Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Turkey tetra-what?

While America may be divided between red and blue, rich and poor, east coast v. west coast, there is one thing that has bound many of us in the last few days: Thanksgiving leftovers.

I'm a friend to the leftover (you know I am thrifty as all get-out), but Thanksgiving always seems to leave one with far too many to remain animated about. For one thing, you eat the best leftovers up first, in our case, the cauliflower gratin Stephanie brought, Claire's chocolate tart, and my mom's famous pumpkin chiffon pie. Then you good-naturedly devote yourself to the other items which were just as delicious but more plentiful so therefore less fought-over: the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, and  the highly addictive cheese pennies and Earl dip. And then there's the turkey.

Every year I am reminded that I don't actually like turkey that much. It's vastly inferior in flavor to the plump little chickens I roast, requires special tools (thermometers, basters, cheesecloth!), and demands serious upper body strength to hoist it in and out of the oven.

But the turkey is the thing you always end up with too much of. And what to do?

Yes, sandwiches. But then what?

You learn exactly what from your parents. Growing up in our house, the end of the turkey, after the cranberries and gravy were gone, was turned either into jook or turkey tetrazzini, a choice that in itself is a good example of my dual heritage: Chinese and mid-western.

I like jook fine but am not wild about it. Truth be told, I have mixed memories of turkey tetrazzini too. I liked the flavor fine, but for some reason my parents always made it with spaghetti or linguine, which didn't sit right with me as a kid and still doesn't as an adult. I like baked pastas with short tubes or shells--much easier to eat.

I decided to make up my own recipe, with the goal that I wouldn't buy any new ingredients for the dish. This led to mixed results.  I made a white sauce, but only had low-fat milk, and so it turned out a little runny, though with good flavor because I also used stock. I set it aside to see if it would set-up, which it did a bit, then tossed it with sauteed turkey, onions, sage, and spinach. Then the noodles,  buttered breadcrumbs, and parmesan, and into the oven it went.

The finished product looked like this, which I dished up like a nice little housewife and served to the huz.

He nodded his approval although with the caveat, "It's good, but it doesn't taste like food we usually eat."

I knew what he meant. I haven't really ventured into the casserole genre, and this dish, as decent as it was, screamed casserole, with its faintly-dried out turkey lumps and pale creamy sauce that could have easily been cream-of-mushroom soup. Still, I sort of liked it. But the leftover turkey tetrazzini? I may have to draw the line at leftover leftovers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pork chops for three

Yesterday I completed what I hope is the last of my Thanksgiving shopping. While we did the bulk of our shopping at a big (though locally-owned) grocery store, I decided to do the end of it at a couple of our old haunts in Noe Valley: Church Street Produce, and of course Drewes, my favorite butcher in town.

While it's a bit easier in some ways to shop at the Whole Foods-type places (after all, who wants to make five stops? well, sometimes I do), the husband and I try to stick to the trendy but also deeply-held belief we share that supporting local businesses is important. But of course it's not enough to just say it's important. If you want a place to survive, you have to buy things there. A lot.

With this in mind, although we no longer live in Noe Valley, we do make semi-frequent trips over there to shop at Church Street and Drewes. And we always order our turkey there.

I had arranged to pick ours up yesterday afternoon. The place was humming but not crammed, and there were coffee and warm pastries to distract me while I waited briefly for my number to be called.

Having shopped at Drewes for many years, we know many of the employees. They know us too and they always remember Frances. Everyone from Drewes is indelibly marked in her brain, of course, as each visit culminates in a hot dog or slice of roast beef for her.

This time Jerry waited on me. After a brief catch-up on his recent trip to Spain, he went to find my turkey and some other items on my list for the big day. Meanwhile, I mulled over dinner options for that night. I wanted something quick to make that would produce no leftovers. Refrigerator space is at a premium now.

I decided on pork chops.

"How many?" Jerry asked

"Three," I found myself saying, thinking of a certain someone who is very fond of pork chops.

I guess it's come to that. No longer does Frances "just" get a hamburger, or the scrappy bits of roast chicken. Now I'm literally shopping for dinner for three?

