The Beauty of Imperfection

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Gloriously imperfect…my Derby pie.

As the holiday season approaches, people run around pursuing the “perfect” holiday — the perfect gifts, the perfect meals, the perfect gathering, the perfect family (good luck with that one!). I understand the impulse, I really do. The  “perfect” holiday is a form of the American Dream — always just out of reach but desirable nonetheless.

SueG was not one to waste time with perfection. She knew the real world was full of messes and flaws and things that are broken. She embraced imperfection. She was a bit irritated — bored — with perfection, to be honest. It is so predictable and uniform, often without imagination. One of the most important lessons my mother ever taught me: Imperfection is to be accepted, embraced and celebrated. Never apologize for the flaws that make a person, thing, food (or anything else) individual. SueG felt people spend far too much time driving toward “perfection,” a concept that is so highly subjective as to be totally specious. She felt people should experiment, try different things and enjoy the results. (If the results should not be enjoyable, throw them out and move on.)

Let’s take a look at my pie, above. It’s not going to appear on the cover of Food and Wine (I would have said Gourmet, but that exists only in online form now, alas) . The crust is uneven and breaking off in places (does that crust look homemade or what?). A few errant walnuts and chocolate chips stick up from the surface rebelliously. There is rather too little of the pie filling, the chocolate-chip cookie dough part. I used a somewhat bigger dish than I should have. I own a smaller glass pie dish, but I forgot to use it. Life is like that. I could have selected the “right” dish. But I didn’t. And it’s OK. SueG would have loved this pie, especially with tons of whipped cream.

The great thing about giving up on perfection is you can just live, creating masterpieces as well as disasters and everything in between. Aiming for perfection asks the world to be other than as it is.

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Happy Thanksgiving

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Now that’s what I am talking about.

The day before Thanksgiving, I am preparing for our family dinner tomorrow. I love holiday eves. There is always so much to do, but there is such a sweet sense of anticipation. Today is about polishing silver, checking my menu, setting a pretty table, pulling out my serving dishes and utensils, unearthing candles and candlesticks and creating a centerpiece. Tonight I will make my two pies, Derby and pumpkin.

On Thanksgiving, I feel (as did my mother, naturally) everyone should make an attempt to look nice, a cut above the everyday. We live in such informal times. Take an extra 10 minutes and put on something a bit better than jeans. Nicer attire elevates the day and makes it special and different, more memorable — clearly festive. SueG would approve.

In Praise of Festivity

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Outside of the daily grind, my mother was one of the best cooks and hostesses imaginable – inventive, confident, festive, stylish in presentation but placing the taste of the food and the experience of eating above all. It became clear to me the further I got from childhood: SueG was genius at turning it on for company, and in entertaining, as in all things, she had theories and operating principles.

Her menus were streamlined, following the classic 1950s configuration of one appetizer followed by an entrée with one starchy side dish, a green vegetable or salad, possibly another vegetable and, finally, one dessert. There would be no plethora of condiments.

SueG prized festivity above all. If a special occasion were afoot, all of the normal rules were immediately suspended. Virtually anything could be excused via the festivity clause. Overeating, overdrinking and overspending were possible. In latter years, going to an absurdly overpriced restaurant was possible. Flirting was possible. Dressing up was possible. Misbehavior of various sorts was possible. Games were possible. Failing to put children to bed was possible. Staying up till 4 was possible. Leaving the kitchen a mess and going to sleep were possible. Sleeping in the next morning, more than possible, was inevitable.

Drinking and driving, I am happy to say, was not possible, thanks to her tee-total husband.

Special occasions could range from a dinner party (she was utterly unafraid of entertaining a group of any size and always did it well) to an impromptu visit to a holiday to a celebration of someone’s good news and later, to a gathering with grown children and their families. She was always on the lookout for festivity lurking in the boring confines of the quotidian. I have this trait in spades and feel very restless, as she did, at the prospect of a calendar without anything fun upcoming.

“Done”

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Just as she had a list of items, concepts and behavior that were “not done,” she also had things — sometimes counterintuitive things — that were acceptable or to be encouraged (“done”). Some of these are very telling.

