Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Let's Talk Turkey... or Pig...or Oysters?

Thanksgivings in our family have become an epic event. I come from a family that hardly ever plans any event months ahead of time and we have found that, lately, we have started plannning Thanksgiving as far as eight months out. CRAZY!This is the third year running that we've done this now and our group has grown this year, too. We've added a new spouse, a girlfriend, and a couple more babies to the dinner table. It's a big, crazy crowd of kids and adults for an extended three or four days of fabulous food, endless drinks and tons of laughs... and we love it! 
This wonderful madness all began the Thanksgiving of 2007. My family had all agreed to get together at my house (which was huge because at that time it meant that half of them were travelling cross country to see us) and I, along with Chef, agreed over the phone that this would not be an ordinary Thanksgiving. This one would have a more rustic, more European taste to it and there was not to be a turkey. Chef ran with this. This was his dream. One non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner coming right up!
2007 Crispy, Cracklin', Stuffed Porchetta
He special ordered a porchetta to stuff and roast and we planned on ratatouille, risotto, and a couple other side dishes. Appetizers would be bruschetta topped off with roasted red peppers and crumbled goat cheese with olive oil on top. Mmmmm...no turkey, mashed potatoes, and the stuffing was
inside the porchetta! Chef cooked the porchetta to perfection- crispy and brown on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth on the inside. And, we did end up roasting a whole chicken just for Ruckus. It turned out he was too much of a traditionalist for the rest of us. For dessert? Not pumpkin pie, or even pecan pie. I made my first homemade tiramisu. It was my first ever attempt at my all-time favorite dessert and it was a little heavy on the brandy. But none of the men seemed to mind that. It was a deliciously non-traditional Thanksgiving meal and we found, most importantly, that it was a fun way to start a new family tradition.
Thanksgiving of 2008 we decided we had had so much fun with the non-traditional Thanksgiving theme that we would do it again, but still find a way to keep the traditionalists happy. Chef special ordered a bigger version of his porchetta- this time an entire, organic pig to roast. Lucky Chef had an empty seat next him on his flight to my house so that the pig (which was frozen and packed up whole in his carry-on luggage) could fly comfortably next to him. 
Chef with the 2008 Thanksgiving Pig
Can you tell we are serious about our food in my family? Chef prepared the pig that night upon arrival and injected it with all sorts of special flavors that he had brought with him. The poor pig turned out to be the source of much heated debate that Thanksgiving. Would he be served whole on the table? After all, we serve the turkey whole, don't we? How else do you present a Thanksgiving pig at the table? The family was split on this matter. As it turned out, Patty (Ruckus's fiancee) used to raise pigs growing up and was becoming more and more traumatized by the whole display (understandably so). So Chef decided to cut up the pig and serve it as pork slices and shredded pork at the table. We still had a fried turkey to display and make room for. We do feel badly about Patty's experience with the whole thing.
And now ... Thanksgiving 2010. (We all made different plans for 2009 since two members of the family were deployed.) So this year, somehow, we have come back to a fully traditional Thanksgiving (much to Ruckus's relief)... well, mostly. A big organic turkey has been ordered to roast and serve at the table along with some version of mashed potatoes, select veggie dishes to be determined and, oh- the stuffing! My favorite part! We have decided to make it an oyster stuffing... I've been put in charge of bringing the oysters, too, since they are a local delicacy in my neck of the woods!!! We'll find our own ways of adding some foodie twists to the side dishes, I'm sure. And there will be an oyster roast added in as a pre-Thanksgiving meal or maybe post Thanksgiving meal, too! Mmmmm... 
Whether your Thanksgiving is about creating new traditions or keeping the old traditions alive, I hope it is filled with lots of family, friends, laughter, great food and even better memories! Happy Thanksgiving and happy eating!!!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Caldo de Pollo