That night I threw together the chops, using a chicken recipe I wrote about here, with apples and sage. I finished the chops in the oven though, since they were double-cut and I figured that might work best for even cooking. While they roasted, I sauteed chard and carrots to form a little bed for the pork chops to sit on.

We ate them, drinking wine and watching something silly on the TV, while the other Hungry Dog  gazed at me in anticipation with loving, shiny pork chop eyes. Moments like these, as mundane as they sound, make my heart sing.

This year, I am thankful for the husband, the dog, my family, my friends, my health, my warm home, my work, and that I have the luxury and freedom to enjoy them all, every single day. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thanksgiving test-run: stuffed mushrooms

Like a lot of you, I've got Thanksgiving on the brain, 24-7. It's been that way for about a week or two, ever since we got the wonderful news that our L.A. friends, Claire and John, plus their two kids and one dog, will be joining us for the holiday. We've also got some other fabulous friends coming (and their dog) plus my mom, of course. So in a matter of a few days, our Thanksgiving went from a small, maybe-no-turkey affair to seven adults, two children, and three dogs.

I know some of you host much larger dinners, but for us, this is big. And exciting!

I've mentioned Claire before; she's an old friend. We've been through a lot together but these days are bound primarily by our shared ridiculous sense of humor and our mutual love of food. If there are better things to adhere a friendship, I can't imagine what they would be.

We've been having a grand time planning the menu. Appetizers have been a great topic of discussion. I originally asked Claire, who is from Texas, if she would make her famous cheese pennies, which she agreed to do, in two flavors (plain and smoked paprika). She then suggested another dish which I can't help but think of as uniquely Texan: pink onion Earl dip served with Fritos and gherkins.

"Or midget pickles," she mused thoughtfully as I stared at the phone in disbelief. I was still mentally digesting Fritos as part of a recipe. Midget pickles?

She's also making Cajun pecans, and something she keeps referring to as a Pickle Plate. My understanding is that this is not simply a plate of pickles, midget and otherwise, but various vegetables, pickled. It's actually a good idea to have something tart and briny next to the richness of sweet potatoes and gravy.

Lest you think I am simply pretending to host Thanksgiving while forcing my friend to cook everything, I am indeed going to cook a few things, though not a lot in the way of snacks. My meager contribution to the appetizer table is going to be stuffed mushrooms. I had the idea that this was something fun and festive and simple to make; plus they can be served at room temperature. After a little searching, I decided on this recipe from Ina Garten.

I tested it last night, subbing chicken-garlic-basil sausage for the pork sausage, since Claire and her family aren't huge meat eaters.

The mushooms turned out nearly perfect. I am definitely going to make these for Thanksgiving, only I won't stuff them as full as Ina suggests. It made them a little tough to eat. And, I may opt for smaller mushrooms. Although big ones are easier to work with on the front-end, little ones are better for eating.

I hope you all are having fun planning your Thanksgiving dinner. There's much to think about, even just when it comes to the turkey:  Organic or free range? Stuffing or dressing? To brine or not to brine? However, in the midst of all the chaos, I think even the fussiest cooks are usually able to lighten up and appreciate the real centerpiece of the holiday: being together. And pie.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Hungry Dog meets the Kalua Pig

Ever since I made my Hawaiian plate lunch with macadamia nut chicken, I've been dreaming of other things that would be equally good sitting next to a couple of scoops of mac salad and sticky rice. There's always chicken adobo, similar to the simple soy sauce chicken I like to make, but what I decided on was the husband's favorite plate lunch: kalua pig.

Usually this involves a whole pig roasted in a pit for hours and hours. I have neither pit nor patience, so when I came across a simple, oven-based recipe that called for a mere four hours of roasting time, I knew my search was over.

It's so simple I'm not sure it really counts as cooking. There are three ingredients and only a handful of steps, which take a total of about five minutes. Then you stick the whole thing in the oven for four hours. Don't check it, don't turn it, don't baste it. Just roast it.

