Home sweet home

Have spent the past few days reacclimating to the old homestead, and fighting off a pesky cold/flu bug that’s infiltrated my sinuses. Funny that we’ve been on the go in Europe for three weeks, out and about in cold rainy weather, navigating transatlantic flights, and when do I get sick? Only after I get back to the comfort and safety of my own home. Hmph.

I’m delighted to be back in my own kitchen and working again with my own knives, utensils and pots/pans; stocking groceries in my own roomy stainless steel fridge; and sitting down to eat at my own massive dining table. Needing a culinary break from continental fare, the first few meals I made this week were as decidedly anti-French/Italian/German as I could think up — chicken curry with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, Asian crusted tilapia with Thai peanut noodles (thanks for the recipe, Gillian!), and fluffy chocolate chip buttermilk pancakes. We did break down and order a quattro formaggio from Bazbeaux one night when I didn’t feel up to cooking, but American pizza is really nothing like true Italian pizza anyway.

Yesterday was the granddaddy of all American meals, the most comfortable of all comfort foods — Thanksgiving dinner. My family was sort of scattered to the winds this year and since my closest unit members and I are still recovering from our trip (did I mention I’ve been up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day this week?), we decided to play it very low key. Fortunately, our lovely friends/neighbors down the street invited us over. I was all prepared to cook a turkey breast with some scaled-down fixings at home, but feeling as under the weather as I do, was secretly thrilled not to for once.

Thanksgiving is always a bittersweet holiday for me, resurrecting memories of all the years I spent alongside my mom in the kitchen as she prepared a huge spread of her tried-and-true classics. Always the same stuffing recipe, always the scalloped corn casserole, always the cranberry ice that made my teeth ache. I was living in Los Angeles the last Thanksgiving my mom was alive, and it was the first year I didn’t make it home for the holiday. After a very nice dinner at my Uncle Dave’s house in Camarillo just northwest of L.A., I remember stealing a few moments to myself in a darkened bedroom to cry, somehow knowing that the unquestionable family tradition I’d enjoyed for 31 years was changing and would never be the same again.

And it hasn’t. The year my mom died, we went out to eat for Thanksgiving for the first time ever. It felt like a sacrilege, but the thought of even attempting to recreate her traditions in her kitchen without her there was more than I could bear. I don’t remember much about our dinner that year, other than the food seemed bland and tasteless and there was a gaping hole at the table where my mom should have been.

That was eight years ago. Time does heal wounds, but never eliminates them entirely. I’ll always think of my mom on Thanksgiving day, bustling around the kitchen like a fearless conductor of her own culinary symphony. I have cooked my own Thanksgiving dinners since then. One year, the “fresh” turkey I’d purchased the night before turned out to be completely frozen solid in the middle when I went to put it in the oven. Certain side dishes have met with varying degrees of success. I’ve learned some valuable trial-and-error lessons along the way. I know some people get totally flustered about the idea of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but at this point, preparing the big meal doesn’t freak me out. I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to turkey day, so I usually try to serve a combination of old favorites and maybe one or two new recipes thrown in to keep things fresh.

This year, though, Ron and Janet saved me the trouble, bless them. Their spread was a fabulous collection of all the best stuff — perfectly roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with yummy melty marshmallows on top, green bean casserole (which I always vow needs to be made much more often than just once a year), and a savory wild rice with mushrooms. As Janet so accurately summed up, Thanksgiving is all about the starches. True dat! I contributed a stuffing I made with apples, onions, celery, sage and rosemary (hubby already said he wasn’t going to eat any, so I made it to please myself!); and a bowl of vanilla orange cranberry sauce. All in all, it was a delicious and satisfying dinner shared with good friends. What more could a person ask for? I was truly thankful.

By the way, best use of Thanksgiving leftovers in my book? White meat turkey sandwich on white bread with Miracle Whip, a layer of stuffing and some cranberry sauce. Followed up by a piece of pumpkin pie doused with Cool Whip. Yeah, baby. Now you’re talking.

