The Gleeful Gourmand: November 2011

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

Oh perfect pumpkin pie, we hardly knew ye.

I know for more than a few of you tonight is your second round of Thanksgiving feasts. How your stomachs will be able to make way for all that deliciousness once more, I'm not sure. Not even a day in between seems like enough time after all we ate on Thursday! We had a wonderful Thanksgiving with my Mom, and the three (and a half - Liam really only ate the turkey) of us worked like the perfect kitchen team. We said we'd like to sit down at the table around 4:45, and I'll be damned if we didn't sit down within minutes of our estimated time! If only Mom was around all the time - then every meal would make it to the table on time (maybe).

We enjoyed Champagne (thanks, Mom!), the perfect turkey (thanks, Buck!) and all the trimmings including my noodles, Mom's stuffing and cranberry relish, pumpkin bread, green beans sauteed with shallots and my pumpkin pie with cinnamon whipped cream. A nice Rosé rounded out the meal perfectly. No major mishaps to report, which doesn't make for an exciting post, but I'm dying to hear yours! Any funny mishaps or major mishaps out there? Share them in the comments!

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend from The Gleeful Gourmand!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving, Bets, and a Re-Post

Thanksgiving. More than any other holiday, it's the one where we (probably) cook the most, in a record amount of time. Right now it's 9:06 on Wednesday evening, and I can smell the amazing brine Buck is cooking right now for our turkey. Yes, there may have been a few meltdowns over the hipsters languishing in the aisles in Whole Foods (Get out of the way! We're on a mission here!), yes there may have been more than one mad dash to the grocery store for last minute items ("What's the difference between Vegetable Stock and Vegetable Broth?!"), and yes, I know that Liam will look at the magnificent spread tomorrow and say "I don't like any of that." I'm betting on it. In fact, you can also place your bets now on whether he will say it before it all makes it to the table, or while it's still in process in the kitchen.

But you know what? I couldn't give a flying fig. I love Thanksgiving. And tomorrow I am hosting my first Thanksgiving ever. There aren't a lot of us involved (just us and my Mom), but I want it to be wonderful, and I want to not set my cutting board on fire like I did the first (and only) time I hosted Christmas dinner. Part of making it wonderful is relaxing now, and watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And I'll be reliving the memories of Thanksgiving past, and missing people who have gone too soon from this life. Because a large part of making dishes that are tried-and-true is the fact that we make them because we want to carry on our family traditions. In that vein, I'd like to post the blog I wrote last year for Thanksgiving about my Grandma Hazel:

When I was a kid growing up, my family would make the trek every Thanksgiving to my father’s childhood home in Moundsville, West Virginia. It’s almost impossible for me not to think of West Virginia when I think of Thanksgiving. Though the 8-hour car ride was tough, it was well worth it, especially as we wound our way through the mountains soaring and painted in their fall hues. Deer carcasses littered the sides of the roads, but that was just ordinary.

We would pull up to the front of my Grandma Hazel’s house, light blue with its slate stone steps leading up to a great front porch. She always had a pot of vegetable soup bubbling on the stove for us, and slices of white bread for making sandwiches. It was a big deal for us to have white bread since wheat was always the order of things at our home. Another thing my mother allowed us to have that first night as a treat: Diet Coke.

Grandma Hazel was the epitome of unconditional love and grace. I never once heard her raise her voice to anyone. In a multitude of cousins, I was the only girl, and I shared a special bond with her. She was also an excellent home cook – the type who never used a recipe, but made everything by sight, smell, touch, and taste. She would rise on Thanksgiving morning around 4 a.m. to put the turkey in her oven down in the basement, its door held closed by a chair wedged under its handle. When we finally came downstairs for breakfast, she would already be cooking for the crush of family about to descend on her house. My mother would jump into action helping her, and one by one, our favorite dishes would be created. I wish I could list all of those great dishes, but I know for sure there was mashed potatoes, both pumpkin and apple pies, and our family’s favorite: noodles.

These are not the kind of noodles one might think of when they think of pasta. Though the dough shares the same properties, these noodles (simply called “noodles”) are as wide and thick as a finger, and thrown into a huge pot of boiling chicken broth, seasoned heavily with salt and pepper. This simple, easy dish doesn't look like much, but oh – the taste! Like creamy dumplings, but better. Slightly firm to the first bite but completely tender on the finish. This dish is legendary in my family.

In those days, the family would descend, and my brother and I would play with our younger cousins until we sat down to eat around noon. We would feast as though we’d never seen food in our lives, and then we’d all help with the dishes, finally retreating into the family room where my Uncle’s pipe would fill the room with its spicy aroma. The cousins would play out on the front porch, taking turns on the swing until about 5 p.m. Then we’d all troupe back into the kitchen, and out would come the entire meal again. And we’d all tuck in as if we hadn’t just gorged ourselves a few hours earlier. Dishes would be done again, and family members would stagger out into the crisp fall night, bellies distended.

