Dec 012012
 

Our bountiful feast this year! We have much to be thankful for.

It is the end of November and the holiday season has wreaked havoc on my blogging ambitions.  I wanted to share a few images of our Thanksgiving this year.

Last year, I was busy making mini pumpkin pies for the preschool feast and this year all I managed was canned cranberry sauce.  My daughter made an excellent “Chief” however.

Nature is busy at this time too.  These geese crossed the road in front of my car in an impressively lengthy procession.

Goose procession.

For the big turkey day, we were fortunate to have Ruly Ruth and her family come visit.  The cousins had a terrific time hanging out together and Ruth and I pulled together a great meal.

We kept things simple this year.  The only big things to make were the turkey and sweet potato pie for dessert.  The rest of the sides were simple heat-and-eat types of things that were more kid-friendly for our group but they were no less delicious.

Last year, I made a turkey breast that came out really well so I just repeated that recipe this year.  My brother-in-law gave me a very kind compliment and said that I “made it look easy.”

Carving the turkey,

We also repeated the White House sweet potato pie recipe from last year.  The pie didn’t go quite as well as last year.  It came out OK but the flavors weren’t quite as wonderful as I remembered.  Either I did something wrong or this is just an example of how novelty heightens our senses.

This year's version of White House sweet potato pie. (We didn't eat those burned tops of the crust. The rest of the crust was fine)

To make things elegant and as a wonderful reminder of the family who can’t be with us, we served the dinner on my grandmother’s pottery plates and serving dishes and used my other grandmother’s glassware and hand-embroidered linens.  It makes such a difference to have handmade or vintage family things at a traditional and important meal like Thanksgiving.  I also like to add some small votive candles for atmosphere.  Ruly Ruth added Thanksgiving “crackers” borrowing a British tradition.  We all had fun wearing our paper hats and reciting the silly jokes inside.

The Thanksgiving crackers were a fun addition to the table. My nephew downed all of those rolls but informed me they would have been even better if they were Hawaiian rolls.

A couple of fun planning tips to share.  This year and last year, I decided to cook only a turkey breast and not a whole turkey.  I was worried that it would not be enough to feed 9 people but it was more than sufficient.  Everyone could eat as much as they wanted and the leftovers were used up in their entirety the next day in a delicious turkey noodle soup Ruth made.  Marketplace Money recently featured a story about how much turkey is wasted on Thanksgiving and serving parts of a turkey (drumsticks, the breast, wings, etc.) instead of the whole turkey is one way to both save money and reduce waste.

Turkey soup from the leftovers. Delicious!

Another great tip learned this year….if you are eating later in the day and you need to figure out how to feed everyone lunch so they are not starving by the time the big meal starts or have something ready for guests who might pop in, break out the Crockpot!  Ruth made this simple but flavorful and delicious tortilla soup that was light but filling.

Crockpot tortilla soup was a great pre-Thanksgiving snack/meal.

Overall, it was an enjoyable and relatively low-stress holiday!  Cheers to my sister for making the trip!

I hope your celebration was wonderful as well.  Have any Thanksgiving recipes or stories to share?  Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on December 1, 2012 General Tagged with: , ,
Nov 252011
 

Our Thanksgiving meal. The popcorn is my daughter's addition.

What a feast! I spent all day cooking and just about the time many people were probably getting in their cars for some early Black Friday shopping we were sitting down to eat. My 3 year old decided that the proper attire for such a meal was pajamas. Obviously, I still need to work on my timing but our meal was probably the best full Thanksgiving I have ever prepared!

We tried the collard greens and have mixed feelings about them. They are kind of delicious but the chewy texture is a little tough to get used to. They go down best with extra red hot pepper sauce and they were pretty good again today in our Thanksgiving leftovers sandwiches.

Collard greens (from Paula Deen's recipe).

I also made Cristeta Comerford’s sweet potato pie. This was kind of a funny experience. For some reason, even though I read through the recipe beforehand, I did not process exactly what would be required to make this pie. Here is a bit of my thought process.

First, I put the “aromatics” on a sheet tray and baked the sweet potatoes. I forgot to buy an orange so I quickly grated the zest off the lemon that I needed for the custard part and cut that up instead. I left them in the oven for about an hour.

I then worked on the dough which ultimately came together nicely into a ball as the recipe described.

After taking the dough out from its “rest,” I suddenly realized that I would need to roll this out into a real pie crust…something I have NEVER done before. After a few false starts, I finally got it rolled out

and made a half-decent pie crust.

