Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, part 3 - Leftovers

I love to entertain in my home. I love getting the house ready for a party. I love setting out a great spread of food. I love seeing a group of people having a great time in my living room. I also love leftovers. A fridge full of leftovers is the number one fringe benefit of having a party. It means you don't have to cook the next day!

In the case of Thanksgiving, the leftovers represent weeks worth of future meals.  The day after Thanksgiving turkey sandwich is almost as important as the holiday dinner itself.  I like mine with just turkey, mayo and cranberry sauce and the bread has to be soft and fluffy. Leftovers give both the food and the cook a second chance. Here are some of the things I did with my leftovers.


Leftover mashed potatoes are extremely versatile.  They can be used to make gnocci, dumplings or other kinds of dough. They're great mixed with gravy or in a shepherds pie. I like to use mine for breakfast. I shaped my mashed potatoes into small patties. Then I grated a little fresh potato and pressed it into the outside of the patties to give them that fried potato crunch. I dusted them in flour, then sauteed them in a little bit of vegetable oil. I served my golden brown and crispy potato patties with fried eggs on top and kielbasa on the side. Nothing beats a runny-yolk egg on top of a crispy potato patty. Its heaven on a plate.


As an appetizer, I served a crudite of fresh fennel, carrots, celery and broccoli with a blue cheese dip. I made kale as a side with dinner and I also served some roasted shallots and fennel. The next day, I had several containers of different kinds of veggies in my fridge and I decided to combine a few of them in a cream sauce. I made a roux by cooking one tablespoon of flour with one tablespoon of butter over medium heat, just long enough to cook a little of the raw flour taste out. Then I added a cup of milk and whisked it into the roux. As soon as it came to the boil, it thickened nicely. I added a little grated sharp cheddar and seasoned it with a little cayenne pepper and freshly grated nutmeg and set it aside. I steamed the broccoli and tossed it together with a little kale, a few sliced roasted shallots and a few leftover mushrooms. Then I poured the cream sauce over it and popped it in the oven briefly. It was warm and satisfying and made great use of the leftover veggies.


For me, this is the absolute best part. I take all the scraps - the turkey carcass, wings and legs I don't intend to eat, carrots, celery, parsley, yellow onions with their skins, garlic cloves and pepper corns. I put everything in a big pot and cover it with water. Today my stock pot was completely filled to the brim. I bring the soup to a simmer and cook it over very low heat for a minimum of four hours. The longer you simmer the stock, the stronger it will be. Today's yield was three quarts, two of which went into the freezer for a future preparation. I placed one quart of the stock in the fridge and will finish it with vegetables and maybe noodles later in the week. It never hurts to keep your own stock in the freezer. In fact, I save all my chicken scraps in the freezer - backs, bones and wing tips - and when I get enough I make chicken stock.

When I was a kid, my mother always made turkey tetrazzini with the Thanksgiving leftovers. Her recipe featured canned cream of mushroom soup, which I consider to be the most repulsive, the most hideous and the most gag-o-licious thing you can buy in the grocery store. But made the right way, it could end up in my leftover repertoire. With leftovers, the sky is the limit. Give your dinner a second chance and let me know how it turns out.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, part 2 - Pearl Onions

In my mind, Thanksgiving is defined by the family holiday dinners of my childhood. I grew up in suburban New Jersey about an hour away from New York City, where my parents grew up.  Both of my parents were second generation American Jews whose grandparents immigrated from eastern Europe in the late 1800's.  We celebrated Jewish holidays with local cousins and friends in New Jersey, but the biggest annual family gathering occurred at Thanksgiving. My mother would get up at the butt-crack of dawn to get the turkey in the oven. Grandma Bella, my maternal grandmother, would arrive at about 9:00 am with my great uncle Irvy in tow. Uncle Irvy would watch the entire Macy's Thanksgiving day parade while my mother and grandmother slaved away in the kitchen. At around midday, my paternal grandmother Grandma Dag would arrive with Aunt Barbara and Aunt Marion. Other friends and relatives would filter in during the afternoon. Sometimes my older siblings would bring their high school or college pals and sometimes we'd have a new wave of people just for dessert. It was a bit of a marathon.

The Thanksgiving dinner menu in my house always included certain dishes. Appetizers were always celery sticks smeared with cream cheese and green olives, sticky dates stuffed with half a walnut and rolled in sugar, a dish of canned jumbo black olives and a bowl of nuts in their shells. Of course, there was an enormous turkey and two kinds of cranberry sauce - whole berry and jelly straight out of the can sliced into perfect rounds. There was always bread stuffing made with lots of paprika and cooked inside the bird. There was always canned yams cooked in maple syrup and a few baked potatoes for the people who didn't like yams. We always had a pumpkin pie and an apple pie for dessert. 

