Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Janet and I take turns with the Thanksgiving meal each year with her side of the family, this year it's our turn to have it at our house. My parents and my oldest brother Mark will join us as well as Janet's mom Diane, her sister Lisa, her husband Greg and their two kids Ashianna and Grant. Koda, our puppy, will greet each one with a hearty series of barks and then will perch along side the most likely candidate to drop crumbs, the kids I'm sure. He is still a puppy, but he has already come to expect the certainty of this as sure as he knows Janet will give him a treat every night after the kids go to bed.
Our menu is still in pencil, but on the suggestion of a friend at work, I am still going to share what we are going to make.
I will have some stuff out for people to nibble on when they arrive, spinach dip, sweet pickle olive and marinated mushroom tray, smoked salmon on crackers, baked brie with sherry, maybe a fondu cheese something or other. Wine, beer, sparkling apple cider, sodas, water. Nothing to over the top.
The turkey, probably a twenty-five pounder, rinsed, dried, seasoned with sea salt and a cracked pepper mix. It will rest on a bed of vegetables, not a metal rack. Yellow onion, celery root, carrot, parsnip, fresh thyme, whole garlic, more peppercorns and a little white wine. I will cover the bird loosely in aluminum foil and uncover about 1/2 way through so it doesn't get too brown. I don't think I will baste it. After some discussion with chef buddies, I once tried a turkey without basting and the skin was quite tasty and beautiful. Over basting releases too much heat from the oven and can make the skin too soggy, in my opinion. I once smoked a turkey at a restaurant I was working at. I was magazine perfect in appearance, but the smoky flavor was too much. Smoked turkey sandwiches, smoked turkey soup, smoked turkey stock, smoked get the picture. Janet gave me the head shake on that one, and I couldn't disagree. Once I pull the turkey out I puree all the liquid from the pan with a portion of the vegetables and strain it through a china cap or chinios, then I reduce the liquid into my gravy. I has great flavor and never needs flour or cornstarch. After the bird is eaten I clean it up good and put the bones with any remaining vegetables into the roasting pan and put it back into the oven on 400 to roast the bones. All of this goes into a stock pot with cold water and I simmer it overnight, strain it, cool it and freeze in batches using a zip lock bag. It is a great smell to wake up to. This tasty stock is used for any soups I might make later on, especially if someone is sick, Diane swears by it.
Side dishes will include the usual suspects, mashed potatoes (I will use golden yukon's), maple whipped sweet potatoes, steamed, and pureed with butter and syrup. I will have two batches of stuffing, one from inside the bird and one baked on the side. I'll make a cranberry dish of mine with onions, dried cranberries, orange juice and fresh sage that is a favorite for sandwiches later on. I am not sure about a side vegetable, I was thinking ratatouille because the kids will eat it and then I don't have to prepare two different kinds. Rolls, butter, Janet's cherry and pumpkin pies (She is the baker, not me), Mom's apple pie, ice cream and coffee.
I'm sure that's not all, something else will get added or removed. Anyway, it will be fun to prepare. What are you guys doing for Thanksgiving?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My First Cooking Lesson-"milk marinated shrimp thrown into scalding peanut oil"

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, my Mom is a great cook, and had to be with three boys. But the first cooking lesson I really remember clearly came from my brother Mike. Mike is my older brother by eight years. Mark is another two years older than him. It was like growing up with two hormonal crazy teenage uncles. Mom and Dad expected them to watch out for me and to take care of me, and they did. Mark is a specialty butcher and can find his way around the kitchen. Mike is the seafood lover in the family and a wonderful preacher-man, not a cook, for good reason.

Mike was baby sitting me. Mom and Dad and Mark were out. Mike had a craving for shrimp, as he often did. So we hoped into his tricked out truck painted with green pinstripes and headed down to Race Street off Blossom Hill road for some shrimp. The smell of fresh seafood and a salty wooden floor still reminds me of that place. Mike showed me around, clear bulging eyes looking back at us from inside the case. A guy with a thick mustache trying to emulate Dennis Eckersley helping Mike from behind the counter, the Oakland A’s having probably just won their third Word Series in a row.
With tiger shrimp in butcher’s paper in my lap we headed home to the sounds of America, The Doobie Brothers and The Beach Boys.

Once home we got to work, bringing out the wok Mom had brought home from a trip to Hawaii. We put in about two cups of peanut oil and placed it over the heat, shimmering while the shrimp continued to marinate in nothing but milk. I was sure Mike knew what he was doing, I mean, he was the older brother and everything he did was godlike to me, still is. I remember the way people were always happy to see him, his tan, his puka shell necklace, his cool truck. I recall the way he stared out his window and watched cars drive by while listening to music, the way he could drop a 15 foot jump shoot with nothing but net, again and again, and again. But this warm summer night he almost burned the house down.

