Monday, November 21, 2011

Dressing For Success!

There is an age-old debate: stuffing or dressing? Two variations on the same theme, but they aren’t as far apart as many people would want to believe. Stuffing that gets prepared and is put inside of the turkey is still stuffing. Many feel that the juices flowing from the bird as it roasts provide the stuffing with incredible moisture and important flavor. This is true. But because I stuff my turkey with aromatics like onions, lemon and celery, there is no room for stuffing. Oh, and if I haven’t mentioned it, I prepared my turkey already – two weeks prior to Thanksgiving (whaaaaaa???? – take a look at my last blog posting for the early turkey process).

I think another important detail that factors in to one’s preference to stuffing or dressing comes down to what you grew up eating. My mom and grandma made dressing – that’s what we ate and that’s what I learned to prepare. I’m most comfortable with, and feel the long traditions of, a dressing that is made in a separate dish and its only proximity to the turkey is on the buffet.

Now you can buy a box of stuffing in the store and just boil water, add an envelope of seasonings and the dried bread and in minutes you got stuffing. But if you never tried making it from scratch, I think you should give it a try. You can really make it unique, depending on the kinds of things you want to include. The basic idea is the same – dry bread of some kind, seasonings, a binder like eggs, something to moisten it, such as broth, and then you decide what else you would like to have in it. My recipe is very traditional – lots of onions and celery, but I also put in a good measure of fresh parsley because I love the brightness it brings the dish. You could put in apples, nuts, sausage (pork breakfast sausage, chorizo, kielbasa, etc.), oysters, carrots, artichokes, turnips – the possibilities are limited only by your imagination!

Cornbread Dressing

For the cornbread (I use a shortcut in the form of a cornbread mix, but if you have a cornbread recipe that you love, by all means use it):

3 boxes of cornbread mix (such as Jiffy)
3 eggs (room temperature)
1 cup milk
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp poultry seasoning
½ tsp rubbed sage
½ tsp. each salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Blend all ingredients together in a large bowl until combined. Pour batter into a greased 9x13 baking dish. Let sit for about 5 minutes and then put into oven for 20-25 minutes until top is golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool completely. (You can make the cornbread a day or two in advance, if you like.)

1 stick butter
2 cups diced onions
2 cups diced celery (include the leaves if you have them – they have great flavor)
Salt and pepper
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
3 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. poultry seasoning
2 tsp. rubbed sage
32oz turkey or chicken broth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet or an electric skillet, melt butter until it starts to brown slightly. Over medium heat, add onions, celery, salt and pepper and combine so that all the vegetables get coated with butter. Sauté the veggies until they become translucent and tender, about 15 minutes or so. Remove from heat and set aside.

Take your pan of cornbread and cut it into small squares. Remove cornbread from its baking dish and put in a large bowl. Using a fork and your fingers, crumble the cornbread into smaller pieces. You can leave some larger chunks; it will give the texture a nice variety. Add your celery and onions to the cornbread. Then add the fresh parsley, beaten eggs and seasonings. Using a large spoon or spatula, mix ingredients together until well combined. Pour broth over dressing gradually – about a third of the amount at a time, mixing well after each addition. Transfer dressing to a large casserole or baking dish that has been greased. Cover with foil and place in oven for 45-50 minutes. Remove from oven and it’s ready to serve!

NOTE: You can do most of this the night before. Simply put it together and place it in your greased casserole or baking dish. Cover and put in the refrigerator. Bring it out about an hour before you put it in the oven and then bake 50 minutes or so.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Turkey Time! Make It Now, Serve It Later!

There’s no escaping all the talk about turkey this time of year. Whether you serve this classic American dish for Thanksgiving or Christmas or both, most of us end up with a turkey in our freezer this time of year. I don’t know why many of us wait until the end of the year to make a turkey. As far as I’m concerned, it’s great anytime – especially in the summer!

Our adventure into roasting a turkey is really less of a recipe and more of a process, or an approach, to preparing the bird. I’ll start from the turkey on the table for Thanksgiving dinner and work back. This is important because if you are someone who likes to “present” the bird at the table – ala Norman Rockwell – with all the “oohs” and “aahhs” from those gathered around, then this is not the preparation method for you. I grew up sitting at the table with mom bringing out a giant platter of carved turkey, in pieces big and small, white and dark, and it got passed around the table as everyone filled their plates with all they wanted.

When it comes to hosting Thanksgiving, I believe in doing as much as you can do ahead of time. Some things you just have to do on the big day. Most of your sides – the mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing (I don’t make stuffing), vegetables, rolls, etc. are all done on Thanksgiving Day. I can’t afford to have a turkey clogging up my most valuable real estate (the inside of the oven) for hours on end. So, I just make the turkey a week or two in advance.

For years I catered our big annual turkey dinner at church. I would have to cook between 12 and 15 turkeys. This simply can’t be done in a day unless you have a six ovens and a staff of ten. We had neither. So, I learned to roast turkeys over the course of a couple of weekends, carve them, and prepare the meat for the freezer. Today, on a much smaller scale, I use the same process at home, and yes, everyone at the table raves about the moist and tender turkey.

Roast Turkey

1 turkey (size is up to you, but plan for 1.5 pounds for every person you are serving – add a couple more pounds if you want to insure leftovers)

1 cooking bag – this is optional, but recommended. Why? Because the turkey will cook faster, stay moist, and there will be very little clean up. Also, roasting turkey has a way of creating a big mess in your oven, using a bag prevents that situation.

