Saturday, December 25, 2010

Cornish Game Hens and Roasted Root Vegetables

I love turkey just as much as the next guy, but I'm not usually ready for another one by the time Christmas rolls around a month later. This year, we did Cornish game hens for Christmas Eve instead. Since they're whole roast birds, they tend to have that "special occasion feeling". However, they're much easier than turkey and less time intensive, too.

The same rules for getting a succulent bird still apply just like they did for the turkey. Don't fill these with bread stuffing or anything. You're just going to dry out your bird and wind up with really soggy stuffing. Go for the fruit, herbs and aromatics instead. I kept it simple this time and simply quarted a Gala apple, since Cornish game hens don't come with much cavity space to fill up. I also added some fresh rosemary sprigs from the garden.

Underneath and around the hens, I added a bed of assorted root vegetables -- red potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions, and turnips. They are simply seasoned with only a little Pam spray and cracked black pepper. The rest of the seasoning came from the juices of the hens themselves which were brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with cracked black pepper as well.

Cooking these couldn't be simpler. Simply preheat your oven to 375 while you're preparing the hens and root vegetables. Then pop the whole tray in for about an hour or until hens are fully cooked and the vegetables and potatoes are tender. It's simple, it's easy and it's nutritious. It makes your house smell terrifically festive. Even more importantly, it's delicious without being overly time consuming when you're probably busy trying to finish up your gift-wrapping and holiday prep the way we all were today. More people really need to give these little birds a chance, in my opinion!

How to Make Roasted Chestnuts

When I was at the store the other day picking up the ingredients for my Smoking Bishop punch, I happened to stumble across some chestnuts as well. It occurred to me that figuring out how to roast them would be another fun holiday experiment, so I bought a bagful and decided to do just that. 

I did a little homework first though. I had roasted chestnuts once a long while ago, but I don't really know much about them as a food. I also really had no clue what the best method was for cooking these to perfection. I wanted tasty, delectable, crowd-pleasing holiday snacks for my trouble... not fail-chestnuts. God bless the internet, because there were plenty of chestnut triumphs (and failures) out there for me to read about from bloggers who once had the same bright idea I did.

The first order of business is to score your chestnuts with a serrated knife. If you don't, they will actually explode. One other blogger actually left one of her chestnuts unscored just to tempt fate and see what would happen and she said it was like a shotgun went off in her kitchen when that thing finally blew. She also said her stove was a nightmare to clean afterwards... and that was just from one chestnut bomb. I don't even want to think about a whole batch of them.

The chestnuts will have both a flat surface and a rounded surface. Some people score an "X" into the flat surface of the chestnut. Others score the shell in a straight line across the rounded surface. I read a lot of complaints about how difficult the "X" chestnuts were to shell afterwards though, so I personally went for the straight line. Whichever method you decide on, use a serrated knife and slice deep enough to score all the way through the shell. It's OK if you cut the nut a little bit. Just make sure you get through the shell.

It seemed like there was some debate as to whether or not to parboil or soak the chestnuts before roasting them in the oven. However, it seemed like the general consensus out there was that including that step results in plumper, juicier, all-around better chestnuts that are more like the really good kind you get from the chestnut street vendors in New York. To be honest, the pictures of the chestnuts that weren't done that way looked really unappetizing, while the pre-boiled ones looked amazing, so it was an easy decision for me. 

Place your chestnuts in a saucepan and add enough water to cover them. Put it on medium-low heat. When the water gets to the point where it's simmering, your chestnuts have soaked long enough and it's time to transfer them to the oven. Feel free to preheat it to 425 while the soaking process is going on.

Your chestnuts may be starting to open along their scores by the time they come out of the hot water. Arrange them on a baking sheet score side up and then pop them into the oven for about 20 minutes and let them make your kitchen smell amazing. When they're done, they'll be really open like in the picture above. These chestnuts also look just as plump and delicious as I expected them to, so I really think the soaking step paid off. Let your chestnuts rest under a clean towel for at least 5 minutes or so. Then you can start shelling them.

