Archive for December, 2009

In my dream kitchen…

I am one of those Type A people that rips pages out of magazines with decorating ideas – and file them in a labeled binder.  I realize that is not totally normal.  But I like having the ideas on hand, especially while I’m storing up lots of them that I can’t do anything about at the moment, mainly because we don’t own a house yet.  And one of the major categories to which I am always adding is the kitchen.

There are so many things I love to think about for my dream kitchen – in fact, so many I think maybe it’s a GOOD thing that I have a few years to really think this through!  There are color schemes, layout, details like cabinetry (I LOVE those pull out drawers to keep your pantry more accessible) and of course the appliances.  In my dream kitchen, will I have a big fancy gas stove w/ two ovens and tons of gas burners?  Or get a griddle or deep fryer to replace a couple of the burners?  Or go for the double wall oven set up, with the stove top separate?  And what about the induction cook top, which I suspect will only gain in popularity at home over the next few years (it’s a flat top like the electric ones and so easy to clean, but it works with magnetic induction and is apparently the easiest type of heat to manage, because it heats up and cools down quickly).  Lots of things to think about!

One of my current favorite ideas is open shelving and cabinetry.  I really love functional decorating – the beauty of simple every day objects, placed where they are used, is very appealing to me.  I think this idea works best when you have a streamlined color scheme – and the easiest is white.  I love my sturdy, simple, classic white dishes from Williams Sonoma – food looks great on plain white!  I think they would look awesome stacked on open shelves, within easy grabbing distance.  And I love our plain glasses – my new everyday juice and water glasses (SO cheap!) from CB2 look very striking in their simplicity.  We have Reidel wine glasses, both stemmed and stemless, though I love the look and the ease of the stemless ones, which we put right in the dishwasher.  These also have beautiful lines that I think would show really well either on an open shelf or suspended upside down in one of those special glass shelves.  I have mainly white and glass serving dishes, which also complement this scheme.  And then a few natural woven baskets would provide some nice texture…

Below is an example of the look I love – and here I especially love the back of the shelves is painted that light blue, so the white dishes really pop!  Isn’t it neat how something as functional as everyday dishes can look like art?  Somehow we’ll need to incorporate this concept into my dream kitchen (someday…)!


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A reader, who happens to also be a very good friend, from South Carolina asked a question about what to plan for a Christmas dinner.  I thought I would take some time to talk a little about menu planning, which I think intimidates a lot of people but is actually a really fun game. 🙂

One easy starting place, especially for me since you know I am her biggest fan, is the Barefoot Contessa’s website, where she has quite a few menu suggestions.  I may not always use all her recipes, or even any of them, but it often helps me think through the season and the feel of the event for what kind of foods might be the best fit.  It’s good for inspiration.  You can also check your cookbooks – I have a few that group foods by menu, or cookbooks that are themed (Middle Eastern, New Orleans) and if you feel like going with something all in one food ethnicity like that, I would just root around in the cookbook for ideas.  Finally, if there’s something I am looking for but just can’t find a great recipe, I search on www.epicurious.com which is the storehouse of Bon Appetit and Gourmet recipes going back years and years.  They always have something that sounds great for the ingredient I have in mind.  They also have an awesome menu section – you can see their Christmas menus here.

I usually have a dish in mind that I want to serve – it’s not always the main, sometimes it’s even the dessert!  But if I have something in mind I use that as  my starting point and build the meal around it.  If you I not have something in mind, then it’s often useful to think of the main course you will serve.  For something like Christmas dinner, which is pretty fancy, I would think about large meats – like a turkey or a ham.  I personally LOVE those Honey-baked Hams, which are served cold so there is no need to even worry about what time it should come out of the oven, and is presliced, so all you do is plop it on the platter!   So let’s go with the example of the baked ham for Christmas dinner, and build our menu around that.  For your sides, I would plan for one vegetable, one starch, and some type of bread.

When I think of ham, I immediately think of the Sweet Potato Muffins that my family loves – they are easy to make in advance and either refrigerate or freeze for days.  Let them come to room temperature while you’re preparing the meal, then line them up on a sheet pan and warm them up for serving.  Their sweetness is a great complement to the salty ham. 

