How to do Thanksgiving right

This year we got super lazy and did not brine our turkey, did not lay in fresh cranberries, and most of all did not make elaborate social plans. Yet as the day dawns bright and snowy I have no doubt the meal (served around 5 pm) will be great. I think it’s the size of the bird more than any other factor that intimidates some folks. But Thanksgiving really is a straightforward meal that can be a lot of fun, especially if several people work on it together.

I have never done a post on how I cook my turkey. It’s always stuffed, usually brined, and roasted at moderate heat with a paper towel soaked in butter or olive oil covering the breast till the last hour so it doesn’t overcook. (Here’s a good reference article on the best way to cook brined and unbrined turkey from

On Burnt My Fingers you will find a simple but very reliable recipe for stuffing, an elaborate taste test of cranberry sauce (fresh is best and very easy, following the instructions on the package), and a reminder to pick up a jar of Durkee’s Famous Sauce for your leftovers tomorrow. You might get adventurous with Tomatillo Jam (served instead of, or in addition to, the cranberry sauce) and maybe some Squash Casserole. Dress your salad with my Skinny Vinaigrette combined with some good olive oil and save a portion to serve, nice and wilted, on your sandwich tomorrow. Have a good day, and don’t eat too much.

Just kidding about that last part.

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Recipe: Tomatillo Jam

Tomatillo Jam

Tomatillo Jam

Try this instead of cranberry sauce with turkey… especially smoked turkey. It has the same balance of tart/sweet and the crunch of fruit, but with a southwestern lilt and a bit of heat. Makes 1 pint.

1 lb tomatillos or a little more, husked and washed and coarsely chopped
1 ½ c sugar (or maybe a little less… start with 1 1/4 c then add more at the end if you need it)
rind of 1 lime, finely chopped
4 T lime juice
½ jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
¼ t salt

Method: combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring up to medium heat slowly and stir until sugar is melted/dissolved. You may need to add a bit of water. Cook the now-liquid mix for 30-45 minutes until tomatillos are soft and the tastes have combined. Cool; it should set up at room temperature but if not bring back to heat and boil down a bit. Transfer to serving bowl and serve cool or lukewarm with turkey, pork or to dab on crackers. You can also can it, or keep it for several weeks in the refrigerator.

Tomatillo Jam

Page, tell me this this isn’t the purtiest jam you’ve ever seen…

This recipe was inspired by my artist friend Page, who Facebooked that my chile verde looked like frog road kill. I knew I would was going to see her at a Thanksgiving potluck and wanted to lie in wait. She gamely tried it and said it was good (it’s more than that) though I don’t think she complimented me on the appearance.

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Baking Hamelman’s 80% rye “Affidavit Bread”

Affidavit Bread

I divided this big 80% rye loaf in the middle… some for me, some to give away

The other day I baked up a wonderful pullman loaf of 80% whole rye that’s perfect for serving with smoked salmon or some of the nice Brooklyn whitefish salad I had left over from a party last weekend. With a fairly open crumb it’s not too dense for sandwiches, either.

I baked it on Sunday and am just now (on Thursday) appreciating the full flavor. We made this when I was in Jeffrey Hamelman’s sourdough rye class but I had not tried it again because I was enamored of rye berries, cracked rye and other add-ins that go into the mix along with seeds to make a dense “corn” rye. Now that I’ve tried this, I like it better and it will be my go-to loaf whenever I want a heavy rye.

The recipe (as usual when I talk about Hamelman’s breads, I will not spell it out because I want you to buy the book) utilizes a number of tricks to bring out the rye flavor including a preferment that’s almost 1/3 of the total weight, a rye flour soaker, lots of yeast (so it’s not too overly dense), and 20% high-gluten flour to provide some structure for the very slack, mortar-like dough.

8% rye crumb shot

Crumb is surprisingly open for such a dense loaf

I lined a Pullman pan with parchment paper and covered it with aluminum foil for the first 20 minutes at high heat, then cooked it another 1 ¼ hour at 410 degrees after taking off the foil. (As I’ve mentioned recently, I now check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer and make sure it’s close to 210 degrees so I don’t under bake.) I could tell I had a winner as soon as I pulled out of the oven and could not resist a first taste way too soon, after it had cooled a couple of hours. If you like nutty rye flavor, this is your loaf.

My notes from the class call this “Affidavit Bread” without further explanation. If any readers know what this means, please let me know. Maybe a baker cooks this as proof they know what they’re doing. Or maybe you deposit a loaf, instead of your drivers license, as security when you’re renting a bowling lane. It’s that valuable, for sure.

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The cure for watery steak

Sliced aged CAB sirloin

That’s juice, not water, gushing out of this splendid aged sirloin

I have been reading Steak by Mark Schatzker, in which the author searches the world for the world’s tastiest piece of beef. It is a quest I will admire, but not join, because I believe you should not have to venture further than your own fry pan or Weber grill provided you have good meat and know how to cook it. I am adventurous about most foods, but eating out steak is expensive and I rarely feel the result is up to what I can easily make at home.

