Monday, November 30, 2009

Perception. Reality.

For the record, I am absolutely against baked goods that come out of a cannister. By this I mean anything in the refrigerated dough section. I am so morally opposed to the idea of pre-made crescent rolls, buttermilk biscuits, and cookie dough that I find myself breaking a fine, adrenalin-induced sweat of rage just thinking that there is an entire section in the grocery story devoted to faux dough.

Which is why it pains me to tell you that this morning, I made Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls. My memory served me well; in raw form, they do look like scraped knees that have scabbed over. And, to make matters infinitely worse, I ate one. It was a crusty chemical bomb frosted with white goop scraped out of a plastic tub. This morning at 7:36 AM, I experienced one of the lowest points in my life, even lower than throwing up Spaghettio's in the back seat of the car when I was 7.

I did it to prove a point. For years, my husband has been having a memory-driven love affair with Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls. These things happen. For years, I had a memory-driven tryst with my grandmother's potato soup. Then one day, I made it for myself, exactly the way she used to make it. Up until that point, I didn't know it was possible for something to taste like a vaguely grainy bowl of nothing. It - the memory, that is - was good while it lasted.

Food memories aren't just about food. They're about circumstance - when did you eat the item in memory question? Were you wearing your pajamas? Were you watching TV at the time, maybe The Sonny and Cher Show or Creature Features? Did your grandparents let you stay up late while you were eating said memory item? Was your brother not punching you while you were eating the item? All these things greatly enhance the memory.

As for the cinnamon rolls, my husband told the truth. They're ok, he acknowledged. Not great, just ok. My daughter, on the other hand, loved them. Loved Them. Greatest thing ever. Greater than the greatest macaroni and cheese, the greatest pizza, but maybe not greater than the greatest chocolate cupcake. That one needs further thought. Could it be a food memory has been born?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The perfect thanksgiving. No, really.

I like thanksgiving well enough, but maybe it's time for a change. I've made the same meal - more or less - for years. I shop with my eyes closed, pull out the same stained recipes, usually add a new one just to keep it interesting for me, and then start chopping mindlessly. Today, my mojo is waning.

Maybe it's time to pull out the popcorn, the jelly beans, the buttered toast and the pretzels. In the history of Thanksgiving meals, I know of no other that is so inspiring, such a patriotic head nod to the Pilgrim experience. Besides, if it's good enough for Charlie Brown and his comrades, it's good enough for me and my in-law's.

Oh, I'm sure once they got their first look at the popcorn (which I already know I would serve in demitasse cups with a little gray sea salt), they'd think I'd finally lost my mind. Just as they had suspected. Someone at the table would reach for his Blackberry, presumably to locate the name of a good divorce lawyer to pass on to my husband. There would be a general sense of amused disdain, and a few "I told you so's." And then someone would say, "Ok, where's the food?"

But I think they might start to soften once the pretzels and buttered toast arrive, artfully arranged on our good wedding china. The jelly beans would serve as the palate cleanser - the trou normand - an inspired trio of Bubble Gum, Top Banana, and Tutti Frutti flavors. I'm anticipating a real conversion at this point, and some affirmative head nodding.

I'd then serve a flight of grape juice and a deconstructed bologna sandwich to make the meal my own, and follow it with le sundae. I would tell the in-law's that this meal is what everyone who is anyone is eating, which is why Sam Kass, the White House chef, is making it for the Obama's. I might add that Graham Elliott, and his bistronomic Chicago restaurant, is charging $275 for a trumped up version (truffle oil is used liberally, I hear), and people are actually paying.

I would wear my chef's coat and black kitchen shoes for credibility. I think they might just buy it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

If it ain't broke

When it comes to cooking, I have a severe case of ADHD. I bounce around from recipe to recipe and rarely make the same one twice, with the exception of this one. It doesn't require any hard-to-find ingredients, except maybe the apple brandy which, if you ask me, provides the perfect Julia Child sip-of-the-cooking-sherry opportunity.

In any event, here it is, the holy grail of turkey recipes.

Cider-Basted Turkey with Roasted Apple Gravy

1 cup apple cider
1/4 cup Calvados or other apple brandy (or more cider if you're in recovery)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. dried rubbed sage
3/4 tsp. cinnamon

10 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, 2 cut into quarters, 8 cut into 8 slices each
1 large onion, sliced
6 fresh thyme sprigs
8 large sage leaves

1 15 - 16 pound turkey (I usually buy a 12 pounder and the recipe works fine)
1/2 stick butter, room temperature

1 cup (or more) water

2 cups chicken broth (if using canned, use the reduced salt variety)
1/4 cup apple cider
2 Tbs. cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and position rack in the bottom third of the oven. Haul out the roasting pan.

