11.24.2010

Roasted Turkey

Roasting a turkey always seemed like such madness: the giblets, the basting, the constant urge to call the turkey hotline. I only agreed to roast a bird one Thanksgiving because sister-in-law Amy would be staying at our house for the holiday weekend. Only she could keep our family safe from a full on, turkey disaster.

So on game day, before taking one step in the turkey’s direction, I brewed coffee, deliberately clanking around the kitchen to wake and lure Amy to her post. I needed my assistant to keep my anxiety from pulling me back to bed and under the covers. She shuffled into the kitchen, clad in her monkey pajamas (monkey-jammas as husband Todd calls them), popped open a diet coke, and said, “Are you ready?” Her eyes twinkled.

“No,” I said. “Yeah, well, let’s get started anyway," she said. "I’ll get the turkey.”

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” I said as Amy hoisted the bird out of the fridge, onto the counter. “I’m just glad one of us has done this before.”

“Lisa,” she said, looking at me, rolling up her sleeves. “I told you...I’ve never made a turkey.”

“What about Thanksgiving at your house that year...when was that?”

“Don’t you remember? That was the year my parents brought the ‘Set-it-and-Forget-It’.”

I should have remembered. For days leading up to that Thanksgiving Todd and I tormented Amy and my brother, Larry, repeatedly bellowing, “How are we gonna cook the turkey? What’s that you say? We’re gonna set it…and forget it!”

Then the “Day Of” we shifted to Amy’s dad. “Hey John, did you set it? Well don’t forget to ‘forget it’! Ha!” and “Step away from the turkey, Grandpa John! You’re supposed to set it…and forget it!” We laughed all day long.

There would be no laughing this year, I thought. Even with Amy by my side, I feared a bloody, undercooked, salmonella of a bird, or, no less appealing, an over-cooked, desert dry, hunk of meat. I was betting on the latter, wishing John will magically appear, “Set it and Forget It” in tow, stuffing and dessert my only responsibility. That was not to be, so I faced the music.

My first line of business was to remove the giblets. “They’re in a bag in the turkey’s cavity,” the butcher had told me two days earlier. “You can't miss it!” And yes, the “can’t miss it” bag was right where he said it’d be. I reached into the bird, grabbed the bag and held it out as far away from my body as possible."Now what do I do?” I said, praying she'd say, “Throw it away.”

“Well, my mom always uses them for gravy,” she said, “but makes no difference to me.” So I trashed it. “Do you want me to do the rinsing?” she offered, deepening my love for her. "Of course," I said.

As Amy practically dove into the sink after the turkey, I watched her vigorously hose down our dinner, all the while (disturbingly) smiling. She lifted the bird out of the sink and into the pan. I supervised her hand washing technique.

My friend, Gayle was to roast a turkey that year, too. For weeks she and I had discussed strategy: number of pounds, organic or not, frozen or fresh, where to buy, how to avoid grocery store crowds. We both were using the Williams-Sonoma recipe so I figured collaboration was inevitable. When the phone rang that morning at 8:30, I knew it had to be her.

“I’m about to put my bird in the oven,” she said. “How’s it going over there?”

“Fine,” I said. “So far. Amy’s helping me.”

“Oh! Good! How nice! Okay, just checkin’ in. Happy basting!”

Back at the bird we washed herbs, cut a lemon, and stuffed the cavity. I pondered whether the final step, tying those darn legs together, was necessary as my instincts told me, "Do not blow this off." Amy and I twined the turkey closed as imperfectly as we possibly could and began the roasting process.

Just as we sat to finish our morning jolts and discuss being thankful, the phone rings. It's Gayle.

“Do you have a meat thermometer?” she asked. How in the world is her turkey ready for a temp check? I wonder. “Yes,” I told her.

“Can I borrow it? I just took my bird out of the oven and it looks good, but I don’t want to give anyone salmonella.” Who could blame her?

Amy and I left our husbands to man the oven so we could make the delivery two-blocks away. The trees were barren and it was an unseasonable 80 degrees. The warm sun calmed me, temporarily disintegrating my turkey insecurity. We chatted, stomping on crunchy leaves, hearing children laughing and playing at the park we pass. But when I opened the door to Gayle’s building, a waft of butter, onion, and chicken-broth hits me. My house doesn’t smell this good, I thought, wanting to run home to baste.

