Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010




















Started with another experiment with cranberries. Although I've always preferred canned jellied cranberry sauce, I decided to make some homemade this year -- something I hadn't done in about three decades. So I went to my favorite food sites, passed up Emeril's mess with Port wine and a bunch of spices, and opted for the Whole Foods recipe -- simpler in flavor and just what I was looking for. Just boil some water, orange juice, and sugar; add a bag of berries; cook ten minutes; add grated orange rind; then cool and chill. It was pretty cool watching those beautiful berries pop and burst while I was stirring them, then seeing the mixture kind of congeal into a nice jar of preserves (well, two jelly jars) that my daughter said was great on toast the next day. Anyhow, surprisingly, it was a big hit at Thanksgiving dinner.


Having learned a couple of decades ago -- the year I decided to make a gourmet chestnut stuffing for the turkey -- that the family does not like me to mess with our standard menu, I also had the canned cranberry sauce on the table. And, not surprisingly, nine-year-old grandson Grant said he still liked that better. As to the stuffing, I still make my mother's version, which consists of half Pepperidge cornbread stuffing mix and half Pepperidge herbed cubed mix (made according to package directions) , with a lot of chopped onion, celery, parsley. I rarely use processed foods, but that's one I do swear by.


My other experiment was to try a decorative edge on the pumpkin pie (and I can't beat the Libby's canned pumpkin label recipe there), by cutting little leaves with cookie cutters, and arranging them along the crust, which I'd trimmed to the edge of the pie plate. It was just okay, but it seems that if I'd pointed the leaves more inward than outward, they wouldn't have curled over the side of the plate. So this was only half successful. And, okay, I have to admit that this is once more of the few instances where I use a manufactured product: store-bought piecrust. Even though I make my own tart and cobbler crusts, it's just so easy to make pumpkin pie like this when there's so much else to do.



Rounding out the usual fare were mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, a scalloped squash and green bean casserole, and lots and lots of wonderful, rich, brown gravy made from the tons of drippings produced by the big 20-pound bird. (Poor guy looks a little disreputable in the photo; daughter photographed him from the side where we'd wiggled the leg for doneness. The expensive new instant digital thermometer didn't work at all; the bird would have dried out to nothing if I'd gone by that.) Leftovers galore for everybody this year, thanks to Costco's early selling-out of the smaller birds.


For the table, I kept it simple: small white pumpkins and some odd-looking little ears of dried corn from Publix with a fall garland I found in a closet. And I used wicker chargers instead of a tablecloth this year. Getting gravy and berry stains out of a cloth is becoming a bore -- as is ironing a large cloth. Lazy with napkins, too. They are of no-iron fabric, folded in a leaf shape.


Is is just me, or is it impossible with blogger to place photos where you want them?



















Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who thinks up these strange food combos?


It looks so pretty, with its bright orange and green risotto served on squash wedges, but the flavors in this recipe from epicurious.com were totally disharmonious. We ate little and threw the rest out. Roasted butternut squash risotto with sage and spinach. The mixture of the sweet squash, the pungent Romano cheese, and the too-strong sage was pretty disgusting.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cooking stuff they don't make

Why doesn't Costco or Sam's have one of its manufacturers create a set of long-handled measuring spoons made to reach into those ginormous herb and spice jars they sell? And, while they're at it -- make long-handled measuring cups. Both spoons and cups should be oval in shape, and the cups should have tiny spouts for pouring (as in adding sugar gradually to meringue and oil to salad dressing).

Often I don't try out Asian recipes because of all those exotic sauces called for -- oyster sauce, fish sauce, black bean sauce, Siracha, and the like? So why doesn't somebody get smart and offer a sampler of small jars or bottles of all these Asian ingredients. I use Siracha and a couple of other Asian condiments once in a while, but those large bottles usually languish in the fridge until I'm afraid they're too old to use.

Asparagus is a popular vegetable. Why won't Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table create and market really pretty asparagus serving tongs -- maybe one in a contemporary design and another in a French country motif? There are plenty of asparagus serving platters around, but no matching tongs. If they really want to make money, they could make an attractive matching set.

Why, oh why, do they sell so much stark-white china? I want creamy-white dinner place settings -- just thick and plain with wide rims, restaurant style. But since I have a traditional home decor, I don't want a modern, white-white look on my table. If I order what I think I want from a restaurant supply house, I can't see it in person first, and I must order a minimum of two dozen plates, bowls, etc., then pay shipping costs that equal almost the price of the china. Still a bargain at that, but I want to see and touch them first to make sure they're what I want. I have eight ivory-colored wide-rimmed soup/pasta bowls that I bought for $2 apiece at an antique mall in Florida. They had been used by a restaurant, they're made in France, and they're wonderful -- no worse for the wear. I want plates like that.

