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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wild Turkey: A Gift from the Forest

From our friend Chuck Miller, a fine writer and a fine cook:

A Spring Thanksgiving

I saw my first wild turkey about 15 years ago. It was a shock to see a bird that large take wing in our yard and then land on an ash-tree branch 80 feet overhead. My jaw just dropped.

Since that first sighting, the turkeys have made a big comeback around here. We live in a part of Connecticut where the rural zoning requires at least two acres per house (known locally as the ruburbs). This zoning leaves plenty of open land for wild things. We live in a hardwood forest and routinely see deer, raccoons, fox, skunks, and lots of turkeys. They walk by the house, as many as 20 strung out in a long line. Many times I’ve cast a culinary eyeball toward that flock, and pondered pulling a hunting license to learn firsthand the difference between the store-bought couch-potato turkeys and the sleek gobblers trekking out back. Pondering is as far as I’ve gotten.

And then one Saturday, returning from my weekend trip to the hardware store, I pulled in the driveway and spotted a pile of feathers. It looked like a pillow had exploded. I needed a closer look, and as I jumped out of the truck I saw her—a magnificent hen turkey—in a heap on the gravel driveway. Her neck was broken, and a big bite had been taken out of her back. She likely fell victim to the coyote that killed a yearling deer in the same place last winter. The coyote had probably retreated into the woods when I pulled into the driveway. I could practically feel its eyes on my back when I picked the bird up by her feet and carried her into our kitchen. She was still warm.

I’d never cleaned a turkey before, so I called my pal Kevin Ireton to get his counsel. He knows how to handle a shotgun, so I figured he’d know where to go in with the knife. He didn’t know either, but he did offer this piece of advice from a famous North Carolina naturalist, Eustace Conway, on eating animals that have been dead for an indeterminate period of time: “If it still has fleas, it’s probably okay.” That was a comfort.

Like any modern survivalist with a DSL line, I went to the google. In ten seconds I found I downloaded their cleaning instructions, and started heating water. Turkeys have over 5,000 feathers, and cleaning them begins with a dunking in hot water (140 degrees) to loosen them up. But first, remove the wings.

I confess to some unexpected emotions at this point. When I buy the supermarket turkey, I’ve subbed out the up-close-and-personal part of being a carnivore. I’m not wondering what knife I’ve got in the drawer that will take wings that span five feet off a wild bird. But now I was, and I felt uncomfortably clumsy doing so.

Wings chopped off and feathers pulled, I made a slit across the bird’s backside, and reached into her belly to pull out organs, entrails, and what looked to be the early stages of a clutch of eggs. A humid, vaguely sweet aroma hung in the air, and the images before me toggled between birth and death. I was getting to know dinner in an entirely different way, and it made me wonder what other connections to the real world that I’ve missed, without even knowing it. It was a surprising, unintended consequence of picking up this dead turkey, and wanting to eat it.

Years ago, a turkey recipe in Fine Cooking caught my eye.. Here was a chance to try it out. I mixed up a gallon of the maple-flavored brine, and let the bird soak for two days.

I fired up our Big Green Egg, a ceramic cooker made for slow roasting, and put the bird on a rack over a drip pan. Three hours and a stack of waterlogged oak chips later, our backyard turkey was ready for the table.

The white meat was remarkably mild, with way more texture than a domestic turkey. No surprise there, I suppose. This turkey had used those muscles. The dark meat, however, seemed to be from an entirely different creature. It was astonishing—rich and smoky, swirling with juicy undercurrents like the andouille sausage at a Cajun restaurant. We ate the turkey in mid-May, the day after Mother’s Day, an early Thanksgiving gift from the forest.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Orange Salad

We like the seasonal switchover into fall for a lot of reasons—the crunchy fallen leaves, the freshly picked apples and freshly pressed cider, the Halloween costumes and November sunsets and Thanksgiving's pumpkin pies—but there's one thing about fall that makes us sad: the fruit.

Once summer's berries and stone fruits are behind us, we know we're in for months and months of bananas. Bananas on our granola, bananas in our yogurt, bananas sprawled on our kitchen table in various stages of under- and overripeness.

Every fall we forget that the season also brings citrus: heavy, juicy grapefruits; sweet clementines; and oranges. This recipe, from our last unpacked cookbook, Cooking in the Litchfield Hills (thanks for the long loan, Teresa; we'll return it soon!), makes delicious use of winter fruit.

Orange Salad Italia

8 large oranges
5 garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil
fresh oregano, chopped
salt and pepper

Peel the oranges, break them into sections, remove the pitch, and cut the sections in half. Peel the garlic, and chop it very fine. Place the oranges in a bowl; add the garlic, olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper; toss.

