Thanksgiving 2018

We hosted Thanksgiving for the first time, and everything turned out beautifully.

 

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While menu planning, I spent quite a bit of time trying to identify things that could be completed or gotten pretty far along ahead of Thanksgiving day. My guests were coming from out of town and thus weren’t bringing anything, so we had to handle everything. I actually think that was ideal for a first Thanksgiving, as it helped me think about how to time the meal and plan for sides that could reheat easily. I also didn’t have to worry about sorting in other people’s things on the fly at the very end, which is when I did briefly get into my “I’m so focused I can’t tell you how to help me” mode.

The thing that really helped the most, though, was the spreadsheet I made where I planned out several elements of the meal:

  • The cookware, servingware, and serving utensil for each dish
  • Make ahead/prep ahead lists, including estimated prep time (which helped when my original plan for make ahead was derailed by getting sick)
  • A quick oven schedule with temperatures
  • A very detailed schedule for the big day that included things like the time for each dish to go on and off the heat, estimated prep and finishing times, a main cook and a sous chef for each, and some miscellaneous notes. This included everything down to setting the table and getting dinner drinks for everyone. I also added a column to make sure I had enough oven space and burners to finish the sides and gravy once the turkey came out.

I found this very helpful because it enabled me to work backwards from mealtime and figure out how to make it all work. My Mom thought this was hilariously on-brand, but I really do think some kind of written plan is in order for this meal, especially if you’re serving more than a couple of people and/or making more than just a couple of sides.

When I was making the menu I spent quite a bit of time looking at recipes from Cook’s Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchen. These are all available online, but are likely paywalled unless you have an online subscription, which I recommend.

  • I got the turkey from Open Book Farm, and then followed Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe for Roasted Brined Turkey. I did the short brine and added a handful of fresh herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary), some black pepper, and a couple of cracked cloves of garlic. I did the upside down roasting step (to rotate our 12 pound bird, I had D insert the ends of two wooden spoons into the cavity, one from each side. He lifted it slightly off the rack and I rotated it around the handles using a clean kitchen towel) which I think might be tricky with a larger bird. I could not have been happier with how juicy and deliciously seasoned that bird was. And the leftovers are not dried out!
  • I wanted to make sure the the mashed potatoes were creamy and smooth vs stiff and gluey. I did some research and wound up following another Cook’s Illustrated recipe, Master Recipe for Mashed Potatoes. The main trick seems to be that you add the butter first, as that coats the potatoes and they don’t absorb as much of the cream/milk. I did also boil them whole, since I wanted to use my food mill. That didn’t work as well as I thought – my food mill totally shredded the peels on the yukon golds I used. I was not serving people who would be into having lots of peel in their mashed, so after my Mom and I picked out most of the bits from the first few potatoes to go through the food mill, I started quartering them, letting them cool just enough to handle, and then slipping the peel off before tossing them into the food mill. That worked fairly well. They were delicious and are softening back up nicely in the microwave.
  • Turns out I didn’t have my Mom’s stuffing recipe, but I found something similar from Cook’s Illustrated. This Rustic Bread Stuffing with Cranberries and Walnuts was made a little extra rustic by using whole wheat baguettes, which brought in some additional nuttiness that I quite liked. It also made a TON of stuffing. This could be because we didn’t remove as much crust froth bread as the recipe calls for, not sure. I think if you have baguettes that are soft enough that you don’t have to remove much of it, you could get away with less bread – I’d tear it directly into the baking dish to get the right volume. Very tasty but (obviously) a very dry stuffing so may not be to your taste. Also next time I might throw in more cranberries and walnuts, they all but disappeared.
  • Gravy didn’t work out quite as planned. I made a half batch of Cook’s Illustrated’s Our Favorite Gravy, which should have served 6-8 but left me with exactly 1 cup of finished gravy. I may have reduced it a little too much, but that was definitely not enough. We supplemented with some last minute jarred stuff from the grocery store. In the end the 1 cup was enough for dinner, but there wouldn’t have been any for leftovers. It was good but beware the yield.
  • I had two kinds of cranberry sauce. The kind from the can (which I don’t think got touched at dinner, much to my delight) and Simple Orange-Cranberry Sauce from Just Add Sauce, which was bright and light.
  • For veggie sides, I made Hashed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon from the NY Times, a small batch of a variation on roasted carrots from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and balsamic glazed acorn squash wedges that were a mashup of two recipes, one from Cook’s Country and the other from Just Add Sauce. We also had steam-in-bag corn. The Brussels sprouts are a snap, especially since I have a food processor for the shredding, and they bring a nice lightness to the plate. The carrots were good but in the end it turned out I only made them for two of us, so that wasn’t great planning. The squash was pretty good, but I reduced the balsamic glaze too much and had trouble coating them. Texture wise they’re not holding up great as leftovers, they’re getting a bit stringy. I think I’ll approach veggies differently next time, especially if I’m cooking for my family and doing all the sides myself.
  • Last but not least, my husband made two Smitten Kitchen pies. The Even More Perfect Apple Pie, which I wanted the moment I saw the recipe earlier in the fall, and her Pecan Pie, which he made for I think the third year running. That one went first and I think we might have to make another one soon as two slices was not enough.
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Food in Jars Mastery Challenge: Jam

