Main Dishes

Flipping the Bird

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For some oddball reason, we managed to roast the Thanksgiving turkey upside down, without anyone even noticing until the master carver of the house, preparing to slice up the bird, asked why it was placed breast down on the presentation platter.

We still can’t explain that one, but the surprise result was a turkey that yielded exquisitely moist white meat. True, it could be thanks also to the dry brine it underwent in the days leading up to the holiday, or the liberal rubdown with Porchetta-Spiced butter it received just prior to cooking.  But the accidental upside-down roast method got us to thinking; maybe we were on to something, by pure happenstance.

A little cookbook sleuthing finds it may be so. Research and experiments into how to roast the perfect turkey, detailed by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated in The Best Recipe (1999, Boston Common Press), reference James Beard’s technique for achieving equal temperatures in the white and dark meat – turning the bird as it roasts, starting with the breast side down on a rack, turning onto each side during the cooking time, and finishing with the breast side up.  The Cook’s Illustrated editors concluded: “Brining, turning, and basting are work, yes, but the combination produces the best turkey we’ve ever had.”

Funny, it was the exact same thing we’d theorized, standing over the upside-down bird on its decorative holiday platter. That’s the tried-and-true method for roasting a chicken that we learned from Julia Child.  Although in truth, turning a searing-hot chicken is work enough, so the next time the turkey may be started breast side down, and flipped once. That’s probably what Kate was aiming for in the first place, having used the L.A. Times method for how to dry brine. The big flip just got lost somewhere in the dinner hustle-bustle.  Because we also tend to follow the advice offered by The New York Times on how to stop freaking out about the turkey: “Remember, it’s just a big chicken.”

Bonus tip: Because this Porchetta-Spiced Turkey recipe includes fennel seed in the dry rub, we added some fresh fennel to the dressing. It lends a clean, fresh note to the traditional celery, onion and sage combination, while echoing the seasonings in the turkey and resulting gravy. 

How’s About a (Meat) Pie, Dearie?

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Chicken pot pie

I’ve been thinking a lot about meat pies lately, brought on, no doubt, by my involvement with a recent production of Sweeney Todd. The grislier aspects of that bit of musical theater, aside, it seems I’m not the only one with meat pies on the brain. The March issue of Bon Appetit features Short Rib Pot Pie on the cover, and a recent wedding in Yorkshire was disrupted by a brawl over pork pies.

Truth is that, like dumplings, every culture has a form of meat pie: Jamaican meat patties, South American empanadas of all stripes, Australian pie floaters (a meat pie overturned in a bowl of pea soup, topped with tomato sauce), South Asian samosas, the French-Canadian tourtière. The only distinction might be how one defines a meat pie: baked in a dish and topped with a pastry crust, or a hand-held patty? Maybe encased in bread dough, as in Kate’s favorite bierocks. And then, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, there is shepherd’s pie, where the crust is abandoned for creamy mashed potatoes.

No matter. When it comes to meat pies, we’re all pretty much related; recipes from one country to the next overlap to such a degree that it’s a bit like following a trail on The Nigerian meat pie, with its dash of curry or cayenne, is reflected in Caribbean meat pies, with their addition of local Scotch bonnet peppers, as well as in the Natchitoches meat pie (an official state food of Louisiana), which swaps in bell pepper.  Kate jazzes up her mom’s traditional chicken pot pie (pictured above) with a hit of turmeric.The influence of the Ottoman Empire is apparent in the phyllo-wrapped meat pies found through the Middle East, Greece, North Africa, and the Balkans.

Thus we land on the Burek, a meat pie common in the former states of Yugoslavia, including my family’s homeland of Croatia. It’s made from a paper-thin flaky dough stuffed with ground meat and spices,  served with a yogurt sauce on the side. This particular recipe encases the pie in phyllo and wraps it all up neatly with a topping of Greek-style yogurt and eggs that bakes into a non-drippy custard with just the right tang to enhance the filling.

Phyllo can sound frightening to work with, but it’s really not difficult at all if you take a little time to gather the right tools to keep the thin sheets of dough from drying out (a damp kitchen towel, some plastic wrap, melted butter or olive oil, and a pastry brush are essential.) Or you can go all out and try making the dough from scratch.  You be the judge.

A "Sweeney Todd" prop.
A “Sweeney Todd” prop.

Upside-Down Sides

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Everyone’s always on the lookout for holiday side dishes with a twist. Quite by accident, this year’s Thanksgiving table included sides that turned assumptions about certain ingredients upside down, offering savory  bites where sweet was expected, sweet where savory is  usually a given. It began with the cranberry sauce.

Cranberry Salsa “What is this? I’ve never had anything like it,” asked one dinner guest. This simple-to-prepare alternative to the usual sweet, forgettable cranberry sauce combines bright flavors: cranberries, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, jalapeno, green onion and line juice. It tastes fresh, not hot, works well with a variety of menus, and there’s no cooking required beyond some toasting of pumpkin seeds. Mix it up.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Chipotle — “These sweet potatoes are great. They’re not sweet,” said another diner. The Three Points cooks have long wondered why most recipes take an inherently sweet vegetable and douse it with even more sugar/maple syrup/marshmallows. A touch of chopped, canned chipotles in adobo adds a smoky undertone to mashed sweet potatoes. There’s no real recipe needed here; chipotles are added to taste. But do proceed with  caution, as the chipotle chilies are deceptively hot.

