Monday, November 28, 2011

Can I Have This Recipe?

Those are the nicest words I can hear when someone is dining at my table! It means that they are really enjoying what I have taken great pleasure in preparing for them. I remember as a teen asking one of my aunts for a cookie recipe and having her refuse. "I don't give out my recipes," she told me. I remember wondering where SHE got the recipe from? Someone she knew was kind enough to give it to her, but she was unwilling to do the same. I always thought that was very strange. After all, we (cooks) are all in this together. I always give detailed recipes cheerfully when asked (I keep a stack of blank index cards in my recipe box just for that purpose). Unless you are a multinational corporation protecting your patented secret recipe, it's nice to share! Years later I found the recipe for my aunt's cookies in a newspaper or magazine, and have been making them as one of my Christmas cookies ever since.

So here is the recipe that my aunt refused to give me: Nut Butter Balls. If you are asked for the recipe, be kind and pay it forward!

Nut Butter Balls

Makes 3-1/2 dozen
Oven Temperature: 375°

2 sticks butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. almond extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup finely ground nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts or even a combination)

Cream butter with sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Chill dough until easy to handle (about an hour). Scoop (with a tiny ice cream scoop) or roll dough into 1” balls and place onto ungreased cookie sheets a few inches apart. Bake cookies at 375° for 10 to 12 minutes until lightly browned. As soon as they come out of oven, gently roll them in powdered sugar until they are completely coated. Set on parchment lined tray to cool.

Notes & Pointers:
These are kind of delicate especially when warm, so be careful when you roll them in the powdered sugar. You can also just sift a layer of  powdered sugar onto the parchment lined tray, place the cookies on the sugar when they come out of the oven, then sift additional sugar over the tops of the cookies. For a variation, you can use vanilla extract instead of the almond.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Our (Not Boring) Thanksgiving Menu

Last week my husband was discussing the Thanksgiving menu with a coworker who was looking for new recipes to make. When he explained that we have the exact same menu every year, she thought that sounded incredibly boring. I don't look at it in that way. These are foods that we usually make only once a year (at least in this combination) and seeing them on the Thanksgiving table is like seeing old friends whom you haven't seen for a while. It kind of gives me the same feeling I get when we unwrap our Christmas ornaments every year to decorate our tree.....each of our ornaments is unique and carries a trove of memories with it. In the same way, every food that I make for Thanksgiving reminds me of the person or place where I got the recipe or the many years before when I have made that recipe, or the people who were at our table, some of whom are no longer with us, during Thanksgivings past. So here's our traditional Thanksgiving menu:

Giblet Gravy
Cranberry sauce
Sausage & fennel stuffing
Vegetarian soy "sausage" & fennel stuffing
Sweet potato pies
Corn bread sticks
Green salad with vinaigrette dressing 
Apple cider
Roasted nuts & figs
Espresso coffee
After dinner thin mints
Pumpkin pie
Maple pecan pie
Pizza dolce
Coffee, tea

My Dad never liked turkey, so as a kid, we usually had anything but for Thanksgiving...ham, lasagna, roast pork...pretty much anything. The one year my Mom decided to roast a turkey, the pilot light went out on her oven and it took quite some time for her to realize that it wasn't actually cooking! As I remember, the next year we went back to lasagna... Once I set up my own household and began making turkey every year, I always made (extremely well done!) pork chops for my Dad. Since he passed a few years ago, I miss having to think about making something special for him.

I got the sweet potato pie recipe that I use from my cousin's wife.....they are not people who I see very often and I wonder if she still makes it and if she knows how we all look forward to it every year...thank you Annette!

Of course I make corn bread at other times during the year....there simply isn't a better accompaniment to chili as far as I'm concerned. But Thanksgiving is the only time of year when I take out the cast iron corn cob pan that my husband bought for me and make little individual corn breads. Somehow they taste better because they are small and cute!

My Mom always brings her special Pizza Dolce for dessert, an Italian anise flavored ricotta  cheesecake. I have the recipe, though I don't think I've ever actually made it! I can always count on her to do the delicious honors.

The roasted nuts and figs remind me of holiday family dinners when I was growing up. Long after we kiddies had lost interest in eating or sitting at the table, the elders would linger over glasses of wine and crack nuts, stuffing them into figs. Many of those elders are gone now, and we "kids" have become the elders (when did THAT happen?).

So this year, as at every Thanksgiving, I will look over the foods that I serve and the people who are with us, and a flood of memories will wash over me--and I will give thanks for every one of them. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Please Pass The Gravy!

A savory and delicious gravy begins long before the bird is cooked. The day before Thanksgiving when I unwrap the bird to bathe it in brine--see To B or not to B (Brine, that is) below--I set aside the neck, heart and gizzard in a 2 quart saucepan to make stock for my gravy (I don't put the liver into the stock as I think the flavor is so strong that it will be overwhelming. Our cats think this is a fine idea because I roast it as a special treat for them!) To give the stock a head start in the flavor department, I cover the turkey parts with a can of low sodium turkey broth, then add a large onion, cut in half, a stalk or two of celery, broken in half, a handful of carrots, a teapoon of peppercorns, and a teaspoon or two of poultry seasoning. I bring it slowly to a simmer over very low heat. Starting with room temperature broth and taking the time to bring it slowly up to a simmer extracts full flavor from all the ingredients. Once it begins to bubble, I skim any foam that may have formed on the top and allow it to simmer, covered, for an hour or even two, if I have the time. Then I chill it overnight. 

