Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pan-ta Claus

I'm lucky that I'm from a foodie family.  If I wasn't, I don't know how people would stand me at Christmastime.  From preparing and digging into the meals to my kitchen-heavy wish list, the holidays and food traditions are one in the same to me.  This year, as with every one before it, Matt and I drove up straight from my office door to my parent's doorstep in Buckley, Washington.  Well, I guess I didn't have to drive from Portland all those years I was conveniently at home, but since this was my 7th traveling Christmas, it's pretty much ingrained into my mind its semblance as normal.  On Christmas Eve we were headed to my Aunt Shirley's house in Redmond for our customary extended-family gathering.  All the relatives on my mom's side of the family - Grandma, my two aunts and my cousins, rotate around hosting each year as everyone arrives with appetizers.  We always have ten times what our group could possibly eat, but everyone wants to show off their recipe, so it's all okay. 

At Matt's request and my wholehearted agreement, we were bringing the stuffed jalapeno poppers we've been perfecting since summer.  I trusted my mom's kitchen to have the pan and mixing bowl we'd need, and I figured we could just buy the ingredients at Fred Meyer once we were up there.  They have jalapenos in Washington, after all.  Going to the store on Christmas Eve didn't turn out to be too much of a disaster - Matt needed a new shirt to wear, and I got re-acquanted to the rich redneck culture that so inspired me to move on and out in the first place.  Also, I discovered a sick scheme that they're perpetrating in the specialty cheese case.  I needed a good sharp cheddar, and since we came in by the deli, I grabbed a hunk of Tillamook Extra-Sharp Vintage.  $5.99 for 6-ish ounces, but whatever.  When we round about to the prepackaged meat and cheese area, over by dairy where they keep the big blocks of cheese and shingle slices, I find the same exact cheese for $2.99 in a 10 oz pack.  WTF!?  You think you can fool people with your "fancy" island cheese case, Fred Meyer?  Well, Mozzarella Fresca isn't exactly gourmet, and you stick Rondele in there, so until I see a wheel of Seastack, your special cheese ain't all that. 

Matt made sure I wore my mom's fancy zebra-striped kitchen gloves to protect against the capcacin in the peppers, which will get in and cause a burning, unyielding tingle in your fingers (and anything you touch... ANYTHING) for at least a day.  That is the peril of the pepper.  I've learned much since I was scraping these things out with my fingernails six months ago.  The filling is a mix of cream cheese, that almost-rip-off cheddar, crisp-cooked bacon, Penzey's Arizona Dreaming seasoning (very important!), green onions and barbecue sauce.  I like to use Sweet Baby Ray's, but as long as it's not that really terrible Kraft stuff that's like a dollar a bottle, it'll probably be good.  In the oven, they cook low (275) and slow (about an hour) so that the peppers gently soften up and the filling slowly meld into the crevices and slightly crust on top. 

I was feeling quite fancy until I saw my mom's pumpkin pie.  Look at this thing!  It's perfectly gorgeous.  It could be on the cover of Martha Stewart, complete with reindeer stencil download on the website.  I'll just never quite be at my mom's level of amazing.  I guess it gives me something to always try for, and look forward to if nothing else. 

When we arrived at my aunt's house, everyone was busy rotating around the ovens and putting the final touches on their features.  My cousin Nicole brought delicious P.F. Chang's-style chicken lettuce wraps, my Aunt Donna didn't disappoint with her customary stuffed mushrooms, my mom brought a great veggie pizza from the coveted Pampered Chef recipe, and Aunt Shirley made Coconut Chicken with Cilantro Sauce so good that I'm going to have to support the Junior League of Seattle for the recipe.  I guess that's a good thing.  Grandma brought the deviled eggs, my kryptonite.  Luckily I was able to down about half the plate by stealthily sitting down next to the platter.  It's a nice night to catch up with people I may not have seen all year, with a tradition that goes back as far as I can remember.  Christmas Eve without ten billion appetizers just wouldn't be right. 