My thoughts are already turning ahead to the holidays. So many recipes, so little time. I’m already mentally running through lists of cookies I want to make, roasts I can put in the crockpot on the cold nights ahead, my mom’s brandy slush recipe, and a slew of seasonal side dishes. Every year, I have big plans to invite friends over for dinners, a cookie swap, maybe a brunch, and before I know it, Christmas has come and gone. I vow this year not to get so wrapped up in the shopping and stresses of the holiday season that I forget to just relax and spend some time with the people I care about. Spontaneous stolen moments are way better than no moments at all.

Today, we hope to venture out to get our Christmas tree while my adorable stepson is here to help decorate. Perhaps we’ll even follow up our tree-decorating efforts with some cookies and homemade hot chocolate… ah. I know many people loathe the long, cold winter, but I look at it as an opportunity to cuddle up with the ones you love and enjoy a bunch of heart- and tummy-warming dishes that don’t taste nearly as good any other time of year.

To that end… my nose is running again. I think it’s time for a cup of tea and my favorite afghan. Don’t forget to count your blessings.

The Thanksgiving that almost wasn't

I don’t know if it’s just the travel whiplash catching up with me or what, but I was not in a very Thanksgiving kinda mood last week. I didn’t want to cook a big dinner, I didn’t really want to do anything, just wasn’t feeling it.

Thanksgiving is always a melancholy time for me anyway, as I can’t help but think of years past and playing sous chef to my mother while she organized a huge spread. She’s been gone for seven years now, but as each Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself missing her more keenly than at many other times of year.

Being a native of Ireland, hubby wasn’t raised on Thanksgiving. The holiday doesn’t mean anything to him, and since he never really gets time alone to himself when he’s home, I decided to take the toddler and head over to my dad’s for a few days. Figured he’d appreciate a little time to putter around the house in peace, ride his motorcycle, booze it up with his pals, that sort of thing. And he did.

Wednesday afternoon, it was into the car and down the I-70, to grandpa’s house we went. Traditionally, my family always eats Thanksgiving dinner mid-afternoon, so we scoped out some restaurants that were likely to be serving and went to bed. Preoccupied with deer hunting, Dad didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest about where we ate, what, or when.

However… always a sucker for a bargain, Thanksgiving morning dawned and the first thing my dad says is “I wonder if Kroger’s marked down their turkeys today.” Hm. I immediately sensed a change in the weather.

The more I thought about it, dining out mid-afternoon with a toddler was a little like playing Russian roulette. There were no guarantees he would sit peacefully in his high chair, it would be solidly between meals for him, and he might possibly still be napping (or needing to) around the time we’d planned to eat. I caved, we all loaded into the car and took off for Kroger.

The grocery was surprisingly busy for Thanksgiving morning. Lo and behold, we found a dozen or so fresh turkeys (and a whole shedload of frozen ones), not terribly marked down, but discounted enough to make them enticing. An 11-pounder was more than enough for me, my dad and my aunt. Some sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, stuffing, rolls and we were all set. Dad even had a couple of $5 off coupons, bringing our grand total to $17. Not bad, and less than we would have spent dining out, for sure.

As usual, I took over the kitchen once we got home. I think Dad was sort of counting on this. If I’d left him to cook the meal, we’d still be waiting to eat. I hadn’t planned on cooking at all, so I just worked at a leisurely pace and didn’t knock myself out. In fact, I’ve spent way more effort on some catering jobs than I did on this year’s meal. But, for three people, it was plenty.

Cooking a big meal at my dad’s house can be something of a challenge. His stove isn’t terribly old, but it’s temperamental. For instance, if you try to use more than one burner at a time while the oven’s on, it blows a fuse and the whole thing switches off. This can’t be a good thing, and dad always promises to have it looked into, but never does. And the burners are electric and VERY touchy. You have to crank them up to high to get them heated up, then turn them back down at a very precise moment before whatever you’re cooking scorches. It takes a certain amount of finesse, but I’ve learned to adapt. Most of my meal baked or roasted in the oven anyway, so I just cooked what needed to be cooked in turn on one big burner and all was fine.