Six servings.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Switching Kitchens, Part IV: Using up Odds and Ends

We move in less than a week, and the refrigerator shelves are nearly bare. We'd planned to use up some of our last items by making bell peppers stuffed with orzo and soy chorizo, but it turned out that the peppers were in no condition to sit up straight and stuffed. After we cut away the bad spots, we only had a small handful of strips.

We considered making peppers and onions and chorizo, but there weren't enough peppers for that. There were, however, some elderly tortillas in the back of the fridge, so we settled on tacos, frying up the peppers with onions, garlic, zucchini, and potato, then adding the chorizo. It tasted great.

Last night, after a day of packing, we wanted nursery food, plain and simple.

Our depleted refrigerator still contained a big batch of vegetable stock, so we simmered about six cups of it with thyme, oregano, sundried tomato flakes, and Bragg's. Then we added a cup of orzo; once that was cooked, we threw in the end of a bag of frozen peas (about one cup). Topped with a generous grating of parmesan, this made for a fine fast dinner. It was thicker than soup, thinner than stew—baby food, basically, but just what we needed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blog Love: Cake Wrecks

Because no day is so bad that this site can't cheer us up.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Switching Kitchens, Part III: Cookbooks

With one week left in this kitchen, we probably won't be needing any cookbooks, given packing pressures and the Internet's vast recipe trove. We've packed up Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Patricia Wells, and Jeremiah Tower, as well as a heap of ethnic and vegetarian cookbooks. Safe to say we won't be making Burmese or Mayan dishes in the next week.

But even as our kitchen fills with packed boxes and our shelves empty out, we can't bring ourselves to pack up two of our favorite cookbooks: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and Joy of Cooking. Both of these can be depended upon to help us come up with dinner even when the refrigerator is all but empty. (Right now it's practically empty, down to green peppers from the CSA box, homemade vegetable stock, a half-consumed block of Costco feta cheese, and soy chorizo. And the usual dozens of jars of pickles and chutneys.)

Speaking of Bittman, today's New York Times Dining section offers 101 Thanksgiving recipes, most of them fresher and lighter than the usual holiday sludge. Don't get us wrong, we love holiday sludge, but Bittman's recipes add some much-needed spice, crunch, and color to the table.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Switching Kitchens, Part II: Spices

We have about a week and a half left in this kitchen, so the time has come to pack up the spices we're unlikely to use and ditch the ones we know we'll never use. It's safe to say we probably won't be needing the Old Bay spice or the celery salt (we have two containers of this ingredient and can't remember why we ever bought it—maybe for brunchtime Bloody Marys in our devil-may-care younger days?). Why do we have a big container of yellow mustard seeds? All our recipes call for the black variety.

Even though we'll eventually use our star anise and chaat masala and celery seeds, we're pretty confident we can live without them for the next few weeks. And given that we'll be cooking quick, easy meals for a while as we pack up this house and unpack into another, we probably won't need such standbys as bay leaves, nutmeg, coriander seeds, and marjoram.

Indian and Mexican dishes are our quick-and-dirty fallbacks, so as we head into our last days here, we'll wait until the last minute to pack the ground cumin, cumin seeds, chili powder, dried chilis, fenugreek, oregano, cinnamon, cardamom, fennel seeds, and smoked paprika.

Human nature being what it is, we're sure to get a craving for a dish that makes use of five-spice powder or black salt, but at this point we're willing to risk it. For one thing, we have to move on to the vexing question of which cookbooks to pack.

What about you? What spices would you need to keep at hand until the last minute?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Switching Kitchens

Because we're moving to a house with a smaller kitchen, we have to think hard about what to take and what to leave behind. Some decisions are obvious—we couldn't cook without our giant nonstick skillet, our Dutch oven, our jelly roll pans, and our mini-whisk. But what about the tortilla maker that's been used only a handful of times because it's so easy to buy good tortillas from the market, or the apple-peeling device that comes in handy perhaps once a year, when we're feeling ambitious enough to make tarte tatin? Or the juicer?

The juicer is tricky because it is, to use the current annoying buzzword, aspirational. We would like to be the kind of people who prefer freshly made organic juices to coffee, who would rather sip a big glass of liquified spinach and carrots than nurse a Liberator. So we keep our Juiceman at the ready, usually dusting it off on New Year's Day to accommodate our latest batch of resolutions. For that reason, we'll be taking it with us to Virginia.

The same impulse that makes us cling to our Juiceman has led us to become fascinated with the controversial raw food movement. Though we know we could never exist on raw diets, we have to admit that the raw foodists have developed some excellent recipes. Take, for example, Dan "the Man" McDonald, whose Life Regenerator YouTube channel offers a bushelful of instructions for making smoothies, salad dressings, and other delicious things. One of our favorites is his take on V-8 juice.