One frustration of this author made me curious: his frequent encounters with “watery” meat. A search of the web finds many others who share this problem. There are really only two reasons a steak might taste watery–which we’ll interpret as having thin, tasteless juices–and both are easy to fix.

The first scenario is that you may not have seared the meat sufficiently to cauterize the surface and seal in what’s inside. This can happen if your heat isn’t high enough, or if you don’t dry the meat with a paper towel before it goes on the fire. Especially dangerous are marinades (which usually are for less tender cuts, so you’re behind the 8 ball to begin with) that saturate the flesh to the point it can’t easily be dried enough to create a crispy outside skin. If you must grill a marinated steak (instead of dusting it with seasoned flour and pan-frying it) dry very thoroughly and brush with some olive oil which will keep the juices inside until the skin comes up to temperature.

The second possibility is that you served it too soon, immediately off the grill, instead of letting it rest. It only takes a minute for the juices to coalesce and the blood and fat and seasonings to combine to create the wonder that is a flavorful steak, but if you don’t wait that minute the too-liquid juices will flow out on your plate. In a steakhouse, the brief time as it journeys from grill to the station where it waits for the server is sufficient. Give it the same moment of rest at home, and say goodbye to watery steak.

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Recipe: Mexican Pork Stew with Tomatillos

Pork Tomatillo Stew

Mexican pork stew with tomatillo

This is also called “chile verde”. The proportions are approximate and very forgiving as long as you have ample tomatillos (Mexican green tomatoes) for texture and tartness. Serves 6 as a main dish, or more if used as taco or burrito filling.

2 lb pork stew meat (shoulder is ideal) chopped into 1 inch cubes, along with any bones that come with the meat
Flour, salt and pepper for dredging
1 T olive or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 t cumin seed or 1/2 t ground cumin
1 t dried oregano
1/2 c chicken stock
2 lb tomatillos, chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 jalapeño pepper, chopped fine
1 green bell pepper (or equivalent amount of mild green chile), coarsely chopped
Additional salt to taste

Method: dredge the pork in flour which has been seasoned with salt and pepper and saute in oil in a large saucepan, turning frequently until all sides are crisp and brown. Remove to a plate; add onion and saute till translucent. Add oregano and cumin and fry briefly until aromatic. Return pork to pan and add chicken stock; cover and cook over very low heat 2 hours or longer until very tender. Cook the bones along with the meat; add water as needed when the dish becomes dry. Remove bones and scrape the meat off into the pot; add tomatillos and peppers and cook 1 more hour or until tomatillos are falling apart but still identifiable in the stew (I like to hold a few back and put them in toward the end). Taste and add salt if needed before serving. I like to serve it over rice with chopped onion, cilantro and chili and a slice of lime. The stew is better if reheated the next day.

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What to do with tomatillos (Mexican green tomatoes)

Tomatillo kababs

Tomatillo kebabs

Tomatillos, also known as Mexican green tomatoes, are actually a relative of the gooseberry which grows fruit covered with a similar papery husk. But they behave very much like tomatoes in recipes while adding a tartness all their own. Another way they’re like tomatoes: last year’s crop will produce volunteer plants all over your garden, which is why I’ve been experimenting with the end of season gleanings over the past few weeks. Tomatillos are ready when they’re just beginning to yield to a squeeze instead of being hard as rocks. The husk is easy to remove (which you have to do before using) and keeps the fruit clean inside, even when they’ve spent a few days on the ground after most of the crop has been picked and the plants broken down.

My very favorite thing to do with tomatillos is to broil them on a skewer as part of a Middle Eastern-style mixed grill or shish kabab. Unlike tomatoes, they’ll stand up to high heat but then they wither appealingly on the plate for a flavor and taste counterpoint to the red or green peppers and sweet onions I also like to use. Tomatillos pair up well with pork in a Mexican chile verde stew, and I’d be willing to substitute then for tomatoes in most any savory slow-cooked dish. They’re firm when uncooked, but soon soften and break down just as tomatoes do.

And then of course there’s green salsa for chip-dipping and pouring on tacos and burritos. Diana Kennedy, my favorite Mexican cookbook author, has both cooked and uncooked green salsa recipes, each worth a try. I’ll be sharing some of these preps over the next few days, but grilled tomatillos on a skewer don’t need a recipe (other than letting them macerate a few minutes in the marinade you’ve used for other ingredients). Go ahead and make that tonight.

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Coping with climate change at Terra Firma Farm

Terra Firma Strawberries

The best tasting strawberries ever, picked a few minutes previous at Terra Firma Farm

If you grow vegetables in your garden and are never sure what you’re going to get, you can sympathize with the guys at Terra Firma Farm. They’re the grandpappy of California organic farms, started in the late 1980s on land which had been pesticide-free for 20 years before that. One of their first customers was Chez Panisse, and they were the first to make a CSA (community supported agriculture) delivery in San Francisco.