“Hello!” she said, throwing open the door and walking back into her kitchen. “Ya’ gotta come look at my bird!”

Smells like a bubbe’s house, I thought as I spotted the aroma source resting peacefully in the pan on the counter, golden-brown, crispy looking skin, legs perfectly together, green herbs strewn about. My mouth watered.

“Now that is a good looking bird,” I said. “Much prettier than ours. What did you do?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Basted a lot, I guess.”

On her counter I noticed a cookbook open to a page with step-by-step instructions, diagrams and all, on how to tie turkey legs together, which, to do so effectively, keeps in the herbs, spices and the like during the course of roasting: the nuance separating the men from the boys.

“So that’s how you do it!” I said, regretting the last two hours of my life.

I showed her the thermometer but she shook her head and said, “You know...I’m actually thinking I don’t need the thermometer. What do you think?”

“You are asking the wrong person,” I said. She should have know better.

Amy smiled and said, “I think it looks good.” Go ahead, maverick," I thought, "be blamed for salmonella-later-to-poison-Gayle’s-family!

Anyway, our turkey ended up, well, a tad undercooked at first, then after further roasting, a bit overcooked but who really cared by the time we all sat down? Gayle's did turn out great, no one got sick and she went on to roast many more birds, successfully. No repeats for me, however. One and done? Maybe. If I can get away with it.

11.19.2010

Brussel Sprouts

A few years ago I found a bunch of brussel sprouts in my CSA box and panicked. My mother used to nuke these babies until mushy (or so I remember). The result was a bitter dish I would rather not eat, and didn't.

But I sensed this time would be different. In Farmer Vicki's weekly emails that previewed the upcoming CSA box, she touted her vegetables, prepared simply by steaming or sauteing, as "yum!" She inspired me to keep it simple. I headed to the Joy of Cooking book for guidance.

A winner was crowned: Becker's Brussel Sprouts, prepared 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, devoured by me and Todd in less than ten minutes. Why cook brussel sprouts before noon? you ask. So when they turn out bad I can start over with a different vegetable at dinner, of course. If tasty, my plan was to throw 'em in the fridge, reheat later. If not, into the trash and onto the next bunch of veggies in the box. No harm, no foul. I was not, however, banking on brussel sprouts for breakfast. Who knew?

Recipe

Rinse, trim stems, remove outer leaves from and slice in half lengthwise:
  • About 12 brussel sprouts

Heat in medium skillet over medium low heat:
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

Add and cook, stirring, until beginning to brown:
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, crushed with the back of a knife into a few pieces

Remove garlic and discard, reserving butter/oil in pan. Place sprouts cut side down in pan, cover and cook over low heat, 15-20 minutes. Keep it simmering. If the pan looks too dry pour in a little more oil by pouring a little on a spoon and distributing around pan (you don't want to disturb the delicate browning process).

When cut side down is browned, flip them over and stir them around a minute or two. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

Joy of Cooking suggests serving with a sprinkling with parmesan but I never do. Sometimes I squeeze fresh lemon juice over them.

11.09.2010

Weighing In

I’m sitting on the exam table scantily clad when my mother unabashedly tells the pediatrician, “I’m concerned she’s gained weight this year but hasn’t gotten any taller. What should I do?” The doc ponders not, and, clearly overlooking my non-obese state says, “Cut back on the junk food. And when she gets hungry in the afternoons, give her a diet Coke instead of a snack.” My mother nods as though she’s just received instructions from God. She accepts the caffeine/chemicals-in-lieu-of-food prescription. Before leaving the room he makes one last suggestion. “Try sending her to school with smaller lunches.”

So went my first foray into the diet world. Before that moment I was like every other prepubescent girl as far as lunch was concerned: bologna or peanut butter sandwich, baggie of Cheetos or potato chips, apple (sometimes), three Oreos, carton o’ milk. New lunch for this medium boned, average-sized-girl-who-alarmingly-gained-poundage-without-height-previous-12-months: a half sandwich, dill pickle instead of chips (can you imagine?), one cookie echoing in a baggie, carton o’ milk. Though my lunch was now smaller than any third grader's in the western world, I acted cool about it. Sure I missed the other two cookies and second half of a sandwich, but I did love pickles, and I still had my milk. I wasn't too distressed. My mother provided me with less food so I wouldn’t be fat. It all made sense to me.

