Doin’ da Bird

OK, just when you thought it was safe to forget about the overindulgence and caloric excesses of Thanksgiving day, here comes another blog post on Thanksgiving recipes. This one sticks to the basics: roasting the turkey itself and making gravy. It is my traditional holiday task to make the dim-witted bird into a delectable feast (and yes, I know wild turkeys are very smart), so this recipe has matured with age–unlike me. So grab your blunderbuss, put on your Pilgrims hat, and let’s get to it.
Continue reading “Doin’ da Bird”

Barbecued Copper River Salmon

Copper River SalmonWe are currently in the small, several-week window, much celebrated in the Pacific Northwest, when the Alaskan Copper River salmon is available. This delectable (albeit overpriced) fish has a firm, delicate, bright red flesh very high in omega-3 oils, and is a true highlight of the culinary year.

My wife bought some very nice fillets this week, and with our weather being a gorgeous sunny 70 degrees, it seemed fitting to barbecue this delicacy. After browsing a few recipes and tweaking them liberally, here’s what I came up with: a subtle marinade and a honey lime yogurt sauce. Here goes:

The Marinade

(the quantities are approximate)

1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar
The juice of one small lime
2 tbsp aromatic peanut oil
1 tbsp garlic oil
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/4 tsp hot pepper sauce
1 tsp sesame seeds
ground pepper
2-3 chopped scallions

Divide the fillet into 2 or 3 pieces. Place the above ingredients in a small Pyrex baking dish, and marinate the fillets for about 1 hour, spooning the marinade over the fish periodically, and flipping once. Gently pierce the fish with a fork to allow penetration of the marinade.

Yogurt Sauce

Two small containers of plain unflavored yogurt
4-5 finely chopped scallions
juice of 1/2 lime
1 tbsp of cumin
2 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp hot pepper sauce
1 tsp chopped fresh dill
2 inches of garlic paste
salt & pepper to taste

Mix the above ingredients well and chill.

Cooking the Fish

I am partial to charcoal grills (oak, not mesquite) as they impart a superior flavor to barbecued foods — albeit with a bit more fuss than propane grills (ugh!). Make a small tray of aluminum foil for each fillet, and pierce the bottom a few times with a fork to allow some of the oils & juices to drip onto the coals. Place the fillets skin-down on the foil, spooning on some of the marinade, and place them off-center on the grill so they are not over the hottest part of the coals. I use a covered Weber grill with the holes closed about half way to keep the temperature lower. My fillets cooked about 20-25 minutes, but this will depend on the heat of the coals and the thickness of the fish, so I check the thick part with a fork for doneness (I am not a big fan of the nearly-raw fish served in many restaurants nowadays). Salmon is very forgiving as its oil content is so high.

I served the salmon up with white corn on the cob, potato salad, a lime wedge and a sprig of dill with some chopped dill sprinkled over, and the yogurt sauce on the side.

The reviews from the critics (my family, who are very tough judges) were 5-star. And I must admit I concur.

Give it a try.

Lamb Stew

I’ve been pretty quiet on the writing side of late — a bit of burnout, I guess, mostly from work and dealing with family issues. My wife is executor of her mom’s estate, and although I’m trying to keep an arm’s length from the matter, some relational speed bumps have arisen, which are hard to entirely shut out. I have gotten wrapped up in similar conflicts before, and some of the same issues (and players) are at it again.


So I’ve been focusing on more relaxing pastimes to stay sane, including (re)learning to play the guitar (more on this anon) and cooking. In a moment of inspiration today, I decided to cook up a lamb stew. Despite being pretty much off-the-cuff, it turned out outrageously well (if I do say so myself — and my wife agrees) — so here it goes:

Lamb Stew

    1 leg of lamb, trimmed, boned & cubed
    1 cup red wine
    1/2 cup olive oil
    1 tbsp garlic oil
    4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
    ground pepper
    1 tsp sea salt
    4 Medjool dates, pitted

Place all of the above in a large bowl, and marinate for 1-2 hours, stirring periodically. While you’re waiting, prepare & cook the vegetables:

    2 onions, sliced
    3 carrots, sliced
    3-4 tbsp olive oil

Saute the vegetables in a Dutch oven about 15 minutes until the onions soften. Remove from the pan.