The starch in meat-centric meals is often a potato – and for this there are two Barefoot Contessa recipes I love: Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes and Parmesan Smashed Potatoes.  Another option, especially with ham or pork, is grits!  For Christmas dinner my aunt often serves these easy Shrimp and Grits that can be made in one pot and kept warm for serving, which is helpful in plating lots of meals.  (Polenta is the Italian version of grits, if you’re going for some kind of Italian theme).  The ham and the sweet potato muffins and the grits are giving our meal a nice southern flair, which is good because now we have a sort of theme or trend going!

Garlic Shrimp and Grits

1 lb unpeeled, medium-sized fresh shrimp, cooked

3 cups water

1 cup whipping cream

¼ cup butter

1 tsp salt

1 cup quick-cooking grits

1 cup (4 oz) shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese

2 garlic cloves, minced

Garnish: chopped fresh chives, peeled and cooked shrimp, fresh ground black pepper

  1. Peel the shrimp and devein, if desired.
  2. Bring 3 cups of water, cream, butter and salt to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium and whisk in grits.
  3. Cook, whisking constantly, 7-8 minutes or until the mixture is smooth.  Stir in the shrimp, cheese and garlic and cook 1-2 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
  4. Garnish, if desired and serve warm.

So now we need a vegetable.  The grits are creamy, garlicky and rich, so I don’t want to do any kind of creamy casserole-type vegetable.  One great way to do nice veggies for a crowd is to roast them – this deepens the flavor but is also lighter and easier to prepare.  I love Roasted Brussel Sprouts for a warm winter vegetable side – they get crisp and salty flavorful and are really addictive!  Herb-roasted Onions would be delicious if we were doing potatoes, but might be a little much with the grits.  Roasted Asparagus is always a hit, but asparagus is not really in season in the winter, so I think I would be more inclined to go with either the brussel sprouts (which are in season) or some root vegegtables, like Roasted Parsnips and Carrots.

Finally, dessert…you want something with rich wintery spices and flavors here – anything pumpkin, for example, would be great.  For a crowd, I would think about something that is one-dish and can be prepared in advance.  Apples and other fruits go really well with ham, so what about an apple crisp?  Hot out of the oven with a scoop of vanilla ice cream = happy guests!  This recipe for Pear, Apple and Cranberry Crisp definitely sounds like Christmas to me!  It should also go well with the rest of the meal.

Now don’t forget your wines – I would take my final menu to a wine store and let one of the people who work there find you a nice red and a nice white option.  And don’t rule out a great bottle of something bubbly…sparkling wines are usually made from the types of grapes that go well with winter foods, like pinots and chardonnay.  The lightness will keep everyone from feeling too full.  My mom brought us a bottle of Shiraz-based Black Bubbly to enjoy with Thanksgiving dinner that was wonderful – very festive and very drinkable with food!

Menu planning is really a lot of fun, though it can take a while.  I certainly use these resources all the time, so don’t feel bad about needing the help – you’ll fine that the more you try it, the easier it will get.  Somehow it just becomes more of a feel than thought.

A very Merry Christmas dinner to all of you, whether cooking or eating! 🙂

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One last post on this year’s Thanksgiving…

Since there were only four of us for dinner, and since of course we still need to have all the usual dishes, we had a LOT of leftover.  Also, I was not thinking clearly the day I picked up my turkey at Trader Joe’s and for some reason did not think the 13lb turkey would give us enough leftovers, and since there was nothing else in between, brought home the 18lb turkey.  Michael weighed the leftover picked meat on the scale – 6 lbs.  Ooops!

I spent the Sunday after Thanksgiving repurposing our leftovers into a freezer of food for nighs I don’t want to cook.  It was so much fun to think of creative ways to use up all the food!  Briefly, here are the things that we now have stored up for the winter.

Open-face Turkey Melt

Ok, this one isn’t in the freezer – this was our lunch while I was cooking up the other dishes.  Michael loves his turkey sandwiches really basic – turkey, mayo, white bread.  I need more flavor that.  So I used a slice of sourdough bread as the base to an open face sandwich.  For the mayo, I added flavor with some diced roasted red peppers (from a jar in the fridge), fine-diced red onion, and a splash of lemon juice.  I spread this on the bread.  Then I added shredded turkey and topped it with cheddar cheese.  I popped the sandwich in the toaster oven and heated it until the cheese just started to brown.  YUM!