Carmelized Brussels Sprouts with Pecans — Who would have guessed that a bit of sweetness would turn up in the brussels sprouts? Shredding the sprouts makes the stovetop preparation quick and easy and maintains the color.

Marinated Beets with Horseradish — A vibrant dish that’s actually best made in advance. Oven-roasted beets (easy to cook, easy to peel) are dressed with olive oil, dijon mustard and horseradish.

Pumpkin-Thyme Dinner Rolls — And where’s the pumpkin? Why in the dinner rolls.  (Also great for appetizers with a blue cheese spread.)

These gorgeous, jewel-toned dishes surrounded the centerpiece:

Roast Turkey with Pancetta-Sage Gravy —  liberal application of a pancetta-butter blend with sage and Parmesan (or as we like to call it, bacon-and-cheese butter) infused the turkey with a slightly porky, umami essence. The wonderfully moist bird produced gravy so lip-smackingly rich that guests drained every last drop from the serving dish, thankful, each and every one, for the opportunity.

Thanks also to Chez Kate for the Unruly Cellars house red, from Spanish grapes blended with Spanish expertise.


Bierock and Roll

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Sliced bierockStandard football-watching food in Nebraska and Kansas–a beef and cabbage-filled pocket sandwich called a bierock–comes courtesy of the German immigrants who settled the plains and their ancestors, including my family, who kept the tradition alive.

The bierock’s modest ingredients and homey appearance belie how tasty it is, especially with a dab of horseradish sauce on every bite. The basic yeast dough, enriched with butter and eggs, folds around the three- to four-ingredient filling (if you stick to tradition). Baked to a golden brown, brushed with melted butter, a bierock straight out of the oven reveals steamy deliciousness.  And it is a heck of a lot better than delivery pizza at any party.

Risotto Mio

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Beet and carrot risottoI must be suffering a rice deficiency because all I seem to crave these frigid winter days is risotto. And I have been making it with some frequency: Over the last few weeks, asparagus, wild mushroom, pumpkin, lemon, and pumpkin-and-mushroom risottos have all turned up at the dinner table…

I have to say, though, that I may have hit a new high point on Christmas when, in honor of the season–and to satisfy my obsession for beets–I concocted this bright red bowl of joy. Served with pull-apart garlic bread, this was definitely celebratory. And probably good for us, too.

End of an Era

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Cochinita Pibil (recipe in "Hog Days of Summer")
Cochinita Pibil (recipe in “Hog Days of Summer”)

It’s not the end of the world. But the Mayan calendar winding down on one cycle and hearalding a new age is as good an excuse as any to celebrate the glorious food of the Yucatan. On December 21, I’m going to dust off the slow cooker for an all-day roast of cochinita pibil, which I’ll serve that evening with the traditional condiment of pickled red onions. Am still mulling over the rest of the menu, but it wouldn’t be a Mayan meal without avocados, black beans and salsa verde. Throw in a cocktail (with mezcal?) and dessert (Mexican chocolate bread pudding?) and we’ll be set.

Pie in the Sky

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Thanks, indeed for a beautiful, crisp and clear fall day for the first Thanksgiving at Kate’s first home. This year’s gathering of international and food-obsessed guests was reflected in the menu that blended traditional elements with the tastes of Mexico and the British Isles.

Here’s the menu:


  • Squash on Toast.  Amelia took this a step higher by making her own baguettes.
  • Crab and Artichoke Dip
  • Roast Turkey with Chipotle and Apple
  • Chestnut and Tart Apple Dressing
  • Potato-Tomatillo Gratin. A cooking class two days before Thanksgiving, and taught by the charming Eliza Gonzalez, inspired this dish. We took the potato filling from stuffed jalapenos — combining potatoes, garlic, tomatillos and ricotta cheese — and turned it into a gratin for the table (and potato pancakes the next day).
  • Braised Cabbage, with apples and clove.
  • Roasted Beets with Garlic and Cream.
  • Bread Sauce, another British Christmas favorite that was new to the table, a simple sauce heady with clove.
  • Cranberry Salsa with Chilies and Cilantro.
  • Green Bean Casserole. Yup, the delicious, old-school dish we know from childhood, complete with crispy canned onions on top.
  • Little Balls of Happiness (Julia Child’s Oignons Glacés a Blanc).
  • Mocha-Pecan Pie, now our gang’s traditional dessert.
  • Apple Tart. Listening to an NPR special on Julia Child gave us the idea to make an apple tart with souped-up apple flavor. She put fresh apples on homemade applesauce. We laid them over apple butter and brushed them with apple jelly. A tasting of the Genepi liqueur brought from a friend’s home region in France provide the inspiration for a glaze touched with that herbal Alpine liqueur.
  • Cranberry and Pear Hand Pies with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.

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