Wednesday

Thanksgiving -- at the Last Minute!

Ah, Thanksgiving. Few occasions inspire such anticipation, consternation and hard work -- if you're responsible for dinner, that is. Let's face it: While your family is overdosing on football and the MTG Day parade, you're elbow deep in turkey parts (and doesn't that feel wonderful). Without a doubt, you have the tender passion and skill to create a feast for friends and loved ones, but oh, your aching back.

I wanted to pop in and wish you a spectacular holiday (if you're celebrating), and offer a few hints and some inspiration gleaned from Thanksgivings past at my house.



When You're the Thanksgiving Cook


The most common and time honored spices used in turkey dressing are: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Sound familiar?

The USDA (U. S. Department of Agriculture) has changed its guidelines for cooking fowl. The new "doneness" temperature is 165 degrees F. This is very good news if you like a moist bird. You may be using an older recipe that warns you to cook your turkey to 175 degrees F. Don't do it. And if you need a little more reassurance, check the USDA's website for proof positive: USDA - Poultry Preparation

If you're noodling turkey size, the rule of thumb is one pound of turkey per person.

If you haven't started defrosting your turkey, you still have time. You can defrost fowl in cold water in your sink. Plan on 30 minutes per pound. You can also use the defrost setting on your microwave. Read the owner's manual for times.

If you're famous for your (dry) roasted turkey breast, try inverting the bird (cook it upside down), and flipping it during the last hour for browning. This works great.

For a bird with a wonderful aroma and a subtly complex flavor, stuff the turkey cavity with sliced oranges, celery, onions, carrots and bay leaf (about 4 for a 12 pound turkey). Collectively, these are referred to as aromatics, and they are -- aromatic. You kitchen will smell delicious long before dinner is ready.

These days, most experts recommend against cooking the dressing in the bird. If you're game, though, (pun intended), make sure to cook it to 165 degrees F to kill any bacteria. Use an instant read meat thermometer to check.

For a moist and flavorful bird, slather butter and herbs (poultry seasoning or sage, rosemary and thyme), under the skin before cooking. If you're a confident cook, injecting spices, butter and honey into the bird is also a tasty option. For flavor, moisture and tenderness, nothing beats brining your turkey, but it may be a bit late this year -- there's always Christmas and Easter, though.

If you're planning on making sandwiches with leftover turkey, add sliced avocado and some Munster cheese to your list of sandwich ingredients. This makes a dynamite sandwich you'll really enjoy. Extra points if you prepare it on potato bread.

If you're cooking your turkey in the oven, calibrate the oven temperature using an inexpensive freestanding oven thermometer (dash out and buy one now if you don't have one). Set the temperature on your oven dial to 350 degrees F. When the oven comes to temperature, test it against the thermometer. If your oven is inaccurate, you may be able to adjust the dial (recalibrate it). If not, make adjustments to compensate (i.e. 338 degrees is actually 350 degrees using your quirky oven). If you have suspicions about the accuracy of the freestanding thermometer, dip it in a pot of boiling water.  It should read 212 degrees F or thereabouts.

Stand on a rubber mat. When I quipped about an aching back, I wasn't kidding. If you're not accustomed to standing for hours at a time, a rubber mat will reduce the stress on your back and may give you another hour or two of painless movement before the twinges start. Rubber soled shoes help, too.

Clear your countertops. You probably won't be using your toaster, battery charger, popcorn maker or whatever else you have cluttering your countertops. Clearing the decks will give you extra space you're sure to need before the day is out. That way you won't end up stowing your pies in bookshelves or on plant stands.

Group items in the fridge. Your fridge is probably groaning under the weight of more ingredients than its seen in one place -- well, since last Thanksgiving. This year, try grouping items by recipe so they'll be easier to find. You can pull them all out at once instead of opening and closing the fridge multiple times and moving items around and around trying to locate the ones you need.

Expect calamity. Yes, it may come in the form of a stopped up garbage disposal or a broken chair leg, but it's my experience that Thanksgiving never goes smoothly. If you recognize that something is bound to go wrong -- and play it for laughs anyway, you'll have a much better time.

Good luck from the trenches!

