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Archive for November, 2007

Returning to work after Thanksgiving weekend is one of life’s less pleasant experiences. After a weekend of food, family, friends, and pajama-like clothes, the cold shower that is the workplace seems decidedly bleak.

I guess that’s what makes Thanksgiving such a special holiday. You put on the brakes, step out of the daily grind and remind yourself of the things, the people, that matter — that make you who you are. Sure, I would never forget that my brother can make me laugh until I cry and shoot water out my nose, but having him make me laugh until I cry (and yes, shoot water out my nose) is much more special, I assure you.

Apple Manchego salad

But not every day can be like that, all fuzzified with pumpkin pie and cornbread stuffing and apple-topped sweet potatoes. If every day were like that, holidays wouldn’t feel special. But we knew that already.

That doesn’t mean every other day has to be boring, though, even if it feels that way sometimes after a holiday weekend. Take this apple manchego salad, which showcases some of autumn’s best. Crisp apples and toasty walnuts are paired with zesty Manchego cheese in a wonderfully refreshing salad. I doubt this salad would make an appearance on my family’s Thanksgiving table. But that’s okay; sometimes you need things that make every day feel a little special too.

Salad closeup

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I will never forget the first time I baked pumpkin bread. I was in 6th grade, and my teacher Ms. Pasceri announced that the day before Thanksgiving, the class would be baking pumpkin bread together. She told everyone to bring in a clean leftover coffee canister and said she would take care of the rest.

When the day came, she broke us into groups of three, handed us the recipe and the ingredients and walked us through the process step by step, helping us carry our batter-filled coffee canisters to the classroom oven.

I had baked before that day, but I think that was the first day I realized that baking, food, meant a lot more to me than most of the other kids in the class. My partners haphazardly threw the ingredients into the bowl and thought it was funny to mush the ingredients together or throw them at one another. I didn’t want to be a square or a tattle-tale, but all I could think was, “This is food we’re dealing with here! Don’t make a joke of it — don’t you want to see how it comes out?? It will be delicious!”

Pumpkin bread 1

And it was delicious, despite the mushing and throwing and indifference of my buddies. It was warm and sweet and spicy. I couldn’t wait to bring my canister home to share with my parents and brother.

In the many years that have passed since that 6th grade project, I’ve baked many pumpkin breads, all delicious but none seeming to taste quite as good as that first batch. I’ve since lost Ms. Pasceri’s recipe, but I’m sure it’s the same as any standard pumpkin bread recipe. What made it special wasn’t necessarily the bread itself, but the fact that I’d learned to make something new, something I could say “I made.”

This time of year, I invariably start craving some fresh, home-baked pumpkin bread, and in the spirit of my recent push to eat “light” ahead of Thanksgiving, I found a great recipe in Nick Malgieri’s Perfect Light Desserts. The cake is light, tender and perfectly spiced, and one bite takes me back to a Wednesday in November all those years ago.

Pumpkin bread 2

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My brother has developed a decidedly unique strategy to prepare for Thanksgiving. He calls it “training.” His method? He gradually eats more each day, expanding his stomach as turkey day approaches so that when the day comes, he is fully prepared to consume as much food as possible.

I said it was a strategy; I didn’t say it was pretty.

Muffin 1
Now, my brother and I are extremely close, but we are opposites on just about everything. I’m intense, he’s laid back; I’m more of a homebody, he’s always out and about.

So when it comes to Thanksgiving, it should come as no surprise that my strategy, my “training,” is nothing like my brother’s. I tend to put on the brakes, slow down and cut back on some of my over-the-top favorites, so that come Thanksgiving, I feel entitled to pig out with abandon. My approach doesn’t make any more sense than his; it’s just how I roll.

But the run-up to Thanksgiving is also a time when I have food on the brain, constantly. How could I not? Everywhere I turn there are pictures of turkeys and pies and pumpkins. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve started seeing these images in everything, even when they’re not there. The other week, I saw the cover of The American magazine from a distance and thought a Chinese communist monument was a pumpkin pie. Seriously.

