Post Thanksgiving: A Turkey Day Recap

This post may seem a little untimely, but I left my computer cable Sofia and was unable to retrieved it till this weekend, so I apologize for my Thanksgiving re-cap post about 2 weeks late!
Still full of Turkey Day spirit!
I don’t think the term shattered completely encompasses how I felt the day after Thanksgiving.  The mass quantities of wine ingested during the course of dinner probably didn’t help much or the copious amounts of food.  The meal was a success for the most part, but there were a few snafus along the way. Looking back on the meal, the cooking, the preparation, I feel the need to share a few things that I learned.

My Thanksgiving meal starts a few weeks before the actual day, when I begin gathering my research materials, which help me build my menu.  Usually, I try to find a theme to bind the meal together, but this year, I kind of winged it; selecting recipes and sides that sounded delicious, but also making sure that many colors were represented. I have a large selection of Thanksgiving recipe books and old November issues of culinary magazines, plus a folder of random loose recipes that I have printed out over the years.

I gathered my reading materials and started to sort through and tag with post-its possible 2010 contenders and managed to narrow it down to these lovely dishes, which I photocopied to preserve my books and resources (anal retentive… yes, I know):
Glittering Spiced Walnuts
Spinach Dip with Crudités
Spicy Three-Cheese Spread
Soup
Americano’s Chanterelle Mushroom Soup
Main
Sage-Brined Roast Turkey with
Whole Wheat Stuffing with Pomegranate bacon, Chestnuts and Parmesan
Potato Gratin with Mushrooms and Gruyère
Braised Chestnuts with Madeira Cream Sauce
Maple Braised Butternut Squash with Fresh Thyme
Chiffonade of Brussels Sprouts with Diced Pomegranate Bacon and Hazelnuts
Cranberry Sauce
Dessert
Apple Crostata with Cheddar Crust
Pear Crostata with Figs and Honey
Persimmon Pudding

Once I figure out the recipes, I begin to assemble a shopping list and schedule.  This year I decided to forgo typing my schedule, but keeping organize with my white board.  I think I prefer this method of organization because it is larger and allows me to really visualize what I have yet to do. Although my typed version is much more detailed breaking down recipes into various steps and elements.
This was my status mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

While Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday, including my birthday, which not technically a holiday, but does falls on Groundhogs Day (US), I always overdo it, just in different ways every year.  For example, the first time I hosted a Thanksgiving in 2000, I made 9 different pies for 9 adults.  For those of you who have trouble with math that is a pie a person… so, in retrospect I now consider this an unhealthy pie to person ratio. This year, while hosting only 4 adults and my 2 girls; created 3 starters, a soup, a turkey, 6 side dishes and 3 desserts, which wouldn’t be that bad, but I neglected to adjust the original serving sizes from 8 – 10 people.

The amount of food was insane.  I felt horribly wasteful.  Most of the leftovers were eaten over the course of a few days, but one of my pies just completely went to waste and got moldy before we could touch it!

R.I.P Apple Crostata with Cheddar Crust

TIP: Cook for the actual guests you in attendance, not the dinner party in your head.  Just because you are a glutton doesn’t mean everyone else is too!

A few days before Thanksgiving, I received some frantic phone calls and text messages about where to find a turkey in Bulgaria. I have never had a problem finding a frozen turkey in Sofia or Kyustendil.  They are available in the frozen meat section.

Пуешко месо (pu-esh-ko me-so) = turkey meat
For the last 4 years, Doux has been the only brand of bird that I have found.  If you are lucky enough to know someone who keeps live turkeys, then that would be your best bet for procuring a fresh bird.  My only concern is the storage and transportation of the bird after it has been killed.  Turkey is not something that Bulgarians eat regularly, so be mindful of salmonella and other such things. 
TIP: If you are buying a frozen bird.  Allow yourself at least 4 DAYS to thaw the bird in the refrigerator. So, this means you need to buy your bird on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  Most rapid thawing of frozen poultry lead to questionable flavors and textures.  If you have ever had rubbery/gummy chicken in a restaurant in Bulgaria, you know exactly what I mean.

All in all I would categorize the meal as a success.  I am certain next year will be my best Thanksgiving thus far.  I am already planning it now.  I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays thus far.  Do you have any holiday meal planning tips that help you year after year?

