Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving Turkey Time!

A couple of friends have asked me various questions about cooking their Thanksgiving Day turkey.  It isn't terribly complicated, but since it is the type of meal that only happens once a year, and since it usually involves family and friends, no one wants to be the one who serves burnt or dried out turkey.  So here are some suggestions that I have cobbled together from some sources that I trust the most with this sort of thing.  I hope this helps!

First, you have to thaw your bird!  Did you take it out of the freezer on Saturday?  I hope so.  The information below gives you the breakdown on how long that bird will take to thaw in the fridge.  Did you forget?  No worries, you can still have a perfectly thawed and safe bird, you are just going to work a little harder for it.  Cold Water Thawing instructions are included below.  This information was sourced from the USDA page dedicated to food safety.  Follow these instructions very carefully, and you can be assured of serving a dinner that won't make your guests ill.

Thawing your bird:

I've included the methods and timing for thawing a turkey using a refrigerator and quick thaw by water below.  These are the only methods I recommend for thawing a bird.  The USDA website includes other methods, such as using a microwave, which I cannot and will not condone! 

Refrigerator Thawing

When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator:

  • Plan ahead: allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below.
  • Place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods.

Refrigerator Thawing Times

Whole turkey:

  • 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days

A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking. Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking but there may be some loss of quality.

Cold Water Thawing

When thawing a turkey quickly in water:

  • Allow about 30 minutes per pound.
  • First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product.
  • Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.

Cold Water Thawing Times

Whole turkey:

  • 4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours
  • 16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours

A turkey thawed by the cold-water method should be cooked immediately. After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen.

Time to Cook!

Oven-Roasted Turkey:

Fried Turkey:

Smoked Turkey - Aaron Franklin:

My personal favorite is the fried turkey variation.  Here's my bird from last Thanksgiving, which we cooked and enjoyed while camping on Lake Buchanan.

Monday, June 23, 2014

They Call Me "Big Fluffy"

The Background

It wasn't until after high school, when I got into the restaurant business that I really did a lot of cooking.  I wasn't necessarily one of those kids that loved to cook from a young age.  My mom did almost all of the cooking in our house, and my sisters would spend a good bit of time with her while they cooked.  I did too from time to time, but not nearly as often.  There were probably a dozen other things going on that I would rather spend time doing during the dinner prep time, and it simply didn't interest me in the same way, at least not at that time.  I learned enough that I knew I wouldn't starve during my bachelor days, but I wasn't cooking for pride or entertainment.  And certainly, I didn't have that itch to experiment with flavors and textures.

 But there was one notable exception, pancakes.  Pancakes was the first "meal" that I learned to make, entirely on my own.  Now as a kid, pancakes meant using a box of Bisquick.  And to be truthful, that was the case for many, many years.  As a matter of fact, had they not done something to alter their ingredients 10 or so years ago, I'd probably still be using Bisquick to make pancakes.  I am not sure what they did, but after 20 years using the exact same recipe, something changed, and the only thing I didn't have direct control over was whatever blend of dry ingredients that they put in that box.  They didn't come out with a "new and improved" recipe, but I definitely know that something in that package changed.

 Since that time, I have tried many scratch recipes.  I love pancakes, and I even enjoy how varied the recipes are.  Some create flat, dense or crispy pancakes, some are made to benefit from a cast iron skillet, some are filled with fruit flavors, but my favorites have always been big, fluffy pancakes.  Not too sweet (that's what syrup is for), very cake-like, delicate sponges for melted butter with a light crumb.

 To achieve these kind of results, we will need to talk about the batter.  Now, I have provided ingredient quantities here, but I am going to tell you that you will need to use your culinary common sense here when it comes to consistency.  There are many variables that won't go into the mixing bowl that will affect your batter, and there is no recipe that can account for that.  Everything from the temperature of the kitchen to the barometric pressure outside will impact your batter.  And we also have to consider the age of the flour we are using and the age of the leavening agents.  Are they stale, or fresh, just how long has that sack of flour sat in your pantry?   For this pancake recipe we want a thick batter.  You should have to shake it out of the measuring cup onto your griddle.  You shouldn't be able to pour it out.

 Be mindful though, because over-stirring the batter on the way to this  thick cake-like batter can result in losing the delicate crumb.  By mixing the wet ingredients and dry ingredients separately, we will be able to mix the heck out of the eggs and milk without kicking the baking powder into overdrive.  And please, pay attention to the flour type.  I used self-rising flour, not all-purpose flour, and it does make a big difference.