“Done”:

Frosting in a can (my mother and health-nut sister both had the habit of eating this from the can!)

Refrigerated pre-fab pie crust (NOT the dry graham cracker crust in the aluminum pans, the one from the dairy section that comes folded)

Kentucky Fried Chicken (rarely)

Exceptionally lavish Christmases

Vanilla whipped cream made from scratch, and lots of it

Serving veggies (fresh cooked, frozen or canned) with generous real butter and salt (“Kids will eat them if they taste good.”)

Massive holiday baking projects (Meticulously crafted gingerbread houses, rolled sugar cookies with frosting and sprinkles of all kinds, pecan sandies in powdered sugar, spritz cookies, fudge)

Brownies from a box (“good enough”)

Saving tinfoil

Swimming (essential if given the opportunity, no matter how impractical)

Marathon Sunday cooking projects (I remember an excellent Bolognese she spent hours making after reading the recipe in the Sunday Boston Globe magazine)

Being a “natural athlete,” however specious a concept this might be applied to our family, especially in regard to tennis

Complaining about prices in shops, to shop workers (to my eternal shame….)

Blowout parties

Exotic cooking projects including a Korean dish in little clay pots, also homemade bread

Copious, never-ending amounts of wine (the cheaper and more generic, the better. My father used to say ruefully my mother would not need to alter her taste in wine if she were ever to become a bag lady.)

Inventive, labor-intensive table settings

Intense flavors and colors on the table, in the food and surroundings

Sweeping creative art projects like murals, batiks and knitting

Sleeping very, very late

Flirting

Reading and reading and reading

Eating outside on the patio, porch or deck

Beautifully set tables

Open doors and windows, year round, regardless of mosquitos, flies and spiders

Extreme pragmatism about death (her own and others’)

Fruit salad served with the meal (never at dessert)

“Good enough”

Thrills

Adventure

Risk

Money

Driving with an open coffee mug on the dashboard

“Not Done”

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I’ve mentioned my mother was judgmental, notably free of the self-doubt that prevents people from making a choice. Or so it seemed to me, the entire time I knew her. Once she decided, that was it. How often I envied her certainty and lack of dithering.

SueG also had a bulletproof set of rules and principles by which she lived her life. She viewed the world in handy (though sometimes arbitrary) categories of “Done” and “Not Done.” I agree with many, but not all, of this list.

“Not Done” (meaning socially inappropriate, wasteful or in bad taste):

Rice

Coconut

Kleenex (to my eternal embarrassment, she kept a roll of toilet paper on the kitchen counter to be used as tissue)

Cool Whip

Miracle Whip

Gravy in a jar

Non-dairy creamer

Pop-Tarts

High-quality paper napkins (she would buy the cheapest ones for daily use or tear higher quality ones in half or else use cloth for nice occasions)

Divorce

Lack of discipline

Eating in between meals

Paper plates/plasticware/plastic cups for anything other than a picnic

Pity

Going back on one’s word

Daily dessert (she did not much like sweets)

Buying a bottle of water or soda when out

Pasta

Excess (unless specifically approved)

Baked goods purchased in a store (she had a point)

Gaining weight

Illness

Weakness

Whining

Bare feet

Public disgrace

Making “personal comments” (which could range from something suspect like “Wow, what a haircut” to “You’ve lost so much weight!” Utter neutrality regarding one’s person was to be maintained at all times.)

Children watching TV (“dissipated”)

Passivity

Laziness

Girls treated as “princesses” (One of her worst put-downs: “Stop acting like a princess!”)

Affairs

Physical disabilities

Marrying a Frenchman

Cheating (on anything)

Ostentation

Meanness

“Dissipation”

Store-bought Halloween costumes

“Spending money like water”

Scandal (which could include seemingly blameless things like being in a car accident)

Thanksgiving, Cont.

Cranberry-Orange-Sauce

Thanksgiving was always a fun time for us. Most years we would eat (on Friday) with our great Manhattanite friends the McCullochs on the Cape, at their house in Dennis or ours in West Falmouth. Our families met when their five-year-old girls (Keitt and I) began swimming lessons together at the redoubtable Mr. Tyler’s in East Dennis. (I read that Mr. Tyler retired in 2010 after an incredible 47 years in the business!)

