Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hallelujah! Holy Shit!

I always feel a little down this week between Christmas and New Year's.  Looking at my trees leaves me rolling my eyes thinking about putting the ornaments away, I really want Hallmark to stop showing Christmas movies and resume The Golden Girls at midnight, and how can you not feel fat and hungover after all the festivities? Well--by moderation, I'm told. 
I don't do moderation.  Which is why I love Christmas so much.  Christmas was invented for people like me, Liberace, Faux Fuchsia, and Marie Antoinette. More, more, more. I am in my element at Christmas. It gives me joy seeing grocery carts full of poinsettias, wine, and heavy cream.  My tree has 20+ strands of (incandescent--a source of defiant pride) lights, 500+ ornaments, and was bought at 11 feet for a room with 10 foot ceilings. 
Like so many of us, Clark Griswold resonates deeply with me.  We all have Clarks in our families. He is spastic and enthusiastic in his delusional quest for A PERFECT CHRISTMAS.  He wants his family to come together and bask in the glow of a bygone time, fueled by eggnog and nostalgia. 
Last year, my mother and I pushed to reformat our Christmas celebration.  Our traditions were tired and applied to a family 20 years ago; a family we no longer remotely resemble.  Spearheaded by my grandmother's illness, we just knew a shakeup was in order.  My grandmother is still living, but essentially in a waking coma.  It is awful and, frankly, there is no silver lining to be found.  I used to wish for a miracle and that she would be healed overnight.  I now simply wish that she could be let go. To go on with business as usual at Christmas, missing the matriarch that binds us, hurt more than healed. 
My tree when I finally finished after 30 hours.  This was about 4:30AM. 

The truth is that the world does not stop because we are heartbroken.  Christmas will continue to roll around.  In my opinion, Christmas is a beautiful distraction from the sadness and loss we all face. Bittersweet, to be sure.  But when we laugh and share memories about the people we miss, I think a few little pieces of broken hearts can be mended. 
I suppose that is where the maniacal Clark Griswold neurosis thrives.  Clark will stop at nothing to enjoy Christmas with his family.  And damn it, they'll enjoy it with him.  They will put aside their differences, listen to some Christmas music, and merrily drink and eat.  Yes, I share Clark's hell or high water approach.  Sometimes a family just needs the iron fist of a Christmas-crazed nazi like Clark or me.  I have no doubt a fair amount of complaints are made about me on the way to the dinner.  It's natural and maybe even fair.  I run a Yuletide dictatorship and I don't accept requests.  You want ham instead of turkey? No.  You want to start an hour later? No.  You don't like Christmas music? You'll listen until you submit and sing along.  But once everyone arrives, my Christmas mix is blaring outside and in, the booze flows, there is so much food, and everyone starts enjoying themselves.  Horrible words are spoken, laws are broken, and cackling laughter echoes louder with each new round of drinks.  It's not for the faint of heart or the modest.  It is so much fun.    I feel so lucky that my family has this time.  We accept each other, share, teach the next generation how to chug a beer (you'll always lose with a plastic cup, according to my uncle), and remember why Christmas matters. 

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is no doubt a comedy.  Except for the last moment. When Clark stands on his front steps and looks to the sky whispering "I did it." I always choke up.  I know that feeling.  And I'm happy to report that this year was no different.  I don't believe there is a perfect Christmas to be achieved, but this year was as close as ever.  It even works out that each family has a non-drinker to drive.  When everyone got home around 2:30, I got a wave of texts with reflections of a great Christmas Eve.  They can bitch about me on the way--but if they're beaming on the way home--I'll call it a success.

I wanted the bar to look like a hedge. You're allowed to hate it.
My mom did.  I was thrilled with it.

I admit--we use plastic cups.  

I made that cardinal fascinator for my sister a few years ago as a joke,
and my aunt has worn her Christmas bulb earrings for 20+ years

The Walmart parking lot at 1:30 AM on 12-21.  Emergency supplemental
ornament run.  Always busy. 

I hate this store.  But I needed green ornaments.
I was 300 short. 

I hope you had a fabulously merry Christmas. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Discussion: Cookbooks

One of my clients texted me with a question that ended up consuming my thoughts.  Simple to answer at first, but after thought, it now seems more difficult.  Her nephew has become very interested in cooking, so she is planning to find him a few essential cookbooks for Christmas.  I would like to know: Which cookbooks would you label essential?

