Friday, January 31, 2014

before the snow flies again...

So…yesterday’s big plans: still good. I am working on a menu plan and grocery list to follow it through. There is a little under an inch of snow outside the window, but I am already sore from last night’s inaugural visit to the gym. What to do? Suck it up and shovel the driveway. There is yet another snow storm expected tomorrow!

I was feeling dreadfully depressed two days ago, thus no journal entry for that day, but I am feeling much better just having done something about the problems I COULD do something about. I am still in need of a “buck up old thing,” pep talk but I’m getting there. 

Very short entry today, I must get back to meal and menu planning. There is much to be done before the snow flies again. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

die with a "t"

I don’t believe in diets. I don’t deny that they perform the function they’re designed to perform, only that the results are, at best transient, and at worst, detrimental to your over all physical and mental health. Despite what every celebrity doctor would have you think, our bodies are designed to derive pleasure from eating food. If they were not, our offspring would starve! Pleasure is an absolute necessity of life: otherwise, why bother remaining alive? Thinking of food as fuel and nothing else is not corrective thinking, it is WRONG thinking! 

I try to heed the words written on the cover of Omnivore’s Dilemma: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” However; it isn’t always possible to live by those three sentences. I do, however think that they absolutely represent better health advice than anything that has ever been uttered by any diet guru. My evidence may be considered circumstantial and my research merely associative but I know this: when I stick to those three sentences I feel better, and when I do not, I feel unwell.   

True, I have gained ten pounds since the beginning of the holidays on top of the extra weight I am currently carrying, but this is not about ten pounds. I need to make some changes to be more in line with the way I want to eat, and the way I want to live, than falling back into old bad habits and allowing convenience to sway my actions or thinking. 

Here’s the plan: 

In addition to making more meals which are predominantly comprised of vegetables, I’ll be having two vegetarian days a week. And since my husbands schedule means I don’t have to worry about accommodating my in-laws for part of the week, I’m going to work on a "four days on, three days off" principal. It means, I can have the treats, and heavier braised, or stewed meals that I crave on the weekends. 

The remainder of the plan is simple and even harder to achieve. I have to get to the gym, walk whenever I can, and generally make more active choices with my time. I already pay for the gym, and I’m going to start using it today.  

So, there is one addendum I would add to Mr. Poland’s elegantly simple statements: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Move. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

managing time

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” - Douglas Adams 

Time management is something I struggle with, I am making no attempts to deny that, but sometimes I wonder if all I really need are less interruptions. There are folks who get a heck of a lot more done in a day than I do, but then; how much control do I want to assert over others in my household so that I can achieve my own goals? And, as my mother succinctly put it; does anyone really want to live with someone like that? 

I’m not terribly good at multitasking, in fact, I don’t even believe in it. Many things in life simply deserve your complete attention, and there is plenty of research to suggest that while you may be doing five things simultaneously, you are not doing any of them well. Yes, I’m very capable when it comes to stirring multiple pots and getting multiple elements of meal to the table at the same time. However; making dinner, tending laundry, talking on the phone, caulking the tub, and answering an email message, while simultaneously balancing my check book, is just not in the cards. For this reason, I also don’t believe I’d make a very good line cook or chef. Or mother. 

I am, however, a firm believer in the French idea of mise en place: best translated as everything in its place. This is not just about gathering all of your ingredients, preparing, measuring, and weighing items in advance, everything in its place includes your mind. Before you begin any meal or recipe, you need to make sure your head is in the game. Mise en place means that you’ve thought about the shape of a dish, how it will come together, and even - if applicable - how it will go onto the plate. It means that you have read and understand all the steps of a recipe before you begin. You know where the gaps are, and ideally use this time to work clean (clean as you go) but also where you can allow for interruptions and even enjoyable distractions like a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Applying the principal of mise en place may not prevent you from burning the rice, but it will reduce stress in the kitchen and it will make you a better more consistent cook. Finally, when attempting any type of Asian cuisine, from Thai to Indian, having all of the ingredients ready to go before you begin isn’t just recommended, it is essential.

Monday, January 27, 2014

long-johns and breakfast for lunch

Monday, January 27, 2014, 07:30.

Last night’s snow needs to be shoveled, we are under yet another wind chill advisory, and it is getting colder by the minute. Breakfast is going to consist of a few sips of tea as I pull on my long-johns and gather all my snow removal gear. There are certainly times when it is a good idea to huddle inside and wait for the worst of the weather to pass, but I am particularly susceptible to the winter blues so it is especially important I don’t loose forward momentum. I say: dress appropriately and keep moving. 

We’re having bacon, eggs, and toast for lunch, and, unless something unforeseen prevents it, pasta with chicken and peas for dinner. I was severely tempted to eat a very large piece of fruitcake for breakfast, but did break down and have a bowl of cold cereal instead. I think the box would have been tastier.  

Now, since focus is a word in the dictionary, and not something I posses, I think I’m going to head back to bed for an hour. It is a luxury, I know. Hubby teaches tonight, and I’ll be working on getting more recipes written up and ready to post.  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

split pea soup

This soup is one of the more divisive substances on the planet. For some it conjures a feeling of home, hearth, and naive comfort. For others, it only conjures images of Linda Blair in the Exorcist. I will concede one thing to those in the later category: its best qualities are not its looks. Love it, or hate it, this soup is substantive and bolstering, and perfect for when the temperature drops below zero and the wind is howling outside your kitchen door.   

Too often split pea soup can have a homogenous porridge like texture that tends to have all the appeal of muted green paste. This soup has texture, but is still giving to the pressure of your tongue. The visible carrot and potato dice breaks up the monotone of green, and prevent your pallet from getting bored as well. And if all else fails, it’s garnished with bacon, the perfect salty and smoky slap in the face you need to keep your taste buds awake and happy.
Recipe following cut:

suck it up buttercup: make the bread

Sometimes, as cooks, we have to get tough with ourselves, or at least, I do. It is snowing, again, and the temptation to put-off everything I had planned to do today, until tomorrow or some yet to be determined day when I actually feel like doing it, is very strong. I’d rather just sit drinking my tea and watching the snow fall, and maybe squeeze in a nap.  

There is an economic principal I like to apply at these times called “opportunity cost.” 

In this case the opportunity cost, is that either I won’t get to my soups tomorrow, or I’ll end up eating store-bough bread for the week because I cannot make the soups and make the bread in the same amount of time. Since, as I mentioned, our grocery budget is extremely tight – OK we’re flat - I can’t really spend anything on bread when I already have all the ingredients to make bread. If trade bread making for making lunches and dinners in advance of the work week, I then be forced to make them during the week. This means, as an example, that I’ll cursing myself come Wednesday night when I’ve been stuck in traffic for two hours, and now have to produce an meal that takes a long time to cook when I’m really warn down and don’t want to do anything. In other words, the cost of not doing a little labor in the kitchen now will be having a really shitty time in the kitchen later, and possibly being out of money before payday. Some things just cannot be corrected with a positive attitude. 

So, my bread is on the go, and the snow has finally stopped. It is time shovel.
I’m back, I know, it’s like I never left… The driveway is cleared thanks in large part our neighbor and his tractor. I managed to clear the paved section but he usually does the gravel and the rest of the private drive up to the municipal road. I am not usually a big equipment guy, but even I have tractor envy. 