Chicken soup is about as basic as it gets when it comes to homemade cooking. In Spanish it's called "Caldo de Pollo" and my mom's recipe includes potatoes and fresh cilantro added at the end to really take this classic soup to the next level. This is the soup I crave and remember everytime I'm sick or I'm caring for my sick ones. The cilantro gives it extra heartiness that most chicken soups are lacking.
I took an extra step in preparing this soup and cut up a whole chicken by myself! I had to get over the sliminess of it all, but once my inner butcher came out it was a pretty gratifying experience. By the the end of it, I had the breasts, thighs, legs, and wings on the cutting board all ready to be seasoned and browned for the soup. The only way this could have been better would have been if I'd caught it and killed it myself.  Okay, I'm still several steps away from that. Maybe one day when I'm living on my own self-sustained farm in Tuscany. For now, I feel good about supporting the local, smaller farms that sell their free-range, organically-raised chickens. The skin and the bones from the chicken are an absolute must in order to get the full flavor for the Caldo de Pollo. You can get skinless chicken pieces, though, if you like. Chicken breasts will do, but they won't give your soup as much flavor as the rest of the chicken with the bones still in.

1 whole chicken
1 chopped onion
3 chopped celery stalks
3 or more chopped carrots
2 potatoes
1 or 2 minced garlic cloves
2 Tbsp olive oil
sea salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. white wine
about 4 c. water
1/2 box of angel hair pasta or other noodles of choice
fresh cilantro

In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil and brown the chicken pieces in a single layer at the bottom of the stockpot, skin side down first. Salt the chicken as it is browning. Add the onions, carrots and celery along with the wine. Add a little more salt. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low/medium-low and let simmer for about 20 minutes before adding the chopped potatoes. Simmer on low for about an hour.  This will cook the chicken slowly and make it fall right off the bone. At this point, if you have left the skin on the chicken you will want to skim the grease off the top of the soup and you will also want to strain the soup.  I removed the skin from the chicken pieces and deboned them as well at this point. (You can skip all of this if you have used boneless chicken breasts, of course.) Once you have skimmed and strained the broth you may add your choice of noodles to the soup. I used simple angel hair pasta broken into quarters. I like the angel hair because it cooks quickly. At this point the soup is done. Add the fresh cilantro to the soup. I absolutely LOVE cilantro and so I simply wash it and add several branches of it without chopping.You may add it chopped or whole. Either way it will infuse it's fantastic flavor into the soup. Enjoy!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rutabaga (not Turnip) Soup

Root Soup as I now like to call it... So I bought a big rutabaga at the store last week thinking that I would introduce a new vegetable to my kids. I was feeling brave one night and decided that would be the night for rutabaga soup. It was a crisp, fall night and the kids had been playing outside all day. The perfect end to the perfect day would surely be a hearty , hot cream of vegetable soup! They were always my favorite growing up. This rutabaga soup would definitely be a new one to add to the list. So I set to it… for some reason, when I bought this root vegetable I knew fully well that it was a rutabaga. But, that fateful night, I got it in my head that I was cooking a turnip and so I looked up ideas for turnip soup. The rutabaga-by-the -way-of-turnip soup turned out delicious! And now I have more ideas for rutabagas! It is a very tough root, so have your knives sharpened to peel this baby! Celery would have been great to add here, so if you have some add it in with the onions. This is a very rough recipe because I was simply using what I had in my pantry and fridge that particular night without having to run to the store. There is plenty of room for improvement here, so please tell me how you varied the recipe if you try it! Here is my version…

1 rutabaga (not turnip)
½ large sweet onion
2 large potatoes
white wine
Chicken broth
2 Tbsp. butter
fresh parsely to garnish at the end
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper

Dice up the onions. Cut up the rutabaga into about 1 inch square sizes. Cut the potato into roughly the same size cubes.

Melt the butter in a large stockpot. Add the onions. Add the rutabaga. Fresh garlic would be lovely here, too, but I didn't have fresh so I added a bit of garlic powder. (Fresh is always best, but when I'm in a pinch I go to my spice cabinet!) A bit of celery salt also replaced the fact that I did not have the fresh celery I would have loved! So, cook the onions and rutabagas in the butter a bit. Add about a cup of white wine, depending on how you are feeling. Now add the chicken broth/stock. (I'm not good at specific measures... I'd say about 2-3 cups of liquid or until the liquid is almost double the vegs.)Let this boil for about 5 minutes before adding the potatoes. Add the potatoes and let it all boil together on medium heat until potatoes and rutabagas are fork tender. (your knife or fork should easily slip in and out.) Now you are ready to puree the soup in your blender! (be careful not to let the blender fall on your head causing you to curse out loud when getting it down from the very high shelf that it's been collecting dust on. This will also slow down your serving time. I'm okay though, just a little bump.) The soup is very hot so be careful to hold the blender lid down while you puree, and don't fill the blender too much- only about halfway at a time. Puree a little at a time. Stir all the pureed soup together adding sea salt and a little fresh pepper to taste at the the end. Garnish with freshly chopped parsley it's ready to serve! Enjoy! One of my kids did!