You may not agree with Dan's take on nutrition, but you'll probably be captivated by his attitude—he is so happy to be alive that he's fun to watch.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blog Love: Adventures in the Pioneer Valley

We've been meaning to plug Valley Writer's excellent food blog, Adventures in the Pioneer Valley, for months now. Finally, with the Deadline over and the Move almost complete, we can. Check it out! She's doing some great seasonal recipes these days, and we plan to try this one soon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Teresa's End-of-the-Long-Ride Squash Soup

Our friend Teresa Bobbitt is passionate about many things, including gardening, cats, and homeopathy, but she is particularly interested in cycling and cooking. (It should go without saying that her greatest passion is her husband and fellow cyclist, Bob.) She thinks nothing of riding 100 miles, then coming home to whip up a healthy meal that's as delicious as it is organic. This recipe is the perfect ending to an autumn ride.

Squash Soup

1 winter squash (such as butternut or acorn), peeled and cubed
2 sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, cut into chunks
half a large onion, chopped
3 to 5 cloves of garlic
1/2 t. minced fresh ginger
1 t. chopped herbs (coriander, basil, and thyme are all good)
1 t. curry powder, or more to taste
6 cups vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
6 T. sherry
Half and Half

1. Simmer squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, ginger, herbs, and curry powder in the broth until the vegetables are soft, about 45 minutes.

2. Puree the mixture until creamy, using either a hand blender or a food processor. If using a processor, return the soup to the pot. If it's too thick, add more broth.

3. Reheat the soup. Add the sherry and adjust the seasonings. Before serving, add Half and Half to taste and garnish with croutons.

Serves six.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Frugal Pantry: Hominy

Whenever we mention that we use hominy in soups and stews, we usually get the same response: what in tarnation is hominy? People know that it has something to do with grits, but that's misleading, as "grits" makes people think of corn mush, whereas hominy adds chewiness, texture, and a delicious tortilla-like flavor to any dish.

Even though we've been using hominy for years, we had to go to Wikipedia for an explanation, which we're sorry to say does not do justice to this wonderful ingredient. Nonetheless, in the interest of full disclosure:

Hominy or nixtamal is dried maize kernels which have been treated with an alkali.

Commercially available canned hominy may have a slightly stronger scent when compared to the traditional preparation. The traditional U.S. version involves soaking dried corn in lye-water (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide solution), traditionally derived from wood ash, until the hulls are removed. Mexican recipes describe a preparation process consisting primarily of cooking in lime-water (calcium hydroxide). In either case, the process is called nixtamalization, and removes the germ and the hard outer hullfrom the kernels, making them more palatable, easier to digest, and easier to process.

OK, that doesn't sound very appetizing. But the other night, using up our last batch of produce from this year's CSA box, we made a giant pot of vegetable soup. It included the usual suspects—onions, garlic, carrots, celery, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach—and even though it tasted perfectly serviceable, it needed something. Fortunately, our pantry contained a big can of white hominy, which we added to the simmering pot. Twenty minutes later we had something that tasted much more interesting than vegetable soup.

Most supermarkets carry hominy in their canned vegetable or "Hispanic" sections, and you can also find it at Hispanic groceries.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Organic Popcorn

