Sunday, November 28, 2010

Our "First" Thanksgiving

This is probably the last thing anyone wants to read about, including me, but I thought I'd go ahead and summarize our first Thanksgiving experience in our new house so that I can refer to it the next time I have people over for Thanksgiving. And I'm sort of hoping that won't be next year, but you never know!

I guess it was sort of cheating to do a trial run a few days earlier, but we are total rookies in the turkey department and we were using new and unfamiliar equipment.  We really wanted to make sure that everything was going to work, turkey-wise.

For the first turkey I made stock from the neck and the giblets, and made a roux out of flour and butter and combined it with the drippings and the giblet stock to make a ton of excellent tasting gravy, which I then immediately put in the freezer, along with all of the meat from that first turkey. The leftover giblet stock went into the refrigerator. The next day I made more stock from the carcass of the first turkey, so I had lots and lots of stock. I simmered it down so that it would be more concentrated and take up less room. It turned into turkey jello in my refrigerator.

I picked up our fresh, all natural turkey from the Amish Market in Laurel on Tuesday afternoon. The label said it had been packed that very morning, so that's pretty fresh. This turkey was kind of a splurge, but now we have a chance to compare turkeys of different prices. The Amish turkey did seem to be of higher quality in several ways. It seemed cleaner. It didn't have one leg ripped halfway off the way the other one did. That makes me sad for that other turkey. Maybe he was trying really hard to get away. Anyway, the Amish turkey had the skin cut some fancy way so that the drumsticks were tucked into it. So the string wasn't necessary. I had to untuck them for the washing but they tucked right back in without too much trouble. The Amish turkey was almost 16 lbs which was almost too big for our roasting pan and the platter. I kept saying it wasn't necessary to get more than 13 lbs, but Doug wanted a bigger one so that's how that went. Of course it took longer to cook too.

I cooked it upside down for the first 45 minutes so that the underside would be brown and hopefully thoroughly cooked to begin with. There didn't end up being a dent this time, so that was good. I was able to be more attentive with the basting on this one because I didn't have to deal with the stock. I decide to freeze the neck and giblets for later use since I already had a bunch of stock sitting in the refrigerator.

Having the gravy and the stock from the first turkey available to use for the actual Thanksgiving turkey made things much easier. I heated up the frozen gravy and thinned it with the stock and I also used the stock for the stuffing, which made it as moist and turkey flavored as if it had actually been stuffed inside the turkey. So that was successful. I had doubts about that stuffing because I didn't entirely obey my mother's recipe, but it worked out fine. She liked the rosemary that I added in addition to the usual sage. It was the classic simple stuffing that I grew up on, made from dried out white bread, onions, celery, sage (and rosemary), and fresh turkey stock instead of canned chicken stocked or that delicious botulism-laced inside-the-bird flavoring. Sheesh, I've become such a germophobe in my old age!

Anyway, the turkey took thirty minutes longer than planned but the people who have an opinion about such things said that it was moist and tasty and juicy and perfectly cooked, not overcooked. I'm a gravy person, so dry breast meat doesn't bother me that much.

Our oven has a setting called "bread proof" which heats the oven to 100 degrees. I guess that's for something in the bread making process.  It was perfect for drying out the fresh slices of white bread.

Doug bought redskin potatoes for the mashed potatoes and they tasted good and mashed up fine when I first fixed them, but they got dried out when Doug reheated them and the texture got weird. I added more milk to the leftovers the next day and they got back to the right texture. They were probably the least popular thing that we served. I thought they tasted delicious with the little kick of horseradish that I but they were definitely dry when we served them.

The spinach souffle with fresh dill suffered the same fate, but it all got eaten anyway. Doug's boiled sweet potatoes with fresh thyme were perfect, which is not surprising since they were cooked near the end. The vinaigrette dressing I made had too high of a concentration of shallots and then I tossed too much in so it wasn't as subtle as it had been the last time I made it. Oh well. They still all ate it so it can't have been too bad.

The butternut squash soup was delicious, although it wasn't actually made from butternut squash. They were out of butternut so Doug bought something called buttercup squash which looked like some kind of mutant acorn squash. I didn't like it as well, but I went ahead and made it the night before figuring I'd do some remedial spicing of it the next day. We don't have a food processor so I put it through the Foley Food Mill three times to get it to the right texture. I was running short on time and had to go get dressed, so I told Doug to do his thing with the spices. I think he added maple syrup in addition to the sage, rosemary, cayenne pepper and cinnamon that I had suggested. He did a good job.