<---Cakes with her soup..."Momma-you make the best beggie soup evew!!!" And we only had to threaten the Baron with hot peppers (on the table) if he didn't finish the soup that his mother had worked so hard on! Haha! The bread was also bribery. I love this last picture! Where's the baby? Well, let's just say he didn't approve of the soup either. I guess boys don't like rutabagas.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Little Gourmands in the Making

The thing about having mini gourmands is they eat all the good food! They may not like everything I cook, but if it comes to seafood- they love it all! I’m talking Dungeness Crab, oysters, mussels, blue crab, shrimp… need I go on? Talk about expensive taste! The other day we had lunch at a local restaurant on the river. It is oyster season here and I absolutely LOVE oysters! Give them to me raw on the half shell and I am a happy girl! So I ordered a dozen oysters as an appetizer and the waitress finally brings out the beautiful plate of a dozen oysters on the halfshells. Right away my 4-year-old daughter, Cakes, starts in: “OOOhhhhh! Mommy, can I hab an oysto?” Of course, this question always makes me proud, but that pride quickly fades when I look at the plate of oysters in front of me. I want to eat my oysters and savor each one… tap, tap, tapping and pulling on my shirt continues. “Momma, momma! Can I hab an oysto?” I am carefully squeezing the lemon juice onto each oyster. “Momma, momma! I want an oysto! Can I hab one? Momma?” As I’m pulling the first slimy sucker out of its shell and drawing it closer to me, of course I hand the fork over to Cakes. The look of delight is too much to not make me grin with pride and joy. She really loves them! I cannot say I was that adventurous with food when I was her age. Here’s the thing. When I was her age there were clearly foods that my parents did not share with us. Oysters would have been one of them. I can picture my father saying something like, “Ladies do not eat oysters.” Mmm-hmmm…well this little lady does! But that was their rightful way of saying, “No, this is mine and I’m not sharing it with you until you fully appreciate it or can pay for it yourself.” Ha! If my child shows an interest in it and it’s not a choking hazard (or bacterial hazard- oysters are a concern for young babies- don’t give raw oysters to young babies) then I say give it to them! The worst is that they won’t like it and you have still exposed them to something new. Children want to eat how their parents eat most of the time. What could be more convenient than cooking only one meal (meaning the one you would like to eat for dinner) and having everyone eat that one meal? I’ve done it all so I know… being a short-order cook is not convenient, but I still do it when my husband is away a lot. But it’s so much easier for me when I actually plan one good meal and give it to my kids without a choice. Yes, there’s fighting and heavy sighing at the sight of the food most of the time, but isn’t it our job to torture them a little? Seriously, though, I didn’t like all the meals my mom put on the table growing up. There were some meals where I wished I had a dog to feed my food to under the table when my mom wasn’t looking. Sometimes my brother and I would pull the “I have to go to the bathroom” excuse only to spit out our food in the toilet. We were terrible! And we never appreciated how good we had it! I do now, but growing up you don’t always have a taste palate for all the tastes in different foods. I used to hate tomatoes. I remember really wanting to like them because they were a staple in my house and the rest of my family loved them, but every time I tasted one, I just couldn’t eat them. Now, I LOVE tomatoes and eat them all the time. So I get it. I totally get the looks on my kids’ faces when I serve cream of rutabaga soup for dinner and tell them that they have to try it. (Yes, this is a true story! I have the pictures to prove it! It was delicious! The looks on the kids' faces were priceless)I know that they are wishing for pizza or something “normal.” Feeding my kids well is a struggle all about constantly exposing them to new flavors. The challenge is to keep my kitchen open and my creative food juices flowing! For now, I'll consider the fact that my kids have expensive taste in food (all things seafood that is) a small feat.
Watch out for the post about the rutabaga soup next!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tastes like pizza!

