Food Holidays and the Challenges of Expectation

So, right after the joys of Halloween comes Thanksgiving followed quickly by whatever Winter Celebratory Feast you participate in.  For someone with a kitchen-focus like mine, these are pretty much the best two months of the year.  It condones tons of irrational cooking, eating and sharing your kitchen with people you (hopefully) enjoy spending time with.

The problem is we have major recipe issues around this time of year!  Most people rarely roast large pieces of meat on a daily basis, or make pie, OR COOK.  Mashed potatoes might be the only thing you can reliably repeat year-round.

I would have published more on the subject, but it’s been kitchen busy… So let’s cut to the chase.

Let’s talk about Turkey.  It’s a big lean bird.  The breast wants to dry out before the skin crisps, and the dark meat is dense and unforgiving of being underdone.  Oh the stress, right?  WRONG.  It’s way easier than people think.  It just takes thinking!

What do people want?  Juicy meat, crispy golden skin, right?  One thing guarantees both on any piece of any kind of large piece of meat.  Salt+Time.  The water added means starting with higher moisture internally keeping it juicy, and the salt will provide water retention and flavor.  You still with me?

Brining slowly is great if you have a big bucket and a lot of time, but I want to be painless.  Get a flavor injector needle.  I got mine at the hardware store, but they are so popular at this point even some grocery stores or Home Depots have them.  This is your friend with any piece of meat.  Once you see the things it does, you will start looking for excuses to apply its power.  (Salted apple cider vinegar and bourbon into a pork chop?  Sriracha chicken broth into your buffalo wings?  Go to town!)

Take a bowl and add flavor.  Water alone – it’s a start.  Just add salt – better.  Salt and sugar – even better.  I add a touch of white wine, some finely ground dried herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice.  If it tastes like a really weak soup, you’re on the right track.  Experiment on chickens.  You will like it.

Injecting is about getting into the meat, but not piercing the skin (otherwise it doesn’t crisp – but more on that another day).  The best way is to jack it as many places – 1/2 in. spacing at least – in between the ribs inside the cavity until it’s leaking.  For wings, legs and thighs, get into the joints where the skin will split anyway.

Now – pat it dry on the skin side and rub it with a bit of salt.  Nothing else.  Let it sit in the fridge, uncovered, until it’s just past tacky to the touch.  This will dry the skin.  Say it with me: Dry skin makes crispy skin.  Wet skin makes soggy skin.  Again Salt + Time is your friend.

NOTE ON THIS SKIN TEXTURE: Put a bit of white school glue (not paste) on a piece of paper.  Starts wet, right?  Phase 2 it develops a film, but will burst if you touch it since the film is still sticky, right?  Phase 3 it has a firm film that is dry and not sticky to the touch, but it is still clearly damp.  Finally, Phase 4 is the really dry phase.  The ideal skin of the bird before oven should be like Phase 3, that “nothing sticks to your finger” stage.

The next hard bit is balancing the skin and moisture question.  The bird needs  a medium-high temperature to get cooked well and get crispy – but a tall-chested bird will burn the skin before it’s done inside!  Oh the stress right?  WRONG.  Put an aluminum foil hat on it like the wierdos that think the X-Files is a documentary.  Just cover the breast and the tips of wings and legs.  LEAVE THE CAVITY OPEN.  DO NOT PUT STUFFING INSIDE! (That just unnecessarily extends and makes an even more uneven cook time.)  You need the skinny, delicate bits to be covered, but hot air needs to circulate inside for the breast meat to cook evenly.  Just think that if thin aluminum protects astronauts from solar insanity in space, it will more than do the job for the turkey in your residential oven.  Put it into a roasting pan on top of things.  A rack would be good.  You can just as easily put it on a bed of flavorful veggies (onions, garlic, celery and root veggies of all kinds are great for this).  Start it off at 450F for 30-40min and when it starts to ooze goodness and get some deep golden color on the knees – bring it down to the 375F point.

Once the temperature is nearing completion, you can take off the aluminum foil to crisp the skin.  With an instant-read thermometer you should be around 135-140F in both the breast and thickest part of the thigh when this happens.  Then go till golden.  We want a bird at around 153-158F to pull from the oven and rest (it will rise 10-15F while resting under foil.  This is commonly referred to as carryover).   Remember doneness is key since this is poultry and if it waddles or flies, 165F means fully done.

