27 November 2006

The First Thanksgiving

Turkey Day turned out rather well. There were only six of us and everyone pretty much behaved themselves and managed to have a good time. I think. It was my first proper Thanksgiving and I was just a bit freaked out about the whole thing, but there no disasters. Everything tasted very nice and there was more than enough to go round. Even the eponymous turkey came out perfectly. I used the "Roasted Turkey" recipe from Southern Living's 2005 Annual Recipes which called for spreading sage butter between the turkey breast and skin and then thoroughly buttering the rest of the turkey before plunking it on a rack in a roasting pan which had been filled with 32 oz of turkey broth. The turkey looked beautiful when it came out of the oven -- a caramel-y maple brown -- and tasted very nice, too.

Because I wanted to make Thanksgiving as easy on me as possible, many dishes were prepared ahead of time and the whole meal ended up being far more "conventional" than I had intended. I used Betty Crocker's "Make-Ahead Garlic Mashed Potatoes" recipe to make the potatoes Wednesday afternoon. The stuffing was made in the slow cooker that morning ("Slow-Cooker Cornbread Stuffing" from Southern Living's 2005 Annual Recipes) to shave some time off the turkey so I could sleep in.

Instead of roasted brussels sprouts with pancetta and maple glazed balsamic baby carrots, we had Green Giant Niblets® Corn & Butter Sauce, Campbells® Green Bean Casserole (Mom), and cooked sliced carrots (Mom). Rather than homemade French rolls pressed with sage leaves there were Pillsbury® Oven Baked Crusty French dinner rolls. Butter was an ordinary stick of Cabot® rather than the fancy-shmancy compound butter I had considered making. The mince for the apple-mincemeat pie (Better Homes and Gardens New Baking Book, Meredith Books: 1998) came out of a jar and was doctored with great abandon. Splenda®'s Great Pumpkin Pumpkin Pie replaced a salad of autumn fruits. The Husband's "Chocolate Swirl Muffin Cake" (doesn't eat teh piez) was a complete baking mix hack job. The cranberry sauce came out of a can.

Yes. Thanksgiving dinner was pretty much a complete hack job. And, like most hack jobs, completely fine. The food was delicious, everyone enjoyed themselves, and no-one missed the compound butter. Except me. I still want to make a nice compound butter and use one of those decorative butter molds to shape it into strawberry leaves or something. I've wanted to do this ever since I read the part in Little House in the Big Woods where Caroline uses carrots to yellow the winter butter and then presses it in a strawberry leaf mold ...

Cookbook Talk: Melissa's Great Book of Produce: Everything You Need to Know About Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Melissa's Great Book of Produce: Everything You Need to Know About Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (Wiley: 2006)

I have a habit of bringing home "weird" fruits and vegetables ... I see the asian pears in their twee little mesh jackets or the red cactus pears all higgly-piggly in a pile and I think oh, I must try that. In the case of the asian pears, this is no big deal -- I can guess pretty well how to eat one -- but what to do with the cactus pear? Or the pepino? Or the jicama?

Happily, my library recently purchased a copy of Melissa's Great Book of Produce: Everything You Need to Know About Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. While the title subtitle is misleading -- this beautifully illustrated book doesn't explain how to find, store, prepare all fruits and vegetables -- it covers more than enough types for a casual foodie like me.

The book is broken up into two large sections (fruits and vegetables) plus four smaller sections (introduction, glossary and prep help, availability guide, and a nicely organized index). Entries for fruits and vegetables include everything from a general overview, to advice on buying and storing, to prep, use and serving suggestions. Many entries also include simple recipes such as "Nopalitos Salad" and "Mango Roast Pork Loin" (yum). The book is heavily illustrated with mouth-wateringly lush photographs that make ingredient identification dead easy.

18 November 2006

Year of Cake: More Fun With Nuts

I made Dad's cake a little early this month, because it seemed mean to stick him with a cake immediately following Thanksgiving. Better to give it to him now while there is still room in his tummy and no other delightful foods about to distract him.

