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Nov 29, 2008

The Crisps Stole Turkey Day

Platter of Parmigiano-Reggiano CrispsAnother Thanksgiving, another fabulous feast (aren't they always?). This time, though, a surprising edible stole the day. Not the turkey, or stuffing, or yams, or any of those old comfy familiars. No, siree. The hands-down winner around our table was the scrumptious Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps; made with only two ingredients, they were a perfect amuse-bouche before the Acorn Soup. Hostess Karen found the recipe on the Whole Foods website, and were we glad she did! Here it is:

Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps

Makes about 20

1 cup grated (not shredded) Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Preheat oven to 300°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

Mix cheese with thyme in a bowl. To form each crisp, spoon 2 to 3 teaspoons of the cheese mixture onto a baking sheet to make a small pile. Space the piles 2 to 3 inches apart as you go. When both baking sheets are full, lightly press cheese with the back of a spoon or your fingers to flatten each pile into a 2-inch circle.

Bake until slightly browned on top (check at 5 minutes--they bake very fast!). Remove baking sheets from oven and cool for a few minutes to let crisps firm up a bit. Slide parchment off baking sheet and use a spatula to loosen the crisps. They should be slightly flexible, but will harden as they finish cooling. Repeat process with remaining cheese mixture.

Allow crisps to cool completely before storing in an airtight container, layered between sheets of waxed paper.

Note: If you like spice, add a pinch of cayenne, espelette or freshly cracked black pepper to the mixture before baking. Serve on the side of any crisp green salad or bowl of soup. You can make these a day or two ahead of time, then store in an airtight container.

Many thanks to Whole Foods Market for this recipe.

Nov 27, 2008

The Versatile Turkey Redux

A cooked turkey on a serving platterWhen it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, I’m a perennial guest—much happier bringing a dish or two to somebody else’s home, pitching in to assist the day’s (usually frantic) head chef, and helping to clean up afterward.
Nonetheless, I always keep an eye out around now for a medium-sized turkey—15 pounds, say. November turkeys are inexpensive and easily transformed into the basis for future meals: slices of turkey breast; a rich soup broth; and a generous amount of Pulled Turkey Breast (which, when tucked into a roll and topped with coleslaw, is a healthier, dead-ringer version of the luscious barbecued pork sandwich found in the south).
Once the bird is defrosted, I remove as much skin as possible—discarding it—and carefully carve out the breast. I’ll need 4-½ to 5 pounds of meat (mostly breast) for the turkey pull. I remove the loins from the breast, wrap them tightly, and plop them into the freezer for a future meal. Then, if I don’t have quite enough breast for the pull, I’ll carve out a bit of thigh or leg meat and add it to the pull pile. I place that meat in a bowl, cover with wrap, and store in the fridge until I’m ready to make the turkey pull (you’ll find the recipe below).
Back to the turkey—or what remains of it, anyway. It now lacks a breast and, probably, some thigh and/or leg meat. It's perfect for a broth. Browning meat lends a rich complexity to broth, so preheat the oven to 400º. Remove and discard as much of the turkey's skin as possible. Place the meaty carcass on a rack in a roasting pan. Insert the neck, liver, and gizzards into the cavity. Brush with canola oil, salt & pepper to taste. Cover. Place in the oven for about half an hour, and then remove the cover. Continue roasting another half an hour, or until the meat has developed a nice brown color. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
When the carcass can be handled, get out your deepest stockpot. Carefully dismantle the carcass, arranging the pieces in the bottom of the pot (leave the meat on the bones—you definitely want the bones in there). Add enough cold water to cover the dismantled carcass by an inch or two, a large onion, 2 bay leaves, carrots, celery, garlic cloves, whole peppercorns, and some kosher salt. Bring just to a boil, and then allow to simmer for at least 2 hours. Turn off the heat and let cool completely. Strain into a large container. The turkey meat that’s been simmering still has plenty of flavor, so put aside likely-looking pieces before discarding the rest of the strainer’s contents. You can now make your favorite turkey soup, or else store the rich broth and meat in the freezer for future use.
The Pulled Turkey Breast, below, is a fabulous standby. I keep it in the freezer in portions, so that it’s always ready for unexpected company. To serve it in a traditional way, whip up a simple coleslaw. Place the Pull on a sliced onion or kaiser roll, top with coleslaw, and dig in. Health-nuts like me might prefer using a 100% whole wheat bun and topping with simple shredded cabbage. Serve with dark greens like swiss chard or kale; and black beans, black-eyed peas, or corn on the cob. A dark beer goes great with this.
Pulled Turkey Breast
2 large onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup dark beer
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup ketchup
4 TB Worcestershire sauce
2 TB Tabasco
1 tsp red chili flakes
2 tsp each salt and freshly-ground black pepper
4-½ to 5-lb turkey breast, skinned

Combine all ingredients except the breast in a heavy saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce to a mild simmer, and allow to cook 15 minutes. Add the turkey breast, cover, and cook at the barest of simmers for about 2-½ hours. Turn off heat and allow to cool.