Cookbooks are treasured by many. Sauce-splattered pages evoke vivid memories while blurring into haze at the same time.  They are collected, shared, loaned, battered, and often barely bound. 
Interestingly, premium cookbooks still sell well.  There was a time a few years ago when their extinction seemed imminent.  After all, there are millions of free recipes posted everywhere on the internet.  Martha Stewart gives away her recipes on her website.  Her newest book, One Pot, sits comfortably as a best-seller.  While I'm no longer remotely enchanted with Ina Garten, her books trump all.  Why? There is still an irreplaceable magic in the pages of a cookbook.  If a strawberry bleeds on your iPad, you instantly clean it off.  There is no cranberry stain from 1997,  no dog-eared page from that awful party with these fabulous muffins, no fingerprint smudges from years of checking ingredients line by line. This article may be of interest
Cookbooks are portals.  Glimpses into times we can only visit via nostalgia.  Because food is at the center of existence, cookbooks are at the center of the minutiae that becomes memory. 
I allow anonymous comments on my blog; even if you don't often comment on blogs, I would love to have a broad discussion on which cookbooks you deem essential?
Precious to me.  A gift from my Aunt Patti.  The front page with a sweet note fell out one day while cooking.  Thankfully, I had the sense to tape it to the interior cover so it would never be lost.  The note has faded significantly, but is always a warm memory of my aunt now that she is gone.
Top: Larousse Gastronomique, the bible on which Mastering the Art of French Cooking, below, is based.  Heavy on wonderful writing on technique.  No pictures, though. 
How important are photos in a cookbook? 
Not up for discussion: if my Santa face is creepy. I love him. 
My excuse for poor photography, Barbie doesn't share the spotlight well. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

An Intro to Cooking Sous Vide

I am prone to grandstanding in my speech.  I tend to have outrageously passionate feelings on just about anything.  Stemless wine glasses, for example (I detest themTo me, they denote the backward evolution of mankind).  I could easily be dubbed The Boy Who Cried Superlative Wolf.  Why do I need this disclaimer?  Well, I intend to discuss my most favorite best of all incredibly wonderful piece of cooking equipment. Technically, it is a method of cooking rather than a device.  Sous vide cooking and sous vide machines. 
Left: Anova sous vide immersion circulator Right: Sous Vide Supreme Water Oven

Turkey, cooked sous vide. Carved with my new favorite electric knife!
First of all, in some circles, an attitude exists around sous vide cooking.  People have been cooking well for hundreds of years without them. Escoffier and Julia Child seemed to do just fine without them.  MY roast chicken tastes great with just an oven and a pan! I get it.  This is not meant to be antagonistic.  I see the case for feeling like sous vide is cheating.  It kind of is; that's what makes is so fantastic.  
I came across this article in the New York Times.  So if you're interested in the workings of sous vide cooking as told by real journalism, read Farhad Manjoo's piece from November 20th: Bringing Sous Vide to the Home Cook and please report back. 
If you'd like the long and winding SAJ version: sous vide is a method for cooking, mainly protein, in a precisely temperature-controlled water bath.  The meat is cooked in a vacuum-sealed bag, seasoned.  You can opt for just a tightly-zipped freezer bag, but I suggest vacuum sealing.  With the excess air vacuumed out, the protein will stay submerged longer.  A zip loc bag will float almost immediately. 
Barbie turned 2 on November 13. She shares her birthday with Whoopi Goldberg.  I have a complicated history with Scorpios, but I can trust Barbie! 
Let's say we are cooking a chicken, hoping to rival the best conventionally-roasted chicken.  Pat the chicken dry, season, add a few onion slices and maybe a garlic clove to the bag, and seal.  Set your sous vide machine to 160-165.  I set mine to 161 when making chicken.  This gives the chicken a chance to jump a few degrees at the end in the oven for browning.  Your sous vide machine will keep that water bath between 160.0 and 161.9.  The chicken will be fully cooked within about five hours.  Because it will not overcook, it can be left in the sous vide for several more hours.  This is ideal, as the meat is basted by its cooking liquid.  Making for exceptionally tender and succulent meat.  I generally leave a chicken in the sous vide for about 20 hours.  There is great room for flexibility.  It can be taken out between hours 5 and 24.  Theoretically, one could keep the chicken in past 24 hours.  I have done this.  The problem is that the chicken is too tender, and can't be handled without falling apart. 
Crank your oven up to 475 around hour 19.  On the most aggressive convection setting your oven has.  When browning meat, I always have a baking dish filled with hot water sitting atop an aluminum baking sheet on the bottom rack.  I stumbled into this technique.  This is a common practice in bread baking.  One day last fall, I baked a loaf of bread, took it out, and put the chicken in to brown.  Only when I checked the chicken about ten minutes and was dazzled by perfectly brown skin, did I remember the pan of water.  This defies my intuition.  I had always thought dry heat was best for browning.  Try it! Put the water in the oven when you turn the oven on.  Be careful when you open your oven, the steam sends a flash of heat out into the kitchen that stings a little.  The idea is to create steam and humidity. 
Once the meat is browned to your desire, take it out.  Let it rest, and enjoy.  The beauty is knowing the meat is fully cooked.  The cooking at the end on the grill or in the oven is merely for color.  Do you know how much more fun grilling is when your only concern is is it pretty yet?  Not is that juice running pink or clear? it looks clearish pink...
I feel that cooking sous vide revolutionized my cooking.  Cooking meat can be so annoying.  Sometimes, even when everything is done right, it can still end up dry.  Or overcooked.  Or undercooked.  This can rob attention from side dishes, setting tables, and greeting guests.  I cant express just how convenient it is.  It allows the cook to set a schedule and keep to it.  I bought my first sous vide machine, the SousVide Supreme, in January 2011.  I agonized over the decision for almost a year.  I think it was about $400.  A lot of money to spend on something you're not even sure will work.  Sous vide cooking at home was far more rare than it is even now.  The first thing I made was a pork tenderloin.  Oh my god!! I was in disbelief when I tasted that pork.  It was so perfect.  So tender.  So flavorful.  I have even said that I would surrender my treasured KitchenAid mixer before I would give up the sous vide.  It is that incredible of a tool. 
The salon Christmas tree, more on this later
The only thing--the few minutes when the transfer is being made between the sous vide bag and the roasting pan/sheet.  The meat looks pale and gross.  The skin is flabby and gelatinous.  If there is a lot of black pepper in your spice mixture, the skin can even look a little grey.  Don't worry.  Send your guests out of the kitchen, only the cook should see this part, and make the transfer quickly.  Within a few minutes, the meat will be gloriously appealing.  I usually strain the cooking liquid from the bag into a saucepan and let it reduce over a medium flame into a reduction.  Believe it or not, there's often a bottle of wine open.  So a splash of wine is often included, too.
My D.O.C. all summer. My favorite market had it on sale for $9.99. Not to be confused with white zinfandel.

