Friday, November 25, 2011


First of all, Doug is not carrying around a little joey in his gut. That's just silly. You look just fine, darling.  Just fine. Now grab another piece of pumpkin pecan pie and come to bed. Don't forget the whipped cream.

The day began with military precision. Counters cleared, dishes put away, utensils at the ready. Stel and I hastened everyone away from the kitchen and made them eat breakfast out. Turkey out of the brine, and... into the oven. The race begins! Dinner rolls shaped and proofed. Mis en place arranged. And then, an eerie calm descended. With so many of the dishes already prepared and ready for final heating, all was quiet on the western front.
The troops are assembled, ready for deployment. 
A quick Scrabble game during a lull.

We had some deviled eggs to prep, some green beans to trim, but no major cooking until the turkey came out of the oven. It was odd, like we were in the trenches, waiting for the battle to begin.

"The final breath before the plunge..."

Three hours later, the thermometer reads 165. Show time. Even then, there's no major crazy running around like a turkey with its head... you know. The gravy is easy to make since the base is already done. Stel sautées the green beans. Casserole dishes get shuttled in and out of the oven. I carve the turkey. Cranberry sauce gets unmolded. The table is beautiful. We made it.

Rolls? Not so hard!

The surprise hit: NYT Mashed Potato Casserole

Desserts on the way to decimation.

And yet... my plate is piled high with fabulous food but as I raise a fork I can't help but feel it's all a little anticlimactic. A  week of work, culminating in a plate of food. Really? What meal could possibly not disappoint with such expectation? It is, after all, just food. 

Ah, I have to remind myself. It's not just about the food. It's about the process, and the intent. It's like those sand mandalas created by Buddhist monks: painstaking and temporary, except the mandala is created out of sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. I also realize I haven't eaten properly the whole day and put maybe a little too much Gran Marnier in my mulled cider. I take a bite. Oh wait, I think, I was wrong.

It is all about the food.

The meal rises and falls with the turkey, and our little Heritage Tom did not disappoint. Moist, flavorful, and lots of dark meat for me. Sides were delish. The stars? The mashed potato casserole, and, surprise surprise, the peach-berry pie, which was largely improvised. 
I'm thankful someone spiked my mulled cider.
Oh wait, that was me. 

I'm thankful to  Martha Stewart, for the turkey advice. And thankful to Dorie Greenspan for her desserts. Most of all, I'm thankful for the friends and family who have traveled far to sit at our table and share a meal and let me create obscene amounts of food for them. For Stel for being as obsessed as I am. And my own family, who know to stay out of the way and let baba cook. It's been a pleasure.

Mission accomplished. Now I just need to sleep for about three days.

PS. See what Doug thought of the food at 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Eve

What, how can this be? 12 am and already done for the night, and this with going out to dinner AND watching "Top Chef"? It's a Thanksgiving miracle. Usually I'd be working on my second pie right about now, with stock simmering and miles to go before I slept. Ah, but this year I have a little Elf assisting me, my dear, dear friend Stel who has flown all the way from Chicago to mash potatoes and toast pumpkin seeds with me.
Stel displaying her highly-snackable
 roasted pumpkin seed and dried cranberry concoction.
We've been in the kitchen all day, but it's been collegial and relatively more leisurely. Started out the day making the potatoes: I worked on sweet potatoes (to be topped with marshmallows and finished off tomorrow) and Stel assembled the mashed potato casserole from a NYT recipe. Ooooh, nothing like the sight of Yukon golds steaming from the pot. The casserole saves you from having to make the mashed potatoes at the last minute; it has all the elements of mashed potatoes but with the inclusion of a parmesan/bread crumb topping. I could have eaten it all right there, baking be damned. That's what makes Thanksgiving so alluring (and dangerous): every dish is Comfort Food personified.
"Yes, yes, it tastes good on the masher, but could you
pass that pot over here anyway?"

The other thing I wanted to devour right away was the stuffing Stel made— cornbread, apples and bacon. It's a holy triumvirate.
I have seen the Face of God, and It looks like cubes of cornbread
tossed with celery, apples and bacon.
Time for a little table tennis break.