Most of the shells came off really easily. Overall, I didn't seem to have any of the trouble some people had with theirs. I wound up with a lot of beautiful whole chestnuts like you see above. Some really stuck to the shells and came out in more than one piece, but they were still really good. A lot of that just has to do with how individual nuts are, so don't stress if they don't all come out perfect. Shell all of your nuts at one time though, because once they start cooling off, it's not so easy.

The texture of these was really similar to a baked potato or a baked yam. The flesh tasted slightly sweet, starchy and pleasant. I did eat some of mine with a little olive oil and salt, but they were honestly very good plain as well. I imagine these would be awesome in some kind of stuffing or side dish for sure, so if you're looking for a way to spice up your next batch of Stove Top or something, this would be a great addition to consider. 

It turns out chestnuts are hella nutritious, too. They're a complex carbohydrate with a low glycemic index. They're also high in both potassium and Vitamin C while being low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. These would make a great addition to even strict diets, so they're certainly a holiday treat anyone can enjoy. I will definitely be making them again in the future. 

Channeling Charles Dickens With a Bowl of "Smoking Bishop"

If you're anything like me, you probably look forward to your annual holiday reading of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol a little too much. In fact, I think it's safe to say that I practically have it memorized by now. Being the foodie that I am, I also have been very interested in the few edibles and potables that are mentioned throughout the novel, for instance the item mentioned in the following quote:

A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!
Now... until just recently, I had no idea what "Smoking Bishop" even was. However, thanks to life in the internet age, it wasn't too hard to find out. It's actually a mulled wine punch that has a lot in common with wassail. The odd-sounding name comes from the Dickensian habit of applying clerical names to different alcoholic beverages. For instance, Burgundy was known as "Pope", Champagne was "Cardinal" and Claret was "Archbishop". The "Bishop" in this particular libation happens to be Port.

To the best of my knowledge, no one even drinks this anymore, because the recipes I could find were very old and apparently date back to the 1800's. However, I'm pretty old-fashioned myself, so that actually only made me want to try this all the more. The following is the recipe I used. It makes approximately 15-20 servings. Your fruits will need to steep in the wine overnight, so be sure to get started 24 hours in advance.

  • 5 standard-sized oranges (unpeeled)
  • 1 grapefruit (unpeeled)
  • 30-40 cloves
  • 1/4 lb of sugar
  • 2 bottles of strong red wine (I used Shiraz)
  • 1 bottle of port

Just FYI, I adjusted my proportions a bit. I wasn't making this for a party or a ton of family and friends. I was just whipping up a batch for myself and Seth to enjoy while we went about our Christmas Eve holiday prep activities. I wound up using two navel oranges and one smallish ruby grapefruit instead of all the fruit the original recipe calls for. Hopefully, it also goes without saying that I cut the proportions of the wine and sugar accordingly as well.

The first order of business is to oven-roast the fruit. The original recipe I found naturally didn't specify a cooking temperature since I'm pretty sure people's 19th century wood-burning stoves didn't come with those handy dials we all know and love. That said, I winged it and set my oven to 375. I'd say I had my fruit in there baking for about an hour, but your experience may differ. Put your fruits in a baking dish of some sort and bake it at that temperature until they're all brownish in color. Turn them a couple of times during baking so that they roast evenly for best results.

When your fruit is done baking and cool enough to handle, use your cloves to prick the surfaces of the skins like so. Then place in a ceramic or glass bowl. Add the red wine and the sugar, but not the port. Cover the bowl and set it in a warm place for the next 24 hours. I just left mine on the top of my stove so the ambient warmth from the pilot light could keep it toasty all night.

