Archive for November, 2009

Life being what it is in our household this fall, I’m a little behind on my Thanksgiving planning.  I had a rough idea of the menu we were going with this year, but really committing to recipes and getting my grocery list and cooking schedule together has been VERY slow in coming – ideally I should have already started cooking this past weekend, and I did not.  I feel pretty good about what I’ve picked though, that there’s nothing overly complicated and that we should be able to pull it off on Thursday.

As I explained last year, we’re moving to a tradition of hosting Thanksgiving for alternating families, and each year picking a different ‘theme’.  The same old dishes, which are exactly what some (or even most?) people love about Thanksgiving are a teensy bit boring to me.  Part of that I guess is that I have never really loved Thanksgiving dinner – I don’t like sweet potatoes, I don’t like stuffing, and frankly roasted turkey is just not the most exciting meat out there.  Picking a regional theme for the menu makes me, as the cook, excited about cooking a big meal.  And so our families will be the unwilling guinea pigs every year of a different Thanksgiving feast.  My hope, however, is that it will always be a feast, and a time to celebrate the plenty God blesses us with, with those we love the best.  Those ingredients don’t vary.

Last year we debuted the tradition with a Southern Thanksgiving.  This year, we’re going to my one of my favorite food cultures in the world – New Orleans!  I fell in love with the food (and really the whole city) of New Orleans when I lived there in grad school.  The unabashed richness and spice of that cuisine is totally enchanting.  I think the whole mindset of New Orleans food and cooking is very Thanksgiving-ish – heap it on, baby!!!

And so without further ado, the Skena Family Thanksgiving Menu of 2009:

Appetizers for nibbling throughout the day til early dinner – Parmesan Thyme Biscuits, Roasted Winter Squash Dip, Sausage Bites, Cranberry Bruschetta and Rosemary Roasted Cashews

Dinner – Pepper-stuffed Turkey, Andouille Cornbread Stuffing, Sweet Potato Pudding, Corn Maquechoux, Southern Braised Greens, Sweet Potato Muffins

Dessert – Pecan Pie and Pumpkin Pound Cake with Bourbon Whipped Cream

The nibbles are all favorites of mine, with the exception of the Barefoot Contessa’s Parmesan Thyme biscuits which I haven’t made before but sound SO delicious.  Sausage bites are a super easy traditional recipe made with cheddar cheese, Bisquick and hot breakfast sausage (and that’s it!).  The cranberry bruschetta is a perfect fall appetizer that’s a little spicy and a little sweet at the same time.  The Winter Squash Dip is from Martha Stewart, and I first had it when my friend Katy made it for Wine Club.  It makes an absolute ton so I made this a couple weeks ago and have some left in the freezer.  It’s a nice fall flavor with a little kick from chipotles and richness from cream cheese and sour cream.  The cashews are just an easy fix that taste like a party.

Many of the dinner recipes are from my Emeril Lagasse cookbook, Louisiana Real and Rustic, and are new – the Pepper-stuffed Turkey (which asks you to cut slits in the turkey and insert butter, spices and chopped peppers, doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world), the Sweet Potato Pudding (a make-ahead dish that sounds smooth and rich) and Southern Greens (calling for 6 POUNDS of greens, which are currently taking up half of my largest shelf in the fridge!).  We actually made the buttermilk mashed potatoes last year, they are just a nice simple dish to sop up all the other flavors.  And speaking of sopping up, we don’t have a specific gravy recipe planned – the turkey recipe says you can just spoon the pan juices over the turkey.  We’ll see how much of these juices materialize, and if it’s not too much then I’ll just whip up a fast gravy using what is in there (just add a little butter, a little while wine, and some flour, and stir til you get the consistency you want!).   Corn maquechoux is one of my favorite Cajun sides – corn sauteed in butter with peppers, basically.  It’s VERY yummy.  And the sweet potato muffins are a Brill Family favorite – those I really can’t do without for Thanksgiving.  We’ve converted many folks into fans of these dense, moist flavorful muffins.  And really, they sort of DO go with all kinds of Thanksgiving menus.  My parents actually found the recipe from a restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg many, many years ago, so I love that tradition that goes with it too.

