Sunday, November 25, 2007

Home again, home again: Mexican Turkey Dinner Featuring Stuffed Kohlrabi

So we landed in Baltimore on Saturday without event. Let me just say that the pre-Thanksgiving mania seemed designed to whip everyone into a frenzy over the potential travel nightmares that were sure to ensue. Well, our experience was fortunately nothing but smooth (except for that accident at 11:00 p.m. on MD Route 50 that HALTED traffic for an hour as we were on our way to my sister's to spend the night nearer to the airport on Wednesday night, but that is all but forgotten, really!). In fact, even though I live in Washington, DC and always prefer National Airport because of it's proximity, after this trip, I'd definitely choose BWI over Dulles if the flights out of National are too expensive. Our main worry was that since we were flying out on Thanksgiving morning, BWI's long term parking lot might have been full (it wasn't), but then we saw on a CNN travel report that it's possible to reserve a parking spot at a satellite lot that isn't affiliated with the airport. A quick google search later, we had reserved parking at Park 'n' Go and when we arrived at the parking lot (at 5:00 a.m.!) the shuttle bus was driving around the parking lot, picking up passengers and handing out slips of paper indicating where you'd parked. On the return, we were the only ones on our shuttle so we were promptly dropped off at our car, and on our way out of the lot in mere minutes. There was no waiting for an airport shuttle, no trying to remember where we'd parked, and no schlepping our stuff back to our car. For $7.60/day, it was cheaper than parking at the airport facility and the service was as good as a taxi!

So, in a rather buyoant mood, we decided to stop at our favorite organic grocery store, David's in Odenton, MD. This place is a welcome alternative to the frenzy of shopping at Whole Paycheck, but frankly I'm not sure how this store stays in business. It's a full size grocery store in a small town where there really doesn't seem to be a strong market for organics, but I must be wrong because the place has been a going concern for a number of years and has two other locations. Not surprisingly there were few people shopping on Saturday early evening of Thanksgiving weekend, so we had the store to ourselves. Let me say that because I get the bulk of my groceries delivered by Peapod (which I will never give up because it's so convenient) and I usually shop at my local farmers market on the weekend, I actually like to visit the brick and mortar stores for the hands on experience of it all. If I've got the time, I like to go up and down every aisle, seeing what's new and comparison shopping and picking up new items that I've read about but haven't yet tried. This trip it was agave nectar which is a stand in for honey I gather.

When we happened by the meat case, what did we see but the free range, never frozen turkeys! Ruefully, I recalled our braised 25 pound butterball that was delicious but all the leftovers went to my cousin. I started inspecting and moving around the smaller 11 pound birds (which would have been perfect for our Thanksgiving for eight down in Orlando, BTW). Half-kidding my partner says to me, "We should get one. I love turkey and we don't have any leftovers this year." Not believing he was serious I said, "But we just had turkey. Do you really want more?" Then, recalling that I have a Mexican cookbook with a roast turkey recipe, I got excited about roasting the turkey but going in a different direction and not really repeating the whole mashed potatoes and gravy, bread stuffing, green beans and canned cranberry sauce thing. And kudos to my partner for pushing his point. After all my catterwauling about not getting to really cook much this year, he offered me the opportunity to make a turkey dinner after all! And going with a Mexican theme would guarantee no repeats from last week.

Normally I'd have started with the brining the the night before, but after getting home and winding down all I wanted was to have something light to eat and call it a day, which turned out to be leftover homemade pizza with smoked mozzarella, sliced turkey cutlet and artichokes. Feeling tired of course didn't stop me from poring over my cookbooks to come up with a menu. In addition to the above mentioned Mexican Cookbook by Sue Style, I also have Rick Bayless's Mexico One Plate at a Time, both of which are go to sources for my Mexican repertoire. Following Sue's recipes is like cooking with your favorite aunt. She's knowledgeable, a bit bossy even, but she knows her stuff. (Think Giada de Laurentiis being schooled by her Aunt Raffie.) Sue's book has a certain formalism to how things are supposed to be done and she's right there to guide you through the steps and let you know what to expect as you cook. Plus she is well beyond introducing recipes for the familiars that we've all seen at our local "Mexican" restaurants. She has at least eight recipes for chiles rellenos, only one of which is breaded, fried, and filled with cheese. In fact I've marked off a bunch of her recipes that use ingredients like chard, kohlrabi, and cauliflower, as well as avocado used for something besides guacamole or salad.

