Take Back the Basics: Intro

Depending on where you are, it’s that time of year again when people are either back in school or preparing to go back, usually by going on one last summer vacation and/or going “back to school” shopping. After a long vacation here at “Take Back the Kitchen,” I’d like to announce that the blog is back again – or will be on September 2nd, when I start my “Take Back the Basics” series.

“Take Back the Basics” is my take on the Cooking 101 course. I haven’t done much of it (it’s been sprinkled here and there, usually under some culinary history/trivia), and, since this is the time of year when high schoolers and college kids move on to the real world, I figure, “Hey, why don’t you make it a semi-regular segment?”

So this is where I am: every Tuesday (or depending on whether outside obligations don’t distract me), I’ll be teaching you the basics of cooking, from learning what kind of kitchen supplies and ingredients you need to how to make your own sauces to learning proper nutrition. Think of it as the culinary arts/home economics (or “home and life skills,” if you want to be politically correct. I know some schools do refer to the home ec class as such, but that could be hearsay) class you wish you had: one where the teacher doesn’t bore you, the lesson plan is up-to-date, you learn a lot because it has a goodly amount of visuals (both in pictures and the way I write), and, most importantly, I allow critical thinking and asking questions in case I misinform you or omit something that’s vital.

So, enjoy your last week of summer (and Labor Day), and I’ll see you in class on September 2nd!

–Canais “PhillyFoodie85” Young

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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

Dear Reader,

In less than two weeks, I’ll be drafted. Not to fight for my country, but to help my mother cook Thanksgiving dinner.

I come from a family where, despite being on the lower-middle class rung on the American social ladder, we always put out a decent spread — not just for Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. While searching for steady work outside the home, I became a kitchen guru for my mother (who, if she was in a culinary education institute, would be commended for her hands-on work instead of her classroom knowledge. For me, it would be the other way around, though my hands-on work is pretty good…just, not good enough for a professional kitchen. That’s why I want to either teach others about cooking — whether it’s being some cooking teacher’s assistant or having my own video series online), informing her of the tips and tricks I learned in Kentucky and California (mostly California), introducing her to new foods (particularly fruits she would never eat, like figs, star fruits, lychees, and passion fruit), and answering (to the best of my ability) any and all queries about cooking time, flavor combinations, and how to make the most out of meals without going over budget. Now, last year, I wasn’t as instrumental to the Thanksgiving planning as I could have been (why? I forget. I can assume it was because my mom didn’t need my help), but this year, it’s different.

From now until Thanksgiving Day, I will be chronicling my thoughts on Thanksgiving (both historically and through the eyes of a food blogger), the typical dishes served, and what’s changed throughout the years.

Sincerely,

PhillyFoodie85 (Canais Young)

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:
————————————————————————————-
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.
———————————————————————————
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.