On my Own: Shredded Beef Saves the Days!

15 07 2010

There it is…peeking out beneath the tomatoes, lettuce and cheese…succulent morsels of shredded beef, cooked low and slow on the stove while I napped the heat of the day away.  Ahhhh….the Siesta!   This meal, however, came a full day later, arriving at the table around 9:30 p.m. after a full day of working in the sun, clearing a pasture (of the tools) finishing the fencing (with Murphy’s Law working overtime) and having to do the simplest task at least twice…  It’s amazing what you can still put on the table at the end of an exhausting day (hubby literally dragged me in at 8:45 p.m.).  I was amazed when I saw what was on the plates!  Thankfully with little effort on my part!

I knew this week was going to be harsh on our bodies, but I also knew we’d still have to eat.   We’ve been preparing to add an adopted horse to our family, and that’s required a substantial amount of work on our side yard. I’m a pretty “driven” person, and when I put my mind to a project.  I pretty much stay with it through thick & thin, and blood, sweat and tears.  That’s just how I’m wired.  I’m finding as I’ve gotten older, sometimes my “flesh” isn’t as willing and it takes me longer…oh no fun!!  That’s been this project all over!  From working with 15 yr. old fencing, to adding in new fencing, to putting T-posts in backwards, to any number of other goofy things, if it could go wrong once, it did.  If it required thinking outside the box for a fix, it did.  And so did we!  It’s been a bit of a juggling effort to keep us fed and hydrated properly, and still work to my fullest efforts outside too.

Knowing about this week when I shopped, I geared my supplies to Mexican foods for several days.  I knew tacos, quesadillas, taquitos, and the like would be my best bet for quick, complete meals.   Boneless chuck roast was on sale this week, and that made everything fit together even better.    It’s hard for something to be much easier to fix!!

My Shredded Beef

3# boneless chuck roast, cut into 1-1/2 inch cubes
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 chipotles in adobo sauce, chopped fine (only use half of one if you’re concerned about the spiciness – you can always add more)
1 can Rotel tomatoes (1o ounce)
Salt, pepper, ground cumin (1/4 to 1 tsp.) to taste
Water to come to top of meat
Lard for browning beef cubes

Using a deep cast iron skillet with a lid (what Mama called her chicken fryer), or a cast iron dutch oven (preferably),  cook the onion until translucent, add garlic and cook briefly.  Remove from pan and set aside for later.  Add lard as needed and cook the beef cubes in batches until browned on the outsides.  Remove from pan, and continue to cook in batches until all meat is browned.  Return all beef to pan, add onion-garlic mixture, add seasonings and Rotel tomatoes and chipotles.  Add just enough water to come to the top of the meat.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a low simmer, cover and let cook quietly for 3 hours.  The meat will be fall apart tender and have a wonderful flavor.

Use for any Mexican recipe calling for shredded beef.
Yields 4-6 servings.

Tasting Notes:
I’ve got a decently seasoned palate from eating Mexican and Thai food, and this is what I’d consider medium spicy.  I don’t want it any hotter than this out of the pan.    I even found adding salsa was too much extra heat…until I added sour cream!  I love the smokiness from the chipotles.  It’s not over-stated.  It’s a background flavor.  The beef cubes hold their shape, until you start messing with them…then they melt into perfect shreds.  Don’t worry about a piece that feels gristly, by the time it finishes cooking, it will simply melt.  If by some chance you end up with more than you can put to use, it will also freeze well, but do your best to get rid of the air.  Because there are so many surfaces, the meat is prone to freezer burn.  Use as much of the broth from the pan as you can when you freeze as you can to protect the meat from exposure to air.

So…with something that easy in the fridge, it’s not a huge hassle to fix stuffed quesadillas for supper after stringing welded wire and electric wire fencing around a corral.  The worst part was being out in the sun, again, when I shouldn’t have…and still didn’t think to use the sunscreen. DUH!!!  A lot of it had to do with anticipating only being in the sun a few moments more…which turned into hours more.  And problem solving…thinking out of the box, problem solving.   It will all be worth it tomorrow morning if my horse is delivered, and everything goes along as planned.  At any rate, the big physical push is finally over for the moment!

