Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving, 2012: Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup

Soups are a great way to start a dinner. They get your taste buds warmed up for the big meal and refresh you at the same time. This soup is warm and cozy. Butternut squash, a popular holiday vegetable, is quite simple in flavor so the curry and spices added to this soup make for a nicely complex starting dish. Adding coconut milk substantiates it quite a bit - so this soup could easily double as lunch with a light salad or a sandwich on the side.

I found it to be a perfect start to my Thanksgiving feast this year as temperatures are dropping quite rapidly in the Northeast and soup is just the thing for this heartwarming celebration. If you like spices, please try this! If you like soup, you must try this! If you are fond of butternut squash, definitely make this!! You will love it! It's not overly spicy... it's really quite perfect... All the spices round out so nicely and fit like they were meant to be together. Top it with a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche or eat it alongside some buttered crusty bread for a mouthful of Fall.
You could easily swap the butternut squash out and sub in pumpkin for an equally fantastic soup!

Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup

Yield: 8 generous servings

1 1/2 medium-sized butternut squash
4 T extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 c red onion, chopped
1 c carrot, chopped
1 c celery, chopped
2 t curry powder
1 1/2 t cumin, round
1 t ginger, ground
1/2 t cinnamon, ground
salt & pepper, to taste (I used 3 t salt and 1/4 t pepper)
4 c chicken stock
1 13.5oz can coconut milk

Wash, peel, and cut up the squash and lay them in a roasting pan.

Toss it with 2 T extra virgin olive oil, some salt and pepper.

Roast the squash at 400F for about 1 hour, or until a knife pierced into the largest piece quite easily with no resistance, indicating it's cooked through.
In a large saucepot, heat up the remaining 2 T olive oil. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook for 5 minutes until the vegetable begin to brown. Add the curry powder, ground cumin, ground ginger, and cinnamon and mix, coating all the vegetables. Cook this for 2 minutes. This will toast the spices, allowing them to become more fragrant and flavorful.

Add the roasted squash to the pot and mix with the spiced vegetables to coat. Season as needed. Saute for another 5 minutes.

Then add the chicken stock. The liquid should just cover the squash.
Bring this to a boil and then cover and let simmer for 20 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, blend your soup until its smooth and no lumps remain. Season to taste.

Serve, piping hot with croutons, some crusty bread or a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving, 2012: Hassle-Free Apple Cider Gravy

Ah, gravy... Creamy, smooth, and the perfect mate to turkey, gravy is a must at the Thanksgiving table. It's just timing that seems to be a problem. It's 4pm on Thursday and everyone's famished and waiting for the much-awaited Thanksgiving dinner. You pull the turkey out of the oven. All the other sides are waiting patiently at the table. The turkey gets set aside to rest for 15 minutes, and all is well. But wait... the gravy! Just when you think things are winding down after a full day in your kitchen, you realize you need to collect the juices from the turkey, separate the fat out and create your gravy masterpiece - the gravy that will take your turkey to levels of greatness! For a condiment, it sure packs on the pressure.
Well, I've got a solution. Why do things last minute? I find myself telling my daughter this like a broken record and realized that yes, that applies to gravy, too! I'll just make my gravy a few days early and save myself the hassle, hence Hassle-Free Apple Cider Gravy. I chose apple cider gravy because I love the tart flavor paired with the mellow turkey and sharper, sweet flavors of cranberry sauce. Plus I always have apple cider on hand during the holidays as my daughter adores it.
Here's the recipe. Give it a try. This gravy is light, tangy, and lovely. You can make it up to two days ahead of time and refrigerate it. Once you're ready to serve it, heat it gently on the stove, until warmed through and there you have it. Now you can relax when your turkey comes out of the oven on Thursday... Dinner is served.

Hassle-Free Apple Cider Gravy
(Inspired by No-Drippings Gravy from Baked Bree blog)

6 T butter, unsalted
6 T all-purpose flour
3 c chicken stock
1 c apple cider
1 T apple cider vinegar
1 T thyme
1 t salt, or to taste
1/4 t pepper, or to taste

Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium flame.

Add the flour and whisk for about 2 minutes to form a roux.

Slowly pour in the chicken stock and apple cider as well as the apple cider vinegar. Whisk until well combined.

Continue to whisk until the gravy comes to a boil. At this point, the gravy will begin to thicken. Add the thyme and season with salt and pepper as desired. Continue to whisk for another minute.

Take the gravy off the heat. Serve warm or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Warm the gravy over the stove just before you are ready to serve it.

Thanksgiving, 2012: Absolutely Perfect Cranberry Sauce

I was browsing the web for some inspiration for my cranberry sauce and came across this page and a much admired recipe which came from the well-known Julia Child. It seemed like something akin to the cranberry sauces I've made in the past - the same flavors, basically. But I was feeling a little adventurous and decided to throw in some more flavorful ingredients to take it up another notch. And wow, this sauce turned out amazing!
It was such a delight to work with these beautifully, crimson little jewels.