I soon settled on an ambitious menu but I'm a perpetual early riser and was genuinely looking forward to getting started in the morning. My menu would be:
  • Pavo al horno (Roast Turkey) with an orange sauce and sausage stuffing
  • Enchiladas de alcega (Corn tortillas filled with chard)
  • Chayotes Rellenos de Veracruz (Stuffed chayote though the recipe also suggested kohlrabi)
  • Wild rice blend

I chose this menu because I had most of the ingredients on hand or knew that I could get them from the Dupont Farmers Market on Sunday. I'd never made any of these recipes before, and all are a complete departure from anything I've ever seen served at Thanksgiving. Surprisingly they all came from Sue Style's book, as I discovered in my perusals that Rick's is short on vegetable side dishes. I can't remember the last time I prepared any meal let alone such an ambitious one, using a single source. Partly it was dictated by the fact that I'd had four kohlrabi kicking around in my vegetable drawer and knew that I could find onions, chard and even fresh tomatoes at the market.

The first three dishes are all "al horno," which like the Italian "al forno" just means cooked in the oven. I thought I'd be saving some time by preparing the two sides after putting the turkey in the oven, but alas my partner and I ended up hitting the gym after I put the bird in the oven, and even though I'd prepped some of the other dishes, the interlude at the gym set me back with moving things along. Anyway the sausage stuffing wasn't cooking so quickly so had to be removed from the turkey cavity and cooked separately. This was all OK as the results were all really outstanding! I LOVED all the dishes especially the sausage stuffing. This from a man who grew up on bread stuffing and only recently moved toward cornbread stuffing. The sausage stuffing was made with one pound of sage sausage that I removed from it casing and mixed that with the cooked combo of garlic, tomato, onion, raisins, apple, banana(!), and almonds. This stuffing went perfectly with the wild rice mixture. The stuffing had sweetness, crunch and richness from the pork fat that was a perfect complement to the rice. I continue to be fascinated by the combination of fruit with meat in so many dishes. (I love to make a braised beef rib recipe that has apricots and prunes in its sauce.) The banana just melted into the stuffing and only contributed a bit of sweetness, while the other fruits provided a wonderfully subtle sweetness that contrasted to the richness of the sausage.

I ended up making the enchiladas with "vitamin greens," as my favorite green grocer at the market was out of chard, though vitamin greens looked and tasted just like Swiss chard. It's a simple preparation that begins with making salsa de jitomate (tomato sauce). If you've ever felt like making Italian style tomato sauce was a bit of a labor, Mexican style sauce is much easier. Instead of sauteing your sofrito in olive oil you char the onions (skinned and sliced in half through the root end) under the broiler for ten minutes along with garlic cloves in their skins and jalapenos to taste, turning halfway through to cook evenly. Chop the onion into large chunks, peel the garlic and jalapeno(s), and place all into a blender. Add two 28 ounce cans of whole tomatoes and puree. Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil to near smoking in a four quart sauce pan. Add the sauce all at once being careful not to splash yourself with the hot oil. The mixture will sizzle and roil and then settle down. Cook for at least 10 minutes on medium until the sauce thickens and bubbles like lava.

The stuffed kohlrabi was also delicious. After boiling the kohlrabi for 20 minutes to tenderize them and then cooling in ice water, I sliced off the tops and bottoms (so they would sit flat in the baking dish) and scooped out the flesh leaving about a quarter inch intact to hold the stuffing. This scooped out flesh was added to onion and garlic sweated in olive oil and finished with half a small can of tomatoes or one medium chopped tomato. Sue recommends pureeing this cooked mixture in a food processor with two eggs and a quarter pound of crumbly cheese (I used feta). However, I don't like things pureed to the consistency of baby food, so I coarsely mashed the mixture with my potato masher and then stirred in the eggs and cheese. I filled the hollowed out kohlrabi with the mixture and topped with some additional cheese. Baked at 350 degrees for half an hour, the stuffed kohlrabi was delicioso! Buen Provecho!