I realized at the last minute that I didn't have a centerpiece for my table, which is relatively on the small side for seven people, so I improvised with some grapes and a candle. It's kind of messed up looking in this picture because people were munching on the grapes, but when it was first assembled it actually looked pretty cool and it coordinated nicely with the pink flowers in my dishes. I guess it looked good enough to eat, hahaha! The grapes were gigantic and I after I took them all off the stems they looked like giant marbles.

So that covers all of the stuff we fixed, I think. There were other outstanding contributions too. My brother brought an amazing Merlot that he got from some vineyard in Virginia. Usually you think of white wine for turkey, but this Merlot went really well with it, kind of in the same way that cranberry sauce does.

Speaking of cranberry sauce, my mother brought some of her homemade sauce, which was delicious as always, along with some rolls, a mincemeat pie, and hard sauce.  Yum!

My sister-in-law brought a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie and both were amazing.  I took one bite of the pecan pie and thought I'd died and gone to heaven.  The pecans on this pie were so good that they practically overshadowed the pie.  It turns out that they were freshly picked from her mother's pecan tree in South Carolina less than a week ago.

Two things that made our time in the kitchen much easier were these excellent potholders that our friend Donna crocheted for us.  They are so tightly woven and so thick that no amount of heat can pass through them.  In addition to being cute, they are sturdy, durable, and washable.  I'm so glad we didn't have to go out an buy some lame potholders.  These are great!

So that's the blow-by-blow description of our dinner.  I also have some more general observations:
  • It was difficult to get and/or keep all of the food heated at the same time for serving.  I kind of wish we had a double oven instead of two microwaves.  But Doug felt strongly about that so that's what we have.
  • I LOVE Orca the sink.  My sink named Orca.  It's a whale of a sink!
  • I'm really glad Doug has his own sink, which shall remain nameless for now.  Although I secretly sort of want to name it Pig Pen, after the character from Peanuts.
  • All of this handling of the bird and dealing with the various organs and the skeletons of two different turkeys in less than a week has made me realize that I'm a little creeped out by all of that.  What a sissy I am!  Well I already sort of knew that, but now I've proven it to myself.
  • I am so damn tired of having turkey grease on my hands and having to wash them about fifty times a day.  It's annoying and terrible for my bass playing calluses. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Trial Turkey

Since I haven't cooked a turkey in a really long time I decided that it might be a good idea to do a trial run before the big day.  Although I am quite capable of making things that taste good, I do not consider myself to be much of a cook.  It's not something I do for fun.  I enjoyed it when I was a kid, but for most of my adult life I've had a barely functioning kitchen and/or I've been on the road, leading a life completely devoid of cooking.  That's all over now, at least for the time being.

I was thinking back to the first turkey I had an actual hand in cooking.  My roommate and I had our boyfriends over and the two of us did the whole thing together.  Nothing went wrong and it tasted great - and that's all I can remember.

There was one Thanksgiving where Doug and I had both sets of parents over.  That's all I know.  I must have blocked the rest out.  It was probably fine.  Doug was probably running the show for that one, and people probably brought stuff.  I really can't remember a thing about it.

So this year we are finally back in our house and we have our big fancy new kitchen, which for me is kind of the equivalent of walking around the mall in hiking boots or having a big rugged truck to drive to gigs in.  I still shake my head at how ridiculously fancy it all is.  Of course we don't have a lot of the basic things that a normal well stocked kitchen has - like enough forks, for example.  We had to go out and buy a roasting pan and a carving knife, among other things.  At least we have plenty of dishes.  We didn't replace all of our kitchen stuff right away after the fire because we didn't have much room in our rental place.  And now we don't have the money.  That stuff is expensive!

Anyway, it's been my "turn" to have Thanksgiving now for close to 20 years, so I decided to go ahead and do it, ready or not.  My brother is allergic to black pepper so I needed to figure out how to get a turkey that doesn't have mystery substances injected into it and figure out how to make it taste good without using any pepper.