On My Own: Seared Ahi Salad~

8 07 2010

Seared Ahi Salad

One of the tough things about Summer is that it can be difficult to keep an appetite in the blazing heat.  This salad is wonderful on a hot summer night because it’s cool and refreshing with bright flavors and contrasting textures.  The bean threads are cooked just enough to soften them, but then chilled in ice water and sauced with the salad dressing.  The bean threads are silky, the cucumbers crunchy, the ahi smooth as satin and the romaine crisp and clean.

There’s no major secret to this dish.  Soften 2 oz. of bean threads in hot water for 15 minutes while you gather your ingredients.  Chop your favorite greens and goodies for your salad.  I chose romaine lettuce, English cucumbers, spring onions, canned baby corn (rinsed and tossed with the salad dressing) and tomatoes in addition to the tuna steak and the bean threads.  It was plenty for two of us.

Once the bean threads were pliable, I put them in a small, non-stick skillet with a little water and salad dressing.  I cooked them over low heat until they bubbled and became translucent and slippery.   Drain and rinse under cold water to stop cooking.  When cooled, drain thoroughly and mix with salad dressing and baby corn.  Chill (I popped it into the freezer for the 8-10 minutes).

I used a grill pan to cook the ahi.  I put the pan over a medium high flame while I prepared the tuna steak.  I rinsed and dried the steak.  I prepared a sheet of waxed paper with fresh cracked pepper and “Laab-Namtok” sprinkled on it.   Laab-Namtok contains roasted rice powder, dried chilies, citric acid, MSG, salt and spice…and the package claims it contains no preservatives.  I think something got lost in translation.  Regardless…Laab has a really unique flavor and made a really nice crust with the pepper!  I pressed the tuna steak onto the seasoned waxed paper and pressed the seasoning into the fish a bit more.  Then I rubbed a bit of peanut oil onto the uppermost surface of the fish before I placed it down onto the grill pan.  Once the fish was in the pan, I rubbed oil into the side of the fish that was now facing up.  Use a fish spatula when turning, and turn after only a few minutes as you only want to sear the surface nicely, not cook the fish.  While the fish is cooking, dress your salad and plate it. When the ahi is done, carve it, paying attention to the grain and cut it as though for sushi for the nicest bites.

To garnish the salad, I drizzled the tuna with a bit of the salad dressing – a Sesame based dressing I bought somewhere along the line – and sprinkled the salad with spring onion tops and black sesame seeds.

Tasting Notes~
I’ll tell you…I served this on a night when neither of us had the energy to spit, but we both needed to eat, and although I’d planned that tuna to be sushi, it just wasn’t going to happen.  I didn’t have the energy to wait for the rice to cook, cool properly, and do all the odds and ends that went with a sushi night.  When I got into the kitchen, the possibility of a salad really popped!  We both inhaled the entire thing.  It was light, and easy on the system on a hot night.  While a glass of white wine may have been a really nice accompaniment, iced tea certainly way!

Cooking Italy: On my own with Sautéed Peas~

31 05 2010

One of the things our hostess and creator, Angela of Spinach Tiger, always reminds us, is to cook what’s available.  With that in mind, and vines weighed down with swollen pods, I ventured into unknown territory with Sautéed Early Peas with Olive Oil and Prosciutto, Florentine Style, by Marcella Hazan, as presented in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is the book we’ve been working from for just about a year now.

The weather has been unseasonably mild for northern California, and I was away last weekend, so my edible pod peas had a whole week on me.  Once I was back home, it rained for 4 days straight, mostly when I was home, so getting out to pick was either going to be a wet experience, or one put off for another day.  The putting off worked out just fine.

