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Why I Don’t Rinse Poultry

A recent story on National Public Radio reminded me of the revelation I had about rinsing poultry while working on my last cookbook, All About Roasting. I thought it’d be good to share the excerpt.

“Anyone who has followed a poultry recipe from my earlier book, All About Braising, may be surprised by the title of this section. Yes, it’s true: Throughout the braising book, I begin every poultry recipe by telling you to rinse the bird and then pat it dry, and for years I mindlessly rinsed poultry (especially chicken) as soon as I took it out of its packaging. Then, as I began developing recipes for my next cookbook (All About Roasting) , I was standing in my kitchen about to hold a perfectly wholesome chicken under my kitchen faucet and I had one of those rare moments of revelation. I realized that rinsing was not only unnecessary, it was a bad habit. For starters, many of us rinse poultry because we think it’s more sanitary; in other words, we are somehow washing off any potential pathogens. The problem here is that by rinsing, you are actually spreading any harmful bacteria all over your kitchen sink, so unless you scrub your entire sink (and any counter surfaces that may have been splashed) with some sort of cleaning agent afterward, you are doing more harm than good. Also, unless you severely undercook your poultry, any bad microbes will be killed during cooking.

Beyond the food safety question, rinsing poultry can have a negative effect on the appearance and taste of your recipes, especially when roasting. One of the primary goals of roasting is to develop a handsome brown crust, and this requires having a dry surface—the less moisture it has, the better the surface will crisp and brown. Wet poultry skin also has the unfortunate tendency to stick to the pan or roasting rack, so that it tears when you try to remove it. From a flavor standpoint, when we rinse, we are essentially washing away flavor, and worse, we water down the chicken’s natural flavor. More so than red meat and pork, chicken (and other poultry) has a natural ability to absorb a good deal of water. When you’re brining, this is a good thing, because the chicken will soak up the flavors and salt in the brine, which will enhance its flavor. Plain tap water, however, does nothing but dilute the natural juices and leave the chicken waterlogged and bland. Plus unsalted water added to poultry during rinsing merely leaks out during cooking, leaving the meat drier than it would be otherwise. Now the only time you’ll find me rinsing poultry is if I’ve accidentally dropped it on the kitchen floor, in which case the quicker, the better.”

– Excerpted from All About Roasting

Happy Birthday, Julia!

The IACP commemorated Julia Child’s 100th birthday by having members post their favorite memories. Here’s mine:

My favorite memory of Julia comes from Venice in the fall of 1998.  Julia and Anne Willan were there to present a weeklong cooking program billed as “La Varenne at the Hotel Cipriani with Julia Child,” and I had come along as the kitchen liaison. My job was to prep and assist during classes and to coordinate with the hotel kitchen.

When I signed on, I expected plenty of long hours and hard work, but it seemed like tremendous opportunity. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I would first drive a carload of pots and pans down to Venice from Burgundy so that every morning I could set up our makeshift La Varenne kitchen in a tent erected in the hotel courtyard. At the end of the second day of classes, I had a run-in with the young hotel kitchen steward who was assigned to help me schlepp all our equipment back and forth to a secure spot in the hotel. Julia was within earshot, and, as I started up the path, under relentless rain, wrestling the heavy cart of equipment (unassisted), she stopped me and said, “Dearie, you mustn’t let them push you around,” and then she turned and cheerfully went off to dinner.  Bone-tired, pissed off, and feeling sorry for myself, I stopped and let Julia’s words sink in. She was right. I mustn’t let them — or anyone — push me around. It’s a lesson I try to always remember and to pass along.

My Top 6 Turkey Tips

With Thanksgiving upon us, I’ve been getting a lot of calls and emails about turkey. Maybe it’s usual holiday jitters or the anticipated awkwardness of sharing a kitchen with assorted family members, but I find that even the most confident and cavalier cooks can balk a bit when it comes to the big November feast. I know it happens to me. So to fend off any turkey-roasting anxiety, here are my top 6 tips for getting it right.

