Monday, November 27, 2006

no longer a turkey virgin

Everyone told me not to worry when I announced that I was apprehensive about preparing my first Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family and my in-laws. "The turkey's easy," they reassured me. "It won't be a big deal. Just throw it in the oven and don't let it dry out." Well, they were half right. Roasting the turkey isn't a big deal. But menu planning for the big day, coordinating the sides and desserts which needed to be cooked in the same oven as the turkey, discovering on Wednesday that the turkey is too small for ten people but it's too late to buy and thaw a new one, dealing with gross stuff inside the turkey, setting the table, and thoroughly cleaning the house, all when I've been visiting Grandma out of state--well, that's the big deal.

I do like the way the table turned out, with our wedding china and Nana's silver and a big bowl of oranges and cranberries. Each place setting had its own individual bouquet of sage leaves from our vegetable garden! (And you can't tell from this photo that the tablecloth was too short once we put all the table leaves in.)

The turkey saga: After consulting with my mother and mother-in-law, I bought a boneless turkey breast and roasted it the day before to make sure that we had enough meat. That wasn't difficult. Choosing a recipe to use for the big bird, though, was more challenging. I immediately eliminated anything involving brining, grilling, deep frying, or bags--I wanted a turkey like the ones my mom makes. Simple. Crispy skin. Moist white meat. After narrowing it down to three recipes, I opted for parts of each: Lis' recommended turkey with herbs, jettisoning its shiitake mushroom gravy in favor of a giblet-stock gravy from the Gourmet cookbook, then jettisoning the moderately fussy roasting directions in favor of those accompanying this ridiculously easy recipe. So basically, I took a little turkey, rubbed it with oil and fresh herbs from the garden, then placed more herbs, leeks from the garden, an orange, and a lemon in the cavity, and roasted it at 450 for a couple of hours. The house filled with smoke, but the meat was moist and everything smelled good! Then my cousin Julie's husband Jerimy (Mr. Tart's friend from high school who served as his best man) helped me make the gravy:

The gravy saga: So the day before Thanksgiving I decided to prepare the stock for the gravy. This is a step my mother never takes, but it sounded like a good idea. I wasn't looking forward to fondling the giblets, but I knew enough to expect to find them. (Others have told me stories about pulling little baggies of innards out of their turkeys at the table, surprised.) What I wasn't prepared for was the neck. The turkey neck. I reached into the cavity to pull out the bag of giblets but instead found this long, fleshy, pallid, phallic thing that stretched the entire length of the bird. I pulled and pulled, and it kept coming and coming. Nowhere on the package does it say "One frozen turkey, giblets and repulsive neck included." Nope, the neck is never mentioned anywhere, just the giblets. But I tell you what: once I added that grossest part of the turkey anatomy to the hot oil, it started to smell like Thanksgiving.

The next step was to add the giblets. Following Gourmet's recipe carefully, I read that I shouldn't include the liver because it will make the gravy bitter. Fair enough--but the little baggie of innards isn't labeled! Nowhere on the turkey package or in the cookbook is a diagram explaining which organ is which! I thought about Googling "turkey liver" to find some pictures, but decided to wing it. "Hmmm. These two identically-shaped organs connected by a little tendon have to be the kidneys, because there's two of them, and this small triangular one must be the heart." So far so good--but that left two large amorphous organs that, frankly, frightened me. One liver, one gizzard--and I didn't even know what a gizzard was. So I chucked the darkest one and continued on. (Julie, a nurse, later told me that I did end up throwing out the liver after all!) Giblets went into the hot oil along with veggies and herbs, and a couple of hours later I had a rich stock--so much nicer than anything I've ever poured out of a can.

The rest of the meal came together pretty smoothly, despite the smoke in the house from the high-heat roasting and the fact that with 60-degree weather here in Colorado, mulled wine and mulled cider didn't feel right. (We served sparkling cider and Cranberry Mimosas instead. For the latter, take a big glass, pour in 1/3 cup cranberry juice, 1/3 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup champagne, and garnish with cranberries and an orange slice.) I think the only reason I survived prepping this meal, though, was that all our guests brought sides to share.