For the turkey, combine the 1 cup apple cider, Calvados, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, and sage in a small saucepan. Add 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Bring liquid to a boil and set aside.

Mix 2 quartered apples, onion, thyme, sage leaves and 1/4 tsp. cinnamon in a large bowl.

Rinse the turkey inside and out, and pat dry. Salt and pepper the main cavity and then spoon the apple mixture inside. Tuck wing tips under turkey and tie the legs together. Rub turkey breast and legs with butter. Pour half of the now cool basting liquid over the turkey. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast turkey for 30 minutes. Pour remaining basting liquid over turkey. Roast 2 hours, basting frequently with pan juices. Add 1 cup or more of water to pan if the juices evaporate. Add all the apple slices to pan juices around turkey. Cover turkey loosely with foil to keep it from browning too quickly.

Continue to roast until apples are tender, turkey is deep brown and thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 175 degrees, about 1 hour 30 minutes longer.

An important note - at this point, use your good judgment, a turkey thermometer - and not the clock - as to the doneness of the turkey. A turkey is like a child - it's done when it's done, and not a minute sooner.

Transfer the turkey to a platter or cutting board and tent it with foil. Let rest for 25 - 30 minutes.

The Gravy
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the apples to a bowl. Pour the pan juices into a 4 cup measuring cup. Spoon off the fat and discard. Add enough chicken broth to pan juices to to measure 4 cups. Transfer broth mixture to a large saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes. Optionally, add the reserved apples and simmer for 2 minutes more (I usually leave the apples out, but some might like the addition to the gravy). Mix apple cider and cornstarch in a small bowl. Whisk into the gravy. Boil until gravy thickens, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and voila!

An addendum: Just read about a cool addition to this: drape bacon slices on top of the turkey breast and then wrap it in cider-soaked cheesecloth before you through it in the oven. Continue basting as directed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

No apologies

As I sit here on the eve of Thanksgiving week, I think back fondly to the bountiful Thanksgiving dinners of my childhood. The Stove Top stuffing, the cranberry sauce out of a can, and the many Butterball turkeys, the highlight of which was the popping of the celebratory "ready" cork indicating that yes, this turkey will indeed be as dry and awful as the rest of them.

My mother was not a cook. As luck would have it, my step-father was not an eater. Stove Top stuffing was the culinary highlight of his year, and he would sandwich it between two slices of heavily buttered Wonder bread for a delightfully squishy bread-on-bread experience.

On a good Thanksgiving, the most we could expect was good timing. The beans and the stuffing and the turkey would all arrive more or less at the same time. On a bad Thanksgiving, it was an hours long affair as we waited for the beans (which had the misfortune of looking not just limp but actually dead), followed by the mashed potatoes ten minutes later. The turkey would make an entrance fifteen minutes after that, and the gravy not long after. All other edibles, or inedibles, as it were - parker house rolls from a bag, something mushy and orange with blackened marshmallows, an odd bowl of canned Mexicali corn - trickled out of the kitchen, sometimes accompanied by smoke, or a loud exclamation of disappointment (e.g. "Shit!!") from my mother. All this was followed by the grand finale - a cold pumpkin pie in a foil pie pan with a tub of Cool Whip and instructions to "help yourself."

I always thought everyone else ate like we did, but as it turns out, other mothers cooked. People ate real food. Vegetables even. I was the Twinkie girl whose mom handed her a $5 bill and said, "Go grab some dinner at Wendy's."

Now, I make my own. Thanksgiving dinner is the one meal I cook in its entirety each year, from appetizers and turkey with gravy to many side dishes and multiple desserts. I change it up every year, never serve anything with marshmallows, and always use the same holy grail turkey recipe. I'll pass it on tomorrow. It's time tested, and makes such delicious gravy, I might put it in a demitasse and sip it whilst gazing at a crackling fire with a purring cat at my feet.

As for thanksgivings past, my stepfather always had a peanut butter sandwich right after the meal, and then some cold KFC and a butter and Stove Top sandwich a few hours later. It was a day with no apologies.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My final resting place

I can't quite decide if I want my ashes scattered in the produce section at the Super H Mart, right next to the galangal, or in the meat department, between the black chicken and the lamb livers. They could also sprinkle me next to the wall of kimchi. Either way, this is where I want to spend eternity. In an Asian grocery store.

It's no secret that I like grocery shopping better than any other kind of shopping - shoe included. I can vividly remember specific grocery stores in my life, how they were laid out, what the donuts from their in-house bakery tasted like, whether they had frozen green apple juice, where the bathrooms were. It's a quirk.