I needed a little something to go with steamed King Crab legs tonight…a salad would do, but one of the 80° days we did have caused most of the lettuce to bolt.  That which is left is somewhat bitter, and not quite what I want to put beside crab legs.  Then I saw the poor neglected pea pods.  I picked all that I could see and then checked again and picked another big handful.  Off to the cookbooks to see what there is to choose from.

My first thought was minted peas, but for the heck of it, I grabbed up Marcella Hazan’s book.  Olive oil…check.  Garlic…ooh…check.  Prosciutto or pancetta…check, I had pancetta.  Parsley.  Just bought some yesterday.  We’re on!  Sauté the garlic in the olive oil until nut-brown.  Remove…hmmm.  Okay…if you insist, but…  Add pancetta, then peas with a bit of water, add a few twists of pepper, then cover, simmer, oh my.   This is too easy.   And what great results!  It was a really great accent, both in taste and in color, to the the crab.  We decided this is a keeper recipe.  It’s a great way to treat peas instead of merely boiling them.  The recipe can be used with frozen peas as easily as with fresh.  What are you waiting for??

By the way…that garlic that was removed from the pan?  It makes a lovely, crunchy little garnish!

Real Food – Artichokes Aplenty~

17 05 2010

One of the best things about living in Northern California is that we aren’t that far from Castroville and all those marvelous artichokes!  This one is close to life size.  No…I’m not kidding.  These were HUGE.  They were also all of 87¢ each.  I got 3.  They were just so pretty!  I couldn’t resist!

I grew up with artichokes, so I’m not at all put off by them…except to gasp at the price most of the time!  When I was getting to know my husband, we discovered we both liked artichokes.  It was a wonderful moment, because neither of us really knew anyone else who cared much for them one way or the other!  It wasn’t until he sat down to cold artichokes with a mayonnaise dressing that we realized we hadn’t discussed preparation methods at all!  He’d never had a cold artichoke…I’d never had a hot artichoke!  How can one thistle be so versatile!??

All I’m sure of at this point is that the prolonged cool “Spring” weather we’ve had has been fabulous for the artichokes this year.  As a cut and come again crop, you want to get these big guys off the plant so smaller globes will set after the first cutting.  I confess, I’ve done my share to promote this crop this year.  I’ve bought well over a dozen large artichokes this year so far.   Not all at this kind of price, but quire a few!

This year I’ve finally had my fill of plain artichokes and I’m ready to try some exciting new ways of cooking them!  Just tonight, I finally realized how to trim them for some of the Italian recipes.  Now I’m really excited!  I still have a few stashed away for those projects.  Fried artichoke crowns…  Artichoke gratin…  In a year like this, break out the fun recipes!!  In the meanwhile, they’ve made wonderful side dishes…both hot and cold!  My favorite is still a hot artichoke with roasted garlic aioli and a grilled steak to go with it.   Pure heaven.  A sure sign that God meant us to be adventurous with our food.

Can you imagine?  Who was first to decide to eat one of those things?  *Ü*

Roasted Garlic Aioli

2 heads garlic, split in half, drizzled with olive oil, wrapped in foil and roasted at 425° for 45 minutes or until garlic is caramelized and soft.
1/2-3/4 cup mayonnaise (fresh is nice, but not necessary)

Mash roasted garlic and stir in mayonnaise.  That’s all.  The garlic simply becomes more “dippable” when it’s mixed with the mayo.  It reminds me of an unguent.  An unguent for my tongue.  *sigh*  I just finished an artichoke…but if I don’t stop this I’m going to have to get into another one! LOL!

Spring Firsts~

11 04 2010

It’s officially Spring everywhere, regardless of what the weather is doing, and I’m trying to remember to stop and smell the roses, and capture some of the firsts of the season…  This is our first rose of the year.  It’s a hybrid tea, what name, I don’t recall, but the blossom is literally the size of a tea cup.  We were due to have a big storm hit about 24 hours after this baby opened, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice the first rose to the rain.  Sadly…the showers destroyed all but one of my camellias this year.