The meal was simple and elegant, accompanied by linen, silver and candles at both houses. Lots of wine, lots of chatter. Occasionally, songs, as both Dads played guitar and loved to sing.

Yesterday I outlined the SueG principles of preparing turkey, stuffing and gravy. Today we will discuss the rest of the meal. It won’t take long.

Cranberry-Orange Sauce 

Simply the only way to do cranberries — the recipe and slight variants can be found everywhere on the Internet. Don’t even dream about serving the canned stuff, it is not done. Copious orange zest gives this cranberry sauce lovely texture. SueG served this in a beautiful silver Paul Revere bowl, so I do, too.

1 bag of cranberries

1 cup orange juice (or juice from one orange)

1 cup sugar (you could reduce this as far down as 1/2 cup if you wish — SueG always used 1 cup)

Grated orange zest from one orange

Combine the above in a saucepan (the grating of orange zest is the pain on this one, be careful of your tender knuckles). Stir. Let boil and then reduce heat, simmering over low heat for an hour or until all the cranberries have popped and merged together.

Veggies

SueG might vary her Thanksgiving veggies from year to year.  Suffice to say, homemade mashed potatoes were essential (secret ingredient cream cheese along with lots of butter, salt, pepper and a bit of milk), the ultimate platform for gravy, maybe a baked sweet potato or yam or two, often frozen green peas (the bright green that does not quit) but more likely: fresh green beans, done al dente. Likely absent:Rolls (she would consider these excessive carbohydrates). Pickles (we didn’t do pickles). Butternut squash (I suspect she didn’t like it). Salad. (SueG did not approve of salad on Thanksgiving.)

She also did not believe in excessive numbers of side dishes. A greater than average number on Thanksgiving, to be sure, but not an endless array as one sees on some holiday tables. She liked to keep things manageable and there was always more than enough to stuff everyone. And it was OK to gorge on holidays.

Desserts 

Always pies (sans ice cream), always homemade, always with whipped cream. (For the purposes of this blog, whenever I mention whipped cream, it is the homemade variety.)

SueG would make the classic pumpkin pie recipe from the back of the can of pumpkin. Into the pumpkin mixture, she would add an incredible amount of crushed cloves, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon on top, so much so that the pumpkin mixture would end up an odd color (kind of brown). Not to worry — she deemed that dark orange/brown color acceptable — even welcome — for Thanksgiving so no paint was added to adjust the hue.

A note about pie crusts. Nowadays there has been a surge of home cooks who labor to make pie crust from scratch with the chopped up chunks of cold butter and using that weird tool to cut the butter into the flour. (Don’t try this if you are on the hook for the rest of the meal, too.) More power to them, at least if the result tastes good and the guests are appropriately impressed. Not SueG.

This was an area where a modern convenience –the prepared Pillsbury pie crusts that come in the red box in the dairy section (NOT frozen pie crust and NOT the graham cracker ones in the aluminum shells…God no) were perfectly tasty — as good as homemade, and therefore to be used. I heartily endorse this shortcut. I can make two pies in a fraction of the time it would take to make one with homemade crust. I make pumpkin pie (the only occasion on which I eat it) and something called Derby pie, which is basically a brown-sugar-heavy chocolate chip cookie with a crust. (Heaven with a generous dollop of vanilla-scented whipped cream!)

I never make apple pie as I don’t like it. I exercise my SueG-given right not to make things I don’t like.

TIP: When using a prepared pie crust, keep it in the freezer (though you do not buy it frozen) until you’re ready to use it. These crusts warm up very quickly and you want them to be a bit stiff when you delicately unfold them to line the pie dish. Don’t forget the cute fork imprints around the edge. If they are a little uneven, your crust will look plausibly homemade, and there is absolutely no reason to confess it isn’t.

The Festive — Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

That’s my Thanksgiving table 2013, above, complete with my late mother-in-law’s silver and china.