This sauce is so much richer, tastier, and fresher than its canned counterpart. So if you are a canned cranberry sauce kind of cook, please do try this sauce. It's a few extra minutes in the kitchen, but it's worth every minute and tastes absolutely perfect!

Absolutely Perfect Cranberry Sauce
(Inspired by Julia's Cranberry Sauce from A Muse in My Kitchen blog)

2 bags of fresh cranberries, rinsed and picked over
1 c light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 c granulated sugar
1/2 c orange juice
zest of 1 1/2 oranges
1/2 t cinnamon, ground
1/2 t vanilla beans, ground OR 1/2 t vanilla bean paste OR 1/2 t vanilla extract
pinch of cloves, ground
2 t candied ginger, minced

Make sure all your cranberries are well washed and picked through for stems and berries gone bad.

Combine all the ingredients into one pot on your stovetop.

Heat on medium-high until most of the cranberries have popped, stirring on occasion. This will take roughly 10 minutes.

Once this happens, the mixture will start to thicken. Turn the heat to low and simmer until the cranberries take on a jam-like consistency, about 5 more minutes. Turn off the heat.

Serve warm or store in an airtight container in your fridge for up to 3 days. Reheat when you are ready to eat. Enjoy! It's such a perfect accompaniment to Thanksgiving turkey!

Quick Tip: Using Dried Vanilla Beans

Vanilla beans can get quite dry and hard when left in your pantry for an extended period of time. They get so hard that there isn't much you can do with them except throw them into your sugar to make vanilla sugar. But what after that? There are hundreds of vanilla seeds within these pods that are just begging to be used! Well, here's another tip for using up these very valuable beans:
Place dry vanilla beans in a coffee grinder and grind away until you have a fine powder. This is vanilla powder and can be used to flavor your cakes and other baked goods (it gives a nice vanilla-speckled look to the finished product). You can also use it in savory recipes that require vanilla, such as the one for my Absolutely Perfect Cranberry Sauce, part of my 2012 Thanksgiving Menu.

Our Thanksgiving Menu, 2012

This year, I am hosting Thanksgiving for two families in addition to my own husband and kids and I'm very excited anxious thankful to be cooking for so many people! I do love to cook for others and what's better than cooking for friends on the biggest cooking day of the year?!

So today, I'm posting my menu to let you in on what I've come up with. I've scoured my many cookbooks, the web, as well as my own recipes and voila! It's a Thanksgiving menu that I'm proud of and one I hope will be a raving success. It includes a brined turkey, deliciously decadent sweet potatoes that really seem more like dessert than a side dish, and a cheesy broccoli gratin! Desserts are aplenty, with three to choose from. Heck, who needs to choose on Thanksgiving - just have them all!

Leelabean's 2012 Thanksgiving Menu

Cheese Plate with Grapes and Chocolate Covered Dried Cranberries
Smoked Salmon with Herbed Cream Cheese and Crackers
Poached Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce

Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup

Main Course
Good Eats Roast Turkey
Ina Garten's Sausage & Herb Stuffing
Absolutely Perfect Cranberry Sauce
No-Hassle Apple Cider Gravy
Amazing Dinner Rolls
Cheesy Broccoli Gratin
Brussel Sprouts with Crispy Bacon
Nutty & Sweet Potato Casserole (also prepared nut-free to accommodate a friend's allergies)
Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Apple Pie Cupcakes with Biscoff Buttercream
Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake with Caramel Sauce & Cinnamon-Vanilla Whipped Cream
Chocolate Sheet Cake with Creamy Milk Chocolate Frosting