Picked on April 7th…this was our first garden picked salad of the year.  All the lettuce and herbs came from our own garden.  There are lettuce plants tucked in here, there, and just about anywhere I can find a spot out there.  I think I somehow put all the mini crisp-head varieties outside already, and I’ve got all the leafy plants here in the house.   That’s ok…I’ll pick them in here if I need to!  If Mother Nature would just cooperate a little more than she’s been…mercy! LOL!  I get two days home…one day it’s too windy to try to do anything outside with the plants, the next day it’s raining!  I know…If I were enough of a trooper, I’d get out there anyway…and it may come to that!

I admit, I didn’t even realize it was strawberry season until I got to the Farmers’ Market on Thursday, the 8th.  It was their 2nd week open…we missed the first week, mostly due to weather.  There were quite a few fun things…lots of garlic and spring onions…sweet peas, pea shoots, and strawberries.  Not only did they smell wonderful, they tasted just as good. We got 2 baskets and just noshed them.  Yum.  Other things we saw and picked up included Swiss chard, eggs-all sizes and colors!-but we didn’t buy those!  There were tamales, breads, lots of different foods and jewelry vendors… Almonds, candles, bee products, olive oil…I’ve yet to find a local olive oil I like.  Sorry guys.  I’m still tasting though!  And flowers…Oh my the flowers…

Healthy Bread in 5~The Basic Recipe

2 04 2010

When the Artisan Bread at home every day became popular, I was intrigued.  It was mostly a white bread recipe though.  If I were going to make homemade bread of any sort that often, it would need to have more of a whole grain potential.  The authors must’ve heard my plea…because here it is.   Completely easy, worked like a charm, fat free and in only took minutes to put together….with a KitchenAid.

The principle here is this is no-knead bread.  Basic ingredients are used…flour, yeast, water, salt.  Sometimes sugar, eggs, or oil are added as well.  The dough is well mixed on it’s mixing day, and from there, the gluten develops on its own by being in constant contact with itself in the container.  There’s a little assist from Vital Gluten flour (unless you’re working with a gluten free recipe), but the rest comes from the initial mixing and staying mixed in the refrigerator.  Interesting…  Additionally, if you continue to use the same container for your dough, you’ll start to develop some of the qualities of fermentation as well as time goes by.  Another plus.

The loaf depicted is a Day 1 load made after the dough had rested only a few hours.  At this point, I recommend weighing the flours.  I didn’t get quite as stiff a dough as I’d have liked the first time out.  We’ll see how it feels the next time I use it.   I followed the directions to the letter, this time.  Well…except for slashing.  It was extremely difficult to leave it alone until it was cool enough to slice!

I use polenta on my rising surface rather than cornmeal.  Cornmeal here is more like corn flour.  It doesn’t have enough density to keep the bread from sticking to the surface.  I may try a sheet of parchment next time as well.   As you can see, we got lots of holes, and the desired custardy texture crumb.  Not too bad for the first time out.  I was pleased.  It served well with butter, but was just as yummy with olive oil!  I’m going to try to do a couple of sandwich size rolls the next time for pulled pork sandwiches…I’ll let you know how that works out!

So, this is the first baked product from the basic recipe from HBi5…  Watch this space.  I could really enjoy a small loaf of really good, healthy bread with dinner now and then!!  I’ve got quite a collection of flours and grains, so this could get really fun!

Unsafe Food Alert!!

20 03 2010

Just about the time you thought we could eat safely again…  Hot off the presses kids…here’s a release acknowledging a huge recall of products which may be tainted with Salmonella, some from places we’d normally trust…like Trader Joe’s.  Bet they’re more than a little whizzed over there!  Read the article here:  http://www.wtopnews.com/?nid=25&sid=1916103 There’s a full list of products you can download.

If you’re cooking raw without packages, you’re pretty safe…but read just so you can help your friends out!

Tis the Season For…White Christmas Crunch!

22 12 2009

I ran across the original recipe about 10 years ago, but changed it as it became a house favorite.  This is quick to make, equally quick to clean up from, and there’s never any left over.  That’s a tough combination to beat!