So, something you should know about me I guess... I believed in Santa til I was 12.  I was the oldest child!  My dad was the Auburn post office Santa, who wrote letters back to kids from the North Pole!  "Why didn't your friends tell you?"  Matt, the one who stopped at 6 or 7, asks.  I don't answer, I glare.  I was a little sheltered, okay?  I admit it.  I may have given up the belief that someone other than my mom and dad were adding the surprise extra presents and downing the cookies and milk, but that anticipation and excitement isn't something I've been able to shake, even as I slip down the wrong side of twenty.  I try to sleep, I really do.  After a couple glasses of rose I did end up falling asleep, but I woke up at 6:30 am and never recovered.  I tried rallying my little brother and sister, but Annie was up until 3 making a present for her boyfriend and Zach just wasn't into being awake.  I surfed TMZ, looked at some lolcatz, tried to fall back asleep.  Finally people started shaking themselves from sleep around 8, with Matt the last one to stumble out of bed.  He hasn't quite mastered the whole Christmas morning thing yet.  I'm working on him. 

When we were little, we used to have to wait, stockings hot in our hands, at the top of the stairs until Mom and Dad gave us the go-ahead to come down and start Christmas.  Dad would subtly torture us by starting the coffee machine while Mom made sure everything was in order (bikes and dollhouses properly wrapped in those big present bags, that kind of thing).  Somehow we've lapsed out of this now that our youngest is starting college and I've got a husband who makes fun of me this ENTIRE TIME for acting like I'm ten. 

As we race down the flight of stairs and into our spots around the tree, Mom slips another tradition into the oven - Christmas morning breakfast.  It's a meal that starts several weeks before, when she starts scouring around for recipes for this year's feast.  It's always a little different, usually savory.  We've had a couple years with cinnamon rolls or french toast strata things, but we're really a eggs and bacon loving bunch.  With Matt in the mix now, it's even better.  Nobody loves breakfast as much as Matt, and it's fun to figure out what new recipe is going to knock his socks off this year. 

Our stockings were both full of snacky wonderfulness - Penzey's Mexican vanilla and Theo Peppermint Chocolate bar for me, gourmet beef jerky and Harry & David yogurt pretzels for Matt.  After everyone empties their stocking - tastefully, of course, one thing at a time savored like a foie gras bon bon, we hand out presents and circle around, one present opened on each pass. 

On my first turn, I picked up a present from Matt.  His gifts were distinguishable by the fact that they had no tags or bows, and the wrap job was a little less than hospital-corner-perfect.  You can tell a lot by looking at the wrapping.  I knew for sure at our office Secret Santa exchange that Scott Cannon had drawn my name because he used a post-it note as a gift tag.  Girls always have tags and bows.  Anyway.  The paper peeled away to reveal a clean, neat white box with simple gray lettering.  ALL-CLAD!!!!!!  The Pans of the Gods!  A 10" stainless steel fry pan,  standard-issue in the Iron Chef kitchen and Ina's barn-house-Hamptons thing.  I just seared pork chops in it last night and even though I was just going to brush them with some mustard on the way into the oven for a roast, the shiny pan that had collected a crunchy collection of cooked-on bits, drug me down and begged me to make a pan sauce.  So I did.  And it was delicious.  I only had a couple pieces of All-Clad in my kitchen beforehand:  a roasting pan that was a wedding gift, a tiny saucepan that was also a wedding gift, a deep saute pan we bought with the Macy's rewards points from our wedding registry, and a nonstick pan I decided to get with my work bonus.  Obviously there has been a bit of a shortage since we got married. 

As the circle kept coming back to me, my All-Clad collection kept growing, until I was buried in an entire ten-piece set.  I didn't think I'd have these precious gems in my cabinets until I had a New York Times Notable Book on my bookshelf (apparently I only needed to have someone else's NYT book in my shelf).  Having Matt decide, free of ultimatums or excessive begging, that he was going to go and get these for me felt like the ultimate acceptance and validation of my crazy obsession/hobby.  He's saying, you're good at this and I love what you do, here are the tools you need to make the most of it.  From a practical guy, that is something.  Screw diamonds. 

