Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkey Day for Tiny Families: A 'Thanksgiving Dinner' in Small Bites

Hold the phone, I'm sorry........but, what?? What day did you say that today was? Oh holy cranberries, and bless me Mother of Giblet Gravy and Stuffing: it's Thanksgiving. If you've reached this day and are currently suffering from any of the following circumstances, take heart! Help may soon be on the way. Did you:

1. Completely forget to buy a frozen turkey when you should have weeks ago, only to remember now when every single turkey is either sold out or prohibitively expensive, not that you'd have time to defrost it from a frozen rock solid state in time for tonight anyway?

2. Forget that you live in a tiny apartment complete with tiny apartment kitchen, in the oven of which you can barely bake a pork chop, let alone cram in an entire whole large fowl plus roasting pan?

3. Forget that you have a tiny family which may only consist of two humans and a pet, for which cooking an entire traditional feast, however wonderful leftovers may be, just seems a little silly and overblown?

4. Suffer a Thanksgiving-induced freakout a few weeks back and decide that NO SIR OR MA'AM, YOU WOULD NOT BE HAVING A TURKEY DINNER THIS YEAR, NO WAY, TOO MUCH WORK, LAY OFF ME IT'S NOT GONNA HAPPEN, only to then feel pangs of seasonal remorse leading to you changing your mind, then changing it back a few more times, only to reach today......secretly wishing for a little turkey on your plate? But unable to purchase an actual turkey, of course (see Scenario #1).

Fear not, my Turkey Disciples, for I have a plan. It's called............'Turkey & Stuffing' Meatballs with Sweet Potato Gnocchi in Brown Butter & Sage, and Miniature Green Bean Casseroles.

Some cubes of the stale ciabatta loaf (or any crusty bread, sourdough would also be lovely) that's been sitting around on your counter for the last few days will do nicely for the 'stuffing' component of the meatballs. Most meatball recipes call for the addition of bread crumbs anyway, but I left these substitutes whole & finely cubed (about 1/4" inch) as I worked them into the meatball mixture to give a more authentic 'Thanksgiving stuffing' sense memory.

Call me a food snob or purist (you wouldn't be the first), but I really can't stand the traditional green bean casserole that ends up on most tables. You know the one: a quivering mass of canned green beans, canned condensed cream of mushroom soup, and those anachronistic visitors to the 21st century from the 1960s, canned 'French fried' onions (yet another canned ingredient).....all combined in a casserole dish and baked into oblivion.

But when I though about it some more, it's really not so bad in theory, is it? I mean, fresh, snappy green vegetables, combined with silky mushrooms coated in a bechamel sauce, topped with something super savory and crunchy? I've reinvented this mid-century classic with fresh green beans, sweet caramelized onions and savory bread crumbs, individually baked in ramekins so that it's perfectly proportioned for one, two, or twenty people.

Turkey meatballs, combining ground turkey, cubed bread, celery, onions and dried cranberries. This dish combines all the flavors of a traditional, huge holiday meal without any of the worry or effort of roasting a huge bird and preparing endless side dishes. They are juicy, savory and sweet in every bite.

Sweet potato gnocchi, I knew I had to make these this year! Tender, sweet, and bathed in brown butter, they will make you forget all about pans of nasty orange goo coated in factory-made marshmallows. Satisfaction guaranteed.

I recommend serving this meal with something easy, cheerful and seasonal. A cocktail of sparkling wine and cranberry juice couldn't be simpler!

The full mini-Thanksgiving extravaganza on a plate: a few bites of everything that is good about the holiday, without any of the excess baggage. Happy Thanksgiving to all the families out there both large and small, may your day be full of coziness & merriment, and most importantly plenty of delicious, stress-free food! :)

'Turkey & Stuffing' Meatballs

1/2 lb. ground turkey
1/3 cup finely (1/4" inch) cubed stale bread
3 T. diced celery
3 T. diced white onion
3 T. chopped dried cranberries
1 T. finely chopped fresh sage
1 T. melted butter
splash of milk
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine turkey, bread cubes, cranberries, butter and milk in a mixing bowl, mix loosely using your hands (do not overly mix or 'squish' the mixture, especially the bread crumbs, just mix until barely combined).

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and 'sweat' the onions and celery so that they do not color, but begin to soften until translucent. If you throw the vegetables into the mixture while raw and then proceed to cook the meatballs, they will throw off a lot of water during cooking and your meatballs will do more steaming than actual roasting. Trust me, do not skip this step! When they are nearly done, add the fresh sage and cook for 30 more seconds to release flavor.

