Thursday, October 17, 2013

The making of an action hero pt34

Entry number 33 I love cooking for large groups. I learned to cook in college—working the short order station at the snack bar and later as a line worker at a café. Ever since then my sense of scale has been optimized around 10-20 guests. When I got my first apartment I had issues preparing meals for just one single solitary person. Fortunately I’ve learned to adapt portions to the perspective audience, but I still look forward to doing the big meal—appetizer, entree, dessert, drinks…and all the fixins. This year we’ll be hosting Thanksgiving for my family and the in-laws. The brunette isn’t a fan of hosting since from her perspective I end up doing all the work while she feels underutilized. She cleans and keeps people out of “my kitchen” while I make the food happen. I get to show off while she makes sure I’m not interrupted by little monsters—it’s difficult to make a three course meal when kids want you to race cars. So it works out well from my perspective. The catch this year is the turkey. I’ve never made one or the gravy, or the stuffing…I’ve always done up a ham or pork shoulder. But the brunette and CO want a real turkey day gobbler—which is fine, I love learning to cook new things even if roast turkey isn’t my thing. The challenge will be making the bird come out right the first time. My mother is giving me her electric poultry roaster—thereby saving my oven a grease bath and freeing up work space. So I’m preparing for this holiday extravaganza early. Any time I’m tasked with a new recipe I go through four stages of optimization, five if I have time. 1. I read as many versions of the recipe as possible. There are thousands of variants on most recipes. People love to tweak dishes, make them in a slowcooker, make them healthy, add bacon…etc. I look for the common elements such as the shared ingredients, the time-saving versions, the little tricks that the commenters use, the ways people jazz it up, and the versions that everyone seems to come back to. I like simple no-fuss recipes that let me mix-and-match ingredients. There’s always the five-star version that requires three $50 specific tools, 72 hours of prep time, and a precise coordination of elements to get the dish “just so.” I love to eat those meals, but hate to make them. So my final choice usually involves the words, simple, easy, or Crockpot. 2. I get a test recipe together and make a sample batch. This used to lead to horrific stories of flaming chicken breasts, brined potatoes, sweet and fruity pasta, and the infamous pepper-steak incident. Now I have enough experience that even if the dish doesn’t come out the way I wanted, it’s usually edible. I’ll stick at this stage until I have the recipe where I want it with the right consistency, texture, flavors, and portions. 3. I plan the meal, integrating the dish into the amount of time I will need for preparation, figuring out how much free space I’ll need on the counters and oven, making sure I have all the required tools, and coordinating the dish’s prep time so the meal components are ready-to-serve at the right intervals. I hate being rushed so I really really try to give myself enough time to make the meal happen with as little stress as possible. 4. I review the components and figure out how to do as much of the prep work ahead of time as possible. I dice veggies and save them in zip lock bags. I dice chicken and freeze it so all I have to do is thaw the package and throw it in the pan. I pre-measure ingredients and mix them up in advance. I buy ingredients in containers that are exactly the portions I need for the recipe—no measuring just open-dump-and done. The less work I have to do the day-of the better. 5. I time the process so that I can clean my cookware as I work. I used to use every pot and pan, every spoon and spatula for every recipe. Cleanup after meals was an event in-and-of-itself. Now I wash as I go, loading up the dishwasher so that when it’s time to serve the bulk of my cleaning is already done. With as little counter and sink space as I have cleaning-as-you-go is a matter of necessity as much as efficiency. I won’t be doing a test run. There isn’t going to be a backup turkey. I won’t be taking any time to refine the recipes—it’s going to be an adventure. I don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to run a full-on thanksgiving dinner twice in one month. I won’t be completely without resources. My mother in-law has agreed to come over early and “help” in the kitchen. For those who don’t know me, the last three words of that sentence hold legendary portent. I absolutely—unequivocally—without reservation hate having people in “my kitchen.” Cooking is a “thing.” Everyone does it differently. Everyone has their own process, their own pet peeves, their own recipes…etc. 99.99% of the time people who offer to “help” cause me more frustration than their assistance is worth. There’s only so much space in our apartment. While they’re helping, I have to work around them. People question ingredients, preparation requirements, and the order of operations. It isn’t intentional, they’re trying to help, but by the time they’re done, I’m usually in a mood—and not a good one. The brunette and I have a running joke. I tell people that she