2 medium onions – peeled and quartered

3 stalks of celery – washed and cut into thirds

1 lemon, quartered

Salt, pepper and poultry seasoning

2 – 14 oz. cans low-sodium chicken or turkey broth

Make sure your turkey is completely thawed. The best and safest way to thaw a turkey is to take it from the freezer to the refrigerator and leave it there until it is thawed. For an 18-20 pound bird this is going to take about five days. So, plan in advance. Put frozen turkey on a rimmed baking sheet or large baking dish – this will catch any juices that may come out of the turkey when it thaws (often the plastic wrap around the bird has a hole or tear in it). You don’t want turkey juice all over the inside of your fridge!

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Unwrap the thawed turkey and rinse it in the sink. Be sure to pull out the neck, the bag of giblets, gravy pouch, or anything else they may have tucked inside! Remove bird from sink and pat dry with a paper towel. Season liberally with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning, making sure to put some inside the cavity of the turkey as well as all over the outside of the bird. Put the onions, celery and lemon inside the cavity of the bird – stuff it in there, it should fit!

Prepare your cooking bag. Put three tablespoons of flour inside the bag and give it a good shake so the flour coats the inside of the bag (read the instructions that come with the baking bag). Carefully transfer the turkey to inside the bag. You will get a special closer for the bag, use that to cinch the end of the bag closed. Transfer bagged bird to a roasting pan. Cut six slits that are about one inch long in the top of the bag (again, refer to the instructions that come with the bags, but most brands work in a similar fashion).

If you have a probe-style meat thermometer (see video), stick the probe through one of the slits you cut in the bag and into the thigh of the turkey – be sure that the probe is not hitting a bone. If you don’t have one of these thermometers, you can check the internal temperature of the bird with a regular meat thermometer during the cooking process. You want that thigh to register around 180 degrees, and that will tell you it’s done.

Put the turkey into a 375 degree oven. How long it will take very much depends on the size of your turkey. If you have an 18-20 pound bird, it should cook in three to four hours – let your meat thermometer be your guide as to when to take it out of the oven. When the thigh reaches 180 degrees, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest. You can cut the bag open CAREFULLY – there will be a lot of very hot steam. You want the turkey to cool to a comfortable carving temperature. This may take 30-45 minutes or so…be patient because the wonderful smell of that turkey is going to drive you crazy!

Carve the turkey as you normally would. I leave the drumsticks intact, but that’s up to you. Transfer all the cut turkey meat into a freezer-proof pan (I use one of those heavy-duty disposable foil pans). Open cans of broth and pour over the turkey meat. Seal pan with two layers of heavy-duty foil and put pan in freezer. Your Thanksgiving turkey is now done!

Two or three days before you want to serve the turkey, remove it from the freezer and transfer pan to the refrigerator to thaw. Put pan in a 300 degree oven for 90-120 minutes and serve it up on a pretty platter!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Classic Casserole - Tamale Pie

Cookbooks provide a great snap-shot into the kinds of foods and preparations that were in vogue throughout the years. I am particularly partial to the general cookbooks put out in the late 40's through the mid 60's. Better Homes & Gardens, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Good Housekeeping, Joy of Cooking, and Meta Given's Modern Family Cookbook, to name a few, are wonderful examples of how America liked to eat. There were no "nutrition facts" given for each recipe, but the front of the book usually dedicated some room to talking about the importance of good nutrition, vitamins and minerals, and eating a balanced diet.

While some of today's recipes are more conscious of the fat and calories, the cookbooks of yesterday put the emphasis on taste and presentation - and why not?!? When you look across the offerings in these old books, there are a number of recipes that are offered in each volume - although not exactly identical - but with generally the same idea. Tamale pie is one such example.

Tamale pie is a variation on a hamburger casserole. I often thought of it as a south of the border cousin to a Shepard's pie, but rather than having mashed potatoes as the top crust the tamale pie calls for cornbread. The dish couples the meat and a starch and provides an "all in one" opportunity for the busy cook who doesn't have time to make three separate things.

With the proliferation of Mexican cuisine, this dish (some recipes dating back 60+ years) must have seemed downright exotic.What I love about this dish is that it can be easily updated to today's taste for food that has a bigger kick then they were used to in the 1952 Betty Crocker test kitchen. As good today as it was back then, this is an easy one to make and it adapts beautifully to countless variations. A good "cold weather" dish, this is a perfect time of year to bring a tamale pie to your table!

Tamale Pie

1/2 pound ground beef chuck
1/2 pound ground pork (you could use all beef if you prefer, but I like the mix)
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
(you could add a half cup of green peppers here or a little jalapeno pepper, if you like)
salt and pepper to taste
2-8oz cans tomato sauce
1 cup frozen, canned or fresh corn
12 black olives, chopped (could use green if you prefer)
1 TBSP chili powder
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp sugar
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 TBSP all purpose flour
1 TBSP sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Put meat in skillet and begin to brown over medium high heat. Add diced onion and minced garlic to the meat as it browns so the vegetables get soft. Add salt and pepper to taste. Once meat is browned, reduce heat to medium and add two cans of tomato sauce, corn and chopped olives. Add chili powder, cumin and sugar. Let simmer for about 10-15 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare your cornbread topping. In a bowl, beat egg. Add cornmeal, baking powder, flour, sugar, salt and milk and combine.  Set aside. Grease a 2qt casserole dish. Put in meat mixture and even out the top with spoon or spatula. Spread corn topping over meat mixture in casserole dish - it should be completely covered. Put in 425 degree oven for 15 - 20 minutes, until topping is golden brown on top. Remove and let stand for five minutes. Serve with shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa or other toppings you like. Enjoy!