It is usually not in my character to plan ahead, but yesterday I had dinner ready by 9am! That’s right, I actually brought my crockpot down from the top shelf that it was hiding on, dusted it off and cranked it up. I actually had the foresight the night before to leave a beef roast out to defrost. My biggest obstacle in cooking is actually thinking ahead the night before about what I might cook the next day since I usually just cook whatever I’m feeling that day. So, I got home from taking the kids to school, seasoned the roast in the crockpot, chopped up an onion and some carrots and threw in a can of diced tomatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and seasoning and ta-dahhh! Within an hour I could already start to smell the goodness I had thrown together. And by 3 o’clock that afternoon the whole house smelled like I had been slaving away all day! Even the Baron (my 7-year-old) commented how good the house smelled when he came home from school. That put a huge smile on my face! When I finally served it for dinner (I could hardly contain myself from the delicious smell all day long!), they still looked at it like it was roadkill, but once they tasted it the Baron said, “Mom! The meat is so… TENDER!” “mmmmm! The carrots taste like pizza! How did you get the carrots to taste like pizza, mom?” Well, that, I would call magic! Honestly, though, the meat really was melt-in-your-mouth delicious! Even Bam-Bam (our one-year-old) was saying “ummmmm-yyy!” I served the stew with a big chunk of bread to sop up the saucy goodness at the end. Big hit all around! I will be breaking out my neglected crockpot a lot more this season… what a timesaver!

Monday, November 8, 2010

What Memories are Made of

My childhood is loaded with memories of delicious home-cooked food. At Christmas time it was the ritual of a big, extravagant Christmas Eve dinner with a house full of intoxicated family and friends. My mother had set the table with her just-pressed table cloth, best china, silver, and crystal. The house was warm (we lived in Florida) and the smells that filled it from the kitchen were glorious! Even as young kids we knew that the next day would also bring more of our favorite foods. I always looked forward to my mother and aunt making our grandfather’s favorite spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce on Christmas Day. You know, the kind of sauce that was so soupy it didn’t really stick to your spaghetti and you had to have a spoon to drink the sauce after your pasta was all eaten up… but it was sooooo delicious! Fresh tomatoes cooked in olive oil with basil….mmmmm!!! Later I came to realize that this was a very simple dish to serve to such a large group of starving family on Christmas Day after all of the Christmas Eve celebrations… but it was more than enough for all of us to savor and enjoy! It made an impression on me, anyway! When it came to our birthdays, my mom would tell the birthday boy or girl (I grew up with 3 brothers) to choose our very favorite dish and she’d make it especially for that lucky person. Getting to choose the night’s dinner was my mom’s way of showing us how special we were on that day and we all loved it! You’d think we would have chosen chicken nuggets or hot dogs (today’s go-to meal choices for kids), but not us. Our favorites were stuffed roasted tomatoes, Breaded fried steak stuffed with ham and cheese, or spaghetti with homemade meat sauce to name only a few. I think I changed mine several times, but the one that sticks out in my head was Chef’s favorite that he had mom make for him every year on his birthday: escargot. (We should have known then that he was destined to food greatness!) And so we all learned to love the sophisticated French dish of snails swimming in a decadent garlic butter sauce. To this day I have not tasted an escargot dish as delicious as my mother’s (and trust me, I’ve sought it out- some have come close)… the perfection of her buttery garlic sauce and the snails presented in their shells on silver dishes with the little divets in them made for each snail… mmmm, my mouth waters thinking about my bread dipping into all of that garlic goodness at the end! Can you believe I grew up eating that since I can remember?
My mom is the reason for my brothers’ and my eclectic taste in food. She has always made cooking look so easy and natural- almost never from a recipe. (The only times I’ve seen my mom use a recipe are when she bakes.) What an amazing thing for children to grow up knowing… good food cooked from scratch. What a way to liven up the senses! What a great way to inspire creativity! Food exposes us to new flavors and cultures around the world, all without leaving our kitchen table!