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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Upper Crust

My dad was my hero.  When our family moved back to the United States after living overseas, we left behind our nannies, caretakers,  and housekeepers. Without Frau Olga or Ababa cooking for our vagabond traveling troupe, my dad had to fend for himself. For us. Apart from his occasional batches of fantastic sticky, savory, and sweet Boston Baked Beans, he had an arsenal of meals  loaded from top to bottom in our drab pea-green overhead  freezer. My dad totally embraced the notion of Banquet and Sawnson TV dinners. They were easy and quick to prepare. He was a single father who worked a lot and had to feed two growing boys. As a military officer (and in pure military fashion),  he kept our frozen stash of TV dinners filed like books. Left to right, by title.  Frozen edible books.

Stacks of small frozen beef and turkey pot pies anchored his arctic library. The variety of frozen stuff seemed endless and I adored it all. I grew accustomed to mashed potatoes sweetened with cherry pie filling, salisbury steak glazed with chocolate pudding, and  buttered sweet corn spiked with apple sauce.  Glistening on top of compartmental aluminum foil trays, those frozen treats were fun, flawed, and adventurous.  Life was good.

Michael and I love to wrap our lips around pot pies, but I rarely make them because I suck when it comes to making pastry and pie dough. We both have issues with restaurant versions because they're never pies. They typically consist of pretty bowls loaded with savory fillings topped with flaky flavored biscuits, cornbread, or beautifully browned  puff pastry poofs. Toppers. Tops without bottoms.  Pot pies should have both.

I gambled and took a chance.

The Crust.

I had phyllo pastry dough. Paper thin flaky phyllo dough. Yep.  Think about it.The filling didn't really matter. I could have used any filling. Beef stew, creamed chicken, stewed eggplant, lobster bisque, or vegetable succatash would have worked beautifully. I imagined that a lightly spiced lamb and eggplant Greek Moussaka topped with eggy bechamel would have been splendid.  I used  turkey because,...well, I had a lot of leftover turkey.

It wasn't about the filling, it was all about the crust.

After bagging up and freezing the pretty slices of leftover turkey, I chopped the remaining scraps into bite sized  pieces and made a basic roux by cooking  2 tablespoons of butter with 2 tablespoons of flour. When the flour cooked out a bit, I added 1 cup of warmed cream and 1 cup of  warmed chicken stock. As the sauce thickened, I tumbled a handful of sliced snow peas, green peas, halved black olives. pimentos, and the reserved turkey into the creamy mix. I seasoned the pot pie filling with salt, cracked black pepper, and grated nutmeg before pulling it from the heat to cool.

While phyllo can be fussy and finicky to work with, it's very forgiving.  If a sheet tears, who cares?  Butter it and slap it into place.

I thawed a sleeve of frozen phyllo dough overnight in the refrigerator and unfolded the delicate sheets, covering them with a damp towel to prevent them from drying out. Layers were key. 10 layers for both the top and bottom of the pot pie. I melted 1/2 cup butter and swirled it into 1/2 cup olive oil. After buttering 10 individual sheets of phyllo, I layered them into a 10 inch fluted Bybee Pottery dish, tucking the extra dough in, around, and under the edges of the dish before spooning the creamed turkey onto the bottom crust and covering it with 1 cup of grated pecorino romano cheese.

I repeated the 10 layer process for the top crust and placed the sticky slab on top of the cheesy  turkey filling. I initially intended to bake the top crust flat, but decided to poke the dough into the edges to seal the pie. I buttered one last sheet of phyllo and draped it over the top like a wind blown tissue. That was it.

I slid the enormous pot pie into a 350 degree oven and let it rip for 45 minutes until it was gorgeously browned and crisped.

After smashing the crust open with a large spoon, the feathery phyllo sheets shattered like broken glass, creating a crackingly creamy fabulous mess.

It was wonderfully ridiculous.

From top to bottom.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Discard the vegetables.

In lieu of my fancy  nonstick v-shaped roasting rack, I typically roast whole chickens or turkeys on top of chopped carrots, celery, and onions. While they suspend the meat just above the heated pan to allow browning on the underside, the low-lying vegetables also allow the meat to melt into the pan juices, creating the  fabulous sticky caramelized skin candy that clings to the bottom of the pan.

With a relatively short cooking time, chicken roasted over vegetables is a no brainer. With  tender meat, crisp skin, and caramelized vegetables bathed in savory pan juices, it usually results in a great one pot meal. Turkey is a different beast. The long cooking time of roasted turkey transforms the underlying vegetables into saturated soft melted  jewels. Most people might consider long  braised vegetables useless.  Spent. Done. Toast. Kaput. Flavorless. Discard  the vegetables and strain the pan juices. Blah. Blah. Blah. I guess I'm a rule breaker and a heretic because I don't discard the vegetables.