1. Buy a good turkey – and preferably a modest sized one.

This may take some advance planning, and, depending on where you live and shop, your may have many or few options. Without being too prescriptive here, I invite you to define what a “good turkey” means to you. In other words, don’t just reach for the cheapest, largest bird you can find, but instead consider the inherent quality of the turkey. For myself, I prefer turkeys from small-scale farmers who I know raise their poultry with an eye towards good taste and humane animal practices and not from a large-scale industrial operations that merely wants to raise the biggest, fattest birds they can manage. For the best-tasting bird, consider seeking out one of the old-fashioned heritage breeds that are (thankfully) making a real resurgence (examples include American Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, and White Holland).

A secondary advantage of heritage breeds is that they don’t grow to the gargantuan size of commercial breeds, and that is a good thing. The average turkey sold today (at Thanksgiving) is close to 28 pounds, and while such a bird will feed an army, it is nearly impossible to cook evenly. The bigger the turkey, the longer it takes to cook and the more likely it is to dry out. You will get much better results roasting a moderate-sized turkey; I look for something in the 12- to 16-pound range. If you have a very large gathering, simply roast two smaller birds. I know this may sound radical, but it makes a huge difference in time, texture, and flavor, and you get the bonus of more legs and wings and crispy skin to go around (and two carcasses for even better day-after turkey soup).

2. Presalt the turkey.

Presalting is the key to a juicy bird. One to two days before Thanksgiving, remove the giblets from the turkey (saving them for later if you like). Then pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Measure out about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of turkey (if you have a 10 pound turkey, you’ll want 5 teaspoons kosher salt, for a 15 pound bird, it’s 7 1/2 teaspoons, and so forth; then simplify your life by converting teaspoons to tablespoons. Hint: There are 3 teaspoons to every tablespoon). The best brand of kosher to use is Diamond Crystal, because it has no additives, and the large, flakey crystals dissolve readily. If you use another brand, such as Morton, cut back the amount of salt by a smidge.

Sprinkle the measured amount of kosher salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper (and any other seasonings you’re partial to) liberally all over the turkey, spreading a little in the cavity and being sure to season the back, the breasts, and the meaty thighs. If you’ve never pre-salted before, this may look like too much salt, but it’s not. As the turkey sits in the refrigerator, the salt will gently permeate the meat, improving the water-holding ability of the muscle cells so that, when cooked, the meat stays juicy yet does not become overly salty. Arrange the salted turkey on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet, and refrigerate uncovered (this dries the skin, which helps it turn crisp during roasting) for one to two days. When you pull the turkey from the fridge after its salt treatment, the skin will be taut and dry with no trace of salt–and ready to crisp up nicely in the oven. (There is no need to rinse or wipe off the turkey.)

3. Don’t stuff the turkey.

As much as I appreciate the comforting flavor of stuffing cooked inside a turkey, the stuffing actually compromises the quality of the finished bird. By packing the cavity with a dense bread (or oyster or sausage) stuffing, you prevent the oven heat from circulating inside the turkey and thus slow down the cooking, so the exterior ends up cooking more rapidly than the center leaving you with dried-out breast meat and undercooked dark meat. As much as traditionalists don’t want to hear it, an unstuffed turkey roasts more quickly and evenly. Also, there’s the food safety dilemma: Stuffing packed into the bird will not cook through to a safe temperature until the rest of the turkey is overdone. My solution is to bake the stuffing separately in a baking dish, which makes it technically a dressing.

4. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for a while and preheat the oven.

I like to let the turkey sit at room temperature for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours before roasting. This helps it roast more evenly. Heat the oven to 450 degrees (or 425 degrees convection), and when you’re certain that it’s fully pre-heated (an oven thermometer is a good way to be sure), arrange the turkey breast-side up in a sturdy roasting pan outfitted with a roasting rack. Pour about 1 1/2 cups of turkey or chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting pan (this will give your pan drippings a boost), and slide the turkey into the oven. Immediately lower the oven heat to 350 degrees (or 325 degrees convection). Roast, rotating the pan after about 1 1/4 hours and covering the breast with foil during the last 45 minutes if it seems to be getting too dark, for 2 1/2 to 3 hours for a 13 to 14-pound (or 12 to 13 minutes per pound). If desired, baste by spooning the pan drippings over the breast every 45 minutes or so.