I blind-baked the pie crust for the Two-for Pumpkin/Pecan Pie. A sad disappointment, this crust. Working with a new recipe from Ms. Greenspan, and while it rolls out well I've been finding that the crust shrinks mightily. I'm trying not to stretch the dough while putting it in the pan, but I think maybe the top of the crust is too heavy and sinks down while baking. The recipe calls for folding the extra dough under rather than rolling it. Could that be my problem? Must work on this, or I'll have mighty small pies...

Also had a bit of a snafu with my peach pie. Turns out one of the peaches I had gotten from the Farmer's Market was going bad—I was down a peach. And no peaches to be had at the local market, and no car to find one further afield. I imagined Tim Gunn coming by to tell me I needed to "make it work." Here's a recounting of the situation, done à la "Top Chef":

I ended up wussing out and using the raspberries and some blackberries we had left over from breakfast. Cross your fingers. Here's the final result:

My dough for the rolls was supposed to rise slowly in the refrigerator for two days! Instead, it grew monstrous overnight.
Yipes! Someone stop that thing!

Gently deflated it and put it in a bigger bowl. Hope it's okay for tomorrow.

What was next? Boiling eggs for the deviled egg appetizers. Started the gravy (roux & stock & butter) so we don't have to be scrambling for it tomorrow. Made the pumpkin/pecan pie, which tastes delish but whose crust burned a little. The pie gods were not with me today. I can make pies that taste good, but they always look so... rustic, to put it nicely. They is ugly. Where's the finesse? Sigh... perhaps if I make them over and over again I'll get the hang of it.

Tomorrow morning at 9:30: It's Turkey Time!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Thanksgiving Side Trip to Italy

Doug is the devil. Today he casually mentioned to me that "brining turkeys is out. Dry brining with salt is what they're doing now. Didn't you see it in the New York Times?" Doug, who wouldn't know a dry brine from a dry brisket, telling me this three days before Thanksgiving? Diabolo.

2 AM. What am I doing up now, listening to Cree Summers? I'm waiting for my lasagni to finish cooking. The lasagna is my idea for a simple meal to serve to guests the days before Thanksgiving. It just got... a little out of hand.

Started the evening making brownies. Katherine Hepburn's, to be exact. Pulled the recipe from a book from one of my best college friends, Frank DeCaro. "The Dead Celebrity Cookbook" is his compilation of the best recipes of the deceased, and it's burning up the Amazon charts. Dead talk show hosts, dead guest stars from the series "Batman," dead Golden Girls, all of them apparently liked to cook. Very funny and kitschy, and occasionally, as is the case with Ms. Hepburn's brownies, quite helpful as a cookbook. I once performed a monologue from "Suddenly, Last Summer" in Katharine Hepburn drag in front of a crowd of drunk, post-Gay Pride Day revelers in Chicago and got stranded without my real clothes— but that's a story for another day. Let's move on. 

I had the look, but not the Italian...

On Sunday I thought ahead and made up an Italian ragu, a dish from the many Sunday ziti dinners I had growing up. It's incredibly easy to make, but tastes like Mamma loves you. Basically, you sear big chunks of meat (pork, beef, lamb, sausage, or a combo of these things; I used chuck meat), throw in some onions, red wine and two cans of Italian plum tomatoes, and then cook for many hours—four, to be exact— until the meat capitulates at the touch of a fork. I was left with this:

Which was to be the base of my lasagna. 

I Shredded the meat, made a bechamel sauce, and got out my Kitchenaid pasta attachment. Making pasta is a little miracle. To start out with a dough that is so course, ill-mannered and intractable—

—and have it transform into a pliable, silken ribbon of pasta, is like alchemy. 

There's also something meditative about feeding the lump of dough into the machine, over and over again, and watching it smooth and lengthen. Unfortunately (and this I forget, time after time) it's also time-consuming. Then I did the layering (sauce, pasta, ricotta, bechamel, meat, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, more sauce; rinse and repeat) and created a behemoth. 

