Yes, I Made The Ratatouille from Ratatouille

I stumbled across this photo while looking through my Picasa web album that serves as the host for all of the images on The Best Food Blog Ever.  I guess I uploaded it with the intention of writing about it and never did.  Since all I’ve seen for the better part of a week, when I looked out of my kitchen window, is not-melting-fast-enough piles of snow, I decided that it was time to write out-of-season again and try to pretend that we’re not weeks away from any true sense of spring.

In case this doesn’t look at all familiar, it is the dish from Pixar’s Ratatouille, which we’ve seen twice and absolutely love.  We had a dinner party planned, and I was inspired by the movie.  So, it was on one of those warm summer evenings last year that I got the crazy idea to try to replicate the titular dish from that movie.

The actual recipe that is represented here, and which appears in the movie, is Thomas Keller’s Confit Byaldi.  It’s a colorful mosaic of red, yellow, and orange peppers, tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, yellow squash, and green zucchini.

As would be expected, you spend the majority of your time in this recipe with the preparation and assembly – slicing all of the vegetables to an exacting thickness, then layering them in tight groups of seven colors in a spiral pattern in a roasting pan.  Beneath all of this is a simple tomato sauce accented with garlic, onion, and thyme, and the whole affair is liberally drizzled with a vinaigrette before being set into an oven for a couple of hours, then flashed under a broiler right before serving.

The result?  Sure, it’s pretty, but for the effort I probably wouldn’t attempt this dish again.  It takes quite a while to slice all of the vegetables (I used a truffle slicer, and even then it still took longer than expected), and in the end, the dish tastes exactly like its components – there’s no magical transformation, no ascension to some uber-level of otherworldly deliciousness, but then again Keller probably has access to better quality produce than I do.  It’s a great showcase for seasonal vegetables, to be sure, but you’d probably achieve the same overall taste with a quick chop, a saute in olive oil, and the addition of the same herb vinaigrette.

February 10, 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

A Roast Chicken Recipe for a Cold Autumn Day

The brilliant colors of the turning leaves have given way to bare branches in just a matter of days, and everything around us is turning into ugly shades of gray and brown. Sunday morning greeted us with blustery winds and plummeting temperatures, the kind of cold that makes you glad it’s not cloudy, because anything that comes down out of the sky would likely take the form of snow.

On a day that so definitively announces the onset of fall weather, I needed a strong counter, something that warms the kitchen and the soul, something that provides a reassuring counterpoint to the bleakness of the coming cold season.

I decided to roast a chicken, hardcore. And by hardcore, I mean going beyond just a sprinkle of salt and pepper and treating the bird as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey. Doing it this way adds a nice dose of complexity to an otherwise humble chicken recipe.  It also makes it taste awesome.

Rather inadvertently, my vegetable garden has transformed itself into a nice perennial herb garden. While the basil may have died off a long while ago, I still have thriving patches of thyme, sage, and rosemary that have taken very well to the cooler weather. I slipped into the backyard and snipped a few sprigs of thyme and a few leaves of sage, and some rosemary to go with the roasted potatoes that would be served as an accompaniment. It was good to run back into the house and take off my jacket, returning to the kitchen with a fistful of herb clippings.

When it comes to roasting chickens and turkeys, I’m a big proponent of under-skin seasoning. If you think about it, most of the seasonings that you apply to the outside of a chicken or turkey will be melted off into the roasting pan as the fat in the skin renders. If you’re a baster, you’re accelerating this process each time you ladle more liquid over the skin, although admittedly you are basting the roast with the seasoned pan drippings.

Applying seasonings under the skin avoids this problem, and makes for much more flavorful meat. To do this, I mash softened butter with a mishmash of chopped herbs, sea salt, and black pepper. Using a gentle touch, you can loosen the skin from the chicken and use a spoon or fork to push clumps of the flavored butter underneath – use your fingers to massage the skin to ensure even distribution.

As for the outside of the chicken, I apply a thin coating of olive oil to the entire bird, front-back-top-bottom, and then a liberal application of salt and pepper. The oil helps to crisp the skin while the seasoned butter flavors the meat beneath it. As you may have suspected, I don’t baste – on one account, because I’m lazy, and on another, because I think it washes away the surface seasonings.