By the time the last presents were opened, we had Breakfast Enchiladas beeping at us.  What better way to slide into the post-holiday anti-climax than a good breakfast?  It can't hurt, at least.  I forgot to take a pre-picture, and this was all that was left of it.  Trust me, it was a year to remember.  Serve with embarrassing stories about years past, schemes to set up new toys and a resolution to eat healthier tomorrow.  You promise.

Breakfast Enchiladas
1 lb package hot ground pork sausage
2 tbsp butter
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
14 large eggs, beaten
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
Cheese Sauce
8 flour tortillas
1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese with jalapenos  (mom actually uses Cougar Gold, the best cheese for delicious casseroles ever cheddared).

Cook sausage in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, stirring until sausage crumbles and is longer pink.  Remove from pan; drain well, pressing between paper towels.

Melt butter in a large nonstick stillet over medium heat.  Add green onions and cilantro, and saute 1 minute.  Add eggs, salt, pepper and cook, without stirring, until eggs begin to set on botom.  Draw a spatula across bottom of pan to form large curds.  Continue to cook until eggs are thickened still moist; do not stir constantly.  Remove from heat, and gently fold in 1 1/2 cups cheese sauce and sausage.

Spoon about 1/3 cup egg mixture down the center of each flour tortilla; roll up.  Place, seam side down, in a lightly greased 9x13 baking dish.  Pour remaining cheese sauce evenly over tortillas; sprinkle evenly with monterey cheese. 

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until sauce is bubbly.  Serve with desired toppings like sliced tomatoes, sliced cilantro and sliced jalapeno peppers.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gauntlet

What a crazy couple weeks of baking!  I've cleared through about 8 pounds of butter, a bag of sugar, tons of flour, and my Penzey's Cinnamon jar is looking much worse for the wear.  The madness started about two weeks ago... wait a minute, scratch that.  The true madness really started right after Thanksgiving, when I took a break for futiley decorating the Christmas tree (the cat has been dismantling it with surgeon precision ever since) to pull out my bulging recipe file.  The Dessert section is overflowing, but rarely used.  I don't make dessert very often.  Matt isn't crazy about sweets, and I'd rather spend my precious points on savory cheeses and sweet, sweet carbs.  I chiefly bake on special occasions, and Christmas totally counts.  Last year my baking plans got sidelined by work, when an ice storm led to super-late hours and weekends in the office.  Did I let this overtime onslaught memory dampen my hyperplanning?  NO!!  I will not predispose nature to screw up my holidays!

With deranged, elfish glee, I picked through the pile, yanking out the possibilities that looked the best.  Gingerbread!  Candied oranges!  Peppermint fudge!!  When I'd gotten through, I spread out the dozen or so possibilities and took a good hard look.  Some things, like the chocolate cheesecake peppermint bars and cranberry bliss bars, were super-similar.  And really, even I know I can't do every single flippin' one.  Just most of them.  After carefully vetting (and watching Max bat down my glass nutcracker from a low bough), I settled on must-have classics:

-Cranberry Bliss Bars
-Almond Cookies in Ganache
(more on these sacred guys later)

and some new and newish additions:

-Ginger cookies
-Raspberry Linzer Cookies
-Cinnamon-Walnut Baklava
-Sugar Cookies

Cranberry Bliss Bars may sound slightly familiar.  They're the popular treats Starbucks tries to get you to tack on to your $5.00 coffee tab this time of year.  Five years ago, during Matt and I's second Christmas in our tiny apartment, I was hoping for a signature baking treat to contribute to the company cookie swap.  The Oregonian's FOODday ran a special dissecting "secret" holiday recipes, including the Starbucks treat.  I decided I was going to make this my own, and went about buying all the ingredients that I needed to make a double batch.  For someone in a miniature cooking space that hadn't yet amassed a pantry of essentials, this wasn't easy or cheap.  But the end results were so worth it - all that tart-and-sweet, tangy cream cheese flavor spiked with ginger, minus the cooked-off-the-premesis-and-shipped-to-50,000-stores and preservatives garbage.  Presumably less crappy pumped-in Muzak, too. 

