Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015: The soup

I made the soup on Wednesday while at my in-laws' house.  I had considered making it at home, as it holds well for several days in the refrigerator.  On the balance though, I thought it easier to make it down there and not have to figure out transporting an entire pot of soup.  I've done that before and it's not really much fun.  Besides, I was going down on Tuesday evening so I had all day Wednesday for this kind of thing.

Here's the recipe I use:

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

What I did bring from home was frozen vegetable stock and the already roasted squash, along with the other ingredients I needed.  Here's how the soup went together:

First off, I softened some apples, onions and sage in butter.  They were just sweated, not sauteed, I wasn't looking for caramelization.

Then the squash was added to the pot along with stock.

It was brought to a boil as we broke up the squash into smaller and smaller pieces.

Then it simmered for about 15 or 20 minutes just to bring the flavors together.

Finally, I added some heavy cream and  broke out my immersion blender to get the texture right.

And it's done.  One beautiful pot of soup ready to be a first course.  After cooling off it went into the refrigerator, and I reheated it for serving just beore dinner.

Thanksgiving 2015: Prep Work 3 - Butternut Squash

Another item I began making when I took over Thanksgiving duty is butternut squash soup.  It is seasonal, delicious, and really pretty easy to make.  The particular recipe I use calls for roasting the squash first, which concentrates and sweetens the flavors of nearly any fruit or vegetable in my experience.

I use this recipe, but double it:

Roasted butternut squash soup from Chowhound

While I didn't prepare the soup at home, I did take care of one of the more time consuming aspects of it.  Roasting the squash in my own kitchen saved me time later on.  It also saved me packing space, as I was able to put it into one compact container.

First I halved the squash and cleaned them out with a spoon.  That left me with these rather rude looking pieces.

I slathered them with soft butter, salt and pepper and threw them into a hot oven.

The recipe says 50 minutes to an hour, but perhaps that's for smaller fruits, because these suckers took more like 1:20 to be tender enough to come out.

Once it was cool enough, I just scooped the stuff into a container for transport.  Done.

This is easy stuff.  Go ahead, give it a try.  You'll be glad you did.  This stuff is good already, just as you see it here.  You could use it in a pie (perhaps with less seasoning) or as a side dish of its own, maybe mashed with a bit of cream and butter.  Oooh, I need to try that soon.

Thanksgiving 2015: Prep Work 2 - Turkey Brine

I first started brining just a few years ago, and I don't want to go back.  Brining is really quite a simple process, and at its heart I think it's pretty closely related to curing meats.  A solution of salt and sugar is used to infuse flavor and promote juicy, tender results.

Now, if you buy a frozen turkey, it's probably already done for you.  You'll generally notice some words on the package to the effect that the bird has been injected with a salt water solution.  Well, that's brine.

I get my Thanksgiving turkey from a poultry farm close to my home.  It has not been processed beyond basic cleaning, so it stands to benefit from this process.

Rather than a simple salt water solution, I figure it's good to add a bit of additional flavor right from the start.  I give all credit to Ree Drummond, "The Pioneer Woman" for the brine I use.  It's quite simple to make, and the results...  well, you'll have to try it, now won't you?  I won't presume to provide the recipe, you can get it at the following link:

Ree Drummond - My Favorite Turkey Brine

It takes only a few minutes to get this on the stove, and it comes to a boil soon enough (yes, it's a lot of water, and if your burners are smaller than mine, which they probably are, it will take longer).  I would suggest you can halve the water pretty safely, and then dump cold water or even ice in at the end to make up the difference.  That will also help to get it to cool down.  The first time I made this, I was very late getting the turkey into brine because of how long it took the stuff to cool off.

I prepared the brine while my stock was in the works.  My kitchen smelled wonderful at this point.

Once the brine has boiled and cooled off, you need to get the turkey into it, which can be done in a cooler or a bag or even a bucket if you so choose.  I'm told that paint buckets aren't really safe for this process, as they can leach chemicals into the brine, so to be safe maybe it's best to use a brining bag.

This was my turkey.  There are many like it, but this one was mine:

Remove the giblets, remove the neck, rinse it well and get it into the bag, breast side down.

Then pour the brine over it.

Now all that is left is to seal it up while squeezing out the excess air.  Oh, and give it a turn half way through to ensure that the whole shebang gets benefit of the brine.  I would suggest at least 24 hours for a bird this size.  I did longer and have no complaints.

There, two big jobs I didn't need to do away from home.

Thanksgiving 2015: Prep Work 1 - Turkey Stock

Since I need to carry everything with me, it does not make sense to just throw unopened packages into a box.  Besides, some things take a bit of time, so it's best to get them out of the way up front.

So I do what I can at home early in the week.  It really does make the actual cooking event go a lot smoother.

A great example of this is turkey stock.  I greatly prefer proper freshly made stock to anything I could buy, but trying to make it at my in-laws' house would be a great strain.

