11 Holiday Cooking Tips I Wish I Knew Sooner

I feel like there should be blurring or black bars for this shot.

I feel obligated to share that I’m eating cold, left-over pizza as I write this. The leftovers are all gone from Thanksgiving. A few weeks ago I started planning what new things I’d try this year. For fellow home chefs, holidays are the day we have been training for: making stocks, timing multiple dishes to finish at the same time, drinking enough to keep up with/tolerate the relatives, and avoid spilling anything on yourself thereby making others question your competency. This year’s turkey day served as a warm-up for Christmas.

The shopping and prep work started a week ago. I hit 5 stores to get all the ingredients. Since I don’t believe in making lists, instead, relying on my faulty memory, where was I going with this…Ah! Yes. Shopping. All told the meal cost about $60-75, which is lower than normal for my family.

Onto the cooking stories and lessons, lest I bury the lede any deeper. Here are the things I wish I knew before embarking on today’s feast. These are now useless until next year. You’re welcome for my planning ahead to help you.

A. Don’t apologize. However things turned out is how they were meant to be. Embrace it. Learn from your missteps, and do better next time. Enjoy the people you’re with and the time you have together. In the end, that’s all that matters. Not that you brined, smoked, and photographed a trollop of a bird, made mashed potatoes of the perfect texture, constructed gravy that would make grandmothers weep.

2. Make-ahead stock. Purchase turkey wings. Roast those with halved onions, roughly chopped celery, some salt and pepper for 45 minutes at 400 degrees. Flipping 20-25 minutes in. Then de-glaze the pan with 2 cups of water. Once you have gotten most of the bits off the bottom, add 10 more cups of water. Simmer the wings/bones/aromatics for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Upside: this is mostly a passive activity and beats store-bought stock which is loaded with sodium.

D. Salt your food. I usually omit this step and rely on salting dishes individually. This bothers me largely due to watching cooking shows where chefs lambaste contestants  for not seasoning their dishes. All the dishes I made today needed salt. Otherwise the flavors were balanced. So, as a reminder, salt your food.

4. Delegate photo duties to someone you trust. When handling raw turkey and most meat, you don’t want to be spreading those bacteria to your phone. I had my sister take a few of the pics as I manhandled the bird on the grill. In retrospect, I should have discussed my preferred angles and framing.

5. Mashed Potatoes as God intended.  Heat milk/cream and half a stick of butter. I always used to add them cold to the hot potatoes. When you heat the fats, it makes for a much creamier end result.

6. You can’t eat all day, if you don’t eat breakfast. I had 2. My usual cereal upon opening my eyes. Then I made hash browns with my sister. Homemade hash browns. Added that with bacon, poblano, onion and cheddar for a frittata/omelette.

7. Post and post often. Your friends won’t invite you to friendsgiving if you don’t fill their feeds with food instead of kind notes about how thankful you are. By constantly posting, you’re screaming to the world that you have better food than they do. And that you need attention. But I prefer the former justification.

8. If you aren’t getting the necessary compliments on social media, take the direct approach. Text friends extreme close-ups of the bird or crudites. Possibly calling them, then rushing off the phone. “Gotta go check on my turkey smoking on the grill.” If possible, use a hashtag during the call. The more incoherent the better. I suggest #nevergohungry

9. Try something new. Every year I change something. Some of the changes are small. Some are new dishes. A few years ago, I started making stuffin muffins. Now, largely because of the hype I’ve created, all my friends request I bring in leftovers on Monday. This year saw two changes. First, was smoking the bird, which freed up the oven for other dishes, and was one less pan to wash. The second modification was a second gravy. I roasted poblano peppers after the turkey was done, then blended them with 2-3 cups of my finished gravy.

10. Find someone to wash dishes. Based on my straw poll, very few people like doing dishes. I’d consider marrying someone solely for their willingness to always wash dishes.

11. Embrace tradition. Maybe yours is guessing which relative will become uncomfortably intoxicated. Who will disappear before the dishes are done? If you don’t have any, create some! My family always watches Home Alone. This year I fell asleep sitting upright. No apologies.

 

Yes, and… A Guide to Improvising Dinner

 

SCENE: You have worked through lunch and feasted on feelings. The last hour was a struggle. You are running on fumes. After looking at BuzzFeed food articles you started making a list of what food each co-worker resembles.

Now you’re on your way home…in a rocket car… and decide to stay strong. No fast food for you. Because you’re in a rocket car.

After tuck-and-rolling out of the rocket car, you get back to your kitchen. Magically, groceries are not only in your fridge, but they are also still fresh.

In an ideal world, the dinner would be waiting for you on the table. If one of these women I have met would support me in the lifestyle i’m accustomed, this would be their reality. Some day…

Cooking and improv are two of my favorite things. Perhaps the improvisational elements of cooking are part of the allure. The other is sharing food with people also leads to sharing stories.

Last night’s supper was a mish-mosh (culinary term) of ingredients I had. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a good cook is the ability to combine flavors. Italian food tends to have some core ingredients and herbs: garlic, tomatoes, onions, cheese, basil. Mexican cuisine tends to rely on some of the same ingredients, but more cumin and peppers.

The great chefs tend to embark on their own path of flavors and herbs; pairing unconventional items.

One of the worst dishes I ever made was a stuffed pork chop. It looked good, but I deviated from the recipe because I didn’t have all the ingredients. It had apples inside. They were cut too big and subsequently didn’t cook. Did I still eat it? Of course. I spent good money on those pork chops and I was in college. Leave no meal behind!

With experience you’ll learn which vegetables and herbs/spices to add to dishes. When in doubt, experiment. I followed recipes for a while to get an idea of what goes well together. Eventually, you’ll start asking yourself “and what else can I put in this?” Once that happens, your next step will be to the psychologist’s office. When talking to yourself, it’s best to do in public, especially on public transit.

Pesto, Pronto

I bought a jar of pesto sauce. Huge helper, especially when everything has died in the tundra that is Chicago.

Remove the sausage from the casing and saute the Italian sausage for 4-5 minutes.

Add chopped bell pepper, onion, garlic, mushrooms. Then I ripped some kale and tossed that in. Get your vitamins! The sausage has to cook for 10-15 minutes. Removing it from the casing makes it cook faster. Meanwhile, I had pasta water coming to a boil in a separate pot.

From there, cook the pasta, drain, add sauce. Then add in the sausage and veggies mix. Shave or sprinkle some cheese on top.

Photograph and post on all the cougar dating sites. Wait for your phone to start lighting up like a [your joke here].

Wanna See My Sausage?

basil, sausage, zucchini, tomato, dinner, summer, mushroom
Opting to skip the gym last night, I spent my evening dirtying most of the pots I own reinterpreting the Italian classic: sausage and peppers.

I had hot Italian sausage from my favorite Italian deli. It would be an insult to my ancestors to let that go to waste. So, I surveyed the fridge and pantry pulling orzo, an onion, a poblano pepper, zucchini and some cherry tomatoes. That’s all it took for this weeknight masterpiece. Continue reading Wanna See My Sausage?