From Minced Meat to McDonalds — The History of the Hamburger

The Fourth of July is upon us – and even though the day is almost over where I am, the barbecues, fireworks, beach trips, and summer fun is still abuzz because Independence Day is on a Friday this year and people are taking advantage of it by extending it to cover the entire weekend. Not that I mind. Celebrating a holiday or a birthday from Friday to Sunday is a lot more fun than celebrating it during the weekday – especially if you have obligations during the week (work, school, or family).

Last year, my Independence Day blog post was about the history of the barbecue and how America has four types of barbecues: Carolina (North and South), Memphis (Tennessee), Kansas City (Missouri), and Texas. This year, I thought I might touch on hamburgers: their origins, how America popularized them, and whether or not the burger is still relevant in a world where people are watching their waistlines and opting for healthier alternatives.

What can be said about the hamburger that hasn’t been said in other food blogs, food magazines, cookbooks, and fast food advertisement? It’s been touted as the perfect food: ground beef (or turkey, or chicken, or chickpeas and black beans, if you want to go vegetarian), seasoned to your liking, mixed with egg, formed into a patty, fried on a griddle or put on a grill (ideally, a propane one, if you’re like Hank Hill), but will settle for being pan-fried or put on a charcoal grill, and either served as is or topped anything from ketchup, cheese, mustard, pickles, relish, bacon, and/or onions (raw or fried) to grilled fruits (usually pineapple), fried eggs, or any kind of fruit-flavored chutney.

But the hamburger is more than just a sandwich; it’s an American culinary icon, much like fried chicken (yes, fried chicken. The old stereotype of African Americans loving it confuses me as white people love fried chicken just as much) and apple pie. In fact, the hamburger is a lot like American history/society: filled with conflicting stories on its origins, can be very cheesy and disgusting to non-American sensibilities (yet most people do want a taste of it just to see if it’s everything they dreamed it would be), known and praised/disparaged all over the world, and associated with wanting everything done fast rather than done right.

Origins

In the 12th century, the nomadic Mongols, led by Genghis Khan  (1167–1227), carried food made up of several varieties of milk and meat (horse or camel) shaped into patties during their journeys. This was to not only extend their supply of meat, but also as a quick way to eat as they were laying waste to and conquering what is now Central Asia (Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, specifically). In the height of the Mongol Empire, it was common to see Mongol warriors following herds or flocks of horses, sheep, or oxen and killing them for food. The explorer Marco Polo recorded these sightings, even pointing out that a single pony could feed 100 Mongol invaders.

Now there’s an idea for the final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

This recipe for the minced meat patty was passed on the Muscovites when Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, invaded Russia after the Mongol Empire fell in the 1240s. In Moscow, the patty was known as steak tartare (yet the recipe for it was never recorded and, to this day, no one knows when the recipe was first recorded for restaurant use). In the city-states that would later be known as Germany, this ground meat product was refined by adding capers, onions and even caviar to the blend and was sold on the streets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This is the part where the ground meat patty gets called a hamburger because it was created in what would later be the German city of Hamburg.”

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t called the “hamburger” right away. It was called the Hamburgh (that’s how the city name was spelled at the time) Sausage. Besides, the sandwich (and the use of bread slices between a meat filling) wouldn’t be known until the 18th century, thanks to English aristocrat John Montagu (better known as The Earl of Sandwich), who came up with a new way to eat so his fingers wouldn’t get dirty while playing card games. There was an episode of the early 2000s Cartoon Network show, Time Squad, that parodied how The Earl of Sandwich came up with this culinary sensation. I uploaded the episode and the storyboards for it for anyone who wants to see it.

Fast forward to the 19th century, which sees Hamburg, Germany as the largest trans-Atlantic hub for freight and shipping. The Hamburg steak, an early ancestor of the hamburger and known at that time as either “Hamburg-style American fillet” or “beefsteak à Hambourgeoise,” is being served to attract German sailors. It was brought back to New York City and became popular on the menus of many restaurants in this U.S. port. This kind of fillet was beef minced by hand, lightly salted and often smoked, and usually served raw in a dish along with onions and bread crumbs.

Now this isn’t the hamburger as we know it yet. It’s actually Salisbury steak, named after American physician and food faddist, Dr. James Salisbury (1823-1905), served with brown gravy, and is a common sight in many an unappetizing frozen TV dinner or mediocre school cafeteria menu. However, it does go great with buttered noodles and your choice of green bean casserole or vegetable medley.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of conflicting stories about how the hamburger came to be. Did the Hamburg America Line in Germany send it over to America? Was it a spontaneous invention by an American? If so, who invented it/made it popular first? Fletcher Davis? The Menches Brothers? Charlie Nagreen? Oscar Bilby? Or Louis Lassen? No one knows for sure, but these facts are certain:

1) The hamburg steak/Salisbury steak’s popularity in America is what led to the popularity of the hamburger,

2) The hamburger is very much a late 19th century-into-the 20th century invention, so the hamburger (and all the other types of burgers derived from it) is fairly new

3) all claims made by the potential inventors of the hamburger occurred between 1885 and 1904, focusing all attention of its creation onto these two decades.

The Hamburger Restaurant

Contemporary American society at the dawn of the 20th century witnessed the creation of new fast food originating from traditional foods from various ethnic groups, such as China’s chop suey (and other take-out favorites that originally were supposed to be for other Chinese immigrants who moved to America, but became popular among those who weren’t Chinese, but were American), pizza from Italy (though that would not gain popularity until after World War II), and hot dogs (invented by German immigrant Charles Feltman, who sold frankfurters on sliced bread at Coney Island).

The dawn of the 20th century also witnessed the need to provide food for people living in highly productive urban centers with high population densities. Food also had to be economically affordable for the working class so they can maintain their labor and industrial production. The hamburger and its derivatives were born in a time when people didn’t have the time or energy to make anything to eat and would rather eat “fast” and “cheap,” a decision that has stuck with the American way of life to this day.

Though there have been plenty of arguments and claims to the contrary, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut has been credited by The Library of Congress as the very first burger joint. Lassen may have made the hamburger popular in 1895, but it wouldn’t be until 1916 when the hamburger patty (actually, a Salisbury steak patty, thanks to anti-German sentiment during and after World War I) would be served on a bun. For that, you can thank Walter Anderson, who, five years after he invented the burger bun, co-founded one of the earliest hamburger restaurants in America: White Castle. You can also thank White Castle for selling their hamburgers in grocery stores and vending machines, creating the industrial-strength spatula, mass-producing the humiliating paper hat associated with the embarrassing task of working fast-food service, and for birthing the concept of a “greasy spoon restaurant,” in which hygiene suffered in exchange for more inexpensive food (though that’s more the fault of wanting things done fast instead of right).

Like anything remotely successful, White Castle bred a lot of imitators and attempts at capturing the restaurant’s success, with little to no success. One of the most obvious was White Tower Hamburgers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose owners got into many a legal battle with White Castle over copyright infringement.

1937 saw Patrick McDonald and his two sons Richard and Maurice inaugurating a restaurant called “Airdrome” on Route 66 near the airport in Monrovia, California. Three years later in San Bernardino, Papa McDonald and his sons would go on to create the insanely popular restaurant people in America and the world over: McDonalds. The menu initially featured 25 different dishes, the majority of which were barbecued, but 80% of the restaurant’s revenue was made from selling hamburgers. It wouldn’t be until after World War II (due to beef shortages, though that didn’t slow down White Castle) that McDonalds’ popularity would soar, introducing the concept of fast food to the West Coast, working to improve on all of the things White Castle and other restaurants were doing to ensure the fastest service possible, and inventing the concept of “drive thru” ordering. By the 1950s, the concept of drive-in style service had become firmly established and hamburgers and cars had become closely connected in the minds of many Americans, particularly among the teenagers at that time, if pop culture and pointless nostalgia of the era has taught me anything.

As private outdoor social events, often held in backyards and featuring a barbecue, became more widespread during the mid-1950s, the hamburger gained a new culinary and social relevance in America. It became that national symbol that separated the United States from those godless Reds who waited with baited breath to invade the country. It seems silly, but for anyone who still has relatives who lived during that era, it was a reality. You know the hamburger was a popular American symbol during the Cold War when one of the battles in the Vietnam War is named The Battle of Hamburger Hill, because of how the Viet Cong and American soldiers alike were reduced to bloody meat. War is hell, kids.

There was also another war being waged during The Cold War (mostly during the 1960s and 1970s), and that was “The Burger War,” in which McDonalds fought with Burger King and Wendy’s over who had the better hamburger. No lives were lost nor soldiers injured (unless you count the many who have had heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes from all that burger-noshing), but it did cause the prices of their burgers increased, and the days when a hamburger could be bought for just a few cents (a nickel at most) were a thing of the past.

Where Are We Now?

Now, we’re in the era of everyone watching their waistlines and cutting down on the junk so they can live longer to complain about how life isn’t what it used to be. The hamburger, while still being celebrated with haute cuisine makeovers and being positively to neutrally portrayed on such TV shows and movies as Good Burger, SpongeBob SquarePants (with the titular character working at The Krabby Patty), American Eats, Man vs. Food, Bob’s Burgers, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, has also come under fire for lack of nutritional value and being one of a myriad of causes in the obesity epidemic. There are also environmentalists and animal rights activists protesting on how the big-chain restaurants are killing people with mediocre meat and slashing rainforests for more cattle-raising room.

“All this for a meat patty between two pieces of bread?” you ask. “All of this protesting and change and competition. It’s silly.” To that I say, “Yeah, it’s silly, but when you really think about it, it’s American.”

Thanks, and happy eating.

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Exotic Fruits of My Labor

Whether it’s traveling the world, publishing that novel that’s been in your head and on paper since high school, or living to see your kids grow up and have families of their own, we all have something we want to do before we die. For some foodies (be they world-class chefs or lowly bloggers and food writers who write about world-class chefs), their goal is to try new and exotic foods. Cuisines from around the world, a healthy spin on a favorite snack, a meal/snack that was popular in the past and can be recreated today, anything locally grown/made from scratch, a popular dish from a hole-in-the-wall eatery– those are all common items on the culinary bucket list. My culinary bucket list is no different, only I have a few culinary things I’ve done that some either wouldn’t have put on the list or haven’t done yet.

  • I got involved in a culinary education program and graduated (Job Corps does count. I know it’s not as glamorous as The Restaurant School, but I don’t want to put myself deeper in student loan debt).
  • I ate at Claudia Sanders (a Kentucky restaurant created by the wife of Colonel Sanders [the man behind Kentucky Fried Chicken]).
  • I went to two culinary expos (one in Kentucky and one in San Francisco)
  • I went to a wine tasting — one year as a greeter and another as a…well, I don’t know what I was. I originally came in to be a prep cook for one of the booths, but then I was put in charge of refilling the water pitchers, then put in charge of dishwashing. I was tossed around more times than a salad, but it was worth it, because when does someone like me get to see wine snobs up close?
  • I experienced firsthand what it’s like to work in the foodservice industry (and now have a better appreciation of those who do. I may never get another job in foodservice, but at least I know about the trials and tribulations of front- and back of house service, especially when I worked as a waitress for Chef Ron Schoenberg’s class and when a miscalculation caused me to run out of aioli for fried calamari in the middle of service. Мне очень жаль, Chef Valdet).
  • I learned baking from a German baker (Dankeschön, Kopf Egon!)
  • I ate at In-and-Out Burger. Sadly, I didn’t have any secret menu items from it, but it’s nothing a copycat recipe can’t fix. For my money, though, I like Carl’s Jr. better. Maybe I should have gone for the Double-Double special if I wanted a hamburger meal that will put me in a temporary food coma on a lazy weekend afternoon.
  • I got to work with sugar and chocolate art in pastry class. I even have pictures:

Chocolate Designs 1 P01-09-12_10.50

The sugar flower was very hard to do. I don’t know if you know this, but working with sugar that’s been heated to almost near-boiling point (by water standards) is not for those with delicate hands or a low tolerance for pain from burns. Once you get used to it, though, it’s almost like working with glass — and I should know. I went to a college where making art from molding and coloring glass was a legitimate major.

  • I got to try milk and cheese that didn’t come from a cow. Might not seem like much, but when you’re away from what you’re used to, you do begin to realize how boring it is and want to try something different.
  • I traveled to San Francisco and went to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. It’s a very nice place to go on sunny weekends (which is almost always in California. It only rained, like, twice when I was there, and snow is almost unheard-of, unless you live in Northern California) and you get to sample most things there, from homemade soda to foods I’ve never tried.

…Which leads me to my next point. Thanks to my time at Job Corps for Culinary Arts (February 2010 to September 2012), I’m still on the look-out for foods I haven’t tried, recipes I want to do for the family, and relatively unknown eateries I want to visit. One of the items on my culinary bucket list: trying out exotic fruits.

Now, this may not seem much like a feat, but some of the supermarkets around my town only have the “safe” exotic produce (and by “safe,” I mean “Everyone has tried this at least once in their lives”), like pineapple, coconut, banana, lime (which I love sliced in wedges or in circles and sprinkled with salt for a bare-bones margarita. You can dip the wedges or rounds in tequila before you salt them if you like your margaritas the way you like your women or men: not a virgin), blood oranges, mangoes, and papaya. I’m interested in the kinds of fruits  that either aren’t readily available in the United States or are only available either at a farmer’s market or as juice or part of a juice blend.

Here are some of these fruits I’ve tried, and some that I want to try.

Fruits I’ve Tried

1)

This first fruit I found was when I went shopping at this store called Produce Junction. They were labeled as “lychees,” even though a lychee’s skin is thinner and not as “hairy.” What I was eating was a rambutan, which is larger than a lychee, has a larger seed in the middle, and a flesh that taste vaguely like a white grape. My youngest sister, Ashley, took the last one I had (I bought four), then told me, “Don’t buy any more hairy grapes.” Siblings can be so cruel.

