Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Game Plan

Wow, what a crazy week in Things I Adore!  My MFA semester ended Monday, meaning lots of submissions and stress over clicking "Send."  It's also Thanksgiving week, of course:  Oscar season, The Big Show, Super Bowl, whatever you equate it to, it's the annual extravaganza for the obsessive cooking and entertaining enthusiast in your life.  And please tell me you have one of those, or are one.  The world needs more!  Believe me.  I wouldn't lie.

This year we're hosting my best friend Heather and her husband.  She's 8 months pregnant, and cooking a marathon dinner isn't exactly in the cards.  Luckily, I'm always looking for more unsuspecting victims to make sit through my courses (bwahahah!).  I love getting out the top-tier Lenox china and all the pretty platters and serving things I got as presents from our wedding registry.  Sigh... getting married is awesome.  I miss those little "I want this one!" scanners.  I guess it's okay, though.  I came out with a ton of heirlooms-in-waiting.

Last weekend I finalized our menu and created the Shopping Schematic (organized by grocery store department, natch) and Master Timeline.  First item?  Taking our 22 pound turkey out of the freezer and into the fridge on Sunday to start the thawing process.  I needed it to be ready for its Tuesday night brine. 

Between Costco, New Seasons, Trader Joe's, Williams-Sonoma, Cost Plus and WinCo I got everything checked off the list.  Why so many stops, you may ask?  Because I am insane.  No, although that is part of it.  Because they all have their own strengths, of course!  Costco has the best bulk basics for cheap, like huge cartons of heavy whipping cream, milk and butter.  You're not going to find Tahini outside of New Seasons, along with our all-time favorite Italian sausage and the best-looking leeks.  Also, we just love going there.  I get to ogle designer socks, and Matt has his pick of microbrews.  We both leave happy and broke.  You just have to go to WinCo for prepacked basics at the lowest prices, like huge bags of Russet potatoes for $1.79 and cans of cream of mushroom soup for Matt's way-way-back-to-basics Campbell's green bean casserole with crunchy onions.  We all love our traditions.

Williams-Sonoma and Cost Plus hardly count, because they were only for one ingredient each.  The Oregonian's Food Day named Cost Plus's Turkey Brine mix "The Best", so of course I had to have it.  I wandered around the store for about 20 minutes looking for salty packs of deliciousness before I finally broke down and asked an associate.  She went over to a shelf and reached for a top-shelf cardboard stock box.

"Oh, they're in the boxes I didn't think to rummage through," I said.

"We keep them for people that ask because we only got this little box in," she explained.  So, there you go.  ASK FOR THE BRINE!  It's a secret foodie code. 

Much of my menu was inspired by the Williams-Sonoma Cider-Bourbon Glazed Turkey with Shallot Gravy.  Which - surprise! - calls for their $12 bottle of Cider-Bourbon Roasting Glaze.  But from year's past, I know that I spend at least that on specialty ingredients to flavor the turkey from super-scratch (pancetta, liqueors, fresh tarragon, et. al.).  So, whatever.  I got the last jar at Washington Square last weekend, right out of the grasp from some West Hills debutard.  Take that, universe. 

I was able to make the Cranberry-Pomegranate relish on Sunday night, which Martha Stewart promised could be made up to a week ahead of time.  I always have two cranberry sauces on the table: something fun and exotic that I've made, and Ocean Spray's Cranberry Sauce a' la Bart for Matt.

I think that cranberries might be one of the most fun things to cook.  They pop when you cook 'em!  I love watching them slowly deflate, their defiant counterparts going out with a juicy POP!, all releasing their natural pectins to thicken up completely naturally.  They're made to be sauce.  Sure, juice is nice, but when you give a cranberry the chance to be a relish or chutney, you've elevated them to their true potential. 

As I tasted the simmered mix of cranberries, pomegranate juice, lemon and shallots off the stove, Matt got curious.  "Can I try it?"  he asked.  I handed him a spoon, and he took a generous bite.  "I like it," he concluded.  "I'm gonna eat that."

Well, I'll still put out the Ocean Spray Jelly Special... just in case. 

Tonight, along with blending up Pumpkin Hummus and Mascarpone cream for my Cranberry Mascarpone Tart, I made my very first-ever pumpkin pie.  I used the recipe from Cooks Magazine, where things went so well with the Chocolate Cream Pie.  It called for a mixture of pumpkin pie and canned sweet potatoes, for a less cloying and more natural taste.  Mixing in maple syrup, nutmeg, cinnamon and fresh ginger made me just want to bathe in the stuff.  It smelled like orchards and kittens and fall and home.  I've noticed I've been doing a lot of straining in my baking lately, and the results are mesmerizing.  A simmered mixture looks and smells good enough on its own, but when you run it through a fine-mesh strainer, you distill it down to its most flavorful bits in concentrated smoothness. 

