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The Obligatory V-D posting

Hello, Dear Readers:

Happy Mardi Gras. No, I’m not in New Orleans, I just know some folks are and are out on the town wearing green, gold and purple in the only place that look works.

I’ve been busy with a number of things lately, and I have a new recipe and one or two other postings to write about soon. But this being Valentine’s Day week, and Jezebel the step-kitty sitting by my side, I guess I’d better post something chocolatey.

Why am I unattached? My first love is chocolate, that’s why.

If you’re in NYC, here’s a little fun on V-D that you’ll need reservations for: the Valentine’s Day Sewage Tour. Say WHAT? And it fills up fast–no pun intended.  What, do you do that before, or AFTER that fancy restaurant dinner?  Romance, indeed.

The best Valentine’s Day card I ever got was literally 20 years ago from a guy I’ll call “Football” (because he was shaped like one.) Football got me a card that had a cartoon drawing of a classically handsome male on the front that he’d carefully drawn a mustache onto and thoughtfully blacked out one of the front teeth. It said, “What does it mean when a handsome man brings you flowers and candy on Valentine’s Day and then takes you out to a French restaurant for dinner?” When you opened it, the card said, “Your alarm clock hasn’t gone off yet.”

Yes. . .that is, to this day, the best card I’ve ever received from a bloke. Thanks, Football, wherever you are today.

I have ordered some more SomerSweet, finally, so I hope to make some Yeast Free Brownies soon. Maybe for Valentine’s Day if it arrives on time. The difference is that I don’t have to share with anybody. When I did share some with a couple of neighbors last summer, they were VERY well received.

I make them without the toasted pumpkin seeds, and for SomerSweet you’ll have to check the batter to see if it’s sweet enough. I was using 5 tablespoons of the old version, but I don’t remember how much to use of the baking version. Or you could just use Sweet N’ Natural if you wanted. This is a very healthy brownie recipe that’s so good, you’ll forget they’re better for you. Just keep them in the fridge, and let them sit out a bit before you eat them, or you’ll be paying an unscheduled visit to your dentist. (Coconut oil really hardens up in the fridge.) And there’s your first recipe.

Before I continue, here’s a fun and embarrassing story from my past. About ten years ago, I was, ahem, “living in sin” out of some necessity with a male I’ll call, for the sake of anonymity,  “Rodent.” We both came down with some kind of god-awful flu bug, and all I could do was lie on the couch and watch TV with him–for a week. My preferred viewing was the newly discovered Food Network. You see, I did not have cable in many years, and he had every freakin’ channel on the planet. So there I was watching Food Network for days and days while I tried to get over fever and the rest of it.

It just happened to be that Valentine’s Day was on Saturday that year, and The Food Network dubbed it Chocolate Obsession Week. All week long, all kinds of chocolate recipes for the best Valentine’s Day ever. I couldn’t get enough. I couldn’t get any chocolate either, because both of us were so sick.

So after several days, my fever broke, because I went to Rodent’s home office where he was tapping away and said, “I’m hungry–what’s for dinner?” There was no way either of us were in any shape to do any cooking, so he was going to do the takeout thing again. (I think we’d done pizza once or twice, too, but no cooking.)  He asked, “what do you feel like eating?” I said, “chocolate!” He turned around, looked at me and said, “No more Food Network for you!”

With THAT picture in mind–if Valentine’s Day to you brings up visions of fancy restaurants, chocolates, flowers, romance, and all that other stuff. . .this one was cold medicines, aspirin, and blankets. At least Rodent has a “fake-me-out” gas fireplace that was nice and warm while we had fever.

And, today we’re friends miles apart.

Here’s another one on the pumpkin seeds I leave out: a few months ago I discovered that I had some pumpkin seeds in the back of my pantry that had been there for years. I also had the idea that they were still good, too. I used a toasted spiced recipe from an old cookbook and, well, within a half-hour I discovered that no, pumpkin seeds do NOT stay good in your pantry indefinitely. It didn’t take long for the nausea to set in, and let’s leave it at that.

Now, it wouldn’t be right if a food blogger didn’t at least mention some chocolate recipes this week, and I’ve got a few that just might fit your tastes.

First up, one of two recipes by Nigella Lawson, the Chocolate Cloud Cake. I saw her do this one one of her shows and had to try it. I used unsweetened chocolate and melted it with SomerSweet, and it worked perfectly.  I had it for dessert all week after I saw it. I only made it once, but I still remember it well.

Tyler Florence has a similar recipe called Chocolate Cracked Earth, another flourless chocolate cake, which is also quite good. Again, made it one time with SomerSweet, loved it, and that was it.

The second Nigella recipe is from Forever Summer, (now published in the US as Nigella Fresh.) Chocolate Raspberry Pavlova is as pretty as it is delicious, and isn’t a terribly difficult thing to make. I made it a few years ago when I was invited to an “all girls” Valentine’s Day dinner, again, on a Saturday night. (Shortly thereafter, I met another gent, who I’ll call “Blob.” We’ve split up and are not in touch.) I made this to spec, since it was intended for a number of people who would likely not care that it was made without sugar. One slight alteration I did was to use a heart shaped pan to draw the shape on the parchment, and baked it that way. Otherwise, it’s the same. I had a picture of it somewhere, but I can’t put my hands on it. This, too, is memorable, and I would make again if I had the occasion, heart shaped or no.

Is your honey-baby gluten-intolerant? Or do you just want something just a little less involved, but equally tasty so you can show your love to someone?

