Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving thoughts and holiday menu ideas

Whew….its over, I am exhausted but happy and thankful.  I am thankful for my family of course, for the warm words said around the table, for a chance to see people I don’t often do…. I am also thankful and happy for the fact that I executed the entire menu, that nothing burned and no one got food poisoning, that everything was more or less delicious and that I didn’t break a single glass while washing the dishes…  Here are a few lessons learned and some highlights:

If you have a chance to cure your own gravlax -  go for it, I discovered yet another recipe and honestly this was the best gravlax I ever made or tasted…. It will be in the next post so keep an eye out…

It totally pays off watching Iron Chef… I swiped the recipe for a modern clams Casino from Bobby Flay from the Thanksgiving battle he just did partnered up with Michael Simon… I tried to duplicate what I saw and this is a delicious dish with creamy clam, salty bits of pancetta, freshness from the pesto and crisp from the topping (recipe at the end of this post)…

Every Thanksgiving should begin by painting cookies with your child the night ( or two) before…it will be the last peaceful moment, you the cook will know until Friday morning…
If you going to invent a great appetizer, go all out... here is the roast of venison served on a crostini with truffled chestnut pure, sweet and tangy sauces, topped with crispy onions and enoki mushrooms 

Sometimes it does not pay to listen to Iron Chefs so much, I made the Cherry chili tart that won Alex Guarnaschelli the Iron Chef post and all I can say it was very creative if not delicious…. But now that I already made a trip to the city for Pastille chilies, I have another great idea for desert which is totally my own so look out Iron Chefs…

If you are going to make something like boudin blanc from scratch yourself, make sure you have at least once tried it made by professionals otherwise you will embarrass yourself… as delicious a the my white sausage and warm cabbage salad was… it was no boudin blanc…or so I was told by one of the guests who is in fact French. 

A great side dish... creamy polenta cakes with fall vegetables ragout...
If you decide to serve soup shots in chilled cucumber glasses, make sure you have a plan the real shot glasses...  Making shots out of cucumber only looks easy on TV
No pictures of the turkey or deserts because by the time the second and third courses are served, I am to tired, drunk to give a crap about the pictures… I always regret it later… because the bird was beautiful and delicious.  If you have a smoker and you are not smoking the turkey, it is a crime…. Only slow smoked turkey in my future, thank you very much (recipe at the end of the post)…

Thanksgiving should not be about the food, we all know that, but it is nice to know I can still make people cry for mercy as they crawl out of the dining room undoing the top button of their pants…

Baked Clams

12 large clams

4 tablespoons finely diced pancetta or bacon or spec or chorizo (I used pancetta for the clams and chorizo for the topping)

½ cup chopped fresh basil

1 garlic clove

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 tbs crème fraiche

For the topping

1 cup bread crumbs

2 tbs finely diced chorizo

2 tbs butter melted and cooled

Make the topping… in a small skillet crisp up the chorizo, than mix the rendered fat and melted butter with the bread crumbs ( food processor is very useful for this)… set aside

Scrub your clams, than place them in a shallow pot with ½ inch of water, cover with a lid and cook on medium for 1 minute or until they just slightly start to open up.  The idea is not to cook them but to open them.  With a dull or oyster knife, force open the shells, scoop out the clam meat and reserve the half shells.

In a small skillet crisp up the bacon or the pancetta, let cool.  In a food processor, make quick pesto by zapping basil, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper until the mixture is smooth and a little runny.  A little lemon zest is nice in here as well.  Chop up the clam meat, combine with pancetta, a little pesto and crème fraiche, mix well.  Stuff each half shell with the clam mixture, top generously with the chorizo bread crumbs and cook under the broiler for a few minutes until the toping is crispy and golden brown.  Serve immediately on a platter covered in thick layer of salt ( helps the shells stay in place and not rattle around)….
Smoked whole Turkey
The recipe is for a 20 lb turkey but can be easily scaled up or down.
For the brine:
1 gallon apple cider
1 gallon of water
2 large oranges cut up
2 apples cut up
1 lemon cut up
2 inch knob of fresh ginger cut up
1 ½ cup of kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
Whole head of garlic
A large bunch of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tbs of whole peppercorns
1 tbs smoked paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp mild chili powder
A large brine bag
Turkey stuffing (just aromatics and not meant as actual stuffing)
1 lemon cut up
1 apple cut up
1 stalk of celery
1 inch knob of fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves
One small shallot
A generous bunch of fresh parsley
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
Montreal Chicken Seasoning
1 tsp smoked paprika
¼ cup of olive oil
1 stick of butter cut in cubes

