Category — Seasons

Summertime, Under the Cherry Trees

I could hear the excitement in my wife’s voice when she called me.

“I just called the farm this morning, and they told me that today’s the first day of cherry picking!”

Shortly after moving into the area, we had discovered a farm about fifteen minutes away, offering Pick-Your-Own produce throughout the growing season, and a thriving apple and pumpkin business in the fall.  While we had started with tomatoes (no longer offered, sadly), the lure of freshly-picked berries and fruit soon led us to establish a pattern, an ushering-in of summer marked by cherries, blueberries, and the occasional foray into black and red raspberries.  Of these, cherries are the most challenging, due largely to their very short window of availability.

Last year, we missed cherry picking completely because we had to be out of town for one weekend.  That’s it – just a single weekend away from home meant the difference between picking our own cherries or paying the markup at the supermarket for hardy, non-local varieties bred to survive cross-country shipment by truck.  It’s due to a combination of voracious families of pickers and a life cycle that sees cherries ripen and fall off of the trees within days.

This year, I was visiting the farm’s website every few days, hoping to see some sort of announcement regarding cherry season, but the blog remained mysteriously static as we entered the month of June.  But armed with her secret information, Jennifer decided to take her lunch break and go picking while the rest of the unsuspecting cherry-loving populace toiled away in their cubicles.  She came home with 27 pounds of cherries, filling almost three cardboard trays.

The next day, we went back for more.  Returning to the cherry trees, I could see why she had been so productive in such a short time – the trees were filled with cherries, making the use of a stepladder unnecessary.  Camping out in the midst of the branches and leaves of one tree, I made quick work of tugging gently on the ripe fruit, which popped out into my palm for transfer to my tray.  We only stayed in the field for a short while that day, knowing that the bulk of this year’s picking had already been accomplished.  A little over an hour later, we returned home with nine additional pounds of fruit.

That weekend, we lost a lot of sleep.  Planting ourselves firmly on the couch, we pitted cherries for hours as we watched movies, going to bed well past midnight only to repeat the process again the following night.  When it came time to transform the fruit into preserves, we discovered that 27 pounds of cherries never really reaches the magical temperature of 220 degrees that’s required to make the mixture firm up, no matter how long you leave it at a boil.  We canned them anyway, choosing to be satisfied with capturing the essence of summer, even if that essence wasn’t as set up as we would have preferred.

In the week that followed, I started thinking about those jars of loose preserves.  As I was driving home through typical rush hour traffic, I remembered that, when canning, jars that fail to achieve an airtight seal can always be reprocessed without any safety issues.  It then occurred to me that it may be possible to reprocess the cherry preserves in smaller batches in order to hit the right temperature.  When I got home, I opened four of the half-pint jars, dumping the contents into a saucepan over high heat.  Sure enough, within minutes the mixture was at a full boil, and soon the readout on our thermometer crept up to 220 degrees.

We reprocessed the smaller batch in boiling water, hearing the loud pop of the lids as they cooled on a kitchen towel on the counter.  Before going to bed, I grabbed one and turned it upside down, to find, happily, that the preserves had fully set.  Now, even taking into consideration that four half-pints turn into two half-pints when reprocessed, we still have enough cherries to last us well into the start of next year’s picking season.

August 9, 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

The First Fire in Early Spring

There’s something magical about lighting a chimney full of charcoal for the first time in the spring, where the dusk temperatures still dive down low enough to warrant standing closer to the grill to warm up.  After a winter that saw the accumulation of over 40 inches of snow over the span of four days, the onset of afternoons filled with bright sunlight and daylight that lingers ever longer into the dinner hour brings a sense of hope and renewal.

Grilling is almost a natural reaction to those times when I don’t feel like cooking.  When the kitchen is clean, and I don’t want to disturb its serenity by breaking out all manner of pots, pans, and plates, I grill.  Likewise, when the kitchen is dirty or cluttered – again, with those pots, pans, and plates that were all called into the service of some multifaceted meal, I grill.  For me, grilling distills cooking down to its primal elements – meat and fire.  Really, what else do you need?