My only problems were with the baking times.  The recipe advised baking for 20-35 minutes once the pumpkin filling was added to the crust, but I found it took me at least twice that.  Every time I opened the oven, the middle was still soupy.  Not sure why, maybe my oven is funky.  Maybe the pumpkin was feeling loose and fancy-free.  Either way, I just followed my instincts that "this isn't right," and kept re-setting the timer.  Over an hour later, I decided the middle was firm enough.  The outsides are definitely set.  I guess we'll find out tomorrow, when I'll be up at around 6 or 7 to de-brine the turkey and get it in the oven.  Put together the stuffing, the sweet potatoes, the casserole, thoroughly enjoy Heather's cheese and company... it should be a busy day.  But until then, I get to concentrate on more important thing.  Like which apron I should wear.

Thanksgiving Menu

Pumpkin Hummus with Toasted Pitas, Crudite and Crostini
Cheese Selection a la Heather
Cider-Bourbon Glazed Turkey with Shallot Gravy
Sausage-Leek Stuffing
Buttermilk-Chive Mashed Potatoes
Maple-Struesel Garnet Yams
Traditional Green Bean Casserole
Rustic Dinner Rolls
Cranberry-Pomegranate Relish
Pumpkin Pie
Cranberry-Chocolate Mascarpone Torte

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Curry in a Hurry

Why has life been so busy lately?  There's a freakish amount of activities, socializing and general out-of-houseness that's been going on the last couple weeks.  It seems too early to be "the holidays", but I guess they love to creep up ever earlier and earlier.  I barely got to enjoy Halloween as the red and green bunting, glass balls and twinkle lights crept in on the spooky aisles. 

We've been getting home late and grabbing something easy way more than I'd like to admit.  It's not something I'm fond of:  it costs way too much (that $30 Thai could've been a Christmas present!) and makes me feel gross (too salty and fatty).  I want to get home and unwind in the kitchen, but creating something super-ambitious isn't very practical.  I find myself saving all my gorgeous, fun recipes for the weekend. 

Otherwise, one-pot and simple dinners are my best defense against the grab-something glut.  Pasta sauces, casseroles, skillets - all good stuff.  One of my favorites, consistently delicious and comforting and a little different, is curry.  I've made it from scratch, but it tastes just as good with this excellent shortcut - enter Trader Joe's!  Red or yellow, for just a couple bucks you get this magical glue that turns whatever ingredients you have in your pantry, fridge and freezer into a flavor-saturated supper. 

On Monday, we were both busy setting up a new 55" TV and cabinet we stayed up late the night before buying.  Not a chore to complain about, but it did make that Pizza Hut online ordering system sound good.  But knowing I had Trader Joe's plump little frozen shrimp waiting for a curry bath, I left Matt to the HDMI cables and headed into the kitchen.

I always start with basics:  carrots, onions, garlic and potatoes.  I boil the potatoes on the stove, and soften the rest of the veggies in a skillet.  If I'm using pork or chicken, that gets cooked too - but you don't want the shrimp to get rubbery, so those get added last in this version.  If you have fresh green beans, bell peppers, pineapple, sweet potato or squash, or some other random thing you feel like getting rid of and taking a try at - well, that's the beauty of it.  It's a great kitchen-cleaner.  Basil and especially cilantro are wonderful served freshly torn on each serving.  I grabbed some Thai-seasoned cashews at New Seasons a few days ago, and I thought, hey.  Why not?  It added a nice extra crunch, one that peanuts would do just as nicely. 

From jar to plate, it takes about 45 minutes.  That's including cooking up a pot of rice, chopping your ingredients and letting the sauce simmer on the vegetables and meat (or tofu, veg friends!) in a generous soak.  And no driving, or tipping, required.  Although I would totally accept tips. 

Red shrimp curry, and Dexter chasing a creepy-as-fuck John Lithgow in full HD.  Mondays don't get much better than that.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Who Will Save Your Soul?

asked Jewel in 1995.  I somehow persuaded my mom to donate $15 to get me the CD at Target, and I listed to it incessantly the entire summer before I turned 12.  Every once and a while 'Adrian' or 'Foolish Games' would move me to bitter preteen tears, because, you know, there was a lot of shit going on.  Like, moving.  And getting boobs. 

Oh, the nineties.

Well if I were able to find the CD now (which is extremely unlikely), my answer would be: Chocolate Cream Pie. 