Basting liquid
2 ½ lbs of butter melted and cooled
8 oz of amber beer
8 oz of apple cider
4 oz of orange juice
1 orange
1 small red chili pepper ( seeds removed)
¼ cup maple syrup
½ tbs salt
A large cheese cloth
Make the brine… combine all the ingredients in a large stock pot, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes… Cool the brine completely.  Rinse your whole turkey inside and out, place in a the brining bag breast side down and pour the brine over it, submerging the turkey completely.  Tie the bag securely and  store in the refrigerator for at least 36 hours or up to 4 days. 
On cooking day, take out the turkey, pat it dry inside and out.  Salt and pepper the cavity generously than stuff with all the stuffing aromatics…  With your palm of your hand separate the skin from the breast (try not to tear it) and stuff all the butter cubes between the breast meat and the skin.  Rub the outside with olive oil, season with seasoning spices and let it sit out of the fridge for at least 1 -2 hrs before going in the smoker.
Prepare your smoker, add the wood chips and make sure you get the temperature between 250F and 260F degrees…. Soak the cheese cloth in the melted butter and wrap it all around the turkey, it will prevent the skin from going too dark.
Make the basting liquid, combine beer, cider and oj in a sauce pan, add orange, chili, maple syrup and salt.  Simmer for 20-25 minutes until the liquid is slightly reduced.  Discard the orange and chili, add the rest of the melted butter.
Smoke the turkey at approximately 250F for 5 -6 hrs, basting every  30 -40 minutes with basting liquid.  You need to keep the cheese cloth moist and buttery otherwise it will stick to the skin.  Remove the cheese cloth the last 30 minutes of cooking and the skin will be perfectly crispy.
Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before carving, and if you have any basting liquid left over you can pour it on top of the turkey before carving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thanksgiving menu.

Every year around mid-October I start to freak out about my Thanksgiving menu.  I cook a lot and throughout the year I put together quite a few menus for large and small gatherings, cooking projects and Sunday dinners, but I go all out for Thanksgiving.  It is the most important meal of the year for me, I honor my family by showcasing my best, and everything I learned through the year and aside for a few favorite staples I do not like to repeat myself.

I have to have a theme, an inspiration of some sorts, whether a specific cuisine, a showcased ingredient or one dish that I am dying to make that I can build a whole menu around.  I had French inspired Thanksgivings, Mediterranean, and all American.  I had color inspired Thanksgivings, when I was obsessed with orange one year and yellow the next.  Last year’s inspiration was a “perfect byte” concept and this year I struggled to come up with a fresh idea… but that is what fiends are for.  I have a coworker who I call my “culinary” friend ( she is of course much more than that), she shares my passion for cooking and gets the lengths I go to ( Let’s just mention that every year she makes an edible animal to represent the Chinese symbol for the year…. The year of the snake was especially creative).  I bounced a few ideas off her and loosely came up with an October fest theme, but it didn’t quite fit my personality, besides I have baked pretzels before and have no desire to do it again.  We were taking a lunch stroll when she mentioned I should showcase venison somehow (God knows I have a lot of it this year), I started playing around with that idea and it hit me… The original Thanksgiving!  The settlers and the Indians did not eat turkey (well maybe wild ones), they had venison and clams and chestnuts and  corn and small birds…. Why not showcase the original Thanksgiving ingredients before we get to the Turkey, and while we are at it, why not use the original cooking techniques if I can, such as open fire roasting and grilling on coals. 

Also, because the second night of Hanukah happens to fall on Thanksgiving Day this year, I included a few modern twists on old and trusted Jewish favorites.
I sincerely hope that I will be able to execute on this very ambitions menu.  At this point I think that the only things that can derail some of the dishes are either lack of peculiar ingredients or the fact that there are only 24 hrs in the day…. Anyway, now that it is in print, I guess I am committed.

I am off to make my stocks now… as always, there will be highlights and tastes post after the holiday.


Thanksgiving 2013


Chilled cucumber shots with warm roasted squash and tomato soup, garnished with pop-corn

Lobster salad stuffed eggs

Homemade boudin blanc with warm cabbage salad, lentils and walnut cider vinaigrette

Tiny polenta cakes with fall vegetables ragout

Home cured gravlax with spicy brown mustard or watercress cream sauce served on pumpernickel bread

Clams on half shell baked with crème fresh and pesto and anchovy bread crumbs

Roast of venison served on crostini with chestnut pure, horseradish sauce and crispy fried onions

Pork roulade stuffed with apples and onions with spicy apricot balsamic sauce

Duck liver mouse with red-wine prune preserves

Micro-greens with fresh pomegranates, spicy pepitas and  pomegranate dressing

Apple, cucumber, radish and watercress salad with mint yogurt dressing

Fresh Zucchini bread with choice of sweet and savory butters

Main course

BBQ Smoked Turkey with apple cider, ginger sauce

Bourbon cranberry sauce

Potatoes and wild mushrooms

Roasted corn and tomato salad

Hericot vert with roasted hazelnuts and red pepper dressing

Red rice and quinoa salad with oranges and pistachios

Poblano pepper and cheddar corn bread


Fruit tartlets

Bourbon Pumpkin cheese cake

Assortment of macaroons (Lemon, Cassis, Chesnutt and Pistachio)