Thanksgiving 2013 on Hilton Head Island. The white SVS is mine, the grey was borrowed from my friend and Le Cookery owner, Laurel. Also pictured, my beloved KitchenAid.  It's almost old enough to graduate high school. Still looks and works like new. The color is almond.
My Sous Vide Supreme (SVS) is still going strong.  This year, I'm planning to prepare two turkeys for Christmas Eve dinner.  One turkey puts the SVS over capacity.  There is no way two will fit.  This gave me the excuse to go ahead and get a second sous vide.  This time I went with the SVS's main competitor.  The Anova Immersion Circulator/SousVide.  The unit is $199, though a $179 unit is apparently set to debut.  A $25 polycarbonate tank is recommended.  With capacity to hold more than twice that of the SVS.  So on Thanksgiving, coming off a tremendously successful sous vide turkey and a river of prosecco, I ordered it.  I used it for the first time Tuesday (for Wednesday dinner), and I am thrilled with it.  I'll write another post comparing the two units.  I even bring it on vacation with me! Are you noticing a theme...?
Easy to use display control
Unlike the SVS, the Anova unit has an immersion circulator.  This keeps the water in the tub moving.  
The unit that started the at-home sous vide revolution.  You may read about the founders here: Sous Vide, Our Story
Showing its age and heavy use, but no worse for the wear.  This injury was sustained cramming the lid into my trunk last Thanksgiving among the rest of my kitchen contents
The Anova has about double the capacity.  Though it is louder than the Sous Vide Supreme, which is silent during operation.  
 It's an expensive endeavor.  I see it as worth its weight in gold.  It makes cooking a meal so much more enjoyable, predictable, and delicious.
Watermelon matchsticks and kosher salt. 
I don't remember when I made this! There were a few weeks in July where I brought the same thing to a few parties. But it's a variation of a salad I make often in the summer. Grilled corn, diced cucumber, celery, bell pepper, and strawberry. 
FYI: None of the Amazon links are affiliate links, just general links for anyone interested. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wild Duck Chase

Rarely does a grocery trip lead one over the river and through the woods. In pursuit of a particularly special ingredient, however, sometimes an adventure is in order.  Duck eggs fall into this category.  If given a choice, I choose to bake with duck eggs exclusively.  They can be difficult to track down even at peak production (laying).  After the autumnal equinox, when daylight becomes scarce, poultry lay less.  This is inconvenient for holiday cooks.  I had been able to steadily source duck eggs all summer.  I had monopoly on any and all eggs laid by my friend Elizabeth's ducks after October 31.  Her ladies quit laying when we had an arctic dip that brought snow and bitter cold.  Shit.  Right before Thanksgiving.
left: duck egg, right: large chicken egg

