterday and enjoyed it too.

It's the home stretch before our 4th annual Thanksgiving at home.  The turkey's thawing in the fridge, and I can't wait to pull it off again!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Zucchini and kidney beans with brown rice

I keep thinking the next dish I make will be mattar paneer, and it keeps not happening.  Not because I don't want any, but because I've felt too zapped to cook at all these last couple of nights.  (Well, except the stuffed peppers, but that was pretty quick and easy.)  Tonight I made myself cook just so I'd have leftovers for lunch tomorrow, but I went for something much simpler. 

I asked Steve last week to curtail his shopping for fresh or frozen produce so as to make room in the freezer for a Thanksgiving turkey (the idea being that we'll make a dent in our freezer stores as soon as the fresh stuff's all gone).  For the most part he's honored my request, but a bag of fresh spinach and a wrapped package of 3 zucchini did turn up the other day (along with a bag of apples that I asked him to pick up).  That seemed as good a reason to make something simple that would take care of a zucchini.

1 cup Yoga Organics brown rice, rinsed
2 tbsp canola oil
1 whole zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp ground oregano
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 can dark red kidney beans, drained

Bring 13 oz. of salted water to a boil.  Add rice, stir well, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook until all water is absorbed, about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat canola oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat.  Add zucchini, garlic, salt, cumin, oregano and cayenne and stir well.  Cook for about 5 minutes or until zucchini has begun to soften.  Add beans, stir well and cook until zucchini is fully cooked and beans are heated.

This also turned out well, but I have to admit to being brown rice-retarded.  I know it's better for you, but I never set the timer for as long as it needs and always have to check it and then give it another 5 minutes.  White rice is SO much more reliable and makes these dishes much quicker and easier.  Oh, well - one day I'll get the hang of it.  And I got what I wanted - leftovers for tomorrow!

Hope everyone out there is doing well on what turned out to be a nice, warm Veteran's Day!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shrimp 'n Grits Stuffed Peppers

Yep, that's right - just when you thought neither of those things could get any better, I rolled 'em into one.  This recipe took care of the last of this year's bumper crop of bell peppers; we had exactly one green and one red pepper remaining the fridge, so they both got cut in half and stuffed because we had them and because I wanted to make something incredibly simple while waiting for last night's Daily Show to come on.

The recipe was very off the cuff but went about like this:

2 cups salted water
1/2 cup yellow grits
2 tbsp Earth Balance
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
30-35 shrimp (approx. 7-8 per stuffed pepper), peeled and deveined
1/4 tbsp cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bring water to a boil; reduce to medium, add 1 tbsp Earth Balance,and stir in grits once the Earth Balance has melted.  Stir regularly until grits thicken, then stir in grated Parmesan.  Turn off heat.

Meanwhile, heat remaining Earth Balance in another saucepan over medium heat and add shrimp.  Add cayenne pepper and cook until shrimp are pink.  Turn off heat.

Cut peppers in half and remove insides and seeds.  Fill pepper halves over the top with grits, top with shrimp and spoon any remaining pan juices over shrimp.

Place on a foil-lined baking pan, cover shrimp with foil and bake for 20-25 minutes.  Turn off heat, uncover shrimp and leave in the oven for another 3-5 minutes.  Remove from oven, sprinkle paprika over shrimp and serve.

This turned out pretty well, but I think next time I'll mix most of the shrimp into the grits, stick that in the oven and then garnish them with some more shrimp cooked separately as above.  Getting these off the pan and onto plates was tricky because the shrimp didn't want to stay in place.  Plus it might make the grits a little more flavorful; the taste of the cheese seemed to go away in the oven, as often happens with baked dishes unless the seasoning is adjusted.

However anything I cook turns out, I'm just glad for moments when I have time to breathe, cook and blog about it before I collapse on the sofa and fall asleep during Jeopardy.  Back soon with more...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

More Indian Goodness

Once again, the time has gotten away from me.  Luckily, I've managed to photograph my recent culinary projects and can recount, at least in brief, the experiences.

Palak paneer...a day later would have been too late for this spinach.  As it was, I had to incorporate some frozen spinach in order to attain the volume of one pound of fresh spinach.  I went by this recipe but simplified by just cooking the fresh spinach on the back burner for a few minutes, thawing the frozen in the microwave and putting all of that, plus the sauteed onion and aromatics, in the blender.  For those who aren't familiar, "palak" means spinach in some major Indian language and "paneer" is a type of Indian cheese.  I've had this and mattar paneer (green peas with paneer) in Indian restaurants before, but actually cooking with paneer was a first.  Easily the most homemade-looking cheese I've ever bought, and any country denizen from Wisconsin or Europe would find that this cheese tastes extremely young.  Which might help explain why you don't see it in regular grocery stores.  The label on the package says "great tasting," but I found myself disagreeing until after I lightly pan-fried the cubes per the recipe instructions.  Pan-frying seemed to take the edge off and improve the texture so that it almost tasted like fried mozzarella.  I also used at least a teaspoon each of the garlic and minced ginger instead of the tiny amount that this recipe calls for.  I really enjoyed this, and Steve did too.  There might be a post titled "Mattar Paneer" in the very near future, if only to use up some more of this cheese before I lose interest in dishes that call for it.

 This here was adapted from a sambhar recipe in Healthy South Indian Cooking.  It basically called for yellow split peas, sauteed aromatics (mustard seeds, urad dal, etc.), onion, tomato, potatoes, turmeric and other curry-like spices, and ground aromatics (powdered coconut, dried red chiles, cumin and coriander seeds) added at the very end.  I happened to still have some cubed sweet potato to use up, so I went with that instead and am glad I did.  The slight sweetness of the sweet potatoes complimented the coconut better than regular potatoes would have, and the contrast with the salt and spices was more interesting than if regular potatoes had simply absorbed those flavors and not contributed anything but starch.  This got eaten pretty quickly, which was good because I ended up spending a couple of days at a conference in Myrtle Beach and didn't want to leave a bunch of food behind.

My next post will be along shortly - I cooked again tonight, but not Indian, so tonight's dinner will get its own post.  

Congratulations to all my friends who ran the NYC Marathon this morning (Usa, Teo, etc.) and to the top finishers - three ladies who had never run NYC before, and two who had never even run a marathon before - go Shalane Flanagan (USA, 2nd place) and Mary Katamy (Kenya, 3rd place)!  And congrats to rescued Chilean miner Edison Pena, who also ran his very first marathon this morning despite a knee injury that he sustained when the mine collapsed - amazing!

And lastly, I hope everyone's adjusting all right to the sudden cold - needless to say, I probably won't be posting a lot of salads or cold dishes for a while.