Sometimes, I've mashed them into pulp before swirling them back into the pan juices as a natural thickener. Occasionally, I've served them to the side  with a dollops of sour cream and  grated fresh horseradish. Most of the time, I've eaten them straight from the pan as savory sweet treats.

 Last weekend, I repurposed them.

After roasting a 15 pound turkey for hours, I heaved the bird from the pan to rest and scooped the braised vegetables onto a  small platter before storing them in the refrigerator.


Pureed Carrot Soup with Goat Cheese Croutons.

I pulled the carrots, celery, and onions from the refrigerator. To perk up their long sleepy braise, I sauteed sliced shallots and minced garlic in olive oil. When the shallots started to caramelize, I deglazed the pan with 1/2 cup white wine along with 1 1/2 cups chicken stock. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and tumbled the reserved vegetables into the pan. For zing, I showered the vegetables with a heaping tablespoon of citrusy sumac before covering the pan to warm everything through.

When the stock reduced by half, I carefully blended the vegetables and stock into a velvety puree. After returning the puree to the pot, I added a 1/2 cup chicken stock and a splash of heavy cream.

Goat Cheese Croutons.

Pureed soups need crunch. I jacked up the crunch factor with the crisp  tang of deep fried goat cheese.
I divided 4 ounces of fresh chevre into quarters, rolled them into small sticky balls, and shaped them into four small cheese discs.  After rolling the discs through flour, egg wash, dried bread crumbs, and fresh minced parsley,  I slid them into the freezer for an hour to harden.

After heating  the soup to a plopping spitting simmer, I ladled it into small soup bowls and  pan seared the croutons in buttered olive oil until they were gooey and  golden brown. Moments before the croutons  collapsed into a fried cheesy mess, I carefully dropped them into each bowl with a sprinkling fresh thyme leaves.

With deep roasted layers of flavor, the silken puree was light, rich, and complex. While the sumac brightened the sleepy puree with brash citrus undertones, the oozing goat cheese added creamy tang and crunch.

Spent vegetables?
Simply repurposed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

You Say Potato...

What's in a name?
Gratin Dauphinois, Pommes Anna, Au Gratin Potatoes, Scalloped Potatoes Au Gratin, and Scalloped Potatoes are all  variations of basically the same thing; they're names of preparations for sliced potatoes baked in butter or cream, with or without cheese, garlic, herbs, and/or breadcrumbs. Although there are classic methods for each variation, the possibilities and combinations are endless.

I'm not much of a rule follower.

 A couple of years ago, we took a gruyere laden yukon gold and red-skinned sweet potato gratin to my family holiday potluck.  Flecked with specks of fresh rosemary and layered with oozing gruyere cheese, the gratin was encased in a double rolled cheese-filled pastry crust. It might have been a little over the top,  but my family loved the curious gratin. Michael and I didn't taste a single crumb.  As the line formed around the food, we slipped out onto the chilly screened-in side deck and chugged  boxed white wine from paper Dixie Cups. By the time we finished our wine, the impressive monstrosity was completely gone.

For a recent  laid-back weeknight supper, I took a much simpler approach.

Sweet potatoes are...well...naturally sweet.  While I adore the marshmallow-topped brown sugared sweet potato casseroles that dot our holiday tables, I tend to lean toward a more savory bent when preparing them at home. Balance.

Scalloped Sweet Potatoes, with a twist.

Using my mandolin, I sliced a combination of four Madison County white-skinned and red-skinned sweet potatoes into 1/8 inch rounds. I buttered the bottom and edges of a spring form pan, dusted the butter with dried breadcrumbs, and layered the potatoes by color in a circular pattern with overlapping edges (Pommes Anna style), dotting each layer with butter, salt, and white pepper. Midway through the potato stack, I tumbled a cup of dried sour cherries onto one layer before finishing the layers with a topping of additional butter, salt, pepper, grated parmigiano reggiano, and fresh parsley.

After drizzling a cup of heavy cream over the potatoes, I tapped the pan to evenly distribute  the cream, covered it with foil, and slid it into a 350 oven to bake for 1 1/2 hours.

While the scalloped potatoes bubbled away, I soaked 1/3 cup of the dried sour cherries in equal portions of brandy and apple cider vinegar.

After an hour, I uncovered the potatoes for the remaining 30 minutes to brown the top. I drained the plumped sour cherries and used 3 tablespoons of the infused brandied vinegar to make a very basic vinaigrette ( 3 tablespoons vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, salt, and pepper).  