November's selection was "Pecan Cake with Tangerine Cream Filling" frosted with "Tangerine Whipped Cream" from Better Homes and Gardens New Baking Book (Meredith Books, 1998). When I first saw Dad's post-it next to the picture of this fancy-shmancy looking cake, I admit to freaking just a little. But it turned out to be an easy and tasty cake (Dad had thirds) which was a lot of fun to make.

The cake uses 3 tablespoons of flour. Yes. Tablespoons. Not cups. The bulk of the batter is made up of coarsely ground toasted pecans, sugar, and whipped eggs. I don't toast nuts very often, but I followed the cookbook's instructions and they came out a lovely golden brown. And the aroma! The whole kitchen smelled so good I was tempted to nibble the cabinets (eerily, same golden brown as the nuts).

The frosting and the filling were simple to make and the whole cake came together quite easily. I used my mom's old food processor for the nut grinding and batter preparation, my new Microplane to zest the orange, and the KitchenAid mixer to make the whipped cream ... this might be called a "tool heavy" cake, I guess. I don't know how you'd make the batter if you didn't own a blender or food processor. Happily, (for someone who didn't know what a Microplane was three years ago) I seem to be collecting a lot of tools.

06 November 2006

Posh Dinner & Donuts

For my birthday dinner, The Husband booked us a table at Todd English's Tuscany at Mohegan Sun. I know, casino dining on my birthday? What crack am I smoking now? Delicious foi gras crack, I tell you. Yes, I know. Foie gras is a cruel and wicked food and I should burn in hell for having eaten it. Yes, yes. But so tasty.

The trio of foie gras (brilliant sauteed liver, good pate, and an amusing ravioli) was charmingly arranged in a row on a squarish white platter with accompaniments of blue cheese, fig and cranberry compote, honeycomb, prosciutto, watercress, and a couple of those crisp sesame encrusted toasts fanning out behind them. It looked too pretty to eat, but it wasn't. One taste of the sauteed liver with the fig compote and I was off. I'd never eaten foie gras before and was unsure how to go about it, but I just took lots of tiny delicious bites of different combinations and it was all good. I don't even like blue cheese, but it was absolutely delicious with the honeycomb. The fig compote? I wanted a jar to take home with me. If I hadn't been on "best manners" I might have licked the plate.

Certainly, I did fish a little of the onion-topped focaccia (came with minced kalamata olive tapenade and a pureed white bean spread ... fuckmegood) out of the breadbasket and use it to mop up the delicious honey, compote, blue cheese, prosciutto crumb detritus left at the bottom of my plate, but I managed to stop at that.

While I was off, orgasming over my foie gras, The Husband was quietly enjoying his grilled scallops over peach ice with a spicy garnish (you think you know a person and then He orders something like that). He let me sample a little of the peach ice and it was quite refreshing and I almost wished I had ordered it.

He also had a nice cuppa and that was good to see as many restaurants don't seem to understand tea and either tart tea-making up so much it's a hassle or give you a teabag floating in a coffeecup full of lukewarm water. Ick. But this was good tea with a real teapot and a proper size mug. Huzzah. (Once, when the busboy was tidying our table between courses, he swept up The Husband's pyramid of empty sugar packets and said "you use almost as much sugar as I do" which is cute, but not possible without going into a coma).

Our entrees were a mixed bag. The Husband had "Spaghetti Polpettine 'Brooklyn' Style" which was basically really nice spaghetti and meatballs. He seemed quite happy with it and only shared a tiny forkful of meatball with me. My "Crispy Skinned Salmon Filet" with sauteed spinach and walnuts, an over-salted risotto-type side, and cider reduction was good, but not as good as I expected considering how when the kitchen had rocked the foie gras. The salmon, a bit bland and overcooked, was rescued by forking it up with the spinach and then smearing it all through the twee little puddles of sauce. Indeed, the spinach with walnuts was excellent. Crisp, emerald green, and nutty. Yum. The risotto-y thing? Creamy and with bits of crab or lobster, it seemed to have a lot of promise, but was too salty for me.


We didn't have dessert as, well, the dessert menu was not that tempting. All I really wanted was a cheese plate and a glass of port, but that wasn't in the offing so we went to Krispy Kreme, instead.