What you end up with is super tender, smoky pork that is easily shredded with a couple of forks. You can serve it plain, but me, I like it with cabbage, which is traditional. I happened to have a big head of Napa cabbage, which I cut up into chunks and cooked over low heat with garlic and ginger. I've seen other recipes where the pork ends up with a soy-based sauce, which you then cook the cabbage in. I like this idea, but I kept it old school. And it was downright delicious.

I'm completely in love with this recipe, and you will be too. Next up for the plate lunch: teriyaki ribs.

Kalua Pig
From Firehouse Food

1 boneless pork butt (about 4 lbs.)
2 T. liquid smoke
2 T. kosher salt

Adjust the oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 400.

Cut several slashes in the pork, about 1/2 inch deep and 1 1/2 inches long. Do not trim off the external fat. Brush the surface of the meat with the liquid smoke. Pat the salt evenly over the pork. Wrap the meat tightly in several layers of aluminum foil and put it in a heavy casserole dish or Dutch oven with a lid. Cover and bake for 4 hours.

Remove from the oven and carefully cut open the foil. The meat should be moist and falling apart. Allow it to cool slightly, then shred it with 2 forks.

Serves 6.

For the cabbage: Slice or chop coarsely a head of Napa or green cabbage. In a wok or wide frying pan, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat. When hot, add two minced cloves of garlic and a few slices of ginger. Let sizzle briefly. Add the cabbage, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat. Cook over medium-low until soft, about 20-30 minutes. Keep the heat low so cabbage gets soft, not crispy. Serve with pork.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dorie Greenspan's Brown Sugar Bundt Cake

Oh my. Where has the last week gone?

It's been a bit of a roller coaster,  with unusual highs and lows, as well as all the normal bits of fun and dullness. There's been work, of course, a lovely evening of wine and pizza with good friends, stupid errands, vet and dentist appointments, Halloween, the election (sob!), and what was that other thing...

Oh yes, the World Series.

Now, as you know, I'm not a sports fan. But it's kind of a big deal when your hometown team makes it to the World Series--and then wins! Go Giants!

So the last week has been a bit of a blur--an orange and black blur, to be precise.

Yesterday I had a little time to catch my breath and in spite of the wacky warm weather we're enjoying (75 degrees in November?) I decided to bake a cake.

The recipe is originally from Dorie Greenspan, who I understand is beloved by all who bake. I have never made a Dorie Greenspan recipe, but her brown sugar cake had a number of things to recommend it: buttermilk, which makes everything wonderfully moist; brown sugar, of course (a whopping two cups!); and pears, of which I had a few languishing in the fruit basket. And the clincher: the recipe called for using my bundt pan, which I'm crazy about.

I did skip the prunes: why ruin a perfectly nice cake?

The cake was fragrant, delicious--and surprisingly not sugary. I had diced the pears very small so they practically melted into the batter. The cake would be fabulous with a simple icing or frosting (what wouldn't?) but I left it unadorned. So far, I have eaten it for dessert, breakfast, and an afternoon snack. It suited each of these occasions, and improved overnight. It traveled neatly with the husband to work, and its mild sweetness helped sooth my raw election wounds. What more could you ask for in a humble dessert? The country may be crumbling, but I've got cake.

Brown Sugar Bundt Cake
From Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup ground hazelnuts or walnuts (or 1/4 cup more all purpose flour)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
225 g / 8 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups lightly packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp pure almond extract (only if you're using the ground nuts)
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
2 medium pears, peeled, cored and diced (or substitute apple)
1/2 cup prunes, cut into 1/4 inch pieces (or substitute 1/2 cup raisins)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9- to 10-inch Bundt pan.

In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, nuts (if using), baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and the almond extract (if using). Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture and the buttermilk alternately - add the flour in 3 additions and the buttermilk in 2, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix only until the ingredients are incorporated and scrape down the bowl as needed. Turn off the mixer, and with a rubber spatula, stir in the pears and prunes. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

Bake in the center of the oven for 60 to 65 minutes (mine was done in 53--check the cake early!), or until a thin knife inserted deep into the center of the cake comes out clean. If at any point the cake is browning too fast, cover the top loosely with a piece of foil. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before unmolding, then cool to room temperature on the rack. Finish the top of the cake with icing sugar or a simple brown sugar glaze.