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Blanching Tomatoes: The Basics

The season for preserving the summer’s harvest is now upon us, unfortunately my 5 tomato plant’s offerings didn’t provide me with the bounty that I desired and they tasted like plastic; I’ve tossed the seeds as to not make that mistake again. 

Last year, when I canned my first batch of tomatoes, I was fortunate enough to be able to use some of my mother-in-laws delicious fruit, but this year, she over planted her garden not giving them enough sunlight, which coincidentally is something that tomatoes need to grow, so I decided to make a trip to the Kyustendil’s farmers market to stock up on tomatoes.  
I bought 6kg (13 lbs) of tomatoes, which I thought would give me enough for about 12 jars, but as it turns out I got 6 jars, roughly 1kg per jar that holds 720ml (24oz). Before you can actually can them, you need to blanch them, which is something I have done quite often and it is really simple.  It is however wise to be mindful of the timing… tomatoes left to boil to long become mush!

The night before, I washed and rinsed my tomatoes, filled a large pot with water and cleaned all my surfaces, then I prepared a few bags of ice, for the ice bath (about 16 cups) because of the amount of tomatoes I was planning to blanch. Normally, you don’t need so much ice.
So here it goes, score a cross onto the underside of the tomatoes, this will make it easier to peel. Be careful not to go to deep.

Bring a large pot of water to a full boil and prepare a large bowl filled with ice water.  Make sure that it has plenty of ice because you are going to be adding hot tomatoes too it, which will melt the ice rather quick.
As soon as you put the tomatoes in the water start counting, you should begin removing, the smaller ones at like 20 seconds and the larger ones at 30, use your judgement. Immediately transfer to the ice bath. You don’t want to cook the tomatoes, you want them still to be firm and hold their shape for what ever you intend to use them for.
The ice bath will halt the cooking process and help loosen the skins. Replenish you ice frequently. Once they are cool you can peel them and set aside for the next step, whether you are making sauce, salsa, ratatouille, curry etc… For the tomatoes that I was not canning, I quartered, seeded them by hand and then sliced them into eights for some ratatouille that I was planning to can next… recipe to follow!
I am planning on doing another batch later this week and I do hope it goes quicker.  I want to make some crushed tomatoes for sauce and experiment with homemade ketchup!
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Corning beef for an Irish feast – Pt. 1

This meal has been coming together for over a year now.  Last February, I received my March 2009 Martha Stewart Living magazine and there was a recipe for curing your own corned beef.  I have never had corned beef, so it seemed like a good experiment.  The ingredient list was rather straight forward except for one small item… pink curing salt.  Being that this is an Irish dish, I thought who better to know where to find this ingredient than Irish people living in Sofia.  So, I got on the horn to all the lads and lassies that I could find and nothing!  Next idea, since it is also used for sausage making, I decided to call Andy the sausage guy in Sofia… again… nothing.  Then out of desperation, I called my Mom to see if she could find some in the US and mail it to be… she found something… but it was pink Hawaiian salt… so… nothing! I ended up ordering a pound (450g) over the internet and had it sent to my Mom’s house. At this point in the game it is April and my thoughts are focused on next year.

March 2010, I am armed with my pink curing salt and spice, now all I need is a brisket.  Simple, I will hop over to Metro and buy some beef… problem… how do you say flat-end beef brisket in Bulgarian?  Anyone? Yeah, I didn’t know either, so being the logical and dedicated person that I am, I printed out a beef cut diagram in English and took it to Piccadilly in Sofia.  They have a beef diagram there in Bulgarian and I figured I would just match it up and voila… instant translation… wrong again.  The guy behind the counter was pointing to various sections of the diagram without any sense of confidence.  Another guy jointed him and knew that what I was looking for was not on the diagram, but called телешка плешка (част на гърдата).  They did have this cut of beef at Piccadilly, but it was cut into small pieces and I needed 5 lb. (2.5 kg).  I decided that there were plenty of other shops that might carry exactly what I wanted.

