Thanksgiving My Way: New Traditions, Giblet Drama and All

Thanksgiving 2012 Collage

For years I’ve been talking about making Thanksgiving – I love the food and I felt this was a holiday I could someday own. It’s a bit complicated given the family traditions, but I couldn’t wait to tackle it when I finally got my chance this year.

Not to be overly critical (forget it, let’s face it, I am), but I was convinced I could do it better. I always appreciate when someone makes the effort of entertaining, but we’re talking Thanksgiving here. Sure, the Fourth of July can be potluck and the high holidays are all about tradition, but not Thanksgiving – it’s a holiday about giving thanks, good food, and giving thanks for good food (and football for some people, too). In my world, there’s no place for Chardonnay and turkey that was cooked, sliced, frozen and then reheated (and we found the critical).

So about two months ago I found out that our yearly tradition of going to Florida was turned on it’s head and I declared that this was going to be my year. I was going to make Thanksgiving, I was going to do it my way, and my family was going to like it. Damn it!

(Only hold a knife like this when posing)

I spent weeks planning the menu, researching recipes and techniques I hadn’t used in years, practicing the brine solution on a chicken, and creating a Thanksgiving run of show until I finally came up with what I thought was a worthy, executable menu. We kept a few family staples that I delegated to my mom (green bean casserole and her Jello-mold, because it wouldn’t be a holiday without her Jello), and I took on the rest.

There was the apple cider-brined turkey with sage-thyme butter and gravy made from sherry, reduced apple cider and homemade turkey stock. There were these delectably rich dinner rolls served with honey butter, and roasted sweet potatoes because it turns out I’m not the only one who can’t stand candied yams. There was stuffing, which was the one thing that needs some work before next year, although my brother-in-law couldn’t seem to get enough.

I skipped the desserts as my energy was focused on creating my ultimate turkey, and delegated those to family members. They picked their favorites and we wound up with a delicious dark chocolate cake from my mom and adorable chocolate turkey’s made out of Oreo’s, Whoppers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and a bunch of other candy from my sister. We had quite the assembly line going, but they turned out well – next year we’re going to use them as part of the table decoration.

Speaking of, we had some fun with the table, too, decorating with mini pumpkins, autumn flowers in Ball jars, and votive candles set in jars with cranberries. It was festive, fun and delicious, and hopefully the start of a new tradition my niece will cherish.

This isn’t to say there weren’t issues, like when my mom threw out the giblets I needed for the gravy or when I tried to heat up the cranberry sauce in a glass container and it cracked. Oops.

And throughout all of it, I truly did (and do) give thanks for my wonderful family who accepts me for who I am and goes with me on my crazy whims. And for my wonderful new niece who lights up the room every time.

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Blueberry Pancakes

I know, I know… this blog has been active for four-plus years and there are no pancake recipes! Seriously it’s a little embarrassing, which is why I’m excited to share this one today.

The truth is I’m a single gal so the idea of making a big breakfast fit for a family doesn’t normally occur to me. But this morning I woke up craving pancakes. Like, I HAD to have them. So I did, and they were delicious!

I worked with what I had on hand and wasn’t disappointed, even though that meant using unsweetened almond milk with a squeeze of lemon juice in place of milk, buttermilk or even yogurt that you traditionally find in pancakes. And the truth was – it didn’t make a difference!

Blueberry Pancakes

These pancakes were perfect – fluffy interior with a nice crispy edges. They were hearty and sweet with fresh blueberries and an amazing maple syrup I’ve become obsessed with from Burton’s Maplewood Farm (if you’re in Chicago, they sometimes sell at Green City Market). I also included rolled oats, a trick I learned when helping with a Top Chef cooking event a few years ago.

This recipe makes enough for two, although as long as I’m telling the truth here, I’ll admit that I ate ‘em all.

Here’s the recipe:

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Spinach & Pesto Wheatberry Salad

Spinach & Pesto Wheatberry Salad

Today was my first day back in the kitchen after a two-week accidental cooking hiatus. It wasn’t that I was purposely trying not to cook, just that I haven’t really been home. And I have to say, picking up my chef’s knife felt great.

