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Clean Up, Aisle 14

21 Nov

Last year at this time, I was blogging 2-3 times a week, happily writing and experimenting with my Turkey Day Trials, and prepping for the best holiday of the year.  It was my first Thanksgiving cooking, and my parents were coming up to visit – everything had to be perfect.  This year, everything still must be perfect, but I’ve moved up a level in the video game of life, causing more hurdles to jump over and extra-point challenges to face.

Rob and I see each other almost every day.  But our jobs, while enriching and rewarding, have brought us to a new intensity in limited interaction.  Having just entered the Aircraft Commander syllabus, Rob is working even harder and studying whenever possible.  My job leaves me, more often than not, wanting to crash out on the couch saving any laundry or other household chores for “another” day.  We have been busy with bittersweet traveling (going to North Carolina for Rob’s uncle’s funeral; sad occasion, but nice seeing lots of family), busy with friends (Meghan and Daniel’s trip up from Irvine was a blast!), and busy being stressed over Oregon’s missed field goal to lose a should-have-won game against USC (urgh).  We’ve had some,well, busy times, but I’m certainly not complaining – Rob and I live a very full life.  But it all kind of caught up with me yesterday.

In my house growing up, Thanksgiving was the biggest holiday we celebrated.  We ate, we watched the Macy’s Parade, we ate, we watched the Dog Show, we ate, we watched my mom squeal as my dad de-innarded the turkey, and we ate some more.  Last year was pretty much the same, except I was the one de-innarding the turkey, and Rob was the one running after me with 409 to disinfect any poultry germs.  But while last year I had time and ability to experiment with pumpkin pie, taste-test three different stuffings, and concoct the best turkey to herb butter ratio, this year has been a bit different.

Yesterday, Rob and I went to the grocery store to pick up the final fixins for this year’s meal.  We had returned the night prior from the UofO/USC football game feeling drained and exhausted from the expended adrenaline, lack of body warmth, and long drive.  I had a list – no, the list – of Thanksgiving necessities (one year, my mom forgot the black olives.  My dad still talks about it).  We were walking up and down the aisles picking up our loot, when, all of a sudden, all of the to-dos and lack of Thanksgiving preparation that I had been keeping on the back burner, running at a gentle rolling simmer, came rushing to the forefront of my brain reminding me that the BEST day of the year was only 4 days away.  And I had not prepped at all.

I stopped.

“What’s wrong?” Rob asked.

“I…. I….”  the panic levels were audibly rising.

“What?” his concern was obvious.

“Holy Crap I didn’t get to do my turkey trials this year!  There’s so much to do!  This is the best day of the year and I’m not enjoying it the way I should!  And I don’t remember which kind of stuffing I’m supposed to buy!” the verbal vom came out at, what I imagine, was faster and a few pitches higher than normal.  Rob could see it starting.  I was loosing it.

The tears started flowing.  With a mixture of exhaustion, stress, and downright immaturity, my shoulders started to methodically shake.  Rob took me in his arms and gave me his best bear hug.  After including a couple of “it’s alrights” and “shhs,” to ease my “but I don’t even have a dessert!” fears, he broke me of my breaking point like only he could.  Right there between the canned pumpkin and the Shake ‘N Bake, with his quick New England wit he exclaimed, “Clean up on Aisle 14!”

Well, even with all of my grocery store blubbering, it turns out I did get to have a turkey trial this year, even if it wasn’t a planned dish for my family’s Thanksgiving feast.  A friend requested a minimal chopping, gluten-free stuffing to enjoy with her family this year.  Since I often have secret love-affairs with large amounts of gluten when Rob is on duty, I took this as a challenge.  I researched; most gluten free recipes require cubes of gluten-free bread, a food that is difficult to find and can stereotypically be dry, dense, and tasteless.  So I improvised and came up with a “crumble” of sorts using corn meal and almond meal.  The dish had the stuffing-like texture, and the flavors of Thanksgiving were all incorporated.

I called my mom from the grocery store, still sniffling from my “incident” back in aisle 14, confirming the correct stuffing for our dinner (during which time she genuinely asked me if I was 1) okay, and 2) a mental – got to love the east coast mommy!).  So needless to say, despite its tastiness, we will be sticking to tradition and not be having a gluten-free stuffing for our holiday.  But hopefully my friend and her family will, and enjoy the flavors, and the holiday, without scary gluten allergies.

Happy Thanksgiving!