Unfortunately, the cookie swap was a total bust - I got my plate back filled with store-bought cupcakes and those hard tack-bread sprinkle shapes that Safeway calls cookies, and a tiny wedge of Bliss.  Just because you work at a specialty food company doesn't mean your co-workers actually give a shit about cooking.

But I digress.  Sort of.

Two weeks ago, I baked the Cranberry Bliss Bars and Sugar Cookies, since I knew they'd freeze pretty well.  Matt even helped me decorate the sugar cookies, even though he was watching a football game.  That was one of those moments I fell just a little more in love.

Then, the aforementioned FOODday came out again with its Best Homemade Food Gifts special.  "If you had the foresight to can delicious gifts during the summer, when produce was at its peak - boo on you."  Well I DID, thank you very much!  It's called foresight, you biased journalists.  But I will keep reading, because it's a good excuse to get up from my desk for a minute.  They had an irresistible spread on chocolate bark, which Ina and Food Network Magazine have also been going crazy for this year.  I should try that, I thought.  I can't be left out, after all.  But what am I going to stick in my bark?

Isn't it obvious?  What says Portland to family and friends more than dark chocolate and BACON?  Bacon Bark with Dried Cherries and Hazelnuts.  I thought it was inspired. 

This weekend was crunch time.  I had 5 different things to make and tons of little boxes and bags to fill with them.  Thank god for the Kitchen Aid, who was able to take over stirring.  I don't have a food processor (I know, right?) so me and Wusthof had to contend with hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, bacon and such on our own.  So Santa, if you're listening, I'd really love a Cuisinart.  Still, I think I did okay.  I didn't get the almonds quite as fine as I would have liked for the almond cookies or linzers, but I guess they're more homey that way.  What I don't need is a double-broiler, because my ghetto version works like a CHAMP.  It sure is fun to dump a bunch of freshly-melted chocolate onto parchment, and stick random crap in it.  No wonder all the food writers are falling in love with it this year. 


I don't think I'd stick bark into my must-do-every-year pile.  It's good, but I don't know if I could call it breathtaking.  It's kind of you get what you put into it.  Was it that amazing to melt chocolate you got at Trader Joe's and sprinkle things on top?  Fun, yes.  But after a bite, I wasn't desperate to throw caution to the wind and eat the whole sheet.

What I would eat a whole pan of, however, was that god-damn baklava.  It was kind of the crazy-funk addition to my list, the thing I figured I could always throw away and deny ever happened.  It certainly didn't generate much excitement in our household.

"What are you making now?"  Matt asked, eyeing the puff pastry thawing on the counter. 


"Huh, sounds Jewish."  Then we got in an argument over how many Hanukkah songs there are.  I'm almost certain that baklava is middle eastern, but whatever.  It's still fun to say with a throaty accent: "baCCCHHHlahhhvah!"  It's a blast to make, like dessert lasagna.  Layers of generously brushed butter, sliced almonds and cinnamon, wedged between paper-thin sheets.  I started to get excited when it came out of the oven, looking and smelling like the little wedges I've had at Aladdin's.  It's important to slice it in the pan before baking, so the syrup poured right as it pops out can get into every minute crevice.  I rationed myself to one little square, and to be fair, it is extremely rich.  I still could have polished off the whole pan, but my paper treat boxes were hungry.  And I wanted to share the joy!  Matt had no interest in even a tiny bite ("you lost me when you dumped all that syrup on top"), so I had to have somebody validate my culinary experience.