When my Grandma Hazel passed away when I was in the 8th grade, it was a blow to all of us. Thanksgivings from then on were spent with my other grandparents in New Jersey. But there was one similar thing on their table: the noodles. My mother had secured, all those years working side by side with my Grandma Hazel, the recipe for the noodles. And suddenly the noodles took on a whole new life. Suddenly we were not the only ones who dreamt lustily of them when the air grew cold.

My father passed away a month after I graduated high school, and that was the year that my mother passed the torch to me. I was now the keeper of the noodles and all their grandeur. That first Thanksgiving without my father was so difficult – Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday. But having those noodles on the table was a comfort. Everything changes, but that dish has remained constant.

I still make the noodles for my family. No matter where we are: Here in Virginia, or even in Hawaii with my husband’s family. My brother even made them in Baton Rouge when he and my sister-in-law couldn’t make it home for the holiday. The noodles are always on the table wherever we are.

As I make the dough, knead it in my hands, and send flour flying all over the kitchen and myself, I feel honored to be a part of something so simple, yet so binding.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Happy 4th Birthday Liam!

Liam turned 4 years old last week! I cannot believe how fast this boy is growing up. We’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing with him about what it was like when he was a baby, and looking over old photos, which he loves to do. I think it’s hard for him to grasp completely that he was ever tiny like his sisters. I love telling him about what a happy baby he was; in fact, I feel so blessed that he and his sisters all have pretty much the same disposition, even though they have slightly different personalities.

When Liam was a baby, well into his first year, we always thought he’d be a very quiet, pensive little boy. He came out looking like a little old man, and continued to look like a little man as he grew. He was often very quiet, and almost always had a concerned look on his face, as if he was trying to figure out the deepest mysteries of the world. He was happy, but pensive. So naturally we thought he would grow up and be the same way: Shy, reserved, pensive, and quiet. Nothing could be further from the truth. His first real word (besides Mama and Dada) was “Horsie” at his 1st Birthday, followed quickly by “Doggie” the very next day. From that point on, he racked up a vocabulary at an astonishing speed, and he never shut up. He became ridiculously outgoing, and a hopeless flirt. If you were a waitress, you would not be able to get away with just saying hello to him. He was going to charm you if it took the entire mealtime. He still has never met a stranger (which can be a good thing, and also kind of a scary thing, since he seems to think absolutely everyone is his friend), and people genuinely seem to gravitate towards him.

These days the thing I cherish most about him is his empathy towards others. If he sees another kid fall down, or hears someone crying, he will be the very first to pipe up and ask them if they’re okay. When we were at the D.C. Zoo last spring, we were looking at the elephants and the adults were talking about the sign that told you how to donate to keep them well maintained. You had to text something on your phone, and that would be the donation. All of a sudden I saw him struggling, and almost crying. “Help me Mommy! Help me with my pocket!!” When I asked him what was wrong, he said he had to get his money in his pocket (some loose change Buck had given him after buying a snack), because he wanted to donate it to help the elephants.

Then last Friday night I was stuck in traffic on my way to visit my friend Liz in D.C. Buck called me on my cell to report that he had left his wallet in the center console of his car – the car I was driving. Whoops. To make matters worse, he had promised Liam that he would take him to his favorite Mexican restaurant for dinner, and Liam was really upset that they couldn’t go because Buck didn’t have any cash, or any of his cards. Buck called me back about 20 minutes later and told me a story that brought tears to my eyes: Liam had suddenly said, “What about my money?” And Buck said, “What money?” to which Liam replied, “The money in my piggy bank.” We give Liam our loose change, and he also gets loose change from his grandparents. We’ve taught him to count it, and put it in his piggy bank. When it’s full, we take Liam to the bank, and deposit most of the money in his savings account. The rest, about $15, he’s allowed to take to Target to spend on whatever he wants. Well, he had about $36 in there Friday, and said emphatically that he wanted to use that to pay for dinner. So off to Coinstar they went, and the rest was Mexican food-fest history, capped off with Sweet Frog frozen yogurt.

It’s these types of moments that melt my heart. I hope that his love for people and empathy will not change as he grows up. He’s not a perfect kid, and we have our fair share of challenges and obstacles. But he’s quite simply the best little guy we know.

For Liam's Birthday dinner, we made his favorite "curly pasta" (we really don't know what else to call it, and have no nifty/special name for it). This is a dish Buck created this summer, and it's so ridiculously good I actually demand it most weeks. I guess I could re-name it a summer pasta, but there are several ways you could make this perfect, even without a grill (notes below).

Buck's Summer Pasta

• One package of your favorite wide German Egg Noodles

• Any favorite sausage, 1 per person (We like the Tuscan pork sausage from Whole Foods)

• 1/2 large vidalia onion, sliced thinly

• 2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

• Olive oil and butter

• Parmesan cheese, grated (as much as you like)

• 1 green, 1 yellow, 1 red, and 1 orange bell peppers

• Garlic Powder, Pepper

1) Chop bell peppers into large chunks and put into bowl. Drizzle some olive oil over them and sprinkle with Garlic Powder and Pepper. Mix with hands until coated. Place in a vegetable grill pan (meant for the grill), and grill them on high until cooked slightly through and browned on edges.

