Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Iron Chef America Chopped Super-Challenge: Thanksgiving

Since I spent $200+ dollars on Thanksgiving groceries, I've been trying to squeeze as much longevity out of the leftovers as possible. As comforting and delicious the traditional combo of turkey, gravy, stuffing and pulverized spuds tastes once at the table (then several more times in sandwich form), you get a little tired of the same lineup after a few days. So I've been trying to get crafty with the "secret ingredients" in the fridge, with what I've lovingly called the Iron Chef America Chopped Super-Challenge Thanksgiving Edition!
First up, a rather common leftover solution: turkey pot pie. Although most pantries are stocked with the staples to make perfect pastry crust right now after prepping those pumpkin and apple pies (flour, butter, shortening, a little ice water), you can also pick up a premade pie crust on seasonal sale at most grocery stores. They were going for only $2.00 at Safeway yesterday. And if you've got a coupon? SCORE! Sorry, I've been trying to extreme coupon lately. I'm not good at it, though. I just end up buying a bunch of garbage I never would've touched otherwise. BUT in this case, it could be a good thing.

The filling is a simple mix of leftover turkey, and the veggies that got left out of the cavity: carrots, celery, onion, whatever herbs you have stuck in the fridge (I had sage and thyme in this mix). Saute the onions and veggies to soften slightly before cooking. Toss it with a can of cream of mushroom or cream of celery soup and a scoop of sour cream, salt and pepper. I also added some dried oregano. Top with the second crust (with a few slices atop the crust for ventilation) and bake for about 75 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and you can see the inside filling bubbling from the ventilation slits. Allow to cool about 15 minutes before slicing. It'll be messy, but as long as you get some crust and filling on the plate, you'll be happy.

Two nights ago we were watching Mario Batali explore the beautiful world of pasta, and risotto was brought up. "I bet I could make a yummy turkey risotto," I challenged.

"With mushrooms?" Matt asked. Alton Brown had just cooked some crazy-good looking sauteed mushrooms.

Why not?

Turkey and mushroom risotto utilized, of course, leftover turkey, the surplus of stock, and the last little bit of white wine in the fridge. Again you can throw in herbs still lurking around. I just opted for parsley on this one. Also, feel free to play with your cheese. Parmigiano reggiano is the traditional cheese of choice in the dish, but risotto is something you should feel comfortable to be creative with. I used the leftover Yodeling Goat Gouda that was on our cheese tray. Grated fine and stirred in at the very last moment before serving, the gouda's nuttiness played marvelously with the woodsy mushrooms.

Then the challenge had to take a night off, because I came down with strep throat. I was feeling kinda off making risotto, but I powered through (along with decorating the Christmas tree). But yesterday, I was down for the count. Literally. I think I was awake for about five whole hours yesterday, which rivals Mehitabel in sleepiness. But tonight I was ready to make up for it. We still had a ton of turkey from the 20+ pound bird roasted up for a party of 6, and lots of veggies from the crudites tray. Why don't people like to eat crudites? It's like you'd feel dirty not to have veggies and dip out, but come on. Everybody wants those deviled eggs and chips! Maybe next year I'll give up. We'll see.

At lunch I picked up a jar of Maya Kaimal's curry simmer sauce, the best curry starter you'll ever, well, start with. Whole Foods has a great variety of flavors, and I opted for the Kashmiri Curry flavor. With tomato and nutmeg flavors, I thought it would tame the turkey flavor and morph it gently into something new and exotic. I sauteed onion, leftover mini bell peppers and diced baby carrots and then slowly simmered turkey, chunks from the sweet potato casserole (minus streusel topping) and peas in the sauce.

Sure, I could have placed this leftover menagerie atop a bed of fluffy white rice. But instead, I opted for EXTREME UTILIZATION. Curry atop fluffy leftover mashed potatoes. Would I consider it any other day? No. Did it work? Freakishly well! It was creamy and velvety on texture-sensation, flavorful topping. Dinner was all the yummier knowing I'd been a resourceful fiend.

While I was waiting for the curry to simmer up, I mixed up a turkey salad for tomorrow's wraps: a variation of traditional chicken salad with leftover celery and cranberries. Just under a week later, and we'll put cling wrap on this reusing rampage. At least I can honestly say I did that gobbler proud.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Big Show!

