Category — Recipes

Classic Post: The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe

Note: Writing holiday posts has always been a challenge, because for a number of years, even before starting The Best Food Blog Ever, I have always stayed true to the same recipes.  And while tradition once again trumps innovation for this holiday season, when I started to consider how many new followers on Twitter and new readers I’ve gained over three years, it just made sense to repost my entry for roast turkey because, hey, it’s going to be new for someone out there.  First published here in 2008, and you’ll probably see it come around again at this time next year, and the year after that.

I promised to post the Thanksgiving recipes in time for Christmas, so here’s the final, and probably the most critical, one.  As I’ve already mentioned, this roast turkey recipe is a blend of different preparations that I’ve used over the past few years.  I’ve taken the best aspects of every preparation that I’ve used, and this is the result.

When I first decided on a recurring holiday turkey recipe, I started out by using a liberal application of herbed butter under the skin of the bird, which does a better job of flavoring the meat than basting or cavity aromatics would.  If you think about it, basting merely flavors the skin, and no matter how often you ladle pan drippings over the roast, those drippings do nothing but run down the outside of the bird back into the pan.  Psychologically, it’s satisfying, but technically basting accomplishes nothing since the skin acts as a barrier.  The same is true for stuffing things into the turkey’s cavity – no matter what you put in there, the meat will still be shielded from the aromatics by the bone structure of the bird, so the effect is minimized.

Using an under-the-skin application of herbed butter achieves two goals – it flavors the skin from beneath, and it also imparts a wonderful flavor to the meat below.  So, that’s the approach that I used for years, until I discovered brining, and now I use a brine-and-butter approach.

Brining takes the notion of flavoring the meat one step further, by immersing the bird in a salt and sugar solution for approximately 1 hour per pound.  Take note, though, that you should never attempt to brine what is sold as a “self-basting” turkey – which has already been injected with a saline solution, and which will turn out inedibly salty if you elect to brine it further.  Additional flavors are added to the brine according to the results that you’re seeking – the brine carries these flavors deep into the meat of the turkey.  From a scientific standpoint, the brining solution breaks up the fibers of the meat, resulting in increased tenderness, and the retained moisture from a good, long brine will translate to juicier meat.  I highly recommend using a brining bag, but you could use any food-safe heavy duty plastic bag if you need to.

So, here is the holiday roast turkey recipe.  The butter mix comes from a past issue of one of my cooking magazines, which I can’t recall after so many years, and the brining solution is sourced from Saveur, with a few modifications.  Remember that you need to begin brining the turkey the night before you plan on roasting it, so if you want to make this for Christmas, you need to start on Christmas Eve.

The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe by The Best Food Blog Ever

1 turkey

For the Brine

1 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup chili powder
2 cups apple cider
1 head garlic, separated into cloves, peeled
2 apples, cored and chopped
6 cups apple cider (separate step)
4 quarts cold water

For the Butter

1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
Sea salt
Ground black pepper
Fresh thyme and sage, chopped

Start by making the brine.  In a food processor or blender, puree the garlic, the apples, and the 2 cups of apple cider, and set aside.  In the brining bag, set inside of a large stockpot, pour the salt, sugar, and chili powder, then add the 6 cups of apple cider and the 4 quarts of cold water, using your hand or a whisk to mix it all together so that the salt and sugar dissolve.  Add the apple/garlic puree and stir to mix again.

Prepare the turkey by first pulling out the utterly useless self timer plastic dart and throwing it away, being careful not to tear the skin as you do so.  Remove the giblet bag and reserve for stock (this can be frozen, whole, in a plastic bag in the freezer).  Carefully lower the entire turkey, breast first, into the brining solution, making sure the brine fills the cavity, and submerge as much as possible.  Seal the bag and place in a cold place – your refrigerator if you have room, or the garage or deck if the outside temperature is low enough.  You should anticipate brining the turkey for 1 hour per pound, thereabouts.

The next day, take your butter out of the refrigerator and let it soften.  Finely chop a few slices of bacon and fry them until crisp.  In a small bowl, mash the butter with the salt, pepper, bacon, thyme, and sage and set aside.  Set your oven to 350 degrees.

Pull the turkey out of the brine and set it in a roasting pan on a rack, making sure to drain the cavity.  Using paper towels, pat the turkey dry, then use your fingers to loosen the skin from the meat of the breast.  Take a spoon and spread the herbed butter under the skin of the turkey – you can use your fingers to push the butter off of the spoon through the skin, and smush it around until you’ve got an even coating of butter throughout.  Apply salt and pepper liberally to the surface of the skin.  If you’re using a probe thermometer, which I highly recommend, insert the probe now into the thickest part of the thigh without hitting bone.

Roast the turkey until the temperature of the dark meat reaches 165 degrees.  You may want to check the bird after about an hour or so, because the residual brown sugar from the brine will caramelize, causing the skin to become brown more quickly than you are accustomed.  If this happens, take the turkey out and tent it with foil before putting it back to finish cooking.  When you take the final temperature of the roast using a probe thermometer, it’s best to poke it in various discreet locations – all parts of the bird should register at least 160 degrees, which is done but not dry.