Friday, November 23, 2007

The day after the biggest eating fest: Roasted Cauliflower with Apples

Well, I actually woke up hungry after an all day eating fest yesterday. As always time spent with family breaking bread is a blessing. All of us who gathered have so much to be thankful for. The fact that my mother, widowed for just over a year, can do as she pleases, enjoys good health, and doesn't worry about finances is the one thing that I am most thankful for. To be part of a family who can make a plan to meet in some other city for a holiday weekend is truly something to give thanks for.

"But what about the food?" you ask? Well, my family doesn't do things on a small scale, even when cooking for just eight people. My aunt of course took charge and directed the day. My cousin had her list of what to bring by car, and after a couple of trips to the supermarket, including one to the Wal*Mart Supercenter where, I kid you not, my aunt saw someone buying his turkey at around 11:00 that day. We had southern style corbread dressing (never to be confused with stuffing!), green beans, carrots, mashed potatoes, biscuits, salad, and cauliflower. Oh, and did I mention the 25 pound turkey? My aunt who only knows how to cook for a crowd told my cousin to get that large of a bird!

Two days ago I wrote about T-Day as the ultimate eating fest for the food loving crowd, but sitting here this morning after the Tryptophan overload, I can't help but feel guilty about the excess. Even knowing that it's only once a year, I have to admit that next year I'd like the focus to be less on the food and more about something else. Growing up I always felt that the huge eating was a kind of an affirmation for my mother's family. Though we'd weathered hard times, each fall we could be thankful for each other and helping each other get through. Yesterday felt like it was more about excess. Personally I LOVE Thanksgiving leftovers, but I guess not when I'm on vacation. It seems a tragedy that so much food might end up going in the trash. I'm going to try to suggest that maybe next year we do something like volunteer on Thanksgiving morning. It might help us to refocus on the Thanks and Giving part of the holiday.

Anyway, the Ganbaru Cook managed to make more than the peppery ginger cookies. I also contributed one of my favorite roasted cauliflower dishes from Jeremy Traunfeld's The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor. I'd made it a couple of weeks ago with a gorgeous and huge head of purple cauliflower, and I wanted to contribute a a vegetable to the bachanalia. Basically you roast cauliflower at 375 degrees with sliced onion, raisins, and diced apple with a bit of white wine (or stock), olive oil, and salt and pepper. Cover with foil the first thirty minutes (my variation), then raise the heat to 450, uncover, and stir in some chopped dill for 15 minutes more. You'll end up with a delicious roasted vegetable dish that is a perfect Thanksgiving side.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007: Peppery Ginger Cookies

It's the day before the biggest eating day in America! Are you as excited as I am at the prosepect? I'm excited, but admittedly a little less so this year. For the last two years I've had the pleasure of hosting Thanksgiving in my humble home. For the food obsessed, I'm sure you know that Thanksgiving is it! What with poring over recipes, planning the menu, shopping for just the right ingredients, and preparing foods that reflect fall's bounty, nothing compares! It's the best kind of stress for me really. I love to plan AND I love to cook. Watching the food shows; contemplating something new to merge with the old standbys that everyone demands, I mean, expects to have; and of course sharing it all with loved ones. Organizing it all in a spreadsheet to map out a timeline and show what to have for each course and what dish it will be served in, what could be more of a high for a ganbaru cook?

Just reviewing last year's spreadsheet, I see we had hors d'oeuvres of crackers with caramelized onion, tuna mousse, assorted pickles and cheeses, crudite with hummus, spiced nuts, and cauliflower soup. For the main event, brined turkey with fennel spice rub; collard greens with onion and adobo; butternut squash a scapece; yukon gold mashers with parsnips, celeriac, roasted garlic, and roasted scallions; herb cornbread stuffing with turkey bacon and fennel, buttermilk biscuits with parmesan cheese, cranberry chutney, and, of course, gravy! And let us not forget the desserts: peppery ginger cookies, honey lavender almond ice cream, and my sister's apple pie. Believe it or not this menu for seven was composed AFTER learning my lesson from the previous year when I cooked way too much for 16! But I think you get the picture! Yes indeed, I thrive on this stuff!