White Christmas Crunch

3 cups Cheerios
3 cups Rice Chex
3 cups Corn Chex
1 can salted peanuts
1 med. bag M & M’s chocolate
1 med. bag M & M’s peanut butter
1-10 oz. bag mini pretzel twists
2 bags white chocolate chips
2 Tbsp. shortening NOT oil

Place all dry ingredients into a very large mixing bowl. Place white chocolate chips and shortening into a glass measuring cup and microwave at 30 second intervals until melted and smooth.   Stir the melted chocolate into the cereal mixture until well coated. Turn out onto 3 foil lined cookie sheets and allow to cool.  Break into pieces to serve.  Keep in air tight bags or containers.

Tasting Notes:
This has that sweet-salty-crunchy thing going for it.  People find it difficult to pinpoint what the ingredients are because of the peanut butter M &  M’s.   It vanishes wherever I take it.  I make it to take to work every Christmas.  Merry Christmas!

Tis The Season For…Tamales!

21 12 2009

Northern California agriculture gets tremendous support from farm laborers of Mexican heritage.  Migrant and not-so-migrant Mexican farm workers are people who hold fast to their religious and family traditions.  They celebrate Christmas for it’s purpose, the birth of Christ, and so  Christmas is time for celebration,  celebration means fiesta, and that means tamales!  In the weeks before Christmas, pork prices drop, and masa preparada is available in the markets.  Families get together for tamalitas, but I pretty much go it alone.

This year I came home with 15 pounds of pork blade roast.  I really got more than I needed. I’ll be freezing a bunch for tacos and quesadillas.  For 15 pounds of pork I pulled out my biggest kettle, and it barely fit!  I prefer to work with one big piece of meat, but this time we worked with hunks.  I had 3 roasts about 5# each, and cut them into manageable “hunks.” We’re just going to simmer this, so the kettle can be pretty full.  In with the meat…for every 5# add 1 tablespoon coriander seed and 1 tablespoon cumin seed.  I toast my seeds before I add them to the pot to help release the aroma and flavors.  I tossed in several large cloves of garlic, smashed, and 1 onion for each of the 3 roasts.  I added 1 dried ancho chile per roast, and 1 guajillo per roast to the simmering water, along with a small palm-full of Mexican Oregano.  I threw in a little salt, but not much at this point.  The pork needs to simmer a few hours until it’s tender, but not necessarily fall-apart tender yet.  When it’s fork-tender, remove it from the braising kettle (strain, skim fat and retain broth for later) and roast it at 200° until the surface caramelizes and the meat is now fall-apart tender. Shred with two forks.

It took a powerful lot of seasoning for this much meat.  I have no idea how much salt I added in the end, but I think it was in the neighborhood of 1/4 cup.  I added some now, some later, more after that… Just salt to taste, a little at a time.  We started with a very large can of diced green chiles.  I’m thinking it was in the neighborhood of 20 oz. or more.  I pureed an entire can of chipotles in adobo and added it very judiciously, worried that the heat would be overwhelming.  Ha. That’s a lot of meat.  For 5# of meat, you might want to add them one at a time.  I also added ladles of the cooking liquid to the pork for moisture. There was already an underlying teeny-tiny flavor of cumin, but not a lot, so I resorted to ground cumin…about a tablespoon and mixed it all well.  Still not quite the flavor I want.  At that point, I tossed everything into the fridge because I needed to do some research.  I wanted a good chile flavor, but I didn’t want a lot of heat.  It was time to get familiar with flavors and Scoville levels!