Let me know your thoughts!  Share comments below 🙂

NOTE ON TEMPERATURE: I know many of you will hate on my temperature notes here.  You do as you like, but food safety and handling standards ask for 165F for poultry before serving, and honestly I have never had a problem there.  It’s not dry, and nobody is crying about a pink piece of turkey/chicken/etc.  You want to do less, do as your conscience demands.  USDA New Temp Standards: http://blogs.usda.gov/2011/05/25/cooking-meat-check-the-new-recommended-temperatures/

Cook like you mean it

If you are reading this, you have probably grasped by now that I am a bit obsessed with cooking.  I love that it is a routine opportunity to produce an end result I can share with others for our mutual enjoyment.  Since the holidays are upon us and many less-frequent cooks are coming into the kitchen at this time of year I thought I would share a thought with you.

I am part-Korean and we have this thing about passing plates at the table with two hands.  I was taught this means you respect the other person enough to give them your full attention.  By extension – shouldn’t that kind of attention start earlier in the process?  Including shopping for ingredients and cooking them?

Because of this upbringing, and because I have a young family, I try to cook like I mean it.  By that I am trying to say that if I cook the dish I am putting on the table, I try to be certain I give it my total attention.  Doing so is a sign to my family that I care enough to give my best effort for their benefit – even the small details like how I sliced the carrots (Were they nicely crisp or wilted?  Are they sliced uniformly or more like a drunken troll got into the knife drawer?).  Undivided attention significantly reduces your chances of failure, too.  I am a modern busy person like any other, but distractions invariably accompany overflowing pots, burned food, and uneven flavors.  Do I check my cellphone while a pasta-pot is coming to a boil?  Sure.  Do I do it while something is sautéing?  No.

I think cooking like I mean it also passively teaches things to my step-daughter about family, and about diet, and educates her palate without having to lecture her about any of these things.  I think it also teaches the importance of learning how to do for yourself and gives a basis for the rest of her future life.  A distracted cook, dirty and disorganized kitchen means a poor dinner – just like a distracted employee at a dirty and disorganized desk probably means a poor work outcome.

Have any thoughts on thoughtful cookery?  Post a comment below!

A Painless Breakfast

Eggs. One of the building blocks of any kitchen, and any type of food all over the world. There is hardly any style of food culture I have ever even heard of (aside of vegan, and that’s not a culture, but a CULT in my opinion) that does not incorporate eggs in some way. Lets be honest, early man must have found these amazing, protein and fat morsels to be little packets of nutritious magic!

In the modern kitchen, eggs provide the glue that holds many dishes together, but they are also amazing all by themselves – boiled, fried, poached scrambled… I could go on for days. In fact, I seem to recall being told that the little folds in the snazzy french chef’s hat are to represent all the ways a properly trained chef should know how to use an egg! (There must be a Jeopardy! question in there somewhere).

The problem with an egg is that the mixed up nature of yolk and white means many people (myself included) have trouble getting the mix of textures to their liking. We can debate what the perfect egg is, but for my money, I want an egg where the white is firm, but the yolk is runny. Achieving this reliably is harder than you think.

I have a Painless Gourmet go-to shortcut to share! To guarantee my egg does as I want while my coffee hasn’t kicked in, I almost always go to my saving grace – Toad in the Hole. Just like the picture, take a plain piece of sliced bread, cut a hole in it with a small juice glass. I have done white bread, wheat bread, whole grain with essence of pure hippie bread (as in the pictures) and the result is always the same.IMG_0070.JPG

IMG_0071.JPGGet a frying pan on medium heat with some butter, bacon fat, olive oil – whatever fat you want to use, just put about 1 teaspoon of it once the fat is melted and shiny, put that bread lifesaver down in the frying pan.

IMG_0073.JPGIf you hear sizzle, that’s good. That means it’s time to crack your egg right into it. Now, instead of having to guess the right cooking level of the egg, keep checkin the corner of your bread for how toasted it looks. Once it’s toasty brown, you’re ready to flip. It does all the work for you (plus the firming of the bread by toasting allows easier flipping of the egg)!IMG_0074.JPG

IMG_0075.JPGThe result is the same every time: pure runny egg yolk, with a well-cooked white and golden toast all together. I also love having a soft circle of non-toasty bread to sop up the yolk afterwards.

IMG_0077.JPGIMG_0078.JPGTry it once and you will never be intimidated by a fried egg again! You will never have to deal with the tyranny of an overcooked yolk (since the bread would be burned first). It’s pretty Painless.