So in order to scratch that itch but still stick to my game plan, I try to cook or bake healthier options, like these Apple Raisin Bran Muffins. Bran? Oats? Whole wheat flour? How could I feel guilty about that? Couldn’t, didn’t, don’t. And they’re so tasty that I just might need to have another…. I probably should. After all, I’m in training.

Muffin 3

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Have you ever had one of those days where your interior monologue is too melodramatic even for yourself? One of those “my throat hurts and work is so stressful and my back aches and oh what’s it all foooor” kinds of days?

I call those chicken soup days, and I’m hanging out there right about…now.

Chicken soup seems to cure, or nearly cure, almost anything: sore throats, body aches, winter malaise, work-related stress. I haven’t been brainwashed by the Campbell Soup Company, I promise.  People have been eating chicken soup for centuries. Even the Ancient Egyptians prescribed chicken soup for the common cold. And if it was good enough for Queen Nefertiti, then it’s good enough for me.

There actually are scientific reasons behind the world’s fixation on chicken soup, whether it’s Jewish matzo ball soup or Greek avgolemono. The steam from the soup helps clear congested nasal passageways, and the salty broth draws out liquid from swollen glands and reduces inflammation and soreness. And because it’s easy to digest, chicken soup is easy to handle on an iffy stomach.

Chicken soup

But mostly, chicken soup just tastes good. There’s something so comforting about it. Maybe it’s because most people start eating chicken soup as kids, often fed by their mothers and fathers, but it’s one of those foods that can make you feel completely at home. And nothing beats real, homemade chicken soup.

The problem is, when you’re a working girl with an interior monologue histrionic enough to rival Paris Hilton, you don’t always have the full day it takes to make the real thing. You need a shortcut — and one that doesn’t involve the words “Heat & Serve.” So I came up with this recipe that tastes pretty close to the real deal. It may not be Mom-mom’s soup, but on a weeknight, it’s as close as I’m going to get.

I think I feel better already.

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When I was in college, a friend sent around a forward that asked people to answer a bunch of questions and then send the completed questionnaire back to the sender and everyone else on the list. One of the questions read something like, “Rules are… (a) meant to be broken! or (b) meant to be followed, of course.”

I so wanted to be the kind of “Down with the system!” person who would reply (a). I mean, wasn’t that the point of college? But alas, aside from my penchant for jaywalking and occasional flouting of the “Dry Clean Only” label, I’ve pretty much been a (b) person all my life. It’s not that I don’t question the rules or that I wouldn’t break an unjust one; it’s more that, in my life, the rules within the bounds of breakability usually aren’t worth breaking. The payoff isn’t big enough.

Pear cake

That pretty much sums up my attitude, until recently, toward baking. Unlike cooking, where you can throw in a splash of this and a sprinkle of that, baking is a science. It’s chemistry — acids and bases and emulsifiers and proteins. If you add too much leavening or too little acid, you’re toast (so to speak).

And although the method can vary from cake to cake and cookie to cookie, you end up working within a pretty small set of parameters. Take the method for making a cake: you mix the dry ingredients together, beat the butter or oil with sugar, add eggs one at a time, and then bring everything together, with the help of some liquid. There are scientific reasons for this (coating the sugar with the fat separates the sugar molecules and makes a lighter cake, adding the eggs one at a time allows them to emulsify). And from what I’ve learned, you don’t mess with science (just ask the Incredible Hulk).

Pear cake 2

Then I saw a recipe for a pear cake by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid that broke all the rules. They tell you to mix the dry ingredients together, and then just dump the eggs and melted butter into the flour and mix, adding the pears followed by some milk — as necessary — to moisten the batter. As necessary?? In a cake?

Then I realized this was my chance. I could be that “(a)” person, break all the rules and (gulp) see what happens. So I did. And as long as I was at it, I decided to tweak the recipe a little bit. I figured as long as I was breaking the rules, I might as well go the whole hog.