Assorted of decorated butter cookies ( Jam stuffed, sour cream and chocolate stuffed or salted caramel)

Cinnamon  doughnut holes with chocolate and berry dipping sauces

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Spaghetti and Clams

Whenever I travel, I always come back with lots of culinary inspiration and always with one perfectly captivating dish I just have to re-create.  A taste of southern Spain for me will always be a fideua, a taste of London is a scone with clotted cream and perfectly bitter orange marmalade, the Scotland summed up in a juicy, rare lamb chop…
I ate an array of amazing food in Italy this summer but one taste was so vivid, so unforgettable and so purely satisfying that I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  To think that a dish so simple can be the one most perfect byte to sum up all of Mediterranean coast cuisine…
As I am pouring over my past menus, cook books and recipe ideas to come up with yet another ambitious and barely executable Thanksgiving menu, I was craving simplicity.  And since I am again allowed to cook Italian food by my oh-so-spoiled family, I went to re-create the perfect byte of Italy – a simple spaghetti and clams.
It takes 5 ingredients to make it and about 15 minutes and if done right it becomes a dish you will crave over and over again.  It truly celebrates the essence of Amalfi coast cuisine, simple, great ingredients put together with love and tradition of centuries.
If you can get your hands on the wild Mediterranean clams, you are in luck… for the rest of make do with whatever your fish monger can master up.  You want the smallest clams you can find, the cockles or vongoles, little necks or the multitude of small clams from the Pacific that I am not too familiar with.  Anything wild caught will taste much better than farmed and god forbid you to use anything preserved.
And if you ever bought clam juice in a bottle, please don’t do it again.  It takes 30 seconds to get the real thing out of your clams and the taste cannot be compared to the bottled crap.

Now let’s talk pasta.  There is a reason why pasta comes in two varieties, fresh and dried.  One is not better than other, each has its purpose and I got a good lesson of which to use when while I was in Italy.  Fresh pasta is great with thicker sauces, such as tomato or cream and cheese based.  For seafood light sauces and broth type sauces you never want to use fresh pasta.  It will become soggy and the idea is to have the toothy (al dente) texture offset the sauces with less body.  This dish demands dry pasta and not the whole wheat variety, not the egg enriched pasta but the honest to goodness old-fashioned spaghetti made with semolina flour and water…  And why spaghetti?  Again, the 2,000 pasta shapes out there all have a reason or more importantly a science of holding whichever sauce they are made to carry.  Ridged, short pasta is a perfect vessel for a meat ragout, a nice bucatini is perfect for spicy Amatriciana or a fra Diavolo.  Linguini is great with larger seafood and broth such as shrimp and muscles, but is too thick for a delicate clam dish.  Spaghetti is perfect, not too thick, and not too thin, holds the sauce but does not “carry” it, a wound up fork fool is proportionate to the size of an average clam… in one word perfect.

I know, it may all be too scientific and too thoughtful, after all I was advocating the simplicity and food should not be so complicated. So without further complications, here is the recipe to the dish I crave every single day since coming home.

Spaghetti and clams

3 lbs of small wild clams
1 lb dry spaghetti
1.5 cups of dry white wine

8 cloves of garlic minced
Extra virgin Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley for garnish


Place all your clams in a large container and hold under a running cold water for at least 10-15 minutes.  This will help get rid of a lot of sand.  Than arrange all clams in one layer on a bottom of a shallow pan with a good lid.  Add just ¼ cup of water to the pan, cover and place of a low medium heat for 2-3 minutes.  Turn off the heat and let stand covered for another 2-3 minutes.  This allows the clams to open and release all the juice but not cook all the way.  Remove the clams and set aside.  Strain the clam juice through a cheese cloth to remove the remaining sand  and set aside.  Drop your pasta into heavily salted boiling water.
Clean the pan that  you cooked the clams in ( you may still have a bit of sand in it).  Heat 2 tbs of olive oil and add all the garlic, sauté on low heat until garlic just becomes soft.  Add back all the clams and the white wine, cook on low-medium heat for 1 min, add the reserved clam juice and cook for 2 minutes more.  Add the black pepper and the salt if needed.  The amount of salt will depend on the how briny your clams are, sometimes the juice they release is quite salty so taste the broth before you season it. 
At this point your pasta should be perfectly al dente, drain it and add it to the clams pan.  Toss in the broth for a few seconds and don’t forget to add the parsley.  Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and garnish with a bit more parsley.

That’s it….Mangiare!