But Super H Mart isn't a mere grocery store. It's mecca. An Asian food superstore the size of one of those megachurches with 80,000 members and seats for every single one of them. I was going to list all the sections, tell you about the strange and unappealing meats section and the section devoted entirely to housemade kimchi, and the frozen seafood section which could easily take on the Shedd Aquarium in the number of species represented. But then I realized that would require chapters. Volumes even. Super H Mart is spectacular in its spectacularness. Here's a taste.

The massive produce department has not one kind of hairy fruit, but several. What does that tell you?

Galangal, a citrus-y, earthy tasting root that looks like a gigantic prehistoric earthworm.

Banana flowers (the brown, bulbous pods) and something else, I can't remember.

The Wall of Kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage).

Shrimp with the heads on. Anyone up for a little tempura?

Bins of slimy fish and squid.

Really cheap blue crabs looking for a chance to escape.

Black chicken. No, it's not rotted. It comes from a species of chicken called a Silkie. The flesh and bones are dark blue, and they're known for their calm, friendly temperament, which probably comes in handy at slaughter time.

The food court! With Korea, China, and Japan represented, do I really need to ever go anywhere else?

The alphabetized snack aisle - here, we have the P's.

Super H Mart is located off Oakton, near Waukegan in Niles. If you're going, call me. I'll meet you there for lunch.

Friday, November 6, 2009

189 cookbooks

Heidi Swanson's Broccoli Soup from 101 Cookbooks.

I hate it when someone else comes up with the brilliant idea that you were supposed to come up with, but didn't. And you know it when you hear it. You think to yourself, that's totally my idea. Only, it's not your idea, it's their idea, and they're running with it.

101 Cookbooks. That's the brilliant idea I was supposed to have, but didn't. A woman named Heidi Swanson (she's cute and blond and interesting and a food photographer and a world traveler) was on her way out to buy yet another cookbook 6 years ago when she realized she had way too many cookbooks to be buying yet another one (me, totally). So she started poring through all her old cookbooks (me, totally) and decided to start a blog, her own personal recipe file that she would share with the world (could have been me, totally).

I have 189 cookbooks. And that was at last count, which I'm sure has grown because I, too, have a "problem" when it comes to buying cookbooks. Just ask my husband. I read them like novels, particularly at the dinner table when I'm supposed to be having meaningful conversation with my family.

The irony of all this is, the recipes aren't technically Heidi's, at least according to her. She's hawking someone else's ideas, and getting the ad dollars for them. Maybe I should start 189 Cookbooks, and just hawk Heidi's recipes, which are really other people's recipes, and get my own ad dollars. Hey, we're all trying to make a buck.

Just so you don't think I'm full of sour grapes today, I recommend you stop by 101 Cookbooks and have a look see. I already found a recipe I'm going to try: spinach rice gratin, which sounds like the perfect side dish for Thanksgiving. Even though Heidi calls it a gratin, we all know it's really just a casserole. Whatever.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Men in hats

My father didn't have nearly this much gravitas when he wore his Greek fisherman's cap back in the 70's. Probably because he also carried a man purse and wore bell bottoms. He looked like a tiny Eurometrosexual Jew with a big black moustache, headed to a Mykonos disco.

Say hello to the seventh member of the Village People.

I blame The Parthenon for his Greek transformation. We ate there almost weekly, and as a result, my father became bff's with the owners. That's when he started wearing the cap. It was as if he'd finally met his people.

We went there last night, the whole family, for the man's 77th birthday. I hadn't been there in a while. They've repainted the walls with murals of the Greek countryside, and added a few decorative columns. Doric? Ionic? Corinthian? We obviously learned nothing in 5th grade social studies.

Much like 40 years ago, we ate touristy Greek salads, dolmades and the insides of the seeded loaves of bread. We shielded our hair from the flames of the saganaki. And we ate lamb. Wait a minute. No, we didn't. 40 years of clogged arteries and heart attacks meant that everybody ordered fish instead. Except my 9 year old son, who could be seen gnawing on a Fred Flintstone lamb chop in the corner. He was the only one truly enjoying himself.

The meal ended with the longest speech in history, made by my father, who gave up his fisherman's cap years ago. We left before it was over because the aforementioned 9 year old had school the next day. But it would not surprise me a bit if the old man was still standing there tonight, glass of roditys in hand, waiting for a whole new audience. When you're the kind of guy who wears a Greek fisherman's cap and carries a man purse, you have a lot of stories to tell.