Then the recipe said, “Top with parchment paper and cooking beads and bake blind for 12 minutes.” Small problem . . . we didn’t have parchment paper. I am not sure what cooking beads are and I don’t know what “bake blind” means. Somehow I recalled either a recipe I made years ago (or maybe something I saw on TV) and lined the crust with aluminum foil and put some uncooked rice in to weight it down.

Fox Run Ceramic Pie Weights at amazon.com.

It came out OK so I figured that must have been close enough.

Next it was time to prepare the sweet potato puree. Things were going OK until the recipe said, “Scoop the meat and pass through a chinoise.” What in the world is a chinoise? I scooped out the sweet potato meat and mashed it with a fork. (I thought to use the strainer in the picture below but the meat was too tough to go through.)

It was still pretty lumpy so I put it in the blender for a bit! The blender couldn’t handle it either so it was back to mashing with a fork again.

Norpro Stainless Steel Chinois with Stand and Pestle Set at amazon.com.

I got it as smooth as I could but there were still a few lumps in it. I probably should have cooked the potatoes some more at this point to make it softer but I needed the oven and didn’t think to do it on top of the stove. I assumed the chinoise must be some super sort of masher or blender that would get all the lumps out. It is.

After getting the puree as smooth as I could, I made the custard and added it in. Things were looking pretty good at this point!

I poured the filling into the crust and put it in the oven.

Fat Daddio's Fluted Tart Pan 12 Inch x 2 Inch Removable Bottom at amazon.com.

While Cristeta’s recipe calls for a “12 inch tart pan,” the grocery store did not sell this so I substituted a 9” pie pan. The problem is that making the pie deeper will increase the cooking time. After the 35 minutes the recipe called for, the crust was perfectly brown but the center of the pie was still uncooked. I gave it 10 more minutes but it still was nowhere near to being cooked. I lowered the heat to 250 and let it cook for probably another hour or so. This pie smells incredible while it is baking! I think it is due to the anise. My husband came down and said, “Mmmmm…..something smells soo good!” which was very satisfying after all that work. I let the pie cook for as long as I could but eventually I needed the oven for my turkey so I took it out and hoped for the best.

As I was washing up dishes after our meal, I noticed that the tag for my Pyrex pie pan indicated that you should never put glass under the broiler. Small problem for the honey meringue topping for dessert! Rather than risk burning the whole pie and cracking my pie dish, I decided to make the meringue on a metal sheet tray and just scoop it onto the pie.

The honey meringue topping is the very best part of this whole dish. Even if sweet potato pie does not appeal to you, you should try this meringue and have it on ice cream or cake. It is soooooooo good. I whipped the egg whites.

Added the warm honey (which, unfortunately had boiled over on the stove leaving me a honey mess to clean up).

Poured it on the baking sheet . . .

and put it under the broiler for about 30 seconds. It came out nice and brown.

The broiler just browns the top and doesn’t firm the meringue so it doesn’t scoop all that well but you can imagine how good this would be if done properly.

When we cut into the finished pie, it was pretty good!

My daughters who liked the mini pumpkin pies I made earlier in the week anxiously wanted a slice. But then they saw that my pie had some chunks of sweet potato in it.

“I don’t like this. It has vegetables in it.”
my 3 year old reported.

After this experience, we can conclude two things:

1) Cristeta Comerford is a seriously talented chef. If I can mess up her recipe this badly and it still comes out relatively great, that shows some serious cooking skills. Her flavorings are so subtle, beautiful and unique. The Obamas must eat some elegant food.

2) Before I attempt another recipe of this culinary magnitude, I need to double check for the right cooking utensils as well as ingredients. If you have all of these utensils in your kitchen, you are probably a seriously talented chef as well!

I hope your Thanksgiving cooking (or eating) experience was just as fun and interesting.

Ruly Tip: If you did cook this year, consider taking a moment to write your recipe(s) down as well as any notes about shopping for special ingredients or cooking tools, how long it takes to make, etc. Store your notes and recipes in a special file, binder or type it on a 3×5 card and create a flip-book ring. Not only will this help you next year when you are planning your meal but it is a great way to preserve memories and would make a great gift to a new cook as well.

What were your favorite foods at the Thanksgiving table this year? What other memories do you want to remember? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on November 25, 2011 General, Ruly Food Tagged with: , ,
Nov 222011
 

So far, almost everyone I have spoken with is not cooking this Thanksgiving! They are all traveling or joining a group dinner at a family member’s home. We are on our own this holiday (but missing our families across the country dearly) so I will be cooking for my family.

I had a little Thanksgiving preview this morning, having the privilege of accompanying a young “Native American” to her preschool Thanksgiving feast.