Drain the marinade, and brown the lamb in the Dutch oven. Remove from the pan.

    6 Roma tomatoes, pealed & coarsely chopped
    Ground pepper

Saute the tomatoes until dissolved. Add the marinade. Add the following spices:

    1 tbsp cumin
    1 tbsp coriander
    1 tbsp paprika
    1/2 tbsp ground ginger
    1/2 tbsp alspice
    1/2 tbsp nutmeg
    2 tbsp tomato paste

    6 Medjool dates
    1 cup chicken stock.

Add the meat, onions and carrots to the pan with the tomato saute, and add the dates and the stock. Stir well, cover, and cook over low heat for about 1 hour.

Remove the meat and vegetables from the pan, leaving the gravy. Turn up the heat and uncover to cook the liquid down a bit.

Thicken with a flour-butter roux (about 1-2 tbsp butter/flour)

Garnish with slices of roasted red bell peppers, and serve with curry couscous and fresh steamed green beans with lemon butter.

Seriously yummy comfort food for a winter’s eve.

Give it a go — it’s an easy meal (total prep & cook time about 3 hours), and well worth it.

Back soon, God bless.

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

This is reposted from Dec 2006.

Excellent Easter main course.

pork tenderloinThe holidays are in full swing — which means a concerted effort to attain new heights of dietary excess, occasioned by an endless stream of convivial gatherings of family and friends. Einstein postulated that gravity has waves; such waves seem self-evident, making the bathroom scale increasingly inaccurate at certain times of the solar year.

This year, for a dinner for our church small group, I decided to have a wonderful chutney-glazed stuffed pork which I discovered last year at Easter, courtesy of a good friend who is an excellent cook. It was, by the estimation of an esteemed group of culinary critics (my family), the best pork they had ever tasted. I think I have to agree.

The dish begins with a full pork tenderloin. Our local Costco has these at surprisingly good prices – $17 for a full tenderloin (the entire psoas muscle, for those of you anatomically inclined). I cut this in half to make the length manageable in a roasting pan.

The tenderloin is a very lean cut, but has a tough fascial layer (tendon) running along one side. There is a plane between a thinner layer of sinew on the meat and the main tendon, so the thicker tendon can be separated fairly easily, leaving a thin layer of collagen on the meat.

Always use good surgical technique, of coarse: traction-countertraction, scissor tips in closed, then spread to separate and condense the loose connective tissue, which is then cut. Good kitchen shears or a very sharp knife are a must. The thin layer of attached collagen remaining will prove useful for the next maneuver — preparing the loin for stuffing.

With the tendon-side down, the loin is first bivalved along its center, nearly full thickness. The thin tendon helps hold the roast together with this deep cut. Now, in order to increase the size of the stuffing area — and give the finished meat an internal star pattern of stuffing — several cuts are made laterally at an angle from the center cut.

The first cut starts just below the center of each half, angled toward the cutting board. The next is angled parallel to the cutting board. The idea is to create angled wedges of meat, which will allow the loin to expand and form the sides of the star.

The roast should now lie flat, with triangular ridges running it’s length.


Now, on to the stuffing: I prefer to use fresh-baked baguettes from our local supermarket, sliced thinly and allowed to dry overnight (or in a warm oven for 20-30 minutes), then coarsely chopped in a food processor. Packaged stuffing is OK, but should not be seasoned.

Next comes the fruit — pears and apricots. Pour off the syrup from a large can of pears and save it, then chop the pears and apricots, sprinkle with allspice, then add to the stuffing. I sometimes add some fruit for color as well — blueberries, dried cranberries, or currants.