My soul has been hungry lately.  I haven't had time for the things that nourish it: last week, we ate take-out on a Manhattanite level of dependency.  I got home late almost every night, and thanked the turned-off lights and time change for concealing the sink of dirty dishes and laundry on the floor.  Reading has been grating on my nerves, and my writing is just pissing me off.  Work is getting more and more frenzied; my desk is covered in to-dos that never get done and there's no relief in sight.  My school semester's ending in a week, and I made a major blunder in sending my advisor the wrong draft of my latest work.  I gained two-tenths of a pound.  I yelled at my husband, snapped at a pregnant lady at Babies 'R Us that cut in front of me, and almost strangled an old man (believe me, he had it coming).  I'm not boring, but I do treasure my routine and a general sense of control.  Right now, I feel like my life is just flying and spinning and crashing away from me.

This week, I knew I was going to have to take care of myself, before I completely snapped.  It was time for pajamas, Dexter on DVD, and homemade food.  I spread my recipe file thick over the living room floor, plucking cookies and bars and cumin-ey chicken recipes that looked good and contemplating the possibilities.  What really got me going, though, was getting into the Cooks Illustrated Holiday Baking magazine I picked up at Costco.

Cooks Illustrated is kind of my new obsession.  Like most things, it was introduced to me by my mom.  She's clued me in to pretty much every revolution in my foodie life.  From Pampered Chef parties right around the time I was popping Jewel into my little boom box to unlocking the secrets of Penzey's when I still thought Clackamas was only good for the town center, she's like the Anna Wintour of culinary trends.  Except without the whole no-soul thing. 

If Ina Garten and Alton Brown had some freakishly smart, elegant baby, it would be Cooks Illustrated.  Infinitely more detailed and dedicated than any other food magazine out there (yes, beloved Bon Appetit included), Cooks Illustrated doesn't rely on food-porn shoots, Godiva ads and celebutard chefs to keep it sexy.  It's just meticulously tested and researched recipes, coupled with well-written articles on the why's of the ingredients, the importance of techniques and any other pertinent details to create The Perfect ______.  Today, I decided I was going to attempt The Perfect Chocolate Cream Pie.

Matt and I aren't really dessert people.  We'd much rather eat a bunch of bread and cheese than sugar.  But after carefully crafting and absolutely enjoying it today, I think I might have to reconsider its role.  A little can go such a long way, especially since my sweet tooth is pretty easily satisfied.  And as much as I love savory cooking, there's nothing that compares to combining atom-simple ingredients like eggs, cream and sugar into masterpieces that you could peddle in a patisserie - or at least give to happy friends and family.  Smashing a box of unsuspecting Oreos with a meat mallet saved me $35 in therapy alone. 

Whipping egg yolks into a froth, gently simmering cream and slowly incorporating just-barely-sweetened chocolate... it all felt very French to me.  Granted, my frame of reference is small and stereotypical, peppered with movie-theater influences of Ratatouille and Taken (so I expect to get to Paris, be served by a rat and sold into white slavery).  To me, France is a place where people understand the importance of standing in a kitchen over real ingredients, of observing their change throughout the cooking process with all the senses, and of being able to tune out the noise and, just for a moment, simply being there.

I'm trying to accept certain inevitabilities.  I will not always be a perfect student.  I probably won't be Employee of the Year.  I can be very hard to live with.  Sometimes dinner is going to be Subway sandwiches.  When that happens, have a cookie.  It's a slice of la dolce vida (and yes, I know that's Italian - I won't always be a great writer who can carry an arcing theme through a whole blog, either).  I need to keep more of them around.

For now, I have a fridge stocked with 9/10ths of a Chocolate Cream Pie and a giant bowl of homemade whipped cream.  This thoughtful recipe combines bittersweet and unsweeted chocolate to create a silky custard with a full chocolate flavor that isn't too sweet.  It's like an old-school Jell-O pudding recipe that put on thigh-highs and MAC eyeliner.  The Oreo crust adds an unexpected dash of saltiness, a sort of fleur-de-sel crunch.  Enjoy extra bites while you listen to your cat and husband snore. 

16 Oreo cookies
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
2 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
6 large egg yolks, room temperature
6 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 oz unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

FOR THE CRUST:  Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.  Smash Oreos into uniformly fine bits.  Transfer crumbs to medium bowl, drizzle with butter, and use fingers to combine until butter is evenly distributed.

Transfer crumbs to 9-inch glass plate.  Use bottom of 1/2 cup measuring cup or spoon to press crumbs evenly into bottom and up sides, forming crust.  Refrigerate lined pie plate 20 minutes to firm crumbs, then bake until crumbs are fragrant and set, about 10 minutes.  Cool on wire rack while preparing filling.

