Monday, November 28, 2011

Star "Rolls" in the Kitchen

Whenever a sheet of tin foil zips across the metal teeth of a roll, I think of my Grandma Mary who called it "one of the greatest inventions." She, of course, lived through The Great Depression and WWII when anything "metal" was considered dear, indeed. And worth saving. She rarely crumpled up a piece to toss into the garbage. Instead, it was wiped down and neatly folded to be used again. And again. Along with pieces of twine, rubber bands, and paper bags.

During this, our own Great Recession, tin foil isn't cheap. And, if you're on a budget or just trying to make ends meet, like me, you, too, may think twice about wadding up a sheet and non-chalantly shooting it into the garbage. I find myself wiping it down, folding it neatly, and storing it in the cupboard. Why not?

But for my money, the star "roll" of the kitchen is paper towel. On occasions when I accidentally run out, I go crazy. Nothing can compare to its utilitarian necessity or invention. How did people survive without it? They must have had piles of dishrags,  towels, sponges, mops. And that, of course, meant extra work of washing and drying them. And then folding and storing.

Most paper towels today are just about as strong as a "rag." But since they are disposable, they are really more sanitary. In fact, that's how paper towels really got started back in 1907. They were used for "medicinal" purposes in schools--to wipe runny noses of children to prevent the spread of colds and flu. They were then called "Sani-Towels." It wasn't until 1931 that they were introduced in the form we know today, but it would take a few decades before they caught on as an everyday kitchen staple and a grocery aisle all to themselves.

Window washing, cleaning up pet (and human) "accidents" require paper towels. But so do the following: skimming off grease from a stock or gravy, absorbing grease when microwaving bacon, lining refrigerator vegetable bins, liners between dishes and pots, emergency toilet paper. The list goes on and on. And, unlike tinfoil, paper towels are biodegradable.

Plastic wrap is another star of the kitchen, although it's debut didn't occur until well after WWII. But it's rise was meteoric and I can still remember the neighborhood excitement when "sandwich" bags appeared, replacing the old stand-by, wax paper.

Plastic wrap is a storage unit in-and-of itself. It is indispensable for covering leftovers.  My favorite use is to wrap wet paint rollers and brushes with it and then put them in the freezer until needed the next day.

Wax paper doesn't get much use in my kitchen. I use it primarily to spread out bread crumbs for dredging, measure flour when baking or to cover a dish loosely, such as a pie. Of course, as a child, it was used regularly to grease a metal slide or to iron leaves between two sheets for school projects.

I keep a roll or freezer paper handy although I don't use it much. Once something goes into the freezer . . . it's a certain slow death and I tend to forget about it until I exhume the anonymous frozen corpses one by one . . . and usually toss them into the garbage. A roll of parchment paper is a must for baking.

Although they are now mostly built-in, my first dishwasher was an apartment-sized portable that rolled on wheels. I worshipped it. My last kitchen didn't have a dishwasher and was really too small even for a portable (which are difficult to find). I went insane. Never again. Never.

Foil, plastic, paper all on a roll. They may be supporting roles, but they're crucial and essential to the star of the show: the cook.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sausage and Sage Stuffing

Ready for the oven with slivers of unsalted butter to give a crisp top.

The five ingredients for Thanksgiving? Turkey. Cranberry sauce. Sweet potatoes. Pumpkin pie. Stuffing. Some might add green-bean casserole and, if you are one of those unfortunate souls, I shall pray for your culinary redemption.

We all grow up with a "stuffing." My grandmother did rice stuffing. I grew up with the traditional, American favorite of pork and sage. Some prefer fruit stuffings. I do not like the addition of fruit to my stuffing. My feeling is that if one wants fruit, make it as a sidedish. Fruit in stuffing can be overpowering and not everyone likes it. 

Stuffing at the turn of the last century had more to do with economy and stretching a meal, I believe, than in gastronomical feats. Hence, locality dictated ingredients. If you lived on a coast, stuffing was made from oysters and rice. In the Midwest, apples and fruits. In the South, sweet potatoes. Urban areas used chestnuts and dried fruits, such as prunes. Pennsylvania Dutch used potatoes. Older cookbooks usually had a section reserved just for stuffings which then were called "dressings." Recipes ranged from "Potato and Celery Dressing," to "Liver Dressing."

You don't have to use dried bread, but dried will soak up the stock when you add it. Finding dried bread cubes can prove difficult, but a good grocery store will often stock them made from their own bread. Packaged, seasoned bread "chips" have many unwanted ingredients, including fructose corn syrup.