On the occasion of discovering perhaps the most perfect butcher shop in all of Chester County, we came home that day with a perfect Delmonico steak – well marbled throughout with streaks of fat.  The shop in question, Country Butcher in Kennett Square, sells USDA Prime cuts that are locally sourced and grass-fed, along with a good selection of cheeses, oils, and other food items.  Out of respect for this grand specimen of beef, I treated it simply – a little bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper, and a rubdown with a cut garlic clove.  Having never tried a steak from Country Butcher, I avoided masking the true flavor of the beef with overly aggressive sauces and seasonings.

Having had grass-fed beef in restaurants, I was already familiar with how outstanding a good steak can become if treated well.  But I had always attributed a greater portion of the responsibility to the chef than to the farmer that raised the cow and the butcher that sourced it and sold it to the restaurant.  As it turns out, the steak was one of the best home-prepared dinners that we’ve ever had.  I can’t take any credit for it – all I did was throw it onto the grill, stand there for five minutes, and flip it onto the other side.  More tender than any other home-cooked Delmonico, with an unexpected depth of flavor, it rivaled the quality of some of the top-dollar, triple-digit dinners that we’ve had in downtown Philadelphia.  It was that good.

April 22, 2010   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

And We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

I built my first garden box two years ago, which coincided with the onset of the first summer in our new home. Having settled in September, there was little that we could do with the property save for putting down a thin layer of mushroom soil and reseeding with better-than-contractor quality grass seed. When the warm weather finally returned, I was itching to test my newfound freedom to plant, grow, and harvest to my heart’s desire.

There was only one small problem – I had never tried my hand at gardening before. Having grown up in the inner city, where the only grass in sight was either contained in a small park, or growing between cracks in the sidewalk, I never had the opportunity to put spade to soil when I was young. When we were young, poor, married, and renting, I once planted one of those hydroponic basil plants from the grocery store in a pot on our front porch – and, to my surprise, it grew as high as my hip, bestowing upon us a wealth of pesto that summer. That gave me the reassurance that yes, I could grow things successfully, if only I had the space and resources.

So, when it came time for us to become older, slightly less poor, married homeowners, it was an imperative that I at least try my hand at gardening. I didn’t want to rip up large tracts of our backyard, though, which is already quite modest. Then, one day, I came across a copy of the book Square Foot Gardening, and it showed me the light.

Square Foot Gardening is a great solution when space is at a premium. Using inexpensive materials, you build a box, fill it with soil, then plant a different crop in each square foot. The first year I did this, I learned quite a few useful lessons about seed spacing, soil amendments, pest management, and growth rates. The thyme, sage, and chives that we planted two years ago have survived through two winters – so much so that the sage plant, once a resident of a single square foot of territory, now has grown to tower over five neighboring square feet. The chives, well-behaved at the beginning of spring, now bend under their own weight. These crops are performing too well for me to consider the risk of moving them, so this year I decided to build a second square foot garden, which, as a side benefit, gives me the opportunity to document the details here.

Ingredients

4 planks of cheap wood, 4 feet long
Screws
Weed blanket

Helpful: A drill

2 big bags of organic garden soil
1 bag of manure/humus (not hummus)
1 bale/bag of sphaghum peat moss
Maybe some more soil

I’ll begin with the raw materials. I started with four planks of wood, bought from the local big box hardware chain, which will run you about $5 per piece (you don’t need to get the good stuff). I chose 4 foot long pieces, which will yield a 16 square foot garden. Since I couldn’t remember where I put the screws that I had used two years ago, I had to pick up a box of deck screws for $7. The third and last piece of this puzzle is a weed blanket, which is a roll of dark fabric which will cost $15 to $25 depending on how much you buy.

Using three screws per corner, and preferably with the aid of a power drill fitted with a Phillips head screwdriver bit, join the four planks of wood together to form a square.

Take your square out to the site of your future garden (or, if it’s a nice day, just do your screwing, um, outside). Cut enough weed fabric to act as a “floor” for your square foot garden, and place the wooden frame over it. Alternatively, you can also put the frame down first, then tuck the weed blanket under the edges and corners. It’s okay if you need to cut more squares and overlap them. The purpose of the weed blanket is to serve as a barrier between your good soil and crops and the various grasses and weeds that are presently growing in your yard.