For dessert, I’m redoing the AMAZING pecan pie from last year.  Hands down the best pecan pie recipe ever.  Worth the five bucks for the special Lyle’s Golden Syrup!  The Pumpkin Pound Cake is a late addition to the  menu on my part.  I needed to bring a dessert to my in-laws house on Sunday for lunch, and I just plain ran out of time to make a pie for my father-in-law, who very sweetly and generously LOVES my pies.  Instead, I made a really easy but tasty recipe from the Orangette blog, Sweet Potato Pound Cake.  Except I subbed in a can of pumpkin puree for the sweet potatoes.  And it was EVEN better!!!  Sweeter, which I like.  It really tasted like pumpkin pie, without the same texture.  I served it with real whipped cream, which REALLY made it awesome.  And so after being so pleased with those results, I thought, why mess with another pie crust when that cake tastes so dang good and is so easy, and can be made in advance?  It’s a Bundt cake, and Bundt cakes and other breads always get better with a couple days to age.  So no worries whatsoever about making it earlier!  And even nicer, for those of you traveling on the holiday who agreed to bring something, it’s very easy to transport.  You could wrap it in foil, or fit it back into the Bundt pan and cover it, or put it in a tupperware cake carrier, but there is no frosting or topping to slide around and it will be much more durable than a pie.  You can find the recipe in the link above – just put in canned pumpkin instead of the sweet potato puree, and add a teaspoon of cinnamon.

So, that’s our menu!  I’ll report back with the results.  Happy cooking and happy eating!  I hope your holiday is full of family and food, joy and gratitude.

The General Thanksgiving (from the Book of Common Prayer):

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made.  We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all the ages.  Amen!


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My mom has a lot of great recipes from Nigella Lawson, and one of my all-time favorite, most impressive and easiest desserts is from her, too (Choco Hoto Pots, blogged here).  I’ve skimmed through her books before but hadn’t ever jumped for one.  But yesterday I was flipping through my mom’s copy of Nigella Express: Good Food, Fast, and it suddenly looked like something I should add to my collection.

This book looks like it focuses on homey, delicious family food that is elegant but easy to prepare.  It seems her definition of fast includes things that are just fast to prep, but still cook for a while.  Since I work from home, and don’t mind waiting an hour for something to roast, braise or boil, that’s no problem for me, though it might be for others.

Not counting Mom, has anyone else had experience with Nigella recipes, and especially this cookbook?  She’s a Brit that seems less well known over here, at least in my peer group, and I’m wondering who else out there is cooking her stuff…


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Foodie World News

For the cooking nerds out there…

Some of you may have heard that Gourmet Magazine has closed up shop.  I’m not super familiar with the whole history but both Gourmet and Bon Appetit have been around for a long, long time, and lots of folks are very sad about it.  I, on other hand, am SO relieved it wasn’t Bon Appetit.  Since all the rest of my favorite magazines went under this year one by one, it’s about the only exciting thing left that I expect in the mail.  I get a LOT of my recipes from there…I’d say Bon Appetit (and the sister website, Epicurious.com, which also cataloged Gourmet’s recipes) and Barefoot Contessa supply about 85% of my recipes.  So I’m breathing a big sigh of relief that if one of the big foodie rags had to end, it wasn’t mine.  It seems like the Editor in Chief, Barbara Fairchild, does a great job of keeping BA relevant, with a blog, facebook page, etc.  And the content is also relevant to the younger cooks, with popular bloggers writing columns and Fairchild herself serving as a guest judge on cooking TV shows like The Next Food Network Star and Hell’s Kitchen.  I just read this interesting article about her some of you might be interested in.

And in other news, there have been a few new cookbooks released recently.  The BA Foodist, the Bon Appetit blog I was referring to above, had an interesting article on some of the newly released, highly anticipated cookbooks of the fall yesterday.  The one that really caught my eye is the one called My Bread.  Apparently the NY Times article that the author wrote about his unique, very easy bread-making technique was the one of the most searched articles in NY Times history!  I have a vague memory of reading it a while ago, but bread is one of those things I just don’t get excited about trying.  Cheese, oui; bread, sounds like too much work.  But after educating myself reading the reviews of the book, it sounds like it might be worth a shot!  The guy’s method is to basically dump all the ingredients for the bread in a bowl at one time all together, let it rise for a while without doing anything else, and then bake it in a lidded dutch oven – and apparently that creates PERFECT crusty delicious bread.  That actually sounds do-able…and I’m enticed even more by the variations and recipes he suggests, including an apparently killer pizza dough.  And you all know how I feel about pizza.  So the book is intriguing and has landed on my wishlist.