Use turkey stock, not chicken broth, to make your turkey stuffing. Add the rinsed neckbone and giblets with a bit of carrot, celery and onion to pot and just cover with water. Simmer for a few hours and use that liquid to make your stuffing and your gravy. Or buy a package of turkey wings or turkey necks and do it that way. If you need to "stretch" your stock, then add some canned chicken stock.

Making your own turkey stock makes all the flavor difference in the world.

Because of fears of bacteria, it is no longer recommended one actually stuff the bird. Usually, the bird is finished cooking before the stuffing leaving behind bacteria that has seeped into the stuffing. It's important to take the temperature of both the bird and the stuffing. Stuffing is done when an instant-read thermometer reads 150 F. degrees.

Stove Top Stuffing sells over 60 million boxes of the stuff (sorry, couldn't resist) every Thanksgiving. And with good reason. It's good. Add your own turkey stock and some sausage, and it's even better. And the quality and consistency is, well, consistent, and it's something our taste buds have grown up with. But for the holidays, I prefer to keep corporate blends behind as much as possible. I'll start from scratch.

The recipe below is sufficient for a half dozen people. You'll want to double it for more.

  • 24 ounces dried bread cubes (about 13-14 cups)
  • 8 ounces diced onion (a heaping one cup)
  • 8 ounces diced celery (a heaping one cup)
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon all-purpose pepper
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 16 ounces sage sausage
  • 1 teaspoon pressed garlic or finely minced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon freshly minced sage
  • 3 tablespoons freshly minced curly parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon or more poultry seasoning or Bell's Poultry Seasoning
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
  • 2-4 cups homemade turkey stock
  • 2 small/medium eggs

It's important to have everything diced, cut weighed and ready to go. You'll be using pots and pans and bowls, so have your counter and kitchen cleared of clutter before proceeding. I weighed the bread cubes, onions and celery to be more accurate.

Using the largest bowl you have, add the dried bread crumbs, poultry seasoning or Bell's and the Parmesan cheese. Mix through.

Use the largest bowl you have for easy mixing.

Add just a bit of olive oil to a 12-inch skillet and brown the sausage, breaking it up as it cooks. I use a pastry blender. When done, remove to a separate bowl.

In the same pan, melt the six tablespoons of butter and add the onions and celery, cooking over medium heat until tender and opaque and just beginning to turn brown. Add the garlic and stir through just until fragrant and scraping up brown bits from bottom of pan as you go.

Add cooked sausage to onion/celery mixture and mix through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add one cup of turkey stock. Remove from heat. Set aside.

In a small bowl, add one cup turkey stock, the eggs, chopped parsley and sage. Whisk until well blended.

Add the sausage mixture into the dried bread cubes, mixing with a spoon and your hand to incorporate well. Now begin mixing in the egg mixture. It's important to mix well.

Now comes the trickiest part when making stuffing. How much more liquid to add? If you are actually going to stuff a bird, you want the stuffing mixture a bit on the fluffy or dry side. If baking, you want it a bit more moist. I ended up using another 1.5 cups of turkey stock. Begin by adding 1/2 cup at a time. 

A bit on the wet side? A bit on the dry side? It depends on one's preference. But no one likes dried-out stuffing.

Transfer stuffing mixture to a greased deep bowl or casserole dish. This is the second trickiest part of making stuffing. I prefer a large oven-proof bowl. If using a casserole dish, it will cook sooner and be crispier. 

Dot with butter and cover tightly with foil. Bake at 350-400 F degrees F for about 20-30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until crisp and brown, another 15-20  minutes. Remember, it must register at least 150 F degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Chances are, it will read higher and that's fine. 

Crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, and filled with flavor.

Notes: I added just a pinch or two of Cayenne pepper when I added the sausage to the onion/celery mixture. That's entirely optional.

My favorite Thanksgiving movie: Pieces of April:

Pieces of April (2003) - Check Trailer - YouTube

Monday, November 14, 2011

Make Your Cranberry Sauce Now--And Other Thanksgiving Suggestions

It pays to keep holiday meals simple but delicious. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Plan one to two WOW dishes, not the entire meal. Don't go overboard with "decorations." Remember, what you put up you have to take down. Leave all the complications for family relationships. Take a deep breath. You still have Christmas and New Year's to go . . . Keep the liquor cabinet well stocked.

Everyone has an opinion about cranberry sauce. A lot of people hate it. And for good reason. It's often overly tart if not just disappointingly sour.

My "sauce" is not cooked. And, trust me on this, people will eat it. And want more. But it has to be made in advance so the berries marinate in the sugar. The longer it marinates, the better it becomes. I will have a bowl in the fridge from now until fresh cranberries disappear in the markets.

I think Thanksgiving is just as much about apples as it turkey and sweet potatoes. Try my casserole for sweet potatoes layered with apples. It's a bit more grown up than yams with marshmallows. 

