My Mother’s Holiday Broccoli Casserole

I call this my mother’s ‘holiday’ broccoli casserole, because it usually made it’s appearance during holiday

meals.  In fact, it was highly anticipated and expected during holiday meals.  If it didn’t make its appearance during holiday meals, we might as well have canceled Christmas.  As I mentioned in a post a long time ago, my mother doesn’t often cook, and when she does, she usually sticks to the things she makes well.  In addition to her famous applesauce, this broccoli casserole is a true ‘signature’ dish.  I am bias and definitely prejudiced when I say it’s phenomenal.  But I mean it.

My family does not live together or even close together any more.  We unfortunately don’t have the privilege to celebrate holidays together anymore.  So we call each other, and wish happy holidays over the phone, and try to remember what family holidays are like together, as a family.  And we talk about good memories, good times, and the things we enjoy about the holidays.  For my sister and myself, the broccoli casserole, in a unique way, represents what we miss about those times.  The smell of it cooking, the same yellow casserole my mother used year after year…  It was better than the turkey!  Of course there were a lot of other things, but holidays don’t seem the same without it. Anyway, in my case, during the holidays, that dish makes me miss my family.  I’m posting the recipe in hopes that you will add another great dish to your ever-growing repertoire.

Regarding the recipe itself, you’ll find it very easy and hard to ruin.  It’s truly a blast from the past, and as they say, classics are classics for a reason.  It’s rich, flavorful, warm and works so well with holiday dinner.  I hope you like it as much as we do!

My Mother

My Mother’s Broccoli Casserole

Prep time:  15 minutes
Cook time:  1 1/2 hours
Yield:  About 8-10 portions

Ingredients:

4 packs frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained (10oz ea)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 can campbells condensed cream of celery soup
2 cups grated sharp cheddar
1 sleeve original ritz crackers, smashed into crumbs
1 cup heavy mayonnaise
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Method:

Heat oven to 350. Mix everything well, except the crackers and butter.  Use 1 tbsp of the butter to grease a casserole or dutch oven.  Pour everything into the casserole, top with the ritz crackers and dot with butter.  Bake until cooked through, bubbling and golden brown on top.

Let cool slightly and serve right away.

Enjoy.

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Let’s Talk Turkey – Restaurant Quality Thanksgiving Turkey

As an American, as a native New Englander, as a chef, and as someone who loves food, Thanksgiving holds

a place near and dear to my heart.  Being that this blog’s central theme is food from the perspective of a (former) restaurant and (former) hotel chef, I would like comment on why we, as chefs, love Thanksgiving so much.  Bare in mind, Thanksgiving means, for many of us, the beginning of our busy seasons.  Thanksgiving kicks the season off with a bang, and it doesn’t end until the New Year, and if you work in Los Angeles, it doesn’t end until award season is through.  Thanksgiving means lots of long nights and early mornings, lots of extra planning and work, and lots of added aggravation, that quite frankly, we don’t need in our lives.  Burn out syndrome begins.  So why do we care so much?  Why do we (chefs) love Thanksgiving.  We love it because we know how much it means to everyone else. We feel privileged that you would spend your family Thanksgiving with us, at our restaurant, eating the food and menu that we put together.  We live a life of servitude.  We are here to serve you, and if you’re happy, we do well.  Our job is to make you happy, and spending Thanksgiving with us makes us even happier.  In the end, the hours don’t mean a thing.  We clean up, pass around a bottle of red wine, wish each other a happy holiday, and go home happy.  The life of a chef is a different sort of life.  We work when you do not, we put ourselves through hell to take care of you.  And when you’re happy, so are we.

You may, from time to time, ask why restaurant turkey (at high end places of course) taste better.  It’s a valid question.  Is it the free range, organic, never frozen, grass fed Sonoma birds we use?  Yes…  Is it due to a lengthy brining, seasoning and roasting process?  Yes… But restaurants and hotels also do what average people would never dare to do:  We break down our turkeys well ahead of time.  Never will a hotel chef roast whole turkeys (unless it’s for a single show piece).  To better understand the cooking process is to better understand the turkey itself.

Like any other bird, a whole turkey is a combination of white (breast) meat, dark (leg) meat and bones (carcass).  We all know that white and dark meats cook at different rates, and white meat will dry out and overcook long before the dark meat.  To combat this, we truss the bird, brine the bird, and try to take lots of temperature readings so we don’t over cook the bird.  But, how many times have you shown up a friend or relative’s for Thanksgiving, only to be served beautiful but bone-dry turkey?