One thing to keep in mind about roasting anything is that there’s no reliable way of estimating weight/time/temperature – this is what screws most people up at Thanksgiving, because they consult some guide that tells them they should roast the bird for 15 minutes per pound or some other rule of thumb. Everyone’s oven is different, and the true temperature of an oven can vary widely from what the setting on the dial reads. Also, the weight of a roast is less important than its temperature as it goes into the oven – it may not be fully thawed, or have a chunk of ice in its cavity.

For all of these reasons, the only way I will ever roast chicken is by using a probe thermometer. The probe goes into the chicken, provides a constant read on the internal temperature, and allows me to pull the chicken out of the oven as soon as it reaches doneness, and not a minute longer. Chicken is free of any salmonella at 160 degrees, and as the roast rests, the internal temperature will climb a few degrees higher. By taking the chicken out of the oven when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, it guards against drying the meat out. By relying on the internal temperature of the chicken, you can have a little bit of leeway in terms of your oven temperature – if you have time, you can roast at 350 degrees, if you are in more of a rush, you can push that to 425 degrees or more.

A Roast Chicken Recipe for a Cold Autumn Day

1 chicken, rinsed well, patted dry, and allowed to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes

1/2 stick of unsalted butter, softened
3 Tbs assorted herbs, chopped (thereabouts)
1 Tsp salt (coarse, if you grind it yourself)
1 Tsp fresh ground pepper

1 onion, peeled and halved
4 cloves of garlic, peeled

Olive oil

Wine (red or white)
1 Tbs or so of additional chopped herbs
Chicken stock (canned is fine)
Flour

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mash together the butter, herbs, salt, and pepper until uniformly mixed.

Set the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan, and use your fingers to loosen the skin from the breast (be careful not to tear or otherwise poke a hole in the skin). Pull out and discard the pop-up timer because it is literally worthless to the cooking effort.

Using a spoon, scoop the herb butter and slide the spoon under the skin of the chicken, using your fingers to push the butter off of the spoon onto the meat. Massage the butter so that you achieve an even coating of butter underneath the loosened skin.

Using the same spoon, drizzle some olive oil over the chicken and use the spoon to smear it around to coat. You may elect to do this to the back of the bird as well, or you can skip it.

Apply a liberal coating of salt and pepper to the outside of the chicken. Insert the onion halves and garlic cloves into the cavity.

Insert the probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, parallel to the bone. Other recipes may have you take the temperature of the thigh, but by the time the thigh meat is done, it is likely that your white meat is dry. When in doubt, I’d rather put the dark meat back into the oven later. Place the roasting pan, with the chicken and probe in place, into the oven.

When the internal temperature of the breast meat has reached 165 degrees, take the roast chicken out of the oven and set it on the stovetop to rest, for at least fifteen minutes. At this time, you may pull the probe out of the chicken and spot-check temperatures in the thigh and throughout – all temperature readings should be at least 160 degrees. If you are preparing a pan sauce, move the chicken to a platter and remove the rack from the pan.

Drain all of the liquid from the pan into a measuring cup. If the liquid is mostly fat, you can discard it – if there are some non-fat pan drippings, you can add this back to the sauce later.

Set the pan over one or two stovetop burners set to high, until the contents begin to sizzle. Pour about a cup, cup and a half, of wine into the pan and scrape up all of the sticky bits with a wooden spoon – let that simmer for a minute or so. Add about a cup of chicken stock and stir to combine, then throw in the remaining chopped herbs. Turn the heat down and let that simmer for about five minutes.

Sprinkle about two tablespoons of flour over the sauce, and whisk, making sure to break up any lumps, until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Taste for salt (it probably won’t need any).

Carve both breast halves off of the chicken by slicing lengthwise down the bird, parallel to the breastbone – angle the knife slightly so that you can carve each half off in one piece – and set aside onto a serving platter. Check the thigh meat – if the juices are not running clear, put the legs and thighs back into the oven for another fifteen minutes while covering the white meat with foil. Otherwise, carve the dark meat and set onto the serving platter.