Turkey Empanadas

This is a recipe that I found in Bon Appetit’s Thanksgiving edition and thought it sounded like a great way to use up leftover stuffing and potatoes as well as the turkey.  You use frozen puff pastry as the base and then spoon on layers of potatoes, stuffing, turkey, gravy – whatever!  Then fold over the top, crimp the edges, and voila!  I made two batches of these – one with turkey, sweet potatoes and stuffing (for Michael) and one with turkey, buttermilk mashed potatoes and greens (for me).  I put the sealed empanadas on a rimmed sheet in the freezer until they were just frozen, then wrapped each individually in foil and put them into labeled ziplock baggies.  So we now have individual meals ready to bake off in the toaster oven at a moment’s notice!  I haven’t tried them yet so can’t swear that they are good, but given that most people love all the Thanksgiving flavor together (especially sine we had our New Orleas theme and all the flavors should blend well), I figure it should at least as good with buttery puff pastry!

Turkey and Vegetable Soup

Soup is SO much easier to make than most people think.  In general, it’s simply a saute of onions and other vegetables, some stock or broth, and as assortment of beans, vegetables or meats.   To make a little turkey soup, I started with a base of onions, carrots and celery (a starter combination known as ‘mirepoix’.  I added in chicken stock and then the shredded turkey, leftover corn maquechoux, a little of the greens, and salt, pepper, thyme and sage for flavoring.  Easy peasy!

Turkey and Collard Green Gumbo

I made this for our dinner after a day of leftover baking.  Gumbo is a dark velvety soup of sorts, started from a roux, which is flour and oil cooked until it is dark brown.  To this I added what in New Orleans they call ‘the Trinity’ – onion, celery and green pepper.  You then pour in some chicken stock, a bottle of beer and a bunch of spices.  The recipe calls for smoked turkey, but I just added the leftover shredded roasted turkey, and instead of cooking the greens in the gumbo, I just dumped in our leftover cooked greens.  Once all cooked, you serve the gumbo over rice with a dusting of parsley on top.  This dish is not spicy, like you might assume about a gumbo – it’s a smooth, dark, rich flavor.  We ate our fill that night, and then I put the rest in the freezer for another time.

It’s nice to know all the effort put into the Thanksgiving meal lives on…in my freezer…for another day!

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Gosh, I am SO sorry, dear readers, that it has taken me so long to get back to you about Thanksgiving dinner!!!  I started this ages ago but got distracted trying to add pictures…I am just going to send it out into the blogisphere as is at this point.  We didn’t have many pictures anyway – too busy eating!!!

All in all, it was really successful and delicious.  I’m not sure whether I picked fewer or easier dishes, or somehow managed to prepare better, but the kitchen was less chaotic in the hour before we ate than it was last year, which is really nice!  I did a lot of prepping the day before and day of, but it really paid off in a smooth final lap to the dinner table.  Everything had good flavor and spice and I was happy with all the new recipes.  And my parents and Michael loved it and that’s the best reward of all – happy eaters!!!

The biggest surprise to me was the turkey – which, if I do say so myself, was AWESOME!  Remember I don’t like turkey, so I was looking for a way to add some good flavor and keep it moist.  And this is definitely the best effort ever!  We used Emeril Lagasse’s Pepper-Stuffed Turkey recipe, which asks you to cut strategic slits in the turkey and get a teaspoon-ful of spiced butter and a mixture of chopped peppers, onions and garlic shoved in the meat of the bird.  My mom and I were alternating between the directions and poking the turkey for a while to figure out where Emeril wanted us to make the cuts, but we must have gotten more or less close to the right thing because the whole bird was super flavorful and really moist!  We also put the butter mixture and a bit of the pepper mixture under the skin, and poured the rest of the pepper mixture inside the turkey.  YUM YUM YUM.  I would absolutely make this again.  I would also use the recipe and tweak it with different flavors – for example, Herbes de Provence in the butter mixture, and fennel, olives, garlic and shallots with olive oil and champagne vinegar for the spice mixture?

The Andouille Sausage and Cornbread Stuffing was my mom’s favorite – it smelled wonderful with the andouille sausage and pork sausage cooked with all the yummy veggies!  The recipe made a TON of food – I would recommend halving it, and or putting half the cooked sausage and veggie mixture in the freezer to mix later with the cornbread stuffing mix and get another dish out of it.  All in all, it added great New Orleans flavor to the meal.