The turkey is done when the juices from the thigh run mostly clear with only a trace of pink and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meaty part of the thigh registers about 170 degrees. Make sure the thermometer doesn’t hit bone and that the probe doesn’t go all the way through so that it’s reading the temperature of the oven air. It’s a good idea to take the temperature in a few spots to get an accurate reading.

5. Rest the turkey after roasting.

When the turkey is done, grab both sides of the roasting rack with oven mitts to lift and tilt the turkey, and let the juices pour from the cavity into the pan. Set the turkey in a warm spot (and on a tray or cutting board to catch any drips) to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour. (If it’s drafty, loosely tent foil over the top.) It would be impossible to overstate the importance of letting the turkey rest after roasting and before carving. During roasting, the juices in the poultry continually migrate toward the surface. Once roasting stops, the juices eventually stop moving and redistribute themselves evenly throughout the roast, but this takes time. If you cut into the turkey before it’s had a chance to sit, you will be treated to a dry bird, no matter how perfectly you timed the roasting. Plus this resting period gives you plenty of time to tend to the gravy and side dishes, because we all know that Thanksgiving is really all about the trimmings.

The family outlaws taking a moment to admire the birds while they rest.

The "outlaws" take a moment to admire the roasted turkeys (and to let the birds rest before carving).

6. Relax. It’s only a turkey.

Even if you decide to ignore all my other suggestions, please heed this one. In my experience, the best part of Thanksgiving is when we all pause to appreciate our good fortunes. The turkey is merely the centerpiece, but the day is much more about gathering families and friends around the table and sharing a familiar feast.

Wishing you a delicious and convivial holiday!

Why Recipes Don’t Work (at least sometimes)

A friend recently told me about a conversation he had on a flight from Chicago to DC. Hi seatmate noticed he was reading a food magazine and this inspired her to strike up a conversation. Turns out she loves to read about food, and she bragged about her 1000-plus-page scrapbook that she had filled with her favorite recipes from various cooking magazines. My colleague innocently asked if she had cooked all those recipes. “Oh no!” she blurted, “I don’t cook—but someday I’ll get around to it.”

Ever since hearing about the “scrapbook non-cook”, I can’t help but wondering what role, if any, recipes play in inspiring people to cook. We have more recipes at our fingertips today than ever before. Even if you don’t have a personal cookbook library (that’s a partial shot of mine below) or a backlog of cooking magazines, an infinite number of recipes wait only a google search away. And yet evidence keeps piling up that cooking skills are being lost and that, as a result, we eat more and more of our meals away from home.

booksThe truth is recipes can only go so far in teaching someone to cook—or encouraging someone to even try. Even the most basic recipes are filled with coded language (sear, deglaze, blanche, etc), assumptions and leaps of instruction.  Certainly some recipes are easier to follow than others, but no recipe can cover every little detail of kitchen knowledge you need to make you a better cook. Over the years I’ve heard far too many stories from people (often students in my classes) who have tried recipes and failed, and, here’s the part that upsets me the most, they often indict themselves and their lack of cooking skills. I don’t blame people for feeling discouraged after investing time in shopping, money in ingredients, more time in cooking, and possibly even inviting people over adding an element of embarrassment to the mix—it’s enough to drive anyone to the nearest prepared foods department of their local market.

As a cooking teacher and someone who writes recipes for a living, this leaves me in a sort of quandary. While I do my best to include instructional detail in my recipes (making me often long-winded and sometimes causing my editors to pull out their hair), the reality is that the best way to learn to cook is simply start cooking and keep cooking. If you can find someone who knows how to make a dish you like (make sure it’s someone whose company you enjoy), ask them to teach you and then start making it yourself. Just like learning to play the piano, you need to learn the basics and practice before you’re ready for a full-course sonata. Choose a dish you like, for instance, frittata, and start making it, and keep making it until you can make it without a recipe. Sure, you may get a little bored, but that’s when you start introducing variations. After all, the sign of a truly good cook, one who approaches the making of a meal with cavalier confidence but without recipes, is one who knows how to improvise. Once you have a few basics down, then it’s time for recipes—and they will work, because you will know how to make them work.