What I found really neat about the sharing was seeing what each side of the family wanted to have at Thanksgiving dinner--what overlapped, what stood out, what was new. We started with purposefully light appetizers at noon: crudites, clementines, and popcorn (you know, because it was served at the first Thanksgiving!). This was new: I put them out because I was skeptical that the turkey would actually be ready when it was supposed to be, and because sometimes I think that appetizers are my favorite meal. Julie brought green bean casserole, which she and I both grew up with, while my sister-in-law Elizabeth contributed peas with chives and pine nuts, also a new recipe. I modified my mom's cranberry sauce to make it chunkier. My mother-in-law brought her famous yeast rolls, which my husband and brother-in-law drool over, while Jerimy brought his mother's cardamom braided bread. We didn't really need mashed potatoes, because we already had two breads, two stuffings, and sweet potatoes, but you know, it just doesn't seem Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes and gravy. I gave in to Mr. Tart's request not to include celery in the stuffing--though that still seems heretical--and at the last minute divided the stuffing into two baking dishes, so that I could add toasted pecans and dried fruit (cherries, cranberries, apples) to one of them, paying tribute to the fact that I grew up in the south (so in fact, we should really call that one "dressing," the southern term, instead of "stuffing"). Speaking of the sweet potatoes, aren't they gorgeous? My mother-in-law mixed them with eggs and pineapple and spooned them into hollowed-out oranges--another new dish.

Our most atypical dish, though, was the elk loin that Julie's son Luke, 16, recently hunted. She grew up in Wisconsin eating game that her father brought home, so her family fits right in to Wyoming. Jerimy also grew up hunting, so the elk combined traditions from their two families. Here's Luke grilling it on our deck (no more room in the oven!):

Dessert was another recommendation from Lis, Chocolate Cranberry Tart, which I added to my repetoire last year, and Nana's cranberry pudding, a light cake with cranberries with a warm silky sauce made from butter, cream, and sugar, yet another part of our extended family's holiday traditions. (Julie's mom and my mom were sisters; Nana was their mother. And as long as I'm reminiscing, I remember the summer thirteen years ago when Julie told Nana that she was going to be a great-grandmother again; Julie was pregnant with her daughter Kelley. That was the last time I saw Nana--but I can't help but think of her often, as my husband proposed to me with her engagement ring, which I still wear today.)

Notice too the wine; we brought it back to Colorado from our trip to California for Tara's wedding. It's a white cabernet that we tasted at one of the vineyards (Filsinger) and really fell for. We'd been saving it for a special occasion--and our first time hosting Thanksgiving for our families certainly was.

Oh, and the other new thing that we had at Thanksgiving? That would be our nephew Carl. We've got lots to be thankful for. (He's in the half-hidden high chair at the right.)

Friday, November 24, 2006

pie day

A couple of months ago, Will and I were talking about Thanksgiving plans and he suggested we go out of town--hiking or something. I paused for a moment, trying to decide whether I should tell him what I was actually thinking (could I reveal what a food dork I truly am?) and said a bit sheepishly, "But Thanksgiving is when I bake pies." He laughed and I tried to argue that I didn't really care that much about baking pie, but he didn't buy it. (I later told a friend about the conversation and as soon as I mentioned Will's trip suggestion, she interrupted with: "Does he even know you?). Well, he's learning.

I do love baking pie. And Thanksgiving makes me a bit giddy because I get to bake a lot of pie. My mom initially suggested that she could make the pumpkin pies, but I eventually convinced her to let me bake everything. This year's pie tally:

Ginger streusel pumpkin (2)
your every day pumpkin (2)
chocolate pecan
linzer torte

Yeah, seven pies might have been a little excessive (and makes for a very messy kitchen, as Will felt compelled to document), but everyone got to take home leftovers. But really, I wait all year for an excuse to bake more pies than necessary.