Luckily, I had co-workers that were willing to oblige.  After I dipped the almond cookies (a recipe I got from the caterer of my bridal shower) in their ganache and made all the linzer cookies with the 3-part cutter I picked up at Sur La Table while Matt watched Mallratz, it was time to package up the goodies for the impending Monday... and before I ate them all.  Also, Kevin Smith movies are terrible.  I had to get creative, since I wasn't able to get the boxes I really wanted from The Container Store, and I didn't have enough pretty boxes and bags for everything.  But Saran wrap and little Ziplocs can also look good inside of a pretty gift bag. 

I have an office full of baking-bribed coworkers (Tonya thought the baklava was divine!  Scott ate the whole box of bliss bars!), a new holiday classic, and a whole round of Washingtonians to spread the love with this week. There's only one thing more soulfully happy than cooking, and that's sharing the end result.  This is the holidays. 

Well, the presents are awesome too. 

Cranberry "Ecstasy" Bars
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup minced dried cranberries
1/4 cup minced crystallized ginger

For the frosting:
1 8-oz package of cream cheese at room temperature
3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup plus 3 tbsp powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp grated lemon zest
pinch of salt

For the drizzle:
1 oz white chocolate
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9x13 pan with parchment paper and then grease the paper.  In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar.  Add eggs and vanilla, continue mixing until light.  Sift together flour, ground ginger and salt; add to the butter-sugar mixture.  Continue mixing until flour is incorporated.  Fold in dried cranberries, chocolate and crystallized ginger.  Spread the batter in the prepared pan and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool completely in pan.  To make frosting:  In a medium bowl, mix together cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, lemon zest and salt until well-mixed.

Remove cake from pan and trim off the edges so the cake is uniformly flat.  Using an offset spatula or the back of a large spoon, uniformly spread the frosting on top of the cake.  Sprinkle minced dried cranberries on top of frosting and refrigerate for 1 hour.  To make drizzle:  in a small saucepan over low heat, melt white chocolate, whisk in powdered sugar and milk until well-mixed.  Scrape into a small, sturdy plastic bag; cut a tiny corner of the bag and squeeze to drizzle chocolate decoratively over the entire frosted cake.  To serve, slice the cake lengthwise down the center, making two long rectangles.  Cut each rectangle into four equal portions, slice each of these in half diagonally.

If you have one of those nifty Pyrex pans with a lid, these freeze very well right in the pan. 

Also, I always double this recipe and make it one of the really really big pans. 

Cinnamon-Walnut Baklava
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) butter, melted, plus more to grease pan
3 1/2 cups sugar
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
3 cups walnuts
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 package frozen phyllo dough

Preheat oven to 375.  Brush a 13x9 inch baking dish with butter; set aside.  In a medium saucepan, combine 3 cups sugar, lemon juice, and 1 1/2 cups water; bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, simmer until sugar dissolves and mixture is syrupy, about 10 minutes.  Set syrup aside.

In a food processor, pulse walnuts with cinnamon and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until finely ground. Set walnut filling aside.

Alternatively, if you don't have one of these fancy-schmancy food processors, just use your knife and slice the sugar and nuts together.  It sounds kind of ghetto, and... well, it is.  But it does work.

Place a stack of thawed phyllo sheets on a work surface.  Using a sharp knife, trim stack inith to a 13x9" rectangle, discard trimmings.  Place 1 sheet of trimmed phyllo in prepared baking dish.  Brush gently with butter, repeat with 2 more sheets of phyllo, laying each on top of the other.  You now have a 3-sheet stack of buttered phyllo.

Sprinkle phyllo stack in dish with 1/3 cup walnut filling.  Repeat with 7 more buttered phyllo stacks, sprinkling each with walnut filling.  Top with one more 3 sheet stack; brush generously with butter.