More of this vent later . . . .

Sunday, November 21, 2010

An easy-peasy cranberry dessert



Just a couple of days after having this for lunch at a friend's home, I made this for tonight's dessert. It's termed a crustless pie, but it's actually more like a cake, and it just couldn't be easier or quicker to prepare. I love cranberries, but don't know many ways to use them, so this recipe fit the bill. Though I wouldn't normally associate almond flavor with cranberries, it works, though my husband noted that they don't really taste like cranberries in this desert. The recipe seems to have originated in a cookbook by Laurie Colwin.

Nantucket Cranberry Pie

Filling:
2 cups fresh cranberries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2 cups sugar
Crust:
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon almond extract

Spread the cranberries, walnuts and 1/2 cup sugar in the bottom of a 9- or 10-inch cake pie plate. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl to form a batter. Pour the batter over the cranberry mixture and bake in an oven preheated to 350 for around 40 or 45 minutes. Cool in the pan for a few minutes before serving with some whipped cream.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Asparagus footnotes

After a conversation with a German friend about asparagus, I felt compelled to look up a couple of points discussed and learned this: Europeans prefer white asparagus, which has a tougher outside and really needs to be peeled. I've never tried the white variety, which some consider far superior to the green, and must soon do so. Well, it's no wonder to me Germans like white asparagus; it matches their monochromatic meat-and-potatoes diet.

The other issue I researched is nutritive value. I started peeling the spears many years ago when a neighbor who had lived in Germany told me she had learned to do so there. Ironically, my Hamburgian friend told me that by peeling I was removing the most nutritious part of the plant. Not true, apparently, because actually most of the nutrition resides in the tips -- one reason cooking asparagus vertically in a special asparagus steamer is preferable to my method: laying the spears on a steamer insert in a large pot with about an inch of water. Does this mean, I wonder, that the nutrition passes to the stems if you steam it with tips up? However, if tender, peeled spears are cooked in a vertical position, are they vulnerable to breaking in the pot?

It's obvious that in retirement I have too much time to ponder such weighty matters. But maybe someone will read this and answer some of these questions. I was thrilled yesterday to discover one comment on one of my posts, and delighted to learn I'd provided some useful information on books to her. I usually assume I'm talking to myself here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fantastic Fiction!

OK, I'm really on a blogging roll tonight, but after this, I guess I'll call it a wrap after this.

If you discover a novelist you like and want to read everything the person has written, this is the site for you: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/. It lists bibliographies for 30,000 authors and even tells you where and for what price you can buy their books. Though I do like dealoz.com for comparison shopping. Though since I got my Kindle, I'll resort to hardcopy books now only when that's all that's available. I absolutely adore the historical fiction of Brit Diana Norman (aka Ariana Franklin), but several of her older books are OOP and selling for exorbitant prices. At least I could find them on the abovementioned site and got a couple of them through the public library's interlibrary loan program. It's a British site, but it lists all popular U.S. authors as well.

A snowflake afghan




Having been a smoker for 30 years of my life, I have trouble not having anything to fiddle with while watching TV, so I crochet. Mostly, I make afghans, sometimes women's scarves, sometimes babies' and kids' hats. Snowflake shapes are -- to me, as to most folks -- endlessly fascinating, and crocheted ones are no less fun for me, so I finally made this afghan just for the heck of it. I don't know who will be the recipient. It may wind up as a gift, or it may go -- as most of my afghans do -- to a wonderful organization called Project Linus, which every year donates thousands of handmade afghans, quilts, and blankets to ill and traumatized kids of all ages. Anyhow, this afghan came from a free pattern on the Web, and my thanks go to the very creative, unknown person who created the design. The pattern is here: http://www.artoftangle.com/snowflake.htm


Immersed in the Middle Ages

Having been enchanted by Ariana Franklin's murder mystery series about a female forensic scientist -- medieval CSI, if you will -- set in the middle ages, I've been intrigued by the Middle Ages ever since.

Now, just having finished Ken Follett's highly popular Pillars of the Earth, I'm reading its sequel. Follett is a good storyteller, but he really never even seems to try to make any of the dialogue authentic to the era. In fact, there are expressions that are downright anachronistically modern and jarring. And, despite having a story and characters that carry me along, I don't get nearly as much of a sense of the medieval setting as I do in the far lesser known Franklin novels and those of others.

However, watching the excellent newish version of Robin Hood, created by Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, around the same time I'm reading the novel, somehow helps me with the atmosphere while I'm reading. I liked this movie better than any of the earlier film versions of the Robin legend, and I hope they'll make sequels. However, as I recall, it didn't get a great reception from critics or public, so I'm not holding my breath.

