Monday, November 30, 2015

On Semi-Homemade (and Delicious) Thanksgivings

I somehow didn't get around to taking pictures, so here's a mouth-watering GIF instead.

This year for Thanksgiving, I opted to make things a little easier on myself as far as the cooking goes. I love planning, preparing, and eating holiday meals for sure. However, I don't love feeling in over my head because I have multiple time-consuming dishes to prepare, especially if I've been feeling overtired or short on energy the way I've been feeling so far this fall. 

That said, I'm all about efficiency -- getting a delicious meal on the table quickly and with as little hassle involved as possible -- so I have zero problem taking advantage of shortcuts and modern conveniences whenever it suits me. Here's a quick breakdown of what we did to make our Thanksgiving fuss-free and delicious this year.

Pre-Prepped Oven Ready Turkey

I've been so happy with the meats Omaha Steaks has been been sending us, that I decided to try an oven-ready turkey from them this year instead of fussing with a grocery store turkey that needs to be cleaned and dressed before it's ready to go. Let me tell you, that was an excellent decision. The turkey was already brined, seasoned, and ready to pop in the oven. It also came with an oven bag to help keep it moist. 

I did use the oven bag, but I'm not totally sure I would really use one again. (It kept wanting to stick to the turkey after a while, so I wound up losing some of the skin.) If there's one thing I know how to do well myself, it's roast difficult meats like turkey without it getting all dry and gross anyway, so the bag was probably unnecessary. Skin hang-ups aside though, the turkey was absolutely delicious. To the best of my knowledge, I've never eaten a turkey that's been brined before, but it really did make a difference. The brine made the entire turkey super juicy and gave it a subtle sweet, seasoned flavor.

A Better Way to Carve Your Turkey 

I also decided to break down what was left of turkey right after we finished eating instead of doing what I usually do -- awkwardly wrapping the carcass in tin foil, shoving it back into the fridge, and waiting until some other day to retrieve the rest of the meat. Let me tell you something. I can't believe what a huge difference "carving turkey the right way" made as far as the overall fuss factor. The meat we ate for our actual dinner was more tender handled this way. Also, with the turkey still somewhat warm, the leftover meat was ridiculously easy to remove. (In fact, the turkey was so freaking tender, a lot of it fell off right in my hands.) I've avoided breaking down a turkey that way for years because I doubted my ability to do it properly, but I truly wish I'd been doing it this way all along because it was so easy.

Two bags filled with white meat and dark meat went into the fridge and the bare carcass went straight in the trash. (I like making a lot of things from scratch when the mood hits me, but broth is not really one of those things.) There was way more room in the fridge for other leftovers without the carcass in there. Plus, we didn't have to struggle with an awkward carcass and ice cold meat later on that weekend. We were just free to enjoy our turkey and we could easily keep track of exactly how much of it we had for making other things. The Christmas duck and the New Year's ham we have planned will be getting the same treatment, I assure you.

Semi-Homemade Side Dishes

Truth be told, there are a lot of Thanksgiving staples that I never make completely from scratch -- like stuffing, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. I didn't grow up in a household where those things were ever 100% homemade, but they were always delicious regardless, so I see no reason to do things differently now. I typically start with pantry staples like a couple of boxes of Stove Top stuffing or some gravy packets and then doctor them up by adding fresh produce, herbs, additional spices, broths, wine, or anything else I have on hand that I think will make it delicious. 

This year, I actually went the semi-homemade route with all of the sides instead of just the ones I do as a rule. Since I was already getting the Omaha Steaks turkey, I decided to order a couple of containers of their turkey gravy and cash in some loyalty points on a pumpkin pie as well. Even when I use gravy packets as a starter, the gravy is still usually pretty labor intensive, so it was really convenient to have something so delicious all ready to go. (Nothing new about going pre-made with the pie. I'm not a baker and neither is anyone else in my family, so pies for us have always been store bought.)

The stuffing was our go-to Stove Top jazzed up with some sauteed onions, as well as fresh carrot and cilantro from our CSA box (which the produce guy was nice enough to deliver as usual even though it was Thanksgiving). I added plenty of the turkey drippings as well so it was nice and rich. I normally mash my own potatoes, but this year I went with a couple of those instant Idahoan instant mashed potatoes with added turkey drippings, Provolone cheese, and more cilantro instead. There were also fresh green beans in the same farm box as the cilantro, so I sauteed those in bacon grease and served them with crumbled bacon on top. We had Hawaiian rolls with butter to go with our dinner as well.


Over all, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving and all of the food was amazing. We've also been thoroughly enjoying the leftovers. Honestly, this was just as convenient if not more so than the heat-and-eat holiday meals I used to buy from Safeway's deli back when I still had to juggle actual Thanksgiving entertaining with a ridiculous retail work schedule every year. I would absolutely recommend considering this if you're ever pressed for time or just want to save yourself some hassle. This is definitely something to try for anyone that really can't cook as well. (If you're capable of making boxed macaroni and cheese, you could easily do this, too.)

Personally, I don't get why more people don't do the semi-homemade thing more often. If you choose the right products and add some additional touches, they taste just as good and feel just as special as anything made from scratch. I sincerely doubt many people would even be able to tell you took any shortcuts unless you told them so either. The products and services I linked to throughout my post are all products we not only buy regularly, but that we like and trust enough to include as part of an important meal. I highly recommend any one of them for that reason.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

On What Food Means to Me

A Feast for the Eyes - Abraham van Beyeren
This morning, this Facebook meme rolled through my feed. It said something to the tune of: "If you want to know what someone fears losing, look at what they photograph." Every once in a while, I'll see one of those that actually makes me think for a change, instead of merely laughing or rolling my eyes. This one made me think because of how true it really is.