My Bread

One new release that I am quite disappointed didn’t make the list in the article above is called My New Orleans, by John Besh.  Besh is a native of the city, and one of it’s most celebrated chefs.  He has a handful of restaurants in the city that regularly are counted among the best.  It looks like this book has TONS of great recipes and whole chapters on crab, gumbo, THANKSGIVING! (everyone email my husband and tell him I NEED it for our Thanksgiving feast this year!!!), strawberries, and Mardi Gras.  Something about the way it’s organized and the foods and events he’s drawn out make me love this book already.  I haven’t yet gotten to go ‘visit’ it at the bookstore and see how complicated the recipes are, but the one recipe on the Amazon page doesn’t look bad at all.  Yet another one for the wishlist!

My New Orleans

(sorry for the lousy picture I hijacked off Amazon)

Today it is pouring rain in Chapel Hill, and it’s definitely chilly weather now, and that is a combination that makes me RUN to my kitchen to cook…nothing like something hot and bubbly and smelling wonderful in my big red dutch oven on a rainy day!  And these cookbooks are a great inspiration to get to it!  Stay dry, y’all!

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I recently tried out a fun new recipe from Bon Appetit’s Thanksgiving issue that I think you all would like, called Wild Rice and Mushroom Stuffing!  It is the perfect side dish – makes a lot, and complements a lot of the richer autumn and winter flavors without being too rich itself.

First, though, a confession: I HATE stuffing.  I know I’m in the extreme minority here, but seriously – soggy bread??  No thanks.  I pass on it every year.  Even last year, when I thought there was a chance I might like the Bojangles-biscuit base of the stuffing I made.  The top parts that got crunchy were ok, but the rest was the same deal as every year.

So no doubt part of what made this dish jump out at me was that it’s called a ‘stuffing’ but does not involve any wet bread!  As such it’s lighter and healthier, but it’s still hearty enough to stand up next to turkey and gravy – or grilled sausage, which we ate with it.

I was also intrigued by the wild rice…since reading about it in my new Super Natural Cooking cookbook (which I am in love with and will tell you more about later) I have been wanting to try using it in more recipes.  Curiously, wild rice is not rice at all, but a grass!  Wikipedia says: “Almost always sold as a dried whole grain, wild rice is high in protein, the amino acid lysine anddietary fiber, and low in fat. Like true rice, it does not contain gluten. It is also a good source of the minerals potassium and phosphorus, and the vitaminsthiamineriboflavin and niacin.”  So very interesting stuff, and pretty healthy, as are mushrooms.  Definitely worth a try, I figured.

It’s a bit of a process to pull together – not difficult at all, but requiring several steps that are time-consuming.  The wild rice is a little tough and has to cook for about 45 minutes on its own first.  Meanwhile you’re sauteeing and browning various veggies in batches in your other pot.  Eventually they all go in together with brown rice and chicken broth to cook for more time.  Which is all excellent for developing and layering flavors, but does take some time to complete.  The good news is that I’m pretty sure you could make this in advance and reheat for your meal – which is especially good for Thanksgiving but frankly, why reserve a perfectly good dish like this for once a year?

I halved the recipe since it was just the two of us and leftovers that I was cooking for, and it made for two dinner helpings and two lunch-bowl sized portions.  The full recipe would definitely feed a crowd, expecially as one of many sides.  But the leftovers were delicious warmed up and no worse for their time in the fridge.

One interesting ingredient in the recipe is the ancho chili.  You don’t really think of adding heat to a dish like this, but we really liked it!  I didn’t bother with looking for the dried ancho at Harris Teeter, instead I used one chipotle pepper (as I’ve mentioned before, I like to put the ones I don’t use into separate plastic baggies in the freezer so I can add them in small amounts to soups and stews and salsas).  One chipotle made this pretty hot – perfectly hot for Michael and a bit too hot for me.  I’d add half a chipotle for half the recipe next time, and a whole one if I’m making the full recipe.

In summary, this is a great side dish with tons of flavor that is healthy and hearty and will complement a lot of rich, wintery meals.  Find some time on a weekend, start an hour and a half ahead of dinner, and make a batch to try.  I bet the leftovers would freeze well too!