So the search was on.  Whole Foods, the Anderson's,  Raisin Rack,  Trader Joe's, and every other specialty or Chinese market I could find--no one had any.  So then I reached out to farmers in my area I found on the internet.  I then had to send my best friend a text making a vulgar joke about my wide-eyed search for duck on the internet.  Several of the farmers' phone numbers were disconnected,  websites defunct; a sad reminder that it's a very tough way to make a living.  Two got back to me and told me their ducks had also stopped laying.  I decided to nip my obsessive-compulsive search in the bud and go about my Thanksgiving prep. 
A few days later, I got a reply from a farmer about 45 minutes away.  She thought that with the size of her flock and the advanced notice, she could scrape together almost a dozen.  This was perfect because I only needed six, but a converted friend was also looking and could use the rest.  We set an appointment and I made sure I had $4 in cash.  It seemed silly that a dozen of such premium eggs would only cost $4.  I wanted to overpay, but didn't want to come off as pretentious either.  I just wondered if $4 covered the cost of what these eggs were worth?
Last Tuesday, the first morning of my self-appointed Thanksgiving break, I set out on my errand.  I was enjoying a certain weightlessness knowing that I had essentially seen every one of my clients in the past few weeks, or at least communicated with them.  Taking time off when you're self-employed is dicey because there is no income.  But with organization and communication, it is doable.  My cell phone is with me and answered at all times (unless I'm driving or with a client), because I do my scheduling mostly via text.  I used to use an automated booking software through a website, but it was prone to occasional glitches.  This way, nothing slips through the cracks and my clients are able to get exactly the times they want.  Anyway, having communicated with everyone, I knew my phone wouldn't be ringing.  I enjoyed the beautiful drive.
The shadows were long and spindly as they only are in November.  The sun was just rising as I started.  Barbie was in the backseat, excited that our morning drive started with a left turn instead of a right.  There was a striking juxtaposition between the eastern and western faces of hills.  The sunlight was so exceptionally gold and the darkness on the other side was icy blue on frosty brush.  Crossing one river and weaving along the banks of another, catching peek-a-boo vistas between trees, it was all very picturesque.  I got lost a few times--being confused by a road called Bells on one side and Wells on the other. 
I thought so much about being thankful on this drive.  The news from Ferguson had broken the night before.  I thought about the businesses being looted, the families ruptured, and childishly about the Thanksgivings that were ruined.  I realize how inane that must sound.  Nonetheless, I was grateful for my picturesque morning.  Excited to collect my duck eggs, turn off the news, turn on hours of Kygo remixes, and bake and chop, and enjoy my traditional prepwork cocktails.
a few odds and ends from my non-blogging time.
a "Bon Voyage!" cake I made when my grandpa and love-her-like-a-grandma-but-not-my-grandma were going on a 25 day cruise

Martha Stewart's Blueberry Muffins from Entertaining 

these were for a visiting uncle/Memorial Day/you're pregnant! brunch

that black spot is a birthmark. It worried me when I first got Barbie.  My vet assured me it was perfectly normal

I've said it before, Barbie is a long way from her life in Amish Country 

I found these ferns and hydrangeas growing in the yard of the rental house in Hilton Head.  If anyone knows the type of fern, I would love to know. 

Last B-A-L-L ( a word one can't say in Barbie's presence) before a big storm

A man obsessed. On the left, my Goose Pot.  A birthday gift and  lifelong souvenir from Le Cookery . Doesn't everyone travel with their Le Creuset?
So, if you've made it through my drive with me (I didn't intend to write so much about it) and random photo stream, now we can talk about why I love duck eggs.  They are huge and gorgeous.  They have less white than chicken eggs and double the yolk.  Their whites are stronger, however, so they stand up beautifully to baking.  They are so creamy and buttery, they add a custard-like quality.  Because they have thicker shells, they stay fresh longer.  They have more albumen, the protein in egg whites, which makes for fluffier and more substantial pastries.  I substitute them 1:1 with chicken eggs.  I don't know if this is a by the book conversion, but it has worked for me.  If you are making a cheesecake, the effort is especially worth it to track them down.  Duck eggs take cheesecake to a whole other place. I always make a croquembouche at Christmas, and I am very much hoping to track down more duck eggs for that.  I think they will be wonderful in my Grand Mariner pastry cream. 

If you're local, this is the farm where I found my Thanksgiving duck eggs.  They were gorgeous!

Have you ever cooked with duck eggs?