Making stock is simple.  You need bones, and maybe meat.  You need three core vegetables, and you need some spices and herbs.  Finally, you need time.  Here's what I put into mine:

Eight turkey necks
Two really big onions
About six stalks of celery
Five or six medium sized carrots
One head of garlic
A few bay leaves
A couple of teaspoons of cloves
A couple of teaspoons of peppercorns

Turkey necks are abundantly available just before Thanksgiving, and are great for making stock.  I first browned them in olive oil, but you can roast them, or just leave them raw.  I prefer a bit of browning personally.  If you have access to carcasses, or to backs, or a bunch of wings, that all works well too.  The main point is to have a bunch of bones in the pot, because a big part of good stock is the gelatin we extract from them.

Once the meat is ready (and browning in batches takes time), it's time to get everything else into the pot.  I cut up the vegetables into pretty sizeable chunks, and cut the root off the garlic.  Everything went into a big stock pot and was covered with water.  I actually miscalculated and used too small a pot at first, so I had to transfer it all to a bigger one.  That was not a lot of fun.

Bring this to a light boil, then put a cover on the pan just a bit askew, so some steam can escape, and bring it down to a simmer.  It should be left that way for at least a couple of hours, but longer would be better.  This year I simmered mine for about nine hours and it turned out to be absolutely lovely.

Then of course, you need to strain it.  You can use cheesecloth, but a few years back I spent the money to get a chinoise, and I have never regretted it.  Use it, wash it, put it away for another time. 

This is basically no more than a very large and very fine strainer.  It's also strong enough that you can really press the contents hard to extract every bit of the valuable liquid.  And you do want all of it.

When it was all done, I had a pot with nearly two gallons of unctuous, fragrant stock, ready to cool off and transfer into smaller containers for transport once the fat was skimmed off.

Go ahead, make stock for yourself.  It is not difficult, nor is it even really that time consuming.  You can go about with the rest of your life as it simmers along on the stove top.  It is a basic ingredient in many dishes, and nothing you can buy in a store compares.  It freezes very well, and if you've got some you're ready to make soups, sauces, or just the best rice ever.

Thanksgiving 2015: The Menu

After reviewing the 2014 menu, and after a shopping trip where I scored some nice Brussels sprouts on the stalk, I had this as a proposed menu.  Some is highly detailed, some is left to the discretion of the person providing the food.  I took responsibility for the items in bold, and handed out tentative assignments for the others to various family members.

To my way of thinking, even if everyone else fell down on the job, we could have a nice dinner anyway, if I just roasted the sprouts and maybe served a green salad.  I knew my mother-in-law the would do some baking, so I felt pretty confident.  The fact that I have done this before doesn't hurt one bit.

Clams with black beans and garlic
Wild Rice with dried apricots and cranberries
Mulled Cider
Butternut Squash Soup
Roast Turkey
Apple/Sage dressing
Cranberry sauce two ways
Sweet Potatoes
Whipped potatoes
White Rice
Brussels Sprouts
Vegetable 2
Vegetable 3
Dinner wines
Soft drinks
Dessert 1
Dessert 2
Dessert 3

Thanksgiving, 2015

For the past few years, I've been running the family Thanksgiving day meals.  I could not do it all on my own, or at least not as well.  But I do all the planning and many of the important traditional dishes.

It all starts with planning.  I keep a spreadsheet with several pages that helps to keep me organized.  The important or at least fixed dishes are recorded there in detail.  Things that change a bit from year to year, or that are provided by others, are just kept as line items.  Since I generally have to pack all the ingredients into the car for a trip to my in-laws' house, I need a way to ensure that nothing is forgotten.

Page 1 is a guest list with counts of adults and children.  I also keep contact information here for everyone, so don't expect me to share it.

Page 2 is the menu.  Food names, the person assigned to make it, links to recipes (if any) and notes.

Page 3 is an ingredient list, consolidated from the menu.  By having both the dish name and the ingredient name, I can sort it as needed for the task at hand.  While I am building the list from the menu, I keep it sorted by dish.  Then when I'm preparing the shopping list, I sort by ingredient name.  That let's me see that two dishes share oranges, for instance, so I can get totals.

Page 4 is a shopping list, which is consolidated from the ingredient list on page 3.  Everything gets listed here, and crossed off as I acquire items.  I start the shopping in my own pantry and cupboards and then move on to things I have to purchase.

Page 5 starts as a copy of the shopping list, basically, but it is used for packing the car.  I include a column for the container, so for instance my granny smith apples might be in 'bag 3'.  As items get put into containers I cross them out, then as containers make it into the car I italicize whole blocks.

Without that level of organization the whole thing would fall apart.  I am naturally absent-minded and would be sure to forget something important without this helpful tool.

Well, enough of that.  Next time around we will get a bit closer to the actual food.


Welcome to the Austin Cooking show.

I struggled a bit to find a name for this blog, then I remembered the videos my son likes to make.  So I went with his title.

I love to cook, and I think I've gotten pretty good at it.  So anytime I have something interesting or cool from the kitchen I'll try to share it here.