Now add some slivered almonds to the mix for crunch and texture, and blend.


To moisten the stuffing we introduce our next secret ingredient: chutney. Our favorite is Silver Palate Mango Chutney, which has a hefty dose of ginger, resulting in a bit of a “bite” — a wonderful blend of sweet and tangy. The chutney is thinned with some of the pear juice, and added to the stuffing mixture to bind it.


The moistened stuffing is then worked into the opened roast in generous amounts, which is then rolled in and tied with kitchen twine. Use a surgeon’s knot (double loop on the first throw) to prevent the twine from slipping.


The pork loin halves are then glazed with the chutney and placed on a rack in a large roasting pan. The oven is heated to 325 degrees, and basting is not necessary. Roasting time is a bit hard to predict — this roast took about 2 hours — but cook to an internal temperature of 160 to 165 degrees, using a good meat thermometer. Do not overcook! Domestically-raised pork has an extremely low risk of trichinosis (unlike wild game), and the parasite is killed at about 135-140 degrees, if not less. Overcooked pork is a dry abomination, suited only for snacks after waterboarding at Gitmo.

Preparing this roast may look like a production, but is actually quite fast, taking only about 30-45 minutes of prep time before it reaches the oven. It is excellent served with a garnish of crushed raspberries with sugar and lemon juice, or cranberry horseradish sauce.

So give it a whirl for your next holiday meal or guest dinner. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

pork tenderloinThe holidays are in full swing — which means a concerted effort to attain new heights of dietary excess, occasioned by an endless stream of convivial gatherings of family and friends. Einstein postulated that gravity has waves; such waves seem self-evident, making the bathroom scale increasingly inaccurate at certain times of the solar year.

This year, for a dinner for our church small group, I decided to have a wonderful chutney-glazed stuffed pork which I discovered last year at Easter, courtesy of a good friend who is an excellent cook. It was, by the estimation of an esteemed group of culinary critics (my family), the best pork they had ever tasted. I think I have to agree.
Continue reading “Holiday Pork Tenderloin”

Pizza Mind

Well, life’s been a little crazy of late, so when stress gets the best of me, there’s really only one solution: let’s eat!

My daughter, recovering from back surgery at our home, had a few of her friends visit us over the weekend, giving me an opportunity to do some cooking, which is a pastime I have not been indulging in much of late, given our empty nest and my crazy hours. So the mood seemed just right for a little pizza-mind.

Pizza has a long and noble history, dating back to the round flat breads baked in ancient Greece, seasoned with olive oil and herbs. With the addition of mozzarella cheese (first made from water buffallo milk) and the tomato (an import from the Americas, initially thought to be poisonous), the tomato and cheese pie which we now know today evolved in Naples, Italy, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Its popularity increased greatly after WWII, after U.S. and European troops occupying Italy first experienced its delights, and has evolved far beyond its humble beginnings as a simple peasant food.

Homemade pizza is surprisingly easy to make, and well worth the small effort involved–especially when compared to the high-priced greasy salt-licks sold by commercial chains–or worse, their cardboard cousins lining the freezer aisles at your local supermarket.

While commercial crusts can be had, they often suffer from some of the same liabilities, so it’s best to make one from scratch. The dough is quite simple, typically involving only flour, water, salt, yeast, and a little olive oil. My combo is 4 1/2 cups of flour (usually 3/4 white, 1/4 whole wheat) about 1-1 1/2 cups of warm water (flours vary on how much they absorb), 2 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tbsp of salt, and a packet of rapid-rise yeast dissolved in the warm water. I often add some herbs (oregano or sweet basil, and sometimes crushed garlic) to the mix for a little extra flavor and color as well. You can kneed these together by hand, but a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook is a big help. You want a dough that is moist to the touch but not sticky. Cover it in a bowl, place in a nice warm spot in the kitchen, and let it rise for about 2 hours, until it at least doubles. One rise is sufficient. When it’s ready, punch it down, knead it again (you can add a little more flour if it’s too sticky), and divide into three parts with a knife. Each of these will make a pie about 9 inches across.