Throughout 2017 Marisa McClellan, author of the blog Food in Jars, is running a series of monthly canning and preserving challenges. I decided to participate in order to learn some new skills and make some recipes I might not normally gravitate towards.

The June challenge is jam, and while I didn’t make something new, I did make several jars of strawberry jam. I was very pleased to find that one of the orchards at the farmer’s market near us will allow you to pre-order flats of fruit, and the price was right.

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I picked up a flat of strawberries (six quarts) and used five of them in three recipes:

  • A double batch of the Strawberry Jam from Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin
  • Honey-Sweeteneed Strawberry Jam with Sage from Preserving by the Pint
  • Strawberry Syrup from Food in Jars

I’ve made both the jams before – the honey strawberry is particularly good with cheeseboards, but as it turns out I still have several quarter pints of that from last summer, so all of these jams were canned in either pint or half-pint jars.

The syrup was new for me. We’re drinking a lot of what we call fizzes – sparkling water with something added for flavor. Dave likes fresh lime juice with bitters, and I’m partial to the pomegranate shrub. I’ve recently also made a rhubarb ginger syrup that’s delicious, and so I wanted to try strawberry as well. It was very easy to make, and made quite a lot.

I still have some catching up to do for the Mastery Challenge – I didn’t do April (quick pickles) or May (cold-pack method) but I’ll make sure to hit those in the coming weeks.

Food in Jars Mastery Challenge: Shrubs

Throughout 2017 Marisa McClellan, author of the blog Food in Jars, is running a series of monthly canning and preserving challenges. I decided to participate in order to learn some new skills and make some recipes I might not normally gravitate towards.

March was originally jelly, but after a lot of people had problems achieving set (how you describe the firmness of a jelly or jam) in their marmalades, she added an option to make a shrub instead. I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in jellies. While I’ve made shrubs once or twice before, I wasn’t particularly happy with how they came out, so I took this opportunity to try again.

A shrub is a beverage – it’s a combination of fruit, sugar, and vinegar that’s diluted in water (typically sparkling water) to drink, though you can use them in other ways. They’re a great ingredient for cocktails and are a wonderful addition to your repertoire if you have a Soda Stream, which we do. We are big beer and cocktail people, but I don’t like to drink every night of the week, and a lot of the time it’s not that I want an alcoholic drink, but that I want something other than water. Some sparkling water flavored with a syrup or shrub does the trick.

I learned in reading Marisa’s resources about shrubs that there two methods: hot process and cold process. A hot process shrub is boiled and can be put up into jars so it’s shelf stable. A cold process shrub is not boiled, and is stored in the fridge. I’d previously made hot process shrubs, which turned out syrupy, so I decided to try cold process.

The thing about a cold process shrub is that it’s really easy to make. You combine fruit or fruit juice, sugar, and vinegar in a jar and that’s it. I wound up making three: blood orange shrub, pomegranate shrub, and spiced cranberry shrub.

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Clockwise from the top: Blood orange shrub, pomegranate shrub, and spiced cranberry shrub.