The one dish that I associate most closely with Thanksgiving is pearl onions in cheese sauce. My mother would boil the tiny onions until they were soft, then bathe them in a white sauce flavored with Velveeta cheese. Yes.Velveeta. This was standard fare on the Goldstein family holiday table. It just wasn't Thanksgiving dinner without onions in cheese sauce. Funny thing about boiled onions, however, is the carnage they wreak as they pass through your GI track. If the weather was cooperative, it was not unusual to find people wandering out to the porch for a few minutes. I distinctly recall my mother letting a dainty, little utterance go while serving pie when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I was sitting next to her and with the animated conversation going on at the table, I was the only one who heard it. I gave her a big-eye look of amusement and she said "shhhhh" and winked at me. It was our little secret. 

When I got into high school and college, some of my friends became regulars at the Thanksgiving table. Onions in cheese sauce became my friend Jenny's favorite holiday side. During my college years I hosted a late night jazz show on the campus public radio station. My show started at 11 pm and I was scheduled to work on Thanksgiving day. Being the great friend that she is, Jenny agreed to accompany me to the radio station. We'd both eaten large helpings of onions in cheese sauce and on the way to the station we did our best to purge ourselves before spending two hours in a small windowless control room. But the onions are a worthy opponent. About half way through the show, I looked over at Jenny who was reading the newspaper. She was shaking with laughter and tears were rolling down her face. I was about 30 seconds away from doing a live break when she showed me the source of the hilarity - an ad for a home air filtration system that said "TOXIC ODOROUS AND OFFENSIVE GASSES?". As I opened the microphone, laughter poured out of me and I choked.

To make this dish, peel a couple bags of small pearl onions and boil them they are soft. In a small saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter over medium heat and mix in two tablespoons of flour. Cook them together briefly, stirring constantly, until the flour begins to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add a cup and a half of whole milk and whisk them together until the mixture is smooth. As soon as the sauce comes to the boil, it will thicken. Don't boil it for too long, just a moment. Take the pot off the heat and add small cubes of Velveeta cheese until the sauce reaches your desired taste. It should take a little less than the smallest block of Velveeta you can buy. Of course, you can use another kind of melting cheese like Monterrey jack or mild cheddar, but the Velveeta is intertwined with my Thanksgiving memories. 

My brother long ago forbade the serving of onions in cheese sauce at his holiday table and I have to admit that I can no longer tolerate them either. I did serve roasted shallots this year, but its not the same. Maybe you can carry this tradition forward in our honor. Just make sure the back porch is ready for company. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, part 1

It is the day after Thanksgiving, I write a food blog and I haven't posted anything about my dinner. Doesn't that seem odd to you? Given that Thanksgiving is kind of the holy grail of foodie holidays, it certainly seems like a bad strategy not to share any recipes, photos or other inspiration for curious home cooks looking for ideas. I did, in fact, host Thanksgiving at my house with my family this year. It's the first time I've hosted Thanksgiving with my family since 1998. I did a ton of cooking over the past week, but captured very few photos and didn't take a single page of notes for this blog. I'll explain that in a moment,

Thanksgiving has always played a big role in my family life. When I was a kid, my mother hosted Thanksgiving and we usually had anywhere from 8 to 14 people at the table. My mother's menu included dishes that she only cooked for Thanksgiving. She had serving dishes that only came out for Thanksgiving. We used the good china and silver and crystal. It took us a week of cleaning and polishing and prepping to get ready for Thanksgiving. It was big hairy deal. In my teen years, we moved from New Jersey to Texas and being the outgoing and fearless person my mother was, she and my father made new friends. Our Thanksgiving dinners in Texas were somewhat interesting and eclectic with new people at the table every year. When two Russian families moved into town and joined the synagogue, they celebrated their first Thanksgiving dinner at my parents dining room table.  