When lining up Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in my mind, it's difficult to pick a favorite. I love the macabre whimsy of Halloween, a holiday that allows you to decorate cupcakes with zombie hands and eyeballs. One that permits a decorating scheme derived from the most twisted fantasies of Tim Burton without frightening your neighbors. Christmas seems like a default shoo-in, what with the gift-giving and cookie-baking and sheer magic that one feels from dusk on December 24 to the break of dawn the next morning. But Thanksgiving holds a special place for me, with its culinary focus and excuse to break out the very best wedding gifts out of your china cabinet. In my family it's my holiday, the one I get to host. It deserves as much reverence as other holidays, but is increasingly victim to holiday-creep as Black Friday entreches greedily upon its territory. When you can't find canned pumpkin through the forest of candy canes at the grocery story in mid-November, you know something is deeply wrong with this country.
It is in this spirit, I beseech you fellow foodies, demand your Thanksgiving! Occupy the poultry aisle! Boycott the Christmas Tree lighting taking place a week and a half before Thanksgiving even happens (I'm looking at you, Woodburn Outlet)! We have traditions to uphold, and Christmas can wait its damn turn.
This year was an especially fantastic Thansgiving, if I do say so. Time was on my side: with my new job at a company that thinks that giving employees a life outside work might be a good idea, I had 5 glorious days off: Wednesday through today. This meant I had all day Wednesday to prep and decorate at a leisurely pace, and actually enjoy what I was doing without knocking myself out. I always enjoy hosting holidays, but sometimes I do feel like I'm going to pass out. Preparations began on Monday, when I made that famous cheese spread. This year I made a new dip, Martha Stewart's caramelized onion and bacon dip, and... we have a new tradition! This is a savory dream come true. I was a little concerned that there were too many onions, but you cook them down for over an hour until they're soft and yielding, and they take on a unique sweetness that is the perfect compliment to the beautiful bacon chunks. I served them with good, hefty kettle chips, but it also tastes great on Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches in place of mayo. Onion dip and cranberry sauce. Who knew? And isn't that second-day sandwich what we're all here for?

But what really ran away as the star of the day was the old stand-by, deviled eggs. Although they are a stand-by at each of our family holidays, from Easter to Christmas Eve, I haven't attempted them in years. I made a terrible batch a few years back by following a Paula Deen recipe, which called for like a whole cup of mayonnaise. Disgusting! That just waters down the yolks and makes them taste like lard. You want the eggs to still taste like eggs, just slightly enhanced with just a tablespoon of mayo, a little mustard, a splash of vinegar and festive paprika. Is it as old-fashioned as a pregnant 60's housewife smoking while chugging down a Manhattan? Perhaps. But every time I see some remodeled/deconstructed/up-kicked recipe for deviled eggs with bacon, crab, capers, fiddleheads, whatever is the ingredient du jour, I cringe. JUST LET THE EGGS BE EGGS, PEOPLE! You'll run out of them before you even mix up the punch (so be sure to hoard some extras in the fridge).

With my surplus of time this year, I got to try out a cute idea I'd seen in Martha Stewart Living several years ago. They're cornucopia placesettings made out of ice cream cones. You take each cone and place the end in a steamy spout of a teakettle, letting it soften and become malleable after about one minute. Curl the end up to create a cornucopia-esque tail, then place on a baking sheet to dry. Dip the open end in white chocolate, then in crushed pistachios to create that... uhh, I don't know what it's called, but I know it looks like a cornucopia. Now they're ready to be adorably placed on each plate, filled with jelly beans (I was hoping to find some kind of veggie-shaped candies, but apparently those aren't around, so I took Martha's much easier suggestion).

The only bad part? There's not a hell of a lot people can do with them (do you really want to chew on a pistachio-covered ice cream cone?), so they pretty much ended up in the trash. But they really LOOKED cool for about an hour.

As is our family tradition, we had about five times as much food as our small crowd required, such as dual desserts (my mom's wonderful pumpkin pie, and the new recipe I tried this year for cranberry cheesecake at Matt's request). I have a gigantic Ziploc bag full of turkey in the deli drawer, a Pyrex full of sweet potatoes, a ton of green bean casserole, and loads of cranberry sauce. I'm trying to Iron Chef this stuff as much as I can, without resorting to that disgusting recipe on the Best Foods radio spot ("take all your leftovers, mix with mayo and bake!" Yeah, I didn't believe it was real either...but it is). Last night I made spaghetti with chicken sausage, and made crazy-good garlic bread by spreading leftover sharp cheese spread on baguettes. Topped with some Penzey's Sandwich Sprinkle and broiled for 5 minutes, and I could have eaten this as a meal on its own. Did I mention I'm totally not going to weigh myself this week?