Also have been watching the excellent Brother Cadfael series from BBC (from Netflix), about a medieval Welsh monk who solves murder mysteries -- based on books by Ellis Peters (aka Edith Parteger). They, too help steep me in the period where Follett fails to do so.

Franklin's books are set in the era of King Henry II, who figures as a pivotal character in her plots. Both Pillars of the Earth and Cadfael are set in the fascinating time when cousins Stephen and Maud were fighting over the English crown. Since the Elizabethan era has been done to death on paper and film and almost seems a cliche, it's fun to read about these earlier and easily as interesting times.

More about the Comanches

I did get around to reading the unputdownable nonfiction book, "Empire of the Summer Moon," mentioned in an earlier post, and here's what I wrote on amazon.com:

Gwynne's excellent book couldn't have come along at a better time for me: I'd just finished reading Paulette Giles' wonderful novel, based loosely on the true story of a former slave's effort to rescue his wife and child, who were captured by the Comanches. "Empire of the Summer Moon," was, in its own way, just as riveting as Giles' fiction. As a journalist, Gwynne knows how to turn history into what it should be: a good story. He weaves into his account the stories of individuals -- Quanah, of course, and his mother Cynthia Parker, as well military prodigy Ranald Mackenzie, famous Texas ranger Jack Hays, and others -- so that you want to keep reading to find out what happens to them. And, I never thought I could be so intrigued by horses, guns, and battle strategy, but when the writing is this good it can hold my interest in things normally outside my interests. I'm looking forward to whatever's next from this terrific new history writer.

A paean to asparagus







What a thing of beauty it is after it's been peeled, steamed, and plunged into ice water to preserve its gorgeous green. After a childhood of knowing (and hating) only canned asparagus, how I love it fresh, and it is one veggie that I never have left over after serving it to company.


To peel or not to peel

A resounding Yes! to peeling. Though one of the food "experts" at Cook's Illustrated once wrote that it's unnecessary to peel asparagus, I beg to differ. I really think it is not only much prettier, but tastes better when peeled. It has to be thin as a pencil before I'll serve it unpeeled. And, with my much-loved German asparagus peeler (a great find at Williams Sonoma after decades of using a potato peeler, this thing holds onto the spear and easily sheds the peelings), I can peel two pounds in the time it takes an inch of water to boil.


I don't own a fancy asparagus steamer:

My method is to place up to two pounds of spears in a steamer basket in a large pot with about an inch of water, bring to a boil and cook from 3 to 5 minutes, using the fork test for doneness. Then I remove the spears and plunge them into a bowl of water with ice until it's cold and transfer it to paper towels to dry off. When I'm serving the spears as a side vegetable with butter and lemon juice, I omit the ice-water step. For risotto, I use ice water, but omit the paper towel drying.


Buying note

Both Sam's and Costco have good prices on asparagus, but Costco seals theirs up in a plastic bag and somehow it doesn't taste right to me. At Sam's, it's sold unwrapped and you can get a big plastic bag in the meat department to put it in without sealing it up.


Vinaigrette

When I'm asked to take a vegetable (or even a salad) to a potluck luncheon or dinner, asparagus vinaigrette is often my choice, because it's much easier than schlepping a hot dish across the county. The asparagus and the vinagrette sauce can be made the day before and chilled. An oblong plastic container with a drainer insert is perfect to keep the veggie from getting waterlogged. As to the garnishes, chop the peppers, toast the pine nuts, and store both in zipper bags to be applied upon arrival. Likewise, store the sauce in a jar for last-minute application. Warning: Even when I take 4 pounds to a potluck, it disappears before the last people in line get to it. Here's the recipe:



Asparagus with Red Pepper Vinaigrette

Vinaigrette:

2 cloves garlic
1 shallot
3 tablespoons chopped red bell pepper
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon heavy cream
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ cup olive oil
2 pounds thin asparagus
Salt, for cooking
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper
Prepare vinaigrette: Combine garlic, shallot, and red pepper in food processor. Cover; whirl until finely chopped. Add vinegars, lemon juice, cream, salt, pepper, and basil. With machine running, slowly add olive oil in thin, steady stream through feed tube. Whirl until combined. Vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.Steam asparagus 3 to 5 minutes or until crisp-tender, and drain. Plunge in ice water to keep bright green color.Drain asparagus thoroughly and place on a serving platter. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, about 3 hours.All preparation up to this point can be done a day ahead.To serve, pour vinaigrette over asparagus. Garnish with pine nuts and red pepper.

Oh, yeah, there's the matter of the worldwide pine nut shortage. Since I've always kept a large bag of Costco's pine nuts in the freezer, I'm not so lavish with them since they went up to $29 for 1-1/2 pounds. Last time, I stingily meted out only the requisite 2 tablespoons before toasting over the gas stove burner with another cute little Sonoma gadget.