Had just enough ingredients to make another small one, to bake and freeze for another day. Once the layering was done, it was the point of no return. I didn't think I could assemble the lasagna without baking it. Wouldn't it break down the noodles, if I didn't cook it? Perhaps I'm wrong, but I was too tired to trawl the internet and figure out who to believe. so I popped them in the oven.

Ah! The brownies have cooled! The taste is heavenly. One batch without nuts, for those so inclined:

And, finally, in the wee hours, the lasagna is done, ready to be cooled:

Rustic, but packed with flavor. Hopefully it will hold it's form. My mother used to live or die on whether her lasagna was firm enough for her father on Sundays, but for me, as long as it tastes good, I don't mind if it devolves into some kind of pasta stew.

A lot of you have been inspiring me with your comments on cranberry sauce ingredients— Grand Manier! Tangerine! Horseradish! (really? I need to taste this one) and on your own preparations. Ace, I admire you for making a stuffing no one but you will eat. I'd do that too (roasted brussel sprouts with hazelnuts and corn!) but Doug not so gently reminds me that I'm already overextended, and I know he's right. It is, 2:30 now, yah? For those of you who can't believe so much could be written about one meal, well, my hubby has this to say on the subject. 

Tomorrow, Thanksgiving prep starts in earnest... Need my comfortable shoes. And yes, Doug, you will hear about it.

James Sie

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gettin' My Turkey On

For me, there are two culinary High Holy Days: Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year's Eve. These are the pedal-to-the-metal, grueling, marathon cooking holidays that truly test your skill and endurance in the kitchen. I love the challenge. This year we'll be hosting Doug's entire family, plus a couple of friends, and I've already begun preparing, with the help of some cool high tech gizmos, starting with the cook's best friend: Monsieur iPad.

Who knew this touch tablet would be so good in the kitchen? Imagine— no clunky cookbooks taking up space on your counter, with grease-spattered and flour-dusted pages held down by bowls to keep your place. The iPad is an elegant solution, as long as you have the right apps. The ones I'm using for Thanksgiving include Pepper Plate and Baking with Dorie.

Pepper Plate is a recipe holder and menu planner; you can import recipes from a lot of cooking websites like Epicurious and Gourmet, and then you don't have to be online to use them. It can compile shopping lists for you, set a timer, scale a recipe up or down, and, most importantly, plan menus and put them on a calendar schedule. Bingo! I know what I'm prepping ever day up to Thanksgiving. With my limited memory capacity, this is very helpful. Added bonus: once you start a recipe in Pepper Plate is has a function that stops your iPad from going to sleep. Handy, though now with real cookbooks I find myself jabbing them to wake them up.

Baking with Dorie is an incredible app by Dorie Greenspan, whose cookbooks I've already raved about. Here she presents only 20 recipes (three of which I had already planned to use for Thanksgiving: the pie crust, the twofor Thanksgiving pie & the apple cake), but the format is truly inspired. Each recipe can be viewed as a simple step-by-step written recipe, a video recipe (starting with preheating the oven) or, for the practiced chef, a simple visual flow chart. It's crazy. Her videos are informative, even if you know what you're doing. It's like attending a mini master class. The most basic videos have great nuggets of information, like how to tell when your dough is mixed enough, or why baking soda is used with buttermilk. Highly recommended.

(Martha Stewart has a similar app for baking cookies; I'm not using it this go round but it deserves a mention. Hey, Martha & Dorie, if you're ready to throw some promotional bucks my way, feel free.)

With my hands full of flour and butter, how am I not greasing up my iPad? Ah, this has been solved thanks to an early birthday present from some thoughtful in-laws. Belkin makes a Chef Stand for the iPad that includes a big stylus that looks like a pestle. You jab that at your iPad and it keeps the gunk off your screen.

Okay, enough about the doo-dads. On to the food!

Started the season with turkey potsticker dumplings for my son's Thanksgiving feast (his choice). A big hit with the kids. My sister Michelle was right: if you have the right non-stick pan, fried dumplings are dream. I got a Scanpan from Sur La Table. Worked perfectly; the dumplings slid right out. Don't forget the lid!