The turkey roasted beautifully (coated with butter, thyme and a little Lawry’s seasoned salt), despite of the very interior still being frozen when I opened the package. Why, oh why, do groceries sell “fresh” turkeys that are actually still frozen?? I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I bought a bird that was CLEARLY labeled “fresh” on the packaging and located in the fresh bin at the supermarket. I took it out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning to put it in the oven and found it solid as a rock just under the surface. After a few unsuccessful thaw cycles in the microwave, I got so pissed, I threw the whole thing in the trash. Which was a dumb move in retrospect when I could have just let it finish thawing and cooked it a day or two later, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The only hiccup with this year’s meal was the stuffing. I always make my mom’s stuffing recipe, the one I was raised with and watched her make year after year until it became ingrained in my cellular makeup.

Here’s the skinny – tear up several bags of (preferably slightly stale) bread into small pieces and place them all into a bowl. Saute a little celery and onion in oil until translucent and add it to the party. Spoon in the turkey jus collected in the bottom of your roasting pan, along with a little water if needed, to moisten. Add salt, pepper and dried sage. Spread the whole wet concoction into a baking pan and throw it in the oven for about 30 minutes until crusty on top.

I’ve changed the recipe slightly over the years. Sometimes I use store-bought stuffing croutons, sometimes I add diced apple or pecans, but it’s always the same basic plan of attack. Today, as it was a smaller than average crowd and I was making things easy for myself, I used a store-bought sage-and-onion stuffing mix. However, once I’d already sautéed the veggies and added as much turkey juice as I could from the pan, I still needed more liquid. I opened a can of chicken stock and poured it in. Once I started stirring, I realized something wasn’t right.

An odd, fishy sort of odor wafted up to me from my stuffing. Upon closer inspection, I determined there was something seriously off about the chicken stock I’d just added. Although still well within the expiration date, the inside of the can smelled like tuna fish. This couldn’t be good.

After taking a sanitation and food safety class as part of my culinary curriculum, I’m pretty paranoid about avoiding any possibility of food poisoning at all costs. If there’s any question at all in my mind, I don’t eat it. So it was out with the old stuffing and in with the new. I had to throw out the whole batch and start over. Fortunately, dad had enough extra bread to spare for me to make a new batch according to my mom’s recipe, and it was great.

The menu came together slightly later than I’d originally planned, but no biggie. We feasted on turkey, glazed sweet potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, stuffing (of course) and crescent rolls – and later in the evening, cherry pie a la mode. Not a bad spread, and fairly healthy, too. I completely forgot about cranberry sauce, one of my favorite Thanksgiving additions, until after we’d already cleared the table. Oh well. Christmas is right around the corner.

This year, I am thankful for a warm bed to sleep in; more than enough food to eat; a healthy body; cherished family and friends; and most of all, a husband, stepson and son I adore. Happy pre-holidays!!!

The Thanksgiving that almost wasn’t

I don’t know if it’s just the travel whiplash catching up with me or what, but I was not in a very Thanksgiving kinda mood last week. I didn’t want to cook a big dinner, I didn’t really want to do anything, just wasn’t feeling it.

Thanksgiving is always a melancholy time for me anyway, as I can’t help but think of years past and playing sous chef to my mother while she organized a huge spread. She’s been gone for seven years now, but as each Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself missing her more keenly than at many other times of year.

Being a native of Ireland, hubby wasn’t raised on Thanksgiving. The holiday doesn’t mean anything to him, and since he never really gets time alone to himself when he’s home, I decided to take the toddler and head over to my dad’s for a few days. Figured he’d appreciate a little time to putter around the house in peace, ride his motorcycle, booze it up with his pals, that sort of thing. And he did.

Wednesday afternoon, it was into the car and down the I-70, to grandpa’s house we went. Traditionally, my family always eats Thanksgiving dinner mid-afternoon, so we scoped out some restaurants that were likely to be serving and went to bed. Preoccupied with deer hunting, Dad didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest about where we ate, what, or when.

However… always a sucker for a bargain, Thanksgiving morning dawned and the first thing my dad says is “I wonder if Kroger’s marked down their turkeys today.” Hm. I immediately sensed a change in the weather.

The more I thought about it, dining out mid-afternoon with a toddler was a little like playing Russian roulette. There were no guarantees he would sit peacefully in his high chair, it would be solidly between meals for him, and he might possibly still be napping (or needing to) around the time we’d planned to eat. I caved, we all loaded into the car and took off for Kroger.