I’ve already told you about my love for the wonderful Larabars, and a couple of years ago they posted some recipes on Facebook for the holidays. Unfortunately, they’re gone, but I found it on RecipeLion, so you can make them too. For Valentine’s Day, the simple, delicious Gluten Free Black Forest Parfaits are easy with Cherry Pie Larabars (you could also use the Chocolate Chip Cherry Torte version), whipped cream, melted chocolate, and a few other simple ingredients. You could use agave syrup in place of honey, if you like. I made this for myself a few years ago for Christmas, when the recipes first appeared on Facebook. I’m glad I took screenshots and printed it, but I can’t find the file. Note: the whipping cream should be 2/3 cup, but use as much as you like.

I even have two chocolate dessert recipes perfect for Valentine’s Day if your honey is vegan with a sweet tooth!  NO, I am NOT switching sides. I just love my sweets.

The first one, Chocolate Peanut Butter Chia Pudding, is actually really good, but takes some time to chill and set. The reason I tried this was because I bought something online and a sample of chia seeds came with it. Had NO idea what to do with them, but a little searching yielded this recipe. It’s actually really good, and I couldn’t help myself, so it didn’t last long. But since I don’t normally buy chia seeds. . .I haven’t made it since. Maybe I should.

The second one, Raw Vegan Chocolate Mousse, is also really good, but note that it takes a while because you have to soak the raw cashews for six hours, then you have to chill it a while after blending. Yes, it’s worth it. Admittedly, I used cocoa powder and didn’t mess with cacao nibs, but. . .I was in the mood to try it, OK?

Bonus recipe: Homemade Nutella, which is also Gluten Free. I love this stuff!  Having made this a few times, I can tell you that you can buy “hazelnut flour” in some places, (finely ground hazelnuts) and you can use it as a shortcut instead of toasting hazelnuts here. Just measure it out and go for it with the food processor. Like the stuff in the jar, it’s a spread-on kind of condiment, but I’ve been known to eat this in a small pinch bowl with a spoon. It is VERY thick and sticky, but is REALLY delicious, without a lot of chemicals.

And there you go–something for everyone for Valentine’s Day.

No, I am not doing gift suggestions, unless you want to go and buy an assortment of Larabars or something. But that’s up to you.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Enjoy!

Meeting an old friend again

Hello, Dear Readers:

Well, it’s the holiday season and, honestly, I haven’t had much foodie adventure since The Tuscan Turkey got turned into soup a few weeks ago. But it’s OK, everyone loved it, and I just have some cut up Tuscan turkey meat left in the freezer. Well, OK, enough to keep me happy for a while, and make The Soup of Enlightenment if I really want to, but I don’t, since I had it at Thanksgiving, skipping over the big meal to that part.

I will tell you that I was just in Cost Plus World Market, using a $10 coupon to get stocked up on the fantastic Typhoo Decaf Tea from the UK and got me some microwavable steamed puddings–the real British stuff, produced in New Zealand. Really. I guess the Brits like it, but I never asked–but I’m having steamed pudding for Christmas!! (I’ll let you know.) Convenient, and just a little bit, enough to try it once. If I wanted to, I could use Nigella Lawson’s recipes out of her Christmas book, but really, I’m giving myself the gift of peace and quiet this year, and lots of sewing. Not to mention the Doctor Who Christmas Special on Tuesday thanks to a very nice neighbor who is out of town. I did offer to do a carpet cleaning for her while she was out, but she declined. Maybe I’ll just clean her windows before she gets home.

BTW, if you join their World Market Explorer program, you get those $10 off $30 purchase coupons regularly, including one for your birthday.

Oh, and while I was there, nibbling on the sample cookies, I talked to a lady who was going to get ingredients for a cranberry sauce. One of Paula Deen’s recipes from FoodNetwork.com. I love you, Paula, but fifteen ingredients, including Grand Marnier! I was shocked when I read that. She didn’t know what Grand Marnier was, either. I told her that she would have to get it at a liquor store, which are closed on Sunday in Texas, and that it would probably run $35 or $40 a bottle. She had no idea. . .so I told her to forget this one and go look up the recipe for my favorite Cranberry Ginger Relish and make that. Four ingredients, fifteen minutes, and make it three days in advance. Easy, and it’s sweet and warm at the same time.  “Can I get all the ingredients at Kroger?” she asked. Absolutely, including sherry vinegar. It sidles up to you all nice and sweet, then POW! Hits you right in the kisser. Everybody loves it, including me, and I always get requests for the recipe when I make it.

Now I want some, too.

Rest assured that some kind of diet will commence after January 1, and I will ease my way into it over the next week. Might go to a potluck next Saturday, we’ll see, and I’ll bring something good, if I go. Exercise too, Pilates is my preference, with some yoga thrown in for good measure, since walking will be impossible soon. More on that later.

So anyway. . . .

Last week I had my third interview in a different department at a major medical center here in Houston. I’m not going to say which one, but it’s big, well known, and they have great benefits. The interview started about 3:20 pm, and I left the facility at 5:30 pm, escorted by a Texas Medical Center (TMC) police officer. (I rode in the FRONT seat, OK?)  I was lost, and he offered. . .hey, I can trust a guy with a pistol on his hip!  Especially since I had on my suit and a crisp white collared shirt, not to mention sky-high heels. No t-shirt and jeans on this day–I needed to look sharp, and I did.

I believe I will be hired on soon, which means bus rides and walking around a lot. No way I’m driving to work every day.