We made mashed potatoes and mini pumpkin pies and had a mini feast with the other kids and moms and dads. The house now smells of pumpkin pie and is setting a warm and festive tone for the long weekend.

While I have told you numerous times that I am still a novice cook, there are a couple lessons I have learned the hard way about cooking for Thanksgiving.

1) If you don’t have your turkey, go to the store as soon as possible! Last night, the grocery store closest to our house ran out of frozen turkeys! “And we aren’t getting any more,” the butcher informed an inquiring customer. But don’t stress, you could always go for something else—a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, turkey drumsticks or wings, ground turkey for turkey burgers, etc. Over the years, we have been so busy working that the only time we had to go to the store was right on Thanksgiving Day. At that time, all that was left were some Cornish game hens in the freezer section. Those worked out just fine too—much better than the year that all that was left was an enormous 20 pound turkey! After years of getting it wrong, this year I got my turkey early, picking up a frozen turkey breast in early November.

2) If you have a frozen turkey, it is time to put it in the fridge to defrost. If it doesn’t defrost in time, you will have to put it in cold water baths in the sink. (I have no idea what happens if you put a frozen turkey right into the oven but I suspect the results are terrible as no one recommends this.)

3) Spread out the cooking. If you are making a lot of side dishes or desserts, many chefs suggest that you make them tomorrow, one day ahead, and store them in the fridge so they just need to be reheated on Thanksgiving Day.

4) Create a cooking timeline. It is also a good idea to review your recipes today to see what you should cook tomorrow versus Thursday so that you have enough oven space for your dishes. It is also time to buy any missing ingredients and start setting your table.

We try to mix things up each Thanksgiving and add something new to the menu. This year, we are adding a Southern twist to our meal. For the first time ever, we will try cooking collard greens! We have never tasted them before but we understand that many people consider them a Thanksgiving staple. The nutritional value of the greens is so high it probably would be a good idea if we all started eating them. We are using Paula Deen’s recipe. By the time Paula Deen finishes with these greens, they may not be nutritious any more but they are certain to taste incredible!

Collard greens in abundance at the grocery store.

The other new food we are trying out is sweet potato pie. Until we moved to the D.C. area, we had never heard of sweet potato pie. It too is a southern staple. Those that don’t eat sweet potato pie, have a casserole of sweet potatoes, marshmallows and brown sugar. For my first sweet potato pie, I am being a bit ambitious and trying out White House chef Cristeta Comerford’s version. I know I am already in over my head as our local grocery store does not carry star anise nor crème fraiche. We had to substitute anise extract and sour cream. I hope this doesn’t ruin it. I have also never broiled meringue before. Wish me luck that I don’t burn it! If all else fails, we have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on hand!

Louisiana yams (sweet potatoes).

As I mentioned above, my other dessert risk this year was to make mini pumpkin pies. They turned out really cute and my pumpkin pie hating husband even liked them since they don’t have a soggy pumpkin middle and are more crunchy in texture from the crust.

We took this recipe for graham cracker crust and pressed it into mini muffin cups.

 

We made the recipe on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can and poured in the filling. We baked the mini pies for about 12 minutes at 350 degrees and then lowered the oven temperature to about 300 degrees and kept checking every 5 minutes until a knife inserted in the center came out clean. We had so much filling left over that I was able to make another pumpkin pie in a square casserole dish!

The finished mini pies. They were quite popular and my picky 6-year old even ate them! Success!

To all of my readers, wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving and hope that you enjoy this special time with your family and loved ones!

Are you cooking for Thanksgiving? What is on your menu this year? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on November 22, 2011 General, Ruly Food Tagged with: , ,
Nov 172011
 

Next week, we are coming up on the biggest meat-eating holiday of the entire year . . . Thanksgiving!  As a special challenge to Ruly Ruth, I inquired what she would do if she had to host a vegetarian Thanksgiving.  While I have never been invited to such an event myself, I have encountered several people in the D.C. area who have hosted vegetarian Thanksgiving celebrations.  One friend indicated that her father was livid that there would be no turkey on Thanksgiving, even though she was preparing “Tofurky.”  How would Ruly Ruth resolve this situation?  Read on for her suggestions.

 

Ruly Ruth is a carnivore who seeks out rare meats–I’ve eaten kangaroo, crocodile, alligator, caribou, elk, deer, buffalo, moose, and the list goes on. So 2 problems with this presented themselves immediately: 1) wrapping my head around a non-traditional turkey Thanksgiving; and 2) Thanksgiving is traditionally a meal around a large meat roast–the iconic image of Norman Rockwell! It’s not like other holidays where the meal can be mixed or matched…..it’s turkey! And Stuffing! And gravy! And potatoes (usually) and vegetables–often carrots, sometimes parsnips….with cranberry jelly or sauce…or lingonberry jelly for me! So why or how on earth would I come up with a MEATLESS Thanksgiving???