We got a fresh 13 pound turkey from Giant on Friday and I finally got around to cooking it this evening.  Since I don't have any cookbooks, I looked things up on the internet and watched a few videos on Youtube to learn how to do the various activities.  There sure is a lot of conflicting information to sift through out there.  So I just picked out the article or video that seemed like the best way to procede for each thing.  My choices were highly subjective, that's for sure.

It really seems like individual creativity comes into play with most cooks almost immediately - judging from the various comments on each recipe or article, most people don't follow any recipe completely literally. It seems like they immediately start changing it without bothering to find out if the actual recipe is any good.  I guess it's not necessary most of the time to follow recipes exactly, although I'll bet it matters a lot more with baking.  I decided not to be too literal-minded about things, although I did clean the turkey very very meticulously, with a great deal of mocking from Doug.

So I figured out, based on some website that I liked enough to print out the pages, that I would cook the turkey in Doug's fancy-ass convection oven without brining it.  They raved about their test turkeys that were cooked at 375 degrees for an hour and a half to two hours without brining and since I don't know any better, I went with that.  I also decided not to stuff it because that makes things more complicated and it's safer not to stuff it.  I'll have to figure out how to get the stuffing moist enough without being in the bird.  Doug was helping a little bit until I kicked him out.  I got him to stick a few onion quarters, a couple stalks of celery, and some sprigs of fresh rosemary inside the turkey before he started acting up.

Doug's convection oven has a probe thingy that you can supposedly put in the turkey and then attach the other end to the wall of the oven and when the turkey gets to the right temperature it turns the oven off.  That kinds of creeps me out, and I was kind of relieved when it didn't register properly because then I could just use a meat thermometer like a normal person.  We've never used that probe thing before and I didn't want to mess with it.  But Doug did, and he wouldn't let it go.  That's when I sent him downstairs.

He came back up a little while later to help me identify the liver, which I was not supposed to use in the broth.  I'm such a non-cook that I wouldn't know a turkey liver if I saw one. Unfortunately that meant that he decided then and there to fix himself some fried turkey livers which stunk up the kitchen for a while.  But eventually the fan took care of the smell.

He went back downstairs and once the turkey was well under way in the oven I spent my time going back and forth between the computer and the kitchen, looking up every little thing up that I needed to find out.

I made turkey stock to use in the gravy, and I made a roux out of butter and flour for the gravy too, and cleaned a bunch of pans and utensils.

Finally the bell rang to check the turkey.  It was a beautiful medium golden brown.  Unfortunately the turkey was apparently sitting low enough in the pan, in spite of it having a rack, that the convection browning action did not hit the bottom three inches.  So I flipped it over and cooked it for another twenty minutes upside down.  I don't think it was actually cooked all the way judging from the juice, so the extra time was good.  But it ended up with a big dent on the top.

It's kind of ugly looking actually, but Doug declared it to be perfectly cooked.  It was tender and juicy and delicious.  He seemed kind of surprised at how well it turned out.  And he was shocked at the excellence of my gravy.  I think it will taste even better next time because this time I didn't do everything you are supposed to do.  It still tasted pretty good and there were no lumps.  I don't remember my mother or his ever doing roux or making broth to add to the gravy, so maybe that's why it was extra good.  Next time I'm going to try deglazing the pan with white wine.  So fancy-schmancy, yeah that's me alright.

Look at that dent!  I'm paying big bucks for some kind of special fresh turkey from the Amish Market that I'll be picking up on Tuesday.   I will not allow dents to happen in Thursday's turkey.

Meanwhile,  I've already frozen most of the meat off of this turkey so it won't go bad and we'll have leftovers no matter what.  I also froze the gravy so that it will keep until Thanksgiving.  I'm going to have lots and lots of gravy.

Tomorrow I'm going to make more stock from tonight's turkey carcass so I won't have to mess with that again on Thursday while I'm trying to do everything else.  Also tomorrow I'm going to get Doug to cut up and bake the butternut squash for the soup I'm going to make.

Here's my menu:
Butternut Squash Soup
Salad Greens with a vinaigrette that has mustard and shallots in it.
Really Basic Stuffing - shredded white bread, celery, onion, sage, etc.
Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes
Spinach Souffle with fresh dill
Cranberry Sauce that my mother will make
Apple Sauce that Doug made from our tree
Whatever pies my sister-in-law brings.