I eventually moved to Dallas, about 5 hours by car from my folks house. My friend Paul was also living in Dallas and our families had known each other for many years. My parents would drive up to Dallas and we'd go to Paul's house for Thanksgiving dinner. Those are some of my favorite holiday memories, those huge, elaborate dinners. Paul's family is Sicilian and the meal included no less than five courses. We'd start with cocktails and appetizers - fresh boiled shrimp and all kinds of pickles, salads and dips. The actual dinner started with an antipasta of the best quality Italian sliced meats and cheeses, followed by a fresh, handmade pasta course, then turkey and all the sides. At this point many of us would be too full to sit upright and we'd take a break. There would be short naps in front of the football game and much rolling around on the floor rubbing our bellies. During this respite, there would be a big bowl of nuts, a platter of fruit and a bowl of sliced fennel on the table. People would stop by the table and nibble on roasted chestnuts or ice cold fennel, which helps settle the stomach. Finally, everyone would gather back at the table for dessert, coffee and cordials. It was during dessert one year that my father made what has become known as "the fart toast". In short, he emitted a well timed blast of flatus during the end of the meal toast and the story has become notorious in my family. 

Eventually, Paul's folks stopped traveling for the holidays. In 1998, I convinced my parents, sister and brother to come to my house for Thanksgiving. It was a small gathering, but I was so excited and honored to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family. In the following years, all our lives changed dramatically. My mother passed, my brother Alan fell in love and moved to New Jersey, I met my future husband. My father remarried for a very brief period, I moved to New Hampshire and our family kind of splintered. My brothers and I started a new Thanksgiving tradition when we all lived relatively close to each other.  My brother Art lived in upstate New York and he hosted once; Alan hosted a couple of times while he lived in New Jersey. But when he and his wife moved back to Texas, we resumed Thanksgiving at his house with my dad and sister. 

For me, traveling for Thanksgiving had become the new normal. We were either at my brother's house in Austin, my in-laws house in Dallas/Ft. Worth or with my husband's extended family in New Jersey. Year after year, I'd sit in some airport and yearn to plan my own menu, to dazzle my family with superior kitchen skills and to make memories we would cherish for a lifetime. Year after year, I'd come home after Thanksgiving and cook a small turkey, just to have some leftovers in the fridge. With each passing year, the dream seemed to get farther out of reach, but when we moved to Pittsburgh a few years ago and bought a perfect house for entertaining, I started to think that maybe, one day, I'd actually be able to talk my brothers into coming to my house for Thanksgiving.  Art and I now live just a few hours apart and it didn't take much convincing to get Alan on board. Finally, it was my time.  

I cooked a great dinner. I brined and roasted a fresh 17 pound turkey, I made stuffing and roasted veggies and mashed potatoes. I baked a pumpkin cheesecake and sugar-free apple crumble for dessert. I used my grandmother's silverware and my mother-in-law's crystal. I had both my brothers and their wives here for three days and a good time was had by all, which brings me back to the beginning of this post. It struck me after everyone had left and I was making my day-after-Thanksgiving leftover turkey sandwich. There are only a couple of photos and no notes about my menu because I was busy living in the moment. I was busy making those memories that I will cherish forever. I unplugged. Food and cooking is a very primal way to show someone that you want to nourish them and feed their soul as well as their body. Food is a magic time machine that transports you back in time with pinpoint accuracy to relive emotional memories you associate with food. Food brings people together. This Thanksgiving, I was busy giving thanks for the relationships I have built, looking upon the smiling faces of my family gathered around the holiday table and celebrating with a giant, swinging bowl of mashed potatoes. 

And really, isn't that what its all about? 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Spaghetti Squash

This is such an interesting vegetable. Its a squash whose flesh pulls away from the skin like strands of thin spaghetti when its cooked. On the outside, it looks like a mild-mannered winter squash. Many  of the common varieties of winter squash we see in the store tend to have somewhat starchy flesh and they become soft when they are cooked. But this yellow wonder transforms into something completely different when its cooked. I've eaten spaghetti squash before and have watched it being prepared, but I have never cooked it myself. My husband has cooked spaghetti squash many times and he likes to serve it like pasta - with tomato sauce and cheese. My Sunday dinner plans featured pork enchiladas and I thought this squash might be lovely either inside or along side. I'm long overdue to try my hand at this unique veggie, so I went for it.

In my research I found all kinds of preparations for this squash from steaming to boiling, but it seems that the most effective and preferred way to cook this thing is to cut it in half and roast it in the oven until it becomes soft. This was also the suggestion I got from my husband and my friend Jenny, who both have way more experience with this product than me. I set my oven to 325, got my biggest, sharpest knife and started sawing at the squash to cut the ends off. It was impossibly hard, but I managed the get the ends off without butchering my own hands. Surprisingly, the knife passed effortlessly right through the center of the squash. On the inside, this squash looked much like every other with large seeds in the center.
I scooped out the seeds to expose the yellowish flesh inside. Jenny suggested a light coating of olive oil and some seasonings that would match well with enchiladas. I opted for salt, pepper, ancho chili powder and a little cumin. The squash gets roasted on a sheet tray cut side down so the inside steams while it roasts. I put some foil on my baking sheet and placed the squash on the foil. I put it in the oven and walked away as it takes anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes to roast. 