I inherited my mother’s belief that holidays and special occasions should be as festive as possible, with all the trimmings (and suspension of the regular austerity rules). That meant, among other things, the best china, linens, crystal and silver were used. Silver was polished the day before. Linens were ironed the morning of. And then there is the main attraction: The food.

Although SueG was a proponent of quick, economical, (mostly) tasteless weeknight dinners, she was a truly gifted cook and hostess for holidays and special occasions. And there were few nights (always night, none of this eating at 2PM for her) in the year that she would shine more brightly than Thanksgiving. As one quirk, for at least a dozen years of my childhood we had Thanksgiving with our dear friends the McCullochs — always on the Friday rather than Thursday (I have no idea why). If it was our year to go to their house in East Dennis, we would cook our own Thanksgiving meal later that week (SueG was not about to let a good meat bargain go by the wayside, and we all loved the leftovers.)

SueG would not support the current mania for over thinking Thanksgiving. As she used to say (and I agree), what could be easier than sticking a turkey in the oven, adding some root vegetables and a green veggie of some sort and serving it a few hours later? People love to do totally unnecessary fancy things to turkey (I’m looking at you, brining) because then they feel particularly entitled to their dinner. This was not the case with SueG, who believed in making an effort when it was time, but did not believe in doing things that would not affect the taste in a positive way.

Turkey with Stuffing and Gravy

SueG was an authority on turkey. She instinctively knew how to roast a turkey to perfection, using a perfectly regular turkey (frozen or fresh) from the grocery store and an ordinary oven – no 24-hour brining, spatchcocking or deep-frying for her. I am solidly in her camp. She believed one needs a gravy “gene” in order to make good gravy, and that my sister and I were in possession of same. Her stuffing is simple and decadent in its reliance on butter. It tastes delicious.

Without further ado, SueG’s principles on turkey. First concept: The modern turkeys we buy at the grocery store are injected with lots of water, for a variety of reasons (including bumping up the price). As such, despite the universal belief to the contrary, it is very difficult to dry out a turkey – or, phrased more positively – it is quite easy to cook a moist and delicious turkey. Unless you are buying a fresh, homegrown (or, God forbid, live) turkey from Martha Stewart’s farm or the equivalent, there is simply no reason at all to either baste or inject or brine. You can do these things if you are experimental and have lots of extra time on your hands. SueG was highly experimental, but not when it came to Thanksgiving, a day on which she most definitely did not have extra time, and neither do I.

So the first guiding principle: Be confident, and your turkey will not be dry.

 Second guiding principle of turkey acquisition and preparation: Buy the biggest one you can get your hands on. As SueG liked to say, there is no cheaper meat (at least at Thanksgiving) and there are so many fantastic things to do with the meat (which can be frozen) and carcass. So go big. (Big does not equal dry.)

A third guiding turkey principle– my addition. I have discovered (due to my always being late to put the turkey in the oven on the big day) that one can roast the turkey at a fairly high temperature, even 375 degrees – GASP – for an hour or two to speed things along and you will still not dry it out. Really. Try my technique this year. I start out my large turkey (at least 18 pounds) on 375 topped by a folded tinfoil hat for two or three hours, then I turn the heat down to 325 or 350 for the rest of the time. No one has died (other than our turkey friend) and the turkey is not dry as a result. A great time-saving device of which I believe SueG would have approved heartily, prizing efficiency almost above all as she did.

Fourth guiding principle: If you buy your bird frozen, plan on a lot of defrosting time (i.e., at least a full day sitting on the counter or as much as a week in the fridge followed by 12 hours on the counter). If you buy it fresh, plan to sit the bird on the counter for at least 12 hours prior to cooking as fresh ones seem to need quite a bit of warming up, too.

Fifth guiding principle: Absolutely stuff the bird (see recipe below), This nonsense about stuffing the bird itself being somehow dangerous does not deserve another thought.