The rambutan, part of the Sapindaceae family and related to the lychee, the mamoncillo (Spanish lime), and the longan (but not the loganberry), is a Southeast Asian plant native to the Indonesian Archipelago, but has spread westwards to Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka and India; northwards to Vietnam, and the Philippines. Much like humans, the tree of this fruit can be male (producing only staminate flowers and, hence, produce no fruit), female (producing flowers that are only functionally female), or hermaphroditic (producing flowers that are female with a small percentage of male flowers). The fruit is round to oval (described as being as big as a golf ball or an average-sized testicle, depending on who you ask) and the seed inside is flat and, in Southeast Asian cuisine, edible — something I wish I knew before I ate just the flesh of it. Oh, well, next time.

There’s another fruit that looks like this (or at least has the same flesh and seed) called the pulasan, which is native to Malaysia, but has grown in the same places as the rambutan (mostly The Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand).

2)

This isn’t an orange. It’s a kumquat, which tastes like a really sour-to-bitter orange, and, unlike the orange, you can eat the entire thing whole and don’t have to worry about the pith. Credit goes to Chef Georgia Murphy (the Fine Dining instructor I first met. Sadly, I never had her as a teacher because she left) for introducing me to this fruit. Like the rambutan, no one in my immediate family likes this fruit, except for me.

The kumquat fruit grows from a slow-growing evergreen shrub or hydrophytic short tree with dark green leaves and white flowers (similar to its more common citrus relatives). Depending on the conditions, can produce hundreds to thousands of kumquats annually. Like the rambutan, the kumquat is found in Southeast Asia, but the kumquat has also been found in other Asian countries, like Taiwan, India, and Japan, and has even been cultivated on some islands on the Pacific Ocean.

3)

You have probably seen this fruit a lot on beautifully-crafted fruit baskets (Edible Arrangements does them all the time) and assumed they were pineapples cut into star shapes. I thought that’s what they were as well, until I read in my culinary notebook that star-shaped fruit does exist.

Starfruit (real name: carambola) and the tree on which it grows can be found in the tropical regions of the world, particularly in the Asian countries of India, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, but the trees also grow in the South Pacific and even the Caribbean. Don’t let the bright orange color fool you. This is not a citrus fruit. Speaking from experience, the taste is more on-par with a honeydew melon with a hint of cucumber. Besides using it as an interesting piece in a fruit basket, you can use it as an interesting piece in fruit salad (or a green salad. Hey, if grapes, tomatoes, and cranberries can do it, then this fruit can too). And don’t rule this out when grilling fruit (it tastes just as good as grilled pineapple on a hamburger) or using it in making flavored water.

The best looking star fruit may not be the most ripe and delicious, so choosing the right one is important. Your best bet is to find the fruit with the least amount of green on the edges and the richest orange color. This could mean there are some brown edges, but don’t let that deter you. It’s still good.

4)

The stamen does look like something from a low-rent sci-fi movie about aliens, but what girl wouldn’t want this as a corsage or the centerpiece of a dress or wedding veil? I know I would.

You’ve probably seen this around — maybe not the actual fruit, but its juice has made appearances — both solo and with other juices (even if it’s artificially flavored). The top pic is a passion fruit (if you’re reading this in South Africa, then this is known to you as a purple granadilla; if you’re reading this in Hawaii, then it’s a lilikoi), a fruit from the vine plant Passiflora edulis. Its flower (shown below) looks like the kind of flower that has graced the wrists of many a dolled-up prom queen or a bride who wants a wedding that’s part fairy tale, part Polynesian/South Pacific paradise. Passion fruit gets its name, not because the fruit is said to be an aphrodisiac, but because parts of the flower will remind Christians and Roman Catholics of Jesus’ crucifixion (often referred to as “The Passion of the Christ”), in this case, the tendril-like petals circling the plant’s reproductive organs look similar to the crown of thorns Jesus had to wear as he was carrying the cross on which the Roman soldiers would nail him. Grisly, I know, after I said that the flower looked like it could be on a corsage or a wedding veil, but that’s the beauty of this blog: you get gritty, disturbing facts and whimsical opinion/kooky observation all in one sitting.

Passion fruit is native to Brazil, but have also grown in Central America (the countries between Mexico and South America, like Honduras and Costa Rica), the Caribbean (specifically Haiti and The Dominican Republic), the United States (California, Florida, and Hawaii, as those states have the right climate to grow this type of fruit), Asia (west and east, meaning that you can see passion fruit plants in Israel as well as Cambodia), and in Australia. Basically, any place that’s always warm and doesn’t have to worry about snowy conditions is where passion fruit thrive.

Passion fruit comes in two varieties: the purple one with the yellow and black seed sacs (which I have tried and is what is commonly used when bottling passion fruit for commercial use) and a vanilla type that’s elongated, yellow, and has a pale green flesh that (surprise, surprise) taste like vanilla. I don’t know if you can use it as a substitute for vanilla beans like people do with vanilla extract, but if you can find the vanilla passion fruit, it does make for a good frozen treat flavor. Can you imagine vanilla passion fruit ice cream with dark chocolate chips or vanilla passion fruit sorbet served as a tasty palate cleanser between meals?

For cost reasons, the actual passion fruit isn’t used often in the kitchen, unless you’re an ambitious pastry chef/pastry instructor with connections and/or money to burn, as I have seen pictures of passion fruit pulp used as a topping on high-end restaurant-style desserts. (You know the kind I mean: the kind served on plates with sauce fancifully drizzled over the dessert, the ice cream is molded into quenelles rather than scoops, the portions are small and the price is somewhat more outrageous than what you had to shell out for the entree, but the flavor usually makes up for it, and the dessert itself is often soaked in an after-dinner liqueur and lit on fire for dramatic effect — I’m looking at you, cherries jubilee, crêpes Suzette, and bananas Foster). Most chefs find that it’s just better to use canned nectar or passion fruit juice and only use the actual fruit if you’re making a jelly or pastry filling.

Like with the rambutan, I found and bought passion fruit at a produce store. In this case, however, it was Iovine’s Organic Produce at the Reading Terminal in Center City, Philadelphia last summer. It didn’t cost much ($2.99, I believe) and wanted to try it just for the purpose of making a blog post about it (in fact, this originally was supposed to be the second or third post, but I had a hard time making it work). You’d think a fruit like this would have a taste that’s out of this world. Well, it does and it doesn’t. It has a creamy flavor and its juice is infinitely better than what you can get at the store, but that’s if you can handle the tart flavor that almost parallels what pomegranate tastes like. Not saying I can’t handle tart flavors, it’s just that I expected passion fruit to be different since it’s a more-or-less rare fruit and not many people have tasted it. It’s similar to how people say most meats taste like chicken, despite how exotic and uncommon it is (though I’ve had lamb and goat before, and you will never hear me say that they taste like chicken, beef, or pork).

And that’s where I am in trying rare/weird fruits on my Culinary Bucket List. I want to reach ten, so that means I have six more to go. I know the next fruits I want to try are dragonfruit (pitaya), mangosteen, and, the smelliest fruit on the planet, durian.

Which exotic/tropical/rare fruits do you, my readers, think I should try. The comments section is yours to offer suggestions.

Thanks, and Happy Eating!

Fizzy Drinks All Around (or I Am the One Who Pops)

It’s been called everything from the dry and dull “carbonated beverage” to the quaint and regional “pop.” Its flavors range from common fruits to strange concoctions, like Jones Soda’s Tofurkey and Gravy. It’s on the lips of everyone, from little kids at birthday parties to doctors who warn of its high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients and politicians who want to curb its intake in schools or tax it in an effort to fight back against the obesity epidemic and stimulate the economy.

It’s soda…where I’m from, anyway. Depending on your region or country, it’s – as I said before – called everything from “pop” to “soft drinks” to “carbonated beverages.” Other regional terms include “coke” (though I don’t know why people would use this, considering that that’s a very common slang term for cocaine. Then again, the original Coca-Cola had cocaine in it and cocaine was considered a perfectly acceptable sugar substitute before it was known for fueling disco dancers, being boiled down into the more insidious drug crack, and glamorized in the 1983 version of Scarface. Also, “coke” when you’re speaking of soda is mostly used when you’re drinking cola. You can have a Pepsi and still call it a coke – unless you’re in the Olympia Café on late 1970s Saturday Night Live), “lolly water” (which sounds like a very British term that’s probably not even used these days), and “fizzy drink” (which also sounds British, but also sounds like a brand name for dollar-store soda).

Soda is, of course, from the soda water that’s used as the canvas on which the soda maker can add flavor to it. “Soft drinks” are called that to differentiate from “hard drinks” (the drinks with alcohol in them). “Soft drinks” can have alcohol in them, but only less than 0.5% of the total volume, but most soda made in America (at least made by the two major chains, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) would rather load soda with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners moreso than a little alcohol (since alcohol’s effects can be amplified when in contact with carbonation. I’ve had a ginger ale with a splash of vodka in it and felt the room spin about 10 minutes later), never mind the reports that excessive consumption of soft drinks (especially soda) is linked to obesity, type II diabetes, loss of bone density, low nutrient levels, and cavities in your teeth (eventually leading to tooth decay). So, soda does rot your teeth, but not your brain, despite what those moral guardians and misguided social justice warriors will tell you. My opinion on all of this: all things in moderation. If you’ve been hooked on the fizzy stuff for a while, try and cut back. Switch it up with a good detox drink (mint and citrus-flavored water or just regular filtered water with some lemon in it) and always remember to brush your teeth, floss, and (if you can) visit the dentist.

Health public service announcements aside, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to instruct you on how to make homemade soda. Yes, I know it seems like something that can’t be done since it’s already available pre-made, but I had a homemade ginger ale from a farmer’s market when I lived in San Francisco, California that left me with a satisfying throat burn and didn’t feel like I was swishing my own spit in my mouth, so don’t come whining to me about how soda can’t be made by hand. With handmade soda, you get to make it in the purest way possible: with carbonated water, a sweetener (particularly cane sugar), and some kind of flavoring agent (a juice, purée, or syrup).

Carbonated Water

If you drink a lot of soda or soda water, you know it gets expensive over time. A six-pack of Pepsi can set you back $6.00, depending on sales tax (unless you’re in Delaware, where sales tax is not a thing), when, back in the 1990s, it was maybe $4.00 (assuming there’s no sale). I’m not the only one to think to myself: “I wonder if there is a way to carbonate my own water.” There are several ways. The easiest way is to just buy soda water or seltzer water (both of which can be found in grocery stores or any place that sells liquor and liquor accessories for home bars and parties) in bulk, but that only works if you have the cash, a home bar, or are starting a homemade soda business. For her 28th birthday, my sister bought herself a SodaStream* (which she has been wanting for a while). While it does save you a considerable amount of money in terms of buying soda and soda water, the costs are actually high and very hidden. The machine itself costs $90 (though my sister bought a $70 model. Either she found a less expensive model or she got a discount since she always shops at Amazon.com for everything from books to new shoes) and each carbon dioxide refill bottle costs $30 for each 33 oz cannister. If I were her and had some gadgeteer genius (the kind that gets you into those Institute of Technology colleges, like M.I.T.), I’d make my own carbonator with a big CO2 tank, some plastic tubing, and a carbonator cap hidden in an easy, yet ingenious way because a large CO2 tank would look awkward in a kitchen setting. For weird parties, like Halloween or raves, or if I want to experiment with something different, I’d find some dry ice and carbonate the water that way.

Sweetener

Until 1985, soft drinks were sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. As of 2010, in the United States, that’s been replaced with high-fructose corn syrup to lower cost. In Europe, sucrose dominates, because agricultural policies over there favor production of sugar beets and sugar cane over the production of corn (besides, corn is more abundant in North and Central America than it is in Europe). The deal with high-fructose corn syrup and human health is that it’s connected with diabetes, hyperactivity, hypertension, and fatty liver disease that isn’t caused by alcoholism. On the other hand, the human body breaks sucrose down into glucose and fructose before it is absorbed by the intestines. Simple sugars such as fructose are converted into the same intermediates as in glucose metabolism. However, metabolism of fructose is extremely rapid and is initiated by fructokinase activity, which is not regulated by metabolism or hormones and proceeds rapidly after intake, promoting fatty acid and triglyceride synthesis in the liver, and increased blood lipid levels. The takeaway to all of this is either (a) all things in moderation, or (b) you’re better off trying to find or make soda with real sugar in it.

Sweeteners for “diet” sodas are no better than high-fructose corn syrup. While aspartame has been disproven in its claims that it causes cancer, neurotoxicity leading to neurological or psychiatric symptoms such as seizures, mood changes, and/or neuropsychiatric conditions in children (including ADHD), it does have a really awful aftertaste (to me, at least) and there are people out there who have an adverse reaction to it, though the worst they get from aspartame is a headache.

Cyclamate – the first sugar substitute to be used in “diet” sodas – is the sugar substitute that caused cancer in laboratory mice, which is a shame, as tasters at the time claimed that cyclamate actually tasted good for a sugar substitute. Fortunately, cyclamate is still available in some places outside of North America. Saccharin followed. Its taste was described as “metallic” or “bitter,” and was also alleged to be carcinogenic. However, it was never banned. Rather, foods with saccharin in it had to have warning labels put on it as part of the Saccharin Study, Labeling and Advertising Act, a United States federal statute enacting requirements for a scientific observation regarding the impurities in, potential toxicity, and problematic carcinogenicity of saccharin, signed into law in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. The ban wouldn’t be lifted until 2ooo.

All of this doesn’t really matter when making homemade soda – unless you somehow have high-fructose corn syrup barrels just stored in your pantry for use in everything from soft drinks to frozen food. All you really need to sweeten your homemade soda is either plain sugar (the same sugar you put in your morning coffee or tea). You can also create your own flavored syrup or use an alternate sweetener, like agave nectar (though that’s if you want your homemade soda to be super-indie, real “arthouse” obscure, which translates to “pretentious” for most people). When soft drinks were first starting out, honey was used as a sweetener. Maybe you could bring that back and do something with it.

Flavorings

As with any food you make, ingredient quality is the key, especially if you’re using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices for your soda. The store-bought sodas can have their “natural and artificial ingredients” label.