The Ingredients 

  • 3 Cups Self-Rising Flour
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
  • 3 Tablespoons Baking Powder
  • 1 Tablespoon Cinnamon (optional)
  • 3 Cups Milk
  • 2 Extra-Large Eggs
  • 1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
  • 2 Tablespoons Sugar
  • 4 Tablespoons (1/4 cup) Butter (melted)
  • 1 Cup Greek Yogurt (I used full-fat, plain)
  • Butter and Syrup for topping pancakes

 Making It Work  

  1. Preheat your griddle to 350 degrees. 
  2. Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, and cinnamon (if using) in a large bowl.  Make sure that the ingredients are well mixed.
  3. Mix together yogurt, eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla in a separate bowl.  Whisk these together until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is a creamy, custard-like consistency. *Note: we are treating the sugar like a wet ingredient, rather than a dry ingredient.  It will dissolve in milk and eggs, and the extra whisking to get there won't upset the leavening process.
  4. Whisk the melted butter into the wet ingredients
  5. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into the center.
  6. Gently fold the flour mixture into the wet mixture until it is just incorporated.  Don't try to beat out all of the lumps, you will over-mix if you do.
  7. This is the time to add more flour if the batter is too thin, or add more milk if the batter is too thick.
  8. Scoop the batter onto your hot griddle.  (I use a 1/3 cup measuring cup for portioning).  With the thickness of the batter, this will make about 18 pancakes that are about 5-6 inches in diameter.
  1. Put your hot pancakes on a rimmed cookie sheet with a cooling rack, and cover with a towel.  Set oven to 200 degrees and they will stay hot until you are ready to serve, or until sleepy, late-risers make it to the table.  Don't get stuck manning the griddle while everyone else enjoys the pancakes in the dining room.  It is good for the cook to get to eat with the family.
  2. This recipe is not the time to substitute fat-free or sugar-free ingredients.  These pancakes will be a thick, cake-like treat.  Enjoy them in reasonable quantities with real maple syrup and lots of butter, or with fruit compote and whipped cream.  They are a treat and should be enjoyed as such. "Everything in moderation... including moderation"!
  3. Eat pancakes for dinner, it's just the right thing to do every once in awhile, or weekly, like at my house.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tomato Basil Pie (from Jack Allen's Kitchen)

The Background

My favorite restaurant in Round Rock, Texas is Jack Allen's Kitchen.  Jack Gilmore is Owner and Chef, he runs the kind of restaurant that I think we all probably envision restaurants should be run.  He has a relationship with local area farmers and can frequently be seen at the area farmer's markets.  His menu is based largely off of what he finds in the markets each week, and he proudly and prominently features the local farmer in his menu.  His Sunday Brunch is a stunning collection of dishes that includes comfortable, Southern favorites such as Mama's Sunday Chicken or House Cured Ham.  It also includes local favorites such as Migas and Green Chile Pork and Eggs. 

One of the dishes you are likely to find on the table, especially in the summertime when fresh tomatoes and basil are at their peak, is his Tomato Basil Pie.  On a table that includes so many amazing dishes, it might be easy to overlook, but that would be a mistake.  Simple and understated, this savory pie will make you sit back in your chair and relish the flavors of summer.  A week or so after my first brunch visit at Jack Allen's Kitchen, I was delighted to find the recipe for this pie in the local newspaper, the Austin American Statesman.  I did a search online for that article, and even ran across a video clip of Jack making this recipe on a local morning news show. 

I made this recipe recently for the brunch we serve each month to our worship team at our church.  Even in the late winter days of February, using standard-issue Roma tomatoes from the grocery store, the dish was a fantastic hit.  I can tell you that making this dish in the summertime, with garden fresh heirloom tomatoes, makes all your senses light up like a pinball machine!

The Ingredients 

  • 3 tomatoes, sliced thinly (If you use a small variety, such as Roma, you will want 5 or 6)
  • 1 pie shell
  • 6 sprigs of basil  
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (I used a combination of White Cheddar and Smoked Gruyere) 
  • 2 eggs  
  • 1 cup mayonnaise  
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese  
  • Salt and pepper, to taste 

 Making It Work  

  1. About half an hour before baking the pie, season the tomatoes and let some of the water drain out of them. 
  2. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Layer the sliced tomatoes on the bottom of an unbaked pie shell. Tear apart basil and place on top of tomatoes. Spread the shredded cheese on top. 
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and mayonnaise, then spread evenly over the tomatoes and cheese in the pie shell. 
  4. Top the pie with Parmesan cheese, which will form a delicate top crust.  
  5. Bake for approx 45 minutes, until it is bubbly and golden brown. Serves 4.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Chilled Mexican Corn Salad

The Background

I have been looking for a side dish that will pair well with Tex-Mex, Southwestern and Southern dishes.  The catering jobs that we take on typically involve either barbeque or tacos.  This side dish pairs well with both and it is equally tasty served warm or cold.  If served with barbeque, the corn salad gives a great alternative to the typical potato salad or coleslaw. 

If you have ever been to a Mexican festival or celebration, you may have stumbled on a booth or food truck selling grilled corn on the cob.  The corn is usually nicely charred, lathered in a creamy, buttery combination of cheese and chili spices, and finished with a squeeze of lime.  The sweet smell of grilled corn with lime and chiles creates an aroma that will be forever locked in your mind.  You won't be able to think about that festival without remembering that aroma, and anytime you pass a vendor selling grilled corn, your ears will immediately perk and your head will swivel to find the source!