Now comes the fun part, adding the soil. Since the square foot garden is going to become a source of food, you want to select the best quality soil that’s available. I chose organic soil as my primary component, then added a bag of manure and a bag of sphagnum peat moss. The organic soil will serve as a home for your seeds and plants, but the manure will feed, fertilize and provide essential nitrogen to your growing plantlings, and the moss will help to retain moisture in your new garden so your fragile plants don’t dry out if you get a heat wave in the early days of your garden.

Empty all of the bags into your square foot garden frame, and use either your gloved hands or a spade to mix and fold until everything is evenly distributed. If you’re not planting or seeding immediately, this would be a good time to take a hose and spray down the box until the soil is saturated. If you’re a stickler for perfection, you can drill screws into your wooden box at one-foot intervals and tie twine or kitchen string to delineate each square foot plot.

Now comes the really fun part. Go to the nursery, buy some seeds and herb plants, and get down with your bad garden box building self. Take note of what you are planting – vegetables that need a lot of growing space, such as zucchini, won’t do well in a box environment. Pay close attention to seed spacing – you want to plant one (at most, two) seeds every inch in your chosen square foot plot. For my first square foot garden, I planted carrots, and did not heed the “one seed per hole” rule, and ended up with spindly carrots that looked like little orange mechanical pencil leads.

If this is your first garden box, here are some helpful hints. Plant things that you know that you’re going to welcome and use in the kitchen – so thyme, sage, basil, oregano, and rosemary are good “universal” herbs, and then branch out by choosing some seeds or plants that you’d like to try. Definitely include leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, which offer a sustainable crop of salad ingredients throughout the summer. Generally, it’s better just to buy herb plants at a nursery or garden center and replant them, since they’ve gotten a head start on growing in a greenhouse for a few weeks. The basil, especially, will be a source of pride for your green thumb, since the warm weather makes new growth on basil plants an almost daily occurrence.

And lastly, don’t ever, ever plant mint in your garden. Even though I thought I had pulled every inch of mint root from my first box, I’m still finding it cropping up in the strangest places, and nowhere near where I had initially planted it.

You can find Square Foot Gardening at Amazon, and if you pick up a copy using this link, a portion of the proceeds of your purchase will go to support The Best Food Blog Ever. Thanks!

June 11, 2009   Comments

The Glorious Taste of Summer in the Dead of Winter

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that we all tend to take a lot of things for granted.  Nowhere is this more true than with fresh summer produce, especially when we’re looking at single-digit temperatures with wind chills in negative territory.  Now, in the dead post-holiday slump that is otherwise known as January, summer seems so painfully lost in time, no matter if you are looking ahead or recalling last year’s crop.

It was with an immense sense of victory, then, that I snuck into my stash of canned tomatoes last week.  Having raided the local farm last August, we binged on fresh tomato sandwiches until we thought we would burst, and I slipped the last, best specimens into eleven Mason jars that were shuffled into a dark corner of the basement.  At that time, I told myself that one dark, bitterly cold day, I would thank myself for doing this.

That day, and many more like it, are upon us now.  I needed a sharp reminder of summer, something to get me through until the thawing frost gives way to new spring growth.  I wanted something simple and straightforward, so I went back to an old kitchen staple – spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce.

I dashed out into the yard, the frozen blades of grass crunching under my feet, and quickly snipped a few sprigs of thyme and a branch of rosemary from the garden, which is holding up amazingly well given the weather.  Hurrying back inside, I grabbed a Mason jar of canned tomatoes off of the bookshelf that we keep in the basement.

Starting with more than a few cloves of chopped garlic, set into a pan of olive oil over low heat, I set to making a simple pan sauce.  As the oil warmed the garlic and grew fragrant, I stripped the leaves off of the thyme and rosemary, coarsely chopping them and throwing them into the pan.  Just as the garlic began to color at its edges, I splashed in some red wine, then popped the lid off of the jar of tomatoes, shaking them into the pan.  A quick stir, followed by a gentle simmer for 45 minutes, yielded a garnet mixture that held the aroma of summer, its depth of flavor enhanced by the fall flavors of rosemary and red wine.