A simple fruit syrup is just sugar, water, and the fruit, herb, or spice of your choice boiled down into a thin, slightly sweet goo (think children’s cough medicine if it actually tasted good). If making syrup isn’t your thing, then you can go for a simple fruit purée with as much or as little sugar as you want into the carbonated water for an Italian-style soda. For sodas like root beer and ginger ale, yeast is added, so it’d be like brewing beer or kombucha.

Making imitation Pepsi or Coca Cola (which you can label as “Popsi” and “Kooki Kola” or do the old “blind taste test” by putting the imitation in empty brand name bottles to see if anyone can tell the difference) is probably the most difficult soda you can make because most of the ingredients are only available if you know a good high-end supermarket or can find rare and unusual ingredients online. Those ingredients are food-grade orange oil, lime oil, lemon oil, cassia oil, nutmeg oil, coriander oil, lavender oil, gum arabic (a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree; Senegalia and Vachellia), water, and vodka. The water and vodka you don’t have to look far for, but everything else takes some time and energy to find. On top of that, the directions as outlined on Unusual Food Handers (http://food-handler.blogspot.com/2008/02/coca-cola-how-to-make-coca-cola-at-home.html) make the whole thing like a chemistry class project, what with the use of syringes and high-ended beakers. If you’re looking for something more organic, then Salt and Smoke has a recipe for homemade cola syrup that tastes like “old-school” Coca-Cola (http://saltandsmokefood.com/botanical-cola-syrup/).

Ideas on My Own Sodas and Conclusion

Besides the usual homemade take on ginger ale, root beer, and cola, I am experimenting with fruit-, herb-, and spice-based soda mixes that haven’t been done before. Pineapple mint, white grape and rosemary – heck, maybe I can take that cranberry sauce I made during Thanksgiving and turn that into a soda (complete with ground cinnamon). Of course, all of this is tenative and those were the three ideas I had buzzing in my head ever since I decided that I might want to make and market my own soda.

So, remember to enjoy your soft drinks in moderation and always recycle your empties. My sister has enough in her room to pay off her student loans (with some left over to pay off half of mine).

Thanks, and happy eating and drinking.

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*SodaStream also comes with a lot of manufacturing controversy, since its main facility is in a settlement in the occupied West Bank of Israel. According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, the settlement (including the Mishor Adumim SodaStream factory), was built on land taken from five Palestinian towns and two Bedouin tribes who have been evicted by the Israeli army, and these Israeli settlements in the West Bank are regarded by many as illegal under international law. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from European Union customs for products manufactured in the West Bank. Why? Because Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are outside the territorial scope of the EC-Israel Agreement. Human Rights Watch has come down on SodaStream for unlawful discrimination, land confiscation, natural resource theft, and forced displacement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, while The United Church of Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Norway (all three Scandinavian countries) launched a campaign to boycott SodaStream’s products manufactured in the occupied West Bank.

Operation Thanksgiving: The Leftover(s) Post

With Thanksgiving three weeks behind and Christmas almost a week away, you may be wondering why a Thanksgiving leftover blog post should be published this soon?

Well, to get a head start on post-Thanksgiving leftovers for 2014, and because I only have two recipes that individually takes three Thanksgiving dishes (namely the turkey, the homemade cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes) and recreates them into something you can make any time of the year.

Turkey/Homemade Cranberry Sauce: Turkey and cranberry sauce quesadilla

0411p146-turkey-quesadilla-l

Quesadillas are not a new thing for me. I’ve had them since college, both made by me and bought from Qdoba and several San Francisco food trucks (Food trucks are a bigger deal in the West Coast than the East, though Philly is starting to get into it). I’ve had both meat and vegetarian takes on it, and I like them both.

For those who don’t know, a quesadilla is a corn or flour tortilla filled with cheese and some kind of savory mixture (meat, vegetables, refried beans, mostly) either folded in half to form a half-moon shape when cut or sandwiched between two tortillas and cut into wedges after it’s been pan-cooked, griddled, or panini-pressed. The latter way of preparing it (sandwiched between two tortillas) is actually referred to as a sincronizada outside of Mexico, so if you’re an American tourist in Mexico, don’t get mad or confused if you see them prepare a quesadilla this way (as seen in this video): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/5/5a/Quesadilla.webm/Quesadilla.webm.480p.webm.

Another difference between a Mexican quesadilla and an American one is in the ingredients, especially the type of cheese used. In Mexico (particularly the central and southern areas; northern Mexico tends to use queso fresco and wheat flour tortillas for their quesadillas), queso Oaxaca (a stringy, mozzarella-esque cheese from the Mexican state of Oaxaca) is the cheese of choice in this dish (in America, it’s usually Colby Jack, that shredded “Mexican cheese blend” you see in stores [which is really just Monterey Jack and cheddar mixed], or mozzarella).

As for savory fillings, you get beef, chicken, and pork, same as in the States, but real Mexican quesadillas use such ingredients as chorizo (a type of spicy pork sausage; I made this in garde manger class during the week when I worked on forcemeats, pâtés, terrines in aspic — you know, the kind of disgusting foods that a lot of 1950s to 1970s home cookbooks have. It’s very weird that I actually know what they are and how to prepare them in a day and age when only children of 1970s parents and people who read James Lileks’ website and books would know what a savory gelatin dish is), huitlacoche (corn smut. Yes, it sounds like pornography that would exclusively be made in Nebraska, but corn smut is a type of pathogenic fungus that’s considered a delicacy in Mexico), and chicharrón (a meat dish that can best be described as “pork rinds made from scratch,” though some Central American places and places like The Philippines [which was under Spanish rule], beef and chicken is substituted).

This recipe I have for a turkey quesadilla uses ground turkey that you can cook like ground beef, but if you have leftover turkey from any occasion, you can just rip up the meat and sauté that in with the other ingredients.

All credit goes to Closet Cooking

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 (8 inch) flour tortillas
  • ½ cup shredded cheese (a Monterey Jack/Colby blend is preferred, but you can substitute with whatever semi-soft or hard cheese you like)
  • ¼ pound turkey, cooked, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons cranberry sauce (I prefer the homemade cranberry relish I discussed in the previous “Operation: Thanksgiving” entry)
  • ½ jalapeno, finely diced (optional: I’m not a fan of jalapenos, but you might be)
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 1 handful cilantro, chopped (also optional, as not everyone likes cilantro)

Directions

  1. Heat a pan over medium heat, place one tortilla in and top with the half of the cheese followed by the turkey, cranberry sauce, jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and the remaining cheese and tortilla (if you’re doing the folded quesadilla with just one tortilla, then you need to place the filling on one side of the tortilla, then fold the bare side over the filled side).
  2. Cook the quesadilla until golden brown and the cheese is melted, about 2-4 minutes.

Mashed Potatoes: Gnocchi

I made gnocchi (pronounced nyo-KEY) once in my life, and that was in Chef Will’s International Cuisine/Bistro class when I was in California. It was during the two weeks we learned true Italian cooking. You’d think I’d learn at least something from that, since I have a great-grandmother who was one-quarter Italian and the Italian cooking bug lives on in my mother. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Making pasta like a true Italian grandmother (despite that I’m in my late-20s as of this writing. Hey, you’re never too young to cook like an Italian, Jewish, Greek, or Eastern European mother or grandmother, even if those ethnicities aren’t in your family tree) is something on which I still need to work — and that’s with and without the pasta maker. I’m not saying I stink, but there is room for improvement, as far as making pasta dough is concerned (though I do pride myself in making noodles out of kreplach dough to add in Jewish chicken soup. I did it because I felt like having chicken soup with noodles in it and the cafeteria wasn’t serving it).

Gnocchi is no exception. Gnocchi is a lot like any recipe, but especially like soufflé, in that just about anything can go wrong. They can fall apart like cheap jeans in a washing machine. They can taste doughy and soggy. They can have a heavy mouthfeel. That’s a lot to run through your mind while preparing this, but let me put you at ease at what you can do to avoid crummy gnocchi:

1)      Use starchy potatoes. Russets (the Idaho potatoes) are ideal. If your mashed potatoes were made with Russets, then you’re good to go.

2)      Try not to use too much or too little flour. Too much makes the gnocchi heavy and too little doesn’t make a strong enough dough.

3)      Use enough beaten egg to act as a binder (a quarter cup and nothing more)

4)      Ideally, egg isn’t needed in a true gnocchi recipe, but an eggless gnocchi recipe is very tricky to handle. Unless you’re experienced at making eggless gnocchi or you’re serving someone who doesn’t like or is allergic to eggs (eggs are considered one of the most common foods people are allergic to, next to peanuts, milk, any tree nut [walnuts, cashews, pecans, etc], soy, wheat/gluten products, and edible crustaceans), then stick with step three.

5)      Gnocchi is supposed to have a delicate, light mouthfeel to it – and that includes when you fry it. Yes, you can fry gnocchi. My International Cuisine teacher was disappointed in me when I decided to cook it up traditionally (boiled and cooked in tomato sauce) rather than fry it – not because he’s into fried food, but because he personally feels gnocchi is enjoyed better fried. And, after tasting a fried piece from a girl in my class (I think her name was Dahlia), I agree. Fried gnocchi tastes like tater tots, only less greasy. And that is a compliment. I know pairing something refined like gnocchi to something blue-collar like tater tots is a foodie taboo of some kind, but that’s the hazard that comes with opening your mouth to everything from pre-made to homemade.

Here’s the full recipe for your reference (this is from my “Italian Week” International Cuisine class packet):

Gnocchi From Mashed Potatoes

1½ cup prepared mashed potatoes (or 2 large Russett/Idaho/baking potatoes, scrubbed)

¼ cup egg, lightly beaten
1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
salt and pepper to taste

For those making a fresh batch of mashed potatoes (if using leftover mashed potatoes, skip steps 1 to 5):

1)   Fill a large pot with cold water. Salt the water, then cut potatoes in half and place them in the pot. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until tender throughout (anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes, depending on how fast your stove range heats up.

2)   Remove the potatoes from the water one at a time with a slotted spoon. Save the potato water.

3)   Place each potato piece on a large cutting board and peel it before moving on to the next potato. Peel each potato as soon as possible after removing from the water (without burning yourself).

4)   Keep in mind that you want to work relatively quickly so you can mash the potatoes when they are hot. To do this you can either push the potatoes through a ricer, or, failing that (not everyone has a potato ricer or knows one with such a thing), run a fork down the sides of the peeled potatoes, creating a nice, fluffy potato base.

5)   Mash the potatoes until you get a consistent base with little to no obvious lumps. Do not over-mash.

6)   Let the potatoes cool spread out across a cutting board (or other flat, protective surface) long enough that the egg won’t cook when it is incorporated into the potatoes.

7)   Pull the potatoes into a soft mound. Drizzle the beaten egg and sprinkle ¾ cup of the flour across the top. With a metal spatula, a pastry scraper, or your own washed and dried hands, incorporate the flour and eggs into the potatoes by repeatedly scraping and folding the mixture until the mixture is a light crumble.

8)   As gently as humanly possible, knead the dough, adding the flour a sprinkle at a time if the dough becomes tacky (“sticky” tacky, not “showing up at church with cheap jewelry, blown-out ‘80s hair, an obvious, second-rate boob/nose job, and Day-Glo spandex” tacky).

9)   When the dough is moist but not sticky, cut the dough into 8 pieces and  gently roll each 1/8th section of dough into a snake-shaped log, roughly the thickness of your thumb. Use a knife to cut pieces every 3/4-inch.

10)   To shape the gnocchi, hold a fork in one hand and place a gnocchi pillow against the tines. Use your thumb and press in and down the length of the fork. The gnocchi should curl into a slight “C” shape and the backs will capture the impression of the tines as tiny ridges.

11)   Set each gnocchi aside and dust with a bit more flour if needed, until you are ready to boil or fry them.

12)   If you want your gnocchi boiled: either reheat your potato water or start with a fresh pot (salted), and bring to a boil. Cook the gnocchi in batches by dropping them into the boiling water roughly twenty at a time. The gnocchi are done when they float back to the top. Fish them out of the water a few at a time with a slotted spoon ten seconds or so after they’ve surfaced. Have a large platter or shallow bowl ready with a generous swirl of whatever sauce or pesto you like with them. Continue cooking in batches until all the gnocchi are done and serve.

13)   If you want your gnocchi fried: As mentioned before, fried gnocchi has a taste akin to that of tater tots. Though you will have experts and websites stating that deep-frying gnocchi will result in turning your kitchen into a fireworks show of hot grease and potato chunks, there is a way you can nip this problem in the bud: stick them in the microwave submerged in water for two minutes to soften them up, then drop them in a frying pan of oil. If the prospect of deep-frying gnocchi still scares you, then pan-frying/shallow-frying is your best bet.

Thanks, and happy eating!

I’d like to close out with the YouTube video that shows just how dangerous gnocchi frying can be:

Operation Thanksgiving 4: Side Dish Follies

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving.” We’re in our fourth day (or blog post) on how to make Thanksgiving a little less hectic on the kitchen front (if you need help on the family and relatives front, I’m not qualified for that). I laid out my plan on day one. Day two outlined the history of Thanksgiving and why a turkey was chosen as the main course. Day three focused on the turkey and the easy ways to make it juicy and moist (along with debunking every moisture retaining technique you learned from family and the media). Today, we make like a bad Operation player and touch the sides.

Stuffing

What would Thanksgiving be without stuffing in or served alongside the turkey? For some people, better.

I used to be one of those people who thought stuffing was disgusting – without even tasting it, which is a cardinal sin in culinary. You have to taste everything at least once before you can pass judgment. You may be missing out on something great. That’s how I found out that gluten-free brownies are just as good as ordinary brownies. I didn’t discover how good stuffing could be until November 2011, when my culinary class was assigned to cook Thanksgiving lunch and dinner for everyone at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center (which averages in at about 400 students, not counting students who leave because they finished the program, got thrown out, or decided not to stay, plus the regular staff members) and the kitchen staff taught us how to make it by hand. It was just a typical bread and celery stuffing, meant to be served alongside the turkey during the lunch and dinner rushes.