And you know what? The cake was tasty! It’s one of those utterly homey desserts that you’d want sitting on the kitchen counter, begging you to “even off” its edges. I wouldn’t serve this at a dinner party, but it’s the kind of recipe you’d turn to when you want to throw together a homemade treat at a moment’s notice.

So have I turned over a new leaf? Am I going to start shaking my fist at the law? Probably not. But I do feel emboldened to push the limits a little further when it comes to baking — because with baking, the stakes aren’t that high, and when the experiment works, the payoff is definitely worth it.

Pear Cake 3

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In my family, Thanksgiving is a Big Deal — the sort of holiday that I and about two dozen family members and friends look forward to for months. I’ve been known to start thinking about it as early as July.

Traditionally held by my mother, the holiday involves 30lb turkeys and massive crocks of sweet potatoes and vegetables, all eaten on tables decorated with dried leaves and votive candles. Mom doesn’t mess around.

And just like a football coach wouldn’t run a new play at the Super Bowl, my mother doesn’t serve a dish at Thanksgiving unless it has been tested and tweaked and tested again. It’s serious stuff, this Thanksgiving business.

So a few years ago, my mom decided to experiment with a new turkey recipe that claimed you could cook your turkey in about 2 hours at a very high and dry heat and yield the most succulent bird you’ve ever tasted. No basting, no turning, no stuffing. Just bake the bird at 450°F for a couple of hours. The claim sounded improbable, but she figured if it didn’t work out, she’d only wasted 2 hours of her time. She could always fall back on her stand-by recipe.

The turkey turned out fantastically and has since become our Thanksgiving standard. But I started wondering if the same method could be applied to other meats and poultry, particularly chicken. After looking into it, I found that Barbara Kafka has been touting this method of roasting for decades, often to the skepticism of cooks like Julia Child (who was quoted as saying she “hates” this method).

Roast Chicken

I was a little fearful of jacking my oven up to 500°F to roast a chicken, so I found another, similar recipe by Thomas Keller that roasts the chicken at 450°F for about an hour and is positively fantastic. The high, dry heat caramelizes the surface of the skin and melts excess fat and water out of the chicken, which bastes the bird as it cooks.

Thanksgiving is a special day, where I’m surrounded by loved ones and eat holiday fare that I look forward to all year. But this chicken recipe is something special that I can eat all year round, making even an average Monday night something to look forward to.

Roast chicken 2

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Okay, that’s it. Each day in October, as temperatures hovered in the 70s and 80s, I reassured myself that tomorrow would feel like fall. Well, maybe not tomorrow, but the day after that. Or the one after that. Or not at all.

But it’s November, people — stuff-your-face-with-turkey month — and I barely need a jacket. Don’t get me wrong; the weather has been wonderfully sunny and breezy, a refreshing 63°F, even. But it just doesn’t feel like I should be gearing up for pumpkin pie and cornbread stuffing.

Oatmeal 2

I’ve been trying. I’ve made sweet potatoes and apple spice cakes and so many other “fall” dishes that you’d think I ate them cozied up beside a roaring fireplace. I guess I figured I could will the arrival of autumn weather. But alas, my efforts were in vain…

I will concede, however, that recently the mornings have felt like fall, with the crisp sort of air that turns the tip of my nose red and makes my eyes water. The first morning this happened, I was so happy that at least something felt fall-ish that I broke open my jar of steel-cut oats and made a big pot of oatmeal.

Oats

As far as I’m concerned, on cold mornings nothing beats a big bowl of hot cereal, and steel-cut “Irish” oatmeal is one of my favorites. Steel-cut oats come from the inner portion of oat kernels and have been cut into only two or three pieces. They have a nuttier flavor and chewier texture than the more familiar rolled oats, which are flake oats that have been steamed, rolled and toasted.

To make the naturally nutty flavor of steel-cut oats even nuttier, I toast mine lightly before cooking them. I figure if I am going to be warm and toasty, the cereal should be too.

So let’s go, Autumn, time to get down to business. This hot cereal will only fool me into believing it feels like fall for so long, and turkey day is just around the corner.

Oatmeal

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