Serve the roasted chicken with the sauce in separate ramekins for dipping.

November 17, 2008   Comments

The Big Decision in November

In just a matter of days, each of us, as Americans, will be faced with a decision of critical importance, and with profound consequences.  It is a choice not to be taken lightly, for it carries the weight of generations of tradition and obligation, and the path that each of us takes will have lasting effects on how we are viewed and respected by our family and our friends.

I’m talking, of course, about making your own gravy for Thanksgiving.

I like cooking for Thankgiving.  It’s one of the few days where there is nothing else that needs to be done other than preparing the big meal, and, for me, preparing gravy from scratch is my favorite part.  It signals the turn into the final stretch of cooking, and the process, and results, are immensely gratifying.  It also throws all caution to the wind with respect to calorie counts and fat content.

The idea for this post came when our supermarket recently went into holiday mode, and with it comes many many endcaps filled with gravy in a can, gravy in a box, or gravy in a pouch.

This year, if I hear that any of you bought gravy from a store, or made it from a mix, I will personally come to your house and punch you in the head.  I’m that serious about gravy.

Before I list the recipe, let me explain the process and try to convince any of you gravy-purchasers of the validity of my argument.  Gravy, at its essence, is nothing more than a mixture of a thickening agent with liquid.  For my gravy recipe, I use butter and flour to thicken a combination of pan drippings from the turkey and stock.  That’s pretty much it, so you see why I am so vehemently against packaged preparations.

The long form is this – when start to prepare the turkey on Thanksgiving morning, I throw the giblets and the neck into a pot with some vegetables and water, and get a stock going, which simmers for most of the afternoon, extracting as much turkey flavor out of the meat and bones as possible.  When it’s time to make the gravy, I make a roux out of butter and flour, and let that cook until it’s a deep, deep brown, then strain the stock into the roux, mix it up, and keep it at a low simmer.  The pan drippings from the turkey get stirred in whenever the turkey’s done and been transferred to a carving platter.  And that’s it.

I realize that some people may be apprehensive about cooking in general, and for this reason Thanksgiving tends to kick off the holiday season of stress.  The only thing that I can think of that could go wrong with this recipe is you could burn the roux, either by cooking it on too high a heat setting or letting it cook for too long.  Remember, making a roux is the act of toasting flour in butter – some words to remember are “toast” or “peanut butter”, which are the levels of browning that you are looking for.  If you reach this point and discover that you haven’t strained the stock, or are otherwise not ready to add stock, just move the pot with the roux to a cool burner and keep stirring until it cools off a little.

Thanksgiving Turkey Gravy by The Best Food Blog Ever

Stock (can use prepared stock if necessary)
[stock] 10 cups water
[stock] Olive oil
[stock] Contents of giblet bag from the turkey, minus the liver
[stock] 2 carrots, unpeeled
[stock] 2 onions, unpeeled, hacked into halves
[stock] 3 stalks celery, broken in half
[stock] 1 Tbs peppercorns
[stock] Fresh parsley and thyme, no need to chop

1 stick of butter

1/4 cup of flour

Salt

Pan drippings from the roasting pan

Red or white wine

If you are using prepared stock, make sure you have 10 cups available, heated, and proceed past the next part.

If preparing your own stock, take a large pot and heat a thin coating of olive oil over medium heat until shiny.  Add the contents of the giblet bag (no liver) and the turkey neck and saute until browned, about five minutes per side (flip with tongs).  Throw your carrots, onions, celery, and peppercorns in, along with half of the parsley and thyme, give everything a stir, and cover.  Turn the heat down to the lowest it can go and let that cook for 20 minutes.  This is called ’sweating’ and the process extracts a lot of flavor out of the pot ingredients that would otherwise not be available by just boiling them in liquid.

After 20 minutes, add the remaining parsley and thyme and 10 cups of water.  Cover, bring the heat to high, and bring it all up to a boil.  Once boiling, you can reduce the heat and let that simmer on the back burner until you need it.  When you need it, you can either strain the solids out or just use a slotted spoon to scoop most of the solids out and use a ladle to pull out the stock you need.  Keep the giblets and the turkey neck, though.