Restaurant style turkey.  Break down the turkey ahead of time.  Make the bones into a turkey stock which in turn becomes your gravy.  Brine the breasts and then slather them with a garlic/sage compound butter before roasting.  Confit the legs, which is a simple process of curing them before cooking them.  You won’t have a ‘showpiece’ turkey, but you’ll have the absolute best tasting turkey you’re ever made.  This is how I do mine for the holidays.  It may seem like a bit of work, but in the end, on game day, it will save you an enormous amount of work, and clean up.  If you’ve trusted me this far, take another step and give this a try.

Restaurant Turkey

Prep time:  45 minutes
Cook time:  4 hours
Inactive cook time:  12 hours to 1 day
Yield:  6-8 servings

Ingredients:

1 large fresh turkey (16-20lb), organic free range is best
2 cups kosher salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1 bunch fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, roasted
1/2 bunch sage, fine chop
ground black pepper
3 large yellow onions, peeled and rough chop
3 carrots
2 ribs celery
vegetable oil
paprika
2 tbsp whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 stick unsalted butter, room temp
butcher’s twine

Method:

Break the turkey down into a classic French four piece (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5–amriFgsQ  Except don’t cut the legs in half!).

Make the stock:

Place the bones, 2 of the onions, the celery, carrots, 1/2 the thyme, 1/2 the peppercorns and 1 bay leaf in a large stock pot.  Add enough cold water to barely cover and bring to a simmer.  Skim the foam that rises to the top.  Cook for 4 hours and strain through a fine mesh strainer.  Return the stock to a smaller pot and reduce by half.  Cool quickly and reserve.

Brine the breasts:

In a small pot, heat 1/4 gallon of water with 1 cup salt and 1 cup sugar.  Add a few sprigs of the remaining thyme, the remaining peppercorns and the remaining onion.  When the sugar and salt are dissolved, pour the solution into a large container and add about 3/4 gallon of cold water.  Place the turkey breasts in the solution, cover tightly and let sit in a refrigerator over night.

Make the confit:

In a mixing bowl, combine the remaining sugar, salt, and remaining thyme.  Place the turkey legs in cure and make sure to cover evenly.  Transfer the legs to a non-reactive container, pour the remaining cure over the top and cover tightly.  Refrigerate over night.

Make the compound butter:

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add the butter, sage and garlic.  Mix until well combined.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.  Reserve.

To finish:

First step is to finish the confit.  Remove the legs from the cure and rinse thoroughly to wash off all the sugar and salt.  Pat dry.  In a saute pan, sear the turkey legs in a little oil until golden brown on all sides.  Transfer the legs to a small pot, cover with the turkey stock and simmer until incredibly tender, but not falling apart.  Remove the legs from the stock and pick the meat off.

Second step is prepping and roasting the breasts.  Heat an oven to 400 degrees.Remove the breasts from the brine and pat dry.  Tie the breasts with butcher’s twine, making sure to pull the skin tight over the meat.  Rub the breasts in oil, season the whole things with ground pepper and paprika, and slather the top of the skin with the compound butter.  Roast on a roasting rack in the oven until the skin is crispy and the internal temperature is 150.  Remove and let rest in a warm place for about 10 minutes.

Gravy.  While the turkey breasts are roasting, use the turkey stock you cooked the legs in for your gravy.  I suggest mixing 1 additional stick of butter with about 3/4 cup flour until a paste forms and whisking this into your simmering stock and seasoning with salt and pepper, but you can use any gravy recipe you like.

Before serving.  Place the breasts back in the over along with the picked confit meat for about 3 minutes just to re-heat.  You can also heat the confit meat in warm gravy.  Remove the butcher’s twine and slice the turkey thin.  Serve with the confit meat and slathered in gravy.

Enjoy.

Smoked Tomato Sauce, Southwest Flavors

Tomatoes, sweet and sour, and smoke flavor.  Those would be the fundamental flavors of what?  BBQ sauce, of course.  Convert these flavors into a righteous tomato sauce, and you will be sitting on gold.  I mean GOLD.  I love this sauce.  It’s easy to make, is so versatile and pushes so much flavor into anything you make with it.  Right now, I have a small container in my fridge.  I use it by itself, for finishing sauces, for marinades, and for added ‘kick’ in whatever it is I’m making.  It works best with southwest cuisine, but really compliments everything.

If you like this sauce, and as long as even slightly enjoy southwest cuisine, you will; you may find, as I have, that this sauce becomes a culinary staple.  Something to keep in your arsenal of pantry weapons at all times.  It’s that good.  And easy.