Dinner was as easy as boiling spaghetti and tossing the drained strands into the pan of sauce, with a small mound of grated romano to top it off.  Simple, restorative, and a reminder that no matter how cold, how barren the coming weeks become, summer will eventually follow.

January 12, 2009   Comments

The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe

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
Bacon
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.

December 18, 2008   Comments

For Your Consideration, The Brussels Sprout

It seems that we’re on a constant quest to incorporate more vegetables into our diet.  It sounds easy enough to do – just buy more greens – but it had gotten to the point where I had to break free of the trifecta of salad, broccoli, and spinach.  One of our more recent discoveries was brussels sprouts.

This happened almost entirely by accident.  I had not planned on making brussels sprouts when I went to the supermarket that evening, but the produce guys had crafted a lovely presentation of the pale green orbs that beckoned customers visually as soon as they set foot in the store.  I had no idea what to do with them, but at $2 a pound I figured they were an easy risk to take.

Taking my haul back home, I decided that, as a novice preparer of brussels sprouts, there would only be two ways that I should tackle them – boiled, or roasted.  Since the cold weather was starting to move into our area, I decided to warm up the kitchen a bit by roasting them.

A quick search for ‘roasted brussels sprouts’ turned up a recipe from Ina Garten, found on The Food Network website as well as in her book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.  It’s very straightforward, and it brings out the flavor of the vegetable in a way that only roasting can – concentrating it, compacting it, each sprout a little bundle of taste waiting to explode on your tongue.  The recipe is as good as I could ask for, having picked up brussels sprouts on a whim – all that’s needed is some salt, a grinding of pepper, and olive oil.

I set my oven to preheating, then I got out my Le Creuset – great for roasting since it is enameled cast iron and retains heat wonderfully – and poured a thin film of olive oil across its bottom, along with some salt and ground pepper.  I rinsed the brussels sprouts and took to trimming the hard, dried root off of each one (almost the same as trimming asparagus), and any brown or yellowing leaves.  As each was done, I flipped it into the cold pan, rolling it about with a rubber spatula to coat it with the seasoned oil.  When I was finished, I gave the whole affair a final dusting of salt and pepper and popped it into the oven.

Almost immediately, the kitchen filled with the wonderful smell of roasting brussels sprouts.  The recipe is quick, taking only about 30 minutes, which is exactly the amount of time you would need to give a holiday turkey a good rest after cooking.  If you’ve never had brussels sprouts, or your experience heretofore has been entirely negative, I would highly recommend trying your hand at roasting them.  It may be enough to change your mind and, like us, give you a new addition to your repertoire of vegetable dishes.

December 8, 2008   Comments

Secret Ingredients to Make Mashed Potatoes Exciting Again

Here’s news that’s news to no one – potatoes are bland.  They belong to that same category of bland, white dishes that include tofu, grits, and rice – and it takes some special techniques to coax some culinary beauty out of your everyday spud.

For a lot of people, that means loads of butter and sour cream.  When prepared this way, the mashed potatoes are transformed into a crude delivery device for the fattier, more flavorful condiments that are mixed within.  It’s fine, really, especially when the mashed potatoes are merely an extra cast member milling around in the background of a scene starring that most famous of celebrities, Roast Turkey.  But last year, I came across a recipe that truly elevates mashed potatoes to a level worthy of all of your holiday meals.  This makes mashed potatoes the star, or, at the very least, a supporting actor.

I wish I could find the original source for this preparation – so, know that this is not my own creation, although it’s very easy to riff off of.  It may have been in one of the seasonal Cook’s Illustrated publications, or in an issue of the magazine itself.  Suffice it to say, though, that the details of the recipe are easy enough to remember off of the top of your head (as I did) and deliver a stunning rendition of what everyone typically regards as an obligatory contribution to the table.