Sara

Sunday

Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe

Pumpkin Pie Spice

Fall is just about the best time of year to experiment with spice blends. All those deep, rich aromas will make your home smell wonderful without your ever having to light a candle or pick up a can of air freshener.

Pumpkin pie spice is one classic blend you'll love making if you're planning on a bit of holiday baking. It calls for sweet spices like cinnamon (which it uses as a base ingredient). The name can be a bit deceptive: You can use pumpkin pie spice for a lot more than -- pumpkin pie. It's a useful go-to spice for breads, cookies, cupcakes, side dishes like candied carrots, cakes and even beverages (if you're into smoothies or Chai style teas).

Mixing up a batch for the season will save you time and probably money, too. Most of the spices in pumpkin pie spice are pretty popular and common. You'll probably be buying them individually for your other baking and cooking projects -- so why not use them to advantage in a few spice blends, too.

Here are some things to remember About Pumpkin Pie Spice:


How Long Spices Will Last in Your Cupboard -- The old rules (you know how they are) used to say that spices didn't last long in your cabinet. It turns out that many will last from 6 months to a year or more if stored properly. That's good news. It means the big spice bottle in the market that looks like culinary overkill will actually last long enough to make the cost worthwhile. Just keep spices in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dark location.
Cassia Cinnamon

A Word About Cinnamon -- I should mention something about cinnamon, too. A decade ago, cinnamon was cinnamon. You bought the ground stuff at the store -- it tasted good, and that was it. It turns out that cinnamon is a little like coffee, or wine or chocolate. There's good cinnamon, and then there's very good cinnamon. Thanks to the Cinnabon people, we have proof positive that the best cinnamon on the market is Indonesian cassia cinnamon. It's a little more expensive, but maybe not as pricy as you'd expect. It's also best to buy the sticks instead of ground cinnamon (which starts to lose its essential oil pretty quickly).

Break the sticks into pieces and grind small batches yourself in a spice or coffee grinder. The sticks will last a long time and retain their cinnamon-y goodness long after ground cinnamon has turned into colored dust. This sounds like a hassle, but it really does make a difference in cooking and baking. If you've ever wondered what distinguishes really great recipes from "pretty good" recipes, it's the ingredients (and often the herbs and spices).

The Secret Ingredient -- As with most recipes, there's always one ingredient that adds something special. With pumpkin pie spice, it's cardamom. Cardamom is a tropical plant in the ginger family. You can buy the spice as a seed or pre-ground. Its aroma (and flavor) is hard to describe. It smells exotic, somewhat like citrus (lime, maybe), with a little gingery bite thrown in for good measure. It's pricy, but I'll be sharing a hot toddy recipe this month that uses cardamom -- if that's an inducement to give it a try. The pumpkin pie spice recipe below calls for cardamom, but it's optional. Without it, you'll end up with a mixture that tastes similar to store bought pumpkin pie spice, but with a cleaner and more intense flavor.
pumpkin pie spice


Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe


4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
4 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom

Instructions

Combine all ingredients and stir to blend. Store the mixture in an airtight tin or dark bottle (air and light are the enemy).

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Photo 1: By freshtopia.net (originally posted to Flickr as pie04) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (By freshtopia.net (originally posted to Flickr as pie04) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kruidenmengeling-spice.jpg

Thursday

How to Make Lavender Vinegar Cleaner


I admit that my house is lived in. This may sound homey and comforting, but it also means that peanut butter cookie crumbs linger on my countertops longer than I'd like sometimes. Yes, I clean regularly, but I've always had a love-hate relationship with cleaning products. I have pets -- and, well, precious people live in my house, too. I live with a gnawing worry that all that guerilla warfare sanitizing stuff  isn't so great for the folks and critters I'm trying to protect.

The green movement comes in very handy here. I'm not talking about those hideously expensive "natural" cleansers that may or may not work. There's actually a very easy way to create an all-purpose cleaner that's effectively, safe and inexpensive. Stick with me for a second, and I'll explain. It's worth the wait.