While your dough is rising, it’s time to tackle the red sauce. None of that bottled or canned bilge, right? Go with the real thing–it’s very easy.

There are endless variations on red sauces. Mine has evolved over the years, and is a variation on the puttanesca–a potent sauce made with garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, capers, anchovies, olives, and oregano. This sauce, by legend, was first made by Italian prostitutes (puttana is Italian for “prostitute”, as it could purportedly be made quickly between clients–these fine ladies had tricks in the kitchen as well as in the bedroom). My variation drops the olives, adds sauteed onions, and sometimes meat, especially sausage–although I also often make a straight puttanesca, which is spectacular as a meatless meal served over angle-hair pasta.

Start with a nice heavy 4 quart sauce pan, and place some olive oil in the bottom–2-4 tablespoons. We are fortunate to live near a good Italian deli which stuffs their own sausages, although decent ones can be had at most supermarkets as well (fresh, not frozen, of course). I pierce the sausage casings to facilitate cooking off some of their fat, and saute them slowly until nicely brown, then pour off the excess fat and place the sausages on paper towels to cool.

Coarsely chop a large onion and saute it in the oil-fat mixture until translucent and browned, then add garlic. Garlic is the food of the gods, so I add lots–at least 3 big cloves, crushed–but should only be cooked a minute or two as it burns easily and becomes bitter.

Now it’s time for the tomatoes. In season, I like fresh Italian plum tomatos, blanched to remove their skins, then coarsely chopped. Plum tomatoes liquify well with cooking, and fresh ones make a pungent sauce that’s incomparable–but our season for these here in the Northwest is short, so I’m settling for their canned cousins. I add the tomatoes (1 large can) to the onion-garlic saute, and then add the herbs: black and hot red pepper, fennel, oregano, sweet basil, capers, and anchovy paste.


The sausages are sliced and added at this time as well. I cook this mixture down for 45 minutes to an hour to reduce the liquid and make a rich, thick tomato saute.


Finally, I add a large can of tomato puree, and slowly simmer these together to blend flavors and bring it up to temperature. If heaven smells this good, I’m ready to die.


Now back to the pizzas: Each of the three sections is formed into a ball, then pressed flat on a large cutting board dusted with flour. I’d like to tell you that I’ve mastered the art of spinning the dough in the air–but my experience with this command performance is not impressive, generally ending with a lump of dough on the floor, flour everywhere, and the guffaws of family and friends. So I roll it out, rotating the dough and letting it rest a bit to relax the gluten, and finally pushing and stretching the dough out to the edge by hand at the end to create a lip. Keep the board dusted with flour so the dough will slide off easily when it heads for the oven.


The sauce is then ladled onto the dough, followed by a generous helping of mozarella, any toppings you may wish (sauteed onions and bell peppers, or caramelized onions are a favorite), and finally the accent cheeses: Romano and Parmesan.



The oven is preheated to 425-450 degrees, with one important addition: a brick. The use of a brick or stone allows the crust to breathe rather than steam as it cooks, making it far crisper. A cookie sheet is an alternative, but just doesn’t quite measure up–and the pie tends to stick to it, making its extraction a real chore.


I generally cook the pies about 13-15 minutes, until the top is bubbling and the crust edges are starting to brown. A large wooden paddle (also called a peel) really makes life easier when removing the pie from the oven, avoiding burns and the tragedy of a glorious pizza face down on the floor: heaven for the dogs, hell for the hungry waiting crowds and the cook.


So there you have it–give it a try, it’s a great summer dinner for friends and family.