We start with the basic components of every mashed potato recipe – potatoes, chicken stock, and butter.  But, realizing that plain potatoes are bland, and that mashing them only produces bland mashed tubers, we need to add some more flavorful ingredients to the mix in the form of parsnips and celery root.  Parsnips, which look like white carrots, carry a pronounced sweet, earthy flavor that complements potatoes quite well, and celery root contributes a hybrid spud/celery taste that adds complexity to the final dish.  We coax the most flavor out of these two vegetables by sauteing them in melted butter until they’re golden and soft.  Whereas every other mashed potato recipe will have you cooking and mashing the potatoes first, then adding melted butter and stock, this recipe begins with the butter and uses it to full effect.

It’s easy to fear celery root.  A celery root is knobby, and dirty, completely unapproachable and very hard to handle if you are unfamiliar with it.  For one thing, you can’t peel a celery root with the same kind of peeler that you use for potatoes, or with any kind of peeler, for that matter.  The only way to tackle celery root is with a sharp chef’s knife, and you’re going to feel as if you’re wasting most of what you’ve purchased – hack off the nubby, dirty end of the celery root (which depletes nearly a third of it), then carve the skin away from the rest.  When you’re done, rinse whatever remains under cool water to rid it of any excess dirt.  If you do this first, you’ll feel much more at ease when I tell you to peel the parsnips as you would carrots – something that will take all of two minutes.

You’ll know that this recipe is different the moment the parsnips and celery root bits begin to brown in the butter – the smell, a sweet, buttery aroma tinged with starchy components, will waft throughout your kitchen.  After they’ve turned a nice bronze color (easy to judge since everything starts out white as snow), add the peeled and diced potatoes, stir to combine with the butter, then add about a cup of chicken stock.  Bring everything to a simmer, then cover and let cook until the potatoes are soft enough to mash.

The wonders of this dish are many – for one thing, it only uses a single pot, and doesn’t require you to cook the potatoes beforehand.  The spuds will steam themselves done in a harmonious array of butter, stock, parsnips, and celery root.  The normally bland nature of the potatoes is vanquished by the flavors contributed by the other ingredients, none of which are condiments like sour cream.  Everything here is an integrated part of the finished dish, and not an add-in thrown in at the end to boost flavor.

Mashed Potatoes with Parsnips and Celery Root

1 large celery root (celeriac) or 2 small, peeled, rinsed, diced

2 parsnips, peeled, diced

Potatoes (estimate according to how many people are eating), peeled, diced (keep submerged in water until use)

1 stick of unsalted butter

1-2 cups of chicken stock

Flat leaf parsley and/or chives, chopped

Salt

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, until the butter has stopped foaming.  Add the diced celery root and parsnips and toss around to coat with the butter, then let that cook until the vegetables have browned.  Drain the potatoes from their submersive H2O prison and add to the pot, again stirring to incorporate with the other ingredients, then pour in about a cup (more for more potatoes) of chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then cover.

After 30 minutes, poke a potato piece with a fork to test for doneness.  Potatoes are done when a fork slides easily through them.  When tender, remove the pot from the heat, uncover, and use a potato masher to mash the contents of the pot.  If the potatoes seem dry, add more stock.  If the potatoes are too loose, you may keep the pot over low heat, uncovered, to simmer off some of the excess moisture – just keep on stirring to prevent the bottom from burning.

Taste the potatoes, add salt as necessary, and stir in the chopped parsley and chives.

December 4, 2008   Comments

Second Thanksgiving, Where Butter and Bacon Make Everything Better

My wife and I have never considered Thanksgiving cooking to be a chore, a task, or in any way a burden.  On a day where millions of people consult the internet, friends, and family to determine how best to tackle the immense ball of bird sitting on their kitchen counter, we’re always willing to gladly step up and happily serve the cause.

Which is why, on Thanksgiving last week, we had no idea what to do with ourselves, because we weren’t in charge of the cooking.  We had gone to my wife’s aunt’s place, and the only thing that we were responsible for were the potatoes.  Thanksgiving turned out fine, but we still left there feeling a little unfulfilled.  That night, while driving home through Lancaster County, we both decided that a second Thanksgiving dinner would be entirely appropriate.