My bread is in the final bench proof stage, ready to slash and bake. Dinner is going to be spaghetti with a premade tomato sauce that I canned early this fall. 

Back on the matter of opportunity cost and trade-offs. There is a cost we so often don’t measure when we’re making decisions about how we use our time and that is, what is the cost to my in terms of long term health? Sliced bread from the store is convenient, no one is debating that, but it contains ingredients my spell checker doesn’t recognize, and I’m guessing, neither do our bodies.   

This is what a bread manufacturer thinks should go into a loaf of enriches white sandwich bread: enriched blended flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, ferrous sulfate (iron) thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), folic acid], water, sugar, yeast, soybean oil, buttermilk powder, salt, potato flakes, cultured wheat flour, monoglycerides, wheat gluten, vinegar, sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium sulfate, citric acid, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, calcium peroxide, soy lecithin; may be topped with flour.  

sodium stearoyl lactylate, is a widely used food grade emulsifier which helps water and fats combine in the mixing process, it is also used as a humectant to keep bread moist. 

azodicarbonamide and calcium peroxide, are both flour bleaching agents. Calcium peroxide is also used as an oxygen fertilizer in agriculture, and aquaculture. Azodicarbonamide is allowed in the United States at a rate of 45ppm, but is banned in Europe and Australia 

 This is what I think should be in enriched white sandwich bread: unbleached bread flour, water, powdered milk, sugar, egg, unsalted butter, salt, and yeast.  

Which would you rather eat?

Friday, January 24, 2014

burning rice

Today was a cleaning day, when all those little jobs I’ve been avoiding demanded my attention. Most of my state has been under a wind chill advisory beginning last night at 10pm and ending around 4pm today. To be followed by a winter weather advisory for accumulating and blowing snow. I am beginning to believe the weather channel is now run by Henny Penny. Even though the roads are pretty terrible, it did not impede our weekly Friday night Starbucks ritual.  

Dinner tonight was green tomatillo enchiladas. It entailed poaching four chicken breasts, making a 1 cup of rice, opening two jars of tomatillo salsa that I made last fall, pulling a package of store bought tortillas out of the freezer, and grating a little cheese. Somehow this one dish meal ended up taking 1 ½ hours to prepare and dirtied a sink full of dishes, including a large stock pot, heat proof bowl, and insert from an electric rice cooker. It was well worth it.  

Now a confession: if there is one culinary skill I posses in spades, it is the ability to burn rice. I am told, by my mother, that this is a genetic endowment we share. For that reason, I always use a rice cooker, as does my mother, as does my sister. So, since I am dragging out a specialty appliance, I always make more rice than I need. I will simply plan another meal utilizing the extra rice later in the week, or, more likely than that, make rice pudding. I understand the French cook rice as if it were pasta, which even I should be able to manage without burning it, but honestly, I have a number of friends of Asian descent, I have been in their homes and seen a rice cooker proudly displayed on their kitchen counter tops. If it’s good enough for them, then it is good enough for me. 

Tomorrow is bread day, and I need to plan my meals for the rest of the week. I may begin this process tonight, but our budget is extremely limited, and I need to check the freezer and pantry to see what can be done with what is left.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

mississippi mud bars

Replicating a taste memory from your childhood can be difficult: replicated a taste memory from someone else’s childhood, near impossible. Instinct is of no use to you here, and inevitably, you’re left hoping that your recent carefully calculated attempt will bring you one step closer to the goal, and not two steps back.  

For the past few months, I have been trying to make a cake that my husband only knows as Mississippi Mud Cake. The only person who knows for sure how to make this dessert, the way he remembers it, took the recipe to her grave. This is terribly inconvenient for me, but probably more inconvenient for her. So, I’ve been researching and testing recipes that have ranged from a sickly sweet brownie, to a warm flour thickened pudding. Worst of all, I fear that the cake he has in his memory is one of the doctored cake mix recipes that were so popular in the early 1970’s. Since I insist on baking things from scratch, this means, I may never match the taste and texture of that cake from so many years ago.  

This particular recipe is not the bulls-eye of the target; he still wants something with a lighter cake-like crumb, and a slightly less sophisticated cocoa/coffee flavor profile, and I still want to be able to deliver that for him.  I’m stubborn like that. 

These bars – whether they are a match or not – are definite keepers: dense, sweet, and rich.   

Recipe following cut:

your freezer is your friend

“ ’This must be Thursday,’ said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. ‘I never could get the hang of Thursdays.’ ” Douglas Adams – Hitchhikers Guild to the Galaxy 

It’s cold, I’m tired, however; since the Vogons aren’t going to blow up the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass - at least I think they’re not - I guess I had better get on with things.  

Last night’s dinner turned out to be Cowboy Chili, or at least, that’s what it’s called in this house. It wasn’t the meal I was planning to make, but the plan got changed. I used to make this with a large can of baked beans from the store, now I use home made but the process barely merits a recipe.  

I sautéed one small – less than baseball sized –diced onion in a little bit of vegetable oil (because it was close to the stove) then I browned off 1lb of ground beef and added 1qt of baked beans that I had made previously and stored in the freezer. With a couple tablespoons of chili powder, the same of brown sugar, a couple pinches of red pepper flakes, and then seasoned with salt and pepper, I was in business. It was, what I’m told in baseball is called a punt, but it was quick and it filled us up. And, after a two hour drive home going a maximum speed of 35mph [~56kmph] on the expressway, those are the only two functions it needed to perform.  I washed it down with some a bottle of Christmas Ale from Bell’s Brewery.  

Once again, I say a chest or deep freezer, even a small one, is the absolute best ally any home cook can have. Today’s lunch is another example of this: we’ll be having leftover Creamy Broccoli Soup. I prefer to freeze leftovers because it has a way of stopping the countdown on when they have to be eaten, or at least slowing it down to give you time in which to actually want to eat the thing you made again.  It seems every time I think to myself, “oh, I’ll just stick that in the fridge and eat it tomorrow,” I just end up throwing it out at the end of the week.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

creamy broccoli soup

This soup was created to utilize a large “family sized” bag of frozen broccoli. You can, of course, make it with fresh broccoli, but it was designed to elevate inexpensive and convenient ingredients into something healthy and tasty. Most importantly, it is intended to be easy on the cook and having to clean two or three heads of broccoli before you begin cooking would just defeat that. 

I always have a small amount of distain for food writers who are snobbish about using frozen vegetables, where appropriate. I know the drill: the ecological foot print; the food miles; the unsustainable food machine. The problem is, I live in Michigan, and come January, if it weren’t for frozen vegetables and the industrial food chain, there wouldn’t be any vegetables at all. Yes, there are times when fresh is best. But, for a large volume of vegetables that are going to be boiled and then pureed, why would you invest more time and money on fresh when the difference in the final dish is minimal?  

It isn’t that I would never make this from fresh vegetables found at the market when they are abundant, but rather, that it isn’t always practical to do so. This recipe can go from frozen ingredients to table in under an hour. With some warm crusty bread, it is hearty enough for any weeknight dinner, and elegant enough to serve to guests. That is a big return for an investment of less than $2:00 per serving. 

This is not cream of broccoli soup, or any of its kin in which the flavor or the vegetable is buried in white sauce or cheese. This is a soup loaded with broccolis flavor, fiber, and vitamins, and just a touch of cream. I’m not idly bragging here: it’s delicious.