Remove the turkey from the oven and set it aside, tented with foil, for at least 30 minutes.  If you hazard cutting into any roast before it has had proper time to rest, you risk spilling valuable juices and ending up with dry meat.  The resting period allows the juices, which are pushed to the surface during cooking, to recede back deeper into the flesh.  Don’t worry about the turkey getting cold – depending on its size, the roast will retain heat for close to an hour or more, and your kitchen, if it’s anything like ours, will be plenty hot anyway from all of the other cooking that’s going on.

November 21, 2011   Comments

Taking The Mystery Out of Sous Vide Cooking

Once the exclusive province of fine dining kitchens and chefs whose names rhyme with ‘Lommus Beller’, sous vide cooking has recently emerged as a viable (albeit not inexpensive) option for the home kitchen.  The technique, which involves placing food in a vacuum-sealed pouch, then immersing it into a water bath at a precisely-controlled temperature, has become such a staple of reality cooking television shows that it’s easy to perceive the process as something so complex, so prone to error, that it’s best left up to the professionals.  But that simply isn’t true.

As 2010 drew to a close, I received an email from Frank Hsu, an entrepreneur based out of Toronto who heads up a company named Fresh Meals Solutions, the manufacturer of a sous vide system called Fresh Meals Magic.  Frank was kind enough to provide me with a Fresh Meals Magic setup, which consists of an immersion heater, a Sous Vide Magic controller, an air pump, and a large 18 liter plastic bucket.  It’s far from pretty, but it works well, and the Fresh Meals Magic system offers a scalable solution that’s not limited by the size of a fixed container.  And did I mention that it costs less than the Sous Vide Supreme, the more widely known market leader in sous vide products for the home?  More on that later.

Since receiving the Fresh Meals Magic system, I’ve dedicated myself to preparing nearly every protein imaginable using the sous vide technique.  Starting with eggs, then progressing to steak, chicken, pork, and fish, I’ve accumulated a ton of notes detailing technique, rules of thumb, pitfalls, and other nuggets of wisdom.  After considerable delay, I finally feel confident in sharing them with you.  There’s only one problem – it’s a boatload of brain-bits that can’t be dumped en masse on an unsuspecting blog-reading populace.

The topic of sous vide cooking is far too vast to address adequately in a single entry, and it wouldn’t be fair to those of you who find yourselves on The Best Food Blog Ever seeking knowledge on how to properly sous vide a specific kind of food.  This is why, from this point forward, you’ll begin to see more discussion about specific dishes that use the sous vide technique.  Have I tried to sous vide eggs?  Yes.  Did I like the outcome?  Eh.  What’s my favorite dish to prepare sous vide?  You’d be surprised.

From a practical standpoint, sous vide cooking is no more complicated than boiling, except everything occurs at a much lower temperature.  Here’s the elevator pitch – the entire point of cooking is to bring the internal temperature of your food up to a certain level, whether that be the temperature associated with a medium-rare steak or a minimum safe temperature to ensure that your chicken breast doesn’t make you sick.  Every technique that you would implement in the kitchen involves the application of heat that cooks your protein from the outside-in.  That’s why even the most perfectly cooked steak will come off of the grill or saute pan with a margin of over-doneness surrounding the medium-rare core.  It’s the reason why it’s hard to cook those ultra-thick pork chops that lovingly beckoned you to free them from their glass case at the market.

The magic of the sous vide technique is this – your food still cooks from the outside-in, but since you’ve placed the food into a water bath at a set temperature, your food will never cook past that temperature, no matter how long you leave it in the water.  A steak cooked to medium-rare has an internal temperature of between 130 and 135 degrees.  Set your sous vide setup to maintain that temperature, hold the meat in the water bath long enough, and you will be assured of having a medium-rare steak on your table for dinner that is exactly medium rare from edge to edge.  That’s the essence and simplicity of sous vide.

Beyond precise control over the outcome of your meal, sous vide also offers the unique opportunity to experiment with foods in a way that would be impossible to do in a safe manner using any other technique.  Take chicken, for example – we’ve been trained to cook chicken to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, which is the temperature at which harmful bacteria dies.  A lot of cooks, just to be safe, will bring their chicken to even higher temperatures just to achieve greater reassurance.  But once the internal temperature of chicken exceeds a certain level, the proteins begin to change, water is expelled, and your dinner begins its transformation into a dried-out, overcooked mistake.

With sous vide, you don’t have to cook your chicken to 160 degrees.  While it’s true that bacteria dies at 160 degrees, what isn’t often mentioned is that 160 degrees is the temperature required to kill bacteria instantly.  At lower temperatures, it just takes longer for the bacteria to die.   With the constant temperature control that’s available with sous vide, it’s entirely possible to hold any protein at a set temperature for the appropriate duration required to eliminate the risk of bacteria.  You have, most assuredly, heard of this before.  It’s called pasteurization.

Is there a downside to the sous vide technique?  Well, for one thing, most food looks horrible when it emerges from its time in the bath – chicken looks boiled, and beef has an unappealing grey character that reminds one of bad school cafeteria lunches.  But it’s nothing that a quick sear in a hot pan with the fat of your choice can’t repair.

Also, you have to make some adjustments to the way that you season your food if you intend on cooking it sous vide.  Fresh garlic, which is typically the first ingredient to hit the chopping block in my kitchen, is out – the vacuum seal locks in and intensifies flavors, so garlic would overwhelm, in a bad way.  The same is true, in my case, with fresh pepper – while many sous vide recipes call for salt and freshly-ground pepper, I find that the sous vide technique tends to bring out a variety of bitter and generally unpleasant notes from my Tellicherry peppercorns.  Generally, any ingredient that should be kept out of the vacuum seal during the sous vide process can be added later during the pan-sear, or as part of a sauce.