The Sweet Potato Pudding was not a lot different from the usual sweet potato dish – it had a sprinkling of brown sugar, butter and pecans on top and the usual spices.  But the eggs that were added made the texture a bit lighter than usual, and it was also a little sweeter and less sweet-potato tasting (in the one bite I had!).  One thing I really liked about this dish was that I could make it a day ahead and put the complete dish in the fridge, then pop it into the oven to cook after the turkey came out!

Corn Maquechoux is one of my favorite side dishes when I make a New Orleans-style meal.  I like it because it’s a flavorful veggie dish, but not too heavy.  Yes, you finish it with a swirl of cream, but that really just helps all the spices and flavors coat the corn better.  This is always a good counterpoint to a spicy or heavy dish to me, so it was just a solid side for this feast.  The link will take you to a recipe I found online – the one I use is similar but doesn’t have jalepenos; the rest is the same.  If you wanted something really hot, you could go ahead with the jalepenos as well as the red peppers.

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes are a Barefoot Contessa recipe.   I like her potato recipes, because they add lots of flavor but still taste very potato-y, if that makes sense.  Her Parmesan Mashed Potatoes are my usual staple, but I thought the parmesan might be a bit too heavy with Thanksgiving.  I also considered an Emeril recipe for Garlic Mashed Potatoes that blends roasted garlic  into the smashed potatoes, but I felt we really needed something on the plate that wasn’t screaming at you with flavor.  My usual inclination is to pile on the rich, spicy, flavorful dishes – and then I have to go back and edit to make sure there are enough things on the plate that quietly and gracefully accompany the extroverts.  It makes for a happier meal.  And I was very pleased with these potatoes, because they did just that.  I like to mash my potatoes to look a little rustic – I used red skinned potatoes and cooked them with skins on so the end result is chunky and has the flecs of red skin.  It tastes heartier and healthier to me that way, but if you like a more refined potato, skin them before boiling and blend them in your mixer with the paddle attachment.  NEVER use a food processor – I only made that mistake once, hoping for a really smooth and luxurious texture, and ending up with glue.  The food processor overdevelops the glutens and the potatoes become totally inedible.

Southern Braised Greens with Bacon was indeed a VERY flavorful version of braised greens, and happily, one that didn’t require some kind of bone, which I did not have, for flavor.  The only complaint for this dish might be that it was TOO flavorful – you could only eat a little bite at a time because of how strong it was, and I was pairing bites up with some meat or some potatoes.  I did love the way it complemented those other foods,  but it was slightly overpowering.  I would like to look into some other  braised greens dishes and see if it’s possible to get them cooked and broken down (which is what you use the beer and vinegar for in this recipe) without making it taste so strong.

Sweet Potato Muffins are a classic in the Brill family – so much so that they were, this past Thanksgiving, made on THREE continents!  Both my sisters made these for their respective Thanksgivings in Dubai and Johannesburg.  These are not your typical fluffy muffins – they are dense and very moist and they are awesome.  It truly is not Thanksgiving for my family without them.  Luckily they go with all the menu themes I have drafted for Thanksgivings to come!  The recipe follows – these are a wonderful accompaniment to any winter meal.  You can make them a few days in advance and either keep them in the freezer or fridge and then toast before serving with butter.

Sweet Potato Muffins

½ c butter

1 ¼ c sugar

2 eggs

1 ¼ c canned sweet potatoes, mashed (can substitute yams)

1 ½ c flour

2 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp nutmeg

1 c milk

¼ c pecans or walnuts, toasted and chopped (optional)

½ c raisins, chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease or line one muffin tin.

Cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs and mix well.  Blend in the sweet potatoes.

Sift flour with baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Add alternatively with milk.  Do not overmix!  Fold in nuts and raisins if desired.

Fill muffin tins 2/3 full and bake for 25 minutes.  Be sure muffins are fully cooked – they may brown a little around the edges but this is fine.  Makes 12 large muffins.

I have nothing more to say about the Perfect Pecan Pie recipe – it was, once again, perfect.  We never even got to the Pumpkin Pound Cake because it was so good!   So the cake is in the freezer for another day.  I am overwhelmed by the number of you who have checked this blog for the menu and the report-out…thanks so much for reading!  Hope you all had a joyful and yummy holiday, and are excited about more festive meals to come this Christmas!

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