Bless the folks at Marx Foods!  They have a Scoville chart on their website, as well as a description of the chile’s flavor.  It was just what I was looking for!  A lot of recipes call for Ancho chiles or pasilla chiles, but I see so many others in the little Mexican market…what are they for?  I’ve particularly seen Guajillo chiles being used more and more in recipes…what are they?  It makes me wonder if we’re getting better about identifying the particular chiles that are really used, rather than the “catch-all” chile powder, which is a conglomeration of chiles, oregano and other things.  While I was researching I heard Bobby Flay over my shoulder talking about Cascabel chiles being very mild, but full of chile flavor.  Coincidence? You tell me!  So, it was off to the market for some more chiles and the remaining things we needed anyway…masa, lard and corn husks!

I used an entire bag of Cascabel chiles (1 oz.), and half a bag (1.5 oz. of 3 oz.) of Guajillo chiles, seeded and stems removed, then torn into strips and covered with boiling water and left to sit overnight with 1 tablespoon cumin seeds in the water. The next morning I sauteed 2 onions and a head of garlic and tossed them in the blender with the chiles.

I added just enough of the soaking liquid to blend the ingredients into a slurry, and poured that into the meat.  Finally!! The cascabels added a depth of flavor that was what I was looking for, and while there’s a bit of heat, it’s there, then gone. It doesn’t escalate. It slips quietly away.  There’s one thing you could do that I didn’t do…strain the chile sauce before you add it to the meat.  Some of those larger pieces of chile skin aren’t that much fun.  I missed that step.

Ok, that’s part 1 finished…now on to part 2…the masa!  But first…open the bag of corn husks and put them in a container full of hot water.  Turn them over now and then so they’re all wet.

The first thing you have to learn is that the bag of masa you buy in the store is NOT tamale ready!  I know that translates to Prepared Masa, and that’s what it means…prepared masa…not masa ready for tamales!  I’m blessed to possess one of the best Mexican cookbooks I’ve ever found: Adventures in Mexican Cooking, published by Ortho in the late 1970’s.  It can still be found, but be wary…I’ve seen times that the only version available was $75.  Wait a bit…a lower priced edition will come around.  It’s fabulous, but…come on…

The “recipe in Adventures” says (paraphrased), to 5# of masa preparada, add 1# lard whipped with as much liquid as it will absorb, then stir in the masa. That sounds easy enough.  And it is.  Cream the lard and whip it with your paddle or beaters.  Beat as much liquid (one recipe calls for water, another calls for broth, yet another calls for the liquid you used to soak the chiles) into the lard as it will take without leaving droplets on the surface.  Don’t worry if you realize you’ve already gone too far, it’s not going to matter.  Start working the masa into the lard and water mixture.  Little chunks at a time.  If you don’t have a heavy duty mixer, you may have to beat by hand the last half.  Just use a big bowl, and it will work out fine.  When you are done, you should have a really soft dough, almost the consistency of thick cake icing.

Spread on husks, add meat, fold, fill steamer and steam for 1 and 1/2 hours, or until masa pulls away from husks cleanly. Huh?  How did we get there from that pile of stuff?  Let me introduce you to my friend, the Masa Spreader.  It does make this go somewhat easier!  While all kinds of other things were going on in the background, we’ve had corn husks soaking in hot water.  It’s time to drain them and shake off the excess water.  Stand them on end and let the excess water drain off, but don’t let them dry out completely.  We want them to be pliable.

Spreading the masa onto the corn husks has traditionally been done with the back of a spoon, and that works great.  I saw these masa spreaders on line and decided there couldn’t be any easier way to do this…and I was right.  It takes just a few minutes to get the hang of it, and it’s much easier to manage than the spoon technique!  You scoop up a bit on the spreader, spread it onto the corn husk, then spread it across the husk.

Lift the husk away, and use the spreader to remove the excess material left on the work surface, and go again.  You can either make up several husks at a time, or spread, fill and fold as you go.  There’s no right or wrong way to go about it.  This is where team work comes in handy.  One person can spread, another fill, another fold and load the steamer.

To fill the tamale, spoon in 1 to  2 tablespoons of your meat mixture.  Some husks are more narrow and can only accommodate 1 tablespoon, others are nice and wide and can easily take 2 tablespoons.  Spread the meat in a line down the center of the masa as shown, so there’s some masa on all sides.  The masa is going to seal the meat mixture in on all sides.  Next fold the upper side down, and then the lower side up over the upper side and pinch the narrow and wide ends.

