Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Morning!

Well, the big day is upon us! I awoke early, as excited and anxious as a child on christmas morning. First things first, the turkey needs to come out of the brine. Wow, lifting a 20# turkey out of a 22 qt bin is a serious workout! I have never felt more like Julia Child than when I found myself lifting and handling a 20# bird on Thanksgiving morning.
In addition to all the other sides, I decided last minute to make a stuffing with andouille sausage, roast chestnuts and the turkey drippings for the traditionalists. I just couldn't bring myself to stuff the bird for a number of cowardly reasons so this is my consolation stuffing.

Right now, its all calm, cool and collected here on 63rd street. Let's hope that peace maintains!
Hope you all are having a grand ol' time whatever you are doing, watching, cooking today.
I am very grateful to all you who support this little adventure called butterdate!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

More T-day Prep; sides & table arranging

Every veteran I asked about hosting (cooking) Thanksgiving dinner warned me: prepare everything you can ahead of time. I took their well weathered advice to heart and since 9 p.m. last night I have been in over the stove or the sink, chopping, sauteeing, roasting, ect. in an effort to leave only the turkey to prepare tomorrow. 
In the mean time I decided to set the table to see what we are missing, thank goodness DH's sis, Casey lives so close. We are still short a chair and a few forks but I think it looks pretty great. One day we will have everything we need but for now its nice to have it a little hodge-podge. (this is what i tell myself anyway!) 
that's a lot of gravy!
1. Turkey Gravy
The best part about doing a trial turkey is that you're able to make turkey gravy for game day ahead of time. Nothing says thanksgiving like a 1/2 gallon of homemade turkey gravy!
2. Spiced Cranberry Sauce
Since the brine for the turkey contains so many exotic spices, I decided to carry it over and make a cranberry sauce with a little kick too. Homemade cranberry sauce is so easy and cheap, its shocking those gelatinous cans ever became as popular as they are. Simply combine fresh berries with honey, brown sugar, orange peel, cinnamon sticks and whole cloves over medium heat until berries begin to burst. Done. Yum.

Between the aromas of the gravy and the cranberry sauce I was in heaven.
3. Lemon Barley Shitake Stuffing
This is not your traditional bread stuffing. In fact it is not even technically a stuffing but rather a dressing because it is not stuffed into the bird. Rather, it is a delicious pearl barley dish spiked with roast hazelnuts and shitake mushrooms. I made this dish 2 years ago when we celebrated Thanksgiving in Forestville and it's become a regular ever since. Like turkey, the mushrooms pair perfectly with Pinots so there's no debate about serving it!
4. Roast Winter Veggies
I swear I had a vision with this dish...I was going to carefully select a medley of winter veggies at the Farmers Market this past Sunday but when we arrived, the rain began to downpour. I quickly grabbed whatever I could; a bunch of beets here, a handful of squash there, some pretty rainbow carrots over there, and I was off to search for a dry haven. As a result, its not the most precious of my side dishes but it'll do. I figure roast squash, beets and rainbow carrots never had many complaints, right? that leaves only the jalapeno cornbread muffins to make tomorrow. Oh, and the turkey! But you know there was no forgetting about that 20# fowl in the room!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trial Turkey; the art and science of brining & breast meat

After entirely too much contemplating, I decided to bite the bullet and cook a test turkey. I'm not totally sure what finally convinced me but sure enough once I'd made up my mind, it became immediately evident that 6-8# turkeys are harder to find than you'd think.
Every grocery store I tried had birds beginning at 12# and up. Late Friday night though, I tracked down a 9 pounder at Whole Foods in Berkeley. A little bigger than I'd hoped for but at least it was an organic and free range bird from Diestel Ranch in Solano. Bi-Rite sells mostly Diestel Ranch birds so I figure I am in good company.
As mentioned, I brined the bird for 24 hours in a concoction of apple cider, salt, brown sugar, soy sauce, scallions, garlic, ginger, star anise, cinnamon and black peppercorns. Brewing this aromatic blend perfumed the whole house with a most delicious scent. Once the turkey was cleaned and dried it was submerged into the now room temperature brine to do its thing.
One hears a lot about brining this time of year but if you are (or were) anything like me, the word didn't register high on your radar. Well, in my turkey crash course I've learned a lot about the art of brining. A brine is essentially a salt-based marinade, be it wet or dry, that keeps the cooked meat moister by hydrating the muscle tissue before cooking. In other words, because the brine is saltier than the turkey (or chicken, or pork chop, or shrimp) the turkey absorbs salt into its muscle tissue and therein denatures the proteins. If using a liquid brine, the liquid works its way in between the proteins to result in a moister meat from start to finish.
After a full 24 hours, the bird was ready to emerge out of the brine and be prepped for roasting. Once the bird was dry, I loosened the skin from the body then applied the melted butter and salt & pepper evenly throughout. Next I loosely filled the cavity and bottom of the pan with apples, celery and onions to add aromatics. Finally, I soaked cheesecloth in the remaining butter mixture and draped it over the breasts. 