So, after all of that, let’s talk about the Sous Vide Magic setup by Fresh Meals Solutions.

The Fresh Meals Magic sous vide system consists of a Sous Vide Magic controller, an air pump, an immersion heater/bubbler, and a 18 liter clear plastic bucket.  The bucket holds your water, into which you place your vacuum-sealed pouches of food.  The immersion heater rests in the bucket and is cycled on and off by the controller box in order to maintain a constant temperature.  A small sensor plugs into the back of the controller, with the other end resting in the water and providing constant temperature readings.  The air pump, which is the same pump that you would find in an aquarium shop, ensures that a stream of bubbles circulates throughout the water, eliminating hotspots.  There are a few connections to make, but it quickly becomes second nature after you’ve done it once or twice.

To get started, just plug the Sous Vide Magic controller into a power outlet, flip the switch, and program in your desired temperature.  At any given time, you can glance at the readout on the front of the unit and see the current water temperature, as well as the target temperature.  Using hot tap water, which comes out of my kitchen faucet at around 105 degrees, it usually took about 15 to 20 minutes for the water to reach target.  During this time, you season your food and vacuum seal it using a FoodSaver device.  Once the water bath is ready, place your bags into the water and leave them there for at least the minimum suggested cooking time, which varies depending on the protein you are using and its size.  When you are ready to serve, cut open the bags and give the contents a quick sear in a hot pan.

I mentioned that one of the benefits of the Sous Vide Magic system over other alternatives is its scalability.  With the immersion heater, there’s really no limit to the space that you use to house your water bath – you could conceivably cook multiple pieces of meat in the sink, or a bathtub, even…in any vessel up to 36 liters.  The 18 liter bucket provided by Fresh Meals Solutions with the purchase of a kit is really for the sake of convenience, more than anything.  The Sous Vide Supreme limits you to the dimensions of the unit, topping out at 10 liters.  It’s fine for a steak or two, but you wouldn’t be able to pull off a large sous vide dinner party.

Admittedly, the Sous Vide Magic system doesn’t look as refined or elegant as the tabletop unit offered by Sous Vide Supreme, but this is a solution for those food geeks among us who care more about delivering a flawlessly prepared steak or salmon filet than showing off some new piece of kitchen gadgetry.  It does the job, and it does it well.

Check back here for sous vide recipes, tips, and tricks, coming soon.

March 24, 2011   Comments

How Do You Like Them Apples?

This past summer was not a fruitful gardening season by any stretch of the imagination.  Our assumption of the new roles of full-time parents to our baby daughter, in combination with the sparse bouts of rain and a several runs of too-hot summer temperatures, meant that we weren’t able to grow much of anything.  To be honest, I hadn’t gotten around to planting anything other than a few tomato and pepper plants and, by the middle of August, thanks to the unfavorable weather patterns, they still had not yielded anything worth writing about.

This is in stark contrast to last year, when we enjoyed a bumper crop of tomatoes, along with a healthy surge of fresh herbs and leafy greens that afforded me free food and ingredients for several months.  We ate fresh tomatoes off of the plants for a good part of the summer, and when Labor Day rolled in, I visited a farmstand in the Amish country, picked up a box of slightly bruised tomatoes for $5, and canned enough of them to produce almost twenty quarts, which were ushered onto a shelf in the basement, ready for sauce on a whim.  This year, by the time we visited the farmstand, well after Labor Day, all of the tomatoes were gone and had been replaced by squash and apples.  With some degree of regret, I packed up my canning supplies and stowed them away in the dark recesses of my basement until next year.

The change in weather brings changes in my culinary urges.  In an attempt to satisfy a particularly strong craving for cider doughnuts, we stopped at our local orchard and farm market in mid-October and were surprised to find the grounds overflowing with hundreds of people.  The lines snaked through the store, past the bakery counter, and outside to a tent which sheltered the seasonal placement of cash registers.  Each person in line had the triumvirate selection – a basket of apples, a pumpkin, and a quart or gallon of apple cider.  Upon seeing the mountains of fiery orange pumpkins, and smelling the apple-scented air, my longing for the lazy heat of the summer was extinguished, replaced by the remembrance of the charms of autumn and an overwhelming desire for apple-everything.  Pie. Cobbler. Stuffed.  Roasted. You name it.

I had come across a recipe for apple butter that was made entirely in a slow cooker, which suited my schedule perfectly.  Intrigued, I picked up a few pounds of firm Granny Smiths and McIntosh apples and, for the first time in my life, one of those peeler/corer contraptions that operates on a hand crank.  The recipe was quite straightforward – fill a slow cooker with chopped apples, some sugar, a bit of apple cider, and, at your option, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.  Turn on and drop out.

Using the peeler brought me the same joy of discovery as the first time I used a (good quality) mandoline.  I jabbed an apple onto the spike, turned the crank, and was almost immediately rewarded with a peeled and cored apple that was already conveniently separated into rings.  Fair warning – apples that are in the least bit on the soft side will tend to gum up the works, but for firm specimens, the thing works like a charm.