Initially I refused, citing that I didn’t like it. My teacher insisted, and I figured, “I’m not going to stick to most of my ways. I came out here to Kentucky to try new things.” It…wasn’t too bad. It could have stood to be seasoned a little more, but it wasn’t as gross as I imagined it would be.

Now, why would I think stuffing is disgusting? I mean, look at it.

Great Grandma's Bread Stuffing Recipe

Its name is appropos to what it looks like: stuffing, from an old couch that a stoner must have thought would taste better in the oven. Also, it seems that the stuffing and the turkey are competing for being the dryest thing at the table since that time your theatrical son chose to read Oscar Wilde’s memoirs instead of saying grace at the dinner table (hey, it’s more educational and less embarrassing than the time Uncle Gerald gave that stirring reading from Penthouse Forum. Sitting at the adult table can be vastly overrated, sometimes)*.

“So, Canais [or “Philly Foodie,” if you can’t make heads or tails of the pronounciation of my name],” you ask, “How can I make my stuffing moist?”

Now, assuming that’s not more food-based sexual innuendo, I’d answer, “It’s very simple…”

Or maybe not.

Because while you might dream of having moist stuffing inside a roasted bird, reality in the form of borrowed time, better resources (more pans, more oven room), and/or guest request may call for the stuffing to be cooked separately. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which method you use (stuffed in the bird vs. cooked separately), as long as you follow these steps to better, more moist stuffing:

Use bread: You can use grains or eschew stuffing all together if you have guests who don’t like/can’t eat gluten, but the truth of the matter is: You need bread for your stuffing. Now what kind of bread depends on what kind of stuffing you’re aiming for – and it has to be fresh bread. Don’t try to cheat with prepackaged croutons. It’ll taste like crap and everyone will know it. If you want to stick to tradition, use Pullman bread (the typical, square loaf bread, often sold as “white bread”). Whole grain bread adds a sweeter, fuller taste. Italian loaves cut into cubes is what I used when my class made stuffing from scratch. They’re great for sopping up the juices and, if you happen to have an Italian loaf flavored with olive oil or an Italian herb (basil or oregano), all the better, as it imparts a very homey taste. Good, old San Francisco sourdough gets you chewy, tangy stuffing (which is equal parts good and bad). Whatever you use, estimate 3/4 to 1 cup stuffing per person when figuring out how much you will need, or, failing that, err on the side of too much rather than too little. This is good advice, because the next blog post will be about what to do with all those leftovers.

Dry your bread: Nobody likes mushy stuffing, except those so hungry and desperate that they will eat anything, and even then, it’s a crapshoot. As I mentioned before, you can’t use prepackaged croutons, but you can make your own with fresh bread. Cut whatever bread you’re using (if you’re using cornbread or buttermilk biscuits as your base, all you have to do is bake your cornbread or biscuits and crumble them when they cool off) into cubes and toast them in the oven for 15 minutes (or until golden brown) at 275°F.

Aromatic vegetables are your friends: As I mentioned in the turkey section, a mix of diced or roughly cut (but small enough to be inconspicuous) aromatic vegetables (mirepoix) is essential, whether you’re making sauce or roasting poultry, and here, it’s no exception. The only difference is, instead of carrots, use garlic, along with your celery and onions, as you sauté them in a pan slicked up with a full stick of butter (you can cut it in half if the mere mention of a stick of butter makes your heart seize up in a pre-emptive attack).

Fresh herbs are also your friends: I already touched on this in the turkey post, so I’m not going to belabor the point. In the case of stuffing, you can’t cheat and use powdered herbs. You can, if you don’t have any fresh herbs, but if you want the stuffing to taste like something, then I advise you to use fresh and dried herbs. Sage, thyme, and parsley are the herbs associated with stuffing, but you can improvise and either add on or substitute any of those three for ground cloves, allspice, mace, and/or nutmeg. Rosemary — an herb my mother hates with a passion (I myself love it) — can be used as well, but it will impart a pine tree-like flavor to your stuffing if you use too much — unless you want to combine Thanksgiving and Christmas in one meal, then by all means, go nuts. In seriousness, though, a pinch of the herbs and spices is all you need to give the stuffing a pop without making it overbearing.

Pack the stuffing loosely: The stuffing expands as it absorbs juices, and if it’s too tightly packed, it won’t cook through. On top of that, you run the risk of causing food-bourne illness if you do pack it tightly. If your hand can’t fit inside the cavity after you stuffed the bird, it’s too much. The excess stuffing can be cooked off in a casserole pan or put in a freezer bag for later use.

A little liquid goes a long way: This will make or break your stuffing, as the liquid is what keeps the stuffing together. However, too much can make it soggy. You’re going to need one to two cups of stock (not broth, stock) of any kind (chicken is the gold standard, but you can use vegetable or mushroom if you don’t want to make your vegetarian eaters mad), but if you want to mix it up, create a liquid mixture made of milk, white wine, and the stock of your choice. The key here is to have something that will not only hold the bread crumbs together, but also give it a great flavor.

Next up, Cranberry Sauce

Like stuffing, I was never a fan of this Thanksgiving staple. Not because no one knew how to make it right, but I was under the impression that no one made it at all, and that the only form it existed in was the can, jellied monstrosity by Ocean Spray. My “Damn you, Ocean Spray” from the previous post was half-funny and half-serious. I just really hate that Ocean Spray came up with the canned cranberry sauce (their cranberry juices are okay in my book). It wouldn’t be until college that I realize that cranberry sauce need not be this way. One of the student orientation heads brought some homemade cranberry and orange sauce. One taste and all my preconceptions about cranberry sauce vanished.

It wouldn’t be until I went to Job Corps for culinary arts that I went searching online for homemade cranberry sauce recipes I could put in my Thanksgiving repertoire. This one I picked (and just did) because it’s more of a relish than a sauce and it’s very versatile. It can be equally enjoyed at the Thanksgiving table or on a shrimp salad pita sandwich during your lunch break at work.

Pomegranate Apple Cranberry Relish (credit to A Spicy Perspective)

Ingredients:

2 cups pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 medium crisp apple, peeled, cored, diced (I used a Granny Smith apple because I wanted it to taste tart, but you can use the mild apples, like Gala or Red Delicious)
1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds) [See my blog post about POM and pomegranates for how to break and de-seed one of these suckers. It’s not as messy as handling cranberries]
1 teaspoons orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (or parsley)*

*I substituted for ground cinnamon for two reasons: 1) it gives it a bolder flavor that’s more suited for autumn, and 2) my mother couldn’t find any mint, and I didn’t go shopping with her to look for it myself. I also forgot to put salt in it, but I think I made up for it with the cinnamon.

Directions:

1) Simmer the pomegranate juice and sugar until it reduces to less than half, and a thin syrupy consistency is reached—about 15 minutes (longer if you feel it could be a little sweeter).

2) Meanwhile, using a blender or a food processor, coarsely chop the cranberries.

3) Pour them into a medium bowl and add the pomegranate syrup. If the syrup is still warm, don’t worry about it. You can make up for it by chilling it in the refrigerator.

4) Add the diced apple, pomegranate arils, orange zest salt and mint. Mix well.

5) Serve right away or chill for up to a week. Makes about 4 cups.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes seems like a no-brainer recipe. Boil some spuds until soft and yielding, mash as you pour in milk or cream, season to taste, the end. Which is why I don’t understand why people would resort to instant. Yes, if time really isn’t on your side, you can whip this up in 15 to 30 minutes flat, but I’m the kind of person who at least wants to put some effort into something, whether or not it’s stupid easy. If that means I’m an ovethinker, then, well, that’s what I am.

And just like anything that seems easy to make, it’s also easy to screw it up. Case in point: I had to make mashed potatoes for wonton filling in my garde manger (pantry) class. The potatoes were only half soft when I had to mash them. Also, it would have been best if I peeled them before cubing them. My point is, “Don’t do what I did.”

As long as you use Russets (Idaho) or Yukon Golds (they’re starchier and result in a creamier mash, mash it by hand instead of machine (immersion blender and food processors), don’t overdo it on the mashing, don’t add too much liquid (and if you do, then you can turn it into potato soup), respect the “2:1 potato-to-butter ratio” (for every pound of potatoes, use a half-pound of butter), and don’t make them too far in advance (to avoid drying them out), then you’re golden.

I will, however, add that I swear by stock and cream cheese for really good mashed potatoes that don’t also double as stucco.

Vegetable, Grain, and Legume Dishes

Normally, green bean casserole (the one with the fried onion sticks in them) is the go-to veggie dish for the Thanksgiving table, but let’s be honest. It’s time to retire it. It had a good run and it should have gone out on top before 1979 ended (kind of like how The Simpsons should have ended after the season nine episode where Homer becomes the sanitation commissioner for Springfield and then buried the entire town in trash, which would be around 1998-1999).

At my table, the vegetable dishes are usually collard greens (or some kind of braised greens dish. Mustard greens and kale have been served before), a rice and veggie dish (usually broccoli, and usually with that bright yellow cheese sauce), asparagus spears, or baked potatoes. Vegetables don’t really get much attention at my family’s table, which is a shame, because that’s an essential part of a balanced diet. If I had my way, I’d prepare ratatouille (not that Pixar movie; it’s an actual vegetable dish of North African and Mediterrenean roots), creamed spinach, and brussel sprouts (yeah, it’s not everyone’s favorite vegetable, but, if cooked right, it will be. Brussel sprouts really benefit from some time in a slow cooker).

My family doesn’t do beans at the table, since not everyone likes them (myself included). I have taken a liking to quinoa, thanks to my internship at Three Stone Hearth, a community kitchen/health food store in Berkeley, California. Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. You can use it as a substitute for rice if you’re making a pilaf recipe, but I enjoy quinoa more in a salad recipe (like this recipe below):

Greek Quinoa Salad

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice from one lemon
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, sliced if desired
  • 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Preparation:

1)      In a medium-large saucepan, cook the quinoa in vegetable broth for 15-20 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool.

2)      In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil.

3)      Gently toss the quinoa together with the remaining ingredients, except the feta.

4)      Pour the olive oil mixture over the quinoa.

Add more salt and pepper to taste and gently stir in the feta cheese

Breads (Biscuits, Cornbread, and Croissants)

If you don’t know how to make bread by hand, you can take a shortcut and get your breads either from a bakery or just use Pillsbury or Jiffy brand. But, if you have the know-how and the time to make biscuits, cornbread, and/or croissants by hand, then read on:

I’m a fan of knock-off recipes. A knock-off recipe (also called a “copycat recipe”) is a recipe written to imitate a certain food or meal from a popular chain restaurant or fast food joint. You see them all the time online, from imitations of Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion to imitations of your favorite candies, like Almond Joy and Reese’s Cups. The knock-off recipe appeals to my “I can do better than these guys” sensibilities, because why go to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard when you can just throw some ice cream (either store-bought or homemade) in a blender and mix in some candy, fruit, nuts, or cookie dough pieces until it’s so thick that it can’t slide out of the cup? And why go to Red Lobster for the Chedday Bay biscuits when you can make them yourself at home? I think you see where this is going.

Cheddar Bay Biscuits

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into pieces

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

Method

-Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

-Mix the dry ingredients, then cut the butter pieces into it with a pastry cutter or two knives.

-Add the buttermilk, stirring just until a sticky dough forms.

-Turn it out onto floured surface, pat it into a square, and fold it in on itself a couple of times, like a letter.

-Pat it out again to about 1/2 to 1 inch thickness, depending on how you like them. Use a biscuit cutter to cut the biscuits out.

-Arrange them on a baking sheet, as close to each other as possible without touching. Make a small indentation in the center of each biscuit with your thumb (I’ve heard this helps them rise straight, but I’ve never not done it, so I have no idea.)

-Mix butter or margarine and garlic powder. Brush mixture over warm biscuits before removing from cookie sheet.

Cornbread

Good cornbread is hard to find. In my younger, more naive days, I thought Jiffy brand Cornbread Mix was the quickest way to good cornbread. Then, one day, I tried a piece of Jiffy cornbread after years of not having it and was shocked to find that it wasn’t the little slice of buttery heaven it was before. I learned a horrible truth about my beloved cornbread: real cornbread (as in, “From the Deep South of these United States. The kind of places where answering ‘No’ to the question, ‘You ain’t from around here, are ya?’ will get you strung up faster than a piñata at a little kid’s backyard birthday party”) is grittier than packaged or bakery versions. Why? Because wheat flour and sugar, among other ingredients, dominate commercial mixes. From then on, I’ve been on a journey to find a cornbread recipe (from scratch) that would make me love cornbread again.

And I made it when I was at Whitney M. Young Job Corps Center:

Juffy Cornbread Mix (Not very creative, but it’s still mine)

Dry Mix:

2/3 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
3 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt

Wet Ingredients:

1 Egg

1/3 Cup Milk

2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil

Method:

1)      Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, mix well.

2)      Whisk in vegetable oil and mix until dry mixture is smooth and lumps are gone.

3)      Combine mix with egg and milk, mixing well.

4)      Fill muffin pan 1/2 full,

5)      Bake for 15-20 minutes or until toothpick poked in center of one of the cornbread muffins comes out clean.

A note for cooks: Cornbread is a quick bread, meaning that its batter or dough should be made quickly. Working on it too long or mixing it too much can and will result in a less than savory crumb.

Croissants

As I said before, you’re better off just getting ready-made crescent rolls from either a very good bakery or the grocer’s freezer in one of those tubes that go “POP!” when you press on it with a back of a spoon, as croissant dough is very labor intensive to work with.

I’d like to thank Fine Cooking.com and my Baking Class instructor, Master Baker Chef Egon Grundmann from Treasure Island Job Corps Center for teaching me how to work with this dough and for the recipe:

Ingredients:

For the dough

  • 1 lb. 2 oz. (4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (add more for rolling, so the dough doesn’t stick)
  • 5 oz. (1/2cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold water
  • 5 oz. (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold whole milk
  • 2 oz. (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 oz. (3 Tbs.) soft unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbs. plus scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 2-1/4 tsp. table salt

For the butter layer

  • 10 oz. (1-1/4 cups) cold unsalted butter

For the egg wash

1 large egg

Method:

Make the dough

Combine all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed for 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the mixing bowl once if necessary. Mix on medium speed for 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured 10-inch pie pan or a dinner plate. Lightly flour the top of the dough and wrap well with plastic so it doesn’t dry out. Refrigerate overnight.