For me, it's all about the crust. I love working out all the details--keeping the house cold, icing the water, chilling the final product so that all the tiny clumps of fat melt at just the right time to create savory, flaky layers. It's like magic or something. Ok, I also like the reaction I get when people eat my pies--a teacher near the end of a semester needs a little positive affirmation, right?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

my baby's all grown up

The hardest thing about Jim Lahey's no-knead bread -- the recipe that's taken the food blog world by storm in the past few weeks -- is that it's not about instant gratification. You're looking at about a 24-hour turnaround period between mixing your dough and taking your finished bread out of the oven. But oh, oh, the payoff. I can't believe this came out of my kitchen. Seriously.

Here's my dough at the beginning, in its initial sticky, shaggy stage:

And after 18 hours of fermentation, it's alive and kickin':

I wish I'd gotten a picture of how stretchy and stringy the dough was when I inverted that bowl to drop it onto my work surface. That was some serious gluten! Here it is after turning it over on itself a couple times and left to rest briefly before the final rise:

And, here we are, ready for the final 2-hour rise. I had read on Chowhound that some people were having problems with this very slack dough sticking to their floured towels, so I went nuts with the flour and cornmeal. I had no problems with sticking, luckily.

And after two hours, it's ready to go into the oven:

Success! Here's Mark listening to the crust crackle as the bread cools. It sounds a bit like a bowl of Rice Krispies, or perhaps like a crackling fire:

Let's have a closer look, shall we? This is the most beautiful bread that's ever come from my kitchen. I didn't think it was possible to do this kind of bread at home. Jim Lahey, you are a genius!

And the final test, of course: Let's take a look at the crumb structure. Gorgeous, no?

If I'm not careful, we'll eat this whole loaf tonight. Who needs dinner?

fulfilling Grandma's expectations

Now that I'm married, my 92-year-old grandmother treats me differently. Now I am a Wife. When we talk on the phone, she asks me when my husband will get home from work, if he's going up in the space shuttle any time soon (hey, she's 92, and to her, an "aerospace systems engineer" is the same thing as "astronaut"), what I'm fixing him for dinner, how I'm going to set the table, when we're going to start making babies. Once, very pleased with my dutiful responses, she exclaimed, "You're such a good little housewife!" But, see, she used to ask me about my job, my hobbies, if I've heard from my brother lately, if I'm planning any more trips to France. It's as if now that I'm married my role as Wife supersedes everything else and my husband should be the focus of our conversations--even though I still have a job, volunteer work, hobbies, news of my brother, and travel plans. So I take deep breaths, remind myself that she's of a very different generation than my own, answer her questions, and then tell her about my job and everything else going on in my life, even if she didn't ask.

When I decided to visit her for four days before Thanksgiving, I didn't realize that rather than remind her that I'm a multi-faceted young woman with many skills and interests who just happens to be married (to the most wonderful Rocket Man ever), my visit would instead reinforce the fact that I'm married and domestic now.

Grandma lives independently but doesn't do much cooking any more--because of shoulder problems she can't lift pots and pans, and a couple of times she's fallen asleep while food was cooking on the stove. This is so sad to me--I remember her glorious meals of fried chicken, cream gravy, mashed potoates, beans cooked in bacon grease, homemade apple pies. Even as recently as ten years ago she would mail me care packages of chocolate chip cookies. But now all she can handle on her own is heating up canned soup or frozen meals, making grilled cheese sandwiches, and that sort of thing. She received Meals on Wheels for a while but pooh-poohed the food and wouldn't eat it, so her kids cancelled that service. They're worried now that she doesn't eat enough now, specifically not enough protein and vegetables.

So I promised to cook a few meals for us during my visit. This took significant planning, as she would never dream of eating, say, portabello mushrooms, couscous, most seafood, Mexican dishes--anything mildly exotic or simply different from the meat-and-potatoes that she grew up and grew old with. In other words, most of my recipes were out. I also wanted to find dishes which didn't require equipment any more specialized than a can opener, whose leftovers would freeze and reheat well later, and which were easy to prepare, so that I wouldn't be spending half of my visit in the kitchen.