Remove celery, onion and sage from heat, let cool, then add to mixture with salt & pepper. Form into balls about 1.5" in diameter, place on a nonstick baking sheet or one lined with parchment paper. Bake for 20 minutes, or until meatballs are thoroughly cooked. Serves 2.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi in Brown Butter & Fresh Sage

1 sweet potato
1 cup flour (plus extra)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 egg
1 tsp. real maple syrup
3 T. butter
1 T. fresh chopped sage
Preheat oven to 350. Bake sweet potato for at least 30 minutes, or until soft to the touch. Remove and let cool thoroughly (I stuck mine in the freezer to cool faster). Peel and press through a potato ricer or a food mill into a mixing bowl. Add salt, nutmeg, maple syrup and egg and mix thoroughly. Add flour a small amount at a time and mix until you have a smooth dough (you may need slightly more or less flour than is called for).

Place a large pot of salted water over high heat to boil. In the meantime, form gnocchi. The traditional method is to form a long rope of dough, then slice off small sections and roll them over a fork like so. I was impatient with the rolling & slicing method, plus my rope of dough didn't seem to want to stick together, so I skipped straight to just pinching off a small amount of dough, rolling it into a ball in my hand, then pressing it over the tines of a fork to get the texture. Your mileage may vary. You may find a little extra flour useful here to keep the gnocchi from sticking.

Boil the gnocchi until they float, about five minutes. Remove & drain the excess water. In a large skillet, heat butter over medium high heat until it just begins to brown. Add sage and gnocchi, toss to heat & combine for about 60 seconds. Serves 2.

Miniature Green Bean Casseroles

1 cup fresh green beans, cleaned, trimmed and sliced into 1" lengths
6 white button mushrooms, sliced
4 T. sliced red onion
3 T. bread crumbs
2 T. butter
2 T. canola oil
salt & pepper
3 T. milk
1 tsp. flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine bread crumbs with 1 T. canola oil and some salt & pepper, spread on a baking sheet and bake until just barely brown and crunchy (watch them closely, they will cook in just a few minutes).

Heat 1 T. of canola oil in a skillet over medium high heat, saute green beans about 3 minutes until slightly tender but still a bit crunchy. Remove from heat. Wipe out skillet, lower heat to medium, add butter and sliced mushrooms. Cook until softened and slightly browned, then sprinkle with flour. Stir until a kind of roux forms and coats the mushrooms. Remove from heat, add milk and stir quickly until mushrooms are coated lightly in a white bechamel coating. Salt & pepper lightly, then divide mixture between 2 ramekins and press into bottom. Add green beans on top of mushroom mixture.

Wipe out skillet once again and add onions. Cook slowly over medium heat until brown and caramelized, but not burned. Divide over green beans, then sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake at 350 for about 12 minutes, then brown quickly under broiler until bread crumbs are thoroughly browned. Serves 2.

Cranberry Sparkling Wine Cocktail

sparkling wine
cranberry juice
Mix to taste. Be festive. :)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cooking with Skulls: Sweet, Frosted Dia de Los Muertos-Inspired Treats

Greetings, my halloweenies! All right, technically we're post-Halloween here, but I made the delicious treats shown above for my coworkers and took them in on the day itself, so we'll go with it. Just a quickie drive-by blog entry to show off some of my latest holiday handiwork! More new entries are coming as soon as I can catch up (I've been cooking up a storm over here).

For now, please enjoy the Dia de Los Muertos-inspired (Mexican 'Day of the Dead') sugar cookies I made for Halloween this year, inspired by the hyper-decorated traditional sugar skulls made in Mexico. The cookie base is from Alton Brown's recipe for rolled sugar cookies, and like every other recipe with his name on it, it is absolutely flawless (with one small caveat: go ahead and double the amount of salt he calls for. It's an adjustment you don't need to feel guilty over, since you're only going from 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2, and the difference it makes in terms of the flavor is astronomical). His recipe quotes a yield of 3 dozen; I used a slightly larger cookie cutter (4" x 3") and got about 30 cookies.

Frost with plain white icing of your choice, then decorate as garishly as you dare. I'm partial to colored gels, star-shaped sprinkles, and of course, a 'more is more' approach. Feliz Dia de Los Muertos, everyone!