Make the butter layer

The next day, cut the cold butter lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Arrange the pieces on a piece of parchment or waxed paper to form a 5- to 6-inch square, cutting the butter crosswise as necessary to fit. Top with another piece of parchment or waxed paper. With a rolling pin, pound the butter with light, even strokes. As the pieces begin to adhere, use more force. Pound the butter until it’s about 7-1/2 inches square and then trim the edges of the butter. Put the trimmings on top of the square and pound them in lightly with the rolling pin. Refrigerate while you roll out the dough.

Laminate the dough

Unwrap and lay the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 10-1/2-inch square. Brush excess flour off the dough. Remove the butter from the refrigerator—it should be pliable but cold. If not, refrigerate a bit longer. Unwrap and place the butter on the dough so that the points of the butter square are centered along the sides of the dough. Fold one flap of dough over the butter toward you, stretching it slightly so that the point just reaches the center of the butter. Repeat with the other flaps, then press the edges together to completely seal the butter inside the dough. A complete seal ensures the butter center won’t come out over the edges.

Lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, firmly press the dough to elongate it slightly and then begin rolling instead of pressing, focusing on lengthening rather than widening the dough and keeping the edges straight. Roll the dough until it’s 8 by 24 inches. If the ends lose their square shape, gently reshape the corners with your hands. Brush any flour off the dough. Pick up one short end of the dough and fold it back over the dough, leaving one-third of the other end of dough exposed. Brush the flour off and then fold the exposed dough over the folded side. Put the dough on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for 20 minutes to relax and chill the dough.

Repeat the rolling and folding, this time rolling in the direction of the two open ends. Fold the dough in thirds again, brushing off excess flour and turning under any rounded edges or short ends with exposed or smeared layers. Cover and freeze for another 20 minutes.

Give the dough a third rolling and folding. Put the dough on the baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap, tucking the plastic under all four sides. Refrigerate overnight.

Divide the dough

The next day, unwrap and lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, “wake the dough up” by pressing firmly along its length—you don’t want to widen the dough but simply begin to lengthen it with these first strokes. Roll the dough into a long and narrow strip. If the dough sticks as you roll, sprinkle with flour. Once the dough is about half to two-thirds of its final length, it may start to resist rolling and even shrink back. If this happens, fold the dough in thirds, cover, and refrigerate for about 10 minutes; then unfold the dough and finish rolling. Lift the dough an inch or so off the table and allow it to shrink from both sides—this helps prevent the dough from shrinking when it’s cut. Check that there’s enough excess dough on either end to allow you to trim the ends so they’re straight. Trim the dough.

With a knife and a ruler, mark the top of the dough at 5-inch intervals along the length. There should be 7 marks in all. Make a mark 2-1/2 inches in from the end of the dough. Make marks at 5-inch intervals from this point all along the bottom of the dough. You’ll have 8 marks that fall halfway between the marks at the top.

Make diagonal cuts by positioning the yardstick at the top corner and the first bottom mark. With a knife or pastry wheel (better known as a pizza cutter), cut the dough along the marked lines. Repeat until you have cut the dough diagonally at the same angle along its entire length. Change the angle of the yardstick to connect the other top corner and bottom mark and cut the dough along this line to make triangles. Repeat along the entire length of dough. You’ll end up with 15 triangles and a small scrap of dough at each end. Toss the scraps out if they aren’t triangular enough to be made into croissants.

Using a paring knife or a bench knife, make a 1/2- to 3/4-inch-long notch in the center of the short side of each triangle. The notch helps the rolled croissant curl into a crescent. Hold a dough triangle so that the short notched side is on top and gently elongate to about 10 inches without squeezing or compressing the dough. Lay the croissant on your work surface with the notched side closest to you. With one hand on each side of the notch, begin to roll the dough away from you, towards the pointed end.

Flare your hands outward as you roll so that the “legs” (the thin ends) become longer. Press down on the dough with enough force to make the layers stick together, but avoid excess compression, which could smear the layers. Roll the dough all the way down its length until the pointed end of the triangle is directly underneath the croissant. Now bend the two legs towards you to form a tight crescent shape and gently press the tips of the legs together. Don’t worry if they come off during the proofing phase. That’s normal.

Shape the remaining croissants in the same manner, arranging them on two large parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets (8 on one pan and 7 on the other). Keep as much space as possible between them, as they will rise during the final proofing and again when baked.

Proof the croissants

Make the egg wash by whisking the egg with 1 tsp. water in a small bowl until very smooth. Lightly brush it on each croissant.

Refrigerate the remaining egg wash and put the croissants in a draft-free spot at 75° to 80°F. Wherever you proof them, be sure the temperature is not so warm that the butter melts out of the dough. They will take 90 minutes to 2 hours to fully proof (perfect time to watch a movie). The croissants are ready if you can see the layers of dough when the croissants are viewed from the side, and if you shake the sheets, the croissants will wiggle. Finally, the croissants will be distinctly larger (though not doubled) than they were when first shaped.

Bake the croissants (Finally!)

Shortly before the croissants are fully proofed, position racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven and heat it to 400°F convection, or 425°F conventional. Brush the croissants with egg wash a second time. Put the sheets in the oven. After 10 minutes, rotate the sheets and swap their positions. Continue baking until the bottoms are an even brown, the tops richly browned, and the edges show signs of coloring, another 8 to 10 minutes. If they appear to be darkening too quickly during baking, lower the oven temperature by 10°F. Let cool on baking sheets on racks.

Well, we reached the end of this battle in “Operation: Thanksgiving,” but the war isn’t over yet. Once I’ve and you’ve recovered from our respective food comas, I’ll be blogging about what you can do with all those leftovers.

Goodbye, happy eating, and Happy Thanksgiving (or Happy Hanukkah, since that happens to fall around the same time as American Thanksgiving this year. I’ve never seen this happen and I’m glad to be alive to see it. Mazel tov!).

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*NOTE: Those two events never happened to me personally. I’m just painting a hypothetical picture of how dry the stuffing and turkey can get. All recipes and excerpts are property of their respective books and websites unless otherwise noted. All commentary is copyright of Canais “Philly Foodie” Young.

Operation Thanksgiving 3: More Turkey Troubles (or Me Against The Kitchen)

Welcome to part three of “Operation: Thanksgiving,” your guide and my spin on that holiday that will pack your digestive tract tighter than the overhead luggage on an over-booked flight home. Last time around, I got into some cultural history about the holiday and how the goofy-looking turkey went from being domesticated by ancient peoples to carved by modern man (or woman) for an autumn holiday sandwiched between the garish, sugar rush of Halloween and the cold, yet heartwarming lull of Christmas (or Hanukkah, if you’re Jewish, Ramadan, if you’re Muslim, or no holiday if you’re Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or you’ve long given up on holiday cheer and want everyone else to know it).

Today, we’re going after the popular dishes of Thanksgiving, specifically, some subsitutes, new spins, and the right way to cook dishes you can’t do without…which means, “Yes, we will discuss how to make that turkey come out a little less dry so your critical relatives can get off your damn back,” which is the subject of today’s post.

Now, cooking for large crowds (what’s known in the foodservice biz as “high-volume service,” whether you’re serving the cream of the social crop at a fine-dining restaurant or serving the unfortunate souls who have to make due with soup from a homeless shelter. I’ve done both) isn’t for the weak or slow. You have to be on your game and make sure everything is prepared in time. You have to know how to do your stuff and do it well under pressure (again, a lesson learned from my Job Corps days). It also helps that you have others around you who can work as a team and also know what they’re doing. If you feel you can’t handle this, then don’t read and wait until the next entry. If, however, you are a seasoned Thanksgiving kitchen veteran or feel that you can handle it, then read on.

I’d like to thank the good people at Cook’s Illustrated, the writers of all those recipe books I poured through, and my Basic and Advanced Culinary Arts instructors who taught me well, as all my tips will be from these sources and it’s only fair to give them credit.

First up, the turkey:

This isn’t like the roast chicken you can make for Sunday dinner and use the leftovers for chicken salad sandwiches and feeding the outside cats (and the indoor ones) who won’t leave you alone, despite that you’re out of dry and wet cat food. A lot of care goes into making a turkey the best anyone’s ever tasted, regardless of whether you’re serving to a large family or just you (or you and someone you love).

If you know me at all, then you’ll know that one of my major pet peeves is a dry turkey. Everything else on the Thanksgiving menu can be five-star, but if the turkey is dry, then that’s a major flaw to me. Part of the reason is because I have that need for everything to be right. Then there’s the fact that I want to show others that the two years of learning culinary arts at Job Corps weren’t a waste, even if I never get a job in that field (I can show my support for farmers’ markets, sustainable agriculture, local growers, fair trade, and talented people who want to go to school to be five-star chefs, but don’t have the money or don’t know what to do to reach that goal, though), and the fact that I always get the hiccups whenever I eat dry turkey.

So, if this is your first time roasting turkey and you’ve been racking your brain on how to make that turkey moist, stop racking and start taking notes.

Let’s start off with why your turkey would end up dry. The most common reasons are either: (a) you overcooked the bird, or (b) you made a mistake in how it was prepared or while it was roasting in the oven.

You may have heard from cooking shows or dear old ma (or grandma) that a pat of butter under the skin or rinsing it is the key to juicy turkey. Well, you can tell dear old ma (or grandma) not to bother with her technique (no matter how many generations it’s been passed down), because you have some new tricks up your sleeve:

First, you need the right equipment:

a roasting pan three inches deep or less and a rack for even roasting.

This one has been with my family for years. We don’t have an inside-the-pan rack for it, but the turkey still comes out okay. The ones with the rack inside like this one…
…are good if you’re planning on turning the pan drippings into homemade gravy (which is simply your pan drippings, plus a flour/oil mix called a roux and some whipping cream if you want it smoother or have to stretch it).
Which leads me to my next secret to juicy turkey: your mirepoix (pronounced “mere-pwah,” named for a French field marshal and Louis XV’s ambassador, Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix). “Mirepoix” is just a fancy name for the aromatic vegetables cooks chop up to flavor soups, stews, sauces, and roasted meats. It goes by various names, such as “sofrito” in Spanish, “refogado” in Portuguese, “Suppengrün” in German, “the holy trinity” in Creole and Cajun cooking, or “włoszczyzna” in Polish. A common mirepoix is made up of 2 parts onions for every one part of celery and one part of carrots (though you can also add or substitute for other aromatic vegetables, like leeks, parsnips, celeriac, bell peppers, garlic, or tomatoes). What you want to do is chop your aromatic veggies into medium to large chunks (depending on how big the turkey is) and spread the chunks out on the bottom of the pan, creating a flat surface.
But the mirepoix can’t make the turkey juicy alone. You need to season the bird all over — including the inside cavity. Salt and pepper are your go-to guys, but you can use any seasoning you want. Most of the time, I’m a kitchen-sink seasoner when it comes to roasting poultry  (meaning, “I use everything but the kitchen sink”), but you (and I) have a special blend when it comes to turkey. A nice dry rub I like to use for poultry is salt, pepper, a whisper of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, some garlic (whether fresh and crushed or dry and powdered), some white pepper, and either basil or Italian seasoning.The spice rack (or spice section of your pantry) is your oyster; use it to your advantage. Do taste tests if you must to come up with a winning combination
It also helps if you stick an apple (Granny Smith, Fuji, and Gala are good. Save your Red Delicious for apple juice, apple sauce, or good, old-fashioned, out of hand eating) in the neck cavity. It keeps it juicy and imparts a fresh, fall flavor to it when combined with the cinnamon inside the bird. Or, you could do what I did four years ago and fill the cavity with dried cherries and fresh orange slices. It surprisingly came out good, but it imparted a very sweet taste to it that even I couldn’t handle.

Stuffing the bird also keeps it moist, but only if it’s a moist stuffing (read: it has broth/stock in it).
And last, but not least, some “dos” and “don’ts” for roasting your turkey:
  • Don’t truss the turkey. Trussing is when you tie the legs and wings of poultry together to keep its shape and cook evenly without drying out any of the extremities. You might be asking, “But Philly Foodie, how can you tell me not to do this if the goal is to have a turkey that’s not dry?” Well, in this case, trussing is a bad thing. The legs and wings are dark meat (which is from the active muscles of a bird) and dark meat doesn’t dry out quickly like white meat does. The dark meat will cook faster unfettered and thus reduce the chance of the breast overcooking by the time the dark meat is done. And if any of this sounds like sexual innuendo, I do NOT apologize, because it’s your mind that’s face-down in the gutter.
  • As much as TV, magazines, and your fellow home cooks make it seem glamorous and will pressure you into doing it, just say “No” to basting as your turkey roasts in the oven. The meat is covered by the skin and won’t absorb the juices, so why bother? Also, you will lose valuable heat by opening and closing the oven door a lot. Here’s how you combat this: For the first 20 minutes, roast the bird at a really high heat (450 degrees).  This will allow the skin to brown on the outside and lock in the juices. After 20 minutes, reset the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and turn the turkey upside down so the breast is on the bottom. Add ¼ cup of low sodium chicken stock seasoned with black pepper. This will act as a basting mechanism for the turkey. Since the breast cooks faster than the dark meat and needs less cooking, situating it breast side down exposes it to less direct heat.
  • The phrase “Stick a fork [or knife] in it. It’s done” actually does more harm than good for Tom Turkey, so don’t do it. Why? You lose valuable turkey juice that way.  Some folks like to use the pop up meat thermometers which are fine when they work while others use the leg check technique (read: if the leg when you wiggle it is very easy to move and the skin breaks the bird is done).  You can also use the “20 minutes per pound” rule for a no stuffing bird or the “25 minutes per pound” rule for a stuffed one, but if you’re not good with math, then stick with the other two methods.
  • Do remember is that once the turkey has reached the proper temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit whether or not it’s stuffed), remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to sit 20 minutes to keep the meat moist. If you carve the meat immediately, all the juices will run out and your goal to make a moist turkey will have been a fool’s errand.