I don't consider myself to be much of a photographer, so I'm never usually whipping out my phone because I see some killer scene in front of me that would make an amazing artistic shot or anything. I take photographs because something just made me go: "Oh, wow. I'd really like to remember this." Anyone who's seen my Instagram feed already knows that I photograph my meals more frequently than anything else.

I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that my love of photographing (and sometimes sharing) my meals means I'm somehow afraid of not having enough to eat or anything. However, it's probably safe to assume that food matters a great deal to me. I think it represents some fairly important concepts in my life as well. 

Prosperity and Wellbeing

If you have known me personally for any length of time, then you don't need to be told that my attitude toward my meals, as well as food in general, is directly related to how I feel about my life. When I feel bad about myself or about the future, I don't really eat. I mean... I'll eat, but you won't really see me celebrate food the way I do when I feel like I have things and people in my life that make it worth living. 

I don't shop for or prepare really nice ingredients. I'll live pretty much totally off of instant foods and TV dinners, even when I have time to cook. I'll get really skinny. This has especially been the case if I feel like I have no one to share meals and experiences with. I'm introverted, but I don't like being single or feeling like I'm alone. That said, I lived mostly on boxed macaroni and cheese, Rice-A-Roni, and Totino's party pizzas throughout my marriage for a reason -- because that was the most alone I think I'd ever felt in my life, despite not actually being single. I was knowingly settling for a lot that didn't really make me happy -- a loveless marriage, a dead-end job, and a social circle filled with people that didn't really see me -- and you could see that in the way I approached cooking for myself.

On the other hand, when I'm doing well and feeling good about my life for the most part, I celebrate that with food. I'll watch tons of cooking shows and read food magazines religiously. I'll cook things from scratch just for the hell of it. I'll probably be sporting a few extra pounds. The fact that I'm eating enough, or exploring new culinary experiences, or cooking with better ingredients is always proof positive that something (or someone) is making me feel like I actually have a reason to get up in the morning. 

Emotional Independence

Food is also something that has come to symbolize emotional independence and autonomy for me. There has never not been a time in my life when I had at least one person trying to limit or criticize my food choices. I've heard a lot of "don't eat that", or "you shouldn't want that", or "eat this instead" and for a multitude of different reasons. 

Most of those reasons involved someone else I knew trying to force their personal preferences on me because they thought I should want to be more like them and less like me. My ex-husband was a strict vegetarian that thought his wife should be willing to become one as well to please him. My dad didn't eat pork for spiritual reasons and didn't think anyone else should either. My picky brother believed so strongly that the only food worthy of being called "macaroni and cheese" came in a blue box labeled "Kraft" that he felt completely comfortable complaining that that's not what was on the table when I hosted Thanksgiving at my apartment. (Don't even get me started on my mother's relationship with food. You'll be here all day.)

In the past, I'd usually go along to get along because it was easier than arguing all the time. Then I met Seth. When Seth and I order pizza, it's not him deciding what's going to be on it because he's picky and me having to eat whatever he chose the way it would have been with anybody else. We order two pizzas -- one for him and one for me -- even though we like a lot of the same things. And not just personal pizzas either. We're talking mediums or larges so that there are plenty of leftovers.

He's never once implied I'm disgusting because I sometimes like mushrooms or anchovies on mine. He's never told me I don't understand what "real" pizza is because I don't order mine with extra sauce the way he does. He tells me my pizza looks and smells good. Sometimes he even tries some of it. There's something really validating about that. All of our interactions are like that, food-related or otherwise, and that's changed me over the 10+ years we've been together.

I realized that I was officially no longer willing to let other people tell me how to eat and what I was allowed to like one of the first Christmases after I first moved back to California. For as long as I can remember, I'd wanted to have duck for Christmas dinner, but I never actually had. Every time I'd ever brought it up, my mother would say "you don't want duck" because it's "greasy" and "not meaty enough" and "your brother will never eat that", so I never had it -- even once I was an adult and free to make whatever I damn well pleased. That Christmas Seth and I decided to have duck for Christmas dinner without so much as mentioning it to anyone else except as an afterthought once arrangements had already been made. What for? It was our dinner. Only we were eating it, so only our opinions mattered.

It was my first duck ever in my life -- finally -- and it was so wonderful. I couldn't believe I'd denied myself that experience for so long because other people in my life wouldn't have personally made the same choice for themselves. I seem to also recall roasting chestnuts and making Smoking Bishop one other Christmas -- two more things I'd always wanted to do for Christmas, but never had because someone else was always there to say "that sounds gross" or "you don't want that". Having someone in my life that finally says "yes, let's do that" and "that sounds amazing" instead has made all the difference.

I've learned that I do want that. I do want to try that. I do like that food cooked this way and no one can tell me otherwise. That said, the foods Seth and I cook and eat these days are about so much more than just eating well and celebrating life. They're tangible proof of our having moved away from needing the approval of others in order to feel good about the personal choices we make. Choices that affect no one but us. 


As an aside, I feel like I'm really behind on posting here. I have so many culinary adventures to report that I barely know where to begin. There have been so many firsts. I've learned to fully appreciate medium rare burgers. I am no longer disgusted by eggs and have, in fact, learned to love them. We've been learning all about different cuts of steak and thoroughly enjoying many of them. We've been trying all sorts of new frozen foods, pizzas, and ingredients.

We've been discovering the wonders of mail order food. We have a subscription to Nature Box, so we have healthy snacks on hand at all times. We have another to Try the World and have been exploring all sorts of flavors from all over the globe. (I discovered I love whole grain French mustard.) We've recently started ordering produce and fresh eggs from local farmers. (We're both absolutely nuts for persimmons now.) It's all been incredibly fun. I don't even know how I'm going to manage to record it all!