Then I had an epiphany. And it was actually based on a new recipe for turkey–this woman did it southwest style with tamales instead of stuffing inside! So I’ve decided that Thanksgiving is more about regional and hearty and beloved cuisine than the traditional magazine spread.

So for your main course–to veer from that roasted meat platter….go regional! Make tamales, or enchiladas. In Greece, we could do a lovely spanikopita. Or Italian–with raviolis or lasagna. Or eggplant parmesan! That would make a lovely centerpiece. And couscous or a rice dish to compliment. Obviously sweet potatoes or regular potatoes go with all of this! My mother makes a killer stuffing out of pine nuts, celery, carrots and who knows what else—it’s not a bread-based stuffing–but it’s AMAZING and lovely! Something like that would be a great compliment too.

Another idea especially with the colder weather approaching for most of us, is to do a wonderful hearty soup! Potato leek or a nice pumpkin soup with a lovely roll or bread load would be wonderful. (This would also make a wonderful appetizer as well.) And a great side salad—sounds like a great meal to me!

And lovely fruits for dessert–I just watched Gordon Ramsay on the F Word make a lemon curd tart, to mix it up from a traditional pumpkin pie. We’ve also had cheesecake in the past, and special ice creams as well–very fun to mix it up at times.

Sourcing ingredients for special meals is often where I will splurge on my precious grocery dollars. Going to a farmer’s market for the vegetables and fruit, and specialty shops for jams or lemon curd or fresh breads or what-have-you is a special treat–and what better time than the holidays to do this, when you’re preparing a meal for very special family and friends! Also this supports these local businesses that may not get our usual weekly grocery money. A win-win, I’d say!

Also don’t forget to spread the love of the meal and donate an item or more to the local food bank. My daughter’s preschool is collecting food for a meal for 4 for Thanksgiving. She’ll be bringing in 2 boxes of turkey stuffing. Canned cranberry jelly, stuffing, mashed potatoes mixes, canned pumpkin–don’t forget to add 1 or more of these basic Thanksgiving items to your cart this next shopping trip! It’s greatly appreciated.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

So, Ruly Ruth says if you are serving veggie Thanksgiving to meat eaters, don’t use a soy-based meat substitute but rather go for something completely different.  Would you mind if there was no turkey at your Thanksgiving celebration?  Any vegetarians out there?  What do you say?  Please share in the comments.

P.S.  FabFitFun also did a post today about vegetarian Thanksgiving.  You can read their suggestions and recipes here.

 Posted by on November 17, 2011 General, Ruly Food, Ruly Ruth Tagged with: , , ,
Nov 242010
 

My Yiayia's Table. This one was for my high school graduation.

This Thanksgiving is bittersweet in our family. We have so much to be thankful for–truly too many things to count. However, our Thanksgiving table is one person short this year, having recently lost the matriarch of my father’s family, our beloved Yiayia.

Yiayia was an incredible person in many ways. She lived an interesting and challenging life defined primarily by her upbringing as the child of Greek immigrant parents. Her parents instilled in their four daughters respect for tradition, high standards of hospitality and an expectation of class, elegance and great aspirations. They also taught their daughters a bit of toughness.

Yiayia lived these values. She had so many talents including cooking, playing the piano, creating artful flower arrangements, knitting, sewing, and gardening. Yiayia learned to drive by “borrowing” the family car and teaching herself. She traveled the world in her retirement and had a determined (but lovable) stubbornness to do things her way.

Her skills as a hostess are legendary. She insisted on lavish dinners on every major holiday, birthday, engagement, baby shower, graduation and sometimes just because. She did almost all of the cooking herself and decorated the tables with flower arrangements and her best china. The menu was always an elaborate array of Greek dishes mixed with some standard fare.

Each gathering typically started with tarama appetizers in her pristinely clean living room with wine for the adults and ginger ale for the kids. Dinner was usually served family style at her long dining room table (or buffet style as the family grew larger) with pastitsi, spanikopita, dolmathes, ham, potatoes, turkey and gravy and her elaborate vegetable tray which was always served on a silver platter with each vegetable, cheese or olives in a lettuce leaf cup. Dessert was a must. Yiayia didn’t make cakes but ordered the best bakery delights (usually chocolate rum cake with pineapple filling) and made Greek pastries (baklava, kourambiedes and melomakarona) to go with the coffee. You never left Yiayia’s house hungry.