We have tried to recreate that experience in a bowl.  I love to serve this dish as a cold side.  The sweet corn and creaminess cools down the palate perfectly after something spicy.  And the bright, fresh citrus keeps the flavors light.  It's a new favorite of mine, and I get great comments when we serve it at our events.


The Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter
3 cups corn (about 4 ears, fresh OR 2 cans)
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, grated (or approximately 1 teaspoon of minced garlic)
1 handful cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juice
2 tablespoons Cotija cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon chili powder to taste
2 teaspoons onion salt


Making It Work

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  A cast iron skillet works great, if you have one.
  2. Add the corn, toss it quickly to coat as much of the corn with the butter as you can.  Once the corn is coated in butter, leave it alone to char, about 6-10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  3. In a medium bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, garlic, lime juice, onion salt, and chili powder to make a smooth dressing.
  4. Mix the corn into the dressing, until the corn is well coated.  Once the corn and dressing are mixed, stir in the chopped cilantro and Cotija cheese.
  5. To serve, garnish with some hand-torn cilantro, and an additional sprinkle of cheese and chili powder.  This is a great dish to make a day ahead or the morning of the event.  The flavors will deepen as it chills in the refrigerator for a few hours. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Texas BBQ Sauce

The Background

We are about to enter a dangerous topic, barbeque.  There are many debates we could wage over what constitutes barbeque, whether it be about how it is made, at what temperature it is achieved, whether or not it is sauced, whether it's beef or pork, whether or not bologna and hot links belong in the conversation or not... okay, let's just go ahead and assume that one is non-topic. 

I have been blessed to travel all over this great country, and I have sampled some of this country's favorite barbeque joints and pits.  I have done the Memphis thing, sampled Kansas City's finest, sunk my teeth into South Carolina's famed vinegary pork, and savored some of the best Texas has to offer.  I won't beat around the bush, for my money, Texas barbeque rules supreme.

For the purpose of today's recipe, let's first understand the way barbeque is done in Texas.  In the lone star state, sauce is served on the side.  Rarely will you find beef brisket, pulled pork or meaty ribs where they have been sauced as part of the cooking process.  Texas barbeque is also typically a combination of sweet, spicy, tangy and salty.  It is an accoutrement or an accessory.  If your meat can't stand on it's own, the finest sauce in the state won't fix it.  You can't use sauce to cover up the fact that your meat is dry, overcooked or bland.  But if you have taken your time to produce smokey perfection in the form of brisket or pulled pork, then a great sauce will take it to a new level.

So what does good Texas barbeque look like?  It should be a deep mahogany color, flecked with pepper and spice.  It should also be thick enough to coat a spoon (or a piece of meat).  Beyond these basics, there are a world of flavor profiles that can be used to achieve that blend of sweet, tangy, spicy and salty.  I prefer a combination ketchup and mustard (sweet and tangy) as the base.  I like the tang of apple cider vinegar combined with the sweetness of honey.  You can definitely use a different type of vinegar, or use various sweeteners such brown sugar, agave, maple syrup or cane syrup.  For spice, I like to use flavors like cumin and paprika, along with chili powder and black pepper.  I also like garlic and onion along with the salt to bring that earthy and umami flavor to the profile.  And when you are ready for the "advanced" recipe class, swap out some of these flavors or play with Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, red wine, smoky chipotle peppers, hatch green chiles or liquid smoke. 

The Ingredients

  • 34oz bottle Ketchup (I use Heinz, this was a "large" bottle)
  • 8oz bottle Mustard (French's standard issue yellow mustard, the "small" bottle)
  • 1 cup Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1/2 cup Sugar
  • 1/4 cup Black Pepper (I used an Orange Pepper blend from Texas Spice Co.)
  • 2 tablespoons Garlic Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Onion Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
  • 2 tablespoon Chili Powder
  • 1 tablespoon Cumin
  • 1 tablespoon Paprika (smoked paprika is really great, if you have it handy)

Making It Work

Whisk all your wet ingredients in a medium sauce pan over medium to low heat.  You will want to bring the sauce to a low simmer to help dissolve the sugar and heat the spices.

One at a time, stir in each of the dry ingredients, making sure each is fully incorporated before proceeding the next.  This will prevent your spices from lumping together in the mixture.

Simmer the sauce until you reach the desired consistency.

This will make quite a bit of barbeque sauce.  My last batch was right about 45 ounces.  I pour the sauce into squeeze bottles.  To keep the sauce fresh, put a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the bottle, before screwing on the squeeze top.  This sauce will have to be stored in the fridge.  Hopefully, before this summer, I will get a chance to play with canning the sauce for pantry storage.  I will update this recipe accordingly, once I have made it work!

Play with the flavors, find other sweet or tangy ingredients to swap out, make use of some left over wine (if that sort of thing ever happens at your house), play with adding booze such as bourbon or tequila, or use other ethnic spices to create new flavor profiles.  Barbeque sauce should be more of process, rather than exact recipe to follow, once you have mastered the balance between spicy, salty, sweet and tangy.