One of the dishes I made was a long time coming. The inspiration of making a spinach and pesto salad stemmed from one I’d had at Protein Bar a few weeks back (Protein Bar is a fairly new fast food chain in Chicago and a brilliant concept at that). That dish came with quinoa, but I wanted to change it up a bit to incorporate a different whole grain I haven’t used before – wheat berries.

I started by cooking the wheat berries (which I got for about 65 cents from the bulk foods section at Whole Foods), then moved on to the pesto, which was a bit different from a traditional basil pesto. While it does include basil, I also added spinach and arugula to give it a light and super fresh taste, which went wonderfully with the slightly earthy taste of the wheat berries. When the wheat berries were done, I mixed in the pesto, a handful of baby spinach, quartered cherry tomatoes and toasted pine nuts to round out the dish. You can also easily bulk this up into a main dish by adding chicken, which is exactly what I’m going to do for lunch tomorrow. :)

So, about those wheat berries: 1) They come in different varieties, but for this recipe look for hard red winter wheat berries if available; 2) A general ratio for cooking wheat berries is 1:3 (1 cup wheat berries to 3 cups water), but if there’s water leftover at the end simply drain the wheat berries through a strainer; 3) The cooked texture should be chewy but not too firm; 4) Wheat berries are a whole grain – you can read about why they’re good for you here.

Here’s the recipe. Give wheat berries a try and tell me what you think.

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Feeling Naughty over Slutty Brownies

I first heard about these brownies a few weeks ago when a very pregnant Jessica Simpson raved about them on The Tonight Show. She talked about how these decadent brownies were, like, the best thing ever. Slutty Brownies are essentially a layer of chocolate chip cookie dough topped with Oreos (I used double-stuffed) topped with brownie batter, and then it’s all baked together.

And why are they called “Slutty” brownies? She said it was because of how rich and over-the-top they are, and probably because you feel a little naughty after eating one, but I’d rather call them Poncho Brownies because after I eat one, all I wanted to do is cover up. But damn, they really are worth it.

You’ll find a ton of recipes and interpretations of Slutty Brownies if you Google it, and most call for using store-bought cookie dough and brownie mix. This is totally fine, but me being me I like to make it all myself. Well, not the Oreos, but the rest. You get the point.

The recipes I used were the standard Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe (a classic and always a hit) and a standard chocolate brownie recipe from Gourmet Magazine/Epicurious that I halved.

This was actually my second attempt at making Slutty Brownies – the first was a comedy of errors with everything that could go wrong actually going wrong (I used pan that was too small so the batter never baked, somehow punctured a hole in the bottom of the aluminum baking pan and would up with a major spill and smoke billowing from the oven, and I slightly burned by finger). With a new brownie recipe, bigger pan and a calm head, this time things turned out much better.

Slutty Brownie fail

Here’s the recipe:

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Vegan Creamed Kale

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Vegan creamed kale is delicious! Huh? Say what?

Yup, that was my reaction when a co-worker excitedly told me about this pre-packaged dish she had bought at Whole Foods. Now I do love me some greens but I was a little confused by the concept of something being both vegan and creamed – I mean, that statement alone is more than a little contradictory – but also intrigued. I had to try this for myself.

Fast forward a week and I found myself at Whole Foods where I tracked down this product in the refrigerated section. I took it home, heated it up and had to agree – this kale, miso, onion and cashew concoction was amazing. A quick search of the Whole Foods website and I found the recipe, or at least one similar to it.

Today I finally made the recipe for myself and had to share it with you. It’s really quite simple – simmer a chopped onion in vegetable broth, purée it with all the other ingredients except the kale, then simmer the kale in the blended mixture until tender. I made very few changes to the original recipe (swapped the amounts for vegetable broth and soy milk, which was almond milk, and set aside a spoonful of onions before pureeing to add texture to the final dish).

Definitely give this a try next time you’re up for something hearty, nutritious, interesting and really tasty.

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