Click "read more" for recipe:

Time To Make The Doughnuts

It is -7ºF this morning, that’s -21ºC for anyone keeping track. That kind of cold isn’t unheard of, but even in South-East Michigan it is remarkable. My nephew, who lives in Calgary, Alberta would ask me if I’m going out in shorts and a t-shirt.

I have decided that there must be some vestigial impulse which makes me wake up at the coldest and darkest point of the day in the bleakest part of the winter. Some, evolutionary biological imperative that wants me to get up and stoke the fires before my family freezes, or maybe, light the fires in the stoves so that the family doesn’t have to head out into the cold without breakfast. Real or imagined, I keep waking up at exactly 5:35am. I toss and turn for an hour, my mind rehearsing today’s to do list, and then fall back to sleep until 7:30am. Then again, maybe I’m just neurotic.

Garbage day today. Am I really writing about this? The extraordinary makes for good fiction, but it’s the ordinary, even the mundane, that make up a life: the weather, today’s list of accomplishments, driving to and from work. I have a theory, perhaps one of the unwritten physical laws of the universe, every act of cooking requires unequal and opposite acts of cleaning. In the form of a Chinese proverb: if you cook, so shall you clean. And in the words of Mr. Miyagi, “wax on, wax off.” Once you accept that cleaning before and after you cook is essential, and you embrace working clean, life in the kitchen becomes a little less of a resentful burden, and a little more engaging. A great piece of fish sears best in a scrupulously clean pan. Oil buildup is the thing that keeps an omelet from sliding out of a non-stick pan, and not being able to find the cumin seeds while the rest of your curry is burning on the stove is the thing that makes you want to scream and kick the dog! When you make sure these things are clean, organized and properly stored, your time in the kitchen is made ultimately more enjoyable. Clean workspaces produce reliable results, and are just plain more pleasant to work in.  

On that note, when I have completed making today’s lunch we will be all out of the bread I made on Saturday, which means I will have to double the recipe if I want to have bread for the whole week. I was planning on staying home this afternoon, to get some baking and cleaning done, but the weather is supposed to turn to snow around 2:00pm just as my hubby would be leaving for work, and it is predicted to keep snowing throughout the evening. He is a fully capable driver, but I feel better driving in with him in inclement weather.

I never claimed not to have control issues.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

To paraphrase Tom Colicchio from the introduction of the ‘wichcraft cookbook: the right bread is just as important as the rest of the ingredients in a great sandwich. There are certain pleasures in life, such as the exquisite simplicity of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on soft sliced bread, which cannot be improved upon by using sophisticated ingredients. I get it! As much as I am not a fan of white sliced bread, even I have to admit there are certain things, egg salad or tuna salad for example, that just seem wrong on heartier, more flavorful loaves. Likewise, could you imagine a Corned Beef Reuben without a hearty rye bread to support all that salty meat, melted cheese, dressing, and tart Sauerkraut?  No. 

I was raised on “brown bread,” homemade jam, and real peanut butter from the local Co-op, which separated unless it was stored in the refrigerator. My husband had white bread, Jiff Peanut Butter, and Welch’s Concord Grape Jelly. A younger version of me would have been insanely jealous of this, but these days, I follow my parent’s example and try to keep my food as preservative free, and homemade, as possible. This recipe produces an enriched, golden, loaf of soft sandwich bread. It is the perfect foil for lovers of white supermarket sliced bread – particularly children - that you’re hoping to convert to handmade bread with a minimum of neophobia, or complaints. 

While it’s true, nothing can replace the uncomplicated memories of your childhood; this bread just might make a better PB& J than Wonder. 

Mountain Man

This morning’s journal must be a very quick one. More snow has fallen, an inch or two, and yes, cleaning it up is beginning to feel like the movie Groundhog Day. It is currently, 6ºF with a predicted high of 10ºF and a Lake Effect Snow Advisory in place until 12:00pm. So, before 11:30 I need to don long-underwear and my heavy winter coat, and then go outside to shovel the driveway and clean off the car. I also need to cook two chicken breasts, chop them up and make a cheaters version of Chicken Waldorf for lunch. I also much shower and pack up my things for the afternoon. And finally, I need to show and clean myself up before I go out in public. I doubt I will have time to trim my beard, and will therefore still look like a mountain man, but at least I’ll be a good smelling mountain man. Oh well, at least we have the weather for it.  

I’ve managed to get my sleep schedule in line with where I want it to be. I am not a good sleeper, and never really have been. Sometimes I have difficulty getting to sleep, sometimes I have trouble staying asleep. This means that once I actually fall asleep and manage to stay that way, I then have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  Naps are great things, I take them on a regular basis but I also must be sure to sleep at night if I want to function beyond solving whatever immediate problem that pops up. It is nice to actually have a working brain with which to write, or plan for the future, or at least the rest of the week.  

Time to get dressed and get on with things: Chicken Caesar Salad for dinner, and an afternoon of writing up recipes at Starbucks…I hope.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Zucchini Bread Number 5

There is a reason this recipe is called Zucchini Bread Number 5 and it isn’t a tribute to Lou Bega. The basic formula for this recipe was taken from Cooks Illustrated, however, their recipe rendered a loaf that was either leaden or had a deep troff down the center of the loaf. In the end I made significant enough adjustments to the original recipe that I feel confident calling it my own.

Zucchini Bread: A History

Zucchini Bread, as we know it, kind of congealed into existence during the perfect storm of social and dietary changes that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. We had been eating breads containing carrots, sweet potatoes, and even bananas since at least Roman times, but this is a completely different creature. Rather than being born of a desire for sweetness or to supplement and replace sugar in times of scarcity, Zucchini bread is born of abundance. The plant itself is extremely prolific, if a bit temperamental to grow, and the – botanically speaking – immature fruiting body has a subtle slightly bitter flavor that renders it a very successful culinary sponge ready to take on more dominant flavors. Zucchini Breads popularity is also an antonym to the 1950’s when the consumption of saturated fats, and dairy, are at their highest, our population is the most affluent it has ever been, and meat is king of the American table.  

The first quick breads would have been dense unleavened loaves intended more for preservation and portability than taste. Made with naturally sweet fruits or vegetables, whole grains, and nuts they would have been high calorie and nutrition packed: the first energy bars. Pleasurable enough to eat compared to much of the food of their day, but hardly a treat by today’s standards. With the invention of pearlash, the first chemical leavening agent and the expanding use of refined sugars, however, those baked goods began to have more of the texture we associate with contemporary quick breads. Pearlash, which entered common use in 1790 it is said had a heavy alkaloid (metallic) aftertaste, which was not only bitter but in many induced excessive salivation (foaming at the mouth) much like the early signs of heavy metal poisoning. Yum yum. Somehow it remained the chemical leavening of choice, even more common than it’s derivative saleratus - potassium bicarbonate - which had twice the leavening power. This meant, of course, that the baker, or cook, could use half the amount of the agent, thus reducing the unpleasant aftertaste. However; because pearlash did not require the direct addition of an acid source to produce the carbon dioxide required to rise the loaf, and saleratus did, one hypothesis for it’s slow adoption is that it meant changing trusted recipes. Both Pearlash and Saleratus were supplanted by Baking Soda - sodium bicarbonate - which not coincidentally can be used with or without the direct addition of an acid source, and has little to no aftertaste.  