The real crux of cooking a whole turkey is that the light breast meat cooks at 10 degrees lower than the dark leg & wing meat. Therefore, if one waits until the dark meat is fully cooked, the light meat will almost inevitably be dried out. There is an endless no of ways of dealing with this issue that range from the logical to the extreme: cooking the bird breast-side down, draping the breasts with cheesecloth, draping the breasts with bacon strips (srsly!?), tenting the breast with foil and finally ice packs on the breast until just before roasting.

Apparently I am among many perfectionists when it comes to getting a good turkey. I opted to drape the breasts in butter-soaked cheesecloth but ended up leaving it on too long, preventing the skin from crisping and browning. Also, even though I took the bird out once the legs reached 155 degrees, the final meat tasted just slightly underdone. Technically, it was most assuredly not undercooked but when there's even the slightest pink it can be concerning. 
For Thursday, I will leave the bird in slightly longer to avoid any questions of doneness. Hopefully between the brining and the butter and the cheesecloth it will still be a moist, delicious bird.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reflections on Entertaining and Thanksgiving Turkey Prep

I am by no means a perfectionist. Anyone who's ever seen the interior of my car (particularly in the middle of a styling job) knows that firsthand. But when it comes to entertaining and consequently cooking, I've been known to overdo it. Be it hand rolling ravioli for 18 of DH's closest friends the first time I met them or preparing hundreds of tamales for the sake of throwing a great party, I can't help but go big. DH remains patient (for the most part) when it comes to my exacting entertaining and party planning style but I suspect he believes it could all be a lot simpler. 

Perhaps it's because my first model for entertaining was Entertaining by Martha Stewart. Compared to Martha, I am a total scatterbrain. In defense of my overachieving tendencies though, I always feel inclined to quote my global marketing and merchandising professor from my final semester in Italy. Benjamin Malhotra oft preached, "Ultimately, it takes the same amount of time to do something well as it does to do that same thing poorly. And anyway, what's the point of doing a thing if you aren't going to do it well?" He was and still is one of the most tasteful, best dressed men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I swear the Dos Equis 'most interesting man in the world' campaign is based on this man.
me and malhotra and another riveting dinner conversation
This is all a long drawn out way of saying DH and I are hosting Thanksgiving this year. For as much as I love to cook and as much as Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, (srsly, I'd be fine if it was just Thanksgiving, Halloween and Fourth of July in any given calendar year) I have done the bulk of the cooking only one other year and that was with the help of two close friends...and we bought a pre-smoked turkey. Which is to say I will be cooking my first Thanksgiving turkey this year.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
I wax and wane between confidence and sheer dread about cooking a 20# bird for all of DH's family. In my strong moments I am confident it will go off without a stitch...a true Norman Rockwell holiday. In my weaker moments, usually around 3am every night this week, I visualize something more like the desiccated turkey Clark Griswold cracks into in Christmas vacation.
In preparation of the big feast I decided to sit in on a turkey carving class hosted by John Lee at 18 reasons. From the moment John started talking about birds I felt more at ease. Half the battle is being prepared and the other half is being confident. John expertly carved the bird as a butcher would, dissecting the legs, then the wings, then the breast all while explaining the differences between heritage and traditional, dry and wet brine, stuffing and dressing. He answered all our questions with ease, expertise and patience; the three most valuable qualities in any great teacher.
I plan to wet brine the bird in a apple cider, star anise, black peppercorn brine and cook the bird slow and low. I am still debating whether it is necessary to do a trial turkey. Most experts say no, save for one I trust dearly. It seems excessive, especially since I'm the only one in the house who'd eat it. I will decide today or tomorrow.
Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Homemade Fish Tacos; an unknown DH specialty

There are few things more comforting than coming home to a home-cooked meal.
I was out all day Sunday but before I left, I joked to DH "be sure to have dinner ready when I get home!" Little did I know he'd actually take me up on it...
Sure enough I arrived home late Sunday night, hungry and tired, to all the fixings for homemade fish tacos.
DH quickly fried up the tilapia slices upon my arrival to ensure the freshest fish possible.
The verdict? These fish tacos might be the best I've ever tasted...well, definitely the best homemade fish tacos. Ricky's fish tacos in Silverlake, Ca still holds the crown (in the states anyway). But DH's fish was perfectly cooked; the crux of any great fish taco. The tacos paired perfectly with the crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Bluxome Street Winery, the new urban winery on Bluxome Street in San Francisco.
Apparently fish tacos are one of DH's specialties but this was the first time I'd tried them.
Another specialty of his?...rice pudding! Its good to feel completely spoiled every now and again. Thanks, DH!