Doin’ da’ Bird

turkeyOK, just when you thought it was safe to forget about the overindulgence and caloric excesses of Thanksgiving day, here comes another blog post on Thanksgiving recipes. This one sticks to the basics: roasting the turkey itself and making gravy. It is my traditional holiday task to make the dim-witted bird into a delectable feast (and yes, I know wild turkeys are very smart), so this recipe has matured with age–unlike me. So grab your blunderbuss, put on your Pilgrims hat, and let’s get to it.

First a few basic points.:

  • The Bird–I have a preference for fresh-killed turkeys over frozen–their water and fat content is lower (avoid pre-basted turkeys at all costs: the all-too-common Butterball is an abomination, if you must know, literally dripping with hydrogenated vegetable oil, the worst kind of fat). I have had a so-called “free range” turkey one year: excellent taste, but they are pricey, a bit dry, and relatively hard to get in my neck of the woods. We tend to have a lot of folks for dinner on holidays, so we usually get big birds–25 pounds this year.
  • The Pan–a large, heavy roasting pan is a necessity; the disposable foil ones are not only flimsy, but they seem to prevent browning to considerable degree, and definitely prevent the caramelization of the pan drippings and ingredients essential to making a good gravy.
  • The Rack–a good sturdy adjustable roasting rack is also a must. Letting the turkey sit on the bottom of the pan causes it to stew, prevents proper cooking and reduction of the pan drippings, and generally leads to a sodden mess unfit for eating.
  • The Oven–I have the good fortune to have a convection oven in my home, which is superb for roasting, as it cooks more quickly and at lower temperatures. The gas-or-electric dispute approaches a religious war in some circles; electric is easier to regulate temperature-wise in my mind–and besides, that’s what I have. Oh, and no foil tents–tin foil is ideal for conspiratorial hats and the like, but terrible for roasting, stewing the meat instead of roasting it.
  • The Temperature–I like keeping the temperature relatively low–the bird cooks more slowly, and browns more evenly. I use 325 degrees throughout; without convection, I’d move up to 350. Rack low in the oven.
  • The Saucepans–you’ll need two heavy sauce pans, one 4 quart (for the stock), one at least 2 quart (for the gravy). Of the two, the gravy pan is the most important, as even heat distribution with no hot spots is important when making the roux.
  • The Ingredients–if you’re looking for exact quantities here, you’re outta luck: this is definitely an eyeball project. Use fresh ingredients and spices–I am partial to Penzey’s spices, which are outrageously fresh and aromatic, compared to the decades-old spice bottles on the shelf at your local supermarket.

The project begins with the roasting pan–you must be thinking of the end when at the beginning. The key to a superb turkey gravy (or any meat gravy, for that matter) is in the pan drippings. The sugars caramelize to a dark brown, providing exquisite flavor and rich color critical for good-tasting gravy.


I place the roasting rack in the pan, and surround it with sweet onions (Walla Wallas, Vadellias, or Mexican) coarsely chopped, chopped celery, a hefty handful of whole peppercorns (Penzeys has a 4-pepper blend which is both colorful and relatively mild), and yes–your eyes aren’t lying–apple slices. I use a crisp, moderately sweet apple (Fujis here in the Northwest). During roasting, the apples disintegrate, adding both sugars for caramelization and lots of liquid for the gravy stock.


Next comes the turkey stock, which will be used in addition to the pan drippings for the gravy. In the 4 quart stock pan, I place the giblets, the gizzard, and the neck, followed by celery and celery leaves (the leaves have much more flavor than the stalks), a large chopped onion, several cloves of garlic, some celery seed, a pinch of salt, and more peppercorns. Fill the pan about 4/5 with water, and simmer slowly on a back burner while preparing and cooking the bird.


Now on to the bird: I pat the skin dry (moisture prevents browning), place the bird breast-side down on the rack, and place lots of butter and a hefty sprinkling of pepper and tarragon. (If you’re on a low-fat diet, this is not the meal for you; for the rest of us, that’s why God created Lipitor). The breast-down approach keeps the breast moist as it cooks. As you may notice, this turkey is ridiculously large for the pan–kinda like an elephant wearing a miniskirt. It works–but just barely (a larger roaster is on Santa’s list for this year, so I’m being nice not naughty). The bird then goes in the oven.