If you've never had apples with onions, you're in for a treat. And don't turn up your nose a the combination. It's actually Kitchen Bounty's top recipe. 

For some reason, sweet potatoes and pumpkin are the only "orange" allowed at Thanksgiving. Try carrots. 

Mashed potatoes don't have to be boring. A bit of dried onion and fresh garlic bring them to a new level. Use real butter and cream. And don't use an electric egg beater.

If your main dessert is the traditional pumpkin pie, a scoop of apple crisp alongside is a nice treat. And it's easier to make than an apple pie. 

Appetizers are a great start to any holiday meal. Try shelled fish, such as clams, oysters or shrimp for a stellar beginning to the holiday season. Serve with cold Champagne. Cheers!

If you have a hunter in the family who insists on venison, I've got the perfect recipe for you!

Friday, November 11, 2011

More Tales from the Grocery Store: Women's Purses

Women love to shop. But not for groceries. The sooner that endeavor is over, the better.
Even when they leave with a full cart of bagged goods, they are already worrying about unloading it and putting it away. I've been to homes where groceries are removed from the car but that's as far as they get--the kitchen floor. Perishables are grudgingly put away. The rest of the household graze out of the scattered purhcases like feed bags or rummage through the sacks like street people.
Were the purchases clothes and/or accessories, well... such a cart of loot would be unloaded immediately, tried on, flaunted and lovingly put away.
But I have observed this rather strange, unique phenomenon amongst the female species. To make grocery shopping more appealing and motivating, women often bring the largest purse they own. It's one occasion when a saddle bag becomes feasible--they plunk it into the cart as though it were a horse. Giddy up! Astride the child seat, it rides with them as though it were their trusty friend Tonto.  And they fiddle through its cluttered interior, elbows resting on the cart handle, as they meander the aisles happy not to have to lug it on their shoulder and to have something, anything, as a diversion to the task at hand.
When they check out, the purse stays put. They. Will. Not. Move. It. And who can blame them? It weighs more than a bag of canned groceries! I need to re-fill that cart with their groceries as I bag them. After they unload their purchases onto the conveyor belt, they still guard that purse. But I can't wait. I have to re-fill it as I bag.
I used to be polite and trot over to it. Now I just yank it forward. Most women become alarmed. "MY PURSE!!!" It amuses me to see their terrified faces as though I'm going to steal it and run out the door. No one can run burdened down with a weight like that. Not even the best of New York muggers.
The situation is complicated when they choose one of the compact, small carts. The purse takes up most of the space. Where to put the groceries as I bag them? Simple. Right on top of the purse. Most women get the idea and move it. Many couldn't care less. Oh, well . . . 
Women also love, love, love, to have the exact change. Down. To. The. Penny. The line behind them can be a a mile long. No matter. If it takes all day, they are determined to rummage through that purse for the exact change! They then lay it down. Coin. By. Coin. OMG! Don't even get me started if they write a check. It takes forever, like putting on makeup. 
But, WAIT!
Are they done yet? NO. They put everything back into their purse. Look around. Have I forgotten something? Oh, let's check the purse one last time. Where are my keys.... Do they move aside to do this so the next person in line can move forward? Never.
Men could care less. Men love a quick get away. I think they're wired for it. They only carry what will fit into their pockets. They pull out a wad of bills and that's that. They don't even care about a thank-you. And they're gone. They got what they wanted. I guess . . . it's kind of like sex.

P.S. And remember, please leave your dirty, filthy, germ-infested, dog-hair-covered, stored-in-the-car-trunk recyclable bags at home. They're nothing more than dirty laundry. [The other day a woman brought in a bag that was truly disgusting. When they're stained and dirty, I just put them inside a plastic bag and stick it in their cart. Well, this woman was in last week again--but she had all brand new recyclable bags.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sweet Potato Pie #1

Potatoes are unassuming in their appearance but gracious and generous in their bounty and versatility. Nothing could be truer than the sweet potato.

I never had sweet potato pie until I moved to North Carolina. It's not quite as sweet as pumpkin pie and I prefer it over that old stand-by. I looked over several recipes and put together one I thought I would like. It was good, but it needs some more experimentation. Still, the pictures came out grand.

My recipe had 1/2 cup melted butter. I thought it a bit excessive but went with it. It ended up making the crust too soggy, by one main complaint, and by the end of baking some had risen to the top of the pie which I absorbed with a paper towel. Next time, I will only use 1/4 cup and maybe I will pre-bake the shell a bit before adding the filling. I'll use three eggs next time, not two, to give it volume and I will increase the amount of the dry spices. I used one tablespoon of rum which gave a great taste.