The Fullness of Summer

While the calendar offers 3 months of summer every year, here in Vermont (and in other northern climes, I’m sure), summer is really all about July. Let me explain. In early June, many nights (and even a few days) have me reaching for my fleece jacket and worrying over my tomato seedlings. And then by late August, I’ve got my fleece back on and there are early splashes or red and orange on the hillsides. Now don’t get me wrong, I love June and August, but July, now that’s the stuff. That’s the full, fat, thickness of summer—the only month that I can rely on to be summer start to finish. And, as such, I revel in it. I take any opportunity to soak it in. I read on the deck in the evening, I eat meals on the screen porch, I leave all the windows open even when it rains, I stay outside as much as I can, I scratch in the dirt, I swim in streams, I wear flip-flops and short dresses, I walk the dog through grasses so tall he disappears, and I cook and I eat and eat and eat. I gorge on tender lettuces, cucumbers and ripe berries. I make the rounds of the farmers’ markets, scarfing up every new crop as it appears. From peas and spinach to onions and runner beans to summer squashes and new potatoes; I shop greedily as the farmers’ stands fill out and their crops grow taller and rounder. My hunger deepens as the peppers and tomatoes get fatter and juicier, as the carrots grow longer, as the beets get rounder, as the arugula turns spicy and as the baby lettuces make way for lusty kales and cabbages. During the day, as I sit in front of the computer in my un-air-conditioned office, I surrender to the sweet residue of raspberries on my lips, to the perspiration that makes my forearms stick to the desk, to the itch of nettle stings on my ankles, to the buzz of wasps making a nest under the eaves, to the swishing of the leaves in the breeze, and I dream of what I’ll make for dinner.

July, I’m yours.

(A meal I recently made for friends: fresh pork sausage coiled and skewered with bay leaves and tossed on the grill; cabbage and carrot slaw; new potato and green bean salad; watermelon salad—from my good friend, Mo; and a bowl of lettuces straight from the garden.)

A meal I recently made for friends: fresh pork sausage coiled and skewered with bay leaves and tossed on the grill, cabbage and carrot slaw, new potato and green bean salad, watermelon salad (from my good friend, Mo), and a bowl of lettuces straight from the garden.

The Making of a Cookbook

All About RoastingPeople sometimes ask me how long it takes to write a cookbook, and the best answer I can give is “it all depends”. It depends on what else I’ve got going on (both personally and professionally), and it also depends on how I measure time. For instance, I am just finishing my new book, All About Roasting, and, to be honest, this book took anywhere from five years to a lifetime depending on how I look at it. From a purely chronological standpoint, I first wrote the outline in the late winter of 2006, which means it took me 5 years from start to finish. But from a developmental point of view, this is a book that I’ve been writing my whole life.

Let me try to explain. When I set out to write a book on roasting, I approached it the way I would undertake any big project. I began by establishing a clear understanding of the technique that would form the central theme of the book. From there, I planned to develop recipes that fell into that rubric. The trouble, I soon discovered, was that the harder I looked at the definition of roasting (cooking food uncovered by dry heat), the more my vision of a strong central theme began to unravel. The standard definition was too vague to really be useful. As a result, my early efforts at organizing my recipes into a book were all over the place, which meant I had no book.

So, I did something that I never would have attempted when I was younger and more bullheaded; I took a step back and asked myself what roasting means to me. To find the answer, I turned to my kitchen and to my appetite. As I roasted and ate, I let my mind travel beyond the technicalities of the stark textbook definition, and I began to understand that it wasn’t so much the technique that mattered, but it was the goodness of the results. It was the aesthetic of seared surfaces, caramelized pan drippings, and crispy end bits that I was after.