On Friday, we set out to the supermarket and picked up a 13 pound fresh turkey and everything we needed to create our own private followup Thanksgiving.  We called friends and neighbors and invited them over on Saturday, with the explicit understanding that no matter how many people accepted, the two of us were having Thanksgiving again for our own selfish purposes.  That evening, I concocted a brine of salt, brown sugar, chili powder, apple cider, apple brandy, pureed apples, and garlic and submerged the turkey, making sure that the fragrant mix welled up inside the cavity and that no part, save for a nubby end of a single drumstick, poked out from the surface.  I started using this brine two years ago, and, instead of replacing my traditional holiday turkey recipe, it’s kind of merged with it, with amazing results.

On Saturday morning, my wife let me sleep later while she roasted sweet potatoes, prepared homemade cranberry sauce (made easily with cranberries, sugar, and an entire orange, rind, flesh, and all), and baked a pumpkin pie.  When I finally roused myself out of bed, I drained the turkey from its brine and set it into a pan, patting it dry with paper towels and letting it warm up a bit to cut down on the roasting time.  I softened a stick of butter, fried up some diced bacon, and went to the garden to fill a small plastic bag with snips of thyme, flat leaf parsley, chives, and sage.  I’m enjoying the fact that my herb garden has grown so resistant to the cold weather.

I incorporated finely chopped sage, some sea salt, ground pepper, and the bacon into the butter, mashing and stirring until I had achieved a uniform mix.  Using first my fingers, then my entire hand, I loosened the skin from the turkey’s breast meat and applied the butter mixture liberally underneath, wiping any excess on my hands across the surface of the breast, the thighs, and the legs, then applying more salt and ground pepper to the entire outside surface of the bird.  Now, sitting royally in its pan, brined throughout, well-seasoned both under and over the skin, and stuffed with a single chopped apple, the turkey was ready for the oven.

In keeping with the tradition of having a lazy day devoted to nothing but kitchen duties, I roasted the turkey at a steady 350 degrees, anticipating a total cooking time of nearly four hours or so.  I have a religious devotion to my probe thermometer, so the oven temperature is not as crucial to me as the rate at which the internal temperature of the bird rises.  About an hour and a half into cooking, I realized that my temperature was rising way too quickly – a relocation of the probe deeper into the thigh meat registered a full 40 degrees cooler.

With the turkey now set and roasting away, we turned our attentions to turning out the numerous traditional side dishes that appear on every Thanksgiving table.  I put the turkey neck and giblets into a stock pot with a dash of olive oil, then tossed in roughly chopped carrots, onions, and celery to start a stock which would simmer on the back burner until it was needed.

The timing was as perfect as we could ask for, since the turkey was ready about an hour before our guests would arrive.  I like to give my roasted turkeys a good hour or so of resting time – it allows the juices, which accumulate close to the surface of the bird during cooking, to redistribute back throughout the meat.  I set the roast aside on a platter in the warmest corner of the kitchen and tented it with foil while I prepared the gravy.

Gravy, as I may have mentioned, is an art.  I drained the fat from the pan drippings, setting the now empty roasting pan across two stovetop burners set to high.  As the residual fat grew hot and started to sputter, I splashed about half of a cup of white wine and a third of a cup of apple brandy into the pan, moving quickly to scrape all of the meaty bits up from the bottom, finally adding the defatted pan drippings and stirring.

Letting that cook down and reduce, I started a roux in a heavy saucepan – about three tablespoons of butter, melted, to which I added a quarter cup of flour, whisking to incorporate the butter.  I heated the roux until it smelled of toast, picking up the light brown hue of peanut butter, then poured the pan dripping/wine/brandy mixture into the saucepan, whisking, whisking, whisking, then finally adding a good amount of the turkey stock, watching the mixture thicken, then letting it simmer slowly for ten minutes or so.

Ultimately, we would end up serving roasted brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes with parsnip and celery root, a sweet potato casserole, homemade cranberry sauce, and that glorious cider brined sage-butter roasted turkey.  Recipes will be forthcoming later this week, so you’ll have have the opportunity to consider them in time for Christmas.  Most of the preparations come from old issues of Saveur, others from the backs of bags and boxes – I’ll list all sources so that you can save them for yourselves.

December 2, 2008   Comments