In the next post, we’ll go through the side dishes, sauces, and biscuits. See you then, and happy eating!

Operation Thanksgiving 2: Gobbled Up in the Festivities (or Turkey Troubles)

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving,” where I highlight notable moments in food history and dispense tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal. And what better way to continue than to tackle the star of the Thanksgiving table: the turkey.

Male_north_american_turkey_supersaturated

The turkey (pictured above) we have come to know, love, and welcome to our tables (except if the entire family is vegetarian or vegan or just plain doesn’t like turkey) is a descendant of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), a North American native with Mesoamerican (Mexican and Central American) roots (the turkey was domesticated in an area now identified as southern Mexico). Its actual name was a mistake, though there isn’t any clear evidence of whether or not it was true. Wikipedia states that it was from British ships importing the birds to their country and believing that they were from the actual country called Turkey (situated between Europe and Asia; capital city is Ankara while its most important city is Istanbul).

The turkey is part of a taxonomic order of birds known as Galliformes, heavy-body, ground-feeding birds that don’t migrate, are found in essentially every part of the world’s continents (except for Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic regions, and any place that’s mostly desert) and are often raised for food. Other birds in this order include chicken, pheasant, partridge, guinea fowl, and quail. There are different breeds of turkey, same with any other animal, from the common-as-muck Broad Brested White to the ones that aren’t raised to be eaten, like the Bourbon Red. The Broad Breasted White is the one bred for Thanksgiving dinner, and the one “pardoned” by the President, as per White House tradition, which had its origins when Abraham Lincoln was President, but didn’t become a tradition until George H.W. Bush [the one who was Ronald Reagan’s vice president and only lasted one term, which, as of 2013, is the most recent time a U.S. President only served one term. Bill Clinton, H.W.’s son, George W., and Barack Obama are all two-termers] sent the turkey he was meant to eat back to Herndon, Virginia’s — and I’m not making this up — county of Frying Pan Park on November 14, 1989.

Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys, using its meat and eggs as major sources of protein and employing its feathers extensively for decoration. The Aztecs associated the turkey with their trickster god Tezcatlipoca. Why? I don’t know. The turkey is funny-looking and its throaty cluck/gobble sound is comical to some, but I don’t know what’s so funny about the turkey…well, except for the darkly humorous times when a turkey dies because some idiot thinks turkeys can fly like most common birds (WKRP in Cincinnati and Married…With Children has had at least one Thanksgiving episode featuring such a scene).

Like most things in North, Central, and South America back when it was home to indigenous peoples, the turkey was brought back to Europe as proof that the explorers had been to the Americas and to see if the florae or faunae from the native lands can survive somewhere else. A 16th-century English navigator named William Strickland is generally credited with introducing the turkey into England. His family coat of arms — showing a turkey in his family crest — is among the earliest known European depictions of a turkey. The turkey was also originally considered to be the bird associated with the United States rather than the eagle. Hm, majestic and endangered or goofy-looking and grounded? So hard to choose. If you ask me, both birds represent the best and worst of America’s culture, philosophy, and history. It’d be like picking Pepsi over Coke (and despite my being a fan of Saturday Night Live [so long as it’s not anything from 1980 to 1982] and seeing the Olympia Cafe sketch on an E! special about the show’s 101 greatest moments, I prefer Coke over Pepsi).

Speaking of turkeys throughout history, we’ve come to the point where I get to tell you how the turkey came to be associated with Thanksgiving. Hurrah!

Intensive farming of turkeys in the late 1940s dramatically cut the price, making it more affordable for the working classes. With the availability of refrigeration, whole turkeys could be shipped frozen to distant markets. Later advances in disease control increased production even more. Advances in shipping, changing consumer preferences and the proliferation of commercial poultry plants has made fresh turkey inexpensive as well as readily available. However, there was a time when turkey was considered a luxury (somewhere before the 19th century). If you wanted a good holiday meal, but didn’t have the cash for it, you settled for goose or beef. It’s the reason why Ebenezer Scrooge surprised Bob Cratchitt with turkey when he changed his ways at the end of A Christmas Carol (which most of you would know if you read the actual story instead of watching the parodies, adaptations, and clones that always come on TV or are released in movie theaters).

Oh, and forget all that crap you learned about the first Thanksgiving in school. I’m pretty sure the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down and eating together had the same tension as a Thanksgiving meal with a relative fresh out of prison/rehab, a grandmother or grandfather who embodies all the old, shameful prejudices this modern, politically correct society is trying to whitewash out of history, a college-aged older sibling who either came out of the closet, became a drug addict, is dating someone the family doesn’t like (and yes, that includes someone of a different ethnic background, sociopolitical status, and/or someone of the same sex), dropped out of school,  joined the military, or joined up with a fringe political party or religious group that conflicts with the family’s core values and morals, several aunts and uncles you haven’t seen in years and used to think were so cool, enough loud, bratty younger siblings/relatives to cast five kiddie sitcoms on The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, a patriarch trying to keep in touch with his fantasy football bets, and an overly-cheery matriarch trying to keep everything together with the power of her smiling like a Stepford wife on amphetamines and whatever antidepressant is popular on the market today. As this picture below shows, the Indians were forced to sit at what we modern people call “the children’s table.” They probably had a racist name for it, but that’s lost to time (hopefully). I’m saying this as a partial Native American (Cherokee, not Wampanoag), and someone who’s trying to see American history past the B.S. taught to younger generations:

We know the story of the first Thanksgiving, but how has the food changed since then? (Wikimedia Commons / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

Oh, and the menu that day in 1621 was wildfowl, corn, and venison (deer meat. I, personally, never had it, but it is on my culinary bucket list). No turkey, no biscuits, no green bean casserole, no collard greens, no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce, no sweet potato pie — nothing. So, how did we go from wildfowl, corn, and venison to turkey with all the trimmings and sides associated with it?

Because records from the 1600s were spotty (at best), it is unclear when and how the turkey first claimed its place as the Thanksgiving bird. Maybe it was after the turkey was passed up as America’s bird, but that’s just speculation. It’s generally acknowledged that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (he’s on the $10 bill in American currency) declared, “No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” By 1916, writers had begun referring to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day, but turkeys didn’t become a staple of the dinner until Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1941 during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration despite that Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States since 1863 (two years before the Civil War ended).

Pumpkins, like the turkey, are native to the North America continent. However, pumpkin probably was not baked into a pie at the first Thanksgiving. In fact, the Pilgrims did not even have access to ovens. While pumpkin and squash are part of the traditional New England harvest, the Pilgrims likely only ate boiled pumpkin, not the now-traditional pumpkin pie. Approximately fifty years after the first Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie gained popularity in New England. Recipes for pumpkin pie then appeared in English cookbooks beginning in 1670. The first American cookbook that included a recipe for pumpkin pie was not published until 1796. Pumpkin pie today is a popular way to conclude a delicious Thanksgiving feast with a sweet dessert, but, for my money, I’m going for something chocolate (preferably chocolate with hazelnut or pepperment) or too lethargic and full from eating to even care about dessert.

Stuffing has a longer history than turkey. Stuffing itself dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Recipes for stuffing appear in the Roman cookbook De re Coquinaria and the practice of stuffing large birds, not just turkeys, was common then and in the time of the Pilgrims. Does that mean stuffing was present at The First Thanksgiving? No, because the Pilgrims didn’t have access to flour or ovens when they sailed to Plymouth Rock.

Cranberries are native to North America, and eaten by the Native Americans before The First Thanksgiving was even a thing. Once the white settlers began consuming cranberries in the mid-1600s, cranberries became a crucial part of the New England harvest. It wasn’t until 50 years after Thanksgiving that referencs to traditional cranberry sauce appeared in the written historical record. Cranberries sealed their role as a part of the national Thanksgiving tradition in 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal. Cranberry sauce as you know it (the canned, gelatinous mass that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot fork and knife) wasn’t popular until 1912, when Ocean Spray canned and released it to the unsuspecting masses. Damn you, Ocean Spray.

Potatoes (Sweet and Regular White): At the time of the first Thanksgiving, neither white potatoes nor sweet potatoes had arrived in North America. White potatoes were native to South America, and sweet potatoes were native to the Carribean. Once sweet potatoes were brought to the United States from Europe, they quickly became popular in the South, where humid growing conditions suited the tuber. Southerners even used sweet potatoes as a substitute for pumpkin in pumpkin pie. The earliest recipe for candied sweet potatoes appeared around 1889, and sweet potato casseroles didn’t have marshmallows in them until a 1917 cookbook was published that popularized marshmallows as an everyday cooking ingredient. If you want to see weirder cookbook ideas and premises, visit my favorite site (and one of my inspirations for writing and humor), The Gallery of Regrettable Food, part of James Lileks’ “Institute of Official Cheer.”

Tune in for part three, where I finally get to that “dispensing tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal.” Thanks, and happy eating.

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All credit (verbal and visual) goes to Wikipedia, whitehouse.gov’s blog, and Neon Tommy

All About Pom (or Pomegranates 101)

This is Pom.

Pom is a Northern European free spirit — a little wacky, with outré ways that won’t win over everyone, but she does have a lot of friends who want to abandon their toxin-laden, supermarket-shopping, fat American ways and try something…different. Her hourglass figure brings to mind Mae West in her prime or Betty Boop before the Hays Code cracked down on her jazz-era sense of sexual freedom. She comes with a charming tag with diagrams on how many antioxidant properties she has than her Far East sister, Green Tea, which I love both as a drink and as an ice cream flavor.

With the exceptions of grape juice (which, to me, tastes too much like cough syrup with sugar in it), I love fruit juices of all kinds. I am very partial to cranberry juice (which, as a girl, is essential for cleaning out any and all infections in my urinary tract), lime juice (put some sea salt in it and you have a non-alcoholic margarita. Of course, you can add tequila and triple sec along with the salt if you want the real deal, but I’m not much of a drinker), tomato/vegetable blend juice like V8 (which I can always count in if I feel I’m not getting enough fruits and vegetables in my diet and is one of the reasons why I feel a blender is essential in the home kitchen), and any kind of exotic fruit juice (mostly from fruits associated with tropic climates, like passion fruit and mango). That’s where Pom comes in.

The concept of pomagranate juice will make those who aren’t used to it a little suspicious. For one thing, the inside of a pomegranate looks like this:

Your pomegranate insides may vary, but that’s typically what it looks like when you break it open, which may seem hard to cut with a kitchen knife because of the thick skin, but if you have a professional-grade kitchen knife, you can slice through it like it’s nothing. As for me, I’d rather summon the ghosts of my primitive, cave-dwelling ancestors and just slam it against something hard until it splits. Unlike my ancestors, however, I’ll be careful not to get any juice or seeds on the floor.

And that’s another thing about the pomegranate and Pom in general. Pomegranates are not like any fruit you’re used to. They don’t  have juicy flesh that can be fit through a juicer. You can’t twist one on a citrus reamer like you do with a lemon, a lime, a grapefruit, a pomelo, a tangelo, or an orange. Its interior looks  like a uterus with a serious ovarian cyst problem (one that needs surgery, not birth control pills, to fix), and, if you do manage to figure out that the seeds are the juicy part of the fruit, then you’ll discover that it’s very bitter and it’s bitterness doesn’t let up. Where’s the sharp, yet safe and refreshing taste of citrus or the mild, familiar autumn taste of apple juice (and its country cousin, apple cider)? You won’t find it here.

The pomegranate was originally from Iran and has been cultivated there and other parts of Europe and Asia, such as the Mediterrenean, the Caucasus region [that’s the area that includes countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, the southwestern tip of Russia, and Georgia — not the Southern U.S. state between Florida and South Carolina. This Georgia also goes by the name “Sakartvelo,” has Tbilisi as its capital city instead of Atlanta, and was part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s], the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and parts of Southeast Asia, it has religious symbolism (not like the apple as a forbidden fruit, which is actually a myth, as the Garden of Eden story in Genesis doesn’t mention that the forbidden fruit that was on the Tree of Knowledge was an apple. But that’s a blog post for another day) in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and in the religious beliefs of ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Persia, and China. Pomegranates were brought to California with the early Spanish settlers, the southwest coast and inland valley being ideal for cultivation. It’s juice improves well-being and mood in healthy adults (according to a study from endocrine-abstracts.org). The juice is also extremely high in antioxidants, which is said to be good for you. Since the science behind antioxidants is largely unproven, I’ll let you research and come to your own conclusions.

History and health benefits aside, attaining the tart juice of a pomegranate (not the seeds; the seeds are easy to get) does not come easy — and I’m speaking from experience as a former student cook/chef. It can and will leave a mess. Not in the “Oh, no! I gotta wash this shirt!” mess; more like “I swear, Officer!  I was juicing pomegranates three days ago and just now found this stabbed coed’s corpse!”

Most ways I’ve heard about juicing a pomegranate include breaking the fruit with a kitchen knife and careful hands, then reaming the sections like a lemon, putting the seeds in a plastic Ziploc bag and gently crushing them with a rolling pin (which makes the juice bitter, but this can be prevented if you’re gentle with it), and, of course, letting the juicer/food mill handle the dirty work. The last way is the easiest way if you want to reduce mess in your workspace (whether you cook in a professional kitchen or a home one that looks professional), and yes, if I had a juicer, a food mill, or one of those souped-up blenders they have nowadays that can do anything a professional cook can do, only better, then you’d see me use that to juice pomegranates. So, what’s the best way to juice a pomegranate? Why, the Ziploc bag/rolling pin method, of course (though, if you don’t have a rolling pin, anything heavy will do, like a big soup can, your fist if it’s big enough, the bottom of a tumbler or a measuring cup), as seen in this video:

Pom’s juice are great straight up or diluted with water. For those who don’t like her plain (her tartness won’t win over most) or want something a little more, there’s Pom with tangerine or mango juice. As mentioned before, Pom wants to be friendly and helpful to your body underneath its free, often unconventional ways, and will clash with those who are set in their ways. For those who want to party, Pom tastes better with Crown Russe (or any kind of) vodka than it does with anything else at the bar.