On Thanksgiving day, I strain the stock through a sieve, pressing with a spatula on the veggies to be sure to squeeze all the liquid out, then set the stock aside. Once the turkey comes out of the oven and is resting, I pour the turkey drippings into my gravy separator to get rid of all the fat. I pour the defatted turkey drippings into my container blender and add the reserved stock that I made the day before. I add a tablespoon or two of flour to the blender. (The amount depends on how much total liquid I have in the blender....there are markings on the side of the container. The rule of thumb is one tablespoon of flour thickens one cup of liquid.) I blend it well, so there are no lumps, and pour the resulting mixture into the roasting pan. I put it over two burners on the stove top and heat it over medium heat, scraping the browned bits off the bottom and sides of the pan with a spoon or spatula, until it boils and is as thick as I like. I season to taste with salt and pepper and strain it into my gravy boat. Delicious and no lumps!

Notes & Pointers

Notice that I don't add salt until the very end. If the turkey has been brined, it's possible that the turkey drippings may already have enough salt in them. There's nothing worse than food that is too salty!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

To B or not to B (Brine, that is)

In food, as in many other aspects of our daily lives, there are fads. In the 1950s gelatin made an appearance in every course, from appetizer aspics filled with olives, celery and bits of meat, to savory main course gelatin molds mixed with meats and congealed mayo, through dessert molds with canned fruit artfully suspended within......bleech! Some fads are best left in the past.Twenty years ago no one had ever heard of Ranch Dressing it's everywhere and in everything--think cool ranch tortilla chips, etc.

In the last few years I've been hearing a lot about brining and dry rubs. Funny thing, though, my Nonna Teresa used to soak her cut up chicken in a salt solution for a few hours before cooking. My mother continued the practice because her mother did it, though without understanding why. After reading and hearing so much about brining, a few years ago I decided to try it and brined my Thanksgiving turkey for the first time. WOW! Apparently Nonna was onto something good! Brining creates the most juicy, succulent bird I have ever tasted! Gone is the dry breast meat that has to be doused with gravy just so you can swallow it. Here's how I do it.

Get yourself some XXL Zip Lock storage bags....the supermarket carries them for about $6.00 for a box of four bags (or you can order brining bags from Williams-Sonoma at $16.95 for 2 small and 2 large bags.....your choice). Also locate your largest plastic basin or a small picnic cooler, anything that will hold the entire turkey and contain any overflow of the brine and still fit in your fridge.

Two days before cooking the turkey, heat the following brine ingredients, stirring occasionally until salt and sugar dissolve. Chill overnight.

1 cup kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
2 oranges, quartered
2 lemons, quartered
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 gallons water
(This makes enough for a 14 to 16 pound turkey; if you are making a larger bird, use an additional 1⁄2 cup EACH salt & brown sugar for every additional gallon of water needed to completely immerse the turkey.)

One day before T-day, remove turkey from store wrapper, empty it of all the interior packaged giblets and the neck (these go into your gravy, but that's another post). Place the turkey with the breast side down in your large plastic zip top bag; add brine and press all the air out of the bag before sealing. Put turkey in bag into large basin or other container (just in case something springs a leak!) Refrigerate for 24 hours, turning turkey over after 12 hrs.

On T-day, preheat oven to 500°. Discard brine, reserving herbs, lemons and oranges. Rinse bird well, inside and out, and pat dry. Place herbs, lemons and oranges into the cavity of the bird. Tuck wings behind bird and anchor them under the back; tie legs together with kitchen twine and rub entire bird with canola oil. Roast on rack at 500° F. for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, insert probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast (being careful not to hit bone or you will get a false temperature reading!), cover breast with a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil and return turkey to oven, reducing temperature to 350°. Set thermometer alarm to 160 degrees (if your probe thermometer has an alarm; if not, just start checking the temp at the 2 hour mark for a 14 to 16 pounder). A 14 to 16 pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2-1⁄2 hours of roasting depending on your oven. Let turkey rest covered with foil on a serving platter for at least 15 minutes while you degrease the cooking juices and make the gravy. (The temp will continue to rise another 5 to 10 degrees as it rests.)