Though sweetened breads containing fruit never completely disappeared, carrot and other vegetable sweetened breads fall decidedly out of favor as refined sugars became cheaper and more widely available. These fruit sweetened breads did find a new niche during the Second World War, when sugar again became scarce due to wartime rationing. Coincidentally this was the spark of necessity that spawned the beat sugar industry in climates that had been traditionally dependent on imported cane sugar. Zucchini, at least as we know it, really didn’t exist until after the 1900’s, but it was featured in many of the Dig for Victory and Victory Garden campaigns. However, because zucchini is not inherently sweet, zucchini bread would have to wait twenty more years to make its debut.  

The final resurgence of this class of baked goods occurred in the 1970’s when manufactures of the new polyunsaturated vegetable oils were eager to get as much of their product into the American population as possible. The focus, at this time, was to lower our collective triglyceride leves – an indicator of inflammation – I assume by lubricating us from within. These products had been available since the Second World War, at which time they really were relegated to the realm of an unsavory substitute for the real thing, just as much a sacrifice made for your country as the rest of the rationing system. It took a powerhouse of original and not so original advertisers to make the 1970’s the height of synthetic cooking oil, shortening, and margarine’s popularity. These products not only  claimed to be a substitute for butter, lard, and other fats, but they claimed to be better tasting, produced better results and, according to the manufacturers, were better for you.  

These days, of course, we’ve experienced another paradigm shift towards foods – like butter and lard – that human beings have been eating for hundreds if not thousands of years, and a resurgence of the idea of eating wholesome real foods in moderation. Butter is good for you again! I never doubted it. At all. 

History lessons aside, when I started looking for a new recipe for Zucchini Bread what I was looking for was something that wouldn’t’ leave an oil slick on my hands when I ate it. I cannot claim that I came up with the idea of squeezing the liquid out of the grated zucchini, that epiphany belongs to the folks at America’s Test Kitchen, but anytime I can sneak one of my required servings of vegetable into baked goods, I’m all for it.
Below is a picture of Zucchini Bread Number 1, next I'll be posting the recipe for Zucchini Bread Number 5.

Freeze Your Bread!

It’s laundry day. It also happens to be Monday, and I also happen to have just burnt my tongue with an extra-hot cup of tea. I thought I was being terribly clever by brewing it directly into a travel mug, thus avoiding extra trips up and down the stairs to reheat my cuppa. Alas my plan has worked too well.  

More toasted raisin bread for breakfast. The family has eaten one whole loaf of it already, though I can’t say I’m truly surprised. The second loaf is in the freezer because; bread, even the store bought stuff, which has been frozen and thawed, is infinitely better than bread that has been sitting at room temperature for a number of days. I have no scientific or homespun evidence to back this up other than this is what my mother did, and it is what I do. It is true I am feeding the four of us now, instead of just the two, but this isn’t France. There isn’t a Boulangerie on the corner that I can run to once or twice a day to get my bread, and I am not about to turn my kitchen into a factory or myself into a full time baker and scullery man. The freezer is the best tool to providing your family with high quality breads: bake or buy a larger number of them when you have time, and store them until needed. A whole loaf takes minutes to thaw, and individual slices take seconds. You can even toast frozen sliced bread directly without thawing. Anyway, I know I’m right, so that’s what I do.  

Soup for dinner tonight: I will finally get around to making the Broccoli Soup I was intending to make on Saturday. Being a meatless day – at least for me – I’m also going to make egg salad for lunch. I also need to make, or remake, my meal plan for the remainder of the week. I may not always get to everything I want to, but it always helps me to have a plan. I’ll write more about this later. 

Meanwhile, I have a Zucchini Bread recipe the needs one more read through before I post it, and many more recipes to write, photos to edit, and meals to cook. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Best Made Plans of Mice

You know what they say about the best made plans?  

Yesterday, it took two hours after getting out of bed to finally manage to sit down and have a cup of tea. As you recall I was planning a marathon of soup making and freezer filling. It turned out that the kitchen was a disaster area in need of a thorough cleaning, there was more snow in the driveway, and my father-in-law surprised us all by announcing he was off to a bowling tournament. So much for the idea of getting ahead… 

This is how a cooking life really goes: interruptions, surprises, and other people to accommodate. In fact, I began writing this journal yesterday morning and never managed to get back to finishing it. Instead of sitting down in a frustrated huff, declaring the day ruined and refusing to do anything, which was extremely tempting, I got on with things.  

Bread was a priority, and I made four loaves. Two of enriched white/ish bread suitable for sandwiches, and two cinnamon raisin for breakfasts and late night snacks. Between mixing, and fermenting, and shaping, and proofing, and baking, this took up the remainder of the day. To be fair, there were still large holes of time in which I could make, eat, and clean up lunch, and also prepare dinner ahead so that it would be ready to go when my in-laws eventually returned.  

Pictures and the recipe for the white bread are coming soon. The cinnamon raisin bread…needs a little work. It lost it’s spunk during the bench proof stage, which took more than two hours, and I tried to bake it in a loaf pan that was clearly too large for the dough. It is tasty, the interior texture is very pleasing, but the loaves themselves are about 3 inches tall in the center and 5 inches wide: not exactly picturesque. They’ll make excellent French Toast, bread pudding, or be delicious toasted with cold butter, but they’re nothing I want to show off.  

This is another aspect of a cooking life that people rarely discuss. Everything cannot come out perfectly, every single time. The more often you cook, especially if you are trying to learn new things, the more you’ll learn to think of these mistakes as minor bumps instead of major disasters. It truly takes most of the stress out of trying new things, if you cook every day. You’ll actually learn to shrug and tell yourself “oh well, there’s another meal to cook tomorrow.” Sometimes this will be followed by, “Hello, I’d like to order a large pizza.” And, the best news is, the more you cook, the less these kinds of mishaps will occur, but they will occur.  I think too often beginning and novice cooks try to make a recipe and when it doesn’t turn out, they throw their hands in the air and declare that either they can’t make XYZ because it’s too hard, or worst of all, they are just bad cooks. No one plays a musical instrument on the first day, or wins a hockey match the first time the put on skates. You have to try, fall down, and get back up.

Friday, January 17, 2014

My Idea of Multitasking

More snow removal today. The weather channel predicted no significant accumulation, so naturally; we got four inches of the stuff. We’ve reached, what I call Deep Winter that time between the Mid-January and Mid-February when the days seem perpetually over cast, and the temperatures barely fluctuate ten degrees between cold and friggin' cold.   

I actually do like winter and I even like shoveling snow. It is one of those meditative activities that requires just enough of your attention to get you out of your head. But, it being Friday, I was happy to sneak in a nap this afternoon while dinner blipped away in the oven.  Braising and napping at the same time is my perfect idea of multitasking.

Dinner was Chicken Cacciatore with Rice. We devoured the chicken, and the leftover sauce, packed with tomatoes and roasted red peppers, will make for an easy eye rolling snack or lunch late in the weekend. I’ll be making a late night snack of hamburgers with a side of leftover Lentil Pilaf. Breakfast, was the last of the soda bread, toasted with Marmalade, and somewhere mid-afternoon I may or may not have devoured a huge slice of fruitcake with a even larger mug of tea.  