I piled the apples into the slow cooker, added the rest of the ingredients, popped the glass lid over it, and turned it to the High setting.  For the first few hours, it seemed as if nothing was happening – I would peer down through the glass lid and see the pale, cinnamon-bespecked apple slices staring back up at me.  I went upstairs to do some work.

At some point, I returned to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee and, halfway down the stairs, was greeted by the warm smell of the holidays, which had permeated the entire first floor and was now quietly invading the rest of the house.  Checking on the slow cooker, the top layer of apples had still retained their shape, but a quick stir with a wooden spoon caused them to disintegrate.  By the sixth hour, the apples had turned into a chunky, mahogany-colored paste.

I brought my canning supplies up from the basement, filling the large black pot with water and setting it onto a burner and running the jars through the dishwasher to clean and sterilize them.  The actual canning process went very quickly – after ten minutes in boiling water, I had produced about eight or nine half-pint jars of apple butter, suitable for gifting or for hoarding in the basement.

And, in a couple of weeks, when I take the last jar of summer tomatoes for sauce, I know exactly what’s going to take up that shelf.

November 17, 2010   Comments

What Thomas Keller Taught Me

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home.  I settled onto the couch and strategically balanced the oversized, very heavy book on my lap.  By the time I had finished flipping through its pages, not only were my thighs numb, I already had accumulated about a half dozen recipes that I wanted to try.  Did I expect anything less?  Probably not.

How is this any different, you may ask, than any other new cookbook acquisition?  Consider this – while other cookbooks may give me collections of recipes that I’d like to try, thumbing through Ad Hoc at Home has managed to actually change the way that I think about cooking.  If you’ve ever seen the dozens of cookbooks that occupy their own Billy bookcase (and half of a second one) in our library, you would know that this is no small feat.  I’ve gone from collecting recipes to collecting techniques, and Ad Hoc at Home is a treasure trove.

One of the first recipes that I tried out of Ad Hoc at Home was actually listed as an ingredient for another dish that I wanted to make.  The soffritto, which is one of the components of a roasted pepper recipe, calls for only three primary ingredients – spanish onions, plum tomatoes, and olive oil – plus one minced clove of garlic at the end.  Easy enough, right?  And yet, the actual recipe itself, when done in accordance with Keller’s instructions, takes five hours from start to completion.

From a process perspective, nothing could be simpler than this soffritto.  Just chop the onions, toss them into a pan with a generous amount of olive oil, then simmer away for 2 1/2 hours.  At that point, create a tomato pulp by stroking the cut plum tomatoes against a grater, add that to the onions, and simmer for another 2 1/2 hours.  One pressed clove of garlic finishes the dish.

You would think that such a simple recipe would yield standard results – a sweet caramelized onion flavor, some acidity from the tomatoes, but nothing fantastic, right?  This is where the magic of Keller’s technique shines – the resulting soffritto has such a depth of flavor, it’s tempting to just break out a spoon and eat it straight from the pot, thereby nullifying five hours worth of toil for five minutes of pleasure.  The overall experience is a subtle shift in perception, a quiet realization that, if treated with enough care and attention, even the humblest of ingredients can surprise you.  I used the soffritto in the roasted peppers, then gradually depleted the rest of the batch by stirring it into scrambled eggs and folding a spoon of it into a batch of home fries.

My one admission is this – I didn’t carry the recipe through to its full five hour preparation time.  It’s not that I didn’t want to, it’s that I was forced to end it early after realizing that the soffritto was browning way too quickly.  My burners were not designed to sustain such a low simmer as what Keller’s recipe demands, and I was forced to take the soffritto off of the heat to save it from turning into a charred mess.  So, as soon as I get my hands on a flame tamer, I’m going to tackle this recipe again, and do it right the next time.  As good as the soffritto was after three hours, I can only begin to imagine how it will taste after five.

And one day, I may just find myself in Yountville, sitting down to taste the original.

May 12, 2010   Comments

Valentine’s Day, Party of Three

This year was our first Valentine’s Day as parents which, contrary to what most would believe, was actually quite liberating.  Instead of trying to nail down reservations for dinner at one of the few establishments that don’t mandate the selection of a “Valentine’s Day Menu”, we had made absolutely no plans up until Friday night, two days before the actual day.  I knew that we were going to stay home and that I was going to cook a nice meal – I just hadn’t really given thought to what I was going to make.  For inspiration, I had to reach back into my memory, and ended up completing a circle that had started quite a long time ago.

Almost sixteen years ago, I took my wife (who, at that moment, went by the title of ‘long distance girlfriend’) to New York City for the first time.  I remember that it was still cold, so it may have been this time of year, and it may, in fact, have been a Valentine’s Day trip.

Wanting very badly to make a good impression, I sought out a place for dinner that was, by reputation, romantic, and after some degree of research, decided on One If By Land, Two If By Sea in Greenwich Village.  After breezing right past it, we fumbled around looking for the door, until finally the piano player motioned at us through the bay window and pointed at the entrance.

The setting, an 18th century carriage house, was warm and inviting, with darkly wooded dining rooms lit by the soft glow of vintage chandeliers.  It was the perfect date restaurant, made even more so by the fact that we were seated at a table that overlooked the garden outside, coated white by a layer of freshly fallen snow.  We both ordered the Beef Wellington, a decadent concoction of medium-rare filet mignon, foie gras, and mushrooms, served wrapped in a golden puff pastry crust.  At that time, One If By Land had been known as one of the few dining establishments that served Wellington as an individually wrapped serving of filet.  The meal was excellent from beginning to end, with course after course of outstanding food, attentive service, and all of the pomp and circumstance of an evening that was slightly out of a college student’s budget range.  But it was worth every cent.