Make the roux – in a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the stick of butter until its fully melted and no longer foamy.  If you want to live on the edge, you can even wait until it starts to brown a bit.  Dump all of the 1/4 cup of flour in at once and stir vigorously to absorb the butter (a whisk will help immensely with this part).  At first, all of the flour will clump up into chunks and balls, but as the mixture heats up and relaxes it will become more viscous.  Keep on stirring until the roux has darkened to the color of peanut butter, then add 10 cups of hot stock, whisking mightily as it bubbles and squeaks.  Once all of the stock has been incorporated, maintain the gravy at a simmer while you finish preparing Thanksgiving.

Once the turkey is done and moved out of the roasting pan and onto a carving platter, drain all of the pan drippings into a bowl or large measuring cup (or even a defatting beaker).

Set the roasting pan across two burners set to high heat (if you have a vent fan, now would be a good time to turn it on).  Using an oven mitt to hold onto the pan and give it some stability, pour a good amount of wine into the pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape up all of the bits that are stuck to the bottom.  Once everything is loosened up, let all of it cook for about a minute, turn off your burners, and (use two mitts) carefully pour all of it into the simmering gravy.  Add the pan drippings, defatted or not as is your preference (if there’s a large amount of fat, it’s probably better to defat it).   Stir it all together.

This part is optional.  If you’d like, you can now take the meat off of the turkey neck with your fingers, and chop the meat up along with the giblets.  Add all of this to the gravy, taste, and adjust for salt just before serving.

I want everyone to join the homemade Thanksgiving gravy revolution.  Feel free to email me at ddl[at]bestfoodblogever.com if you have any questions about this recipe.

October 31, 2008   Comments

Beef Short Ribs Braised in Stout Beer

We returned from our beach house vacation to 50 degree weather.  One of the few good things about colder weather is that it puts stews, braises, and richer meats on the menu.  I found a good set of boneless beef short ribs at the supermarket, which were originally intended to be prepared in a red wine sauce until I remembered that we had a cache of stout beer.

I’ve modified this recipe from Epicurious to account for the smaller amount of short ribs.  I also decided to do the opposite of a slow cooker and instead used my pressure cooker, which enabled me to complete the dish in under an hour.  The result was exceedingly tender chunks of beef, immersed in a thick sauce that was made slightly sweet by the stout and the spices used in this recipe.  You’d be surprised that you don’t need many short ribs to make a meal, since they’re very rich – one, or at most two, per person.  I served this over roasted potatoes, but the next time I’ll be sure to have some egg noodles on hand.

Beef Short Ribs Braised in Stout Beer

1 lb beef short ribs

2 Tbs brown sugar
1/2 Tsp paprika
1/2 Tsp curry powder
1/2 Tsp cumin
1/2 Tsp black pepper
1/2 Tsp salt
1/4 Tsp mustard powder

Olive oil

1 onion, 1 carrot, and 1 celery rib, chopped

1 bay leaf

2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped

1/2 cup broth (chicken or beef)

1 bottle stout beer

1 small can of tomato sauce

Pat the ribs dry with a paper towel and set aside.  Combine all of the spices in a bowl and shake to mix thoroughly.  Rub all sides of the beef ribs with the spice mixture and set aside, uncovered, in the fridge for about an hour (skip the resting period if you lack the time).

Take a pressure cooker and set it over medium-high heat.  Add a splash of olive oil, and when it’s hot and shimmery, add the short ribs and brown for 1 minute per side (watch to make sure the spice mixture doesn’t stick and burn).  Remove the ribs to a plate, and add another splash of oil to the pot.

Throw in your onion/carrot/celery mix, along with the bay leaf.  Stir that up and let that cook for about 3 minutes, or until the onion looks softish.  Throw the chopped garlic in, give it a stir, and let that go for a minute or two.

Add all of your liquids at this time – the beer, the broth, and the tomato sauce, and stir up the bottom of the pot to get all the sticky stuff off and into the goop.  Add the ribs to the sauce, turn the heat up, and lock the pressure cooker lid on.