Smoked Tomato Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time:  20 minutes
Yield:  2 cups

Ingredients:

4 ripe roma tomatoes, stems removed
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 chipotle pepper (NOT in sauce)
1 dried ancho pepper
1/2 yellow onion, rough chop
1/2 cup sugar
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup vegetable stock
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp liquid smoke
1/2 tsp whole cumin
1/2 tsp whole coriander
2ea allspice
1 tsp vegetable oil

Method:

In a medium sized sauce pot, begin heating the oil.  Add the tomatoes and sear until the skin becomes dark and blistered.  Make sure to turn occasionally.  Add the onion, garlic and dried peppers and continue to cook until the onions are slightly caramelized.  Season with salt. Add the sugar and 1 tbsp water.  Continue to cook until the sugar is thick and bubbling.  Add the vinegar, cilantro, smoke and dried spices.  Stir to thoroughly combine.  Add the stock (or water) and bring to a simmer.  Turn the heat to medium and reduce by about 1/3.  Remove from the stove and transfer to a bar blender.  Blend until very smooth.  Reseason with salt.

The sauce is now ready.

Use by itself (especially with roast or grilled chicken), as a marinade, as a finishing sauce or as a component of other dishes, like black bean stews or pork carnitas.

Enjoy.

Fairy Tale Pumpkin Soup

One of the best things about fall and winter are the soups.  This is it: soup season.  Especially in New

England, where the change of the seasons is felt with every passing day, and the need for warm and hearty soups is a daily necessity.  Soups can be meals of their own, and can highlight the hard winter squashes and otherwise un-exciting late season produce.

We seem to love pumpkins, in the same way we love butternut squash and orange garnet yams and sweet potatoes.  Mixed with wonderful spices like cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, roasting and cooking pumpkins can embody everything we enjoy about fall and winter cooking.

The problem, of course, is that working with pumpkins can be messy and time consuming.  The best way around choosing the right pumpkins for the job.  The right pumpkin will also produce the best soup.  Long Island cheese pumpkins are the best.  When cooked, they have the deepest color, richest flavor and have the most sugar.  More convenient, and easier to find are varietals such as fairy tale and sugar pumpkins.  All of which are smaller, easier to break down and scoop, and produce sweet and richly colored final products.

This particular recipe is fairly easy.  The basic method can be applied to any hard winter squashes, sweet potatoes or even regular potatoes (think baked potato soup garnished with crisp bacon).  Most important is patience.  Let each addition of liquid reduce properly.  Take the time to completely roast the pumpkin.  Make the effort to puree the soup as smooth as possible, and strain the soup to remove any grit.  Each step is important in producing a wonderful, deeply colored, and fragrant final product.  And believe me, the final product is amazing.  I used to serve this soup in restaurants during holiday menus, and without fail, it was always a success.

Fairy Tale Pumpkin Soup

Yield:  1/2 gallon finished product
Prep time:  20 minutes
Cook time:  3 hours

Ingredients:

2 small long island pumpkins, or two fairy tail pumpkins
1 large yellow onion, rough chop
vegetable oil
1/2 bunch sage
1 inexpensive bottle of dry white wine
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice
2 cups heavy heavy cream
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
2 ribs celery, rough chop

Method:

Heat your oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the pumpkins into quarters and scoop out the seeds and pulp.  Lightly toss the pumpkins with oil, salt and pepper and roast until tender and slightly browned.  Remove from oven and let cool to room temp.  Scoop out the pumpkin away from the skin and reserve.  Discard the skins.

In a medium sized heavy bottom stock pot, add a little more oil and being sweating the onions and celery.  When fragrant, add the cooked pumpkin to the pot and mix well.  Let cook together over medium heat until well incorporated.  Add the wine, sage, thyme, all the spices and a little salt and pepper.  Turn heat to medium high and let reduce.  Reduce until thick, but not sticking to the bottom.  Add the vegetable stock, sugar and syrup and reduce again.  This time, only reduce by 1/3.  Remove the cinnamon stick.

Working in batches, puree the soup with a bar blender until very smooth.  Press the soup through a fine strainer to remove any grit.  Return the soup to a clean pot, bring to a simmer and add the cream.  Cook over medium low heat until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Reseason with salt and pepper (the soup will probably require a heavy amount of salt).

Serve right away in warm bowls.

Best served with maple whipped creme fraiche and toasted pepitas.

Enjoy.