I’m very happy with how they all turned out. The cranberry is briefly cooked, and is a little syrupy, but not too much. All three have been taste tested and are quite good. The blood orange came out just a tiny bit too vinegary, so I think next time I make that I’ll either dial back the cider vinegar further, or try champagne vinegar. The pomegranate was super easy and very delicious, and I think will be on regular rotation here (especially if I can find smaller bottles of Pom). The spiced cranberry is also very good, but puts me in mind of the holidays. Not a bad thing, but it’s not really the time of year. This is something that would be a great addition to a holiday party, though.

Shrubs will certainly be in my regular rotation – making them is significantly cheaper than purchasing them. Now I just need to get some bottles to put them in so they’re easier to pour!

 

Dinner Tonight: Salmon Baked in Parchment

This morning, we picked up two lovely salmon fillets from District Fishwife for dinner, and grabbed some asparagus at the grocery store. We didn’t have a plan, so I started searching my Eat Your Books account for recipes and came across this one for Salmon Baked in Parchment from Simply Recipes, and used it as a guide.

In each packet, I layered asparagus and thin slices of lemon, and threw some scallion, minced garlic, and a little salt over it. Then I set down the salmon, and squeezed half a lemon on top. I added a bit of dry vermouth, and shook a generous amount of Penzey’s Sunny Paris blend over it. More thinly sliced lemons and a few dots of butter went on top of that, along with a bit more salt.

One serving before being sealed up.
One serving before being sealed up.

The instructions for sealing up the packet worked very well for me – I didn’t read the directions for that piece, just followed the photos. The other was prepared and sealed up similarly, and they both went in the oven.

Salmon all wrapped up.
Salmon all wrapped up.

This turned out delicious! The fillets were big (1/2 lb each), so I used a lot of lemon (each got a lemon’s worth of slices, and half a lemon’s worth of juice) and the final dish was very lemony, which we like. If you’re not so much into lemony, you’ll want to cut that back.

I baked these at 350 for 20 minutes, and opened one to check. It didn’t look quite done, so they went back in for five more minutes. (Note: they won’t re-seal perfectly.) They maybe could have used a little longer, but I find it hard to tell. The asparagus was perfectly done – these were very thick spears, so I think thinner ones would be likely to overcook.

Overall this was super easy to prep and is definitely going into our rotation. The presentation is lovely – I took them out of the parchment to serve, since I knew we’d want to cut up the asparagus. (To do so neatly, set the packet on a plate, open it, rip off one half across the fold, and use a hard spatula to push it onto the plate as you pull the paper out.) I’m looking forward to trying this with leeks and other veggies this spring.

Food in Jars Mastery Challenge: Marmalade

Throughout 2017 Marisa McClellan, author of the blog Food in Jars, is runnning a series of monthly canning and preserving challenges. I decided to participate in order to learn some new skills and make some recipes I might not normally gravitate towards. 

January’s challenge was marmalade. This might seem like it’s not really a separate type of preserving from, say, making jam, but it’s different enough that it makes sense on its own. There are two methods to making marmalade – using the whole fruit, or cutting off parts of the rind – and she walked through them and some other tips in an initial post.

Marmalade is interesting in that you don’t need to add any additional pectin to help it set – citrus has enough of its own that, when cooked down properly, it will set itself. The fruit prep is also a bit more precise. When making jam I don’t really worry to much about the size of the pieces I’m cutting (I like the texture of somethign that’s been crushed with a potato masher better than something full of precise cubes), but with marmalade you want to consider the thickness of the pieces of rind. They soften, but this is a case where thinner is better. 


I had never made marmalade before, and it’s something I really only use if it happens to be on the breakfast table at a restaurant, a rare occurrence. Not because I don’t like it, just because I don’t think of it. (Probably because I don’t live ina. place where it appears at teh farmers market.) If nothing else, I knew marmalade would be great to bake with — a bitter filing inside a sweet pastry can be a nice combo. 


I decided to make Marisa’s Small Batch Blood Orange Marmalade. I like making small batches with just 1 or 2 pounds of fruit, as it allows me to make more different preserves. I was also attracted to this recipie because it uses a variation of the whole fruit method where you prep the citrus and then let it soak in water overnight to start softening and releasing pectin. This meant I could easily spread the work over two evenings, which I find makes it easier to fit canning in during the workweek. 