A One-Two Cleaning Punch to Kill Germs

It turns out that a combination of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar is almost as effective as stronger cleansers like bleach when used in combination. It gets better: When exposed to light or heat, hydrogen peroxide undergoes a chemical change and converts to pure water (that's why HP is sold in a dark bottle). That means it starts out as a powerful disinfectant, but after spraying it around, you end up with simple water. You don't have to rinse surfaces afterward or worry about chemical residue -- because there isn't any. When used in tandem with vinegar, the combination is totally safe and very effective at killing bacteria.

Here's how it works: Hydrogen peroxide is actually a souped up water molecule that contains oxygen.  When exposed to light (or heat), the oxygen, a strong antibacterial agent, is released. It produces germ killing bubbles and dissipates completely, leaving a simple (and safe) water residue behind. Vinegar itself is an effective acidic ingredient that has germ busting properties too.

Hydrogen peroxide is odorless and colorless, and the vinegar smell will dissipate a couple of minutes after spraying. Think of these ingredients as the dynamic duo of kitchen cleaning. If you want to do some additional research on the science, take a look at Ellen Sandback's book Green Housekeeping, or check out the Daily Spark Healthy Lifestyle Blog. I've also written about this cleaning solution in a TLC article: 5 Tips for Disinfecting Your Countertops


How to use Hydrogen Peroxide and Vinegar in Cleaning

To work properly, this cleaning solution requires a two part process:

Spray vinegar (in my case, lavender vinegar) on a surface and follow up with a 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution from a separate sprayer. (This is the concentration you'll probably come across in your market).

Placing the two cleaners together in the same bottle won't work. The vinegar will destroy the peroxide. This is a two fisted approach.

You will need to find (or make) a spray bottle that is completely opaque (light resistant) for the HP. You may be able to find a screw on pump sprayer nozzle that will fit the peroxide bottle, though.


How to Make Lavender Vinegar

To keep my kitchen clean and sweet smelling, I go one step further and infuse the vinegar with lavender. Lavender has antibacterial properties of its own and leaves behind a nice fragrance after the vinegar evaporates.

There are two ways to make scented lavender vinegar:

With essential oil (fast)

  1. Lavender essential oil is inexpensive, and one small bottle goes a long way.
  2. For lavender scented vinegar, add 8 drops of lavender oil to every cup of distilled white vinegar.
  3. Combine and shake.
  4. The preparation is ready to use right away. It will last for months in your cupboard.

The second method uses fresh or dried lavender buds:

  1. Combine 1/2 cup of dried lavender buds (or 1 cup of fresh buds) with 1-1/2 cups distilled white vinegar.
  2. Place the buds in a quart jar, bruise them slightly with a wooden spoon and then pour warmed vinegar (not boiling) over them.
  3. Cover the mouth of the jar with wax paper, add the lid and let the vinegar infuse for three to four weeks, shaking it occasionally.
  4. The completed infusion should have a vinegary smell with lavender undertones. The vinegar odor will dissipate but the lavender fragrance will linger.
  5. When the mixture is ready, strain it through cheese cloth or a coffee filter before putting it in a spray bottle.

I've been using HP and vinegar to clean for years.  It's effective and inexpensive.  I don't use it for heavy-duty bathroom jobs, but I do use it extensively in the kitchen. I also wash the kitchen floor with it.  It's good for cleaning:

  • Sinks
  • Countertops
  • Refrigerator Gaskets
  • Stovetops and range hoods
  • Toys (pet and human)
  • Around food bowls
  • Around kid play areas
  • Door knobs and drawer pulls
  • Small appliances
  • Faucets and faucet handles
  • Tables
  • Coasters
  • Windows

Special note: I use straight vinegar with hydrogen peroxide to clean produce from the garden or market sometimes, and to rinse egg shells.  Although I don't use it to clean meats, poultry or fish, it can be used to clean and disinfect most types of food ingredients safely. No kidding. No rinsing necessary.