Using a sharp knife, cut unbaked baklava into 24 squares.  Bake until puffed and golden, 30 to 35 minutes.  Transfer pan to a wire rack; pour syrup over baklava.  Let stand at room temperature until syrup is absorbed, at least 3 hours.  To store, keep at room temperature, up to 3 days.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Fudging Chili

I adore a good soup recipe, especially if it's Crock-Pot-able.  That means it can include most things, with the exception of some cream-based delicacies that I never make anyway.  So when I find one, I just have to share.  Is there anything better than being in your office in the afternoon, feeling your stomach grumble and remembering "I have a delicious pot of soup simmering and marinating and transforming for me on the counter"?  Knowing you're being taken out to dinner at The Heathman maybe beats it, but in that case you have to keep your heels on.  Crock Pots love you in dirty sweatpants and without your bra (at least, I think it still loves me). 

Last week, I pulled an un-tried White Chicken Chili recipe out of my monstrous file, clipped from Food Network Magazine sometime last year.  It was by Melissa D'Arabian, who I have to like by default because she lives in Kirkland, and I still consider myself a King County Seattle girl.  It's why I keep my 253 area code around after 7 years in Oregon; I still hope that, someday, I'll be back on Puget Sound's salty shores.  Willamette River, your toxic freshwater is bullshit.  Anyway.  So I do like her, and rooted for her back when she was on The Next Food Network Star, even though I think her $10 dinners are a complete fraud.  Bitch, please.  I can't get out of Safeway under $10 for fresh ingredients and protein for 4 people, so can the gimmick and just cook.  Same with Claire Robinson.  I don't CARE if you have more than 5 ingredients!  If it's five or fifteen, I just want my food to taste good.  And Rachael Ray, just go away.  Forever.

Anyway.  So I picked this out, not reading through it like I usually do, which is actually quite the cooking no-no.  Read your recipes! Prevent mistakes!  Someday I'll learn, probably.  Then I'll avoid situations like this: after reading through her original recipe, I found it not only step-intensive, but also designed for a stovetop cook.  Well, eff that!  My Crock-Pot is out, and there is no way I'm making chili after getting home late.  Not to mention it would break my cardinal rule: always let a soup sit overnight.  I did some of the prep steps, including roasting the Anaheim peppers and garlic, and sauteeing the shallots with yet more raw garlic.  I added extra beans because one can didn't seem like enough (it wouldn't have been), and I rubbed the chicken breasts I used in Penzey's Arizona Dreaming spice before cooking them and tearing them up for delicious chili infusion.  I took all of those long-simmer ingredients and dumped them into the Crock-Pot, saving the 1/2 cup of cream and frozen spinach for after I got home and right before serving.  The levels of flavors with the roasted peppers and garlic two ways made this the most multi-faceted chicken chili I've ever had, and much better than the super-flat chicken tortilla soups I've been eating lately.  You know who had an amazing chicken tortilla soup?  Chili's.  Unfortunately they pulled their last Portland-area location about six months ago, leaving only a Eugene outlet in the Oregon market. 

So try this soup.  Or drive to Eugene.  Whatever.

Melissa Di'Amended Chili
1 head garlic, cut off at the head to expose cloves and drizzled with olive oil, wrapped in tinfoil and roasted in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until the interior cloves yield to a gentle squeeze
6 shallots, chopped
3 Anaheim chiles
3 cloves garlic
1 cup dry white wine (I used leftover Sherry from Thanksgiving and then threw it away.  God that stuff smells harsh!)
7 cups chicken broth
4 cups cooked, shredded chicken
1 tbsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 can white beans, undrained
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 box or bag of frozen spinach
1/2 cup heavy cream
Grated cheese, cilantro and Greek-style plain yogurt/sour cream for garnish

Get your Crock-Pot out.

Saute the mined shallots and non-roasted garlic in a small saucepan with olive oil until softened, about 5 minutes.  Place the chiles on a tinfoil-lined cookie sheet and broil until charred on each side, flipping once, about 8-10 minutes.  Wrap the chiles in the foil and allow to rest for about 15 minutes.  The skin will now practically fall off the peppers, allowing you to seed, stem and finely chop them.  Place the shallot and garlic mixture and the chopped peppers into the pot.