Sure, roasting involves cooking by direct exposure to dry heat, but it means so much more. Roasting, I discovered, infers more than a generalized technique; it expresses nuance and sensibility. Roasting denotes a direct, honest approach to cooking, as it leaves the inherent characteristics of ingredients intact while enhancing the intrinsic flavors and transforming them into the best expressions of themselves. Roasting is about a sizzling, crusty exterior and a perfectly cooked interior. Roasting elevates already delicious ingredients by giving them a savory crust and maintaining their own juices and tenderness. Even the phonetics of the word influence its meaning with the seductive little “st” that you make with the flick of the tongue as you say it.

Once I sorted this out for myself, I was well on my way. The book is now in the final stages of editing and proofing.  I’ve lost track of how many recipes it contains, but I can tell you that each one has that special something, that sizzle, that sear, that appeal that comes from roasting. The expected release in October/November, but you can already pre-order it if you are so inclined. Here’s the link. All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art

In the meantime, I look forward to sharing recipes and tidbits on my blog and other writings.

How Bacon Changed My Life

It’s been a while since I went to summer camp, but last week I was lucky enough to attend Zingerman’s Camp Bacon. Yup, you read that right, Camp BACON! Now before you start imagining bacon-singalongs, bacon-wrapped marshmallows cooked over the campfire or arts-and-crafts classes where we wove bacon bracelets, this was a different sort of “camp”. On a Saturday in mid-June, over 50 bacon enthusiasts attended presentations by some of the country’s best bacon-makers, a discussion on bacon history by Jan Longone from the Longone Culinary Archive at the UM Library, several bacon-inspired poetry readings, a hands-on pancetta workshop, and, of course, a bacon cooking demo (that’s where I came in).  By all accounts, the daylong camp was a huge success (and a whole lot of fun for campers and counselors both!). Word is the fine folks at Zingerman’s are already talking about holding Camp Bacon again next year. Here’s where you can find out more. http://www.zingermanscampbacon.com/

Getting serious about bacon (photo by Angela J. Cesere for The Washington Post)

Getting serious about bacon (photo by Angela J. Cesere for The Washington Post)

In the meantime, in preparing for my role as a Camp Bacon counselor, I wrote a couple paragraphs on “How Bacon Changed My Life”. Here they are:

I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household. Our Sunday night suppers of grilled cheese and tomato soup (yes, it was Campbell’s Cream of…) were the only meatless dinners of the week (unless, of course, you count the frozen fish sticks we ate on Friday nights). Being a rebellious teenager by nature, it only made sense that I would declare myself a vegetarian the minute I left for college in the late 70’s. By sophomore year, my friends and I moved out of the dorms, and filled our kitchen with every sort of bulk grain, legume and pulse we could find at the local food co-op. We taught ourselves to transform these into meals by studying the pages of The Vegetarian Epicure, Laurel’s Kitchen and Moosewood. Our dinners often left a lot to be desired in terms of flavor and finesse, but we felt righteous and proud and stuck with it.

By the time I graduated, I determined that vegetarianism had become a part of who I was. Unfortunately, beyond this conviction to a meatless future, I had very little notion of what else I might do with my life, and so I did the only thing I could think of—I moved back into my parents’ house. Not long after, I woke one Sunday morning (after being out way too late the night before no doubt) to the unmistakable smell of frying bacon. My instincts took over and, before I could remind myself that bacon was meat and that I didn’t eat meat, I was down the stairs, slouched on a kitchen stool and ready to tuck into a heap of scrambled eggs flanked by a stack of perfectly crisped bacon strips (Mom had burnt the ends of a few strips just the way I used to like them; now I prefer my bacon less crisp, but that’s a subject for another post). And just like that, my conviction to vegetarianism vanished. No one said a word (I’m guessing my parents hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously in the first place), and I barely blinked. Looking back, I am grateful to my mother and that plate of bacon for re-opening my culinary horizons. It wasn’t long after that morning that I took a kitchen job at a steakhouse and was on my way to a career in the kitchen and at the table cooking and eating all manner of meat, fowl, fish, and even a few legumes and pulses along the way.