I’ve got a very busy day planned for tomorrow: I’ll be transforming our kitchen into a bit of a soup factory. I’m planning to make and freeze a giant batch of Cream of Broccoli Soup, Chestnut Soup and for dinner, French Onion Soup. The broccoli soup will be more “puree of broccoli soup” a lighter and just plain tastier version of the classic. The Chestnut Soup is an experiment based on a soup I had while in Chicago some years back. It’s a creamy soup based on bacon fat, so in the words of Ina Garten, “how bad can that be?” Finally the French Onion Soup is a true Gratinee Lyonnais, in which I’ll be cooking down a few pounds of onions until the caramelize, and then adding multiple rounds of water and stock, reducing each addition to next to nothing before adding more water or stock.  It’s kind of a dangerous dance, in which you bring the whole thing to the brink of ruin, and then pull it back with more liquid. The result is an intensely flavored onion soup with just a hint of beef stock for body and that, but secret flavor agent is a charred onion. This is definitely NOT the American version in which a few ribbons of onion float in clarified beef stock. I will be using Emmentaler where Gruyère is traditional; it was just out of reach of me tiny budget this month.  

Since the stove top will be busy, and I’ll be mostly standing around occasionally stirring a pot or two, I’m also planning to bake off some Icebox Butter Cookies and maybe a couple of loaves of bread. For anyone who’s made it, bread is all about working for a small but intense period, and then waiting around for a long time and doing nothing.  Once you’re proficient, it’s an excellent thing to fit in amongst other somewhat flexible projects.  

The butter cookies are a slice and bake variety; I made and froze the dough early last month. They are an excellent way to have fresh baked cookies anytime you need them. 

Let’s be honest, when don’t you need them?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pumpkin is another flavor that is deeply associated with the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it doesn’t need to spend the rest of the year in exile. A pumpkin, after all, is nothing more than a squash, a long storing autumn veggie that, if handled correctly, can hold throughout the winter months.  

As much as I’m happy to roast and puree my own pumpkin for recipes like Pumpkin Soup, Pumpkin Parmesan Sauce, or Pumpkin Risotto, this recipe uses canned pumpkin. I honestly prefer it for baking as it contains a standard amount of water per volume, and produces reliable results. I likewise steer clear of fresh or canned pumpkin puree that has been frozen in baking. The freezing process degrades the integrity of the cell walls of the flesh releasing extra water during thawing and cooking/baking. This excess water will affect the texture of baked goods that use flour by producing excess gluten, and in the custard emulsion that is pumpkin pie filling, which is dependent on a delicate balance of sugar, fat, and water, it can spell disaster.  

Why Metric?

The majority of the recipes I publish on this site will be tested and written using weight over volume measurements. I am not unsympathetic to those who prefer to use volume measurements, it is, after-all what our grandmothers used and has the appeal of the familiar. Wherever possible I will provide approximate volume measurements but I cannot promise accurate results. It is true I live in the United States where the Imperial system is dominant, but I was also raised with the metric system, and frankly, have never warmed to a world full of fractions. I use weights for accuracy, and metric because it is easy for me to scale: no apologies.  

I publish my recipes online, and they are accessible world wide. The metric system leaves very little room for guess work no matter what country you reside in. I would encourage anyone interested in baking or cooking to purchase a digital scale that can function in both imperial and metric. You can find a decent quality –accurate enough for home use – scale for less than $20.00.  

It’s likely that your great grandmother used a scale or baked by eye prior to having volume measurements in the form of cups and teaspoons foist upon her by the likes of Fanny Farmer (Boston Cooking-School Cook Book) in 1896. She would, however, have bought all of her foods stuffs by number and weight. 

Crumbles are a desert I make, without measuring, anytime I’ve got some leftover fruit that is on the edge of being past its prime. You can, of course, use the best quality fruit in season, but this comforting dish, for me, is all about the unplanned and the accidental. Ever been stuck with a couple quarts of those wooden – out of season - strawberries that someone else thought looked appetizing at the grocery store? Add a splash of strawberry liqueur, elderberry syrup, or even balsamic vinegar to accent what little flavor they have and you’re on the road to something delicious.  Ever get the overly optimistic idea that you’re going to make a pie in a week in which you’ll be lucky to find time to change your underwear? The crumble in this picture above is the result of precisely that kind delusional purchasing.   

The recipe that follows is precise, but let inspiration and necessity be your guild. I certainly do. You can, of course, peel and core the apples, but I find it infinitely quicker to cut the cheeks away from the core with a sharp knife. This dessert is not only about improvisation, but speed. No matter how detail oriented you care to be, a crumble will always have a thrown together aesthetic, so it might as well be.  

You’ll need:
For filling:
1 kg apples (any variety you have)
175g light brown sugar
25g corn starch
7g ground cinnamon 

For topping:
210g all purpose flour
150g rolled “quick cooking” oats (not instant)
75g old fashioned rolled oats
50g sliced almonds
100g light brown sugar
3g ground cinnamon
225g unsalted butter*  

*The butter should be still cool but not refrigerator cold and not yet soft either. Remove from refrigeration approximately one hour before using, or half that time if your kitchen is hot.  

Preheat oven to 350ºF [180ºC] 

Peel apples and remove the cheeks from the core. Slice the cheeks very thin and place in a large mixing bowl. Toss apple slices in brown sugar, corn starch, and cinnamon, and let them stand for ten minutes. Transfer to the baking vessel.* 

Assemble crumble topping. Place flour, rolled oats, brown sugar and cinnamon in a medium sized mixing and stir with your fingers to combine. Cut the butter into ½ inch cubes [1 cm] and work these into the topping with your fingertips until it resembles course rubble. Add the almond slices and gently mix through.  

Top the prepared fruit with the crumble mixture keeping it as level as possible. 

Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour until fruit is bubbling up around the edges of the crumble topping. 

Cool 30 minutes before serving with cold heavy cream. 

Make ahead:
You can make this one or two days ahead. Bring to room temperature and warm individual servings in the microwave oven before serving.  

*Note on the baking vessel: The casserole or baking dish you choose should be just large enough to hold all of the fruit you are using. The crumble topping should be mounded higher than the edge of the vessel. As the fruit cooks and softens, any air pockets will collapse and the crumble with sink during and after baking.

Out of Plum

Yesterday, at his request, I made my husband a Coca-Cola Cake for his birthday. I used the recipe from the Coca-Cola website and followed the instructions exactly, but ended up with something that, while tasty, just isn’t right. I was instructed to make a frosting that was hot and pour it over the hot cake, the frosting had a glaze consistency and sank immediately into and to the bottom of the cake. I have read through several other recipes, all instructing you to pour the hot frosting over the hot cake, and have yet to figure out where I went wrong.  

I also discovered in the process that either my 13x9 cake pan is warped or someone has messed with the position of the stove knocking it out of level. I know this because the cake was high on one side and low on the other. Since my cake pan is folded steel and very substantial, and was comparatively expensive to boot, I’m going to assume it’s the oven and will rectify the problem later this morning. This means pulling out the drawer under the stove, and getting down on the floor to turn the adjustable legs while someone else reads the level to make sure everything is, as a carpenter would say, “plum.” If your cakes are wonky and uneven, this will likely solve the problem. If it is not the oven then I’m going to have some strong words with the folks at Willams-Sonoma about their pan.  