Here's what I ended up with:
Chicken with apples and onions
Broccoli in cheese sauce
Hash brown casserole
Turkey bacon and onion quiche
Cherry crumble
Scrambled eggs and turkey bacon

See? Heavy on the protein, just like my aunt requested.

Well, everything I prepared was a success. She was wary of the some of the ingredients, like apples with chicken--even though I pointed out that this combination wasn't that different from turkey with cranberries--and of the foreign character of the quiche, but she politely tried everything I put on her plate. And then took seconds. And then called up her friends and her children--and my husband--to tell them what a good cook I was and how delicious chicken and apples are together!

We had a genuinely good time. She kept me company while I chopped and sauteed and roasted, laughed uproariously when I tried to put a baking dish into the preheated oven only to discover that that's where she stores her cookie sheets and cast iron skillets, and asked for the recipes. So even though I basically cemented her image of me as a paragon of domesticity, she's satisfied that I can run a kitchen and feed my husband--and she even ate some vegetables.

Chicken Roasted on a Bed of Apples and Onions

2 apples, cored and thinly sliced
2 onions, thinly sliced
salt and pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 chicken breast halves
2 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the apples and onions in large bowl with salt, pepper, and one Tbsp oil. Transfer to baking dish. Roast 25 minutes, stirring once. Beat chicken with meat mallet or heavy pan to flatten them to an even thickness. Add chicken to pan. Sprinkle with one Tbsp oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Roast about 30 minutes until tender. Place some of apple-onion mixture on each plate and top with chicken. Serves 4. (Recipe adapted from Rocky Mountain News.)

Ridiculously Easy Cherry Crumble

16 oz package frozen unsweetened pitted cherries
1 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp water
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups crushed shortbread cookies (leave some as chunks)

Place cherries, sugar, and water in a pie plate and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, top with cookie crumbs, and bake 10 more minutes. Serves four if you stretch it with ice cream on top (I like it with dulce de leche or cherry with chocolate chunks). Otherwise make a double recipe! (Recipe adapted from one of the Moosewood cookbooks--I think.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

salt caramel ice cream

This morning, a friend directed my attention to this recipe over at Orangette for salt caramel ice cream. (Thanks, Shirin!) I had all the ingredients on hand, so I gave it a shot. I've had bad luck with caramel in the past, but wow, this was good. The ice cream didn't get quite as solid as I would have liked, but that's probably my fault. You're generally supposed to chill an ice cream mixture for several hours before putting it in the ice cream machine, but I always get impatient and give up after about an hour. I want ice cream NOW!

And my other exciting food news today is that my dutch oven arrived. This is the handle on the lid -- isn't it pretty?

Anyway, now that this is here, I can start my bread! Right now the dough is about five hours into its 18-hour rise. Will post pictures tomorrow.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

a Thanksgiving eve tradition

When Mr. Tart and I were in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving with my family last year, we learned of--and participated in--my cousins' annual pre-Thanksgiving celebration: Miles Standish Day. Apparently on the day before Thanksgiving, Miles Standish met with some Native American leaders for a meal and some important discussionsl; the menu was steak. As a result, my cousins and their families always go out for a big steak dinner on Thanksgiving Eve. They drink beer, dig into huge filets, and toast Miles Standish.

I suspect that this tradition originated as an excuse to eat steak before a week of turkey and its infinite leftovers. Although Google returns nearly 3000 results for a search for Miles Standish and steak, none of them appear to document this so-called historic red meat event. Does that matter to my family? No. Does it make their tradition even funnier because of the lack of authenticity? Of course!