I pulled the gurgling scalloped potatoes from the oven to rest and tossed baby arugula in the sour cherry brandied vinaigrette with orange zest, slivered tomatoes, and the re-hydrated cherries.

When the sweet potatoes were cool enough to slice, I nestled  delicate wedges over the arugula and served them  alongside rolled slices of leftover roast beef with  pan gravy.

Soft and creamy, the potato layers seemed to melt and  fuse together in the buttery cream. While the bronzed parmigiano cheese crust provided slight salty nuttiness, the hidden cherries cut through the richness, adding tangy tart bites with contrasting textures.

Sweet potato pie with attitude.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Turn It Up

Mental food juggling. This is the time of year when my mind usually drifts away and fills with carnal thoughts of  holiday gluttony. Cerebral food orgies. This year, while thoughts of juicy turkey meat, moist dressing, lusty gravy, and rich side dishes dance through my head, I  have an event at work 4 days before Thanksgiving that has me focused on Puerto Rican  stewed pork (Carne de Cerdo Guisada) and fried pork skins (chiccarrones).

One day at a time.

Lately, I've had a wistful hankering for turnips. Ever year, one of my aunts prepares a small bowl of fabulous whipped turnips as a side dish for our family Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. Nestled among the gray-ish  turkey, rum-infused ham, giblet gravy, dressing, casseroles, jellied salads, cookies, cakes, and pies, her buttery whipped turnips always glisten under the overhead kitchen fluorescent lights.  One tiny bowl of turnips for 30 people. I've never snagged more than a single spoonful.

She says they're simple to prepare. Peel, boil, and mash. Her magic. While I've done everything with turnips except marry one, I haven't attempted her hallowed  method for delicate, light, and airy turnips. I patiently anticipate my yearly holiday rations.


With turnips on my brain, plans for Puerto Rican empanadas, shrimp mofungo, and ceviche were  immediately pushed to the back burner when I bagged 2 hefty purple-skinned Casey County turnips from the farmers market on a cold Tuesday morning.

Whipped turnips? Nope.

Turnip Souffle.
Souffles have a reputation for being finicky, but I think they're worth the small effort. Yes, they deflate. A lot of things in life deflate without tasting like an utterly  fantastic collapsed souffle. Who cares? Go with the flow. Even when they fall, their flavors and textures remain intact.

Before starting the process, I brought 5 large organic eggs to room temperature and separated them into 4 beaten yolks and 5  whites.

After peeling and dicing 2 large turnips (2 1/2 pounds), I plunged them into salted water and boiled them for 45 minutes.  When the turnips were fork tender, I drained them in a colander before pureeing them in a food processor and allowing them to cool.

I used a basic souffle base for a 6 cup souffle dish.  After melting 3 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over a medium flame, I added 3 tablespoons of flour to the butter and combined them to form a light roux (no color). When the roux pulled away from the skillet, I added 1 cup of warmed whole milk and whisked it to break up any lumps until it thickened, about 5 minutes. When the bechamel sauce napped the back of a spoon, I tempered the egg yolks  before incorporating them into the sauce along with 1 cup extra sharp aged white cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup pecorino romano cheese, 1 cup of the turnip puree, fresh picked thyme, salt, and white pepper.

Turn it up.

I tossed the egg whites into a squeaky clean mixing bowl, added a pinch of cream of tarter, and beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they formed very stiff glossy peaks. To lighten the souffle base, I added 1/2 cup of the beaten egg whites before carefully folding (without over mixing) the remaining whites into the base.

After buttering  a 6 cup souffle dish, I dusted it with fine bread crumbs before filling it with the eggy turnip mix. I cranked the oven to 400 degrees, slid the souffle into hot oven, turned the temperature down to 375 degrees, and let it rip....without peeking. Hard.

While the souffle did its thing in the oven, I pan seared a thick ham steak in melted butter over medium high heat until the edges started to curl. When the ham caramelized,  I deglazed the pan with 1 cup of strong coffee spiked with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and a splash of pure maple syrup. After turning the heat to low, I sliced the ham steak in half and let the two pieces gurgle in the sweetened red eye gravy/glaze.

Wine. No peeking.
After 40 minutes, I pulled the turnip souffle from the oven. As it quietly deflated, I double-swiped the ham steaks through the red eye glaze and topped them with slivered fresh Casey County red bell peppers before rolling large spoonfuls of puffed turnips to the side.

With sharp nutty undertones from the combined cheeses calming the slight earthy tang of the pureed turnips, the souffle was ridiculously light.

Like eating flavored air.