No-Chop Gluten-Free Stuffing (serves 6-8)

  • 1 leek
  • 1 large apple
  • ½ medium sized red onion
  • 3 celery ribs
  • 2 yukon gold potatoes
  • 1/4 c white wine
  • 1 ½ c cornmeal, medium grain
  • ¾ c almond meal
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 3 sprigs fresh sage
  • s&p
  • olive oil for drizzling

*** Special equipment needed: Food Processor

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and grease a square baking dish with butter.

Melt 3 tbsp of butter in a large sauté pan.  Chop the leek, apple, onion, celery, and potatoes into very large dices (about 2 inches each).  Toss into the food processor.  Pulse 3-4 times; just enough so the veggies are chopped up, but NOT pureed.  Pour the veg into the sauté pan, and season with s&p to taste.  Sprinkle in the thyme leaves and sauté until the veg has softened, but not browned.  Add white wine and simmer for a few minutes, then turn the heat to low.

Change the blade in the food processor to the dough blade.  Add in the cornmeal, almond meal, butter (broken up with your fingers), rosemary, and sage.  Season with a sprinkle of s&p.  Pulse until the mixture comes together like damp, grainy sand.

Mix ¾ of the cornmeal mixture with the vegetable mixture, and pour into the baking dish.  Using a spatula or the back of a large spoon, even out the mixture.  Sprinkle the rest of the cornmeal mixture on top, and drizzle olive oil over the top (to help with browning).

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is crusty, and the inside has cooked all the way through.

Enjoy!

The view from our bedroom window.

Turkey Day Trials – Day 2

20 Nov

The countdown is in full swing – 5 days until the big day!  The biggest foodie day of the year!  The day of golden, crispy, poultry-driven naps!!  And – my favorite thing to eat at this time of year – pumpkin pie!

For the last couple of weeks I have been thinking about what traditional dishes, new dishes, and most of all, immensely flavorful dishes I can make for Thanksgiving.  I have already tried the turkey, tonight I perfected a dressing (stuffing without being stuffed – but I’ll refer to it as stuffing from here on out), and I already have plans for a brandied pear mouse trifle with gingerbread and cranberries.  The last thing I thought I would need to really perfect is the pumpkin pie – it is so easy!  Just follow the directions on the side of the can: pumpkin, spices, eggs, and evaporated milk.  Use the shortcut of frozen pre-made pie crust, and the star dessert is done without a fuss.  So I thought.

What happened to my pumpkin pie parallels what happened today while I was driving north on the 101.  We have had on and off rain and thunderstorms, but one of the coolest things about the southern Oregon coast is how quickly the weather changes.  It will be sunny one minute, and a huge gust of arctic wind will bring in a thunderhead and your bones will be soaked by sleet in a matter of minutes.

Well, as I was driving and passing Coos Bay (the actually bay) and looking up, to the right of me was sunlight and blue sky.  To the left were dark, ominous clouds.  And the road in which I was driving on was being drizzled by rain from, what seemed like, an invisible cloud.  Since physics and natural wonders work in an odd relationship to create beautiful things (kinda like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones), a giant rainbow formed.  I, like most people, have seen my share of rainbows, and the reaction is always the same: “Oh!  Look! A rainbow!  Ahhh, cool!  So, about that Obamacare…”  But this rainbow literally made my jaw drop.  First of all, it was a perfect half-circle, so bright it almost looked fake, and I could see the “end” of the rainbow (there was unfortunately no gold.  Nor any little green men running around.  Only cold bay water with some Chinook salmon).  Despite the fact that I was driving, I watched this rainbow, and it was continually changing.  The light would refract in different ways, making it lighter, dimmer, and even seem to move a bit.  I had a bit of time (relatively) to watch this rainbow dance around in it’s nature, but as quickly as it appeared, it was gone.  Being that I was driving through town, I looked at the road and looked up again only to see a rainbow fading.  Then, once again it came back.  I blinked, and it was gone.  I looked up from driving and it was back again.  Once I even caught it flickering like a French Quarter gas lamp.

Eventually, those thunderous clouds covered up the sun, blocking the light, dropping more rain, and making the fleeting moment of colorful beauty go back to just being a humble bay.

At that point, I got thoughtful and started thinking about the science behind how that rainbow appeared, flickered, and reappeared only to disappear for good.  Then, with Christmas music aptly playing in the background, I started to think about the sentimentality behind watching a rainbow disappear.  Wasn’t that sad?  It was so beautiful, and now it’s gone.  But, to be honest, it didn’t make me sad.  It just made me thank nature, fate, and science for being at the right place at the right time.  This is the season for thanks, right?