Add chicken broth, wine, chicken, spices and beans into the pot.  Add the roasted garlic by squeezing it out from the cloves and pinching it between your fingers to soften, then let it plop into the liquid.  Mix well and refrigerate overnight.  Remove from fridge before you head off for yet another grueling workday, plugging the Crock-Pot in and placing on low heat.  When you get home, about half an hour before serving, add the spinach and cream.  Ladle into bowls and top with grated cheese of your choice (pepper jack is awesome), cilantro and cream.  Maybe some of those yummy little tortilla strip crunchies if you have them.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Holiday Whirlwind

What happened to my Thanksgiving post?!  I had it all right here, in my head!  It was gorgeous! 

Oh wait, I didn’t write it down.  Dammit. 

Somehow after the busy night and day I spent in the kitchen culminating in a beautiful meal over my best wedding china with best friend Heather, her husband Chandler, his mother and their baby-on-the-way siphoning turkey from however those things work.  There were no epic fails, like Ina’s vegetable tartin that stayed raw forever at my aunt’s house a few years ago, or sweet potatoes that also wouldn’t yield their soft, cooked silkiness after a good dose of oven time last year.  There were some standouts though:

-The stuffing.  I thought I’d found a perfect stuffing recipe 3 years ago in (duh) Williams-Sonoma’s catalog.  They served it in the to-die-for Deruta hand-painted casserole dish, so it totally couldn’t go wrong.  That first year, it didn’t.  Made with homemade biscuits and bacon, it was a rustic dish with a fabulous saltiness.  Last year, the biscuits didn’t turn out right, which got the whole foundation of the stuffing off on the wrong foot.  Who wants stuffing made out of bad biscuits?  Oh, and you had to make the biscuits to make into stuffing.  I’m all for homemade, but that starts to get into the “grinding flour to make my bread” territory of hardcore that becomes impossible unless you’ve got some sweet I-don’t-have-to-work-I-can-be-an-urban-farmer! lifestyle setups.  How sweet would that be?  I don’t get up at the alarm clock, I get up at the sound of my heirloom chickens pecking around the deck for feed.  Then I’m going to water the tomatoes and research home-canned ketchup recipes.  As I can only dream, I was in the market for a new stuffing recipe.  I gave the Stuffing with Sausage and Leeks from this year’s Williams-Sonoma menu a try, which called for La Brea Bakery’s $15-ish a box stuffing mix along with an array of fresh ingredients.  Since I was already splurging on that little $12 bottle of Cider-Bourbon Roasting Glaze, I decided to cheat on the cheat and buy a bag of WinCo Stuffing Bread for $1.75.  Tossed with fresh sautéed leeks, herbs and New Seasons’ to-die-for garlicky Italian Pork Sausage, I can’t fathom telling the difference.  It was so well-balanced in flavor and texture—moist without being soggy, salty and herbaceous, good with gravy or independent.  It kicked out biscuits as my new stand-by stuffing.  My sanity thanks it; I don’t know how many more years I could bake scratch biscuits to let get stale and rip up for stuffing.  Even Martha Stewart has armies of staff, for christ’s sake.