Tour guide Pablito

And yet Terra Firma has to deal with unpredictability just like everyone else. It has barely rained in two years in Winters, CA where the farm is located, on the edge of the Central Valley between San Francisco and Sacramento. The water table has fallen from 50 to 80 feet during that time. Terra Firma is fortunate because 80% of its water comes from Putah Creek, a tributary of Lake Berryessa, a reservoir that does not connect to the larger state water system. But the declining water table might have been evidenced in a dying walnut grove just inside the main entrance.

kale inspector

Kale quality control inspector at work

We were there for the annual Farm Day, which welcomed friends who were mostly CSA members with a technical bent. Pablito, one of three partners, took us on a tour and explained where the vegetables and fruit come from. A recent success is the cross planting of cilantro rows among kale; the cilantro attracts a hover bee that lays its eggs in aphids, which attack the kale. But these measures work for a while, then stop working for unknown reasons.

The much dryer and warmer weather has created its own set of new problems. The Bagrada bug, a fast-reproducing stinkbug that recently emigrated from Africa, ruined 10% of the kale crop this fall. It thrives on warm, dry weather which is these days the only kind they currently have.

Double rainbow at Terra Firma Farm

We ended Farm Day with an auspicious double rainbow.

One flashpoint is the delicious strawberries: a CSA member asked why they are still growing these thirsty plants in light of the drought. The answer is that they’re the most popular crop along with tomatoes; in past years the CSA would lose 20% of its customers prior to the first tomato crop and they’ve ended that slide with strawberries. So economic reality trumps ecological concerns, at least this time.

I will tell you that these strawberries, gleaned at the peak of ripeness when they were far too tender to ship, were the sweetest and most delicious I have ever tasted. The endless rows of kale (we’re near San Francisco, remember) and ground crops like carrots and potatoes looked as fine and fat as they could be. The land is enriched with many generations of legumes which have been plowed under, organic compost from nearby wineries including the must of wine grapes, and the leavings of sheep who aerate the ground and chop up the ground cover while providing some delicious lamburger sliders. And yet farming here is a process of hope and discovery and keeping fingers crossed, much as it must have been for the ancient Babylonians.

Cherish your food. And for god’s sake, eat your vegetables.

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Recipe: Bacon Croutons

Bacon Croutons

Mmm… bacon croutons

Got a problem with that? The key is to use very dry cubes of bread so they become glazed with the oil rather than sopping it up. Dedicated to my college girlfriend Nerissa who used to feed me fried bread (she was from the UK).

4 c bread cubes, approx. 3/4 inch square, very dry (let them sit on the counter for a couple of days, or dry in the oven at low heat)
2 T bacon grease
2 T olive oil
1 t granulated garlic, or 2 cloves very finely chopped fresh garlic

Method: heat the oils in a large skillet to medium but below the smoking point. If using fresh garlic, dump it in and saute briefly till it starts to release aroma. Add bread crumbs and toast 5 minutes, tossing frequently. If using granulated garlic add it now and toss to coat the cubes. Use within a day or two, or save up to a week in the refrigerator.

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Recipe: Salat Maloof (Egyptian Cole Slaw)

Egyptian Cole Slaw

Egyptian Cole Slaw

There were a lot of Egyptians in Dallas when I was growing up, and the technique for the garlic makes me think this might have been the inspiration for Vincent’s Garlic Slaw. It has a mild, refreshing taste that pairs nicely with Middle Eastern entrees–or, maybe some barbecue. Adapted from Middle Eastern Cooking – Foods Of The World. Serves 8.

1 small head cabbage, coarsely chopped (about 4 c)
1 small clove garlic
½ t Kosher salt
¼ c lemon juice
¼ c olive oil
2 T fresh mint leaves, chiffonade, or 1 T dried mint, crumbled
¼ c pomegranate seeds

Method: finely chop the garlic and then mash it into the salt, using the side of the knife blade, till the mixture becomes a paste. Place in the bottom of a serving bowl, add lemon juice and olive oil and mix thoroughly. Add chopped cabbage and toss to mix. You can serve immediately, but it’s better if it sits an hour or so. Sprinkle shredded mint leaves and pomegranate seeds on top before serving.

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Recipe: Armenian Pilaf

Armenian pilaf in its cooking pot

Armenian pilaf in its cooking pot

The browned spaghetti adds a bit of texture and flavor to standard pilaf. My ex-wife learned this from her next door Armenian neighbor and I was surprised to find it’s a popular dish on the internet. Serves 8-10.

½ c dried spaghetti, vermicelli, angel hair or other stick pasta, broken into 1 inch pieces
1 ½ T butter
1 ½ T olive oil
2 c basmanti or other long grain rice
1 c chopped onion
3 c chicken stock
1-2 t Kosher salt or to taste

Method: heat a dry saucepan to medium and add pasta; roast 5 minutes or so, tossing the pan frequently to turn pasta, until it starts to turn a golden brown. Do not let it burn. Remove the pasta to a plate and add butter and oil to the pan. Saute the onion till translucent then add rice and sauté a few minutes more. Add stock and 1 t salt and bring to boil; taste and add more salt if needed. Cover and simmer on very low heat 20 minutes, then turn off heat without peeking and rest 20 minutes. Fluff with a spoon before serving; rice should have completely absorbed all liquid.

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