needs to learn her place—outside my kitchen! Ok, it’s only partially funny. My mother in-law is one of maybe three people I can work with who makes cooking easier, faster, simpler. She cleans pans in seconds. She offers helpful suggestions that are actually helpful and relevant. Somehow she’s never in my way. She’s perfectly happy doing that one thing I don’t have time to do like blending the mashed potatoes or glazing the ham or filling the pot with the drippings from the slowcooker—the one thing that is just challenging enough that it slows me down. She follows directions! It’s like magic. So I’m going to have help—good help. I’ve started researching the core components—turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. At first glance making a thanksgiving dinner is terrifying. I have my mashed potato recipe down, but everything else is a separate process, a separate recipe, a new and complex way to screw up the traditional holiday meal. Stuffing doesn’t look that bad really. Gravy looks time consuming, difficult to perfect, but generally doable. Cranberry sauce comes in a can—easy. No, it’s the freaking bird which gives me pause. Let me step back for a moment. Now that I’ve done the research, Figuring out how the meal will go depends on how many people will be there and picking a theme. Between my parents, my mother in-law, my brother in-law, my brothers and their family/significant others, the potential for 4-6 friends, the brunette, and me, I’m cooking for between 10-18 people. I’m counting conservatively—any overage will get saved as leftovers. That means I need about a fifteen pound turkey, at least two desserts, one or two more sides besides the potatoes and stuffing, munchies for guests to graze on before dinner, drinks, and serving materials for everyone. Thanksgiving is potluck so I can count on guests to handle one of the desserts, one of the sides, and a second option from either category. If I make a salad and a dessert, maybe biscuits or bread, I should be fine. I’ll send an email requesting specifics so I can start planning the shopping. I have a couple options for theme. In this case “theme” means the general seasonings and ethnic ingredience I will use to bring the meal together. Initially I wanted to try a Southern bourbon themed meal—bourbon spice rubbed turkey, bourbon pumpkin sage cornbread stuffing, fried green tomatoes, cocktails…then I realized that I was one of the few people who would really go for that theme. I considered bacon—turkey rubbed with butter and bacon drippings and wrapped with bacon, apple and bacon stuffing, pepper bacon gravy, bacon wrapped asparagus skewers…great! except I’m pretty sure it would end up being far too heavy. I considered Indian seasonings, Ethiopian spices, or a Mexican chipotle style all without success. No, especially for my first effort, something simpler and less exotic is in order. I’m going with Italian, a spice pallet that most people will like, the rub for the turkey can use olive oil instead of butter, and I’m comfortable with all my side options. I could stick with traditional American—there’s nothing wrong with the classics. But if I’m going to go to all this effort, I might as well make a project out of it. I love the grand gesture, the big show, the elegant presentation. This is a chance for me to have some fun…so Italian it is. Now back to the bird. It seems there are lots of turkeys—flash-frozen, fresh, frozen, free range, brined, deboned…the list goes on. Initially I wanted a “fresh turkey. Who doesn’t want fresh right? Except that fresh doesn’t mean what it sounds like, it just means the turkey is sent from slaughter straight to the vender. That’d be fine save that the meat is sitting around unfrozen for 48-72 hours before someone picks it off the shelf. That’s not fresh in my book. Ironically, the freshest turkeys are the ones that are flash-frozen just as they are slaughtered. There’s probably some preservatives in there, but you’re getting a turkey that once thawed is functionally closer to the time of slaughter than its “fresh” brethren. So frozen it is. The other big question is brined or unbrined. Brining is just what it sounds like. The turkey is injected with salt water to keep it moist. Some cooks prefer to do this themselves with their own special blend of spices, but you can buy turkeys in the store pre-brined all be it without the secret family seasonings. The alternative is to “salt” the turkey the day before cooking. After it is thawed, you rub the turkey, inside and out, with a layer of salt and spices. The sodium draws the juices to the surface where they take on the flavor of the rub. Also, the salt locks the juices in—resulting in a juicier bird. If I go this route, called dry brining, I can pick my own seasonings and my turkey won’t be filled with chemical salt water. That’s good enough for me. So what I want is a flash-frozen unbrined 15 pound turkey. I’ll need to finalize the recipes for each dish and get a master grocery list together. Over the next few weeks I will go over each recipe here. If anyone has any feedback or suggestions I’d love to hear from you. Weight=280.6 Intake: Breakfast=health shake. Work meal=a pepper turkey wrap and an apple. Dinner=3 home made chicken biscuits.

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