At the next weigh-in, Mom and the doc were so pleased with the number on the scale, permission was granted to resume eating potato chips and more than one cookie per sitting. With my mother’s encouragement (“better to throw food away than overeat!”) I managed to stay an acceptable size until I was a junior in high school, after a visit to my grandmother's house in Florida, where there was little to do besides tanning, eating, and going to see a movie.

***

When the cab pulls up to my grandmother's building, you see her waving from the balcony, donned in the blue and red housecoat, leaning against the railing, smoking. You enter the lobby. She goes in to put out her cigarette. You take the elevator to the second floor where you are enveloped by wafts of cinnamon-sugar, chocolate, butter, toasted almond, and ash. Her short, soft, salt and pepper hair brushes your nose as you hug. She’s shrunk since the last time for sure, but no matter. Treasures await in her 4 x 4, linoleum-floored kitchen. The two feet of counter space are laden with yellow and black Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee cans and Tupperware containers stocked with spritz cookies, mandel bread, sweet rolls and cupcakes, and possibly (in the refrigerator) cream puffs, her Michael Jordan of desserts. If you don’t find what you desire (how could you not?) she’ll bake what you do, if you ask her nicely.

Grabbing no less than three of something, you sit at the dining room table and down the first of hundreds of sweets to be consumed that week. You ask yourself, do I want more now, or later? Later, you think, pace yourself.  Remember, nothing to do but tanning and eating. Want to fit into jeans when return to Chicago. But “later” ends up being no more than an hour, usually less.

Bored at the pool? Throw on your cover up, slip on those flip-flops, time for a sugar fix. Standing in her freezing cold kitchen you inhale cookies, shiver in your wet swimsuit. You'd think being barely dressed would trigger your brain to administer the “stop eating!” message, but no. You are in a stupor. Vanished is the word “cellulite” from your vocabulary. The only escape is a plane heading north in a week to ten days.

***

My mother is picking me up at the airport. My face is tan. My jeans are tight. “Your tan looks very nice,” is how she greets me, “but it looks like you’ve put on some weight.” Ouch, I say to myself, nice to see you too. Guess you don’t want to hear about the riveting game of Jai-Alai I lost 20 bucks on. Let’s talk fat instead. “Really?” I say. Damn those cookies were good. Her eyes dart up and down my body, front to back, landing on my face. “Your cheeks look...puffy.”

This from a woman who later won’t notice me smoking in her backyard or in her car, or stumbling home from a party, falling asleep fully clothed, puking in the middle of the night, still smashed the next day. Nor will she notice my boyfriend in my room until 3 a.m. as she sleeps soundly, filled with glee I finally have a boyfriend. “See?" she says to my father the next day. "We stopped her from spiraling into morbid obesity and now she has a boyfriend! Thank goodness for that brilliant doctor! Thank God for the diet Coke!”

Since I have long since grown out of the pediatrician’s office my mother needs a new solution and finds it: Weight Watchers. Meetings held Wednesday nights at the Sheraton Hotel in Northbrook, Illinois, ten minutes from our house. I decide to go alone.

Down the winding staircase of the hotel I follow the rumbling voices to a small conference room and join the line of people waiting to be weighed. I make eye contact with no one. Wearing my heavy clothes, chocolate brown corduroys, a white blouse and a bulky salmon-colored cotton knit sweater I am trying to “get in” to the program. The minimum weight loss goal is ten pounds and I’ll just barely make it. The scale tips at 128 ½ pounds. I am accepted.

The next three months involve a mother-daughter effort of weighing and measuring portions, counting exchanges, eating McDonald’s chef salads. My mom promises me a new wardrobe from my favorite expensive-clothes store after I slim down. Dieting is in the air at school, on the streets; two of my girlfriends are on the same plan. A friend and I go to my house for lunch a few days a week, discuss what we ate yesterday, will eat that day and tomorrow, mentally calculating the other’s calorie intake, for motivational purposes, only. Fifteen pounds fly off my body. The one and only shopping day ever to be bicker-free occurs. Purchases include royal blue leggings and a short sleeved, yellow/red/blue floral print blouse, a sweater or two, and a new swimsuit.

My mother is driving me to the airport. My face is pale. My stomach is flat.  I am off to Florida for spring break. There will be no gorging on cookies this time, I tell myself. Only tanning and movies. But when the cab pulls up at my grandmother’s building, she’s waving from her balcony, wearing the blue and red housecoat, leaning against the railing, smoking.