I set all that up to inform you that this year I won't be hosting as my family are all converging in Orlando. I can just hear your collective, "Awwww..." In fact as I write this from Washington, DC, everyone else is already in Florida (except my partner and me) enjoying the balmy weather and making their way to Sea World. Fortunately I prevailed upon them to wait until Friday for Disney World, which I hope none of us will regret as rain is in the forecast. But if it's a nice day, won't everyone in Orlando want to go to Disney World on that Friday? Are we mad? I guess we'll find out!

So the only thing I'll be preparing this year is the peppery ginger cookies, which are easy to transport AND my cousin loves them. She favors them because a) she loves anything with ginger, and b) unlike most ginger cookies that come out crisp, these are nice and chewy thanks to the brown sugar and molasses. Plus they've got a secret ingredient for a little added kick: a half teaspoon of freshly ground pepper (I wouldn't substitute pre-ground), which is in addition to both powdered and candied ginger. So I hope that as you make your way over the river and through the woods, your journey is safe and all is well with you and yours.

p.s. If you're dreading the obligatory trip home, hope your day doesn't end like Washington Post food blogger Kim O'Donnell's a few years back!

Peppery Ginger Cookies
Yields: 3 1/2 to 4 dozen cookies

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1/4 cup molasses
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon (freshly ground is transformative)
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated is best)
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (YES!)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup candied ginger (snipped into small pieces)
Turbinado (raw) sugar for rolling (adds flavor and sparkle)

Melt butter; stir in molasses and vanilla and let cool. In separate bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda, and all the spices and salt.

Add the beaten egg to the cooled butter mixture. Fold into the bowl with flour and spices and add the candied ginger. Cover and refrigerate at least 15 minutes to make the dough firm. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Put the raw sugar in a shallow dish. Using a cookie scoop, make balls of the dough, rolling in the raw sugar. Place on an ungreased baking sheet, 2 inches apart.

Bake for 10 minues until cookies are starting to brown on the bottom and the tops start to crack. Let cool on a rack for 5 minutes -- they will firm up a bit at this point.

Important: Do not overbake, or cookies will be brittle and bitter. These are wonderfully chewy, spicy, and addictive cookies.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ruminations and Beginnings: Why THIS blog about food...

So it occurred to me of late that I spend way too much time thinking about food! Actually it was more than a few months back, but I stand guilty as charged and here is the evidence:

  • Is it normal to look forward to the weekend because I know that I'll have the chance to hit not one but two farmers markets within walking distance of my home (one on Saturday, the other on Sunday)?

  • Is it normal to use aforementioned trips to the farmers market as a mood enhancer?

  • How about when I'm bored at work and I start scribbling down what's at home in the fridge and deciding how I might like to prepare it tonight or sometime this week?

  • One time on a bike trip in Holland with people I'd only just met, I confessed one night over beers that, "In my heart, I think I may be a French woman." (I'd given that book French Women Don't Get Fat to my sister for her birthday and after reading it myself, I realized that I actually have the cooking/eating/lifestyle philosophy of a French woman!)

This because I care entirely too much about sourcing good food and finding worthwhile recipes that I can try at home. So, after my partner said to me last night that the cod dish I'd prepared from one of Rachael Ray's recipes was better than any restaurant meal he could have hoped for, I decided that I need to write down my feelings about preparing food from the recipes that I encounter. (So now you know that I watch the Food Network--not surprising, I'm sure--and that I don't disdain Ms. Ray--whom so many in the food blogosphere dismiss out of hand.)

The purpose of this blog will just be about my experiences in everyday cooking of other people's recipes. I'm certainly not opposed to creating my own recipes and generally feel confident in doing so. But I'm just not one of those people who proudly claims, "Oh, I never follow a recipe!" I generally enjoy following and comparing others' recipes to learn about flavor combinations and techniques. When comfortable and confident I will certainly embellish as I see fit. Sometimes I'll follow a recipe to the letter (usually the first time out), but I'm certainly not opposed to substituting based on what I have on hand and making something my own if I get the gist of the recipe right off the bat.

So, what will follow will be my musings on preparing food for family and friends. I hope you'll join me on occasion and share your own impressions.

So many recipes, so little time!