My TMC copper got me back to the building where my vehicle was, and I checked out–at nearly 6:00 pm! I was very HUNGRY at this point, and decided to get a bite in town since it was high traffic and driving home was a bit of a nightmare. It was also the Friday before Christmas, and everyone is not only getting off work but heading to shop. (Bay Area Boulevard was a parking lot at 1:30 pm.)

As I drove up Holcombe towards Buffalo Speedway, I was trying to remember where I could find a good dinner around there. Hmmm. . .Burger King. No. Some kind of wing shop–no. Taco Bell (which required a left U-turn in heavy traffic)–bookmark for later. Spec’s Liquor Warehouse–no. Some little sushi place–absolutely not. I knew I could get to Rice Village if I turned right on Kirby, but having been there a week before and had much trouble parking, I kept driving.

Then I remembered a little place that used to be there when I worked for Baylor all those years ago. Would it still be there? I started thinking. . .it was by a grocery store, but which one? I knew it was on the left. . .I saw Rice Epicurean Market, but no little place. I kept going, and saw the Randall’s Flagship about a mile or so up the road, along with a Barnes & Noble in the same strip mall. Then my eyes saw what I was seeking–their name on the marquee. It was still there, after all these years, in a city where permanence is fleeting. It was a sight for sore eyes that day.

Prayers get answered one at a time. Gifts do not always come in a box wrapped in paper and ribbon. Trust me on that.

This little place is called Yapa Kitchen-Fresh Take Away. When I worked at Baylor, we used Yapa’s catering for our activities, and everyone loved the sandwiches and lunch boxes they brought us. There was one occasion that for some reason, we had to use a different catering company. (I think someone higher up told us to.) We were very disappointed and made sure we called Yapa after that.

Once in a while I’d go get a sandwich over there if I was driving around or running office errands. Their sandwiches were delicious, unbelievable cookies, and great chef-prepared food in the case. The store is actually quite small, and hasn’t changed since the last time I was there–maybe 2001?  I held the wheel tightly and kept thinking about what I could vagely remember from my days working in the VA Hospital (as a Baylor employee.)

It came flooding back when I walked in the front door. It was pretty much the same as I remember it. Some of the cookbooks look old now.

I gazed in the case and saw all kinds of delicious things. I was thinking about a crab cake, since it wasn’t too expensive (not ready for $25 a pound pepper crusted tenderloin yet, but will celebrate when I get my new job.) I asked if there was anything else to look at. “Well,” the young bloke said, “we have a few sandwiches over here.”  There were four. I saw two chicken salad sandwiches, one turkey with cranberry, and a roast beef.

THAT’S WHAT I WANT.

I grabbed the last roast beef, and asked about dessert. They still had that little case on the side, and I remembered having their delicious creme brulee once. But their cookies were in big jars on the counter, and I got a chocolate chip and a white chocolate/macadamia nut cookie. He asked me if I’d like some horseradish sauce; I declined. There was some already on the sandwich, and it was just enough and just perfect.

That, dear readers, is what hit the spot and scratched the itch on Friday, December 21st at about 6:15 in the evening.

The sandwich, on a really great whole-grain bread, was just as good as I remembered it. Ditto the cookies. Next time I get two of those slightly soft and chunky white chocolate/macadamia nut cookies. Both were good, but I liked that one better.

To the observer (or the guys working the counter that night), it was just a sandwich and cookies to have while I sat at a table and flipped through my magazine. To me, it was like finding an old friend again. No, I didn’t go in all the time when I was there, just once in a while, and it was a nice little refuge, even though they were quite busy during the day. The food was good, the people were nice, and it was just up the street. You can get a delicious lunch or dinner to eat in or take home with you.  I once bought three of their cookies and brought them to someone in the hospital, because I knew they were the best to be had that day, plus they were on the way to the hospital.

And it’s still like that. For this, I was, and am, very grateful.

Yapa is quite a distance for me to go now, since I’ve been in the suburbs since 2002, I’m in town about once or twice a month, and to be honest, I don’t go into TMC unless I have to, as I have for the past 3 Fridays. Should I find myself working back at TMC, I might have the opportunity to visit more often; we’ll see.

If you’re in Houston and find yourself in the Medical Center area for whatever reason, consider having lunch at Yapa; their menus are online, so see what they have and find what you like before you get there. They are located at the corner of Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway in the little building close to the corner. The address is 3173 W Holcombe Boulevard (77025) and you can call them at 713-664-9272.

Warning: While Yapa is a little place worth visiting, it’s not in the big building with Randall’s. Yapa is in the small one-off building in the parking lot. You know the type of building I mean, an auxiliary building. You can see it here–Yapa is in that building on the right, close to the big building.

Thanks for still being there, and feeding this hungry feline when she really needed it.

Happy dining!

The Tuscan Turkey

What a difference a week makes.

A couple of weeks ago, the wonderful Suzanne Somers posted on Facebook that her Sea Salt Rubs are a great way to season a Thanksgiving Turkey. Oohh, good one! But I wasn’t doing a turkey, right?

Well. . .on “Black Friday” I get a phone call from Ann, who I affectionately refer to sometimes as the “crazy Chinese lady.” She’s actually very nice, but sometimes does odd things. (Don’t have to be Chinese for that, it just makes for a fun nickname.) Ann is from Taiwan, and despite being in the US for many years, with three Americanized children, still sometimes doesn’t always grasp bits of American culture, or doesn’t always get the joke. It’s the language barrier, so I try to explain it best I can.