Endive for Saint Valentine’s Day

While some girls may hope for long stem roses on Valentine’s Day, I set my heart on a bouquet of a very different sort. Every year for the past decade or so the UPS truck pulls up to my door sometime around February 14th with a modest-sized box marked “perishable” all the way from Rio Vista, California. Tucked inside, under a blanket of packing peanuts, I find a bouquet of red and white endive on the root from California Vegetable Specialties and a typed greeting from Rich Collins, the company’s president.

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I should start by saying that I have long been a fan of endive. I first encountered the pod-shaped vegetable while working for a rather upscale caterer during high school. This was back in the 70’s and the notion of filing an endive spear with a little blue cheese dip was considered terribly gourmet. Right off, I loved the refreshing crunch, the silky tenderness and the pleasantly bitter taste of the leaves. Plus, I was fascinated by how sleek and smooth the tight conical heads were. I knew nothing about where endive came from or how it was produced, but I was hooked. A few years later, I landed in France and discovered the joys of cooked endive—notably braised and gratinéed. So when I ran into Rich Collins some years ago at a specialty food show where he had a booth set up to talk about his endive farm, I was fascinated. We chatted for a while and exchanged business cards, but that was about it….or so I thought. It turns out that Rich is one of those on-the-ball entrepreneurial types who does more with collected business cards than let them collect dust on a windowsill (my standard), and so apparently my name was added to a list of recipients for his fantastic Valentine’s Day bouquet. Now, each year I feel a shimmer of anticipation as the calendar marches into mid-February hoping that I’m still on the list.

To understand how exactly one makes a bouquet of endive, it may help to know a little about this remarkable vegetable. Endive, more properly known as Belgian endive is a member of the chicory family (other family members include frisée, radicchio, curly endive and tardivo), but endive is grown in a most unusual way. First, the farmer plants and grows a leafy chicory variety that produces a large, starchy root (if you’re not after endive, this root is what is dried, roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute; or blended with coffee to make New Orleans style coffee). At the end of the growing season, the leaves are discarded and the roots are harvested and transferred to a dark, damp storage facility. After a period of dormancy, the roots get spread out into trays (still in the dark and damp) until each root sprouts a small pale shoot that grows into what we recognize as endive. The spent roots are discarded, and the cycle begins again the next spring with the sowing of new chicory seeds. What you see in the photo of my bouquet are the heads of endive still attached to the root that sprouted them. For obvious reasons, the roots are normally trimmed away and tossed before shipping to market. If you’ve ever wondered why endive costs more than your ordinary head of lettuce, well, now you understand.

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At present, Rich Collins and his California Vegetable Specialties are the only company commercially producing endive in the USA, and their website has some great photos along with an explanation of the process. If you’re into culinary history, you may especially enjoy the story of who “discovered” endive. (Hint: it was a 19th century Belgian farmer, thus the name Belgian endive).

For my part, what I love about endive is the taste—especially cooked. Until recently, I was pretty stuck on braising as the best way to prepare endive. I even went so far as declaring it “my favorite vegetable for braising” in my braising cookbook. That all changed at a holiday party when my friend, and amazing chef, Maura O’Sullivan served a platter of golden, tender roasted endive drizzled with sherry vinegar as a part of a sort of appetizer buffet. The rather unassuming platter of endive was flanked by a number of sexier offerings—sizzling oysters Rockefeller, a heap of gougères (AKA cheese puffs) and a handsome potato-goat cheese galette—but in the end, the roasted endive were the one taste everyone was talking about long after someone (me) had snagged the last one.