2) Grill sausages on medium for approximately 10 minutes. When done, slice into 1-inch pieces.

3) Meanwhile caramelize onions in a sauté pan with olive oil and butter, and boil noodles in salted water until al dente. Add minced garlic just after the onions caramelize, heating through for about a minute.

4) Mix noodles, onions and garlic in large bowl with some grated Parmesan cheese (again, as much as you like). Add in bell peppers and sausage, tossing until incorporated. Add more Parmesan and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Notes: Instead of grilling, you could easily sauté the peppers and fry the sausage. The grill just happens to bring out a certain smoky sweetness in the peppers you can't get in a pan. The amounts above make for a lot of pasta, which is great for us because we like to eat it all week. Also, Liam hates bell peppers. For his birthday, we made sure there was everything but the peppers. If you're not grilling, go ahead and rename this dish Buck's Most Stupendously Awesome Pasta.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cast Iron Revelry

Mushrooms, peppers, and onions sauté in my new cast iron dutch oven. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

The week before my birthday I asked my husband, "So, have you bought my birthday present, or do you know what you want to get me?"

"" (I could literally see the wheels turning in his head as he determined if this was a safe answer or not.)

"Great!" Was my enthusiastic reply. Because I knew exactly what I wanted, and I didn't want to wait to get it. It was something I had wanted for years: A Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart cast iron dutch oven. For years now I had been coveting this gleaming pot of beauty that beckoned from the pages of Williams-Sonoma, tired of passing up recipes that called for such a pot - one that could do the heavy lifting on top of the range, and then easily moved into an oven. Not every pan and pot can do that. In fact, most cannot. Cast iron can.

And it may be true that I could have acquired a cast iron dutch oven for less money, and without the pretty name of Le Creuset. But damnit, I wanted it. In red. And I practically skipped to my nearest Williams-Sonoma. I was the only person in there that day, and the saleswoman offered me a free Espresso. How often does that happen? It was meant to be.

So, what's the big deal about cast iron? I personally love it and have a 12-inch skillet that I use all the time. It retains heat well and evenly distributes it, and it browns meats to a golden perfection almost every time. It's been used in cooking for hundreds of years, and I personally like that I'm cooking with something that is so technologically simple, yet so brilliant in application. No bells and whistles, no frills (except for that deep red color I got my dutch oven in - I admit, I was seduced). It's heavy and substantial; enough to give your biceps a workout. If there's ever an intruder in my home and I'm near the kitchen, I won't go for a knife, I will go for my largest cast iron skillet. It's a deadly weapon. Just ask my white stove, now sporting a black divet from where I chipped it after lightly grazing it with my skillet.

I've also wanted to make my own cornbread in a cast iron skillet for a long time, but didn't have the right size. Neither did Williams-Sonoma or any other store I checked out. Here's a little secret for you that a family friend, who works at Williams-Sonoma, told me: That size can be found at Cracker Barrel. Yup. Cracker Barrel. You know that ridiculous, kitschy store Cracker Barrel has, where it looks like every country Grandma's home in the tri-state area was boxed up and then dumped into one small space? That place has Lodge Cast Iron Cookware in all shapes and sizes. Who knew? I'm usually so overwhelmed by the throngs of people, and the closeness to such kitsch that I start to break out in hives that I never noticed.

I think I might have skipped out of the Cracker Barrel too, and went home to make this cornbread, stolen from the pages of Southern Living's October issue. The recipe is courtesy of Chef Tyler Brown of The Hermitage Hotel, and it does not disappoint. Just like cast iron cookware.

Buttermilk Cornbread

• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 cup plus 3 Tbsp. plain white cornmeal
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 1 Tbsp. baking powder
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/4 cup butter, melted
• 2 large eggs
• 1 cup buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 400˚. Lightly grease an 8-inch cast-iron skillet, and heat in oven 5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together first 5 ingredients in a bowl; whisk in melted butter. Add eggs and buttermilk, whisking just until smooth.
3. Pour batter into hot skillet. Bake for 30-33 minutes or until golden brown.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween Fun!

We had a great Halloween last night. My parents came over, and my Mom brought her delicious chili, and I made cornbread in my brand-new 8-inch cast iron skillet (post on cast-iron skillets and other cooking tools to come!), Ghostly Lemon Cake Pops that were a little tough to make (some of them died a second time while being covered in white chocolate), but ultimately turned out great, and one pumpkin pie I cannot post a picture of because it's just too sad.

Let's just say it was a pumpkin pie failure as far as prettiness, and um, because of burnt edges. Suffice to say, I ran out of time yesterday and in my haste I accidentally made enough for two pies, and filled the one I had too full. It still tasted good, but it looked like a hot pumpkin pie mess.

Liam hauled in enough candy to feed a small army, and despite the rain, a good time was had by all!