If I stick to the meal plan I’ve made for myself, today’s lunch will be omelets filled with leftover lentil pilaf. (lentils, carrots, shallot, veggie stock) And dinner will be a Chicken Caesar Salad with homemade dressing and fried soda bread croutons. Since I didn’t soak the steal cut oats I was intending to eat last night as I had planned, I guess it will be toasted soda bread with marmalade for breakfast. Oh darn. I’ll write more about the steal cut oat method and meal planning later.  

It occurred to me as I was washing out the tea pot this morning (sacrilege I know) how easily I’ve adapted to waking up at 5:00 in the morning. Of course this means that come 9:00pm, I am utterly knackered. I have never been a morning person, and I am going to have to do something about this disturbing apparition before it becomes a terrible habit. I just refuse to be THAT guy. You know, the one that’s up before everyone else but can’t stay awake during the evening news?  

I’ve written up, and after a quick editing job, will post a recipe for Apple Crumble. 

Meanwhile, it’s time to eat.

OK it’s always time to eat.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Busy Birthday

Today is my hubby’s birthday and a busy day for me. I’ll be making Soda Bread and Coca Cola Cake before noon, and then I have to make lunches, snacks, and clean up, before I clean myself up and take my hubby to work at 2:00pm. It is also garbage day. Had I gathered everything last night before I stumbled into bed, I would have a few more minutes to linger in front of the computer. As it is, I had better get moving.  

Dinner will be thankfully easy:  thawed and reheated potato leek soup that I made earlier in the month and toasted soda bread with lashings of salted butter.

Yogurt with fruit and granola for breakfast.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The turkey: 14.85 lb Honey Suckle White Brand – Less than 12% retained juices
Technique: dual temperature roasting, 450ºF and 325ºF with cheesecloth cover for breast

General: Place the frozen turkey into a dish large enough to hold it and any liquid that might leek out of the wrapping in the bottom of a refrigerator. Allow 1 full day of thawing for every 4 lbs of turkey. However; in the interest of full disclosure I have never been able to fully thaw a turkey under refrigeration. I use this technique to do most of the job, and then finish it off in water the day before I plan to cook and serve it. Early the day before I plan to cook the turkey I place it, still in it’s wrapper, inside a 5 gallon pickle bucket that I’ve placed inside the bathtub. The bucket makes it easy to move the turkey – water and all – if I need to, and placing it in the tub makes it easy to dump and refill when needed. I use lukewarm but not hot water and let it stand for two to four hours, changing the water at least twice during the process. A rule of thumb for this method is 30 minutes per pound, starting from a completely frozen bird. I only recommend this shortened version for finishing off the thawing process. Once completed, remove plastic wrapping from bird, and pull the neck and giblet packet the cavity. I then rinse the bird and place it back in the baking dish. I place the giblets in a separate bowl and place both back in the refrigerator overnight.   

One last general note: Remove any meat from refrigeration before cooking. For a fifteen pound turkey I recommend one full hour on the counter to come to room temperature, and up to one and half hours, but no longer.  

You’ll need:
3 tbsp coarse sea salt
2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup or 2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
2 small apples - quartered
2 small onions - quartered 

- roasting tray with wire rack
- 14 inch rectangle of cheese cloth three layers thick
- basting brush
- cotton twine 

Leave the bird uncovered in the refrigerator for one full day (24hrs) to allow the skin to dry. * 

Twelve hours before roasting, seasoned the bird heavily with salt and pepper, rubbing it into the skin and cavity of the bird. Place the bird back in the refrigerator to cure, uncovered. (This is half of the 24hr drying time.)  

Preheat the oven to 450ºF.  

Place the apples and onions into the cavity of the bird leaving enough room for air to circulate within. Truss the bird with the twine and fold the wings behind the bird’s backbone. This will protect the wing tips from becoming dry and burnt.   

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and allow it to cool slightly. Soak the cheese cloth in the butter and drape over the breast of the turkey. Baste the legs and thighs with some of the remaining butter leaving some to baste the whole bird with later. 

Place the room temperature turkey in the oven and roast at the high temperature for 30 minutes. You will hear some sizzling and even popping, do not give into the temptation to drop the temperature, or open the oven door. This is a searing stage.  

After the initial 30 minutes, pour 1 cup of water into the roasting tray to prevent any drippings from scorching, and use this opportunity to baste the skin with half of the remaining butter.  

Turn the oven down to 325ºF, and leave to roast for one to one and half hours before checking again. 

At the 1 ½ to 2 hour mark, carefully remove the cheesecloth and baste the breast and legs with the remaining butter.  

Roast for an additional 30 minutes and begin to check the breast and thighs with an instant read thermometer. You are looking for an internal temperature 165ºF in the breast and 180ºF in the thigh. If at any point the top of the breast or leg/thigh joint begins to look too dark or dry, carefully cover with tinfoil and continue roasting.  

Plan for three hours total roasting time, but do not be surprised or dismayed if your bird is done early, or takes longer. Depending on your oven and the weight of your bird, times will vary, it’s the temperature you are looking for here.   

When done, cover the bird with aluminum foil and set aside to rest for a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour. If you need to keep your bird warm for up to two hours, cover with tinfoil and then insulate with triple layer – folded – of a thick bath towel.  

*Food Safety Note: Tell everyone in the household that there is raw uncovered meat in the refrigerator, and clean the area thoroughly with an antibacterial agent to avoid possible cross contamination. If small hands are a worry, cover the bird with a tent of aluminum foil leaving plenty of space for air circulation and poke holes in the tinfoil to allow for any moisture to evaporate.  

Tasting notes:  This technique did render a crispy browned skin, and meat that was evenly cooked and well seasoned throughout. The apples and onions did, very subtly, add to the flavor of the meat, particularly the breast, but their chief function was to provide moisture during roasting which they did admirably.  The cheesecloth did protect the breast while the whole bird cooked but I found it most helpful as a grid that held butter and basting liquids on the breast long enough to seep into the flesh. Often liquids run of the hot skin of a bird before they can do the breast meat any good. Definitely worth repeating.  

One caveat; the cheese cloth was a bit fiddly to remove from the hot flesh of the bird, and I would caution anyone about leaving it on too long for fear it would weld itself to the skin on the breast permanently. I have asbestos hands, but some might want to use latex or some other glove to protect your fingertips from the worst of the heat. Tongs proved to be virtually useless in this endeavor and could cause more damage to the skin than you want.

Vocabulary Lesson Number One

Chagrin: (definition) that moment when you’re lying in bed and you can’t figure out if it’s 2:30, 5:30, or 7:30 am, because the clock is on the other side of the room and you can’t see well enough to read it, and you know you might as well put your glasses on, and get dressed, because you’re up for the day now. (pronunciation) “Shit!”

In other news, I’ve discovered that drinking full strength Earl Grey tea now upsets my stomach so severely that I have to lie down and go to bed at 9:30pm. Who knew?

These two things might be related. 

Last night’s dinner was a bit of a bust. When we arrived home I cooked up the chicken breast that I had planned to use in fried rice, and served it to my husband along with the leftover rice. I had a plain bagel and went to bed.  