At the last minute, I decided to put the mashed potatoes through a sieve for a smoother texture.

I've read that baking the potatoes gives a better texture and taste than boiling. I may try that, too.

Baking temperatures were all over the map. As was sugar. Some called for as much 1.5 cups of sugar. Some called for baking at a very high temperature then lowering it. I settled for 3/4 cup sugar, 1/4 being brown sugar and I baked it at a consistent temperature of 350 for about 45 minutes and it came out perfect without any cracks, even after it cooled, perhaps because of all that butter.

  • 1.5 cups mashed sweet potatoes, about 3 large
  • 1/2 cup butter (next time I will use 1/4), melted
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten (next time I will use 3)
  • 2/3 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon} you may want to increase this amount or add another 1/2 teaspoon or so of pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg} since nutmeg is strong, be careful about increasing this too much
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum, spot on (or whisky or brandy)
  • 1 9-inch pie crust

Pre-heat oven to 350 F degrees.

Boil potatoes until soft when pierced with a knife tip or fork. Drain. When cool enough to handle, remove from skin. It will peel right off. Mash or put in a food processor and/or  work through a sieve.

Roll out pie crust and fit into a nine-inch pie plate. If it's a bit smaller, that's even better. Set aside or pre-bake for about 15 minutes. Set aside.

Add mashed sweet potatoes to a large bowl and mix with the butter until fluffy. Whisk in the eggs. Add the evaporated milk and whisk. Add sugars, flour, spices and vanilla. Whisk well. Taste and re-adjust seasonings if necessary. Add the rum and mix.

For mixing, I used an old-fashioned hand-held rotary beater.

Pour custard mixture into pie shell and bake in center of oven for about 45 minutes or until set. Allow to cool completely. Top with whipped cream.

Notes: I've read where it is not a good idea to prepare the mashed sweet potatoes ahead of time and then refrigerate since it creates a "watery" pie. Just saying . . .

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pork Roast with Herbed Salt Rub

A wonderfully-seasoned pork roast cooked to perfection with just a blush of pink.

A roast is one of the easiest of meals to prepare, especially if you have a family. Pop it in the oven and it's done. And leftover slices make for great sandwiches, either warm or cold.

Unfortunately, finding a good roast is not always easy. Most super market selections are de-boned for convenience and scalped of fat for the health-conscious consumer. When I lived in a small rural town in Indiana, my neighborhood grocer had incredible roasts, especially pork roasts, bone in, and with a nice layer of fat which one wants when oven-cooking. They were always tender and wonderfully juicy and succulent--and I suspect they were local. I haven't had a good beef rump roast since I left Michigan several years ago. 

For this particular recipe, I used a pork loin roast (not to be confused with pork tenderloin, a different cut). Pork loins are usually uniform in shape, so they bake evenly. The one pictured still had a nice layer of fat, though I would have liked a bit more. I bought a 4 lb. roast and cut it into two 2 lb. sections, freezing one for later use.

The salt rub took some experimentation and trial-and-error. Don't be put off by the lemon and don't omit it or the fennel seeds.

  • 1 pork loin roast, 2-3lbs.
  • 1 heaping tablespoon fresh minced rosemary
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon fresh sage, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
  • 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon all-purpose pepper
  • Zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

Using a damp paper towel, wipe the roast and set aside on a large plate.

In a small bowl, mix together the rosemary, sage, crushed fennel seed, garlic, salt and pepper and lemon zest. Using the back of a spoon (or a mortar and pestle if you have one) work the salt into the herbs. Add the olive oil and continue mashing away. 

Begin spooning salt rub over pork roast, top and bottom, and work in with your fingers.

Pork loin is quite lean. That bit of fat on top will prevent it
from drying out as it roasts.

Place roast on a rack inside a roasting pan large enough to hold it. It's important to put it on a rack so it does not rest on bottom of pan. Roast at 350 F degrees until a quick-read thermometer registers 140 F degrees (about 20-30 minutes per pound). Remove from oven and allow to rest a good 15 minutes or so before carving. Cut thin slices and serve. (At this point, the salt and herbs have pretty much done their job forming a crust and flavoring the meat, so you need not worry about them falling off.)

If you desire gravy, just add a bit of water to the juices in the bottom of the pan and re-heat over low heat until bubbly. Add a small knob of butter to richen it up a bit. (If you have it on hand, a shot or two of the old stand-by Kitchen Bouquet never hurt.)

I served mine with a side of mashed potatoes and fresh green beans.

Notes: I used a micro-plane to zest my lemon which makes for fine, fluffy zest. There's nothing worse than overcooked pork. You want that bit of pink. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, crush the fennel seeds with a rolling pin or the back of spoon. A mini-spice mill makes easy work of it all, though.