References:

Sandbeck, Ellen. "Green Housekeeping." Scribner,  2008

Sumner, Susan. Daily Spark. "How to Disinfect Your Home -- Naturally." http://www.dailyspark.com/blog.asp?post=how_to_disinfect_your_home_naturally
 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "An Ounce of Prevention Keeps the Germs Away." http://www.cdc.gov/ounceofprevention/docs/oop_brochure_eng.pdf

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Food Safety at Home." 2006. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ByAudience/ForWomen/ucm118524.htm?utm_campaign=Google2&utm_source=fdaSearch&utm_medium=website&utm_term=keeping%20kitchen%20clean&utm_content=8

University of Oklahoma. "Can Your Kitchen Pass the FDA's Food Safety Test?" 2004. http://www.ou.edu/oupd/kittest.htm







Make Homemade Peppermint Extract for Holiday Baking

I wrote an article on the history of Candy canes a few years ago. These sweet candies were first made as a bribe to keep children quiet during long, holiday church services. Actually, I've always loved the smell of peppermint. It's bracing, but also fresh and clean -- so I must be a kid at heart. Everywhere I've lived as an adult, I've cleared areas under my downspouts for mint varieties -- especially peppermint.


About Peppermint


There are dozens if not hundreds of mints on the market. They're touted as having delicate, gourmet aromas like chocolate, lime, apple and so forth. The leaf shapes vary, too. One thing I've found, though, is that peppermint (and to a lesser degree, spearmint) are the strongest and most enduring. Through rain, snow, blustery wind and neglect (it happens), my mint has survived and definitely prevailed more often than not.

Peppermint (Mentha piperitae) is invasive. All the mint varieties and related herbs are. That's one reason you'll find many recommendations that it be kept confined like a miscreant -- corralled in a pot where it can't encroach on your pampered roses and irises. That's probably a good idea. It will often overflow its pot and start rooting in the surrounding soil, though -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Mint is shallow rooted, so it's easy to thin out, harvest and transplant to other locations, like behind the garage, in that boggy patch north of the easement, or along the foundation supporting the storage shed.

You could do worse than finding yourself ankle deep in peppermint, too.  It's very fragrant, which is why I have a little patch alongside the driveway.  It welcomes me home after a hard day with a burst of fresh scent; its encouragement follows me as I head out for the mail or take those pesky recyclables out to the street.

I harvest peppermint for tea (it's refreshing and can help sooth an upset stomach) and for a peppermint extract I use in holiday baking. Most peppermint extract recipes that use a Vodka base are pretty tame compared to mine. I use a lot of peppermint for a concentrated extract that will wake up my fudge and brownies -- without a doubt, it has a strong impact.

I'm sharing my extract recipe now because it takes two to three weeks to infuse sufficiently.  If you start making a batch in the next few days, it will be ready in time for holiday baking and candy making.  If you plan to make your own candy canes -- well, let's just say it's challenging.  A nice batch of white chocolate chip cookies with peppermint is a pretty easy hour in the kitchen -- with delicious results. In a pinch, just substitute peppermint extract for half of any other extract spelled out in a recipe.

My recipe for peppermint extract follows.  Although you can use other mints, peppermint has the strongest mint flavor and aroma, so prefer it whenever possible.  Oh, many of the photos of peppermint you'll find on the web are actually spearmint or another variety.  I've posted a good photo of hardy peppermint above.

Peppermint Extract Recipe


Ingredients

1-1/2 cups vodka
2 cups loose packed fresh peppermint leaves

Peppermint Extract Directions

  1. Harvest peppermint in the morning after the dew has evaporated.  Leaves are best before the plant flowers.
  2. Wash stems thoroughly in cold water, swirling them around to extract any insect freeloaders.
  3. Dry stems on paper towels.
  4. Place dried leaves on your countertop or cutting board and bruise them pretty aggressively.  I like to use a meat mallet.  You can also score them with a knife.  When you're finished, you should be able to detect the fragrance from a distance -- maybe even from other rooms in your home.
  5. Place leaves in a pint (glass) jar with a tight fitting lid.  I like to use a canning jar.
  6. Add enough vodka to cover the leaves (about 1-1/2 cups or a little less).
  7. Place the lid on the jar, and store the jar in a dark location for two to three weeks.  Shake it when you think about it.
  8. The extract is ready when tasting a bit it yields a deep, full (and cold) peppermint flavor.
  9. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth, a fine mesh strainer or a coffee filter.  Discard the leaves.

Peppermint extract will last up to six months in your cabinet at room temperature.  Keep it out of direct sunlight.