You’ll end up with a tamale in the raw that looks like this:

I’ve loaded my tamale steamer any number of ways.  I have to admit that I get a better fill and prettier tamales by laying down corn husks and then laying the tamales down in a cross hatch pattern – several front to back, then another layer side to side, followed by a layer of corn husks.  Last night I did them standing up and I had a lot of “slumping” – the tamale slid down inside the husk and collected at the bottom of the husk. Not pretty, however, still fully edible.

Here they are…all 43 – 5 of them!  That’s 38 left…  I confess…there were some that were sooooo ugly….  Ok, there were a couple that were that ugly, but the truth is after they’d steamed for 90 minutes, we were dying for tamales. I didn’t hesitate.  I plated up a few for us to dive right into.  We had to know if they were going to be ok, right??

Tasting Notes:
We love the smokiness the chipotles add to the pork!  The heat is just about perfect too.  It’s not too much.  It’s there, but it’s not overly there.  I’m not at all sorry I’ve got the better part of 15 # of meat mixed up this way.  I’ll do the other 5# of masa up as tamales, then freeze the remaining meat as pork filling for quesadillas, taquitos, or whatever.   It will be great to reheat it for any number of Mexican dishes.  Feliz Navidad!!

Holiday Cooking 101: Hooked on Brining~

6 12 2009

I’ve been roasting turkeys since I was 16 years old. Conservatively speaking, that’s 2 turkeys (Christmas and Thanksgiving) each year since I was 16 (most years in the past 7 years I’ve cooked not less than 3, so it all balances out!), my son is over 30 so that’s at least 60 turkeys that I’ve cooked.  And I’ve tested dozens of recipes and theories of how to achieve THE best turkey, bar none.  From brown paper bags, to roasting bags, from long and slow, to hot and quick, from right side up to upside down, from bare-skinned to covered in cheese-cloth basted in butter, butter, and more butter. I’ve done it all.

Four or five years ago I decided to try the one of two things I hadn’t done with a turkey yet…brining.  All I can say is oh my goodness…what was I thinking. Yum.  The first time around, I simply used salt and water.  A plain, unbiased, straight forward approach.  That was to change the way I prepared turkey forever.  It would also change the quantity of turkey I prepared. 1 bird was no longer enough.   2 were much more to our liking. We could eat one in no time flat. One would barely leave us any left-overs.  A year or two later, I let myself use a brine mix I found during our travels. It contained sugar, spices and dried fruit as well.  Interesting.  We liked it!  And so, we began to get adventurous!

This year our brine contains kosher salt, 1 cup to each gallon of water; 3/4 cup brown sugar to each gallon of water, or until I’m happy with the flavor; fresh thyme sprigs, fresh rosemary sprigs, cloves of garlic, lightly crushed; 2 whole bay leaves; 1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns and  1-1/2 Tbsp. “corning spices, ” lightly toasted in a skillet over medium heat until their aromas were released (I think mixed pickling spices would work just as well); 1 Tbsp. juniper berries; orange rind,  a couple cipollini onions and a whole tart apple wedged and added to the water.

Brining is really a lot easier than it seems.  It’s nothing more than soaking the meat in a salt water solution.   That’s no big deal.  It just requires some forethought.  A turkey needs about 24 hours to brine thoroughly.  There are brining kits with bags available out there.  I have special thoughts about those.  Always remember to support the turkey and the bag in another container.  Don’t trust the bag, as I did, to stand up to the weight of the brining solution AND the TURKEY….because it won’t.   You really do need to trust me on this.  There’s no sense in you having to mop your floor & make a whole new brine too… A “food grade” bucket is available at most health food stores, if you’re using a brining bag, there are cheap 5 gallon buckets with lids at Home Depot.  That’s usually what I use.