The grocery was surprisingly busy for Thanksgiving morning. Lo and behold, we found a dozen or so fresh turkeys (and a whole shedload of frozen ones), not terribly marked down, but discounted enough to make them enticing. An 11-pounder was more than enough for me, my dad and my aunt. Some sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, stuffing, rolls and we were all set. Dad even had a couple of $5 off coupons, bringing our grand total to $17. Not bad, and less than we would have spent dining out, for sure.

As usual, I took over the kitchen once we got home. I think Dad was sort of counting on this. If I’d left him to cook the meal, we’d still be waiting to eat. I hadn’t planned on cooking at all, so I just worked at a leisurely pace and didn’t knock myself out. In fact, I’ve spent way more effort on some catering jobs than I did on this year’s meal. But, for three people, it was plenty.

Cooking a big meal at my dad’s house can be something of a challenge. His stove isn’t terribly old, but it’s temperamental. For instance, if you try to use more than one burner at a time while the oven’s on, it blows a fuse and the whole thing switches off. This can’t be a good thing, and dad always promises to have it looked into, but never does. And the burners are electric and VERY touchy. You have to crank them up to high to get them heated up, then turn them back down at a very precise moment before whatever you’re cooking scorches. It takes a certain amount of finesse, but I’ve learned to adapt. Most of my meal baked or roasted in the oven anyway, so I just cooked what needed to be cooked in turn on one big burner and all was fine.

The turkey roasted beautifully (coated with butter, thyme and a little Lawry’s seasoned salt), despite of the very interior still being frozen when I opened the package. Why, oh why, do groceries sell “fresh” turkeys that are actually still frozen?? I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I bought a bird that was CLEARLY labeled “fresh” on the packaging and located in the fresh bin at the supermarket. I took it out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning to put it in the oven and found it solid as a rock just under the surface. After a few unsuccessful thaw cycles in the microwave, I got so pissed, I threw the whole thing in the trash. Which was a dumb move in retrospect when I could have just let it finish thawing and cooked it a day or two later, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The only hiccup with this year’s meal was the stuffing. I always make my mom’s stuffing recipe, the one I was raised with and watched her make year after year until it became ingrained in my cellular makeup.

Here’s the skinny – tear up several bags of (preferably slightly stale) bread into small pieces and place them all into a bowl. Saute a little celery and onion in oil until translucent and add it to the party. Spoon in the turkey jus collected in the bottom of your roasting pan, along with a little water if needed, to moisten. Add salt, pepper and dried sage. Spread the whole wet concoction into a baking pan and throw it in the oven for about 30 minutes until crusty on top.

I’ve changed the recipe slightly over the years. Sometimes I use store-bought stuffing croutons, sometimes I add diced apple or pecans, but it’s always the same basic plan of attack. Today, as it was a smaller than average crowd and I was making things easy for myself, I used a store-bought sage-and-onion stuffing mix. However, once I’d already sautéed the veggies and added as much turkey juice as I could from the pan, I still needed more liquid. I opened a can of chicken stock and poured it in. Once I started stirring, I realized something wasn’t right.

An odd, fishy sort of odor wafted up to me from my stuffing. Upon closer inspection, I determined there was something seriously off about the chicken stock I’d just added. Although still well within the expiration date, the inside of the can smelled like tuna fish. This couldn’t be good.

After taking a sanitation and food safety class as part of my culinary curriculum, I’m pretty paranoid about avoiding any possibility of food poisoning at all costs. If there’s any question at all in my mind, I don’t eat it. So it was out with the old stuffing and in with the new. I had to throw out the whole batch and start over. Fortunately, dad had enough extra bread to spare for me to make a new batch according to my mom’s recipe, and it was great.

The menu came together slightly later than I’d originally planned, but no biggie. We feasted on turkey, glazed sweet potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, stuffing (of course) and crescent rolls – and later in the evening, cherry pie a la mode. Not a bad spread, and fairly healthy, too. I completely forgot about cranberry sauce, one of my favorite Thanksgiving additions, until after we’d already cleared the table. Oh well. Christmas is right around the corner.

This year, I am thankful for a warm bed to sleep in; more than enough food to eat; a healthy body; cherished family and friends; and most of all, a husband, stepson and son I adore. Happy pre-holidays!!!