But that's okay. Because Thanksgiving is a chance to break out your best ingredients, test out a new recipe you'd never have the time or need to do the rest of the year, and see the family who can't all gather in the same room normally. You may make a bunch of dishes and chow down a few extra calories, but it's a small drop in the bucket of a whole year of routine.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Spread the Holiday Love

The piquant smell of a just-cracked black label Tillamook Extra-Sharp Cheddar, a dribble of fresh lime juice, a generous squeeze of spicy horseradish. Thanksgiving must be this week! I've been making this sharp cheese spread for about two decades, since I was just a kid. Only four ingredients, there is one rule that is the most important and most difficult to follow: the spread must sit in the fridge at least 24 hours. Three days? Even better. The longer it sits, the more it melds together. So, once you start thawing the turkey, it's time to make cheese spread.

This recipe was featured in a memoir essay I wrote this semester, so I thought I'd feature that here with the recipe.

From "The Family You Choose"

While I was growing up, the holiday high season stretched from Halloween to Christmas Day. Each special occasion was marked by signature dishes, with tastes becoming ubiquitous for the day they were served. I loved how the food accented the seasons, something as simple as smell could evoke the entire scene: warm spices bathing in cider and I was back at the pumpkin patch, peppermint and chocolate resurrected the downtown Seattle Nordstrom’s Christmas windows, where Brianna and I waited in itchy petticoats to have our picture taken with Santa. From the time I could reach the kitchen counter, I wanted to help create the magic. My first holiday dish was from a kid’s cookbook that my mom ordered me from the Current catalog. A pair of big, spiral-bound books in heavy laminated paper (as the printer had anticipated splatters and spills) arrived in the mail. One was a book of recipes from around the world, with each two-page spread devoted to a different country. A little story above the menu boiled the culinary histories of each nation down to a child-sized soundbite, such as the enchanting origins of French toast: One night, two children were sent to bed without dinner by their parents. Their butler, taking pity on the poor dears, got out some old bread and eggs, fried it up, and French toast was born! This raised so many questions for me: what had the children done to deserve such cruel punishment? Was the butler’s betrayal of his employers discovered? The second book was simpler, organizing itself around the holidays of the year versus world cultures. The Thanksgiving page, for instance, kept concepts simple, by providing only a couple appetizers and side dishes to “help Mom out.” One in particular caught my eye with the beautiful words extra sharp cheddar cheese. The recipe was for tangy cheese spread meant to be served on Ritz crackers.
                “It has horseradish, though,” I told Mom, handing her the book and pointing to the ingredients in questions. “And is sharp cheese bad?”
                “Sharp cheese is the best kind!” she said, jotting my ingredients next to her own on the long, scroll-like grocery list. “There’s only a little horseradish in it, and when you mix it with everything else and let it sit, the ingredients all marinate and mellow together to become a whole other thing.” In the kitchen, Mom looked like Snow White baking pies, minus the meddling birds. Black hair with a hint of a wave cut just above her shoulders and calm, even lips that she marked with lipstick only when we were headed out or when company was coming in. Her hands stayed constantly cool and smooth to the touch, like brushing against fine silk on a summer evening. I have no idea how she keeps her hands so pristine: nearly as many dishes washed, cheese grated and toaster plucks later and mine are dry, cracked and scarred, with broken nails and eczema patches. No matter how much she teaches me, there are still the things about her that seem enchanted.
When I was eight and determined to make the first batch of tangy cheese spread, Mom and I went to Fred Meyer together for groceries, where she showed me that distinct, tangy Tillamook Special Reserve Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese by the titillating black wrapper with a ribbon of red around the middle. The horseradish, pale and pungent, and rendered simply complimentary when calmed by the lemon juice and sweet cream butter. Once we were home she fished the box cheese grater out from underneath the counter and let me shred the entire loaf, noting at the end how the small chunk of cheese transformed into exactly two cups, a rule of thumb now rooted in my memory. A good mix, a few days in the fridge, and my spread was outshining the relish tray in the appetizer round. You’ll have to share your secret recipe, the grown-ups winked, slathering up another Ritz.
With that first success, I was convinced—a good recipe was a passport to adoration.

Thanksgiving Sharp Cheese Spread
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
10 oz shredded Tillamook Extra-Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp prepared horseradish

Mix all ingredients together with a fork until well-blended. Refrigerate at least 24 hours before serving, up to 3-4 days. Serve with your favorite sturdy cracker or crostini.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Attack of the Clone Soup

One of the most gratifying successes in the kitchen is when you're able to mimic something you love. Whether it's a recipe your grandmother used to serve on days you called in sick from school, or the crack-like salad rolls at the hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant down the street, recreating a favorite dish on your own is a sign you've got some mad skills yourself.

