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Turkey Day Trials 2016

16 Nov

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Here we go again, folks!  It’s Turkey Day Trials, 2016!

I’m going to invite the teacher to the blog for a moment and grace all of you with a brief history of the tradition.  Turkey Day Trials dates all the way back to November 2010 with culinary experimentation to prepare for the most anticipated foodie day of the year.  It started with prepping for the first Thanksgiving I prepared, lead to grocery store meltdowns, microwaved turkey breast, Kindergarten Turkey cooking (ironically, the frustration of being volun-told to cook for an elementary school “feast” taught me how to make the best bird), appetizers and dips galore, berry mistakes, and finally, comfort food leftovers.  There have been ups and downs, but all have been fun (except last year when I had the stomach flu and could barely scarf down the stuffing).

Clearly, I love Thanksgiving.

So this year’s Turkey Day Trial kind of happened on accident.  By my husband.

Yes, credit is due where credit is due and Chef Robert II (Chef Robert I is my dad.  And it’s pronounced Ro-BEAR by the way) came up with a most fantastic, keep in the fridge all season long, use on everything Pumpkin Butter.  It’s really amazing.

The other day, I just happened to add a bit of spice to that Pumpkin Butter and used it with some braised greens and mushrooms, making one of the best accidental Thanksgiving-worthy-yes-it-will-be-on-my-fancy-table-this-year side dishes ever.  Yes, I said it – EVER.

Sig (the dog) would disagree, but pumpkin by itself isn’t all that flavorful.  It’s a little musty and calls for brightening.  Sweetness and warm spices give pumpkin its quintessential autumn flavor, and in this recipe, water is added to turn the clumpy pumpkin into that silky, smooth, glazy texture fruit “butters” are known to embody.

The Pumpkin Butter is easy: 1 can of pumpkin puree, 1 c of water, 4 tbsp sugar, ¼ c brown sugar, ¼ tsp each of nutmeg, cinnamon, and pumpkin spice.  Mix all together in a sauce pan, and heat until the puree and the water have formed a smooth, silky consistency.  That’s it! 

Now, I did mention that I spiced this baby up.  To ¼ a cup of the Pumpkin Butter, I added 5-6 dashes of my favorite hot sauce: Tapatio.  Honestly, the chili spiciness mixed with the sweetness and nutmeg-y goodness is a flavor I can’t get enough of.  Granted – important note from Chef Robert II here – if you are going to use this Pumpkin Butter in coffee for an excelled Pumpkin Spice Latte, please omit the Tapatio.  That would just be silly.

So, onto the Turkey Day Trial side dish.

Southerners loooooove their braised greens.  Collards, actually, and I just can’t jump on that bandwagon.  This isn’t for lack of trying – I’ve had collards every which way.  But I simply do not like them, Sam I am.

But, in an accidental mix up of wild mushrooms and kale, a bit of sherry vinegar, plumped dried cranberries, and a drizzle of salt and honey, I found a sturdy cooked greens dish that could kick the chlorophyll out of those darn collards any day.  Also, it speaks heavily to my Scandinavian roots and Pacific Northwest taste buds, so there’s that for the sake of full disclosure.

Kale, basking in its endless superfood limelight, is softer than collards but still cooks well keeping integrity (it doesn’t disappear like spinach) and offering a bit of sweetness.  The mushrooms, oh the mushrooms, when those buggers are cooked till they just can’t be cooked anymore, they are amazing.  Browned, nutty, addictive; they taste like the smell of the woods next to the ocean after it’s just rained.  It’s a trick I’ve learned from my mom – let the mushrooms be.  Well, my mom and Paul McCartney.

Then – wait for it – I drizzled the Spicy Pumpkin Butter over the greens.

Un.  Bel.  Ievable.

I turned that one dish into a couple different things (Thanksgiving leftover ideas coming!  Hint hint, wink wink!).  I poured the greens on top of creamed barley for an earthy grain bowl, and I also pulled out a breakfast by shmearing some cream cheese on toast, topped with the greens and pumpkin butter, then “garnished” with a fried egg.  Again – delicious.

Time is running out on Thanksgiving countdowns, but luckily these gems are no fuss.  Rob’s Pumpkin Butter and my Mushrooms and Kale are perfect for your holiday feast.