At some point after that experience, after we had gotten married, I had tried my hand at making my own Beef Wellington.  The fact that I don’t really remember how it turned out, though, means that it must not have been very well executed.  But, years later, having accrued a bit more kitchen wisdom and experience, I decided, quite on a whim, that I’d try revisiting the recipe, this time as a Valentine’s Day dinner at home.

A classic dilemma facing every cook who attempts a Beef Wellington is timing.  The pastry crust must be baked to a perfect crispy brown, yet the beef must not be allowed to cook much further than medium-rare.  If I remember correctly, this was my downfall on my first attempt – while the pastry had turned out perfectly, cutting into the serving yielded gray, overcooked filet.

To prepare, I reviewed quite a few recipes for Beef Wellington.  Some of them only required you to pan-sear the filet mignon, to develop a crust on all sides, before wrapping it in pastry and popping it into the oven.  Others, though, had you precooking the filet mignon to very nearly serving temperature, so that you would end up wrapping a near-presentation worthy log of beef in pastry, with only the required amount of time in the oven to ensure that the pastry was fully baked.  I ended up taking methods and ingredients from one recipe and melding them with techniques from another.  For the preparation of the beef, I decided to go with the latter method, and roasted the tied bundle until an internal probe thermometer had registered the meat as rare, around 125 degrees, then cooled it down to room temperature with a quick stint out on the deck, covered by foil.  This is the only legitimate use for a deck in winter – as a large walk-out cooler.

Having no foie gras on hand, I instead crafted a mushroom duxelle, which was as simple as spinning some mushrooms, shallots, and thyme in a food processor, then sauteing the mixture in olive oil until most of the moisture has cooked out of it.  It takes about ten minutes, after which you set the duxelle mixture into a fine sieve to allow even more liquid to escape, and to let it cool to room temperature.

Using store-bought puff pastry, I laid a frozen sheet on a plastic mat that we use for rolling and measuring pie dough and waited for it to thaw.  Once I could easily unfold it without risk of breaking it, I rolled it to about half of its original thickness.  Assembly was fun – wielding a rubber spatula, I smeared a small bed of duxelle onto the pastry, arranged the filet mignon on top, topped it with Dijon mustard and more duxelle, then carefully enclosed the puff pastry around it, sealing the seams with beaten egg.  Carefully sliding the probe thermometer into the center of the Wellington, I popped it into the oven, set my timer, and waited.

Since I had already precooked the beef, there was no guesswork involved as to when the Wellington was ready.  I only had to wait until the internal temperature of the meat had risen to my desired measure of doneness, about 130 degrees or so for medium-rare, and by that time the crust had puffed and turned golden brown.  Still, even with all of these safeguards, I was nervous slicing into the finished product.

I took my sharpest blade and held the golden package with one hand as I took one sure swipe down the center of the Wellington.  Seeing the rosy red interior of the beef, I knew that I had found my new Beef Wellington recipe.  I sliced the Wellington into thick slices, about an inch, letting them fall forward onto a spatula like a Stonehenge of culinary goodness.  A quick pan sauce of capers, cream, mustard, and brandy was just enough to send the dish into overdrive.

So that night, with the baby napping on the couch beside us and with a bottle of red wine to celebrate the occasion, my wife and I celebrated our first Valentine’s Day as a threesome.  And you know what?  I think I enjoyed it even more than an evening in New York City.

(Note: I need time to write up this recipe, since it’s a hybrid of a bunch of different sources, but as soon as I do, I will update this post.  Promise.)

March 4, 2010   Comments

My Lemon Has a First Name, It’s M-E-Y-E-R

There are times when you just impulsively pick up ingredients with no plan whatsoever for how to use them, just because they are intriguing or exceptionally fresh and inviting.  At $20 each, I had already made the decision not to pick up the emu egg, and, feeling particularly good about myself for avoiding the temptation of that purchase, was completely blindsided by the sack of Meyer lemons.  At the bargain price of $1.99, it was a risk well worth taking.

We had taken an evening to go visit the stupefyingly immense Whole Foods that had recently opened in Plymouth Meeting, PA.  At 65,000 square feet, the store sits above a parking garage with enough room for 345 cars.  Pulling into the space, you feel as if you should be checking airline arrival and departure times, and the escalator ride up from the garage feels like an ascent into hippie heaven.

Back to the lemons.  I had heard of Meyer lemons, and had the occasion to sample them as an ingredient in some courses here and there, but never has a star component of any dish.  Having only seen them once in my local market years ago, I did not take the opportunity to try them at that time, mainly because they were considered to be such an exotic item that the price was a deterrent.  So, having run into them again, and at half the price, I just had to pick them up, plan or no.

The mesh bag of golden orbs sat on our kitchen counter for a few days as I looked for an appropriate way to inaugurate my taste buds to the wonders of the Meyer lemon.  There were, to be honest, many more applications than I could ever have hoped to find – Meyer lemon sorbets, granitas, and savory dishes.  Ultimately, I decided on a very straightforward pots de creme, which beckoned with its simplicity – just a mixture of one egg, egg yolks (4), sugar (2/3C), lemon juice (1/2C), cream (1.25C), and zest.  Whipped up in a single bowl, then baked in a water bath (425 degrees) for about a half hour, there seemed to be no more straightforward way to experiment with the fruit.