Next stop, Elemag in Lozenetz.  They tend to carry Argentinean beef fairly frequently, but alas, no brisket.  Then I headed to Real Food (off Blvd. Cherni Vrah), which I’ve heard is the new hot spot for beef (I will be blogging about this place in the future), but they were out of beef till April.  Then I tried Metro in Sofia and while they carry the cut I was looking for, they didn’t have it when I was there, so I bought some beef shoulder (телешки шол).  I was quite frustrated at this point, especially after wasting a large part of my weekend scouring Sofia for beef brisket.

I had some beef and I was now ready to prepare my brine and wait for the results two weeks later.  If you couldn’t already tell, this will be a belated St. Patrick’s Day feast!

Mise en place in place
Crushing the spices!
Adding the elusive pink curing salts!
The crushed spices with the salt mixture.
After it cools, pouring on top of the meat, which is in a non-reactive container.

The beef should be ready next weekend.  Interesting side note.  I was at Kaufland in Kyustendil on St. Patty’s Day to buy some meat for my Irish Stout Stew and they freaking had 2.2 lb. (1 kg) brisket!  Murphy’s Law

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Split-Pea Soup compliments of the now defunct Perfetto

Every time I think of split-pea soup, it reminds me of my Dad.  He rarely cooks, but every now and again, he will bust out the crock pot and make some soup, sauerkraut or tomato sauce.  I even have some vague memories of him stopping, while driving at random dinners in New York because he knew they had good split-pea soup.  I am not even sure if my Dad follows a specific recipe or just wings it, but the results are always delicious and the soup usually contains bacon, ham or some other pork product, which I must unfortunately omit.

I had been hard pressed to find split-peas in Bulgaria, so once I attempted to make it with regular whole dried peas.  The results were less than savory, so I decided to wait till I had actual split-peas to try it again.  Luckily for me, we have Perfetto an odd Italian grocery store in Kyustendil, yes in Kyustendil.  We have an uncommonly high number of Italians that reside here, so this grocery store was created to sell products that were direct from Italy.  It is odd because, they chose a horrible location inside an industrial park and they never advertised properly.  In order to compete with Kaufland and Fantastico, they began to serve niche markets, such as products from original Italian products and organic items.  The organic items they sold would rival any shop in Sofia, but I think I was the only one buying them.  Back to the point, they sold organic split peas!  Perfetto is closed now, but I will mourn its loss as I have to schlep my ass to Sofia once again for organic and unique food items.

Since I am on the Liver Cleanse Diet, I need to adjust the recipe to exclude, meat and dairy.  I looked around the web for vegan and vegetarian split-pea soup recipes and landed on one of my favorite site 101 Cookbooks by Heidi Swanson.  Her split-pea recipe and others are almost always delicious, but I wanted to jazz it up to give the most flavor possible, so here is my adaptation.

Vegan Split-Pea Soup
2 tbsp (30 ml) Olive Oil
2 lg. Onions chopped
2 cups (450 ml) Split-Peas (rinsed and picked over)
6 cups (1.4 lt.) Homemade Vegetable Stock (or Homemade Chicken if you want non-Vegan)
1 Lemon, juiced and zested (reserve zest)
2 md. Carrots, cut into even sized pieces, about 1/2″ (1.25 cm)
3 lg. cloves of Garlic
4 – 5 Sprigs of Thyme
4 -5 Sprigs of Parsley
1 Bay Leaf
4 – 5 whole Black Peppercorns
Salt and Pepper to taste

In a large pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the olive oil.  When hot add the onions and stir occasionally till soft about 5 minutes.  Add the carrots and the garlic and sauté till the garlic is fragrant about 2 minutes.

Gather the thyme, parsley, bay leaf and peppercorns.  Wrap in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine leaving some stack to secure to the pot handle for easy removal.
Add the stock, split peas and spice bundle or bouquet garni. Bring to a boil for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to a simmer and continue cooking partially covered for about an hour till the split peas are cook thoroughly.  Depending on the age and freshness of the peas, this could vary significantly.
Once the peas are done, remove from heat and puree to your desired consistency, I prefer a little chunkiness. You can use a blender, food processor or hand-mixer.
Return the soup to the pot and heat again adding the lemon juice, start with half and work your way to the desired flavor, it should be clean and bright, then season with salt and pepper.
Optional: garnish with lemon zest, chives, parsley or thyme.
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