Transfer the breast to a cutting board. Shred the meat, discarding bones. Stir shredded breast back into the sauce. Heat it again and simmer, covered, for another hour or so. Season to taste with salt & pepper; and add additional Tabasco if you like. Keeps exceedingly well in the freezer.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone!

Nov 24, 2008

Cast-Iron Skillets Rock!

cast-iron skilletsFor many years I've relied almost totally on Magnalite and Calphalon alloy cookware in my kitchen. Incredibly durable and great heat conductors, I've loved these guys. I still use them frequently, but lately--to my surprise--old-fashioned cast-iron skillets have joined the list of my favored kitchen friends.

I've had these skillets just about forever. Inherited from my grandmother, I couldn't bear to part with them. But I didn't use them, either, aside from camping trips (where they're perfect over a Coleman stove or atop a wood fire).

On a whim, one day about a year ago I sautéed a salmon filet in one of Grandma's old skillets. It turned out perfectly, lightly-seared and with a lovely color--better tasting and prettier to look at than the same filet cooked in one of my revered (and expensive) alloy pans.

With that, I was hooked. Over the last year I've used the cast-iron increasingly in jobs that require sautéeing, stewing, or simmering, and I often use them in the oven.

A few reasons to consider using this amazingly durable yet quite inexpensive cookware:
  • Cast iron heats slowly but then retains heat while distributing it evenly across the entire surface. No hot spots, no cold spots, and everything in the pan cooks at the same rate.
  • Cast iron adds the mineral iron, which makes red blood cells, to our diet. Small amounts of iron leach from the pan into the cooking food; this is particularly true with acid-based foods like tomatoes.
  • Keep your cast-iron pan well seasoned, and it will act just like a teflon-coated pan: use just a thin touch of oil, and the food won't stick...and you don't have to worry about a man-made coating (such as Teflon) breaking down and adding toxic substances to your food. To learn how to properly season a pan, visit a culinary website I enjoy, What's Cooking America.
  • If you, like me, use a pan inherited from a family member--well, there's just something really nice about that.
Curious about cast-iron skillets? Check out the selection at Amazon.com. I always read the ratings given by people who have bought a product before purchasing--it's helped me limit regrets.

Nov 12, 2008

Royal Banquet in Yountville

Entrance to V Wine Cellar"Beautiful," I said, peering down at the small plate held before me. It contained a dozen tiny mother-of-pearl spoons, neatly lined up. Each was filled with something resembling black jelly topped by whipped cream. "What is it?"

"Caviar with creme freche," the server said.

Intrigued, I picked up a spoon and was delighted with the intricate combination of flavor and texture: the slight salt and even slighter tart, the tiny smooth grains and thickish cream. Another server stepped from behind the first, proffering another lovely plate--this one unadorned and intended for my empty spoon. Someone else materialized to refresh my champagne. Another plate appeared holding quarter-sized hors d'oeuvres whose starring ingredient was duck confit.

And so it went until it was time to sit down to the immensely long table for the dinner that had brought us all together.

The place was V Wine Cellar, part of the impressive Vintage Estate in Napa Valley's plush Yountville. The occasion? An inaugural dinner to introduce the first year (2009) of the Vintage Estate V Wine Cellar Winemaker Dinner Series. The Chef: Vintage Estate's Kevin Miller. The night's winemaker, whose wines we reveled in for hours, was Christian Moueix of Napa's Dominus Estate and various legendary wine-making chateaux in Pomerol.

V Wine Cellar is housed in the historic 1870 Groezinger Winery and Distillery, a beautiful red-brick building that's been updated periodically through the decades and has lately been sumptuously refurbished throughout. The Cellar, with its exposed stone and gleaming mahogany woodwork, holds about 3000 bottles of wine from around the world. The room is much longer than it is wide, and the table, set up handsomely for about 60, ran right down the center.

The surroundings, the fantastic wine, the incredible food, and the invitees collaborated to create an unusually fine evening.