I’d like to close out with some pomegranate (both the juice and the fruit) recipes I have on my culinary bucket list):

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Appetizer:

Pomegranate Bruschetta — a fall/winter season take on a popular Italian appetizer. If you want it simple, just spread some regular cream cheese (or cream cheese made from goat’s milk) on a toasted baguette slice or a slice of Pullman bread (the type of bread people use for toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, club sandwiches, any kind of cold-cut sandwiches, the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich [that perennial favorite of most children who haven’t been cursed with a peanut allergy], and paninis) with the crust cut off and sprinkle pomegranate seeds on top. The pomegranate seeds are edible, but if you don’t like seeds, then you can do what I do when I chew gum: spit it out when the flavor’s gone (though that is definitely frowned upon in more polite settings. I suggest either swallowing the seeds, discretely spitting them out in a napkin, or tucking them in between your cheek and gums and excusing yourself to the restroom when you can’t hold any more).

If a bruschetta isn’t your thing, you can do a Turkish dip called muhammara that combines pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and roasted red bell peppers into a delicious, Mediterrenean/Central Eurasian spread that you can put on pita sandwiches or use as a substitute for ranch or blue cheese dressing with your vegetable platter.

Muhammara (Pomegranate, Red Pepper, and Walnut Dip) [Recipe credit goes to localfoods.about.com. The commentary is, however, copyright of me]

3 to 4 red bell peppers
1 pomegranate, split open
1 to 1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 clove garlic
1 to 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 to 1 tsp. sea salt

1) Roast the red peppers until the skin is blackened and about to fall off. If you have a gas stovetop or a culinary torch, you can roast them that way (I love this way of roasting red peppers). If you have neither, then lay your red peppers on a parchment-covered baking sheet and set the oven to “broil”. Let the peppers sit, covered in plastic wrap or in a plastic Ziploc bag, for about 15 minutes.

2) Preheat your oven to 350°F for the walnuts.

3) While the oven heats, seed the pomegranate by using a sharp knife to cut through the peel from stem to end (that’s called “scoring”). A medium pomegranate can be scored into six sections, and, depending on the size, you may have more or less. That’s normal. After scoring from stem to end, cut off the top of the pomegranate, being sure to cut off enough of the top to reveal the bright red seeds underneath, then use your bare (or gloved) hands to pull the pomegranate apart. If you want to reduce messiness, do this over a mixing bowl or a small to medium pot or pan. Seeding a pomegranate is very labor-intensive, as there are a lot of seeds to pick off the pith, but if you have fast hands and a lot of patience, it shouldn’t be a problem.

4) Lay the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in the oven. Cook until lightly toasted. While ten minutes is ideal time for your walnuts to toast, it’s not always the best time to go with, as oven cooking time varies from brand to brand and walnuts go from raw to burnt very quickly. My advice: invest in a cooking timer (or use a timer app on your cell phone if your cell phone has one) or check your walnuts frequently so they don’t burn.

5) While the walnuts cool, remove the skin from the peppers (which, as I mentioned before, will easily slip off). You can rinse them under cool running water, but this step is optional. Why? If I had to hazard a guess, it’d be because you might want to keep in some of the roasted flavor or maybe the charred pepper skin didn’t leave any black burn flakes behind.

6) Gently rub the walnuts with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and lift the walnuts off the towels. You won’t remove all the walnut skin, nor do you need to, but it should remove a fair amount of it. You can be how I used to be and be totally anal about making sure every piece of walnut skin is removed, but it’ll take too long, so if you don’t get them all, it’s not the end of the world.

7) Put the peppers, walnuts, pomegranate seeds (if you want, you can save a few for garnish), garlic clove, olive oil, and salt in a blender or food processor and whirl until the mixture is creamy and smooth.

8) Add lemon juice to taste and adjust salt to taste. Serve immediately or cover and chill to serve later. The dip will keep for several days.

9) Garnish with reserved pomegranate seeds (optional)

Best ways to eat it: on crackers or toasted baguette slices/mini toast squares with the crust cut off; with raw or lightly steamed vegetables; as a sandwich spread (toasted chicken or vegetarian flatbread or anything on a pita); with pita chips or homemade or storebought Doritos or potato chips.

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Soup:

Ash-e Anar, a Persian (Iranian) dish made from pomegranate juice and seeds, lentils, mint leaves, spices, ground beef meatballs (sometimes, but most recipes I’ve seen don’t call for meat of any kind. The Iraqi take on this dish, called shorbat rumman, is one such version), and rice. It’s more of a stew than a soup, as the broth is thicker and it’s very filling. It’s a very sweet and sour soup, and the pomegranate seeds are not only beautiful, but also acts as the wuji between the yin of sweet and the yang of sour.

3/4 cup lentils
2 tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee [a type of clarified butter commonly used in South Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan, and Pakistani) cuisine and religious rituals in Hinduism]
1 medium onion, chopped
8 cups water (2 quarts)
1 cup long-grain rice
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1 cup pomegranate juice (either storebought or homemade)
1 tablespoon butter, margarine, or ghee
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or 2 teaspoons crushed dried leaf mint
1 tablespoon raisins
1 lb ground beef, seasoned and shaped into meatballs (optional)

1) Pour the lentils in a colander. Set it in the kitchen sink and run cold water over them to clean them. Rinse them until you are sure that they are clean. Set it aside to drain.
2) Melt two tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute until tender.
3) Add water, drained lentils, rice, turmeric, salt and pepper and meatballs (if using them). Bring to a boil.
4) Reduce heat and cover. Simmer over low heat 40 minutes or until lentils and rice are tender.
5) (if making pomegranate juice by hand): Open the pomegranate and extract the juice using a lemon squeezer, or separate the seeds and use juicing method mentioned in this post. Skip this step if you are using storebought pomegranate juice.
6) Add the pomegranate juice along with parsley and green onions and simmer about 15 minutes longer.
7) Melt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine in a small skillet.
8) Add mint and raisins. Saute until butter or margarine is golden brown. Pour over soup.
9) Garnish with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint leaves and serve.

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Poultry Dish: Roasted Pomegranate Chicken (with credit to Everyday Cooking for the Jewish Home by Ethel G. Hofman)

I never cooked this one before, but I hope to do so soon. If you’re Moroccan Jewish, this is a favorite at a Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year or the Feast of Trumpets; celebrating the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in God’s world) table.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 (3 1/2 to 4-pound) chicken, quartered
1 pomegranate, halved
1/4 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2) In a cup, mix oil and garlic. Brush garlic oil over chicken.

3) Place chicken in a shallow baking dish. Drizzle any remaining oil over chicken. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, basting several times with pan juices, until skin is browned and juices run clear when a thigh is pierced at thickest part with a fork.

4) Remove 1 tablespoon seeds from pomegranates. Set aside for garnish. Squeeze juice form remaining pomegranate through a sieve into a small bowl.

5) In a small, nonreactive saucepan, mix pomegranate juice, wine, lemon juice, and cinnamon sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook 5 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

6) Transfer roasted chicken to a serving platter and pierce each piece several times. Pour sauce over chicken. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve at room temperature.

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Beef Dish: Beef Filets with Pomegranate-Pinot (or Pomegranate-Burgundy) Sauce [with credit to CookingLight.com]

Pomegranate seeds make a pretty garnish for this dish. Some recommended side dishes: grilled vegetables, potatoes dauphinoise, or a really nice mushroom risotto

4 (4-ounce) beef tenderloin steaks, trimmed
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
Cooking spray
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1/3 cup pinot noir or burgundy wine (use a burgundy cooking wine if you don’t have or don’t want to use real wine)
1/3 cup pomegranate juice (either store-bought or homemade)
1/3 cup fat-free, lower-sodium beef broth (either store-bought or homemade)
1 thyme sprig
1 1/2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces

1) Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.
2) Sprinkle steaks evenly with salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
3) Coat pan with cooking spray.
4) Add steaks to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness.
5) Remove steaks from pan; keep warm in an oven at 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit
6) Add shallots to pan and sauté 30 seconds.
7) Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper, wine, juice, broth, and thyme sprig; bring to a boil.
8) Cook 7 minutes or until reduced to about 3 tablespoons.
9) Remove from heat; discard thyme sprig.
10) Add butter to sauce, stirring until butter melts. Serve sauce with steaks.
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Side Dish: Pomegranate and Quinoa Pilaf

When you hear “pilaf,” it’s always associated with rice — thanks, in no small part to brands like Rice-A-Roni (I never did find out if Rice-A-Roni really is the San Francisco treat. I know San Francisco has cable cars, so those commercials aren’t that far off) and tradition. I’m here to tell you that a pilaf dish doesn’t always have to be rice-based. Orzo (a rice-like pasta) works, as does bulgur (a cereal food made from the hulled kernels of several different wheat species, most often from durum wheat), but the best rice substitute for pilaf is quinoa (a chenopod that biologically has more in common with tumbleweeds, spinach, and beetroots rather than the Poaceae family [the family that includes corn, wheat, rice, barley, and millet]).

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken broth or stock
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup diagonally sliced scallions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

1) Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the onion until translucent and fragrant.
2) Add the quinoa and stir to coat. Add the chicken broth or stock and bring to a boil.
3) Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa is tender.
4) In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 tablespoon olive oil, pomegranate seeds, scallions, parsley, lemon juice, zest, and sugar.
5) Add the quinoa and season with salt, and pepper to taste.
6) Garnish with toasted, slivered almonds.

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Dessert:
Pomegranate lends itself better as a sorbet or a water ice than as an ice cream (though it is possible to make a pomegranate ice cream or a gelato), but most dessert cooks will usually play it safe and use pomegranates for either a dessert sauce or use the seeds as a garnish to something like spiced pears, chocolate cookies, or as the base for a syrup or frosting that just lazily gets draped on a cheesecake or a sponge cake like an oversized T-shirt on the shoulders of an ’80s flashdancer.

However, if frozen treats and easy-make sauces on more established desserts aren’t for you, then try a pomegranate meringue, either by itself, on top of a tart or pie, or as part of a Baked Alaska (since the color of a pomegranate meringue is red, this would be ideal for Valentine’s Day or the dessert to any romantic dinner).

For your meringue, you start by whisking egg whites and salt (either by hand or with an electric mixer. An electric mixer is more ideal if you don’t have time or energy to burn) until frothy, keeping the whisk position as horizontal as possible. As you’re mixing, add a mix of cornstarch and sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. In about ten to fiften minutes of mixing, you’ll notice the egg whites are forming stiff peaks. That’s your cue to gently fold in some red food coloring and pomegranate juice for color and mix on low, creating beautiful swirls. With the help of two large slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites onto the parchment-lined baking tray. Twirl each of the meringue mounds so they finish off with a pointed peak. Bake your mounds for about an hour. After an hour, leave them to cool inside the oven with the door slightly open for 15 minutes. Serve your meringues with whipped cream or a handful of pomegranate seeds on top.

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Drinks: This is where the pomegranate’s juice really shines. From raw cleanses to cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), you can find pomegranate juice as the star. Here are three favorites:

Homemade Pomegranate Ginger Ale

Back when I was living in San Francisco as part of my Advanced Culinary training, I would (if I had the money) go into the city on the Muni on Saturdays to go to the farmers’ market. The people at Job Corps encouraged the culinary students to go out and see the many restaurants the city had. Since I was broke and did not the city well, it took me a while to get out there and do so. When I did, I began frequenting the farmers’ market. It had a lot of fruits, herbs, and vegetables that weren’t seen much back in my home state of Pennsylvania (blood oranges, pomelos, pluots, especially). It was there I tried out quark cheese, persimmons, bizarre-flavored ice cream from Humphrey Slocombe (you haven’t lived ’til you had Secret Breakfast ice cream [that’s cornflakes and bourbon]) and homemade ginger ale.

Prior to that, I didn’t know soda could be handmade. To me, it was either bought at the store or made with that SodaStream machine. Once that sweet, yet spicy taste of homemade ginger ale (and real ginger ale has that satisfying throat burn of real ginger. You don’t get that with Canada Dry or Schweppes, much as I love those two brands), it just blew my mind and showed that you can make soda from scratch, even cola and root beer, which have a lot of complex flavors that you don’t really taste in brand name soda. I came up with the pomegranate recipe for ginger ale like most foodies do it: by accident. I bought Pom and some Canada Dry and mixed them together. I looked online for a homemade variant, but could only find the recipe for regular ginger ale.

The Recipe:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) coarsely chopped, peeled fresh ginger
3 strips lemon peel (about 4 inches each), yellow part only
1/2 cup pomegranate juice (fresh)
1-1/2 cups (about) sugar
3 quarts chilled club soda

1) Place ginger, lemon peel, and 4 cups of water in a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer at a low boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Add sugar, stirring constantly, and continue to boil until reduced to about 3 cups, another 15 minutes.

2) Place a fine wire strainer over a large bowl. Pour in ginger mixture to separate solids from liquid. Discard the lemon peel.

3) Cool the syrup, pour into a glass container, seal tightly, and chill at least 1 hour until cold.

4) For each 16-ounce serving, mix 1/4 cup ginger syrup with 1 cup cold pomegranate juice and club soda. Pour over ice. Additional ginger syrup and/or sugar may be added to taste.

Pomegranate Star Fruit Greek Yogurt Smoothie

Smoothies were part of my daily breakfast when I was in college (when I was living in the dorms with my sister, and when I commuted). That was the only reason my sister and I bought a blender (that and my sister wanted blended coffee drinks and I wanted to make smoothies and mousse from scratch). Back then, my smoothies had no exotic fruits in it (unless you consider cranberries exotic), but when I became an intern for Three Stone Hearth and frequented the Farmers’ Market on the Bay (and became temporarily obsessed with Jamba Juice), I tried out some different smoothie flavor combinations. Jamba Juice had a pomegranate blueberry smoothie that I thought was good, but was nothing compared to its strawberry lime peach smoothie, which tastes like summer if summer had an official flavor.