Mmmm ... donuts ....

02 November 2006

Cookbook Talk: The New Family Cookbook for People with Diabetes

The New Family Cookbook for People with Diabetes (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

November is Diabetes Awareness Month. My mother developed Type 1 diabetes when she was 16. My aunt developed Type 2 when she was 45. My grandmother was also recently diagnosed with Type 2. I like to cook for my family and I'm always on the look out for diabetic recipes which are low on the fake sugars, high on taste, and are also likely to appeal to non-diabetics.

One of the new cookbooks Tech Services recently processed is The New Family Cookbook for People with Diabetes. It was produced by the American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association, so you know these recipes are going to be good for everyone. It's a pretty enough book with good internal layout and more than 400 recipes spread across 13 chapters. Each recipe comes with full nutrient information and exchange values given per serving. In recipes that use high sodium, the sodium count is in bold and marked with black arrow. The introduction provides a good explanation of how to use this book as well as a general overview of the food pyramid. The appendix supplies a bunch of exchange lists for meal planning and there are two indexes. Two. One for recipes and one more general. You have no idea how much a good index pleases me and to have two of them ... well, I might be in love.

Yes, yes. But what does it taste like? Pretty good. Only two recipes of the seven I attempted yielded disappointing results. The potato soup (page 106) was very watery and bland. It's a high sodium dish and yet I thought it could use more salt. Thickening the soup with a little cornstarch and refrigerating it overnight helped some, but the soup still lacked the creamy-potato-y-chive-y goodness I was seeking. The pumpkin soup (page 107) was less disappointing. It had a better consistency and, while a little bland, was easily doctored by adding extra gloves and ginger.

The other five dishes were perfect: We had "New Potato and Green Bean Salad" with grilled marinated steak for dinner one night and it stole the show. The vegetables were perfectly cooked, the dijon-cider vinaigrette gave everything a wonderful tang and counterbalanced the crumbled blue cheese quite nicely.

"Stuffed Peppers with Ground Lamb" (page 214) is a wonderful autumn supper. The recipe isn't much different from my mother's tried-and-true, but the use of lamb instead of beef gives the dish a whole new edge. I served the peppers with mashed potatoes, garlicky green beans, and extra tomato sauce ... it was a complete nostalgia meal. All I needed to were a pair of footie pajamas and I could have been eight years old and eating Saturday night supper at my mother's table.

"Heartland Stuffed Peppers" (page 268) use turkey instead of beef and rice as well as corn kernels in the filling. They are much spicier the lamb peppers and made me think of pizza (could be the mozzarella cheese). Made with an assortment of red and yellow peppers, they are very colorful on the plate and make a mouth happy. At this rate, I may never go back to my mother's recipe.

I admit the low fat fried chicken recipe from Cook's Illustrated's Best Light Recipe (America's Test Kitchen, 2005) is tastier, but "Low Fat Oven-Fried Chicken" (page 260) is faster and easier to prepare. More healthful, too. It makes a good simple supper when paired with a nice garden salad and some fresh corn on the cob.

A bowl of "Spinach with Bacon and Mushrooms" (page 337) would make a nice bed for grilled salmon (minus the bacon) or a simple dinner if paired with some hearty bread and a dash or two of hot pepper sauce. If you like bacon as much as I do, you will probably want to double up it as two crumbled slices is a little skimpy. This dish goes together very quickly and all the flavors combine most deliciously in the pan. This recipe makes 4 side dish servings -- about 2 main dish -- and is on my repeat list.

"Moussaka with Lamb" (page 218) is my favorite recipe out of this collection. It's everything I want in a moussaka and 100% eggplant free. It is a bit time consuming to prepare, but well worth the effort. The servings are very generous and could easily be stretched to serve 6 rather than 4. I would recommend using Greek yogurt, if available, for the extra tang it gives the faux bechamel. Truly, I would make this every week -- it is that good.

The New Family Cookbook for People with Diabetes is one of my favorite new cookbooks and, one of these days, I intend to get my hot hands on a copy of my own. It is that good.