The eclectic crowd was made of up of customers, friends, and food and wine writers. As the evening progressed--as we took flight on those generous flights of wine--strangers grew friendly. I had never met the man to my left, a rock 'n roll photographer whose clever business card was shaped like a guitar pick. But by midway through dinner we were engrossed in a discussion of the way in which wine, unlike, say, even the most amazing of single-malt whiskeys, is a living breathing organisim capable of change from one day to the next. "A great whiskey tastes the same anywhere in the world no matter when or how you drink it," he said. "Not so with a great wine or even a merely good wine. The taste of wine reflects what you bring to it at any given moment, and what it brings to you. "

A writer colleague of mine stopped to chat. Taking note of the endless table, she said: "How many times in life do you get to dine at a table this long? It's like a royal banquet from one of those movies about Louis XIV or Henry VIII. Not so formal, though."

Indeed. By the penultimate course any attempt at formality had completely disappeared. People had struck up lively conversations up and down and across and at angles all along the table. I learned that a woman sitting across from me, on the other side of a lovely floral centerpiece, had the same first name. Not too long ago, Suzanne Knecht and her husband took two years off and sailed around the world, resulting in her first book, Night Watch: Memoirs of a Circumnavigation. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Dominus wine label 2004Finally it was time to leave and walk back to my room at the fabulous Villagio Inn & Spa. As I headed out the door with friends I fell into conversation with charming French winemaker Christian Moueix. At the helm of Chateau Pétrus, he's been called wine's "reclutant superstar" by Decanter, which named him their 2008 Man of the Year. We had a short but intense conversation about creativity and the similar way it manifests in winemaking and writing, providing the perfect topper to a perfect evening.

For more information about the 2009 winemaker dinners, visit the V Wine Cellar.

And for all you foodies out there, here's the night's menu:

Seared Foie
Current Bread Pudding, Sultana & Red Flame Raisins
White Balsamic Glaze
2000 Chateau Certan Marzelle, Pomerol
2003 Chateau Magdalene, Saint-Emillion

Roasted Squab
Crisp Pancetta, Butternut Squash Risotto
Elderberry Jus
1996 Dominus, Napa Valley
2001 Dominus, Napa Valley

Omaha Prime New York Strip
Truffled Potato Gratin
Cabernet Sauce
2005 Napanook, Napa Valley
2005 Dominus, Napa Valley

Beignets
Huckleberry Gastrique
1997 Ramos Pinto, Portugal

Nov 8, 2008

Eat, Shrink & Be Merry!

Cover of cookbook entitled Eat, Shrink, and Be Merry
Back in the mid 1990s, two Canadian sisters named Greta & Janet Podleski co-authored Looneyspoons--the #1 all-time best selling cookbook in Canada (now out of print). The sisters have sold more than 850,000 cookbooks in Canada and currently host the highest-rated show on that nation's Food Network. We may be hearing more about them here in the USA in the next few months as they promote their new cookbook: Eat, Shrink & Be Merry! Great-Tasting Food That Won't Go from Your Lips to Your Hips!

Meanwhile, here are a few dandy weight-maintenance tips from Greta and Janet to get you through the holidays (my favorite is “Dress for Success”):
  • Eat before you meet. A half hour before a party, dilute your appetite with a hard-boiled egg, some yogurt, or some nuts.
  • Make it splurge-worthy! When you get the urge to splurge on calorie-laden indulgences (and we all do!), rate the indulgent food on a scale of 1 to 10. If it isn’t a 9 or 10, don’t bother—it’s not worthy! There’s nothing worse than having to loosen your belt after eating a food that you didn’t really enjoy. Talk about waisting calories!
  • Use small plates, small portions, and small talk. At social gatherings, have everything you like, but have a little of it. Whatever you do, do not exceed the feed limit! Studies suggest that exceeding 500 calories at any meal may cause your body to shift into fat-storage mode.
  • Be a double-fisted drinker. During the holiday season, alcohol’s empty calories can pack the pounds on just as much as over-eating can. Try having a glass of water for each alcoholic beverage you drink.
  • Arrive in mint condition. At cocktail parties, use a breath mint strip before you hit the appetizer table. It’ll dull your taste buds, plus it’ll make you a more popular guest!
  • Gobble white turkey meat. It contains tryptophan, an amino acid that increases the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, which not only improves mood but also helps you resist cravings for starches and sweets.
  • Be a mover and a shaker! Bump up your physical activity level so you can afford to enjoy the great food. You know you’re going to be eating more than usual, so this is the time to move more than usual. During the holidays, make a point of doing some brisk walking every single day.
  • Dress for Success. This might sound far-fetched, but during the holiday season, wear your snuggest clothes that don’t allow much room for expansion. That’ll remind you not to overindulge. It works! Honest!
  • Remember that healthy eating isn’t all or nothing. One rip-roaring, high-calorie meal or indulgence won’t make or break your waistline. It’s what you do consistently, over the long haul, that matters most. So enjoy yourself, have a small portion of those special holiday treats, then get back on track with healthy eating the very next day.