Anne helping dip the melomakarona in honey.

At the end of each meal, assorted members of the extended family would pop in to say a quick hello. In warm weather we would retreat to the backyard to watch the youngest members of the family run around on her gigantic lawn and in cold we would sit around the fire opening presents, playing puzzles and games or listening to the latest grandchild’s performance on her grand piano.

Ruly Ruth and Ruly Anne in concert at Yiayias.

Now that I have done some entertaining of my own, I have no idea how she kept up with such an aggressive entertaining schedule! I vividly remember Yiayia bustling around the kitchen and serving all the dishes. Her children and daughters in law often had to say, “Sit down, Yiayia. We have everything we need. Come eat with us.” I think she truly enjoyed hostessing. It did not seem to be a stress or a chore for her. She had a harder time being the guest and coming up with small talk.

Yiayia was the root that grounded our ever-branching family tree. There was a special spot in her heart for very young children and babies and she lamented to me late in her life that she felt sad that my children would probably not remember her.

Four of Yiayia's jewels, her grandchildren. Behind us is the yellow stove that generated so many delicious meals.

I am sad that Yiayia is not with us any more and I miss her terribly. I am thankful for her long life, her tremendous energy and the legacy she left. My last vivid memory of her is her sitting in the backyard of my parent’s home celebrating the second and third birthdays of her great-granddaughters. She was beautifully dressed and had on a wonderful sunhat and smiled as she took in the festivities. That is how I like to remember her.

Yiayia simply can’t be replaced. She was the product of a special time and place that will never exist again. I still can’t quite understand how someone so vibrant can be gone so quickly and I know for certain that if there is any way possible she is keeping tabs on all of us.

Ruly Ruth shares her memories of Yiayia below:

I will always remember Yiayia with open arms, a smile on her face, and being so happy and joyful to see us grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. We were her pride and joy. My 9.5-year-old son adored her! Which seems a little odd since sometimes young children are afraid or fearful of older people. He adored her from the first moment she held him! We have a famous photo of her and TJ both wearing Crocs!! As my husband said—what a product when you reach the young kids to the 90+ year old set! Wow! One winter, after going sledding on a local hill in Utah, we were going to return to my parents’ house to warm up when my son insisted we visit Yiayia for hot cocoa! And as always she happily obliged! I will miss her, and I know my son will too. Her care packages of carefully made and individually-wrapped Greek cookies—the koulourakia, my favorites the melomokarama. So delicious!! A lot of work—and we loved eating the fruits of the labor made by those amazing, amazing hands! And the handiwork! The knitted sweaters we have for each kiddo and myself—one I chose back in college that’s an Irish intricate long sweater which will look amazing over leggings this year.

If you have someone you are missing this holiday season and are having a hard time feeling thankful or joyous, know that you aren’t alone and that it is ok to feel a tinge of sadness in your celebrations. While Yiayia’s loss is a tough one, we know there are families with much more difficult losses to bear this year and our hearts go out to them.

Ruly Ruth shares:

Along with Veterans Day, we celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday Ball on the Marine Corps Birthday November 10th. It is quite the event with a ceremony that will bring anyone heart-felt pride and tears simultaneously. It’s a sight to behold! At this year’s Ball, the gift (sometimes a personalized wine glass or beer stein with the unit’s logo to which you are attached), this year was a commemorative coin with the name of a fallen warrior. One coin we received has the name of Corporal Kyle W. Wilks. With this name, you go to the website http://militarytimes.com/valor/search.php and enter the name and read about him and others.

If you need some suggestions for coping with the holidays after death of a loved one, the Office for Victims of Crime has a wonderful list of suggestions from survivors who have been there:

If you are trying to know what to say to a friend who has been through a loss, I don’t know if there are any “right” answers. Reaching out to people in grief, inviting them to your celebration and otherwise treating them “normally” rather than avoiding them is recommended. Here are some other great suggestions from blogger Lori Pederson.

Please feel free to share your Thanksgiving remembrances in the comments and wishing you and yours a Thanksgiving filled with peace.

(P.S.  Yiayia didn’t want her picture posted so you will just have to imagine her through her grandchildren.  She probably would have wanted it that way.)

Swinging from the pear tree in Yiayia's backyard. Yiayia took a lot of photos with heads cut off and fingers over the lens but this one she marked on the back was me.

 Posted by on November 24, 2010 General, Ruly Ruth Tagged with: , , ,