Roast your Thanksgiving turkey and make incredible homemade gravy in five simple steps:

  1. Remove the plastic. Remove the packages with the neck and internal organs from the turkey’s cavity and discard. (We used to cook the liver in tinfoil for our cats and dog.) Rinse off the turkey, pat dry with paper towels.
  2. Arrange the turkey in your roasting pan (we like one with a rack that keeps the turkey from sitting in its grease while roasting). Stuff both the fore and aft cavities (more on that below). Tie the legs together for minimum stuffing escape. Generously season the turkey with salt and pepper on all sides.
  3. Top with a tent of folded tinfoil and set into your preheated oven (see note above). There are instructions, very easily obtained, regarding how long to cook a turkey of particular weight. I don’t follow those because I roast at a much higher temperature for the beginning part. We use the pop-up indicator as a sign the turkey is done, along with the jiggling the leg (looseness indicates doneness). We have been known to use a meat thermometer though you know for sure SueG did not.
  4. When the turkey is done, take it out. Lift the rack containing the turkey out of the pan, which will have a nice accumulation of drippings you will use to make the gravy. Cover the turkey with a sheet of tinfoil and then stick an old coat on it (really!) and let it rest on a platter until you’re ready to scoop out the stuffing and carve the meat. Our resting period tends to be about an hour.
  5. As noted, you should have lots and lots of yummy drippings from the turkey in the bottom of the pan, along with a lot of grease and water. Scrape/spoon all of it into a large measuring cup (or any glass cup you can see through). Spoon off or pour off as much of the straight grease as you can (it should be easy as this will be on the top). Return the rest of the yummy drippings, including browned bits and juices, to the pan in which you roasted the turkey. Put it on the the burner over med heat. Add a few tablespoons of flour. (If you have a HUGE turkey, maybe a half cup.) Use a wire whisk and cook the flour and drippings for a minute over med heat. (If you do this step right there will be no flour lumps.) Then pour in 2-3 cups of water (it will thicken) and season liberally with salt and pepper. Cook and stir it bubbling for a few minutes. (SueG’s saying: “What’s the difference between gravy and grease water? SALT.”) After a few minutes, you should have smooth, beautifully golden brown gravy. If there are chunky bits that you don’t like simply spoon them out. Do this right before you’re about to sit down. Serve in old-fashioned gravy boat. (I use one without foil trim as that cannot go in the microwave.) Gloat over possessing a gravy gene.

Stuffing 101

This is one of the most basic stuffing recipes imaginable but we love it so much I have never been moved to try something more adventurous. This is basically the recipe on the back of the Bell’s seasoning box.

1. The day before Thanksgiving, lay out an entire large loaf of Pepperidge Farm white bread, one slice deep, on cookie sheets to dry out. NEVER, EVER use bagged stuffing crumbs. Just NO. You may need to turn the slices over at some point to ensure the bread dries out evenly. In a pinch, I have discovered, you can toast the bread very briefly in the oven (you don’t want it to get brown, just dry). On Thursday, cut up the dried bread into medium-sized squares (not those tiny breadcrumbs you would buy. Absolute no-no of mine and SueG’s).

2. On the day of, chop equal amounts of onion and celery fairly finely. Get one or two frying pans going. I use one stick of butter per frying pan (I know), and between the two pans I guess that would be about 4-5 onions’ worth and lots of celery. (SueG’s quantities were never exact, and mine aren’t either.) Two frying pans’ worth will go into a large turkey of 18 pounds or so. Cook up the celery-onion mix in copious amounts of butter. Do not add salt at this point if you are using salted butter.

3. Put your dried bread cubes into a large bowl (I use a really huge one). Dump the cooked onion-celery mix (should be dripping with melted butter) along with any extra melted butter onto the bread. Add tons and tons of Bell’s seasoning. (You can’t overdo it. Do not be shy.) Toss the bowl’s contents with clean hands or two spoons to blend. Taste some. Now is the time to tweak the seasoning. It should taste good! You will almost certainly need a lot of black pepper, and you may need some salt. Make sure you taste.

4. Stuff both sides of the turkey. I do this in the sink, and it is a two-person job when you have a large bird. Be careful not to pack it in too tightly. If you have some left over that will not fit into the bird, you can put it along with the gizzard (if you’re not too grossed out) in some tinfoil and roast for an hour. It’s easy to forget the extra stuffing is in there so make sure you remember. (I have pulled out charred tinfoil packages more than once.)

The rest of the Thanksgiving meal will follow.