In spite of my whining, my stomach is back in working order and demanding breakfast: yogurt with fruit and granola. I also have lunch and dinner to plan, and at some point, fingers crossed, I can make a plan for the rest of the week.  

Meanwhile, the first installment of my roast turkey experiment is edited and ready to go, and I’ve always got a recipe in the works that need writing up.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

Oh, the Monday of it all...

Today my thoughts are rather muddled and mired. It is my hope that this does not show on the page, but I suspect that is too much to wish for: my apologies.  

Monday, January 13, 2014. My husband’s semester begins today. The college is an hour into the city from home. I drive him in to take advantage of the better grocery and market opportunities, and also to have time to myself to write. While he works, I spend an inordinate amount of time drinking tea at Starbucks. It gets me out of the house. 

It is both a relief and a challenge when classes are in session. It is a relief because, four days a week, I am only responsible for feeding the two of us, and can be more adventurous with what I cook. And, it is a challenge because our meal times get shuffled around by three or four hours between the Monday/Wednesday schedule, and the Tuesday/Thursday schedule. And then, Friday through Sunday, it’s back to a third - more rigid - schedule that my in-laws are accustomed to keeping.  

Every semester, come this time, I find myself wishing I had stockpiled a few more low or no effort meals in the freezer. I could blame this on being ill, but really, I think about these things and it takes a couple weekends to get around to actually doing something about it. This is after I have scrambled through the kitchen for a couple of weeks producing helpings of Leftover Resentment Pie, or Eat It with a side of Don’t Complain! 

I love to cook, but even I get burned out: anyone who says they don’t is lying. The daily grind of putting meals on the table - week in and week out - can be enough to turn even the most zealous cook into a bitter task master. I find January particularly hard. Thank goodness I have shelves full of books to get over the occasional ruts and mires that are a part of my cooking life. 

Leftovers are the stuff of today’s meals. For lunch I produced a Frittata featuring leftover fingerling potatoes and carrots that outlasted the remnants of a beef roast dinner. The results were somewhat bland, so I did what any desperate cook would do, served it smothered in leftover salsa from last nights tacos. Later tonight I’m going to make a lazy version of chicken fried rice with the excess rice I prepared for dinner a couple nights ago.  

It feels good in an efficient frugal kind of way to use up leftovers. Even though I try very hard not to allow this to happen, I am embarrassed by how often good food languishes in the back of the fridge and then ends up in the bin. Hey ho. There is only so much time in each day. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Venison and Bourbon

A wise woman (ok it was my mother) recently told me that you shouldn’t believe anything you think between 2:00 and 4:00 am. Having suffered from anxiety and depression for most of my life, I can tell you that theory is correct. Those hours, when every worry and daemon craws into bed with you, can be some of the worst hours spent on this earth. I have tried most of the prescription medicines available for depression, some of them - in my personal opinion - did more harm than good, but I have found one thing that works.  


I am not talking mass quantities here, and you can think of it as medicinal if you like. However; a quiet drink of something warming and soothing does more, in the moment, than any pill ever did. It is enjoyable and helps me get back to sleep so I can get on with things tomorrow. Much of my life, when I’m truly struggling, is about getting out of bed, and putting one foot in front of the other. There are times when this is not possible.  I realize that to some the idea of sitting quietly sipping on a glass of whiskey sounds like the act of an alcoholic, but I assure you it isn’t every night, nor is it ever more than a single drink, on the rocks. I say, a few moments of solitary pleasure can be exceedingly hard to find in this world, and, if it was good enough for my ancestors, it’s good enough for me.   

And speaking of ancestral drams and vittles, I have acquired half a side of Venison. The details are murky, as these things go, a friend of a friend of a family member found themselves with too much meat and I was able to snatch it up in exchange for paying half of the processing fees. It works out to be approximately $2.00/lb which is incredibly inexpensive for any animal protein let alone a specialty item.  

The problem is, my repertoire of Venison dishes comes to exactly three: Tourtiere, a French Canadian densely packed meat pie traditionally served on Christmas Eve; Potage Noir, a deep dish analogue of Shepherd’s Pie; and Venison Stew.  I’ve already had several suggestions that I use deer in any dish I might customarily use beef, and techniques to cover up the fact that it is game, but that isn’t exactly what I’m looking for. What I want, are dishes that accent, if not celebrate, the fact that this is game instead of some slightly funky beef substitute. The search is on.  

Last night’s Apple Crumble, with the addition of a little cream, has become this morning’s breakfast. Do not call the diet police; they already know where I live.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sad News

Today I am saddened by the passing of Denise Leach-Stafford, an old Drum Corps friend and fellow food fanatic. I ran into Denise in Petsmart six months ago. She threw her arms around me and gave me a giant hug, and even though she was very sick at the time, had her usual positive energy, smile, and hearty laugh. We agreed to get together for lunch, or coffee, or something soon, but sadly that never happened. She was warm, open, and unreserved: I could learn from that.

Last night’s dinner was Penne with Alfredo and Chicken: tasty and satisfying. Tonight, it’s pork chops slow cooked in tomatoes and peppers over rice. I have about eight over-ripe apples to use up, so a cobbler or crumble in also in my future. It is also Saturday and time for a part of cooking that nobody talks about, cleaning. It’s my day to empty and wipe out the fridge, wipe down the counters, cabinets, and appliances, and then sweep and mop the floor.

Oatmeal for breakfast.  

Talking Turkey

Weather you’re a novice or a pro, every North American cook will be called on to roast a whole turkey at some point in their life. Being the descendent of both English and Scottish immigrants, I say a turkey, or goose, is a must on the Christmas table, but many are perfectly happy to opt for a ham, a standing rib roast, or even a whole leg of lamb. Lasagna anyone? Still, there is that one meal which is synonymous with this bird, and while grilling and frying are growing in popularity, for the majority of people - I have this on absolutely no authority at all - it is that golden icon of Rockwellian fame: the roast turkey. 

The first time I made a roast turkey dinner for friends, it went into the oven half thawed, the giblet bag and neck still inside. I had planned to eat at 6pm and the bird, dry and unseasoned, hit the table around midnight. Thankfully, there were plenty of side dishes, ready hours too early, and a large volume of cheap wine to keep us all entertained. And then there was the year that I somehow managed to cook the breast perfectly, but thigh and leg portion were close to raw. By this time I’d had enough cooking practice under my belt to whip the breast out of the oven, cut the dark meat off at the joint, and tent the breast in foil. I then tossed the dark meat back into the roasting tray and cranked the oven up to 500ºF until it was done.  

I realize, of course, that to some readers it is heresy to even suggest roasting a whole turkey on any other day than Thanksgiving day. I do understand the impulse to reserve both the effort, as well as the meal, for a special event, but it really doesn’t have to be the annual episode that keeps you awake at night. At its best, a roast turkey dinner can be a labor of love; and at it’s worst, an absolute nightmare. The problem is, of course, we live in the over-scheduled, over-stimulated, post industrial, continuously connected world of tablet computers, and cellular phones. Type “roast turkey” into any browser and you will find yourself saddled with more information, and more questions, than you wish to possess. Should I buy the in-store brand, or a brand I know? Do I brine or do I cure? Butter on the skin, or butter under the skin? Stuffing or dressing? What about herbs? Time and money to practice before the big day? None. Time to baste the bird every thirty minutes while it roasts? Forget-about-it! Somehow, as if by magic, prayer, or sheer dumb luck, we expect ourselves to get it - not just right but - perfect every time. It is no wonder that so many attempts end in tear fraught calls to the Butterball hotline.  