The next day when you come to check out your fruit, they will have soaked up a lot of the wine just like fragrant little sponges. The entire concoction will also smell wonderful -- like citrus and spice. Very holiday like! Cut the fruit in half and squeeze out all of the juice and wine it's absorbed. Then strain the mixture into a decent-sized saucepan to help remove some of the seeds, pulp and loose cloves that have gotten into your wine. 

Add your port at this point. Then heat the entire mixture gently until it's warm and steamy. Don't boil it! Just heat it up. It actually will produce quite a lot of steam that really does look oddly like smoke. When it's ready, pour it into a serving dish and ladle into warm mugs or glasses. 

This was really a very enjoyable holiday cocktail. It was warm and soothing. It was spicy, fruity and fragrant. It was also pretty strong thanks to the port, so you don't need a whole lot of it to be satisfied. I imagine this would also be a pretty cool conversation starter if you're serving it to others at a party, considering it's the same punch from A Christmas Carol. Make sure you tell people what a historic cocktail they're drinking for Christmas. God bless us, every one!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why Photograph Your Food?

Not that long ago, I had someone say something to me about their thoughts on people who like to take pictures of their food and it really stuck with me. They said that they really don't get it and that they feel such a tendency suggests an unhealthy relationship with what you eat. They felt that pictures should be taken only of "things that matter" and a person's meals should be considered fuel to live on and nothing more.

Now as a food blogger and sometime professional food writer myself, you might be thinking that this person's thoughts stuck with me because they offended me. I clearly like to take pictures of my food and have enjoyed doing so even before it ever occurred to me that I might also like writing about it. However, you would also be wrong. The comment actually stuck with me because I really felt truly, honestly sorry for this person. How boring mealtimes must be if you think of your food as simple fuel and nothing else!

I can't imagine not making an event worth remembering out of a meal you really slaved over or a trip to a particularly good restaurant. The memories of the food I eat stick with me long after most of the other memories of a particular day have faded. If an event is truly special -- like a holiday or a birthday -- I agonize over what foods to serve or eat, because they're honestly more important to me than presents are. If I want to make a special event out of a typical day, then the first thing that it occurs to me to do is think up something out of the ordinary to cook and eat.

As for photos, they are definitely about memories to me. Like anyone, I take photos of things I want to remember and since food is such a huge part of any event worth recording for any reason, no photo set is complete without a shot or two of whatever was eaten. When I look through my "Tasty Things We Cook and Eat" album on Facebook, I see lots and lots of delicious memories and I love how even long after the food in question has been consumed, I can still remember how it looked in detail and reminisce about cooking it, eating it, and sharing it with loved ones.

By now, I think people are just totally used to me taking pictures of all the stuff I make to eat. My Facebook followers actually ask when more food pics are coming if I haven't posted any new ones in a while. Even my mom and fiance have learned to ask if I took enough pictures when I make something really good, because they know I will want them later on. It's just part of who I am to people now, I guess, and I can't say that bothers me in the least. Really, it could be anything, too. Naturally I take some pictures of the big feasts or the special meals, but there are plenty of times when I make something quick like a sandwich or a quesadilla and just think "that sure looks good" before deciding on a whim to record it for posterity. The foods I eat are my memories and I enjoy sharing them just as much as anyone else does.

One of my favorite food bloggers, Adam over at The Amateur Gourmet made a really terrific post on photographing food a while back and I loved his thoughts on the subject. Naturally people who write about food for a living (or for fun) have another use for the pictures they take of their food entirely. However, he talked all about how there is a benefit in photographing food for the sake of it, too. It makes us stop, pause, and consider what we're about to eat in a way that you really don't otherwise.

I personally don't think that people do that enough -- stop, reflect and consider, I mean. I really do believe that everything is worth thinking about and reflecting on whether it's a a beautiful sunset, a conversation with a friend, or a wonderful meal that someone cooked and plated with care. The act of taking a photo is a wonderful thing that helps us do this more often and I think anyone can benefit from that. Like Adam also said, it's the ability to consider and appreciate such things that separates us from the animals.