However, on this particular day, Ann has purchased a turkey, just for me. I’m surprised, and I hope I didn’t sound mad (I haven’t been myself lately) and I said, “What am I going to DO with it?” I don’t have a big enough freezer, and it turns out that this turkey weighs 22 pounds.

Yes. Twenty-two pounds. Turns out it was on sale. Along with a few other things.

So it was decided that we would make it for the study meeting tonight. A Buddhist non-Thanksgiving. Just like in one of the Barefoot Contessa books.

Ann called me at 7:30 this morning. I was asleep. WAS. Knowing that this will take four hours to cook, I told her I’d be by around 12:00 pm. Well, I got to sewing, and watching my Saturday morning cooking shows, and so I was running a little late.

Maria’s birthday party is next Saturday night. I got all her presents finished off and perfect. Now I can go and drink if I want to, because there’s no driving involved.

I got to Ann’s about 12:45, and we started in on the turkey right away.  While I was sewing, I remembered Suzanne Somers’ Sea Salt Rubs, and that I have some in the pantry–Provence, Tuscan and Southwest (my favorite.) After considering it, I decided to take a box of the Tuscan Sea Salt rub, thereby making  it. . .the Tuscan Turkey.

I had this idea that I would set up the turkey in the roaster and leave. No. Next thing I know, I’m making mashed potatoes, salad, sweet potato frites and at the last minute, the infamous Cranberry Ginger Relish. Only a little red liquid remained.

So I melted some butter and mixed in one packet of the Sea Salt Rub. When it came time to season the turkey, I needed more, so I melted another stick and added another packet of the rub. THAT did it–rubbed it inside and out, and tossed in a packet of poultry herbs Ann also bought on sale–sage, thyme and rosemary. It was so GREEEN!!  But it seasoned that turkey perfectly. (NOTE: I think olive oil would have worked, too, but butter seems to give such a nice color and taste to it.)  I also used the last bit of butter in the fridge, along with some half and half, for the mashed potatoes.

Ann is now out of butter.

I just kept going, and once one task was done, I started another. Worked perfectly. Until. . .

The Buddhist meeting was actually at 5. Once the sweet potatoes were cut and prepped for baking, we stashed them in the oven. At 5:30, I turned the oven ON. At 6:00 pm, I unplugged the turkey roaster, brought it inside, and turned the turkey platter upside down on top of the roaster to warm it for when I was ready to cut and serve it.

I should have asked John or Mickey to help me bring that thing in from the back porch. It was heavy. Now my lower back hurts, darnit. Yeah, I know better. A little Aleve and I’ll be OK in a couple of days.

The turkey rested for a little more than 30 minutes, mostly because we just kept talking about the subject at hand. And I got a little help with the carving; I know how to do it, but my technique is off; I was just going to start cutting chunks, but Mickey took the knife and fork and did a beautiful job of cutting picture-perfect slices. I can’t do that. What a nice man.

Ann is growing basil on her patio, and I told her she should make some pesto. Ann has no idea what that is, although later I found out that daughter Rose does. Rose makes pesto and uses pesto frequently. I was also telling Ann about the delicious Pea Pesto Soup from Nigella Lawson, and how much I love it. Ann doesn’t get it, but Rose will make some Pea Pesto Soup for Ann one of these days, so Ann can know just how delicious it is, and what to do with her windfall of basil in the backyard. Thank heavens for Rose.

Through all of it, we never gave any thought to dessert. NONE! It was a bit impromptu, and some delicious satsumas brought from someone’s backyard became an easy-to-peel dessert. (I did think about stopping for chocolate, but ended up not doing it.)

So, in the end, I got to make the perfect turkey, a week after Thanksgiving, and everybody loved it. Me too. It was a lot of fun, and I hope we can keep doing it.

I went through two aprons tonight, too. My brother sent me an apron recently that says across the front, “The last time I cooked, almost nobody got sick!” I will likely NOT wear that apron anywhere. He never lets me forget the dinner I made for him and his family more than 15 years ago.

Oh, and Ann’s husband went to Australia for a business trip. He emailed from the airport in Moscow while he was waiting for his flight to Singapore, and then to Perth. We sent him a picture of us with the turkey before we ate it. I hope he doesn’t get too mad.

Since we didn’t have a really *big* crowd, there is plenty left over. Ann, being the nice lady that she is, gave me most of it. So, I’ll be chopping up turkey tonight, and figuring out what to do with it all, and if I should consider making another pot of The Soup of Enlightenment. and probably that other soup from Suzanne Somers with the tomatoes in it. Well, I have time on that one, just need some more half-and-half, and another batch of some kind of stuffing. I’ll think about it tomorrow.

You can see the pictures here.

Happy Dining!

The Hot Mess

So, today was Thanksgiving, and I did indeed bake some Babycakes goodies and made The Soup Of Enlightenment. (YUM!!) I also made some Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas on page 42 of Barefoot Contessa Foolproof. It’s similar to hummus, but no tahini (sesame paste.)  It’s literally two cans of chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) some chicken broth, added to some cooked tomatoes, minced garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.

I also walked for 90 minutes tonight. And did some pushups. Envy me. Especially in a little black dress. (One of these days.)

Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas was one of the samples from the book they served to us in line at Sur la Table when I went to see Ina Garten on November 12th. I didn’t remember it being watery. . .not sure what I did, but I think I might have accidentally a) over-processed the chickpeas and b) didn’t cook the tomatoes long enough. Oh, well–turn the heat up and let it boil out? Yes, in a cast iron frying pan. It worked. Now I have some delicious stuff in my fridge to nibble on with celery. (The book recommends “shards of grilled country bread;” that’s not something I normally have around.)

I’ve heard a new slang term that I think truly describes many a kitchen disaster: The Hot Mess. I was watching the first episode of the new Hot In Cleveland season online (on TVLand.com, OK?) and heard Valerie Bertinelli’s character Melanie use that term to describe her new job situation. What it came from was describing someone, usually female, who is, well, a mess–bad dresser, drinks too much, whatever. Lindsay Lohan fits this description perfectly; so does Britney Spears. A “hot mess.” Bigger mess than the usual.

We’ve all been there, right?

While making my delish Tuscan Smashed Chickpeas, I started thinking about many a “hot mess” I’ve had in the kitchen, and while they were not fun when they were going on, they’re pretty amusing now. . .and better with no witnesses. Like the Thanksgiving a couple of years ago when I was slicing onions to brine a turkey the day before. My aunt called, and I wanted to talk to her, so I did. While using one of those mandolins to slice onions. I forgot to pick up the holder thingy, and when I got to the bottom of the onion, my thumb hit the blade. Sharp blade. Sharp hit. Lotsa blood. None got anywhere else but the two dishtowels I grabbed to stop the bleeding. Didn’t go to hospital, and it healed up all by itself. Eventually.

I did that once before, slitting open the middle finger of my right hand–not my driving finger, thankfully. I was trying to separate frozen sliced cheese so I could make my new husband a sandwich. No, I didn’t bleed on that, either. But I did go through some bandages that week.

A couple of years ago I bought a head of cauliflower because it was on sale, and finally decided to just roast it in the toaster oven on the convection setting. Well. . .it roasted all right. It was burned to a crisp. DARNIT. A whole head of cauliflower into the trash. I set it aside to cool, and I just idly picked up a piece and ate it.

DELICIOUS.

I’m serious–if you don’t like cauliflower, BURN IT! It gets rid of the chalky taste and it’s SOOOO GOOD. That was an accident that turned out good. They don’t all turn out that way.

“Hot mess” would also be a good way to describe the last attempt I made at making gravy from the turkey. I don’t LIKE gravy, therefore, I don’t MAKE gravy. Every year someone *else* has made gravy. I stay away from it, because it truly was a mess the last time I tried it. And they never let me forget it, either.

About ten years ago, I had just moved in with my very good friend in La Marque, TX (formerly known as “ex-boyfriend,” but that’s another story.)  He’s a widower, and we were going to his mother-in-law’s place for Thanksgiving. Me, nervous. A week or two before, I made some sweet potato frites from that month’s issue of Martha Stewart Living for dinner, and they were SO GOOD! We couldn’t stop stuffing our faces! I decided I’d bring them to Thanksgiving dinner.

Of course, expanding a recipe like that doesn’t *always* work. And it doesn’t help that his comment was, “Oh, yeah, that top oven needs to be recalibrated.”

My delicious sweet potatoes were a hot mess. Ditto that goat-cheese and fig salad I brought, with the balsamic dressing. The hostess, a very nice lady, brought me some Wish-Bone; she didn’t realize that I’d already dressed it. And I never did THAT again. . .but at least I tried.

Whenever I cooked him breakfast, it became a game to see if I could get his eggs “over easy” just the way he liked them. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. There was one day that I made a breakfast that, he claimed, stunk up the whole house with the onions, and he had to leave the doors open to get the cooking odors to go away while I was working. That’s when the stray cat got in the house, and my brave feline Kismet ran that cat up the street. Oh, and I never made that one again.

Another time I decided to try a Suzanne Somers recipe for Beef Curry. I admit that I’m not completely familiar with Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but this looked pretty simple. I found curry paste in my local HEB, and went to town on this 20 minute beef curry.

Let’s just say that HE went to KFC for dinner that night. Oh, that’s a recipe I’ll never try again. Nobody could tell me what curry was hot and what wasn’t, and of course, the one I got was BURNING HOT. I try to be frugal, but this went out. Neither of us could stomach it, so KFC it was that night.

And, believe it or not, we’re friends today. Amazing.

Then there was the day I roasted my own garlic in the oven. I bought one of those little clay bakers, and did not, at the time, own a countertop (aka “toaster”) oven like I do now. Well, after an hour in the oven, the garlic wasn’t the soft, smushy thing the box said it would be. So I put it in the microwave to bake a little longer.

We’ve all done this, right?

A few minutes later, the light is off, or so I thought. The microwave oven was filled with smoke. I opened the door and smoke came billowing out, and the garlic was ON FIRE. Yes, it ignited, and all I could do was grab it with metal tongs and dunk it in some water in the sink. And that was the last time I attempted to roast garlic.

Around 1990 or so, I decided to make something fancy for a family holiday dinner (Easter, I think.)  I still have my first-edition copy of the 1984 Avon International cookbook, still in the jacket, with native-country recipes from representatives from all over the world. I have long had a fascination with Australia, although I’ve never been Down Under. (I do have friends in Melbourne who have long invited me for a visit; one day, I really am going to go.)