Bring the pressure cooker up to pressure, until the excess steam steadily escapes from the valve.  Reduce the heat to medium, or to the point where the pressure is maintained, and cook for 40 minutes.  Rapid-release the pressure, taste for salt, and serve.

October 23, 2008   Comments

Recession Meals: Franks and Beans

Yes, you read that right.  Franks and Beans is a staple of American cuisine, something that everyone remembers having as a kid, and for most of us, a bygone memory of childhood.  As adults, we aren’t really enthusiastic about revisiting these kinds of pre-adolescent culinary recipes, because in retrospect they weren’t really much to write home about.

Out of a can, baked beans tend to be a mushy mess of legumic hell, not getting much better when paired with a few cut up hot dogs.  Made from scratch, though, with a few ingredients that most of us probably already have in our pantry and refrigerators, and Franks and Beans becomes our Recession Meal this week.

Beans are inexpensive no matter how you look at them, being about a dollar or less for a pound of dried beans, or about the same price for canned.  Everything else in this recipe is something that you probably already have on hand.  As for preparation, there are actually three ways to pull this one off, but one of them involves specialty cookware in the form of a pressure cooker, which I highly recommend for time savings.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you want to approach this, and include directions for all alternatives.  You may find that you like Franks and Beans made one way more than another, but I would presume that since each method uses the same ingredients, the end result should not vary much in taste.

Franks and Beans – a Recession Meal Recipe from The Best Food Blog Ever

1 lb white beans (Cannelini or Great Northern), dried, or use canned (rinse both under running water) [89 cents]

1 onion, chopped [5 lbs for $2.99]

2 cloves garlic, chopped [1 head for 75 cents]

Some bacon, about two or three slices, chopped [$4 per lb, thereabouts]

1/2 Cup ketchup [on hand, or about a dollar for the cheap stuff]

1/2 Cup maple syrup [on hand, or about $3 per bottle]

2 Tbs mustard [on hand, or about a dollar for the cheap stuff]

2 Tbs brown sugar [on hand, or about $2 to $3 for a box]

Hot dogs, cut up [$3 a pack, thereabouts]

If you are using dried beans: Put the beans in water to cover in the morning before leaving for work so that they soak all day.  Prepare according to the directions on the bag (which probably involves boiling them for about an hour or so).

Option 1: You can do the quick-soak method in a pressure cooker – put the entire pound of beans into a pressure cooker with 6 cups of water.  Seal the cooker, bring to a boil over high heat, and pressure-cook for five minutes.  Quick-release the pressure, drain the beans.

Option 2: Just open up a can or two of beans and rinse them under running water.  The final texture of the dish will probably be softer, so consider yourself warned.

Put the bacon into a saucepan (large enough to hold all of the beans when you add them) or pressure cooker over medium heat and stir it up.  Let all of that wonderful pork fat render out of the bacon, about five minutes or so, and then use a slotted spoon to scoop the bacon bits out onto a paper towel.  Leave the bacon fat in the pan.

Throw your chopped onion into the bacon fat and give it a good stir.  Let that run for about five or ten minutes, until the onion is nicely browned and your kitchen smells like IHOP.  During this step, if you were using dried beans, have six cups of water ready to go.

After the onions are soft and browned at the edges, toss in your chopped garlic and stir vigorously to keep it from burning (if garlic burns, in this or any other dish, you should immediately shut off all of your burners and order a pizza.  Srsly.)  After 30 seconds of garlic-stirring, add all of the beans.

If you are using dried beans, add 6 cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer the contents of the pot until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes to an hour.

Option 1: If you are making this in a pressure cooker, add the 6 cups of water, cover and seal, bring to pressure and cook for 10 minutes.  Quick-release the pressure and continue to the next step.

Option 2: If you are using canned beans, just add the drained beans and a little bit of water, like a cup, to keep it all from burning.  The beans are already tender out of the can, so you can skip ahead to what I call the EXTREMELY TASTY PART of this recipe.

If you are using dried beans, once they are tender, drain the contents of the pot using a colander and dump it all back into the pot.