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Mushrooms and Kale
(makes a lot, but you’ll need a lot)

  • 1 bunch curly kale (usually 7-8 stalks are in a bunch), leaves only, thinly sliced
  • 1 pint crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 pint shitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 pint chanterelle mushrooms, sliced
  • ¼ c sherry vinegar
  • ¼ c water
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg (freshly grated is better, but do just a bit less)
  • ¼ c dried cranberries
  • 1 tbsp really good local honey
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • s&p

In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add all the mushrooms and DO NOT yet season.  Stir the mushrooms, let them absorb the butter, and then finally release their own juices (without the help of salt).  Once the mushrooms start to caramelize, lower the heat to medium-low, and stir occasionally, letting the mushrooms brown, and then brown some more.  Once they are fully caramelized (and considerably smaller) lightly season with s&p.  Turn up the heat to medium, and pour in the sherry vinegar to deglaze the pan.  Once the vinegar has reduced to almost gone, add in the water and the kale.  Season with a bit more s&p, nutmeg, and add the cranberries.  Once the kale has cooked (it will wilt a bit, still look wrinkly, and have a dark green color), and the cranberries have plumped, turn off the heat.  Drizzle over the honey, and serve. 

Enjoy!

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Nana’s Blog

25 Sep

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I feel like when there’s been a long hiatus of blog posts I have to provide some sort of explanation.  Not that I have millions of followers that are emailing me asking for reasons (although I would love that!), but as my conviction of a writer I feel I have to answer the questions “why?” and “how?”.

I teach my students those exact things – the why and the how and the importance behind the explanation.  It shows understanding.  It shows thoughtfulness.  It shows caring.

So, to be perfectly candid, and now that we’ve entered a new season, I’ll share what happened over my summer.  I simply needed a break.  Not really from writing (because writing really is incredibly therapeutic), but really just from everything.

For years, teaching in Florida had been less than ideal, and after a much needed switch to a better school in a safer area, I ended the last school year coming off of a 2-year span of extreme stress (and a classroom/portable that I’m convinced was infested – at least – with mold).  I simply didn’t realize how much of a toll it had taken on my body and spirit.  Starting in January, a nice white light of professional freedom slowly started to soften those wounds, and by June, I needed to just sit and recoup.

Also, Rob deployed again, which is always stressful in its own right.

Sig needed surgery, and then had a horrible reaction to it.  I don’t have kids, but this little pup is the closest thing to it, and watching him convulsing in pain and not being able to help him was beyond heartbreaking.

And, my Nana died.

It wasn’t unexpected; in fact, it was very expected and I think myself and many family members felt a bit of peace knowing she was in a better place.

I was lucky, I got to say goodbye to her.  Unlike the suddenness of my grandfather’s passing, Nana and I got to spend some quiet moments together only weeks before she passed.  Many of us were honored with those moments of just sitting with her.  Quietly, comfortably.  I held her soft, boney, freshly manicured hand and she held my calloused, rough cooker/teacher hand.  Mind you, this was after many finicky moments of trying to figure out why her oxygen lines weren’t staying in her nose – I had been stepping on them.  Luckily she found as much humor in that as I did embarrassment.

She asked me what would happen next, and I chickened out and gave a blanket answer of “You’ll be ok, Nana,” instead of telling her the best was yet to come.  We said goodbye, knowing it was truly a goodbye, and Nana passed an hour after her 89th birthday ended.  In true fashion, Nana stuck around for one last party.

My mom and I missed the last teacher workday of the school year and my dad drove us up the endlessly long I-95 corridor, Georgia-induced flat tires and all.  Word to the wise: if you are going to get stranded in Nowheresville, Georgia, don’t do it on a Sunday morning when that Southern Bible Belt charm doesn’t kick in until after the 11am Baptist Eucharist (and then there’s Potluck at Noon.  Oh, and I could go on to describe how weeks later Rob and I got stranded in BumbleYouKnowWhat, SC whose Eucharist doesn’t ever seem to kick in as we were told we would’ve received car help if we were “locals.”  Southern hospitality???).

However – enter silver lining – the Georgia delay inevitably helped us, as the George Washington Bridge had a beautiful midnight view of New York City, without the usual vehicle gridlock.

We spent the first week of summer vacation doing what happens at funerals: crying, laughing, reminiscing, crying, eating, drinking, staying up too late, and then falling into deep, deep sleep.  It’s always so wonderful spending time with family we don’t get to see every day, even despite the circumstances.  Nana had an open casket, and looked lovely wearing the same dress she wore to my wedding, the sparkly mint green one my mom helped her pick out.  We talked to her, about her, and collectively prayed the Hail Mary, Glory Be, and Our Father.