The prep was easy and while the cooking took a while, it wasn’t taxing. I got exactly the amount of marmalade the recipie is supposed to yield, which is always nice (it’s not unusual to be over or under, based on differences in things like the size and amount of fruit used, how much evaporated during cooking, etc). In the jar, the set looks pretty firm, though I won’t know how firm it is until I open the first one. Having read her post on troubleshooting marmalade, I’m expecting a hard set. It was difficult to feel confident in my temperature readings as the level of marmalade in the pan was pretty low.

Thanksgiving 2016

This year, we spent Thanksgiving in Baltimore at the home of some close friends who have hosted us before. They always put on a delicious spread, and this year we we contributed several dishes to the meal.

Hashed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon – Our hosts had identified this as a possible side, and since it was going to allow me to use the slicer blade on my food processor, which I hadn’t used yet, we chose this as one of our dishes. With the food processor to do the slicing, this was a very quick and easy dish to prepare. It’s important to note, though, that while three pounds of brussels sprouts may not look like a lot in your basket at the grocery store, it turns into quite a bit once shredded. I did four pounds, which was too much (almost 4 quarts once prepared). Note also that you’ll need a huge skillet to cook these, and it’s probably worth doing a couple of batches (I did, and it worked well). These were a tasty addition to the plate, and one nice thing about them is that they’re good served room temp or slightly warmed – no need to fight for oven or burner space at the last moment.

Cranberry Parker House Rolls – I chose to make these because it’d been a while since I’d made bread, and I knew I’d have the time to devote to fussing with something that needed to rise – especially since I could prep them and then allow them to sit overnight before baking. I was very careful in making these – made sure the eggs, butter and milk were all at room temperature – and used my stand mixer, which makes things a snap. The dough was pliable and easy to work with, and the rolls turned out delicious! There are a couple of important things to know about this recipe, though, and had I read the comments ahead of time instead of mid-stream, I would have made some adjustments. 

First, as written, it makes way too much cranberry butter – I had two cups left over. You can easily halve that. Second, this recipe has you make sandwiches with little rounds of dough and the cranberry butter, which was easy enough, but messy. Luckily, not so much that I have a pool of burned butter in my oven, but a fair amount of the cranberry butter oozed out of the rolls. 

As it was, I altered the construction method and did something I spotted in the comments – weigh the dough and then portion it out by weight – which worked pretty well. But next time, I’d like to try an entirely different method. Traditionally, Parker House Rolls are folded in half, baked all together in a pan, and then pulled apart to serve. I think I will try either following the traditional construction method, brushing with cranberry butter instead of regular melted butter, or perhaps try making individual rolls in muffin tins, but instead of the sandwhich method, do one larger piece of dough twisted into a balloon type shape with the cranberry butter in the middle. 

Pecan Pie – Last but not least, Handsome made this pecan pie recipe. This was absolutely delicious and I am sad there are no more leftovers. If you make the dough and toast the nuts ahead of time, it seems like it’d be pretty quick to prep on baking day. 

Soup Season

Two great soups for the cold nights, both from Simple Recipes: 

White Bean Soup with Ham, Pumpkin hand Chard: If, like me, you have a pie pumpkin in your possession and don’t want to make pie, this soup is a great option. (Or substitute your preferred hard winter squash.) I used a little package of ham chips in place of the ham hock the recipe calls for, as all of the ham hocks at the grocery store were smoked, and this just seemed easier. Pancetta cubes would also work here. I’m not a big fan of chard, so I used kale, and I used the entire small bunch instead of the few leaves called for. And last, I used crushed tomatoes in place of whole, as it turned out I didn’t have any whole. I think I might like that better. You could easily adapt this for the crock pot – Cook’s Illustrated has a technique where you microwave the onion and garlic to soften them for crock pot recipes, and that’d work just fine here. Add the beans and kale 30 minutes or so before you want to eat and that should do the trick. 

Kale and Roasted Vegetable Soup: This shares a similar flavor profile to the soup above, but is vegetarian – the flavor boost comes in from roasting the veggies and pureeing some of them into the stock. As previously discussed, this is really good and you can do some of the prep a couple days ahead.