Sure enough, an hour later I opened the oven and poked at the squash with my finger. It was soft to the touch and there was a dent in the skin where I'd poked it. I took it out and turned one over. It was piping hot and steaming, but I probed it with a fork just to see how it felt. The flesh came away easily in beautiful pasta-like strands. Perfect. I left the squash to cool while I worked on the rest of my dinner ingredients. The squash was delicious in enchiladas with a little sharp cheddar and salsa verde.
However, this slightly sweet and succulent squash would be excellent with any number of different flavorings. It would be great with just a little butter and salt. I can imagine this squash being great in a curry sauce. It would be delicious with olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. It would be excellent mixed with mushrooms and breadcrumbs and stuffed inside chicken breasts. I would like to try adding this squash to a vegetable stew or a soup with zucchini and tomatoes. It would make a nice bed for a piece of salmon or arctic char. This squash is neutral enough to blend well with other flavors, but its got enough of its own distinctive flavor to shine through. I'm sold on the spaghetti squash. I'm a fan and I can't wait to play around with it more in the future. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

An Ugly Vegetable

Have you ever seen something in the grocery store and thought "what in the name of Sandra Day O'Connor is that weird looking thing"? If so, you may have uttered similar words at the sight of a celery root. Celery root, also called celeriac, is exactly what it sounds like. It is the root of the celery plant and it has the same texture and flavor as the heart of a head of celery. Its an ugly little bulb, usually about the size of a softball, that is kind of hairy and lumpy on the outside but white and crunchy on the inside. Celery root can be used any number of ways. You can dice it up and roast it in the oven, slice it thinly and fry it like chips or shred it and mix it into coleslaw. Its a really versatile veggie that can be served raw or cooked. If you can get past the appearance, you'll be amazed at how tasty this thing can be.

I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year and have been testing recipes. When I saw celery root in the produce section, I decided to bring it home and add it to mashed potatoes for a little zing. To prepare this thing, I cut the top and bottom off and ran a sharp knife down the sides to expose the white flesh inside. The celery root I bought was rather large and it was really too much for the small amount of mashed potatoes I was making for dinner. I decided to try pickling some of the celery root to see how it turned out.  I cut the bulb in half and set one half aside for the mashed potatoes. I made a quick brine with white vinegar, water, sugar, a little bit of salt and spices like bay leaf, red pepper flake, dill seed, celery seed, a pinch of tumeric and a couple of allspice berries.

I put the brine on the stove over medium heat and brought it up to a boil. I sliced the celery root thinly along with a clove of garlic and a small chunk of onion. When the brine was boiling, I put the sliced vegetables in and let them boil in the brine for about 5 minutes, then moved the pot off the heat and let it cool before pouring everything into a container and putting it in the fridge.

I cubed the other half of the celery root and added it to a bowl with two peeled and cubed Russet potatoes. Here is a great technique for making perfectly fluffy mashed potatoes. I noticed that when I boil potatoes, my mashed potatoes seem kind of soggy. Instead of boiling them, cube the potatoes and put them in a glass bowl. Add a small splash of water in the bottom of the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and microwave it on high until the potatoes are tender. It only takes a tiny bit of water to steam the potatoes, which keeps them fluffy. The smaller you cut the potatoes, the more quickly they cook. I put my cubed celery root and potatoes in the microwave and in 10 minutes they were soft.

When they were cooked, I drained off the water, added a couple tablespoons of butter and whipped it all up with my trusty hand mixer. The mashed potatoes were delicious served with roasted chicken and steamed green beans. They has that unique vegetal flavor but the texture was fluffy. It was a nice alternative to plain old mashed potatoes. A little while later, I tasted the pickled celery root and it was also quite tasty. Because this vegetable is kind of spongy, it soaked up the brine really nicely. And since I had boiled it briefly in the brine, it got a little softer and picked up the spices. It will make a lovely addition to a pickle tray for Thanksgiving. So the next time you see some weird, ugly vegetable in the store, buy it and try it. It might just surprise you.