Tonight (well actually, last night, since I never eat a soup the same night I make it), I took a stab at bringing my favorite McMenamin's treat to our table. The dish I craved? The John Barleycorn pub's African Peanut Soup. They serve it on Thursdays, and I used to get a little cup of it with half a turkey sandwich to go (with a stingy 30 minute lunch, it was perpetually takeout). The African Peanut Soup was almost curry-like, but in stew form. Salty, savory, and so different--not your everyday Chicken Noodle Soup soup du jour! Basically it was like getting a great curry, but not quite as rich, so you can skip over the idea of rice and eat the best part guilt-free. I'd never had anything like it.

When I was going through my recipe portfolio, I found a recipe I tore out of Cooking Light right before I stopped subscribing. I was so sick of trying out healthy recipes and having them turn out so BLAND! And I'm not talking about no cheese, no bacon bland. I mean no spice. There's no calories in cayenne! Just because you're trying to eat healthy doesn't mean everything has to taste like rice cakes. But with the basic recipe as a base, I employed the full force of Penzey's Eastern-style best to bring out the vivid flavors created at McMenamin's. Curry, cumin, paprika and a little cayenne, plus lots of salt and pepper, brought the simple ingredients to life. The original version also called for zucchini, but I thought butternut squash seemed more like the highly orange dish I was used to enjoying.

I simmered everything together last night, and warmed it up on the stove when I got home from work. I was amazed--it tasted like my little cup of happiness, now a few roads removed from my office for lunch hour. I figured Matt could make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but amazingly, he loved it too! It did smell crazy-good. I've slowly opened him up to squash; I think he had some bad experiences with it in the past. Oh poor, mushy vegetables, spoiling the reputation of well-cooked wonders.

I served this with some delicious, crusty French bread from Whole Foods, but naan would have been spectacular. Top with peanuts or cashews, and cilantro if it's around. Don't tell McMenamin's we've figured them out. No need for some Flaming Moe's-like jealousy.

African Peanut Soup
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
1 tablespoon hot sauce (I used Secret Aardvark)
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 cups cooked butternut squash (I used an organic frozen variety from Whole Foods)
2 tbsp flour
1 can of diced tomatoes, drained of juice
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Generous amount of salt and pepper

Whisk chicken broth, peanut butter, tomato paste and hot sauce together in a bowl. Set aside.

Melt butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and saute until tender, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and cook one additional minute. Add broth mixture, tomatoes, spices, butternut squash and chicken to pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for at least one hour. Adjust spices to taste. Either cool and refrigerate to reheat the next night, or eat it then. But you shouldn't do that. It never tastes as good.

If you want to be extra fancy, garnish with peanuts and cilantro.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Early Successes

I wanted to write an honest Eats of Eden blog entry to celebrate two happy things: my friend Kiersten Krajcar's fantastic new food blog on weeknight cooking, and the sent status of my last graduate school packet this semester. Me and my typewriter haven't been the best of friends the last month or so, and even writing a happy blog post has made me want to hide. But this is prime time, with Thanksgiving and such right around the corner, so I'm going to be taking advantage of my school break to share some fun stuff.

This recipe, for Kiersten, is an easy weeknight favorite I've used since ripping it out of Cooking Light in our first apartment. For some reason, this is one of Matt's most-requested dishes. So much so that I got really sick of it for a few years. I decided to make it last week with some leftover mashed potatoes, which is the best occasion for it: that way, you only have to make the super-easy shrimp stir-fried topping and not worrying about boiling and mashing up potatoes. The original recipe called for crawfish, but since I never have those around, I've always used shrimp, with excellent results. The cayenne and paprika turn the shrimp a blushing red color, the perfect hue to add some brightness to fall and winter plates.

This is a great way to get out of the weeknight chicken rut, which is a particular danger for me. Italian. Mexican. Asian. Chicken, chicken, chicken. Break the cycle! At least, that's the advice I'm trying to give myself. You carry on with whatever's working in your life.

Watch out while you're plating. One little taste and you'll start eating everything straight out of the pan.

Easy Red Confetti Shrimp
4 cups mashed potatoes (leftovers ideally; otherwise boil 1 1/2 pounds of sliced potatoes, then mash with milk, salt, pepper and 3/4 shredded Gouda cheese)
2 tbsp butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 green pepper, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels (the Super Sweet Corn from Trader Joe's works great)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne (or a little less if you don't like it spicy)
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp pepper
1 lb shrimp, fresh or frozen and thawed
1/2 cup chopped onions

Melt the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, green pepper and garlic; saute 5 minutes. Stir in corn, saute 2 minutes. Add salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, thyme and shrimp, saute 5 minutes until thoroughly heated through. Remove from heat and serve over mashed potatoes, garnished with green onions.