The wonder of roasting endive is how it mellows the natural bitterness in the leaves leaving a more nuanced balance of sweet backed by just a hint of bitter. You start by halving the endive from root to tip, drizzling with olive oil (and/or butter), seasoning with salt and pepper and then sprinkling with just a shimmer of sugar to help bring out the sweetness and encourage the cuts sides to turn all brown and lovely. Roast on a baking sheet in a hot oven, say 400 degrees, until tender and browned (about 30 minutes). A splash of your finest sherry vinegar as they come out of the oven finishes the dish. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Roast Goose (guest blog)

This year, my husband, Mark, and I had to unexpectedly spend New Year’s apart. While I was at my sister’s house in Buffalo cooking collards and beans with ham for her brood (more on that later), Mark was in New Hampshire with two of his sisters doing me proud. He even went so far as to write about the meal he served. What follows is his “guest blog”:

Roasting a Goose for New Year’s Day

I confess, from the start, my sisters were really in charge. But let’s not jump ahead…

It all began in early November during the planning of our family Thanksgiving. We are quite fortunate (and thankful) that 18 of us (parents, siblings, spouses and grandkids) happily overlook any potential for family friction (we are not abnormally immune to such drama), and faithfully show up on my Mom’s doorstep, in the cold wilds of the Poconos, every year for Thanksgiving. The logistics of feeding this crowd for the long holiday weekend—including the big dinner—requires a bit of forethought and more than a few emails. At one point, I innocently sent out an email suggesting that, in addition to the requisite turkey, we roast a goose for Thanksgiving. Immediately my boisterous nephews, as well a chorus of others family members, summarily and loudly dismissed the idea. Their protest had nothing to do with the goose per se, they were simply saying “We love and need thanksgiving at Grandma’s, so don’t go messin’ with it!”

Back and forth the emails flew, fine-tuning our menu with no more mention of the goose and ramping up our anticipation, until one email reminded us that one niece would not be there this year due to new job responsibilities, and that she was not happy about it. “Please remove me from this email chain before I start crying,” she pleaded.  A perfect salve of sorts became evident—the promise of a New Year’s goose dinner at her parent’s place (my sister and her husband) in New Hampshire. This would fulfill my hope of bowling everyone over with something exotic and grand, and my niece could look forward to a needed dose of family fun, including the usual overindulgence, reminiscences, some off the wall proclamations and witty quips—sometimes misfired with unintentionally sharp barbs (or “zingers” in our parlance), yet knowing that nothing said or done can scratch a thick skin of unfailing love and mutual admiration.

Now keep in mind that this would never have happened if I didn’t know my talented wife was going to be watching over me, or if I hadn’t had a chance to taste what I knew was a foolproof feast which she recently authored and carefully tested for one of her regular magazine articles in Fine Cooking: Roasted Goose with Brandied Prune Stuffing and Plum Gravy. http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/goose-brandied-prune-stuffing-red-wine-gravy.aspx

The sides just followed naturally – roasted butternut squash and garlic, wild rice, roasted Brussels sprouts, and simple steamed green beans, along with a nice strong Malbec. I bought the goose from my favorite local grocer’s freezer – about 12 pounds – and started defrosting it in the fridge 4 days ahead of time. Then misfortune struck: Molly needed to be in Buffalo for an emergency on her side of the family. Helping me was the least of her worries, but I had backup. My brilliant sister Marnie, who like Molly possesses that rare gift of calmly knowing what to do in the kitchen and when, MC’d the whole affair, and, along with sister Geor’s energy, we kept on task.

The defrosting was timed perfectly as there was only a touch of ice crystals left in the body when I finally rubbed it down generously with sea salt and coarse ground pepper on the morning of the big feast. I have to admit the bird look a bit scrawny compared to a turkey, but it did look healthy, and we had generous sides to make up for it. It just so happened many of us are trying to eat less meat anyway, and this was looking like a good example of how less can be more.

The first cooking phase involves steaming the bird to render much of the fat off. I had completely forgotten the perfect pan and rack (the one Molly uses) in my rush to leave Vermont, but a little improvising and lots of aluminum foil worked fine—40 minutes as prescribed. Then came the stuffing—the prunes steeped in brandy added some moisture and bulk which nicely helped prevent the bird from drying out during the 2-plus hour slow roast.

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We didn’t have a meat thermometer (which Molly would never do without), but the cooking time called for was perfect. We opted on the low side for the cooking time since the bird was also on the smaller end of the scale and used the “doneness tests” as described in the recipe. We did have a little scare while carving – the inside of the bones were red,

"Do you think it's done?"