So, after my traveling today (another trip to Eugene), I came home to make pumpkin pie, stuffing, and Cardamom Shortbread Cookies.  Rob, being on duty, was awaiting a yummy dinner, so I made the stuffing extra hearty with chicken sausage to complete the meal in one dish.  The stuffing was a hit.  The combination of sourdough bread and cornbread added texture, sourness and sweetness, and the sauteing of leeks and celery perfumed the whole house.  I added some apple and white wine chicken sausage, some fresh herbs, and it was completely second serving-worthy.  The pumpkin pie, however, was a different story.

I followed the recipe exactly!  Being a true purist when it comes to pumpkin pie, I did not do anything fancy, nor put my own twist on the classic – I simply read the can!  And like the rainbow, it started out beautifully.  Within the first 15 minutes, the kitchen started to smell of cinnamon and ground cloves, and after a few peeks in the oven, I started seeing the top of the pie start to solidify and form.  But then, also like the rainbow, it started having fleeting moments – one second I thought it was done, but then I realized the middle was still liquidy.  When the top was done, the bottom wasn’t.  And just when I thought I had cooked it long enough and had made the perfect pumpkin pie, I pulled it out of the oven only to be met with a mixed emotion – it smelled right, it looked right (except for a couple of overdone brown spots), but it’s beauty disappeared within the first cut.  The pie hadn’t set at all.  It was runny, the texture was off – almost grainy, of all things – and just plain not right.  It still tasted like pumpkin pie, but the texture was obviously not what it should have been.  I started to feel defeated, then, blamed nature (baking is never easy in a moist environment!), but then realized that was ridiculous.  After that, I blamed science – the chemistry of baking is a delicate and finicky art!  But that wasn’t the reason either.  My shortcut of using a pre-made pie crust had turned into a unpaved road of disaster since I hadn’t defrosted it all the way.  The heat from the oven created steam from the bottom of the crust, which rose into the pie, and did not escape.  I wonder, did Tyler Florence ever make such a silly mistake?

Nevertheless, I still had one more desert to redeem myself – my Cardamom Shortbread Cookies.  Being a crunchy cookie fan, I have a higher butter to flour ratio than other shortbread recipes, and slightly – purposefully – overbake them.  They do not taste like overcooked cookies, but rather nutty, with the warm spiciness from the cardamom breaking through the sugary shortbread sweetness.  And the cute leaf cookie cutters also seem to add a fall flare to boot.

Try and enjoy the stuffing, and definitely have fun with the cookies.  And learn from my mistake on the simplest recipe I had tonight – nature and science matter.  Completely defrost your dough.

Northwest Stuffing (serves 4-6)

  • 3 c diced cornbread (about 1 inch pieces)
  • 3 c diced sourdough (about 1 inch pieces)
  • 2 leeks, rinsed thoroughly and chopped
  • 4 med. celery stocks, rinsed thoroughly and sliced
  • 4 links chicken, apple, white wine sausage (can find at Trader Joes, premade.  Otherwise brown 1/2 lb ground chicken, and add 1 Granny Smith apple when sauteing, deglazing with 1/4 c chardonnay)
  • 3 leaves sage, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 c low sodium chicken stock
  • 1 beaten large egg
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p
  • Butter, to line the 9 x 9 baking dish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat olive oil over med-high heat in a large saute pan.  Add leeks and celery, s&p, and saute until soft, but still has an bite (you want to keep the integrity of the veg).  Add the sausage, and heat until warmed through.  Add herbs, and taste for seasoning.  Turn off heat.

In a large bowl, combine the 2 breads, the beaten egg, chicken stock, and the veg and saute saute.  Mix very well to combine, and let the bread soak up the added liquid.  Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish.  Bake for 30 minutes until top is slightly browned and middle is soft but combined.

Serve on top of greens, squash soup, with your favorite prepared turkey, or by itself!

Enjoy!

Cardamom Shortbread Cookies

  • 2 c room temp butter
  • 1 1/2 c whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 c all purpose flour
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or a silicone baking mat.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer.  Meanwhile, combine flour, sugar, and cardamom.  Add vanilla extract to the butter sugar mixture, and then add the dry ingredients 1/3 at a time.  When dough comes together, turn out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a disk.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes (if you wanted to freeze the dough, now is the time to do so).

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until the disk is 1/8 inch in thickness.  Using whatever cutter you prefer, cut out cookies.  Re-form and re-roll dough to make more cookies out of the initial scraps.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until browned on top and crispy on the bottom.  Let cool.

Enjoy!

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