I baste it periodically with a butter-tarragon mixture, kept over the oven vent to keep just melted without burning.

Cooking time? Anyone’s guess–it depends on the oven, the size of the bird, convection vs. non-convection. I generally give a bird this size about 1-1 1/2 hours breast down, basting every half hour and watching for the golden brown color of the skin.


Now it’s time to flip the bird (I practice in the off-season while driving on the freeway). One heavy carving fork goes in the neck cavity, another in the tail, and a helping hand holds the rack down during the process.


As you can see, the breast is very moist, and has not browned at all. It is basted with the butter-tarragon mixture, and popped back in the oven. Notice the red dot: this is a cooking indicator. When the meat reaches temperature, a restraining wax melts, allowing a red thingy to pop up. Problem is, it’s hardly foolproof: I’ve had them stick, resulting in a desiccated bird–if you like pterodactyl, it’s just the thing. Your eyes, nose, and fingers are better judges of when it’s done. This bird took about 3 hours 20 minutes.

Turkey, like most fowl, is a bit tricky to roast, as the dark meat on the bones cooks at a different rate from the breast meat. I lean toward white meat that’s still pretty moist (but not pink), which generally leaves the thighs done about right. The indicators I use are the skin color; juices which run clear from the thigh; and a firm breast meat texture to compression. Wish I could be more specific, it’s an experience thing: if you’re uncertain, use a meat thermometer. I rarely do any longer.


Once it’s done, I turn my attention to the gravy. The turkey is removed from the rack, and the rack scraped to get all its precious drippings into the roasting pan. I then add some of the clear turkey stock we made above to the pan, and heat it on the stovetop while gathering all the caramelized drippings into solution.


Notice how the apples and the onions have largely disappeared.


The drippings are then poured out of the pan into a large measuring cup, using a sieve or a press to squeeze the juice out of the solids. The fat (butter plus turkey fat) rises to the top–some of this will be used for the roux, to thicken the gravy, the rest discarded. Notice that the quantity of fat is relatively low–with a Butterball, you will have 4-5 times this amount, and it’s nasty and high in salt.

gravy fat

Some of the fat is then skimmed and added to your gravy pan–the amount depends on how much gravy you want, though I tend to be generous. Heat the fat over medium-low heat, until the water-based drippings just start to simmer.

The key to smooth, unlumpy gravy is the roux and the liquid addition. A roux is a flour-fat mixture– most commonly butter and flour–which is cooked together before adding liquid. The cooking creates a paste which eliminates the raw flour taste, and which will absorb a lot of liquid.


I add enough flour to make a paste about the consistency of cookie dough, and cook it slowly, avoiding burning or browning, for about 5-10 minutes. I then gather the roux on one side of the pan, leaving the heat about the same.


The dark liquid from the drippings (sans fat) is then added using a ladle, a little at a time, allowing it to heat up to a simmer in the bare pan before stirring. To avoid lumps, the roux must be well-cooked and blended, and the liquid hot, and added in small amounts initially. As you begin to blend the drippings into the roux, it will actually thicken at first, becoming quite stiff.


Repeating the routine–pushing aside the roux, adding liquid until hot, then thoroughly blending before adding more liquid–you will get to a stage where the paste is smooth and the consistency of thick pudding. At this stage, you may begin to add a little more liquid at a time.


The liquid from the pan drippings gives the gravy a rich, brown color–almost too dark. At this stage, I strain the clear turkey stock created earlier, and begin adding it to lighten the color and add more flavor. I tend to end up with a relatively thin gravy, which will thicken as it stands and cools.

The final touch is seasoning: salt and pepper. Taste it first–I use a lot of peppercorns, so more pepper is rarely needed, but salt sometimes is necessary.


So there you have it–all ready for feasting and piling on a few more pounds to take off after New Years.