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Chili and Cornbread

Time to get back into the blogging habit…despite the fact that life continues to be something of a whirlwind at the Skena household, we are at least cooking and eating together again.  Since we’re both just a teensy bit stressed with huge amounts of work these days, the eating is falling into the ‘special treat’/comfort food categories.  This weekend, that meant chili and cornbread for three meals as we were both umbilically attached to our computers. 🙂

I wish I could tell you that I have THE perfect chili recipe.  But to be honest, every version that I try always tastes pretty similar to me.  With the exception of Cincinnati Chili which I LOVE, and Michael does not love.  Cincinnati Chili has cinnamon and cocoa powder in it, and is served over spaghetti with raw onions and shredded cheddar cheese on top.  It is such a weird dish, but it really works for me.  Michael likes it as long as he’s not prepared for actual chili, and can consider it as a separate dish.  I’ve been craving it recently, so hopefully we’ll make some soon and I’ll show you the recipe, in case any of you are up for an adventure in alternative chilis.

But for regular chili, I don’t have much exciting to share.  I have the recipe my mom always made, which we all love.  Michael has a recipe that he made by combining other recipes, which is also very good.  And I have this easy black bean chili recipe that I am a little surprised to say is from Rachel Ray (I don’t usually cook her food, but I saw this on Food Network and thought it looked good).  All these recipes are good and they all taste about the same.  But maybe that’s what we’re all looking for in a bowl of steaming, hearty chili on a cold, rainy day – something comforting and familiar.  This weekend I used the Rachel Ray recipe, though I made my own changes and variations.   The only significant thing about it is that it uses black beans, which I much prefer to kidney beans.  I added oregano since it needed a little earthiness.

I do, however, have a killer cornbread recipe.  Of course, it’s Barefoot Contessa.  This cornbread is on the sweeter, cakier side but has great flavor from jalepenos and green onions.  It makes a giant 9×13 pan, which I love, because the cornbread freezes and reheats quite well, so we’ll get a ‘free’ side dish to soup or chili again in the future.  Because this cornbread is cakey, you need to be a little careful with it during preparation.  As with other flour-based baked goods, keep a light hand with your stirring.  Rigorous stirring develops the gluten in the flour, which will make your end result  denser and flatter instead of fluffy with a light crumb.  Give the mix as few turns of a gentle spatula as you can to still get it thoroughly mixed.  And then be sure to let it sit for the full 20 minutes recommended before baking.  It will rise and fluff quite a bit, which you’ll definitely want in the finished product.  When I’ve skipped this step, I’ve definitely noticed the difference.

One quick tip that you can use for both these recipes: too many times I have set my eyeballs aflame taking out my contacts hours after chopping jalepenos.  An easy way I’ve found to de-seed hot peppers is to chop off the top with the stem and then cut the jalepeno in half length-wise.  Then use a 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon to scrape down the jalepeno, removing not only the seeds but the membranes holding them, which are what actually contain all the heat.  Just scrape them into the sink or trash, and you’ll have them well seeded without ever touching the hot parts with your fingers!

It’s still raining and grey here in Chapel Hill as we finish our third and final meal of chili and cornbread, and just writing about it makes me feel ready to make another pot.  Maybe Cincinnati Chili will be coming sooner than I thought…


Black Bean Chili (adapted from Rachel Ray)

2 lbs. ground beef

1 Tbs olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce

1 red onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 jalepeno pepper, seeded and chopped

3 Tbs chili powder

1 Tbs cumin

1 Tbs dried oregano, or 1 tsp ground oregano

¼ tsp cayenne pepper

1 cup of beef or vegetable stock

1 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes

1 14.5 oz can of tomato puree

2 15 oz cans of black beans, drained and rinsed

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. In a large pot, brown ground beef in oil over high heat until browned and crumbly.  Drain off most of the fat, then season the meat with salt and pepper.  Add the Worcestershire sauce.
  2. Reduce heat to medium-high and add the onion, garlic, red pepper and jalepeno.  Season the veggies and meat with the chili powder, cumin, oregano and cayenne pepper and cook together for 5 minutes.
  3. Stir in the broth and scrape up pan drippings.  Stir in the diced and pureed tomatoes and black beans.  When the mixture comes to a bubble, reduce heat to simmer and let it cook about 15 minutes.  Add cilantro to the pot or serve on top.

Ina Garten’s Jalepeno Cheddar Cornbread

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