Don’t get me wrong; pomegranate and blueberry is a good smoothie combo, but it’s a little overexposed (as far as Internet searches are concerned). To counter the tartness of the pomegranate, I used the understated, not-quite-citrus taste of star fruit (carambala) and the smoothness of Greek yogurt.

The Recipe:

2 cup(s) plain Greek yogurt, well chilled
2 cup(s) pure pomegranate juice (fresh squeezed or bottled fresh), well chilled
2 star fruits, cut into pieces

1) In a blender, combine the chilled Greek yogurt with the pomegranate juice.
2) Add the sliced bananas and puree.
3) Pour the smoothie into tall, chilled glasses and serve at once.

Pomegranate Sparkling Sangria

A normal sangria is made of brandy, a sweetener (usually honey, orange juice, flavored drink syrups, and agave nector), red wine (sangria is from the Spanish word for “blood” — perfect for those over-21 Halloween parties), and some kind of chopped fruit (oranges, lemons, limes, apples, peaches, any kind of melon, any kind of berry, pineapples, grapes, kiwis, and mangoes are the most popular). If you don’t drink, are underage, or are a recovering alcoholic, you can switch out the brandy and wine with fruit punch, seltzer, or any of your clear lemon-lime sodas (Sprite and 7 Up).

This sangria is red because of the pomegranate liqueur and the Cabernet Sauvignon (a very popular red wine. It’s like Merlot, only more robust and doesn’t hit you as hard — at least that’s what I’ve been told the two times I volunteered for “A Taste of Mendocino”). Like a Long Island Iced Tea, it’s very heavy on the alcohol, so it’s not for lightweights who think they can handle anything stronger than American beer.

The Recipe (credit goes to www.stirrings.com)

1 oz. BV® Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon
1 oz. Stirrings® Pomegranate Liqueur
0.5 oz. Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum
2.5 oz. apple cider
Garnish: citrus or apple wedges

1) Combine the first 3 ingredients in an ice filled rocks glass and top with sparkling cider.

2) Stir well.

3) Garnish with citrus wedges and or apple slices.

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Thank you, and Happy Eating!

Friday Video: Cooking With The Fraternity Chef

This week on Take Back the Kitchen’s Friday Video (don’t worry; tomorrow I’ll have an article ready), Daniel “Dano” Pettinato shows you (and other starving college students) how to make macaroni and cheese. Personally, I don’t care much for it, but, to my sister, it means everything. I’m trying to wean her off the boxed and pre-made stuff in favor of “homemade”-style. I don’t think she can tell the difference. Food is food to her.

“Dano” Pettinato is originally from East Hartford, Conneticut. He is currently the chef for Psi Upsilon (Psi U) at Trinity College (also in Hartford, Connecticut). He has an online video series he created with ChefsInTheKitchen.tv (which is the same place I’m applying for to pitch a cooking show series — or do some kind of production work for them).

Avenue BBQ, part one: Food History 101

This is a special two-part blog about the barbecue season, including its history, regional differences, international differences, and, of course, the requisite recipes, tips, tricks, and advice on how to prepare the food and put out a gorgeous outdoor spread.

All credit for research and visual aids go to about.com, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary/Thesaurus,  and all the Job Corps instructors I worked with about the art and subject of grilling and barbecue.

Ah, the first week of July. It’s the height of barbecue/grilling season (which started on Memorial Day Weekend back in May and won’t end until Labor Day in early September). While it would be easy for me to list recipes of barbecue season favorites right away, I’m not going to do that — at least not until tomorrow. So, today, in the words of every teacher ever, take out your notebooks (both paper and electronic) and make sure you take extensive notes in case I feel like giving a quiz later.

Now, let’s start with the word “barbecue.” Where does it come from? Well, the concept of a barbecue (roasting the carcass of a dead animal over a pit of fire) has been around since the Stone Age (maybe earlier than that, but let’s assume it was from the time of early man). Back then, roasting the meat was more than just a way to eat it; it was also a means to perserve it, since refrigeration and proper perserving techniques wouldn’t come until much later.

However, if you want to get technical about the etymology (word origin) of “barbecue” (even though, in the words of Nelson Muntz, “…records from that era are spotty, at best “), the Taíno people of the Caribbean and northeast South America are said to be the ones who came up with the name “barbacoa,” which means, “sacred fire pit.” Their idea of a barbecue back then was to dig a hole in the ground, burn some kindling, and roast a whole goat over a pot. Between the pot and the goat was a criss-crossed wooden platform (the “grill”) that acted as a net in case the goat meat fell off the bone, which it usually did (I never had goat meat, so I can’t really tell you what it tastes like or what to expect. I have, however, had goat cheese, and, by extension, goat milk. Both have a sharper, more pleasing taste than anything you get from a cow. In terms of price, however, it does cost a bit more — especially at the farmer’s market I frequented in San Francisco on most Saturday afternoons).

From there, “barbecoa” and its cooking methodology found its way from the Caribbean to other countries, mostly ones in Europe, since European explorers always found their way to the Caribbean (hey, it happened to Christopher Columbus) and brought back what the natives had (cooking techniques, treasures fit for royalty, a new disease [sexually transmitted or otherwise], maybe a few slaves). The word “barbecoa” found its way to the Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English languages.

The process began to evolve with the migration of Europeans and their African slaves in the Southern United States. Barbecue traditions on the East Coast are believed to have originated when Caribbean slaves (some of which may or may not have been my ancestors) were brought to the Carolinas in the 17th century. This Caribbean style of slow cooking meat formed the basis of the Southern barbecue tradition that influenced Texas when some of its first American settlers arrived. European pigs and cattle were transplanted to the New World (America) and became the primary meat source for the colonies. Pork was the meat of choice in the South due to the ability of pigs to thrive with little care, which is why pork is popular in Carolina and Memphis barbecue (not so much Texas and Kansas City, as I will discuss in this next paragraph).

Moving forward from the brief history of where barbecue came from, let’s look at the regional and international variations. America has eight regional differences of what barbecue is, but four of them are said to be the most important:

North and South Carolina: As mentioned before, pork is the meat of choice in a lot of Southern barbecue, and the Carolina twins are one of the states where pig meat reigns supreme on the grill (unless you’re vegetarian, vegan, Jewish, or Muslim). It’s served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced, rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking, and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid while it’s being smoked.

If you’re from Eastern North Carolina, then you get to use everything but the squeal as you’re barbecuing Mr. Porky. While that seems like Homer Simpson’s wet dream to eat an entire barbecued pig, I personally can’t warm up to the idea of eating charcoal-roasted chitlins (or chitterlings. In all my years on Earth, I have never pronounced “chitterlings” as “chit-ter-lings.” It’s “chitlins” and no amount of My Fair Lady-style elocution lessons is going to change me otherwise). It was bad enough I had to put up with the smell when I lived with my grandmother. Then again, I don’t mind pig intestines when the linings are being used for sausages. That’s pretty much the only way I can eat it, but I digress. Eastern North Carolina also uses a thin, vinegar-and-cayenne pepper-based barbecue sauce that’s more hot sauce than barbecue sauce (at least for those who associate barbecue sauce with the spicy, yet sweet, tomato-based sauce from Kansas City, Missouri). In Eastern North Carolina barbecue, the philosophy is to let the smoke give the meat flavor rather than rely on sauce or too much spice. It’s a very open, honest approach to barbecue.

Western North Carolina only uses pork shoulder (better known as a Boston butt), as shown on the barbecue grill in this picture:

I could live until I’m 100, and I still wouldn’t know why a “pork shoulder” is called a “Boston butt.” A pig’s butt is fleshier than that, and it doesn’t have that curly tail at the end of it. Here’s what Mr. Porky looks like before he goes to market to get slaughtered by Jocko the Butcher:

The actual butt of a pig is what we call the “ham” (which you can have at a barbecue, but only if it’s one of those Hawaiian ones). Maybe it’s called a Boston butt is because some leering butcher made a rude comparison between that cut of meat and his female customer’s posterior. Who knows?* All I know is that pork shoulder is the cut of meat that is used if you want to make pulled pork (whether it’s on the grill or with a slow cooker). Pork shoulder lends itself to barbecue and braising.
Anyway, N.C. barbecue on the west side also uses a vinegar-based barbecue sauce, but it balances its spiciness with some tomato (not as much as K.C. barbecue, but pretty close). Western N.C. barbecue is also known as Lexington Barbecue, as Lexington, North Carolina is the epicenter of this cooking technique, as evidenced by its many barbecue restaurant and a one-day festival in October called (creatively enough), “The Lexington Barbecue Festival.” Their philosophy is similar to the east side, but also adds, “A little sweetness never hurt anybody,” which I think everyone but diabetics and those who can’t taste sugar can agree with.
Memphis, Tennessee: Memphis barbecue is a hard subject to nail down, but I’ll do my best. Memphis-style barbecue is pork-based like the Carolinas, but their meat of choice is (my personal favorite) ribs in a paprika-hinted dry rub and slow-smoked over a low hickory fire  before finishing on the grill. It’s preferred “dry,” meaning without sauce (becasue the rub adds all the flavor you could ever want on the ribs, so a sauce would be redundant), but if you want it “wet” (with sauce), you won’t get beaten up or chased out of town because of it. Memphis’ barbecue sauce takes the vinegar-and-tomato based flavor of the West side N.C. barbecue sauce and adds a hint of mustard to it. Because the dry rub and smoking provides all of the flavor, a Memphis-style barbecue sauce has to straddle the line between sweet and spicy. It can’t be one or the other. My first cooking assignment at Job Corps in Kentucky was to make barbecue sauce that started out as Memphis-style, but I added some extra ingredients to make it more the way I like it. Here’s the recipe to cut, copy, paste, edit, write down, and pass down to your next of kin:
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Ingredients:1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon mild chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne (optional)Preparation:
Melt butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients (vinegar last), reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Optionally you can puree this sauce to make a smoother barbecue sauce.
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I omitted the butter, didn’t add any oregano or thyme, used cayenne pepper (but sometimes, I’ll go for hot sauce), and added hickory-flavored liquid smoke. I’m also thinking of substituting ketchup for tomato paste or just making ketchup by hand and using that. I also add honey if I want it sweet and use both cayenne and hot sauce if I’m feeling particularly masochistic and want my digestive tract to burn. If you want the barbecue sauce to taste like something you’d get in a Memphis BBQ shack, then prepare it as is. If you want to change it to your taste, then do that too. One thing I learned in life is that recipes don’t have to be followed to the letter (unless you’re baking, then you have to follow recipes [called “formulas” in the bakeshop] to the letter).
Much like Lexington, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee prides itself in being Barbecue Central, moreso than Lexington (but don’t tell them that). Memphis is home to one of the largest concentrations of barbecue restaurants in the world and also has a city-wide event celebrating it: The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition.
Texas: Now, we’re out of pork territory and into what a lot of people associate with barbecue: beef, and lots of it. Texas is so synonymous with barbecue that even Pennsylvania (a state that’s more based on griddle and oven cooking more than grilling, as seen with our Philly cheesesteaks, our Italian and Greek cuisine, or our pretzels from Amish country) has Texas-style BBQ restaurants (Bubba’s Texas BBQ, on West Girard Avenue). Texas barbecue is all about beef — at least in Central Texas, where cattle is plentiful and people take beef seriously. East Texas’s barbecue is more like Carolina barbecue: more pork-based (pork shoulder and pork ribs slow-smoked over hickory wood are common dishes) and heavily influenced from the days of black slavery, West Texas barbecue uses a more direct heat method (as in “roasting over a spit”-style), is influenced from the Wild West and cowboys, uses mesquite wood as kindling, and also barbecues goat and mutton (sheep meat) as well as beef, and Southern Texas barbecue is more influenced by Mexican tastes.
Brisket is the meat cut of choice in Central Texas:
Central Texas barbecue became established in the 19th century in central Texas towns such as Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor, which were home to European immigrants (mostly from Germany and Czechoslovakia [now The Czech Republic]) who worked as butchers. From those butcher shops came restaurants, as the butchers often preserved their meat by smoking it over wood chips from oak and pecan trees. The European settlers did not think of this meat as “barbecue,”  but the farm workers who bought it started calling it such, and the name stuck. When Texas-style barbecue first started, it catered to the upper class, who could choose among the highest quality cuts of meat. Because of this, they did not have an interest in the sauces. To this day, Eastern, Western, and Central Texas doesn’t emphasize sauces (Southern Texas, however, is the odd man out).
Kansas City, Missouri: K.C. Mo’s barbecue, out of all the barbecue styles discussed, has the widest variety of meats on the grill and is about as close to traditional barbecue (the “low-slow smoking” style. Grilling, in contrast to barbecue, is like sautéing and frying — high heat and quick cooking) as you can get. Besides the usual pork and beef seen in the Carolinas, Memphis, and Texas, chicken, mutton, turkey, and fish are also on the menu. Dishes cooked by other methods, such as grilled chicken, also can be found on the menus of local barbecue restaurants in Kansas City (and St Louis). Just about every type of barbecued meat served in America’s other barbecue capitals, from North and South  Carolina’s pulled pork to Texas’s brisket, is served here, though the burnt ends of a brisket of beef or pork  are distinctive to the city. Like Texas, Kansas City barbecue also has plenty of side dishes, most of which are common in “soul food” (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, coleslaw, baked beans, and French fries), as seen here:
File:Kansas City-Style Barbecue (cropped).jpg
However, unlike Carolina, Memphis, and most of Texas barbecue, Kansas City barbecue is renowned for its barbecue sauce: tomato-based, with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles. It’s a lot like what you would find in South Carolina or Memphis, but the tomato taste is more pronounced and more emphasis is put on how sweet it is rather than how spicy it is. Ever hear of K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce at your local grocery store? Well, that’s where it’s from:
Well, it’s past 3:30 pm. We did a good job today, class.
Class Dismissed!
*Pork shoulder actually called a Boston butt because, in pre-revolutionary New England and into the American Revolutionary War, some pork cuts that weren’t considered “high on the hog,” like loin and ham were packed into casks or barrels, known as “butts,” for storage and shipment, but my explanation is funnier.