For the cheese plate, I've selected a few cheeses from my grocer's cheese case that I thought were unusual and fun to try. Pairing with these are some grapes and chocolate-covered dried cranberries. Smoked salmon has become such a hit with all my family members this past year, so I thought it should be part of Thanksgiving, as well. Together with an herbed cream cheese and a cracker or small toast, it's simplicity at its very best. The poached shrimp was a selection I put in my menu to ensure the kids had something they enjoyed eating. I paired that with a storebought cocktail sauce. Mixing storebought, ready-made items with homemade ones makes for a much easier preparation on the big day. There is no shame in doing so.
I've never brined a turkey but have heard wonders of the process. So this year, I thought I'd give it a go. A long-standing fan of Alton Brown, I saw his recipe for a Good Eats Roast Turkey and with a rating of 5 stars and 4000+ reviews (!!), it was a no-brainer. This was the turkey I would cook this year. Sticking to the Food Network trend, Ina Garten's Sausage & Herb Stuffing seemed perfect to us. We usually make a sausage stuffing with apples and since this had both ingredients, we are giving it a try. Cranberry sauce out of a can is boring, in my opinion, though as I said before, buying a can to save yourself some time and sanity is worth it. This year, we opted to use fresh cranberries and throw in a bunch of goodies to make it special. Fresh cranberries mixed with big flavor ingredients such as orange zest, ginger, and vanilla can brighten up the flavor quite a bit.
The make-ahead cider gravy was chosen because it's so quick and easy to prepare, tastes delicious, and is much healthier than the traditional gravy made from drippings. The stress of getting the turkey out of the oven, then having to prepare a gravy by separating fats, etc, etc, and at the same time getting the table and the other dishes ready for dinner is not how I like to celebrate Thanksgiving - running around my kitchen like a turkey with it's head cut off! So this year, I opted to make my gravy 2 days before Thanksgiving and store it in my fridge and simply reheat just prior to sitting down to dinner.
The Dinner Rolls I chose look absolutely gorgeous and I have been wanting to try them for quite some time. Buttery, golden brown, and beautifully presented, it seems the perfect dinner roll for such a grand holiday.
When deciding on vegetables to accompany the turkey, I wanted to stay away from my usual side, which is roasted vegetables that roast under the turkey to get a lovely, caramelized, slightly charred flavor. This year, I chose something a little different. Cheesy Broccoli Gratin looked warm and inviting, something the kids (both young and old) could really go for. It helped that when I asked my husband to buy some broccoli for dinner one night, he bought me a monster bag of broccoli from Costco. :-) Brussel Sprouts with Crispy Bacon is a more traditional dish but I couldn't deny roasted vegetables altogether... Brussel sprouts get so sweet and scrumptious in the oven, though I don't think the little kids are going to go for this one.
Lastly, my Nutty and Sweet Potato Casserole is sheer decadence. Baked sweet potatoes are paired with eggs, milk, sugar, some flour and spices to create a custardy sweet side which is taken way over the top with a Brown Sugar Pecan Streusel. This is a must-have at any Thanksgiving or holiday celebration!
For dessert, I wanted to stay true to seasonal flavors - apples & pumpkins. So I am making my special Apple Pie Cupcakes - brown butter cupcakes filled with oozy apple pie filling topped with a rich Biscoff buttercream. Mmmm, I can't wait to have one of those. Secondly, trying to stay away from pies this year, I am making a Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake complete with a Gingersnap Crust. This is heaven on a plate as it is, but I am topping this delectible cheesecake with a sultry caramel sauce and cinnamon-vanilla whipped cream. Lastly, to please the children, and let's face it, what's dessert without chocolate, I'm making a Chocolate Sheet Cake with a classic Milk Chocolate Frosting. Simple, divine.
I will be posting these recipes as well as links to their inspirations and origins in the coming days. I am hoping they all turn out lovely and play a part in making for a truly memorable Thanksgiving this year.
Wishing you a very heartwarming and scrumptious Thanksgiving with your family, friends, and loved ones!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Frankenstorm Halloween

Hello, everyone. It's been a while since my last post and as much as I've missed posting about the sweet offerings of my kitchen, my break has been warranted. You see, my family and I live in New Jersey and Sandy ferociously plundered through our home state en route to historical disasterous grandiosity a couple of weeks ago. This hurricane whipped through many East Coast states, leaving devastation in New York and New Jersey. My husband's and my childhood homes of Gerritsen Beach and Staten Island took some very major hits. Our college town of Hoboken withstood serious damage. As you can see, this storm affected us on a personal level. It's been the closest we've ever come to disaster.
Still, lucky for us, our home in New Jersey braved Sandy with very minimal damage. Some of my friends and their families were not so lucky.
While many of my friends and families suffered damages to their properties and belongings, no one was hurt, thankfully. Seeing the positive in rough times, I find that events like these bring people together in ways that no other can. Disasters, as tragic and unfair as they are, reveal such a beautiful side in the human race - bringing forth a true love and generosity, humility and thoughtful spirit. Setting aside all differences, these times seem to equalize us for a moment.
The power in our house was out for 8 days. We realized that even though this made life slightly more difficult than usual, it was still just power - heat and light. Heat is a few extra sweaters and socks, maybe a hat and some gloves, sitting in front of a blazing fireplace. Light is a flashlight and some candles, daylight.
Please consider giving freely whether by physically offering your help or donating to organizations with the goal of assistance and repair for Hurricane Sandy victims and areas. American Red Cross allows you to donate $10 to relief efforts by texting REDCROSS to 90999. You can also visit their website to learn more about their work and donate in other ways.

On a lighter note, Governor Christie declared Monday, November 5th a postponed Trick-or-Treating day for kids in New Jersey. In lieu of this, I am posting pictures from a Halloween cake I made earlier in October. I know this is a bit late and that we're all in heavy preparation for Thanksgiving now, but the storm partnered with a week-long vacation left me with no choice. I hope all of you trick-or-treaters didn't let the conditions put a damper on your spirits and that you had a candy-filled, fun Halloween!