This year I found a great blog in the New York Times about what foods to prepare when in advance of Thanksgiving Day. I'm going to try making my gravy ahead of time and add the turkey drippings while reheating instead of doing it all last minute, a time when I'm usually rushing around with the turkey trying not to slip on grease.

The blog's author, Melissa Clark, also has a good video if you're having trouble getting your cranberry sauce to gel. Cranberry sauce is incredibly easy to make! Why aren't you doing it? Made two cranberry sauces already, one that's chunky and one that looks like it shlooped out of a can, both in maybe half an hour, tops.

Today I got up early to arrive at the Farmer's Market at 7:45. Had an order there for a local Heritage Turkey but was hoping to snag a slightly bigger one. I was in luck. My turkey is beautiful, all 19.75 lbs of it. Heritage turkeys are turkeys that look like ye olde turkeys from days of yore, before they got all Pamela Anderson-ed. More leg meat, smaller breasts. It may shock some of you, but I am not a breast man. Dark meat all the way. One Thanksgiving at my in-laws it was decided to forego the whole turkey and just heat up a breast "because that's all that anyone wants anyway, without all the fuss." This breast also had NO SKIN. My bitter, salty tears could have brined a whole turkey, had there been one. Which there was not. Did I mention I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner now?

At the market I also got all my veggies, tons of fruit, cider, flavored pistachios and flowers.

Took the neck and gizzards out of the turkey and made stock for the gravy (got to use my China cap!).
This is a China cap.
This is also a China Cap. 

Made my pie crusts and refrigerated them. Baked and dried my cornbread for the apple-bacon stuffing.

Tomorrow, we take a detour: lasagna!

How is your Thanksgiving prep doing?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Give Me An Hour of Your Time

This has got to be my favorite day of the year— the annual Death of Daylight Savings Time. It's the glorious retreat of an hour. Fall back! Fall back! The one day of the year where I can get up to find the Time Fairies have miraculously given me another sixty minutes to rest. It helps that my son is old enough to fully appreciate this phenomena and not ruin my precious hour of repose by daring to awaken at the usual time. Of course, it's important not to squander said saved time by anticipating it the night before and staying up an hour later, but even then: to rise with more light and still be perpetually early! I go through day savoring this gift anew: "It's ten o'clock now, but I'm saying it's nine!" "Now it's lunch, but we're really eating at one!" It's like we are able to plunge the hours itself into our own personal crucible and bend them to our will. Hephaestus, eat your heart out!

Of course, it also helps if you skip your meditation at the Zen Center because it's raining and you can't find a parking space (bad Buddhist! Bad Buddhist!) so you arrive at the Farmer's Market early and miraculously it stops raining as soon as you arrive and you walk through the shiny streets where the market is uncrowded, the produce is glistening with rain, the air is crisp and clear and life is beautiful. Could this day be any better?

Hmm. It could also be that the cafe mocha which I drank before I was going to go meditate (bad Buddhist! Bad Buddhist!) is causing this euphoria. Eh, let's just roll with it. 

Good news for a good day: the long-awaited, much anticipated (at least by me) "Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness" is finally making it's official debut tomorrow on Nickelodeon. They're playing a new episode twice a day (5:30 and 8:30pm) for the whole week, and then airing it weekly after that. 

Here's a review from Variety which is pretty fair:
Variety Reviews - Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness - TV Reviews - - Review by Brian Lowry
Interestingly, as oppose to other entertainment reviews, I'm usually not anxious at all about what is going to be said about me in TV show animation. This is because (non celeb) voice actors are rarely mentioned at all, and if they are, it's usually en bloc. We're the Invisibles behind the cartoons, and that's fine by me. Now, message boards are a separate matter... we'll see. 

Speaking of which, remember that "Chicago Code" I did last summer, where I had to speak Cantonese on a day's notice? The producers didn't really care what I sounded like, but apparently a viewer did. On a message board for my entry on IMDB, one "indigojiu wrote under the banner "incredibly bad actor": 
<<Jut [sic] saw him on Chicago Code> What language was that??? Definitely NOT Chinese.>>
Can't say I disagree, indigojiu. That wasn't  Chinese. Let's call it— an homage to William Shatner-ese. Is that so wrong??