The Meyer lemons actually looked nothing like lemons at all.  Instead of bumpy skin, these lemons were smooth, and instead of being bright yellow, they trended more towards orange and, in truth, looked like tangerines.  Cutting into them yielded a lot of juice, and tasting it off of my fingers, I noted that Meyer lemons are sweeter and less tart than traditional lemons – think of a cross between lemon and tangerine.  Having zested the lemons and juiced them with a reamer, I was satisfied that I had extracted as much flavor out of each of them that I possibly could have.

The Meyer lemon pots de creme turned out to be a test of willpower.  After cooking, they needed to be cooled to room temperature, covered in plastic wrap, then chilled overnight.  But the next night, after a trying day at work and a challenging commute through the cold, dark early evening of January, there was no brighter end to the day than the spoonful of pure sunshine that the pot de creme provided.

January 28, 2010   Comments

Redemptive Granola Bars

It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when granola was healthy.  It was just a few years ago that granola was regarded as a “weird” food, one that was shunned by the mainstream masses.  If you wanted to buy some, you’d have to go into a natural foods store to find it – one of those places that also sells healing crystals, vegetarian dog food, and bread products with as much umami as styrofoam.  Granola was seen as “just” health food, or at the very least something that only people from California would eat.

At some point, the Powers That Be seized upon the realization that they could sell granola bars at the supermarket if they made a few special additions here and there – you know, to make granola more compatible with the average customer’s palate.  Shoppers would perceive that they were engaged in a healthy diet choice (it is granola, after all) but in order to get them truly on board with the concept, the brands started adding chocolate, and additional sugar, and all manner of preservatives.  Some preservatives were added to keep chewy granola soft, others to keep crunchy granola from going stale.  The end result?  You can’t find a mass-marketed granola bar that’s truly healthy.  In fact, if you check the nutritional panel on a typical box of granola bars, you’ll find that some brands are really no better for you than most candy bars.  If truly healthy granola is Anakin, then the bars that contain chocolate chips, added sugar, and overly-sweetened yogurt fillings are Darth Vader – twisted, evil, and full of empty calories.

Instead of feeling down about this whole corrupted granola scenario, I decided to make my own.  It is incredibly easy, and the best part about making your own granola is the fact that you know everything that goes into them.  The base ingredients are cheap, widely available, and good for you.  If you want to tart them up with less-than-healthy components, or go completely overboard with additional healthy ingredients, it’s completely up to you.  The important thing is this – you have full control over what you’re eating.

The basic concept of any granola bar recipe involves mixing a combination of dry ingredients (primarily oats) with some form of gooey liquid sweetener to bind it all together (without the binding, you just have granola, no bar).  Press the mess into a dish, bake until set, then store in an airtight container.  I am presenting the master recipe here, but I hope to experiment a little more and come up with some truly unique combinations later.  I’m still tinkering – the bars are not as soft as I would like, and maybe this can be resolved just by dialing back how much time they spend in the oven.

The Best Food Blog Ever Master Granola Bar Recipe uses a combination of oats, nuts, and dried coconut for the dry ingredients, and honey, peanut butter, and brown rice syrup for the wet.  One of the things that you’ll notice about this recipe is that there is no white sugar – by using honey and brown rice syrup, you still achieve the desired sweetness but in a way that is slowly digested and avoids sugar crash.  Also, the ingredients are very forgiving, so long as you maintain approximately the same volumes – if all that you have on hand are raisins, you can use all raisins.

The Best Food Blog Ever Master Granola Bar Recipe

2 cups oats
1 cup mixed nuts, chopped (see note about salt, below)
1 1/2 cup raisins, dried cranberries, and dried cherries
1 cup shredded coconut (low fat version, if available)
1/2 cup wheat germ or flax seeds

1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup brown rice syrup
1/4 cup peanut butter (natural, if available)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted nuts)

Set your oven to 350°F. Line a baking dish (a square one for thicker bars, or a rectangle for thinner ones) with foil or parchment paper.  Get a rubber spatula ready.

Bake the oatmeal, coconut, and nuts together on a sheet pan for 15 minutes, until visibly browned.  You’ll know by the toasty smell that’s coming from your oven.

While the dry ingredients are toasting, mix the wet ingredients in a measuring cup, making sure to stir thoroughly to incorporate the vanilla and salt throughout.  Set aside.

This next step is best done in a stand mixer, but if you don’t have one you can also use a handheld mixer or a quick stirring arm.

Transfer the hot mixture to a bowl and stir in the wheat germ or flax seeds.  Pour the wet ingredients over the warm dry ingredients and mix together, then add the dried fruit and mix for a few seconds more.  Using the rubber spatula, press the mixture into the pan.

Bake at 300 degrees for 20 minutes.  I am still tinkering with the baking time – I have been baking the bars for 30 minutes, which yields a harder texture than what I would like.

Lift the granola slab out of the pan and let cool completely, then cut into bars and store in an airtight container.

November 23, 2009   Comments

One Final Tribute to Summer, in a Pot of Sauce

I used to dream about San Marzano tomatoes, gladly shelling out three times the cost of a can of “regular” plum tomatoes for 28 ounces of pure Italian summer joy.  The low acid San Marzano variety is less sweet than other tomatoes, yielding an absolute superior flavor when used as the base for sauce.  They grow only in the small town of San Marzano, near Naples, and they are subject to the strict regulations of Denominazione di origine controllata that are used to certify authenticity of origin.