Any comments? Questions? Hit the comment link above and share with your friends!

A Very Painless Dinner

You all asked for a real recipe, so here is a perpetual favorite.

This dish, a riff on a Northern Italian pork dish, is about putting a lean and inexpensive cut of meat inside of bread – protecting the lean meat from drying out.  It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of recipes, and I have done versions of this with various cuts of pork, beef and lamb with great success.

I take a piece of meat (pork tenderloin in these pictures) and first it gets a firm sear in a hot pan with olive oil and nothing but salt and pepper on it.  When I say firm sear, I want it to be really brown because properly browned meat is tasty just like the browned cheese on pizza or a lasagne is tasty.  We all like tasty and it only takes a little more patience than grey and bland.  Invest the time and you will reap the rewards.

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Once it has been seared on all sides, it gets rolled in some dried spice blend for flavor.  Just be sure whatever you use doesn’t have too much added salt or it might get overpowering.  I have used plain grocery-store brand dried Herbes de Provence, paprika and pepper, or Italian Seasoning with equally great success, but try whatever you have.

I then take a baguette and cut it open like a giant sub roll and finger-pluck out the innards.  I want some bread, but not so much it won’t close tight around the meat.  Guesstimating is totally fine.

The next step is slathering some good mustard all up and down the baguette and drizzling with olive oil.  Then I line it in cheese.  I use Provelone or Fontina usually, but I have used white cheddar, pepper jack – whatever sliced cheese will cover the meaty bit you are putting inside.  The idea here is that the moisture and flavor from the mustard plus the melty cheese will tag-team to keep this lean piece of meat from drying out.

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Then I place that piggy morsel inside and tie it up.  It doesn’t have to look like this, but it is a pretty easy way to practice your butcher-tie.  In a pinch, just tie it in 4 places.  It doesn’t really matter, just cinch it really closed!IMG_0476

Finally, the whole thing goes in the oven at 375F until a thermometer inserted in the widest part of the meat comes out at 155-160F (for pork).  Then wrap it in foil to rest for 10 minutes.  If you are doing beef or lamb, just check the temperature against your preferred doneness.

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Sliced, I serve this dish with salad while it’s hot for a light and healthy dinner.

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It’s hard not to want to eat something that colorful right off the board.

The thing is, it’s even better the next day.  The overnight in the fridge keeps it moist in its flavorful bread blanket.  I can’t tell you how often office-mates hated me for bringing this in… Plus it’s great for picnics or the beach since it’s self-contained!

Any questions?  Comments?  Click the link above and share!

Use what you have (Part 1)

I find other people’s kitchens to be fascinating.  They are so mysterious!  Everyone has different ingredients they use, different organization styles, and different tools and abilities…

What is great about any kitchen is that you probably have (unless you just moved in or have fumigated) some ingredients around that you can use to make something delicious in a pinch.

This soup was the result of one of those moments – I wanted something tasty, but didn’t have the desire to do any shopping.  This is one pack of buckwheat soba noodles, half a box of chicken stock, a half an egg (boiled with the noodles), and the chopped up last bits off of a rotisserie chicken.  I heated the stock with a splash of soy sauce to add some flavor and popped the rest of the ingredients down on top with a few chives and a sprinkling of paprika for color.

Don’t be scared – it took longer to boil the water for the noodles than to do the rest of this.  It was tasty and didn’t require me to leave my house.

Have you ever saved the flavor day with leftovers?  Comment via the link at the top of the post!

Making good home cooking un-scary

I like a good obscure kitchen technique as much as the next person.  In fact, probably much more than the next person… but I digress.

I have been really saddened to see that Craigslist is full of postings for people to deliver make and deliver home-cooked food to their house for them to finish/reheat.  Are you serious?  The time it takes to receive, refrigerate and warm up that food is the same length of time it would take to make something delicious (and much cheaper)!  You’re going to do dishes anyway if you eat, so where’s the advantage?  If I remember my history classes, cooking and handling food is a foundation of modern humanity people!

The whole point of this blog is to get to where people will find making good food at home not only possible but a really preferable option.  “Let’s cook something together” in my experience is the quote that often starts events or evenings that become very fond memories.

My philosophy is that I want to make something that looks great, tastes great, and is totally approachable to even the most inexperienced cook.  I think a lot of other folks want to do the same.  Do you want to join me?

Great!  Let’s cook something together.