Notes & Pointers:

Occasionally, when I carve the bird, I find that the interior of the leg and thigh joint is not as cooked as I would like it to be (though once it reaches 165 degrees, it is safe to eat). If so, I just pop the 2 legs and 2 thighs into the microwave for 5 minutes or so while I finish carving the rest of the bird, just to be sure they are cooked to my liking. One other thing: brining the bird is yet another reason (see my second post) to cook the stuffing separately from the turkey. If the brining juices infiltrate the stuffing, you could end up with a stuffing that is too salty!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Let's Talk Stuffing

For the first 20 or so years of my cooking career, I alternated between the stuffing that my Mother always made and the stuffing my husband grew up with. They are both very non-traditional stuffings, far from the common bread stuffing variations, and both delicious. My Mom's stuffing is Italian themed, with ricotta, scrambled eggs, Romano and muenster cheeses. My Mother-in-law's stuffing is composed of rice, hard boiled eggs, ground beef and Romano cheese. But my husband felt that I ought to have my own, signature stuffing, so I found this recipe. While it is bread based, it starts with corn bread instead of a yeast bread, and deliciously substitutes fennel (anise) for the usual celery. The addition of sausage enriches the favors. 

To make things easier on myself, I usually make the stuffing in stages. In one evening, I'll sauté the sausage, dice all the fennel and onion and sauté them with all the herbs and spices. I usually do this a week or more before Thanksgiving and freeze it. Then, on another day, I'll make the corn bread, dice or crumble it and freeze it in zipper top bags. Then the morning of Thanksgiving, all I have to do is combine everything, drizzle with some canned turkey broth and bake. In the last couple of years I have been cooking all the stuffing in a casserole instead of the bird. It's easier to serve when the turkey is done, the turkey cooks faster and I don't have to overcook the bird to get the stuffing to a safe temperature.

Sausage Fennel Stuffing 
Serves: makes 12 to 15 cups 
Oven Temperature: 350° 

1-1⁄2 lbs. sweet Italian sausage, casing removed 
1 ⁄2 stick butter 
2 large onions, chopped 
1-1⁄2 lbs.fennel bulbs, chopped 
2 tsp. fennel seeds, chopped fine 
1⁄8 tsp.salt 
1 tsp.ground thyme 
1 tsp.tarragon, crumbled 
2-1⁄4 lbs. corn bread cubes (see note) 
turkey or chicken broth, optional 

In large skillet over high heat, cook and break up sausage until cooked through. 
Transfer sausage to strainer, drain fat from skillet and wipe it out with a paper towel. Heat butter in same skillet and sauté onions , fennel bulbs, fennel seeds and salt over high heat until soft (about 10 minutes).Toss mixture with thyme, tarragon, cooked sausage and corn bread cubes to combine well. Makes about 12 to 15 cups of stuffing, enough for a 20 lb.turkey, plus some extra to bake on the side. 

Notes & Pointers: 
I use my home made Buttermilk Corn Bread (the recipe is below) for this because it is an extra moist bread. If you use commercial corn bread cubes which are dehydrated, you might want to add some extra canned turkey or chicken broth to moisten it before stuffing the bird (stuffing should look evenly moist, but not soggy). Put any extra stuffing into a greased oven safe pan, drizzle with a bit of canned turkey or chicken stock (to compensate for the lack of moisture from the turkey) and bake alongside the turkey for about 20 to 30 minutes. Bake it covered if you want it to be moist or uncovered if you like it browned on top. For a vegetarian version, simply substitute sausage style soy.

Buttermilk Corn Bread 
Serves: makes 13”x 9” loaf or 12 Texas size muffins 
Oven Temperature: 350° 

2 cups all purpose flour 
1  tsp.baking soda 
3 tsp.baking powder 
4 Tbs.sugar 
2 tsp.salt 
1-1/2 cups cornmeal 
3 cups buttermilk 
4 Tbs.butter, melted 
4 eggs 

Combine flour,  baking soda, baking powder, sugar, salt and cornmeal in a mixer bowl. In a separate bowl whisk together the buttermilk, butter, and eggs until well blended. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and mix quickly with the flat beater or a wooden spoon just until ingredients are combined. Pour into a well greased 13”x 9” x 2" pan or 12 Texas size muffin cups. Bake at 350°for about 15 to 20 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. 

Notes & Pointers: 
This is an extremely moist, delicious corn bread. Variation: use half sour cream and half milk instead of the buttermilk and leave out the butter. If frozen, it becomes crumbly, which is not a problem when using it in the stuffing (as it's going to be cubed or crumbled anyway).

Monday, November 14, 2011

News Flash: Cooking is not rocket science!

I enjoy cooking, so I do it often enough that I've picked up a few pointers along the way. Also, after more than 30 years of marriage, I've had the time to weed out some "clunker" recipes and concentrate on those that are healthy, easy to make and delicious. This blog and the accompanying book (available on are the result of 33 years of collecting, compiling, and creating what I consider to be the best recipes for a wide variety of foods, encompassing not only traditional Italian cuisine, but also German, Thai, Chinese, Greek, Jewish and several more. All you'll need to prepare these recipes is some basic kitchen equipment, the fortitude to soldier on after the occasional spectacular flop, and, of course, food testers--those people daring enough to taste your latest attempt and loving enough to forget your failures.

Please share your attempts, your successes, even your failures with me. Ask any questions you might have and I'll answer to the best of my ability (and promise to tell you if I haven't a clue!) Let me know when you discover a better way of doing something--I am always eager to learn and to pass along the lessons. Mostly COOK! Try to cook something at least once a's the best way to ensure healthy meals for yourself and those you love, as well as ensuring time to connect. Happy cooking!