I remember the size of the shrimp, huge to me, dripping with milk through Mike’s hands and fingers. With a quick athletic jerk, he threw the shrimp straight into the smoking oil and while my short life on Hilow Court flashed before me. The oil ignited as it reacted to the milk and flames rose as if a bomb had gone off. I would like to give Mike complete credit for saving the house that day, not only was he responsible for starting the fire, but for extinguishing it as well. “OPEN THE FRONT DOOR, OPEN THE FRONT DOOR, OPEN THE FRONT DOOR, OPEN THE FRONT DOOR!!!!” I think he wants me to open the front door, I thought to myself, staring like a moth attracted to the flames. Mike successfully carried the walk the front porch while the black smoke brought involuntary tears to his eyes.

Ok, situation under control. Fire damage to house, no damage. Hot oil on our bodies, no scaring. Hot oil spilled on plastic linoleum floor, no melting. Fresh shrimp for dinner, well, no. Disaster averted, not yet. Yes, the fire was out and the incinerated shrimp boiling in hot lava was cooling on the front porch, but the kitchen was engulfed in smoke. Time for action, Mom and Dad could not find out what happened or we would never see the light of day again. Well, I would, but Mike would definitely not. We raced to open the house, windows, sliding glass doors, garage door, any thing we could open to get air flow. Once we felt safe the laughing started, for two hours as we tried to clear the house of smoke, the only evidence.

We actually thought we had pulled it off as we ate whatever leftovers Mom had provided for us that night. We giggled as we watched TV and ate, sure that we had pulled it off. If we could only compose ourselves, we were like criminals hoping to calm down before interrogation. I’m sure Mike was thinking that I was the only thing keeping him from getting into trouble. “I hope Paul can stand up against Mom’s cross examination.”

Nervously we heard the car drive up the driveway as the headlights shone across the kitchen table. Stay cool, no problem, this is it, keep a straight face, all we had to do was act like nothing happened. Steps clicking up the walkway, we did it, steady. Voices, the key in the lock, we were the smartest kids in the world, invincible.

Our eyes bulged as we stared at each other, our hopes crushed, our crime exposed as we heard Mom’ voice, “What is my wok doing on the front porch?!?!?!?”


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

You're Chicken

Congratulations to our first questions sent in my Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous, I’m not sure which. I always like to have a sauce, or something to slather my chicken in, whether it is bbq, sweet and sour, a buerre blanc or something a little more out there. When I season my chicken for grilling, roasting, sautĂ©ing or baking I always use a little sea salt and cracked peppercorns. If I am going to rub my chicken down in spices I might use some dried mustard or dried chilies if I am going to finish it with a little sauce or salsa.
Purchase dark chili powder, which is ok. If you want to make your own I would buy a combination of ancho chili, chipotle, and pasilla peppers. Pick out the seeds, toast them in the oven to dry them out and increase the complexity of flavors and then grind them down with a food processor with a little garlic and cinnamon, put them in the oven to dry out and grind a second time. Repeat grinding and toasting until the chili mix becomes a powder and is dry. You can keep this in you pantry and bring it out later when you want to use it again. It’s got some heat, but it’s tasty with hints of leather and tobacco, also great for steaks, fish or lamb and will become even bolder when you grill with it. Rub this on prior to grilling, and serve it with some fresh pico de gallo, or grilled pineapple salsa, yum. Grill some pineapple, let it cool, dice it up and add diced jalapenos, fresh cilantro leaves, lime juice and diced red pepper, season with a little salt and pepper and chili flakes. Let me know what you think.

Monday, November 3, 2008

What do I do with all these herbs and spices?

Spices and herbs have always been used in cooking; the trick is to know how to use them. Herbs by definition are leaves of fresh or dried plants. Spices are the aromatic parts of plants; they can be buds, the fruit, berries, the roots or bark. Spices are usually dried and typically come from tropical regions, but not always. A plant can be used in the production of either herbs or spices, or both. For example; as with cilantro, the leaves, and coriander, the ground seeds, are from the same plant.
There are great books that are solely devoted to cooking herbs and spices too. My advice on using spices that you are unfamiliar with is to write me a note under comments on a specific herb or spice and I will research it for you. If you would like to know what to rub down on a steak or if you bought some great curry powder and aren’t sure what to do with it, let me know and I will help you work it out and we can share the information and outcome with the other readers.
So you have this “private” chef at your disposal, it’s your turn to let me know what your interested in and what you want to learn to do better in your kitchen.