"Do you think it's done?"

but on closer inspection the meat was well done, moist and crazy delicious. The gravy, made with plum jelly, was just how I like it—rich, but thin, and packed with flavor from sautéing and simmering the neck and gizzards. All in all, a tremendously successful meal. The perfect amount of food (there were no leftovers of any kind), great company, a warm fire in the hearth, and another great family memory.

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Written by Mark (Thank you!)

Botanical Volunteerism

Recently I was thinning a patch of baby lettuces in my garden and my mind wandered onto the subject of how our perceptions and our realities aren’t always in synch. For instance, I have lived in the countryside (AKA the boonies) for over twenty years, yet I still think of myself as an urbanite.  Along these same lines, I tend a reasonable sized vegetable garden (about 20’ by 20’), two decent-sized perennial borders, a small hillside of shrubs and ground cover and any number of containers (i.e. flowerpots), yet I don’t consider myself a real gardener. Some of this disparity comes from social comparison. In other words, when I look around at the scope and success of my neighbors’ gardens and listen to my friends enthuse about their love for growing things, my own efforts (and energies) pale. Plus, I am surrounded by an impressive number of dedicated and skilled farmers whose products I can buy at nearby farmers’ markets at least 4 days a week during the season. So it’s no surprise to me that every spring – usually when facing the daunting task of cleaning up last years’ wintered over mess – I wonder why I even bother. But then, I’ll get out there and spend a few hours playing in the dirt – raking up the dead leaves and other debris, checking to see what perennials survived the winter, turning over the soil in the vegetable garden – and, before I know it, I feel a creeping delight and optimism about what my gardens might produce this year. Truth is, I like gardening, or rather, I like being outdoors, and, as a cook, I get a genuine thrill any time I harvest something that I’ve actually grown myself. I suppose you could say that this makes me a gardener by default.

Spring lettuces

Spring lettuces

When it comes to how I tend my gardens, well, I’m back to not being a real gardener. Over the years, I’ve learned to practice a technique I refer to as ‘benign neglect’. You see, while I might get excited in the spring and rush out and buy a bundle of seed packets, or diligently plant too many tomato seedlings once we’re past the last frost, I’m not the sort to dedicate a regular amount of time to garden maintenance. Some weeks, I’ll be out there once or even twice, but then there are the weeks where I do little more than glance at the gardens as I pull into the garage. Truth is, I don’t make gardening a priority, but the good news about not calling myself a real gardener is that I don’t feel any of the guilt or lament that I imagine real gardeners would feel if they were anywhere near as negligent. The other delight I’ve found in my approach is the value of botanical volunteers.

In garden-speak, a volunteer is a seedling that shoots up on its own accord – and my gardens are full of them. In the flower garden, the volunteers are likely the result of plants I let go to seed last season instead of diligently dead-heading (i.e. cutting off the spent blooms) the way real gardeners do. In the vegetable garden, the volunteers come from the tomatoes that fall to the ground and rot before I get to them, or from the dill I let blossom and go to seed, or from the potatoes I don’t find when I attempt to harvest. I often find volunteers in the compost heap as well – cucumbers and squash seem happiest there.

When I first started playing around with gardening, I unwittingly yanked the volunteers – mostly because I didn’t stop long enough to recognize them as anything but unwanted weeds. Now, whenever I can, I let them flourish, sometimes transplanting them to a safe spot if they’ve popped up somewhere they might get trampled or be cramped. Indeed, I’ve even expanded my perennial flowerbeds without having to visit the nursery – I simply transplant the volunteers giving them plenty of room and a few good shovels of compost. In the end, I appreciate the lessons that my volunteers teach me. First, they teach me what thrives in our particular soils,  microclimate and, most importantly, under the laws of my ‘benign neglect’. They also teach me to stop and pay attention – what looks like a scrawny weed may turn out to be a splendid flower. I also admire their tenacity and enthusiasm. Finally, I take comfort in their assurance. Each surprise sprout reminds me that I must be doing something right if my gardens are fertile enough to replant themselves. The best I can do is offer them some water and let them grow.

Volunteer columbine

Volunteer columbine