FOR THE FILLING:  Bring half-and-half, salt, and about 3 tbsp of sugar to simmer in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon to dissolve sugar.  Stir together remaining sugar and cornstarch into small bowl.  Whisk yolks thoroughly in medium bowl until slightly thickened, about 30 seconds.  Sprinkle cornstarch mixture over yolks and whisk, scraping down sides of bowl if necessary until mixture is glossy and sugar has begun to dissolve, about 1 minute.  When half-and-half reaches full simmer, drizzle about 1/2 cup hot half-and-half over yolks, whisking constantly to temper; then whisk egg yolk mixture into simmering half-and-half (mixture should thicken in about 30 seconds).  Return to simmer, whisking constantly, until 3 or 4 bubbles burst on surface and almost burn you and mixture is thickened and glossy, about 15 seconds longer.

Off heat, whisk in butter until incorporated, add chocolates and whisk until melted, scraping pan bottom with rubber spatula to fully incorporate.  Stir in vanilla, then immediately pour filling through fine mesh sieve over bowl.  Using spatula, scrape strained filling into baked and cooled crust.  Press plastic wrap directly on surface of filling and refrigerate pie until filling is cold and firm, about 3 hours.

FOR THE TOPPING:  When ready to serve, beat cream and sugar in chilled bowl of electric mixer at medium speed to soft peaks; add vanilla.  Continue to beat to barely stiff peaks.  Spread or pipe whipped cream over chilled filling.  Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kitchen Nightmares

We all have nightmares about the things we love and hate the most.  Those subjects that stress and inspire us, making up the majority of our consciousness:  school, work, families, skiing, knitting, cooking.  There's the dream I always have where I forget I signed up for a class, and I don't remember it until after the drop date, and get a permanent FAIL on my record.  Any dream involving skiing is a nightmare; heights make me puke.  And for anyone who loves cooking and entertaining, it's throwing a party that no one shows up to.

This spooky scenario happened to me this Halloween.  Okay, I'm exaggerating.  One wonderful, sweet person showed up.  But that was it.  Matt and I spent two worknights cleaning the house, and I took the night before to prep all the food I could.  Not to mention the money I spent on ingredients and such.  The day of, as I was mixing up a pitcher of cocktails, I watched 7:00 roll around and felt an ominous sense of dread.  If no one is here, no one's called... it can't be a good sign.  The doorbell only rang once, and then died. 

I didn't really want to write about it.  I was pissed, and embarrassed.  But I made some great food, and it looked freaking adorable.  So, I'm going to live up to my party disaster.  I had a great conversation with my guest, and a helluvea lotta leftovers that my co-workers devoured at our Workoween celebration.  Sometimes life and circumstances conspire to spoil your best-laid plans.  And it's not about you - probably.  It can't stop you from always preparing for the best. 

These were based on a tradition growing up every Halloween.  Mom would make Pizza Burgers, which were homemade hamburger patties topped with pizza sauce and slices of bright cheddar cheese with jack-o-lantern faces etched into them.  I made them party-ready by turning them into sliders, using turkey, and swapping the jack-o-lantern slices for mini Halloween cookie cutters.  They were served on slider buns, which are kind of hard to find.  Recipes always tell you "you can use dinner rolls!" but dinner rolls do not a hamburger bun make.  Sara Lee has perfect little slider buns that are sold at Safeway (but not Fred Meyer).  Matt ate 6, and I wasn't far behind.  Like any once-a-year tradition, they brought me right back to getting dressed for trick-or-treating. 

And what would a party be without cupcakes?  Or... MACABECAKES???!  It would probably be just fine, and with less cliches.  But not a party thrown by Tabitha Blankenbiller. These were red velvet, so when you pulled out the decorative skeleton hands they had bloody stumps.  Nice. 

But the best, most irresistible dish was the party staple I've spent several years perfecting.  Cheesy Artichoke Dip.  Molten and savory, it's my favorite thing to camp by.  Put it next to the pomegranate cocktail pitcher, and you won't have to move all night. 

Try it out at your next party.  Just get those RSVP's in before you mix it together.  Or put on your full Lady Gaga regalia. 

Cheesy Artichoke Dip
2 packages cream cheese
1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese
1 cup Extra-Sharp White Cheddar
1 1/2 cups marinated artichokes, minced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1 squirt of sriracha, of course

Mix everything together, and bake at 350 for 40ish minutes until the gooeyness is at a rolling bubble and you burn your mouth trying it because it's that irresistible.  Serve with tortilla chips, crostini, or spoons.