It is not my intention to frighten anyone. No matter your level of cooking expertise, a great roast turkey is within your grasp. There are, however, two things that you must accept before you begin. First, this is a marathon not a sprint. Most of the process of roasting any large joint of meat is time, during which no effort from you is required at all.  Second, a certain amount of nervousness is normal, even desirable. It heightens the senses and provides momentum. The rest is the application of care and attention to detail. 

This year, thanks to supermarket sales, and the lightness of my wallet, I will be roasting several turkeys. I’ve decided for my own edification to try several different roasting, brining, and salting techniques to see which yields the best results. These are not fresh, free-range, or organic, they are simply put, “Bob-standard” supermarket turkeys. As much as food writers like to praise fresh over frozen, and heritage over double breasted industrial varieties, it is the very democratic and affordable supermarket turkey that most of us serve up every year. Yes, you will notice subtle and not so subtle differences in flavor and texture if you splurge on a high end specimen. In all instances I would encourage you to purchase the best turkey you can afford, especially when the meal is an event. But, this exercise is about culling the best flavor and texture possible from a frozen inexpensive bird.

If you are frugal minded, and savvy, you can pick up a freezer full of these birds for between $.99 to $1.19/lb. Name one other animal protein that is as inexpensive. There are even turkey seconds, often labeled “utility turkeys” that can be found for as low as $.88/lb. Sure, they might be missing a wing, or even sometimes a leg, but the meat is minimally processed and just as delicious as the full priced bird. Fully thawed birds can also be broken down into composite parts and you can even make your own ground turkey to your own specifications at a fraction of the cost of buying in the supermarket.  However; the real magic of this bird is how far it stretches. A fifteen pound turkey should yield approximately 8 – 10 lbs of edible meat, plus an additional 8 quarts of stock with the addition of some simple vegetables and an afternoon of simmering.  

In addition to posting the pictures and methods for each of these roast birds, I will, whenever possible, post recipes that utilize turkey leftovers. Next up: Turkey Number One.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Puzzling Out The Past

As I get older, I increasingly recognize myself as a piece in a puzzle. I cannot see the whole picture, but the further I look beyond those pieces immediately connected to me, the more I find I have a clearer idea of who I am. I come from a long line of tradesmen and artisans, from tailors and cobblers, to fishermen, carpenters, and brewers. It is little wonder then, that I am someone who must DO to think. That I am most content when I am working with my hands, and why I cannot tolerate too much time stuck indoors.  

Cooking is a path that I have found to connect me to past. To continue the metaphor, it helps to fill in the margins of what I can already see, and what I know about myself and the world I live in. When I make, for example, my great grandmother’s brown sugar shortbread cookies, I can in some small way sense the link between myself and a woman I was not fortunate enough to meet during her lifetime. The meat pies and stews I crave all winter long are a culmination of my shared Scottish, English, and French Canadian heritage which is also the reason tea resonates so strongly with me. And why I like it, as my great grandfather was fond of saying, “hot, sweet, and strong enough to walk on.” Cooking also connects me to that deep unknowable past, not only my own heritage, but to the heritage we all share. No matter how sophisticated the technique I may use in my kitchen today, cooking is as its essence the alchemy of food and fire. It is the means of caring for, binding, and nourishing your tribe.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Let it Snow, let is snow, let is snow...

This blog could be about snow for as much as I’ve mentioned it, and I am in danger of losing my winter spirit. Last night, when I was meant to be writing, I sat quietly at Starbucks watching the white stuff fall. It was as close to Zen as I get.

Today, however, it will have more of a blizzard affect and is predicted to fall at a rate of one inch per hour. I’ve been to the supermarket and have stuffed the crisper drawers with veggies in anticipation of three or four days stuck indoors. Tonight it is the simple comfort of Spaghetti and “Sauce” which is to say, a doctored marinara with meat. I can make this in my sleep, and given that I’ve only had a two hour cat-nap, I likely will.

Meanwhile it’s a bowl of cereal, and with any luck, back to bed.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Anticipating Turkey and Tea

7:00am – I’ve just come in from my fourth round of snow removal in the past twenty four hours. It is 3ºF outside, that’s -16ºC with a wind chill advisory in effect making it feel much, much colder. Some would call it balmy.

I am working on a write up on roast turkey, but that will come along later. Today is Friday, which is my night to sit in a café with my laptop and a very large cup of tea. Tea is a theme readers will see often, in fact, here’s a sample about my favorite:

So many people mistake a cup of tea for a hot brown liquid steeped from the leaves of the tea plant. Reduced to its most mechanical function that much is true, but a Cuppa (cup of tea) is so much more, that the actual contents of the cup are rendered trivial. A Cuppa is above all else, a ritual. It is the boiling of the water, the preparation of the vessel, measuring and steeping the tea, that provide much needed time to pause and reflect. It is this ceremony that comforts, and bolsters. It is not specifically this cup of tea that performs the task, but every cup of tea that has come before it. For tea drinking families, this tradition sooths us, reminding us who we are, where we come from, and what is important. It tells us that, good times or bad, this moment too will pass, and that it really is the small things that count. The offer of a Cuppa isn’t really a drink, to the right pair of ears it says; “sit down, and unload your troubles, I may not be able to solve any of them, but I will sit with you, and offer you what relief I can.” It’s the care and love of the maker that steeps into the cup along with the tea, even if you’re only making it for yourself.  

So, look for me to talk some turkey in the next day or so, and stay warm.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Snow and Tukey Pie

I’ve had a very bad start to the year. Yesterday, January 1st, was spent (mostly) in bed. I did manage to make what I call “Turkey Herder’s Pie” using some leftover Turkey I had from a couple days ago - more on that later – onion, carrots, and a handful of other veggies I had in the crisper that needed using up. It is a casserole made exactly in the style of Shepherds Pie. If you’re so inclined, or have them around, mix sweet and starchy potatoes together for the top layer, add lashings of butter, salt and pepper. It wasn’t my best version of this dish, but being as I’m still sick and can barely tasted a thing, I’ll call it a victory. I did not manage to snap a picture of our dinner, nor did I write so much as my own name.  

This morning we’re having “Lake Effect Snow,” which for those unfamiliar with the concept basically means, whatever the Weather Channel says will fall, double it, and that’s what you’ll find on your driveway in the morning. I have already completed one round of shoveling, and will be back out there in three or four hours for another. Snow removal is one place in life where I’m definitely anti-machine. My father-in-law owns a beast of a snow blower, big enough that it does not fit through a standard 36” door way, and must be moved in and out via the garage door. Even for a man of my size -5’10” and 250lb - it is a monumental wrestling match to keep this thing under control. For all of its size and power, it doesn’t do a very good job on paved surfaces, and if I’m being completely honest, I just don’t like it.  

As for my moratorium on processed food, there are a number of open bags of potato chips in the house, leftovers from what little New Year’s Eve revelry could be had.  I may or may not have eaten several fistfuls of them while I was waiting for my bagel to toast. Note to self: shoveling snow on an empty stomach does not leave your resolve in good form.