So I decided I would make a fancy Pavlova for dinner, a recipe from the Aussie Avon Lady. If you’ve never had one, it’s basically a large baked meringue with fruit and whipped cream on top. Whipped egg whites that are baked and left in the oven for some time after you turn it off. Turns out crispy. You have to assemble it right before serving so that the bottom doesn’t go soggy. It *should* look something like this:

Aussie Pavlova

Unfortunately, mine didn’t. That bottom layer, the meringue, went flat. As in pancake flat. So I chopped up some fruit and took it as is. Over the river and through the woods to the folks’ place. Tasted pretty good. Fortunately, nobody but me knew what it was, and that it was not supposed to be flat. I have since made pavlovas successfully, albeit not for family members.

Do you eat microwave popcorn? No, I don’t–not anymore, for a couple of reasons, namely the toxins that make the stuff taste good. But I admit, I did buy it at one time, oil, toxins and all. I was not at home, and not alone, with a friend of mine and we were going to have some. It didn’t all pop; a significant amount ended up un-popped. So we put it back in the microwave and tried again.

Flame. In the microwave. Any questions?

She swore she would never tell anyone what happened, and she didn’t; she passed away about a year later, but not from the popcorn. There are some things we do NOT try, and they don’t tell you about stuff like that on TV. Especially not cooking shows. Then again, I’m sure there’s a blooper reel from every cooking show on The Food Network. But one it ever got out, I bet Giada de Laurentiis would sue!

Just kidding, Giada. I know you don’t make mistakes on camera.

Speaking of Giada, just earlier this year, when her new book came out, Weeknights with Giada, I bought it ahead of time to get the much-desired ticket to get into the signing. I tried one of her recipes, and, well. . .I screwed it up. Used a garlic-flavored oil when I shouldn’t have, and did something else or forgot something else. . .it was edible, but didn’t taste the way she intended. So when I got to talk to her, I said, “Hi, Giada. I screwed up one of your recipes last night.” Giada said, “Uh, oh, what’d  you do?” I told her. My bad, I know. But it wasn’t as big of a hot mess as some have been. And I made that recipe again, the RIGHT way.

What *was* a hot mess was another Giada recipe, Lamb Ragu from Giada’s Kitchen. The first two times I made it, I didn’t quite get that at some point you turn the heat down. The second time I did that, I took a pink highlighter and went over the line that says to TURN DOWN THE HEAT. Never made THAT mistake again. (Delicious recipe, BTW.)

Oh, and when I cook with tomato sauce, especially a lot of it, my kitchen looks like a crime scene. I am proud of this. Yes, I clean it up, too.

Numerous mistakes have been made by NOT reading the recipe, but for the most part, I over came them. Thank heavens.

I have a brother who will tell you to never eat my cooking, because “Amy can’t cook.” I can, but. . .well, I tried to cook for him a couple of times, Let’s put it this way–he sent me an apron for my birthday that says, “Last time I cooked, almost no one got sick!” He even writes songs about my cooking. Or rather, he re-writes songs about my cooking. Maybe I’ll post the lyrics to one he re-wrote for me, called Amy’s Back in Austin. Maybe I should send it to the group who wrote the original, a band called Little Texas. It’s actually a pretty good tune, even though I’m not a country fan, but I don’t think they ever thought someone would parody it like that.

Why would a brother say such things about his sister’s cooking? After all the fabulous desserts transported over 350 miles to New Orleans for holidays? Well, it goes like this. . .

When I got married in 1996, my friend JS gave me a copy of Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook Menus. I still have it, and even used a recipe from it just recently. Well, I still lived in New Orleans, and my brother, his wife and daughter lived here in Houston. (We’ve swapped since then.) They visited for a week, and I made sure I not only invited them for dinner, but made something fantastic from that book. The Chicken Cacciatore with angel-hair pasta. The salad with the creamy balsamic dressing. The garden soup from that month’s issue of Martha Stewart Living. The raspberry cobbler with the biscuit topping. It was FAAAABULOUS, I tell you.

In my world, it was. The Queen would have been very pleased. But this wasn’t the Queen I invited to dinner.

The next day, I got a call from my brother: “What was in that soup?” Seems that my niece, who was then about 15 or so, was, well, hurling all night. Didn’t affect anyone else, just her. Ahhhh. . .then my sister-in-law tells me that she’s allergic to raspberries. . .but she forgot that she was allergic until after she’d eaten some.

Needless to say, I’ve never cooked for them again, and he continues to write songs about my cooking when the muse visits him.

Others have told me of their kitchen disasters. My good friends in Australia have also had their share of them. The wife, a teacher who graduated from LSU in Baton Rouge, told me that she’d once made a birthday cake for her husband when the beaters broke in the cake. She thought she got all the parts out, but just to be safe, they were very careful when they ate it!

My mother told me one of my favorites–she always baked birthday cakes for kids’ birthdays; ours as well as relatives, since she was the best at it, particularly the decorating part. (Mom also convinced me that I would not be able to bake my own wedding cake. I could have, but. . .it was easier to let someone else bake it.)  For my 17th birthday, I requested, and got, a chocolate rum cake–but no, it wasn’t boozy or anything.

Mom had a stand mixer from Sears, (circa 1975, I think) and didn’t use it every day, so it was in a cabinet most of the time until it was needed. Well, it was nearly May 9th, her own mother’s birthday, and Mom made a cake for her, too. She put all the ingredients into the mixing bowl, turned it on, and out the other end was a big roach! It had been living in the motor case for an indeterminate amount of time, and turning it on rattled its cage. Nothing got INTO the batter, it ran in the other direction. Thank heavens, or one of us would have been sent to the store to get more cake mix.