-Brined turkey.  I have been brined.  I won’t go back.  Conditions could not have been more perfect for my soak-xperiment in poultry-bathing.  Last year, to hold his homebrew kegs, Matt took all of the shelving out of the garage fridge, which was an old thing that came with the house.  The guy who used to live there used it to store his bait and elk steaks, so I never use it for anything.  I think it smells icky.   But it made the perfect place to store a big orange Home Depot bucket, 3 gallons of water and a 22 pound turkey.  The brine mix and bird fit into the bucket perfectly, which fit into the fridge perfectly.  It was perfect.  After two days in the fridge, I just took the turkey out, rinsed and patted it dry, and placed it in my pride-and-joy All-Clad roasting pan.  I was a little skeptical with the lack of under-the-skin butter massages and herbs up-the-butt, but my fears subsided a couple hours earlier when I opened the oven door for a peek.  I could see a river of juice bubbling along the leg and thigh, decadent moisture flowing up and down the bird.  I pulled it out on instinct, after about 3 hours twenty minutes.  The tag wanted me to keep it in another 40, but I was going with my gut.  I let it rest under tinfoil while the stuffing, yams and green bean casserole got their moment in the sun and when Matt started carving, I gave myself a loud pat on the back.  I have never had a turkey, and have rarely had a chicken, that moist and infused with flavor right down to the bone.  The salt, rosemary, cloves and other brining spices had absolutely fused into the turkey, with the skin just crisped and flavored with the Cider-Bourbon glaze.  I need to contact Cost Plus and buy a pallet of that Brining Mix; I don’t want to risk ever, ever, ever being without. 

-Pumpkin hummus.  Who knew a quirky little appetizer would make such a big splash?  I’ve never made homemade hummus, mostly because I liked Sabra and Trader Joe’s versions so well, it didn’t seem necessary to go out, buy sesame paste, dirty the blender and all that crap.  A few weeks before Thanksgiving we were at New Seasons and they were sampling a Pumpkin Hummus that made Matt and I both raise our eyebrows in happy surprise.  I picked up one of the bright-colored recipe slips from the counter (can I even express how much I love New Seasons and their in-house weekly tastings and recipe slips?  No, I can’t) and headed over to find some tahini.  Every other year, whether I’m hosting Thanksgiving or not, I’ve made a sharp cheddar spicy cheese spread that I found in a kid’s cookbook when I was 7 or 8 years old.  I figured this would be a fresher option in multiple ways: healthier than the butter and cheese mix, and a surprise after a decade and a half of the same thing.  This crazy, fall-themed hummus totally stole the show, especially on Black Friday when I brought the leftovers in to my sulky co-workers who ALSO had to work.  Homemade hummus has a fresh flavor that accentuates each individual ingredient more clearly.  You can pinpoint the amount of lemon juice, cayenne and cumin in each batch.  The pumpkin puree worked in with the chickpeas was just plain fun, and gave it the color of pumpkin pie.  I have emailed this recipe out so many times in the last few weeks, and I don’t even have a picture to show you how pretty it was!  I always serve it like they do at my favorite Lebanese restaurant, Aladdin’s: in a bowl or serving dish with a well made in the bottom, well filled with extra-virgin olive oil and ringed around the sides with sprinkles of paprika and dried parsley. 

Food always tastes better on china with silver.  But maybe not worth the 2 hours of dishes. 

After this decadent dinner and leftover turkey alfredo, I’m more than a little nervous to step on the scale today.  Compounded by the fact that it’s now COOKIE SEASON!!!!  I’m hoping to have cute boxes of home-baked assorted wonderfulness to give to everyone I like a lot and will see the week of Christmas, but that list is growing.  Matt’s been hinting that he’s got some co-workers that are counting on Cranberry Bliss Bars, and my office social circle is growing as well.  The cookie boxes I covet are $3 apiece at The Container Store, x the ingredients and heavy labor to finish up the massive list of treats I’ve dug from my mountain of Martha Stewart and Bon Appetit clippings (plus one treasured favorite from The Vibrant Table who catered my bridal shower).  Right now I’m looking at a list of 16 people, two weekends and a LOT more butter to be bought.  Looks like my options are:

a.      a.  Lower my standards of variety and presentation (not really an option)
b.     b.  Cut people off the list (sad!)
c.    c.    Just suck it up and devote myself to the kitchen for some long upcoming shifts

I’ll be posting my first most-treasured recipe soon, The Oregonian Food Day’s dissection of Starbucks’ Cranberry Bliss Bars.  But I’m not giving you all my secrets!  You might just be on my list, after all!