There's no need to buy oversalted, overprocessed, overpriced microwave popcorn. Guest blogger Jim Randall has an excellent recipe that's easy on your taste buds, your arteries, and your wallet:
Remember the good old days when popcorn was made in a kettle on the stove with popcorn, oil, salt, and butter instead of the microwave stuff with the chemical names you can't pronounce? Well, for old times' sake, rent a movie or put on a ball game and make some old-fashioned popcorn like dad used to make, only with a few changes to make it healthy and great tasting.
First, you'll need to get some organic virgin coconut oil. It's sold in health food stores or online at You may have heard through the years that coconut oil is not healthy. In fact, it has medium chain fatty acids/triglycerides such as Lauric acid (found in mother's milk), which studies say increase metabolism, fight viruses and bacteria, and have antioxidant properties. We like the expeller pressed coconut oil for this recipe as it has a blander, less "coconutty" taste and is less expensive.
While you are at your local health food store, pick up some organic popcorn and some unrefined sea (or Himalayan) salt. Don't use ordinary table salt. Unrefined salt is in its natural form and has not been altered by man. It contains more than 80 minerals and elements necessary for life, in contrast to refined salt, which contains two ingredients: sodium and chloride. Unrefined Himalayan salt is mined in the Himalayan mountain range and has additional minerals and elements that give it a distinctive pinkish color. It's delicious on everything. Get it at if you can't find it locally. (Note: TJ Maxx is another good source.--Ruth & Tim) The extra money invested in unrefined salt is worth it to your health.
Now, for the popcorn:
You'll need a large, heavy kettle with a lid.
Heat 1/4 to 1/2 cup virgin coconut or expeller pressed coconut oil in the covered kettle over medium-high heat with 2 or 3 kernels of popcorn. When the kernels pop, the oil is ready.
Add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the kettle without crowding the kernels too much—1/3 to 1/2 cup should do it. (Trial and error will tell you how much to use so you don't run out of room in the kettle and have unpopped and wasted kernels. It will also tell you how much oil to use. This is a matter of taste; we like to use the larger quantity for a moister batch of popcorn.)
Keep the kettle at nearly its highest heat—you want the kernels popping very quickly when they start to pop. Shake the kettle, using a side-to-side motion to keep heat distributed. Pause every so often and loosen the lid to let the steam escape. When popping slows (be careful not to scorch!) remove from heat and let the corn finish popping with the lid loose or off.
Salt immediately with unrefined sea or Himalayan salt. Toss the popcorn in the kettle to distribute. This is an art form that can be mastered so you lose no kernels! Salt and toss one more time.
You will be addicted. No butter will be necessary. Popcorn keeps for days fresh in the kettle on the stovetop . . . if it lasts that long.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Salsa Casserole

Any family that eats meat invariably has leftover chicken, pork or beef after a big meaty meal. The meat can be used to make sandwiches, but that doesn't stretch it as far as, say, a casserole that could healthily feed more with the addition of some vegetable add-ins.

We came across this idea when Tim had to help feed a large family contingent at the annual Reunion of Three Dozen. This year, because a memorial service for a beloved uncle was tacked on, it was more like Four Dozen.

The dish started out as turkey chili, but for ease of serving morphed into a chicken casserole, which has now morphed again into Any-Leftover-Meat-and-Salsa Casserole.

Pre-heat the overn to 350. Coarsely chop two cups of leftover chicken, pork or beef. Add 2 tablespoons of onion or shallot and a half cup of chopped celery (optional). Add one 15 oz. can of black or great northern beans, a 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes (with juice), 8 oz. of grated cheddar cheese, 8 oz. of any bottled salsa, 1 teaspoon of ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of chili powder, 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste.

(You can add just about anything to this: chopped roasted red peppers, frozen corn, and leeks instead of the onions. You can also saute the onions, leeks, shallots and celery to add some depth. We added just a bit of smoked gouda for additional complexity.)

Mix it all together in a casserole dish and put in the oven for 30 minutes uncovered. This is a quick meal in one pot that takes advantage of leftover meat plus food you probably already have in your pantry.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

'Cabernet Sauvignon in Silk Pajamas'

For a long time we considered Chilean Carmenère our own little secret. Not because we were hiding it, but because no one seemed to be writing about it. We discovered a great (and cheap) Carmenère about two years ago.

The New York Times reviewed the wine and noted that its favorite was $70, but its second favorite was less than $10. It was Mont Gras and we quickly ordered a case. We paid much less than $10, and we loved it.

Now, Saveur magazine's David Rosengarten has written a piece about the "Long Lost Grape" that is "finally getting the attention it deserves."

The carmenère grape is actually one of the six grapes that in the 19th century France's Bordeaux winemakers blended to create the red wine that was, and is, considered the world's best. The six: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot and carmenère.
But carmenère was the Eddie Haskell of the gang. It was troublesome because it ripened far later than the others. Why wait for this late bloomer? Deep burgundy color and complex herbal contributions.

In the 1880s, the Mrs. Cleavers of the French vineyards gave up on the grape because it was just too much trouble during the phylloxera epidemic. Today, red bordeaux is a blend of five grapes.

When Europeans began to plant vines in Chile in about 1900, they didn't always know exactly what grapes they planted — hard as that seems to believe. And current owners don't always know what they have. "Such was the case with Chilean carmenère, which was," says Rosengarten, "for most of the 20th century, identified as Chilean merlot."

Only recently, in 1994, was this Chilean merlot, identified correctly for what it was. The grape is fruity, deep in color and light in the tannins. Rosengarten notes that this has led some wag to proclaim that it is "cabernet sauvignon in silk pajamas."

"What you end up with," Rosengarten says, "is a wine with lots of fruitiness up front that magically turns dry and suave."

This wine can stand up to any meat, any spice, any mad adventure of a meal. When you're looking for carmenères, your wine merchant is as likely to be lost as you are, so pick up one from the Colchagua Valley, a diamond of a little valley in Chile that produces exquisite wines at reasonable prices.