That's probably enough, right?  If it's not, then everyone will get to have the pleasant experience of not being miserably stuffed on Thanksgiving.  That would be okay I think, as long as the food tastes good.  I need to figure out where to use that fresh thyme I bought.  Other than that, I think I'm good to go.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blue Sparrow

Last week after I got my hair cut, I was sitting in my car waiting for Doug to show up and passed the time by taking a few pictures out of my car window. I was trying to take a close up of a sparrow that was sitting on top of the hedge by my car, but he flew away so I ended up with a picture of this little cutie instead.

But the sparrow came back. I then noticed that his lighter feathers were blue! I didn't know that blue sparrows actually existed, so I googled it and found out that they've been spotted in Australia too, but some people still think that they don't exist. Anyway, this one was hanging out across from the Chipotle, next to the New Wave Salon on Rockville Pike. He almost looks like a parakeet in this photo, but he was definitely a sparrow as far as I can tell. The blue sparrow in Australia was prettier than the one I saw - the color is absolutely amazing! "My" sparrow is a little more subtle.

There's some additional discussion of the blue sparrow phenomenon on this website. Check it out, there's a really great photo there too.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I've been complaining, mostly to myself, about the pathetic lack of travel that exists in my life these days. My big trip to Delaware happened this past weekend. We played an Andrews Sisters show/concert at a casino for Veterans Day Weekend and stayed overnight since they had a room for us. It made me feel a bit nostalgic for my former life on the road because there were a lot of similarities - the 1940s theme, the army uniform, the enthusiastic crowd, the onstage big band, the meal before the gig, the hotel afterwards, etc, etc. After five years of not touring it was interesting to be able to observe what I miss and what I don't miss.

The next day we got up and went to Rehoboth since that was the closest beach. This will probably be my last beach trip this year - the other day trips (two of them) were to Assateague. I haven't been to Rehoboth in several years. We had to make it quick because my bass was in the car. It was parked in a shady spot, but I still don't like to leave it for very long.

We took a short walk on the beach, had a slice of Grotto Pizza, got some warm caramel corn at Dolle's for dessert, and stopped at the awesome coffee shop at the edge of town out by Route 1, so it was a completely satisfying Rehoboth experience except for the lack of beach time. The beach is kind of small at Rehoboth. And the sand is grayer than it is at Assateague.

The waves were huge! If the water had been warmer I would have gone in. I like big waves, especially out past the breakers, where they lift you up but you don't get smashed by them. I'm looking forward to next summer already!

And here are some more pictures of the blue sparrow in Australia. They are really fantastic, so go have a look!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fall at the Falls

It was a beautiful fall day and a quick little getaway was in order so we went out to Great Falls, MD. I hadn't been there for at least ten years, but it was at least as beautiful as I remembered it from the last time.

On the Maryland side you have to stroll along the C&O canal towpath to get to the walkway for the falls.

This is a little stream that runs between the canal and the Potomac. It was doing a lovely job reflecting the gorgeous blue sky.

"Leaflets three - leave them be." The poison ivy poem.

Here's the first section that we came to. A sort of narrow gorge.

This is the main part of the falls. Great Falls covers a very wide and rocky section of the river.

Great Falls, VA. I looked at the falls from over there this past spring. I think the main part looks prettier from the Virginia side, but the walk to the falls is nicer on the Maryland side and you can get much closer to them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dwindling Travel

I love to travel and I've been very lucky to be able to incorporate that into my gigs in the past. I very reluctantly had to give up cruising and touring about halfway through 2006, always thinking that I'd get right back to it in a year, or two at the most. Here's how that plan has played out:
16 Countries: Portugal, Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Norway.
31 States (including DC): Maryland, DC, Virginia, Idaho, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut.
5 countries: Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Iceland.
27 States: Maryland, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachussets, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, California, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Hawaii

18 States
: Maryland, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana.

13 States
: Maryland, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Nebraska.

7 States
: Maryland, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania.

3 States so far
: Maryland, DC, Virginia. Exactly 2 one day trips to the beach this summer. No vacations for me. But tomorrow I’m actually going all the way to Delaware! (for a gig.) I’m so excited to be adding another state to my “travels” for this year!

At the rate things are going, I won’t even be leaving my house next year.