My mom was so strong.  She’s the middle child, the only girl, and Nana was proud of her.  Still is.

My uncle, who is also my Godfather, is the baby of the family and jokes flew about little Tommy being a “publican” (someone relinquished to the doldrums of public school as opposed to the standard Long Island private institutions).  Followed by stories around vats of Hellman’s mayo he could have invested in to build himself his own fortune.  Poor Uncle Tom!

In a whirlwind of time and bags and boxes and dust and beautiful weather, my mom, dad, Uncle Tom, Uncle Bob and I cleaned out Nana’s house.  It was sad, funny, silly, tiring for sure, and we got it done.   But what we really did during that time was keep the Long Island delis in business.

My dad always got a ham and cheese, simple and easy.  My mom, her brothers and I always got the rare roast beef and swiss with extra mayo, expect for that one time Uncle Tom got liverwurst with extra mustard.  All were always on a Kaiser roll, and always with a pickle on the side.  Mom introduced Uncle Tom to putting pickles ON the sandwich, a new revelation of a pickle-mayo condiment combo that rocked his world.  We tried maco salad, potato salad, and coleslaw from each deli because, after all, each place makes them differently.  Personally, I think the Million Dollar Deli’s maco salad is the best, but Uncle Tom would disagree.  He likes the maco from Setauket.

Nana would have loved the fact that her countertops turned the color of deli parchment, and the smell of beef and pickle brine scented the air.  And it’s clear from our toppings and accompaniments that our family loves mayo.

It’s serious, people.  Like, use-a-spoon-to-slather-it-on-a-ripe-tomato-end-of-story serious.

In fact, at a celebration of Nana’s life, my Aunt Regina’s mom recalled how at her bridal shower my Nana brought a huuuuuuge tub of Hellman’s Mayo (despite the standard Waterford crystal and linens being gifted).  Handing it over, Nana simply informed Aunt Regina, “My son loves mayo.  You’ll need this.”

So much so, that my mom says when Uncle Tom dies, she is going to put all those little squeezy packets of mayo in his casket (with a pair of small scissors because those things are hard as hell to open).

We are a mayonnaise-loving family.

There’s mayo, and then there’s mayo.  Sorry Midwesterners, despite my love for the Green Bay Packers, I’d have to vehemently pass on the Miracle Whip.  That stuff isn’t a miracle at all.  Also, living in the South has made me drop a “y’all” or two, but I will never, EVER succumb to the Duke’s Mayo world.  It’s simply not the best.

Hellman’s is (that’s why west of the Rockies it’s called “Best Foods”).

So to keep true to a classic that my whole family loves – and of which Nana would greatly approve – here’s an oldie and a goodie for you.  The Classic Deviled Egg Salad.

Only 5 ingredients, this stuff is perfection in mayo simplicity.  And maybe, if I put it on the internet, one of those delis will start selling it and give me the royalties – eh?  One can dream.

This recipe is perfect for a cookout, picnic, easy lunch, or an easy go-to breakfast.  As a family classic, I debated whether or not to reveal it, but being so easy and tasty, it would be silly not to.  Plus, Nana would have wanted me to.

So here it is:

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Classic Deviled Egg Salad
(serves as many as you are willing to make)

  • Hard boiled eggs *Everyone has a trick or tip for “perfect” hard boiled eggs. Mine simply is to start with any number of eggs in cold water.  Bring the pot to a boil.  Boil for 5 minutes.  Turn off stove.  Let sit in hot water until water has become manageable to the touch.  Submerge eggs into ice water. 
  • Hellman’s Mayonnaise
  • Celery
  • Fresh dill (adding the dill is my adaptation to the family fave, not everyone is on board)
  • Spicy paprika
  • s&p (yes, this technically makes it 7 ingredients, but s&p has to be a gimme because even the corner store next to the gas station has s&p to put on their sandwiches, so y’all must have it, too.)

This Deviled Egg salad can be made in small batches or in large.  Here’s the ratio:

2 eggs:1 tsp mayo:2 stems celery:¼ tsp fresh dill, paprika and s&p to taste. 

After slicing the celery and mincing the dill, put everything into a mixing bowl.  Like my Nana, and my mom after her, I follow suit by mashing the eggs and mixing everything together with a fork.

Spoon on top of some whole grain toast, or mix with some greens, or eat just as is. 

Enjoy!

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