Friday, November 25, 2011

Roast Turkey

Happy post-Thanksgiving, all! I hope your homes were full of the people you love and your tables laden with delicious food.

We had a relatively simple Thanksgiving out in Ohio, where my family lives. After the requisite morning of cleaning (we maybe have a problem with piles of mail at our house), we settled down to the most important task: cooking. We mixed, baked, sauteed, and roasted.

One thing I love about this holiday (besides the excuse for massive cooking, of course) is how much tradition comes into play. My dad prepares weeks beforehand by testing out his mother's recipe for pumpkin pie until it's perfect (much to my mom's dismay). We always take an afternoon walk in the park while the turkey cooks. And my sister always makes mashed potatoes and brownies. For someone who has a hard time accepting change, it's the perfect holiday.

And yet, there's always something different. Our traditions, to which I cling so fiercely, are actually fairly new, adapted since we've lost family members. So Thanksgiving is much different from the holiday I remember growing up. And sometimes it's just a small change, a new recipe to try.

Like this roast turkey recipe from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery. The book is another modern compilation of recipes, but taken directly from 18th-century cookbooks and manuscripts from old Virginia. I'll tell you more about the book in a few days.

Meanwhile, the turkey! We prepared it along the lines of 18th-century birds, rubbed only in butter, and stuffed it with a basic Williamsburg dressing. To quote:

"Put the Gizzard, Heart and Liver in cold Water and boil till tender. When done, chop fine and add stale Bread, grated, Salt and Pepper, Sweetherbs, two Eggs well beaten."

(boiled giblets)
You'll notice the lack of specific measurements, as well as clarification on the exact types of "Sweetherbs." But this was typical in the 18th century, where most women learned to cook at their mothers' sides and could estimate the proper amounts of ingredients. So I tossed in some fresh parsley, along with dried marjoram, basil, thyme, and tarragon, imagining that those might have grown in a housewife's kitchen garden. Then I added the chopped giblets (smelling richly of turkey) and bread crumbs, and mixed it all together with the eggs. My dad and I "Fill[ed] the Turkey with this Dressing" and set it to roast.

Now, technically the stuffing was the only truly historical food in this recipe. My dad closed the openings with little metal skewers instead of sewing them shut, and he covered the bird in aluminum foil to keep in the moisture. It was pretty funny to see the finished bird with all sorts of metal and temperature contraptions sticking out of it.

But oh, the taste. The giblets added a complex richness to the stuffing, and the herbs complemented them nicely. We used to do all sorts of complicated things to the turkey, like brining it and rubbing it in spices, but I must say, Williamsburg (and aluminum foil) got it right. This is one new recipe I don't mind adding to our traditions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fried Parsnips

I have always been wary of parsnips.

When I was little, our dinner vegetables tended toward the traditional: peas, green beans, corn, carrots, salad. For a long time I didn't know what parsnips were. Based on the name I thought they were something like turnips, which I knew all about from reading the Molly McIntire series of American Girl books. Remember those? In the first book, Molly refuses to eat her plate of mashed turnips. They're pale, mushy, and definitely gross. But the housekeeper tells Molly she can't leave the table until she's eaten her entire dinner, and by the time Mrs. McIntire returns from her WWII factory job (late at night, it's implied), Molly still hasn't left the table. I remember this chapter vividly: how cold and unappetizing the turnips looked by then. I assumed that parsnips, with their similar name, must be the same.

(Never mind that Mrs. McIntire proceeds to reheat the turnips with brown sugar, making them surprisingly delicious.)

But this blog is all about adventure, so last week I decided to end my accidental life-long boycott of parsnips.

To cook parsnips prairie-style, you trim the ends and boil the parsnips until a fork can pierce them easily. Once they're cool, you shave off the skin with a table knife. It's a tricky maneuver that can make you extremely grateful for the invention of vegetable peelers. Once peeled, you slice the parsnips into thin strips, dredge the strips in flour, and fry them up in a few tablespoons of butter.

The verdict? Well, parsnips taste kind of....bland. Like carrots that have lost their color and flavor. Of course, frying them in butter adds a rich dimension to the taste, but I'm not sure I'd like them cooked in another way. Also, I'm growing tired of this prairie method of frying all vegetables in some kind of fat.

But perhaps the prairie method is the problem. Anyone have suggestions for making parsnips tasty? Otherwise I'm likely to keep my misconception of them as the equivalent of Molly McIntire's turnips.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Last weekend, Josh and I drove to visit his family in Connecticut. We headed down on Saturday morning, planning to celebrate his birthday with pizza and card games.

Except we hadn't reckoned on a snowstorm.

It was October, all right? It doesn't snow in October. Especially not when the trees are still full of red and gold leaves and Halloween hasn't even happened yet.

The snow started to fall in thick, heavy flakes around lunchtime. By mid-afternoon we had a few inches on the ground, and tree branches began to bend under the weight of the accumulated snow. As it turns out, those beautiful red and gold leaves also serve as an excellent support system for wet, heavy snow. Then, around evening, the branches began to crack from the weight. We stood outside and listened to the branches fall in quiet, resonating thumps.

We lost power around 5:30 that evening. We stayed in and ate cereal for dinner instead of that promised pizza. We played Dominion for four hours by the fire while we moved flashlights and candles around for optimum lighting. It was actually kind of an adventure.

The next morning, we realized that it was maybe less of a good adventure than we'd assumed. The house had no heat, and branches had covered the driveway and the street. It looked like Josh and I weren't going to make it back to Rhode Island that afternoon.

That's when my hearth cooking instinct kicked in. I built a fire (and briefly smoked out the place when I forgot to open the damper), and we set about making the best of things. Around mid-morning, we toasted a passel of English muffins over the fire while Josh's dad fried up peppery eggs on the grill.

Then I set a kettle of water on a bed of coals to heat (as both Josh's mom and I were dying for a cup of coffee at that point). It wasn't quite the nifty set-up we had at the living history museum, but it would do. Meanwhile, I got the coffee ready. As Josh's family only had Keurig coffeemakers, we had to get a bit creative. I punctured a few of the K-cups with the machine, then peeled off the foil coverings and set the cups in a coffee filter.When the water was hot, I simply poured it through the small K-cups to brew a cup of coffee. It was kind of like an awkward double-filtering system, but it worked!

Things got better and better throughout the day. By mid-afternoon, the boys had cleared the driveway and the street was relatively open. Josh and I made it back to Rhode Island in time to prepare for school the next day. As of today, his family is still without power, and I'm hoping they'll get it back soon.

But isn't it good to know that pretending to live in the past and cook old-fashioned food is actually worthwhile?