Getting ready to brine your turkey is pretty easy.  Scrub out the bucket and rinse it well. Set the turkey, wrapping and all into the bucket.    Put the turkey in the bucket and fill the bucket with cold water.   Remove the turkey from the bucket, dry it and return it to the refrigerator.  Measure the water left in the bucket and add 2 quarts for the cavity of the turkey.  That’s how much brining solution you’ll need to prepare.

Preparing the brine is a little tricky.  It’s basically 1 cup kosher salt to each gallon of water.  So, for 2 and 1/2  gallons, you need 2 and 1/2 cups salt.  The salt needs to be dissolved in the water, but you don’t necessarily need to heat all of the water.  The brine has to be cool to cold before it goes onto the turkey.  I heat as little water as I can and dissolve my salt in that, then my sugar, if I’m using sugar.   I add tap water if I need to for the sugar to dissolve.  It takes about 2 – 1/2 quarts of water to dissolve 3 cups of salt and up to 3 cups of sugar.  Remove from heat and let cool as long as you can, to room temperature is ideal.  If you have aromatics, such as a spice packet, put them in with the hot sugar-salt solution so they release their essential oils.   When this has cooled, mix with chilled water to measure 1 gallon, and pour into the bucket.  Remove the turkey from its wrappings; remove the giblets and the neck from the two cavities in the turkey, and if your turkey has a pop up timer, gently remove it from the turkey and throw it away.  We don’t want that. It’s set to trigger at 180º when the turkey is bone dry.  Toss it.  You won’t go to hell.  Honest.  Add the turkey to the bucket,  and fill with chilled water.  Submerge the turkey and secure the lid when the bucket is completely full, using an immense amount of care not to create a huge mess on the floor, but have the mop handy just in case, you know?

24 hours later, or thereabouts, Mr. Turkey Bird is ready to go for a tanning session.  You can rinse, or not, but do take the time to dry the skin, and drain the turkey thoroughly. He’s going to get to lay around a bit for his skin to dry to the touch a bit more than what it gets from the paper towel.  Then he gets a nice olive oil rub before he goes in.  Don’t put stuffing in a brined bird.  There’s more salt throughout the meat of the turkey, so it makes the dressing uncomfortably salty.  And…a brined, un-stuffed turkey will cook a lot faster than a stuffed turkey.  I like to start my turkey upside down so that the juices initially run to the breast.  I start the oven hot, and drop the temp after 30 minutes.  The bird has only a few tasty tidbits in the cavity…garlic, onion or leek, celery, rosemary, thyme and pepper to add a flavor punch to the pan drippings.

Here’s our big fella ready to jump in…

At 17.5 pounds,  we’re looking at 2 to 3 hours cooking time total for the turkey.  We start at 450º with the oven shelf dropped so the top of the turkey is at about the middle of the oven.  Roast it 30 minutes at 450º. then reduce the heat to 325º and roast 30 minutes longer.  Remove the turkey and turn breast up to finish cooking.  Baste with butter or broth as needed and desired.  When the bird reaches a temp of 150º (diseases that are carried by turkeys are killed at 140º) when temped in the side of the breast,

remove it from the oven, remove the turkey to a platter, wrap in foil and let rest.  The meat will continue to cook, and the temp will continue to climb.  Re-adjust your oven racks and do the rest while your turkey draws the juices back up inside, and get busy with that gravy! LOL!

Tasting Notes and Notes on Appearance~
I start my turkeys out breast down…this one was heavy and pushed all the way through the roasting rack to the bottom of the roasting pan…thus the dark areas on the breast, which is strictly darkened skin.  The meat was not adversely affected.  It was not burned black as it appears, but roasted crispy dark brown.  Turkeys prepared this way and pulled from the oven at these temps will be juicy. Yes, juicy. They can rest up to an hour, easily, if wrapped in foil and kept in a warm place (above 140º – to keep food borne pathogens from growing).  If you have leftovers, they will be worth eating.  No worries there.  No disguising them…the family will welcome leftover turkey, especially the breast.