So, therefore, in the spirit of my wacky cousins, I charge all readers of Three Tarts to help perpetuate this tradition. Have yourself a steak for dinner on Wednesday--or at least a burger--and toast Miles Standish. Bon appetit.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

pigs in a blanket--all grown up

The other night Will and I somehow got talking about pigs in the blanket and he came up with the genius idea of giving the piggies an update, a little more sophistication (just another reason to love the guy): black pepper biscuits and tasty Colisimo's chicken and fennel sausage (a local company). Believe me this was an improvement from the vienna sausages and Pillsbury biscuits of my childhood.

(um, just ignore the messy kitchen table in the background)

The dinner was sort of for Will's b-day, but we've been celebrating since Friday. I am already a firm believer in Birthday Week (best to make the fun last a while) and since my birthday is a week after Will's, I can now justify a full two weeks of birthday celebrations. Soon I might be able to figure out a way to get a month! The birthday fortnight started off with a deliciously dense chocolate cake from our new favorite bakery, Les Madeleines. Les Madeleines makes the best vanilla cupcakes I have ever tasted and with every cup of coffee they give you a tiny orange madeleine. The bakery is also located in a place you'd never expect to find delicate pastries: a street dominated by bars and pawn shops. Will's parents order him a cake every year, so this year he suggested Les Madeleines (who knew it would cost $60?!). The cake was heavy and dense, covered in a thick ganache and decorated with chocolate covered crisped rice. The trick to this cake is eating it in very small pieces. But we're doing pretty well--nearly half way finished.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I'm considering buying a cast-iron pot just for this

Dare I believe the hype? The good folks at Metafilter are frothing at the mouth over a shockingly easy, supposedly foolproof breadmaking method recently covered in this New York Times story. Cliff's Notes version: Very, very wet dough; a long proofing stage; no kneading at all; and baking in a heavy enamel or cast-iron pot with a lid.

Why the covered pot? As you probably know, the type of oven most of us have in our homes just can't produce that elusive crackling crust of a great loaf. I've tried spraying the oven walls with water during baking, but to no avail. The covered pot apparently supplies the moisture that the pros' fancy ovens do. So as soon as I can find the appropriate cookware, I'm giving this a shot.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

rice pudding

I was in the mood for some comfort food that would be friendly to a discombobulated stomach, so I tried Deborah Madison's recipes for rice pudding and dried fruits poached in wine. Both are slow-cooked with a vanilla bean, a cinnamon stick, and some lemon zest. So, needless to say, the house smelled wonderful. Delicious while still warm, and even better straight from the fridge for breakfast this morning.

Also: This crazy fractal vegetable is too pretty to eat (courtesy of DCist).

Monday, November 06, 2006

a visit to the farm

Last Saturday I spent the day planting garlic up at Sun River Farm, the farm where all of my lovely CSA vegetables are grown. I've been meaning to volunteer up there all summer, so when my friend Gavin suggested that we join a volunteer outing coordinated by Denise, owner of One World Cafe (a local restaurant with no set menu that runs on donations), I quickly agreed.

Sun River is in Cache Valley about an hour and a half north of Salt Lake, near some very lovely mountains. The Haggertys have a small garden at their home and a larger farm closer to the mountains. We did our planting at the garden: 6400 cloves, about 1/8 of the total planting for the year. The cloves look lovely in their tidy rows, don't you think?

It was a good way to spend a day--in the dirt, separating bulbs of garlic from their papery skins, dropping the plump cloves evenly down the line. I learned a little about how to make garlic grow (should I ever have my own plot of land). I learned why James decided to become a farmer. It's a long story, but part of it includes a love of food (when he quits farming, he wants to go to culinary school); I wasn't surprised--anyone who grows garlic and tomatoes like he does must love food. I told him that he grows the best garlic in the state, but he wouldn't accept the compliment. (There are other growers with very nice garlic, he says). But I still think his is the best. And now, of course, I think it's all the better because of my fabulous planting skills.

On the way home, Denise observed that there was a full moon, telling us how her grandmother only planted garlic on a full moon because it would grow best. We'll see if our eighteen rows grow better than the others.