Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkey and gravy

So look. The things people express the most fear and bewilderment about, when it comes to big roasted dinners, is the bird and the gravy. It doesn’t really even matter very much if your turkey is a little dry, if you make gravy that’s a religious experience. And you can DO that.

This is dead easy, folks. Stop thinking about it as some sort of dark culinary magic, and just think about that roasting that turkey like you were a baking really big chicken.

You got this.

Let go of the brining, basting, smoking, deep-frying fads, and just drop your oven rack to the bottom shelf. Preheat to 500 degrees, Fahrenheit.

If your bird is still frozen solid, send someone out for a few bottles of holiday cheer, and stick it in a bathtub full of hot water. I can’t help you until it's thawed enough to pull the giblets bag out of the cavity.

Assuming it’s actually NOT still frozen, prep your bird by massaging butter and the herbs of your choice all over it, on top of the skin and beneath it, and stuff the cavity loosely with quartered apples, oranges, onions, sage, and rosemary. Use real butter. It tastes better. And it’s French. It’s fashionable to be French, again. Pop the bird into that 500 degree oven. Wait a half hour. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees, and relax. Speaking of the Europeans, have a little Irish Whiskey in your morning coffee, with a splat of whipped cream. I'm a big fan of Jameson's Black Barrel. But hey, use the tipple of your choice. A dollop of rum or Bailey's Irish Cream isn't bad, either. Don’t drizzle creme de menthe on top, though, because that's just nasty. Now that the bird is in the oven, dump a quart or two of low-sodium chicken or turkey broth into a two-or-three quart saucepan, and toss in the giblets from that little paper bag that was inside the bird, too. What? You didn’t find a little paper bag inside your bird? QUICK! Pull that bird back out of the oven and check the big flap of skin over the neck area. It’s there, somewhere. It’s gotten weirdly fashionable for producers to hide the giblets, in recent years. Consider it a challenge.

Toss the giblets — all of ’em — into the pan of stock, put it to simmer on medium-low, and forget about it for a while. You're using low-sodium because you're going to let it simmer until it's about half or even less of its original volume. This concentrates the flavors. If you’re bored, rough-chop a stalk or three of celery and an onion, and throw those into the pan, too.

Have a little more coffee. Add another splash of whiskey. You deserve it. Everyone else is watching the Macy’s Day parade on TV, and making churlish noises about breakfast. Let 'em wait. You're Cooking the Turkey. Work it for a little extra mileage, whenever you can. Your turkey is going to need approximately 20 minutes per pound, at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Don’t screw around with the oven, that just dries things out and makes the whole process take longer.

Your stock and chopped veg and giblets are all reduced down to half or less of their original volume? Terrific! When you remove the bird from the oven to let it rest for 20 minutes (tented with heavy-duty foil, so it doesn't get cold) while you frantically get everything else ready to serve, strain that delicious reduced stock then pour it into the turkey pan over medium heat, and stir -- this is to deglaze all the delicious bird drippings and preserve their yummy essence in your gravy.

Pour the whole mess back into a pan you can deal with, and bring it to just under a boil. Have a glass of wine. You've earned it.

This is the point where a lot of people will tell you to make a slurry out of flour and water.

Don’t do that.

Use three or four tablespoons of corn starch, instead of flour, in that slurry. It's not nearly as prone to lumping, and doesn't have that weird raw-flour taste, if you mess up.  Call a dependable kid who is old enough to have health insurance into the kitchen to help. Have the kid use a wire whisk to keep the reduced stock and drippings moving constantly, while you add the corn-starch slurry a bit at a time, waiting to see how it thickens, until your gravy is the desired consistency.

Presto. Terrific bird, amazing gravy. That’s what counts the most — no one ever raves about the sweet potatoes or the green beans, right?

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. May it be a day of festivity, brightness, and laughter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Soda Bread

Wheat Arán Sóide
Image Credit: Heather "Moria"
Irish Soda Bread, or Arán Sóide, is named after it's primary leavening ingredient, baking soda (bicarbonate of soda). In other words, it's a quick bread, one that doesn't depend on yeast to rise. Irish Soda Bread is as common on Irish tables, whether at home or at the local, as corn bread and biscuits (also traditionally made with baking soda as a leavening ingredient) are in the American South. Historically speaking, however, soda bread may have originated outside of Ireland, but it was very quickly popularized there in the 1800s. It was popular in the U.S. because as a leavening agent baking soda was readily portable and simple to use as the American West expansion meant wagon trains, campfire cooking, and sod houses.

Soda bread is very easy to make, super quick and a fun recipe to make with kids because it's simple and doesn't require hours of waiting as yeast based breads do. The basic ingredients of soda bread are flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The buttermilk is absolutely crucial in terms of the leavening chemistry between baking soda and the the acid in the milk, and the flavor. If you don't have buttermilk, you can make an ok substitute by adding a little lemon juice or vinegar to regular milk.

Don't mix, handle or knead soda bread dough past the point of being mixed. If you over-knead or over-handle your soda bread, it will be tough, unpleasant and even flat. Soda bread is also traditionally a hand-shaped loaf, rather than one cooked in a loaf pan. Bake your soda bread in a greased cast iron pan with a lid or a cast iron dutch oven (much the best way!) or as a flat roundish loaf on a cookie sheet that you've greased and sprinkled with corn meal (you can cover the round loaf with a cake pan during the first stage of cooking). If you don't have a cast iron pot or pan with a lid, you're missing out on one of the most useful pieces of cooking equipment ever.

Soda bread is best enjoyed when it's fresh from the oven, or toasted for breakfast the next day. This is not a time to be frugal with butter; good fresh butter makes this amazing bread even better—but having said that, it's also startlingly good with high quality olive oil.

In parts of Ireland, notably Ulster, the same basic bread is quartered before cooking, and cooked on a griddle or skillet. Prepared this way, it's called farls, ostensibly derived from the Irish word fardel, or "fourths."

If you add raisins or even caraway seeds, it's not traditional soda bread; it's Spotted Dog, a sweet bread, or in Irish, báirín breac, "speckled bread," cognate with the traditional name for Welsh sweet bread or "tea loaf" made with raisins, spices, and tea, bara brith.

I have been known to stray beyond the basic additives of caraway seeds and raisins, and added dried tomatoes (soak them for a few minutes in warm water, then drain and chop, or microwave them in a mostly covered dish with a few tablespoons of water to steam and soften them), dried cranberries (I highly recommend the orange-infused cranberries), and grated lemon or orange rind.

Make two loaves, pull one out of the oven just before it's perfect, cool it, and freeze it for later.

Irish Soda Bread (via The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread)

  • 4 cups (16 oz) of all purpose flour.
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 14 oz of buttermilk (or 14 ounces of sour milk)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees. Lightly oil and flour a cast iron pan with a lid (or a dutch oven).
  2. Combine all the dry ingredients; sifting won't hurt but it isn't required.
  3. Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough. Place on floured surface and lightly knead. Knead just until the dough is shapeable; do not over mix or over knead.
  4. Shape into a round flat loaf. Cut a cross in the top of the dough (drag the knife part way through, don't cut all the way).
  5. Cover the pan with the lid and bake for 30 minutes.
  6. Remove the lid and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
  7. The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped, if it is done.
  8. Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread moist.

You can sour the milk by adding two tablespoons or so of lemon juice or vinegar. to the milk and letting it sit for a few minutes. It will thicken and become bubbly. The sour milk or buttermilk are crucial because, in conjunction with the soda, they act as leavening agents and cause the bread to rise.