I suppose the last hot mess was the last toaster oven I had. I killed it. Six years after I received it for a Christmas gift from the aforementioned very good friend, it stopped working, and I bought another one. I really don’t want to be without one, and of course I bought the newest Cuisinart model with the convection setting, timer and exact-heat sensor on it. (On sale at Bed, Bath & Beyond, with a coupon, of course.) I use it more than the one in the stove–you can roast a whole chicken in it! Yes, I do it, too.

That’s enough for tonight. I’d love to hear about your kitchen disasters, the ones you can laugh at now. (Someone losing a finger or toe is NOT funny, really.)  Post them below in the comments. . .if you dare.

Happy Dining!

Turkey–The Big Chicken

Ok, Thanksgiving is next week.

Are you ready?

Are you having a big family dinner, or just a small gathering?  Are you cooking the whole traditional turkey-and-trimming meal, or are your guests bringing the sides and desserts? Or are you a guest somewhere else at Thanksgiving, looking for something to bring?

If you make reservations for Thanksgiving, or go to your local deli to get your holiday meals, this column is not for you. Ditto if you go to Wal-Mart and buy something from the freezer case called Thanksgiving in a Box. Ugh.

This post is for those who want to make a real, home-made turkey for Thanksgiving. It’s very possible, and easier than you think.

Until 2004, I made an effort to spend Thanksgiving in New Orleans with my family. Things changed, and Katrina blew New Orleans around. That year, 2005, my religious group’s neighborhood district leaders announced that they would have a Thanksgiving Day activity for anyone who wanted to attend, and we could cook stuff at their house. The hosts, a husband and wife with 3 children, are from Taiwan, and wanted to host it for folks who weren’t going anywhere, or were too far away from their families to visit.

It’s also a great opportunity to have a little culinary cultural diversity. With members from Japan, China, Latin American and occasionally Europe or the Middle East, along with “regular American” folks, you never know what’s going to show up for dinner. And that’s part of the fun.

So I asked, “Who’s cooking the turkey?” The husband responded, “We don’t know how to cook turkey.” I stuck my foot in it and volunteered.

Then I got home and realized what I did. AAAAAAHH!!!

Being the owner of a *number* of cookbooks, I consulted the ones I had and did a little searching online. And I realized that a turkey isn’t a big deal. It just takes a while. And once I learned how it’s done now, it was simple.

Like a lot of things, I didn’t exactly learn this growing up.

My mother always cooked it at 200F for six to eight hours. You have to “kill all the bacteria.” I know this because one year I had this idea that I would bring dessert packed in an ice chest in components (pie crust, filling, etc.) and bake it at Mom’s It’s a 6-hour drive from my front door to theirs, plus preparation.

I *thought* we could finish it and bake the pie early in the morning, but NOOOOOO!!!  Why? Because Mom bakes the darn turkey all day. It’s kind of like turkey jerky, so you *have* to put gravy on it. I don’t like gravy (the one thing I left off my earlier post on Stuff I Hate.) The pie crust was hastily rolled out and baked immediately upon my arrival, and the pie left to cool overnight. (I can’t remember anyone touching it anyway, so why did I bother?)

Listen up–it’s not that difficult to roast a turkey. Nor is it that ridiculous. But over the years, people keep on doing things “the way it’s always been done,” never considering an alternative. Not only do you get a boring Thanksgiving (or other holiday meal), you’re inefficient as well. This is particularly true in New Orleans–sorry, but it’s the truth. That’s why I live in Texas.

Anyway. . . .

Let me (pardon the pun) boil this down for you. Roasting a turkey is really no different than roasting a chicken. If you roast a chicken at 350 for an hour or so, why would it be any different than roasting a turkey, except for longer?

Listen to me: your Thanksgiving turkey is simply a Big Chicken. Got that? It’s a BIG CHICKEN.

Are you afraid of a chicken?

Trust me when I tell you that there is nothing to be afraid of. If you are that afraid of a turkey, get one ready made. Just know that it will not be nearly as good as one you made yourself–I know this personally.

A couple of years after our first “Buddhist Thanksgiving,” the hostess unknowingly invited one of my coworkers, who had no idea I could cook. Two weeks later at the department holiday luncheon, this same coworker told anyone who would listen that she had some of my Thanksgiving turkey two weeks prior, and it was completely different from the Kroger turkey we were having. Not that the Kroger turkey was bad, mind you, but Amy’s homemade turkey was “so delicious” and she continually crowed about my turkey (pardon the pun) to anyone within earshot.

This, of course, made me a very happy cat. Complete with the Cheshire grin.

In recent years, the Thanksgiving open house has moved to someone else’s house. A single woman. Who is vegetarian. No kidding. But she doesn’t mind turkey in her house. Just not COOKED in her house, which is what I did last year. Brought my roaster over there, plugged it into the laundry room socket, and left to finish other stuff. I can do it all at my place this year, then transport it a few miles away, since I’m driving a small pickup and it has to rest for a bit anyway. And the turkey roaster, which is a cross between a toaster oven and a crock pot, makes it easy.

Now, punning again, let’s talk turkey.

These “big chickens” are generally sold between 12 and 14 pounds, but larger turkeys are available. You must thaw them either in cold water (for hours) or in the fridge, on a cookie sheet or big baking tray, at the bottom of the fridge for up to 5 days. This is not the time to leave it out on your counter. Seriously. You could have a bunch of really sick people on your hands, since it takes so long to thaw. Botulism/salmonella puts a big damper on a holiday dinner.