Here’s the EXTREMELY TASTY PART of the recipe.  Add the rest of the ingredients, that being the ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, and maple syrup, to the beans and mix well.  Throw in the chopped bacon and the hot dogs.  Bring it all to a simmer and cook for about five to ten minutes, making sure to stir it often so that the beans on the bottom don’t stick and burn.

You’re ready to go.  If there are no kids or picky eaters around, you can hit the pot with a shot of whiskey and stir it in.  It makes it better, trust me.

Homemade Franks and Beans is nothing like what you remember from your childhood.  The flavors are brighter, the textures are more defined, and you may find yourself becoming a fan all over again.  As an added bonus to this Recession Meal, this recipe makes a ton of Franks and Beans, so it can actually serve as two or three dinners, or multiple lunches, as the case may be.

October 9, 2008   Comments

Recession Meals: Lentil and Chickpea Soup with Indian Spices

Given the ongoing collapse of the American financial system this week, I’m starting a new series named Recession Meals here at the Best Food Blog Ever.  I’m even going to tag the recipes with ‘recession’ so that you can find them easily.  The goal of Recession Meals is to get food on the table without spending a lot of money – which should be an everyday goal anyway in the absence of a bad economy, but which is a virtual necessity now.

I try to do a major supermarket shopping trip once every other week.  Sometimes, though, this means that we run out of meat a few days before I’d want to go to the supermarket again.  I could break down and just go to the store, but it’s an interesting challenge to stick to my grocery schedule and try to stick it out for a couple of days.  I think the financial experts call this ‘budgeting’.

Take a look at any of your supermarket receipts and you’ll find that meat is the most expensive item on your list.  If you reduce your reliance on meat and focus on replacing it with beans, tofu, or some other protein, you can make a serious impact on your food bill and possibly discover new things about yourself, like the fact that you like beans.

I saw this soup for sale in my supermarket’s Sunday flyer and figured I had the stuff to make it myself.  It is a very filling, autumn-perfect meal that is very inexpensive because the bulk of it is composed of beans – lentils and a can of chickpeas that I found in the cupboard.  You could literally make this recipe with water instead of chicken stock and it would be just as good.  I had some frozen sausages, so I sliced a couple and put them in, but they are completely optional.

Moving to soups and beans is great for your personal economy, because they are cheap nutrition and the ingredients can be used for multiple meals.  For the Recession Meals, I am including information about the costs of each ingredient.  These are based on my local prices, so your mileage may vary.

Lentil and Chickpea Soup with Indian Spices

Olive oil [about 3 bucks for a small bottle]

1.5 Cups lentils (firmer is better, but any will do) [a 1lb bag is about a dollar]

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed thoroughly [about 89 cents a can or less]

1 onion, peeled and chopped [5 pounds for three bucks]

2 carrots, peeled and chopped [3 pounds for a buck or two]

2 stalks of celery, peeled and chopped [$1.79 for a bunch]

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped [about a dollar for a head or less]

1 Tbs garam masala [a spice blend consisting of cinnamon, cumin, and cardamom] [about $3 to $4 for a jar], or other spices as you wish (thyme, curry powder, etc.)

8 cups of water [free!] or chicken stock [about $3 for a large can]

Rinse the lentils and set aside.

In a large pot (remember, you are adding 8 cups of water here, and also remember Archimedes’ Principle), heat about 2 Tbs of olive oil until shiny, add the garlic and stir until golden.  Add the chopped onions and stir to combine.

Once the onions have softened and browned a bit, add the carrots and celery.   Food science – since celery is mostly water, if you add it at the same time as the onions, the onions will never brown since the water given off by the celery will steam everything up.

Saute the vegetables over medium heat for about ten minutes.  Add the lentils and chickpeas and stir to coat with oil (add a little more oil if need be).

Pour 8 cups of water or stock into the pot and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to a gentle boil and go do something else for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, add the garam masala (or your choice of spices), stir, taste for salt (it will probably need 1 to 2 tsp), and cover the pot.  Continue to cook for another 25 minutes.

Use a fork and fish out some lentils and check for tenderness.  When the lentils are tender, the soup is ready to serve.

October 2, 2008   Comments