With all of this in mind, I was excited to be able to order San Marzano tomato plants for the garden this year.  They’ve provided a steady crop of plump roma fruit throughout the summer, and last weekend I harvested the last of the ripe tomatoes from the plants, along with a handful of basil.  The tomatoes sat on the kitchen island for a few days while I devised a proper way to say goodbye to summer.

As it turns out, the best use of San Marzano tomatoes will always be as the primary ingredient in sauce.  Since they are less sweet, and carry less moisture than other tomatoes, they’re not really the best thing to slice and eat like their larger beefsteak cousins.

I started by peeling the tomatoes (cut an ‘X’ into the base of each, place into boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, then hold under cold running water and strip the skin), slicing them in half to let the seeds drop into the sink.  I placed a generous mound of chopped garlic into a puddle of olive oil in a saucepan, letting that heat gently as I roughly chopped the tomatoes, tossing them into the pan once the garlic turned golden and aromatic.  A splash of white wine to the pan, then I let the whole thing cook slowly, breaking the tomatoes up with a spoon.

When we were ready to eat, I adjusted the seasoning of the sauce with sea salt, then added about a 1/4 cup of half and half.  It’s amazing to see and taste the differences between a plain tomato sauce and one that’s had a little dairy added to it.  Slivers of basil, stirred into the sauce at the very last minute, provided the perfect herbal companion.

And, at the time of this writing, it’s only three months before I can place my order for next summer’s tomato plants.  Until then, I’ll have to make do with what we’ve canned.

October 16, 2009   Comments

Hello, Autumn: Ginger Ginger Blah Blah Blah Ginger Cookies

The weather has taken a definitive turn towards autumn in our neck of the woods.  Even though there are still a few tomatoes on the vine, and the basil plants have not yet succumbed to the first frost, the chill in the air makes me crave something that would usher in the change of season – but gently, gradually, not like those garish displays of animated Christmas decorations in the supermarket.

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve never posted anything about cookies here.  It’s not that I don’t like cookies (really, quite the opposite), but more because our house has always pledged allegiance to the chocolate chip cookie, with the occasional nod to a bittersweet chocolate drop cookie.  A couple of weeks ago, we found ourselves in a bakery/cafe for brunch, and I had the most wonderful ginger cookie which left such an impression, evoked such a timely feeling of seasonality, that it sent me on a quest to find a way to enjoy that same feeling at home.

There are a lot of ginger cookie recipes out there, and I ultimately decided on this one, from Epicurious.  If you do the research, you’ll find that ginger cookie recipes all have some basic ingredients in common, and already I am feeling confident enough to start experimenting with variations on this recipe.  In fact, I’m looking to translate the core flavors of this cookie, along with some special modifications, to a cake or loaf pan recipe.

A proper ginger cookie recipe is loaded to bear with all manner of fall weather spices – besides the obvious ginger, there’s clove and cinnamon.  To have the cookies turn out as chewy as possible, the primary sweetener is dark brown sugar, along with the addition of molasses to add another depth of flavor.  My favorite thing about this particular recipe, though, is the inclusion of chopped candied ginger.  If you’ve never worked with candied ginger before, let me warn you that it is an addictive ingredient – you can eat the chunks like candy, and each bite is a tiny explosion of intense ginger flavor, offset by the sweet coating of sugar.  It’s no wonder that candied ginger works so well in baking.  Whatever remains after you’ve assembled the cookies will probably be gone by the time they’re done baking.

Besides the brown sugar, the balls of dough are rolled in white sugar right before baking.  As they cook, the cookies will spread out and crack, but remain soft.  I actually should have abided by the recipe’s instructions to the letter – at 12 minutes, the cookies still seemed a bit underdone, so I let them go for another three or four minutes, which turned out to be a mistake.  That quality that I perceived to be underdone was actually the star attribute of a ginger cookie, since it will remain soft and chewy for several days if you keep them in an airtight container.

September 24, 2009   Comments

Check Out My Awesome Sausage

Some time last year, I purchased a food grinder attachment for our KitchenAid stand mixer, with visions of homemade sausage and burger patties dancing in my head.  Soon after it arrived, we threw a grilling party and invited some friends over to try out some freshly ground burgers.  This was probably the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in the kitchen as I had violated the cardinal rule of cooking for guests: never serve anything you haven’t successfully made before.

When I passed the chunks of beef through the grinder, some fat and gristle hit the grinder blade and clogged up the works.  The meat that did make it through the grinder into the bowl was devoid of fat and flavor, which resulted in horribly compact, dried out pucks of grilled meat.  I was not pleased, and I expressed my great displeasure by banishing the grinder attachment to the dark recesses of our kitchen cabinet, never to be used again.  Having missed a routine fly ball, was I blaming the glove?  In hindsight, yes.

Time, as the saying goes, heals all wounds.  So, like finding an old college buddy on Facebook, the craving to explore uncharted waters made me reconnect with my grinder attachment after nearly a year of exile.  The mission: homemade sausage.  The unavoidable challenge – I would have to try my hand at grinding meat again.  I was hoping that my grinder would not turn out to be the Kobayashi Maru of meat.