I’ve personally roasted a few 20 pound turkeys, and it’s just a matter of leaving them in the oven longer. The only fear you should have is that of dropping a 20 pound frozen bird on your foot. THAT, my friend, is a justified concern, and a possible trip to an ER right before a holiday.

Of course, that’s still better than slicing your thumb wide open on a mandolin slicing onions the day BEFORE Thanksgiving (while on the phone with an older matron aunt) so you can brine the turkey. I did have help that day, who was nice enough to take care of all that while I held off the bleeding. No blood went anywhere else but into the first dishtowel I could put my hands on. And the second.

Ask Martha Stewart about holiday ER visits; she’s had a few battle-scarred holidays herself.

The general rule is at 325F or 350F, and you cook the turkey from 30 to 45 minutes per pound. Using an instant-read thermometer, the thigh meat must be 180F. However, before carving, the turkey must be removed from the oven, put in a safe spot, covered with foil and allowed to rest for 30 minutes; it will continue to cook while resting. Best to roast the bird until the thigh meat temp is 175, then remove it from the oven and cover it with foil for resting. (source: MarthaStewart.com) Therefore, a 14 pound turkey cooks in about 3 to 3.5 hours, and a 20 pound turkey, 3.5 to 4 hours (source: Butterball.com.)

Stuffing/dressing is a hotly debated topic (sorry, another pun.) The rule is this: stuffing is literally stuffed into the turkey’s cavity, increasing cooking time, possibly not completely cooking. Dressing is cooked completely and separately in a baking dish, and can go into the oven after the turkey is removed and resting (just don’t turn the oven off.) There are advantages to both, but I rather prefer the dressing route, just to be safe; it’s also easier.

A great suggestion from Rachael Ray a few years ago was to put stuffing into muffin tins and bake it that way. No kidding, she called it Stuffin’ Muffins. I did that a few years ago and it went over well. Perfect single servings, and everyone gets lots of the hot crunchy part. Perfect! Easy to do, too.

Another Rachael Ray suggestion for emergencies: if you don’t thaw the turkey on time, you can cook a turkey in 90 minutes. How? Halve it and cook it that way. No kidding. Spatchcocking, it’s called–cut it in half and roast it flat on a baking sheet. I haven’t tried it, but I’m sure it would work. I’d go to 350F, which is where I normally cook them anyway, and make sure the thigh meat is at least 175F, and let it rest for 30 minutes covered in foil in a safe place.

The “safe place” is anywhere it won’t get bothered, knocked to the floor, messed with, or pulled off the counter by little children. No fun here, please be safe, it’s easy to let safety slip by when you’re busy with a holiday dinner.

Additionally, in the new Barefoot Contessa book Foolproof, she has a recipe called “Accidental Turkey.” A friend of Ina’s put the oven on 425F and forgot to turn it down ten minutes later. The place filled with smoke, but the turkey was moist and delicious afterwards. The way it works is this: roast it for 45 minutes at 450, then lower it to 325F, and roast for another hour, until the thigh meat registers 180F. Remove from the oven, cover with foil and allow it to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. There’s a little more to it than that (seasonings, mostly) but you get the idea. Make sure your oven is VERY CLEAN if you do this one!

In my experience, a brined turkey is incredibly flavorful, and when roasted, will fall off the bone, no carving necessary. (This is good because I can never get those silly little slices done correctly, and I prefer thighs anyway.) Brining takes a little more time and work, but is TOTALLY worth the effort.

Repeat after me:  It’s a big chicken.  See? It’s gonna be OK.

Now what do you want with it? In my earlier post, I mentioned the most incredible cranberry sauce there is, which you can make a couple of days in advance. Make one batch and and see if you like it before Thanksgiving; if not, well, there are always alternatives. (Every time I make it I get requests/demands for the recipe.)

Do a search. Start with famous chefs, like Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, or try FoodNetwork.com, Cooking.com, RealSimple.com, AllRecipes.com, or any one of the myriad of cooking websites out there. It’s not like you’re getting advice off the street, OK? Well, maybe you are. . .sorta. . .just make sure your source is a good one.

To be safe, don’t go too far off the beaten path with lots of new or unusual recipes. If there is one really wild thing you want to try, just do ONE, say a new pie, and make the rest of your dishes familiar ones, even if you use a slightly new or somewhat different version of it.

For instance–holidays in my family are always Waldorf Salad. Know what? I like Waldorf Salad anytime, and I can make it and eat it anytime I want. Keep your Waldorf Salad, or add/have a pasta salad this year–and use tortellini if you’re feeling adventurous. If you *must* have rice pilaf, keep it and add this delicious (and vegetarian) quinoa/butternut squash pie as another side dish. (Made that one last year for the veggie hostess, went over well, and again for the department luncheon. Then again just for myself.)

What about a different version of your favorite dessert, or perhaps an alternate? If you always have pumpkin pie, why not have a fruit cobbler or crostata too?

Here’s a quick and tasty dessert I want to try soon. Sur la Table featured it on the front cover of one of their recent catalogs to advertise their professional-grade cake pans.

Really–enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, but don’t bore everyone with the same predictable menu year after year. Try a little something different, just one. Classic side dishes are great, but there’s nothing wrong with shaking them up a little and turning up the volume, too.

And remember–TURKEY IS A BIG CHICKEN.

Let me know if you have any questions, but hurry up–Thanksgiving is next week!