I had been considering making my own sausage for several months, but out of the universe of food, sausage is one of those items with a greater  potential ick factor.  It’s not so much the grinding of the meat, really, than the average person’s unfamiliarity with sausage casings.  Having never worked with casings before, I had this nightmarish vision of cracking open a tub of tubes, getting hit full-on in the face with an odor that would confirm that, yes, these are organic casings that were once piggy parts, then losing my nerve to make sausage forevermore.  Sure, I could just form the loose sausage mixture into patties and fry them, but that’s not REAL sausage.  Real sausage comes in links.  Real sausage is measured using the length of your arm.

To my great and welcome surprise, and as a reassurance to all of you, there was no odor at all, and working with the casings is actually quite easy.  They come packed in coarse salt to keep them dry, and prepping them is as easy as dumping the whole lot into a pot of cool water, using your fingers to separate them, then running cool water through them.  While I initially regarded $7 as a bit on the pricey side for casings, I didn’t realize that the plastic tub contains quite a few casings, and you’re only going to need one or two per batch of sausages.  In other words, so long as you repack your leftover casings in salt and keep them in the fridge, you shouldn’t need to buy more casings for quite a while.

The sausage turned out unexpectedly well, and the grinding went without a hitch, thanks to a few very critical tips that I did not have the benefit of knowing the first time around.

First, it’s important to keep everything as cold as possible – that means freezing your cubes of meat and fat until they are slightly firm, and refrigerating the various parts of your grinder attachment.  The semi-frozen fat, when it hits the grinder blade, will be ground up and passed through to the bowl because it is too firm to melt, smear, and clog the disk.

Secondly, you must always maintain a fairly high ratio of fat to meat in your grind mixture.  If you think about this, we already take this into account when we buy ground beef from the market – we know that the 80/20 mixture makes the tastiest burgers because a full fifth of the weight of that package is fat.  The reason why my first attempt at grinding meat for burgers was such a miserable failure is because I had not ground enough fat into the mix.

Those two rules of thumb are really all that separates success from failure when it comes to making your own sausage.  Because of the abundance of sage in the garden this year, I decided that my inaugural attempt at sausagemaking would be the Sage and Red Wine Sausage recipe in Fine Cooking magazine.

All sausage recipes follow the same basic pattern.  You grind the meat, mix in your seasonings, and then allow the mixture to cure in your refrigerator for a little bit, so that the flavors will meld.  After at least an hour, or preferably the next day, you stuff the mixture into casings, and you’re done.  The whole process took far less time than I anticipated.

Following the recipe, I cut about four pounds of pork shoulder and one pound of fatback into small cubes, then froze them on a cookie sheet for about an hour.  While waiting for the meat to firm up, I picked about 30 sage leaves from the garden (which, by the way, didn’t make a dent in the plant at all) and chopped those finely, along with about four times the amount of garlic that the recipe requires.

The moment of truth came quickly – I assembled the grinder attachment, powered up the KitchenAid, and started feeding the chunks of meat and fat into the hopper.  Immediately, I was struck at how different this grinding session felt from my first one, how the fat extruded itself in neat spaghetti-like strands like a Play-Doh barber shop set.  Compared to the stop, start, stop process of my first grinding attempt, this time everything went smoothly, and within fifteen minutes all of the meat and fat had been ground.  I sifted my fingers through the pile a bit to evenly distribute the fat, but had to switch to a spoon when my fingers grew too cold.  I tossed in the sage, garlic, some salt and pepper, then added the 1/2 cup of red wine from a previously-opened bottle that we keep on the kitchen counter.  A small test patty was incredibly flavorful, so I was hopeful for a good outcome.

Having overcome my fear of grinding, I then faced a new moment of truth when it came time to place the sausage into casings.  I assembled the sausage stuffer (a small conical tube with a silly price of $9) onto the KitchenAid, then fumbled around with a sausage casing, trying not to let the slippery string tumble down into the garbage disposal.  Eventually, I was able to wrestle an open end of the casing onto the stuffer attachment, working the rest of it onto the cone in an accordian-like bunch, with about five inches left to hang.  I tied a knot into the free end, retrieved the sausage mix from the refrigerator, and set to work.

It’s important to work as quickly as you can when stuffing sausage, because the risk of bacterial contamination increases as your sausage mix gets warmer.  I used a rubber spatula to load the hopper with sausage, then a food pusher to shove it down into the grinder, maintaining one hand on the feeder cone to regulate the casing as it filled.  There’s no getting around the fact that this step can become extremely messy, so it’s a good idea to line the area underneath your KitchenAid with foil or parchment.  By tightening and loosening my grip on the casing, I could control the thickness of the end product.  Occasionally, I would have to stop and reload the hopper, or take a toothpick to burst the pockets of air that would become trapped in the casing.  When I was done, I twisted the sausage into links, managing to only break two because I twisted one way when I should have twisted the other.

Ultimately, this recipe produced nearly four feet of sausage at a cost of $7 for the casings (enough for several batches, though), $8 for the pork shoulder, and about $4 for the fatback.  Presuming you store the remainder of the casings for future use, each subsequent batch of sausage would run around $12, which is an incredible savings over the typical $5 per pound that most markets charge for premade sausages.  As an added bonus, the sausages freeze extremely well, making for even more options when you need quick dinner ideas.

June 17, 2009   Comments